experiments in cooking

Archive for November, 2010

A Perfect Holiday Storm

This Saturday, at some point I was juggling all four of the baking sheets I own, washing multiple bowls and measuring cups so I could use them again immediately, grabbing ingredients from cabinets all around me, getting cups of water for my kids, running outside to give the dogs a break in the yard, sweeping the living room, restarting a “Little People” DVD that Neeley just had to watch but Jonah was loudly announcing he was sick of watching, discussing with Jonah the shapes of a 100-piece cookie cutter set that Jonah went through one by one—several times—repeatedly shouting out the time, which Jonah asked about every two minutes—answering the phone, doing laundry, hunting for wax paper, fending the kids away from the Halloween chocolate, putting away groceries, trying to eat a snack because I didn’t get lunch, hunting down a pen because Neeley has used all mine as drumsticks and has hidden them around the house, and trying to calculate how much time I had before I had to get dressed to meet the babysitter, drop Chris off at a friend’s house to watch a Huskers football game, and pick up a friend for dinner.

Ah, Saturday, my day off––

Wouldn’t that be nice!

To tell the truth, I was busier this Saturday than usual. Any Thanksgiving holiday baking I’ve done in the past has been pretty limited. Usually we go to relatives’ houses where I’m not expected to bring much. I’ve also relied pretty heavily on frozen and deli foods in the past. But this year I had a lot to accomplish the weekend before Thanksgiving. I had three events to bake for: a church-sponsored bake sale, a church Thanksgiving dinner, and a work Thanksgiving potluck lunch.

It – wore – me – out.

I think I finally have some idea of what many, many generations of women before me experienced during the days when there was no convenience food, no sliced bread, so handy resealable package of Oreos. That’s some idea only, because I didn’t actually have to make everything we ate this weekend myself, just a lot of goodies … cookies, zwiebach, and a cranberry side dish. I mean, I was fortunate enough to get, between baking sessions, Little Caesar’s pizza on Friday (some people would call that un-fortunate), an Olive Garden dinner on Saturday, and turkey provided by our church on Sunday evening. Nevertheless, I’ve never made so much in three days. I’m new to this.

Here was my baking schedule:

Thursday Afternoon

No bake cookies

Peanut butter Rice Krispie treats

Cocoa Rice Krispie treats

Dough for Italian ribbon twists

Friday Afternoon

Bake Italian ribbon twists

Saturday

Cranberry compote

French almond wafers

Mennonite zwiebach (double buns)

I’m willing to bet that a lot of women out there have made far more than this in a three-day period. But on top of working full-time, caring for the kids, doing laundry, taking care of the dogs, cleaning up around the house, volunteering at the church bake sale, and grocery shopping at Walmart, it was pretty hard to get everything done!

But I’m not complaining. No way! I’m Super Mom. Hey, I sewed up Jonah’s torn shoe yesterday morning before leaving for church, while serving breakfast, making coffee, changing Neeley’s diaper, putting shoes, socks, and coat on everybody but Chris—who puts on his own coat, usually—and feeding the dogs. But it would be nice to take a break.

In spite of being so tired that I brushed my son’s teeth with my own toothbrush last night, I’m glad I made all the stuff I baked. I made some memories working in the kitchen. And, looking back on how crazy my Saturday was, I think maybe it was more funny than awful. And I believe in the value of hard work, so I don’t think my time was wasted.

All the same, I’m pretty happy that later this week I’ll get to spend some time sitting on the couch, just talking with my family, maybe listening to some music, and cuddling with my little guys.

And announcing that it’s 3:30, 3:32, 3:34, 3:36 …

Yeah, you don’t get to take a break from some things.

French Almond Wafers (tuiles)

I have made these thin, almond-flavored cookies twice now. Both times, they came out looking nothing like they were supposed to. They are supposed to be round, but I just can’t seem to manage it. Yet with all the trouble I’ve had making these, they are so delicious that I am going to keep making them until I get it right. 

This is a wafer that spreads when you bake it, so much so that both times the wafers have run together and spread all over the pan, so that I had to cut them into slices with a pizza cutter. And I made a big mess both times too. And yes, I yelled a lot. But regardless of how they look, they taste yummy.

When I made them for friends a couple of weeks ago, as a back-up dessert for a cake that didn’t rise properly, my friends ate every wafer in the dish. Actually, they tried to hide the few they didn’t eat, but their four-year-old daughter found them and ate the rest while we were sitting at the table playing Scrabble.

Then I made the wafers for a church Thanksgiving meal last night, and again, they disappeared. (It sure is a thrill to pick up your dish after a potluck and discover that the crowd ate everything you brought.)

I’ve got to admit, when I made the wafers on Saturday, I was pretty fed up. The first sheet of wafers I had to throw out because I forgot to top them with almonds, and as a result they spread so thin I couldn’t make anything out of them. And I also dropped the cookie sheet face down on the open oven door. Then the second sheet of wafers spread together and had to be sliced into pieces. Also, you are supposed to drape the wafers over bottles or rolling pins to curl them, and my bottles and pins kept rolling around on the counter. Only the third sheet of wafers looked okay, but there were only four of them. I had produced four correct wafers out of a batch that should have made two dozen.

