experiments in cooking

Cocoa Devil’s Food Cake

A few weeks ago I started making chocolate cakes on the weekends to practice making a cake for my birthday. I started with a devil’s food cake made with cocoa, from my Joy of Cooking cookbook.

This was the first chocolate cake I’ve had any trouble making. It was easy to prepare, but I agonized over which size pan to use. I didn’t have two 9-inch round layer pans, but I did have a 10-inch fluted tube pan. However, I didn’t have a cake keeper to store a round cake in—so I had to use a 9×11-inch rectangular pan.

The finished cake sank in the middle. But I iced it with my favorite homemade chocolate glaze and it tasted good.

The funny thing was, it tasted even better the second day—and the third. I mean, on the first day, I thought it tasted okay, and on the third, I thought it was awesome. I wasn’t expecting that.

So this might be a good cake to make ahead of an event, letting it sit for a day. I just wish I’d baked it in a different pan. My mother-in-law gave me an old cake keeper and two round pans, so I’m set for next time.

Cocoa Devil’s Food Cake from Joy of Cooking

One 9-inch plain tube cake, 10-inch tube cake, or two 9-inch round layers

Have all ingredients at room temperature, about 70 degrees. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 9-inch plain tube pan, a 10-inch fluted tube pan, or two 9×2-inch round cake pans, or line the bottoms of the round pans with wax or parchment paper.

Whisk together in a medium bowl:

2 cups sifted cake flour
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt

Whisk together in a separate bowl:

1 cup sugar
1 cup buttermilk or yogurt
½ cup nonalkalized cocoa powder
1 tsp vanilla

Beat in a large bowl until creamy, about 30 seconds:

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

Gradually add and beat on high speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes:

1 cup sugar

Beat in one at a time:

2 large eggs

On low speed, add the flour mixture in 3 parts, alternating with the buttermilk mixture in 2 parts, beating until smooth and scraping the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as necessary. Scrape the batter into the pan(s) and spread evenly. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes in round pans, 45 to 55 minutes in a tube pan. Cool and remove from the pan. Fill and spread with white or chocolate icing.

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For our church’s New Year’s Eve family game night, I planned to make Rotel cheese dip in a small slow cooker. The afternoon of the party, I opened my cabinet and realized I didn’t have any cans of diced tomatoes with green chiles, just a can of plain diced tomatoes.

But I had an idea. After adding the diced tomatoes and a couple