I was almost ready to throw out all my odd-shaped wafers, but I picked up a scrap to eat and realized that they just tasted too good to throw away. So I piled them in a pretty, but small, serving dish, twined artificial autumn leaves around the dish, and confidently labeled them “French Almond Wafers (tuiles).”

You have got to try these yourself. And if they don’t look the recipe says they should—well, no one but you and I will know what they are supposed to look like.

 

Tuiles (French Almond Wafers) from the Joy of Cooking

These curled wafers are often brought to the table at the end of a special dinner and served with chocolate truffles, coffee, and brandy. Their name is the French word for tiles, because they are shaped like the curved terra-cotta roof tiles so prevalent in the south of France. Almost paper thin, with a subtle almond flavor, tuiles are curled by being draped, while still warm and pliable, over a rolling pin until cool and firm. The step that requires attention is removing them form the baking sheet. The trick is to use a wide spatula with a very thin blade and to work very quickly. Cookie sheets need to be clean and cool before you make a new batch.

Have all ingredients at room temperature, 68 to 70 degrees. Position a rack in the upper third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Very generously grease cookie sheets or cover with parchment paper or well-greased aluminum foil. Have ready several rolling pins or bottles the same width as the rolling pin to shape the wafers.

Warm, stirring constantly, over very low heat until very soft but not thin and runny:

5 tbsp unsalted butter

Whisk together until very frothy:

2 large egg whites

1/8 tsp salt

1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp sugar

¼ tsp almond extract

¼ tsp vanilla

Gradually whisk in:

½ cup sifted cake flour (not self-rising)

A bit a time, whisk in the softened butter until the mixture is well blended and smooth.

Drop the batter by heaping measuring teaspoonfuls

onto the sheets, spacing about 3 inches apart. Don’t crowd, as the wafers will spread a great deal. [Note: the only time I’ve kept the cookies from spreading together, I placed only four on the plan.] Using the tip of a knife and working in a circular motion, spread each portion into a [3-inch] round. Very generously sprinkle the rounds with:

½ to 2/3 cup sliced almonds, coarsely chopped [Note: I did not chop the sliced almonds]

Bake 1 sheet at a time until the wafers are rimmed with ½ inch of golden brown, 6 to 9 minutes; rotate the sheet halfway through for even browning. Remove the sheet to a rack and let stand for a few seconds. As soon as the wafers can be lifted without tearing, loosen them with a thin-bladed wide metal spatula and slide them, bottom side down, onto rolling pins or bottles. (Remove the wafers to the rolling pins 1 at a time, so the others remain warm and pliable. If some of the wafers cool too quickly to shape on the rolling pins, return the sheet to the oven briefly to warm and soften them.) As soon as the tuiles are firm, transfer to racks [or wax paper] to cool.

Cold Butter Makes for a Short Lightning Cake

How cool a name is “lightning cake?” And the original German name, blitztorte, is pretty cool too.

I decided to make this cake last Saturday largely because of the name. Also, I’ve never made a “lemon-scented yellow cake” from scratch, as Joy of Cooking described the cake. It sounded so fancy—but it was supposed to be fast and really easy.

I had the best intentions, but I made a mistake early on by working with cold butter. I was supposed to bring all the ingredients to room temperature, but I started rushing, like I often do, and didn’t pay attention.

I wasn’t sure it would matter. I mean, does it really matter if your butter is a little cold?

Yes, it does. Allrecipes.com states, quite clearly, “If the butter is too cold, it won’t beat evenly; it won’t incorporate air and increase in volume.” And, according to Baking911.com, if there aren’t enough air cells, the cake won’t rise.

But did I listen?

After awkwardly beating a stick of cold butter that kept getting stuck in the beater paddles—because it was cold, duh!—I pushed on. The batter looked fine. But as I watched the cake bake through the oven door, I got worried.

It wasn’t rising.

The color was nice, but this was going to be one dense cake.

I pulled the cake out of the oven when the color was right and it was fully cooked, but I worried that it might be too dense to eat. As it turned out, I shouldn’t have worried about that—it was dense but moist and lemony, and iced with homemade chocolate glaze (also a Joy of Cooking recipe), it was pretty yummy. It tasted mighty nice with coffee.

But on Saturday afternoon, as I looked at the short little cake I’d made, just after it came out of the oven, I decided I needed a backup dessert in case the cake turned out to taste awful. Because, of course, I had once again decided to serve a new dessert to guests—and I didn’t want to be caught with a dessert that would ruin the end of the meal.

The recipe suggested almonds as a possible topping for the cake in lieu of icing, so I decided to make some almond wafers as garnish for the cake. I figured, if the cake did taste awful, we could eat the wafers.

It’s worth mentioning that the almond wafers were also a new recipe. I guess I love life on the edge. And, as could be expected, baking the wafers did not go smoothly.

It was an adventure worth telling. And that’s a story for another day.

Lightning Cake (Blitztorte)

This is a German Blitztorte, named for the speed with which it can be produced. It is a quite simple lemon-scented yellow cake, delicious with or without the topping, or frost it with any powdered-sugar or quick icing.

Have all ingredients at room temperature, 68 to 70 degrees. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour [leave out flour if you intend to serve from the pan] one 8×2–inch round pan or line the bottom with wax or parchment paper.

Whisk together thorough:

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 tsp baking powder

¼ tsp salt

In a large bowl, beat until cream, about 30 seconds:

8 tbsp (1 stick) unsalted butter

Gradually add and beat on high speed until lightened in color and texture, 3 to 5 minutes:

1 cup sugar

Beat in 1 at a time:

3 large eggs

Beat in:

1 tsp grated lemon zest [or lemon extract]

2 tbsp fresh lemon juice

Stir in the flour mixture just until smooth. Scrape the batter into the pan and spread evenly. If desired [and not planning to ice the cake], sprinkle the top with a mixture of:

1/3 cup chopped or sliced natural almonds or other nuts

1 heaping tablespoonful sugar

Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Let cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Let cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Slide a thin knife around the cake to detach it from the pan. Invert the cake and peel off the paper linking, if using. Let cool right side up on the rack. [Note: I iced the cake in the pan and served it from the pan.]

Granny’s Chicken Gumbo

If you want to be a kid again, recreate the good smells you smelled as kid.

The part of the brain involved with scents also deals with memories. (See this UPI.com Health News article “Same brain part deals with scents, memory”)   and, as Discovery Health  has reported, because we encounter most new odors in our youth, smells often call up powerful childhood memories.

That’s why, when I smell a spring morning, I’m six again, leaving for kindergarten from my grandparents’ house in Longview, Texas.

When I smell hot chocolate, I’m eight, coming in from playing in the snow—or 12, daydreaming by the window on a winter morning—or 17, doing a crossword puzzle by myself on a Saturday night, listening to haunting Celtic music, and mooning over some boy who didn’t love me back.

Yes, food has tremendous power to revive our childhood memories.

The other night, I made my family’s chicken gumbo for the first time since I moved out on my own. As the gumbo simmered, the scent made me recall with sweet clarity how it felt to be a kid. Memories of dozens of family meals, conversations around the table, helping my mom clean up after dinner, all washed over me. And with the first bite, the distance that separates me from my younger self was gone. I felt younger than I have in a long time.

Chris had never had the dish before, but he ate two bowls of it. “This is one of the best things I’ve had in a long time!” he said.

“Brings back memories for me,” I said quietly. And that was an understatement. I was surprised by how happy I felt.

It happens to all of us. I read today that when French memoirist Marcel Proust dipped a pastry into his tea, the distinctive scent it produced suddenly opened the flood gates of his memory. And sometimes, you don’t recall a single memory, but instead find yourself feeling suddenly content.

I am the third generation to make this dish, and it’s tied to special memories for more than just me. My mom tells me she started making this simple gumbo before I was born. She got the recipe from her mother-in-law, my paternal grandmother. Mom first tasted this dish when Dad took her to meet his parents nearly 40 years ago. They drove several hours from Tucson, Ariz., north to Prescott, and Granny served her chicken gumbo to my mom, the thin, 19-year-old girl with the long, blonde hair who was going to marry her son.

This chicken gumbo is easy and quick to make, and it probably doesn’t taste anything like an authentic gumbo you’d find down in Louisiana. Granny did live in Shreveport for a couple of years, but a classic gumbo is a lot more complicated than hers. I’ve only had a real spicy Cajun gumbo once in my life. That’s a memory too. But this simple gumbo is the one for me.

What foods take you back?

 

Granny’s Chicken Gumbo

This dish offers a good chance to use up some leftovers—you can ladle it over leftover rice or potatoes and possibly day-old pasta. Chris ate his second bowl over a pile of oyster crackers that I bought on a whim because I thought the kids would enjoy eating little octagons.

1 chicken or equivalent in chicken pieces (I used just two boneless skinless chicken breasts)

1 ½ cups chicken broth or stock (a 14-oz can of broth will work fine)

Water

2 T butter or olive oil (I used olive oil)

1 large onion, chopped (I used a shallot)

1 green pepper, chopped

2 Tbsp flour

1 small can tomato sauce

½ Tbsp thyme

Salt and pepper to taste

Tabasco (optional)

Hot pepper (optional)

Okra (optional)

Put chicken in a pot and pour chicken broth over it. Add enough water to cover the chicken pieces. Bring the water to a simmer over high heat, then lower the heat until the liquid is barely bubbling. Cook until the chicken is done, approximately 25–30 minutes for chicken pieces but only 12 minutes for boneless skinless chicken breasts. Remove chicken from the pot; cool and debone. Remove chicken liquid from the heat.

Put butter/olive oil, onion and pepper in a large skillet and sauté until tender. Add flour and brown to nice color. Add chicken liquid, tomato sauce, salt and pepper, and thyme. Shred chicken, add to sauce, and simmer. Add peppers, okra, and Tabasco for a spicier gumbo.

Serve with hot sauce, steamed rice, potatoes, or crackers.

Easy Italian Meatballs You Can’t Mess Up … and I’ve Tried

Sometimes I wish I were Italian and had a family cookbook of heirloom Italian recipes brought over by a great grandmother from the old country who shared her secrets with her daughters who taught them to their daughters who in turn passed them on to future generations.

But, sadly, I am not Italian. Not one little bit.

Fortunately, my Aunt Grace married an Italian man from Philadelphia, who brought his family’s Italian meatball recipe into our family. Thank you, Uncle Ed.

I serve these meatballs with spaghetti on a regular basis. As someone who has messed up a lot of meals in the past, when I say this recipe is easy, I mean it. I have never had a problem with this recipe. Even when I’ve realized I didn’t have enough of a particular ingredient, or forgot one, it has still turned out tasty. Even when I’ve overcooked the meatballs a little, they’ve still tasted good once they’re covered in spaghetti sauce.

For example, when I was preparing the meatballs one night and discovered I had only half as much breadcrumbs as I needed, I used matzo meal (kept around for matzo soup) to complete the measurement and added a little bit of Italian seasoning. The meatballs tasted fine. And when I forgot to add any parmesan cheese, the meatballs tasted fine. When I cooked them almost to a crisp because I suddenly got worried about the meat being raw, in spite of having made them a dozen times before with no problem, the meatballs tasted fine. When I’ve used a lean grade of beef or a fattier grade of beef, the meatballs have tasted fine.

You get the message. These meatballs turn out fine, in spite of my best efforts to mess them up.

The recipe below is easily doubled—in fact, the original recipe my mom gave me was double these amounts. Making it my way, you’ll get between 20 and 24 meatballs. If you double the recipe, you’ll have enough to freeze for another meal.

Italian Meatballs

1 lb ground beef

1 egg

¾ cup Italian breadcrumbs (or use oatmeal or matzo meal and 1 T Italian seasoning)

1 tsp garlic powder

¼ to ½ cup grated parmesan

½ tsp salt

¼ tsp pepper

Mix ingredients well. Place teaspoon-size meatballs on a baking sheet. (You may wish to use one with a rim as the meatballs will release grease.) Bake at 400 degrees for 12–15 minutes.

How Pumpkin Spiced-Swirl Bread Taught Me a Lesson

“Do not make new dishes for guests.”

I read that advice somewhere, but I’ve ignored it many times.  I’ve lost count of how many times I tried new recipes for dinner guests or took a new dish to a party. Plus, I’ve been on a roll lately, turning out one new successful dish after another. By last weekend, I had begun to think I was invincible.

And then I tried to bake a loaf of pumpkin spice swirl bread for a church women’s breakfast. (You can find the recipe here at the blog “Chickens in the Road.”)

Having learned a little about yeast dough in the last few weeks, I started the process two days ahead. Thursday night, I mixed and kneaded the dough and set it in the fridge to rise overnight. Friday night, I kneaded the dough again (Jonah and I had fun “spanking” the dough, which I told him had been naughty), rolled it out into a rectangle, and added the filling of butter, brown sugar, and pumpkin pie spice (which I made myself by combining 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice, and 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg). Then I rolled up the dough, placed it in a loaf pan, and put it in the refrigerator to rise again overnight. All I would have to do Saturday morning was bake the loaf.

And that’s where I ran into trouble.

It should have gone smoothly. I followed some tips from my Joy of Cooking for adding steam to the oven for the first 15 minutes of baking by spritzing water into the oven with a water bottle. That went well, and was fun. But the recipe said to bake the loaf for 25 minutes, and when 25 minutes had passed, I felt some doubt about the loaf being finished. I left it in for a few more minutes, but then I began to worry I would over cook it. And because I don’t have any experience baking loaves of bread, I didn’t have any instincts to rely on.

I did have this advice from Joy of Cooking: When the bread is done, it should pull away from the sides of the pan and make a hollow sound when you thump on the bottom. But to really know if it’s done, check the temperature with an instant-read thermometer.

Well, I didn’t have a food thermometer. I had been delaying the purchase of one for weeks, because I wasn’t sure what kind to get or how much to spend. But, surely, no one really needs to rely on a thermometer. Surely I could figure out from appearance, smell, and touch whether the bread was done.

After giving the bread about 5 minutes more than the called-for 25 minutes, I pulled it out of the oven. It smelled done. The crust was a nice color. The bread had pulled away from the sides of the pan. Would it pass the thump test? I slid a knife around the loaf on all sides and tried to carefully slide it out of the pan. To my horror, a giant chuck of bread stuck to the pan.

My eyes widened in horror. Not sure what to do, I thumped the rest of the loaf on the bottom, then realized I didn’t know how to interpret the sound it made. So, I shoved the rest of the loaf back into the pan and prayed it would meld to the part of the loaf still stuck inside. And maybe cook a little more while sitting in the loaf pan.

I asked myself, Should I have cooked it longer? Was 30 minutes really enough time? But I had no time to do anything about it. I was due at the breakfast in minutes. So I let the bread sit while I got ready to leave, then wrapped the pan in a cloth and drove off to my women’s breakfast.

After reaching the breakfast, I was able to let the bread sit for a few minutes because I’d arrived early to set up. Eventually, though, the time came when I had to try cutting a slice. I pulled out a knife, hoped for the best and cut in—and discovered that the entire center of the loaf was doughy and completely uncooked.

“Ooh, that’s not done,” I said … which was an understatement. Pretty on the outside, on the inside, the loaf of bread was as far from done as it could be.

“How bad is it?” said Janice, a church friend who was standing nearby. She had been drawn over by the smell of fresh bread, and now she leaned in to take a look.

“Oh, that’s really not done!” she said.

I was crestfallen.

Oddly, Janice looked as crestfallen as me. “It smells great, though,” Janice said.

She sounded disappointed. I knew Janice loved bread. So I cut off a piece from the top of the loaf, where it was cooked through. “Try it,” I said.

Janice took a bite. “Well, that part tastes really good!” she said. And she perked up a little.

I looked at the loaf. Then, quickly, I sawed off the top third of the loaf, cut it into chunks, and laid the chunks of bread on the cloth I’d brought from home.

I carried the rest of the loaf over to the trash can and dumped it in.

At the breakfast, I watched women walk by the serving table, stop to look at the bread chunks, and read the grand little sign I’d made at home before coming: “Pumpkin spice bread.”

Then, wonder of wonders, I watched almost all of it disappear.

Even so, serving those chunks as “pumpkin spice bread” was humiliating.

I learned some valuable lessons from this failure. First, I was taking a big risk baking a loaf of bread for guests when I’d never baked a loaf of bread before. Second, l didn’t leave myself enough time to make sure the bread was done before leaving the house. Third, sometimes a baker can salvage part of a loaf, but I’ve been humbled—I know I can’t count on that every time, and there’s very little to be proud of in serving ruined chunks of bread instead of a glorious full loaf.

Also, that afternoon I went to Walmart and bought an instant read thermometer.

The Moral of the Story Is: Don’t Blame the Cookie

At last! On Sunday I remembered to add chocolate chips to a batch of chocolate chip cookies.

Jonah has been asking for chocolate chip cookies for a while and this week we finally made them. We used a recipe from Joy of Cooking that I haven’t tried before. I didn’t mean to make them as huge as they turned out … but big cookies are the most fun, aren’t they?

Other than accidentally producing giant cookies, I didn’t have any problems with this recipe. Jonah did a good job of helping, pouring in ingredients and stirring.

He was particularly intrigued by the corn syrup. “What’s that?” he asked.

“Corn syrup,” I answered.

“Ah, yes, corn syrup,” he said. As though that really made things clear.

While the cookies were baking, one sheet at a time as the recipe recommended, Jonah and I played several games of Trouble, the game with the die inside a plastic bubble that you pop to make the die roll. I had to jump up nearly every two minutes to (a) check on cookies in oven, (b) check the oven again, (c) finally take cookies out of the oven and put another sheet of cookies in, and (d) two minutes after taking cookies from the oven, move cookies to wax paper to cool.

Jonah was patient with the interruptions, and I’ll tell you why—he kept winning. I lost three out of four games of Trouble that night.

I figured I could blame my losses on the constant distraction of running to the kitchen to handle the cookies. But then the next night I lost two out of two games of Trouble with Jonah, and the following night he won again.  There were no baking distractions those nights, so it seems it wasn’t the cookies’ fault.

And that’s how it should be. It’s never the cookie’s fault—remember that.

Before blaming the cookie, look at yourself. Yes, maybe you gained five pounds after eating half a dozen cookies, every day, and washed them down with Dr Pepper; but it’s not the cookie’s fault. Yes, you didn’t notice your son was decorating his face with an ink pen because you were distracted by a warm cookie and a glass of milk, but it’s not the cookie’s fault. Yes, you were eating a cookie and talking on your cell phone when you rear-ended the town’s only red Lamborghini at a stop light, but it wasn’t the cookie’s fault.

No hard feelings against the cookie, folks.

I am thinking of blaming the corn syrup, though. I don’t know exactly what it did, but I think Jonah knows—although he’s not telling me.

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Coat cookie sheets with nonstick spray.

Whisk together thoroughly:

1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

¾ teaspoon baking soda

¾ teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

Beat on medium speed until well blended:

¼ cup corn or canola oil

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1 cup packed dark brown sugar

1 large egg

1 large egg white

1/3 cup light or dark corn syrup

1 tablespoon skim milk

2 ½ teaspoons vanilla

Stir into the batter:

2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats

1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Let the mixture stand for 10 minutes so the oats can absorb some moisture. Stir in the flour mixture; the dough will be slightly soft. Drop the dough by heaping measuring tablespoonfuls onto the sheets, spacing about 2 ½ inches apart.

Bake one sheet at a time, until the cookies are tinged brown all over and the centers are just barely firm when lightly pressed, 7 to 10 minutes; be careful not to overbake. Remove the sheet to a rack and let stand until the cookies firm slightly, about 2 minutes. Transfer the cookies to racks or wax paper to cool.

Blueberry Crunch Coffeecake, Slightly Blackened

Recently I came across an entry for “Blueberry Crunch Coffeecake” in my Joy of Cooking and had to stop. The name alone made my mouth water. Blueberries? Crunchy coffeecake? It had to be good. The recipe began: “The batter for this superb coffeecake is mixed like biscuit dough. Brown sugar and almonds in the bottom of the pan are transformed into a cloak of crunchy toffee over a tender coffeecake.”

Ah, how could I resist a cloak of crunchy toffee over a tender coffeecake?

Of course, I decided to plan a Sunday night breakfast supper around it: biscuits and gravy; my friend Abby’s egg, cheese and hash brown casserole; fruit; and, to crown it all, the coffeecake.

I love coffeecake. Back a year ago when I was beginning to count calories to lose the 50 pounds I did eventually lose, I stood looking sadly at a box of Krusteaz streusel coffeecake mix in my cabinet and nearly crying because I wouldn’t get to indulge in huge slices of coffeecake on a regular basis anymore. But now that I’ve lost the weight and learned to control my portion size, I can enjoy a slice coffeecake from time to time.

This would be the first coffeecake I’d made myself since losing the weight. And I was going to celebrate every moment.

The celebration had some rough moments:

First, I couldn’t find a pan of the exact right size. My loaf pans were all a little too big or too small and I had to settle on a glass loaf pan that was slightly too big.

Second, I didn’t have enough blueberries and had to send Chris to the store to buy more while I was mixing the batter.

Finally, I couldn’t decide if the cake was done and wound up burning the almond-and-brown-sugar topping at the corners of the cake.

After inverting the cake and discovering the burnt corners, I put my hands on my hips and frowned at the cake, grimacing.

Abby looked at me.

“You know, I’ve seen a recipe for a burnt brown sugar cake in one of my cookbooks,” she said. “So say you did it on purpose.”

I thought about it. Abby was right. There was no reason to let a few burnt almonds derail my coffeecake celebration. So I sliced it up and served it, warm cake and juicy berries and blackened toffee cloak and all.

Chris protested when I handed him a slice. “I just ate a plateful of biscuits and gravy and egg casserole!” he complained.

“Eat the coffeecake,” I urged.

“But I’m not hungry …”

“EAT THE CAKE!” I said, smiling.

There was a pause. Chris put a hand to his stomach. Then, determinedly, he lifted his fork.

“It looks delicious,” he said feebly.

And he ate the cake.

“Now wasn’t that good?” I said.

Chris didn’t say much. I’m not sure he could move. So I looked at Drew, Abby’s husband.

“Nice topping!” Drew said.

Abby makes a lot of new dishes and cakes. Drew knows what not to say.

All things considered, it was a marvelous celebration.

Blueberry Crunch Coffeecake

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8 ½ by 4 ½ (6-cup) loaf pan. Combine and sprinkle in the bottom of the pan:

¼ cup sliced almonds

¼ cup packed dark brown sugar

Whisk together thoroughly into a large bowl:

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

2/3 cup sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

Add:

5 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces

Cut in the butter with 2 knives or a pastry blender until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Do not allow the butter to melt or form a blended paste with the flour. Whisk together in another bowl:

1 large egg

½ cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

Pour over the flour mixture and stir until about three quarters of the dry ingredients are moistened. Add:

1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries

Fold just until the dry ingredients are moistened and the berries are distributed. Spoon the batter into the pan and spread evenly. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean (other than juice from the berries), 55 to 60 minutes. Let cool in the pan on a rack for 5 to 10 minutes. Loosen the edges, if necessary, and invert onto the rack. Serve warm or, for the crunchiest topping, let cool before serving.

Who Needs Meat When You’ve Got Homemade Soup and Breadsticks?

Soup, Salad, and Breadsticks


In my house, we eat a lot of meat. Pork chops, bacon, sausage, chicken, steak, roast, hamburger, bologna, ham, salami … the list goes on and on.

Yes, I will admit, we are one of those households that eats meat for two out of three meals every day. But I’ve been thinking it would be a good idea to have some meals in my repertoire that don’t involve meat.

Why?

Why would I want to eat a meal without meat when bacon tastes so, so good?

I know that’s what my husband wonders. And if I wanted to serve a meal without meat, I knew I’d have to make it a meal so tasty that Chris wouldn’t even notice there was no steak or pork chop on his plate.

Back to why I would want to prepare a meal with no meat main dish: First, meat costs a lot, and there are times at the end of the month when nothing is on sale and I could save a little money if I didn’t have to run out to the store to buy high-priced chicken or beef or whatever. Second, eating meat makes calories add up fast, and I like to have some “light” suppers on my list for days when I’ve had a big lunch or when I’d like to indulge a little for dessert after supper. Third, I know that decades ago, people ate a lot of meals without meat, largely because of reason #1 above (they couldn’t afford it), and now and then I like to experience what things were like for previous generations. Although I must admit my personal journey back in time would only be a partial historical re-creation; I wasn’t planning to shut off our electricity or move the bathroom out to the backyard for the night of the big Meatless Dinner.

Anyway, for my meatless meal experiment, I settled on a menu of soup, salad, and homemade breadsticks. I figured, if the breadsticks and soup turned out great, we could stuff ourselves with bread and allow the aroma of the chicken stock-based soup to fool our brains into thinking we’d feasted on chicken.

Would it work?

My Joy of Cooking includes a simple recipe for stracciatella, or Italian parmesan and egg soup that I decided to try. It’s essentially a deconstructed matzo ball soup, with egg, parmesan, breadcrumbs, and spices cooked just a couple of minutes in a simmering chicken stock.

Garnished with the magical spice nutmeg, my current favorite, the soup turned out pretty yummy. No, it wasn’t filling, but for that purpose we had—oh, yes!—steaming, buttery, parmesan-sprinkled hot homemade breadsticks.

They were beautiful. They smelled heavenly. They tasted delicious. And, as Chris pointed out, they looked, smelled, and tasted a fair bit like Crazy Bread from Little Caesar’s, the cheapest pizza chain in America.

“Is that a compliment?” I asked. I wasn’t sure.

“Well, you love Crazy Bread,” he said.

It’s true, I do.

I ate four breadsticks, one bowl of soup, and a simple side salad. And guess what? I did not miss the meat. I really didn’t.

But I have a confession to make.

While the chicken stock was coming to a simmer, while the breadsticks were baking, before the salads were made, I got worried that Chris would freak out when he figured out there wasn’t any meat for dinner. So I sliced up some summer sausage to put on his plate next to the soup. And I ate a slice myself. So help me, I did.

Below are the recipes needed to make for this simple soup and homemade breadsticks (which, incidentally, reheated well for a meal the next day).

I have left out any reference to the pre-meal summer sausage snack. I was weak … but you don’t have to be.

Italian Parmesan and Egg Soup (Stracciatella)

A Roman specialty, stracciatella derives its name from the word straccetti, little rags—describing the strands of egg that float in the broth.

Bring to a simmer in a medium saucepan:

3 cups chicken stock

Meanwhile, whisk together until blended:

1 large egg

1 ½ tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

1 tablespoon dry unseasoned breadcrumbs (I had only Italian breadcrumbs and used them instead)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley (I didn’t have any so I left this out)

1 small clove garlic, finely minced

Stir this mixture rapidly into the simmering stock and stir until the egg is set, 30 to 60 seconds. Garnish with:

Freshly grated or ground nutmeg or grated lemon zest

Ladle into warmed bowls

Homemade Pizza or Breadstick Dough (from Aunt Marilyn Hill)

1 1/3 cup warm water

1 pkg (2 ¼ tsp yeast)

1 ½ tsp salt

2 tbsp oil

3 ½ cups all-purpose flour

Dissolve yeast in water. Stir in salt, sugar, and oil. Add flour one cup at a time. Mix well. Add ½ cup flour if dough is too sticky. Allow to rise for 30–45 minutes. (You may freeze the dough at this point.)

For breadsticks (from Our Best Bites):

Remove dough from bowl and place on a lightly floured surface. Spray a baking sheet with cooking spray. Roll into a rectangle and cut into 12 strips with a pizza cutter.

Roll out each piece of dough into a snake and then drape over your forefinger and twist the dough. Place on baking sheet and repeat with remaining 11 pieces of dough. Try to space them evenly, but it’s okay if they’re close.

Cover pan and allow dough to rise for another 30 minutes. When there’s about 15 minutes to go, preheat your oven to 425. When done rising, bake for 10–12 minutes or until golden brown. Rub some butter on top of the breadsticks (just put a Ziploc bag on your hand, grab some softened butter, and have at it) and sprinkle with garlic bread seasoning or the powdery Parmesan cheese in a can and garlic salt. Or you could sprinkle them with cinnamon sugar.

I Made German Mennonite Zwiebach (and I’m not German)

Most families have favorite recipes that have special meaning for all the kids and grandkids. In family, there’s the iced Christmas cookies my mom had us make every year and which now my sister Jenny makes with her kids and any of the nieces and nephews who are around. There’s the family brownie recipe, the family five-minute fudge recipe, the broccoli-cheese-rice casserole recipe, the chicken gumbo recipe (a mild version that suits my bland Anglo-Saxon palate), the pineapple jello salad recipe, and so on.

In my husband’s family, thanks to his mother’s side of the family, family favorites comprise an entire menu of German Mennonite dishes. To be more specific: Germans-from-Russia Mennonite dishes.

Now, my family has been in North America for so long that we don’t have any ethnic dishes in our family recipe treasure trove. Our recipes all have American names and no special ethnic history. I love our family foods; but in my husband’s family, the names themselves are unique and beloved:

Cherry Moos

Kuchen

Vareneke …

Borscht …

Zwiebach.

I’ve been learning to bake bread lately, focusing on rolls (let’s hear it for rolls!), and every time I talked about baking in the past couple of months, my husband would say, “You should make zwiebach.”

“What on earth is that?” I asked.

Or my mother-in-law would say, “Have you tried to make zwiebach?”

And my father-in-law would say, “And there’s always Oma’s zwiebach …”

I wasn’t even sure how it was spelled. Curious, I googled “zwieback” and found recipes for something like Melba toast. Then I looked up “zwiebach,” and I found it. Sure enough, it was a roll—a “double bun,” or a roll with a topknot on it.

So when the date rolled around for my husband’s grandfather’s 90th birthday, and I found myself searching for something special I could make, the answer was obvious.

I called my mother-in-law.

“Do you have a recipe for that zwiebach?” I asked.

Mom Nichols had her grandmother’s recipe in a family cookbook she worked on a few years back, so I borrowed the book and read the recipe. It raised a lot of questions for me.

Did I need to knead the dough? When exactly did I shape the rolls? What size should they be? How many rolls would the recipe make?

Because Oma went to heaven a long time ago, and since my mother-in-law has never made zwiebach herself, I scoured the Internet for advice. I read five or so zwiebach recipes, garnered tips from most of them, and then added a sheet containing the best advice to the cookbook containing Oma’s recipe.

As I looked over all the recipes, I realized I was going to have a timing problem—I wouldn’t be home most of the night before the party and wouldn’t be able to keep an eye on the dough for the first rise. Could I refrigerate the dough?

That sent me on a whole new Google adventure. I researched “refrigerating bread dough” until I had a good plan worked out.

  1. Friday after work: Mix and knead the dough and put it in the fridge.
  2. Leave for in-laws’ house for dinner and family trip to Boo at the Zoo event.
  3. Three hours later, return from Boo at the Zoo and remove dough from the fridge.
  4. Warm the chilled dough and complete the first rise.
  5. Stay up really, really late shaping dough, completing a second rise, and baking the rolls.

I own three cookie sheets, and I decided to bake all the rolls at once. I wound up with about 36 rolls. All golden brown, plump double rolls with an aroma that drew Chris into the kitchen.

He had to eat one away.

“Is this what they’re supposed to be like?” I asked.

“They taste like Oma’s!” he said.

“You’re kidding,” I said. “Really?”

“Although these are bigger than hers,” he said.

“Are they supposed to be small? Oh, dear,” I said.

“Oh, it’s fine,” he said. “Try one!”

Oh, yes, they were good. But I never had Oma’s zwiebach, so I didn’t know if I’d done what I wanted to do: reproduce a favorite.

The next morning we got into the car with two bags of rolls and drove to Abilene, Kansas, for the birthday party. We got there at noon, and I realized right away that the news that I was bringing zwiebach had spread.

“Heard you brought zwiebach,” said one of the uncles.

“Looks like zwiebach,” said someone else.

But the big test remained. As I watched the zwiebach disappear from the serving table, I also looked around the room to find people eating it. Chris’s grandma had one. Great Aunt Noreen had one. Uncle Kevin had one. Aunt Becky had one. In fact, almost everyone had one.

Had I done it?

I started walking around the room, stopping at each table for just a moment.

“Good zwiebach!”

“Nice job.”

“These taste just like Oma’s.”

“ALMOST as good as Oma’s,” said Uncle John.

“Keep making the zwiebach,” said Uncle Kevin.

Well, Uncle Kevin, I will.

I don’t have any German blood, I’m not one of the family, but what better way to let them know I love and respect my husband’s heritage? And my boys are a quarter German. They and their future wives are going to know about zwiebach—with an “h.”

Oh, and Grandma said I can make the zwiebach any size I want.

Oma’s Zwiebach Recipe, revised by her great-granddaughter-in-law

1 cake compressed yeast [equates to 1 packet or 2 ¼ tsp]

½ cup warm water

1/3 cup sugar

3 ½ c scalded milk [I didn’t know how to scald the milk so I microwaved it until it was hot]

1 cup shortening [I used ½ cup shortening and ½ cup butter]

4 tsp salt

Dissolve yeast in warm water with part of the sugar. Pour milk on shortening. When cool, add salt and rest of sugar.

Add the yeast mixture and 10–12 cups of flour [enough to make a medium dough that may be sticky. Knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic.]

Let rise until double (about two hours at 80 degrees). SHORT COLD RISE: I let it rise in the refrigerator for three hours. When I took it out, it was almost double. At this point I boiled 1–2 cups of water in the microwave, then put the dough in the microwave with the hot water. The bread was raised double in less than an hour.

Knead down, then pinch off small to medium-sized of dough and put on greased pan. For every ball you roll, roll a second smaller one and set it on top of the first roll. Press down lightly with the knuckle of your index finger to meld the two rolls. Let rise for 30 minutes. Now bake at 375 for 20–25 minutes.

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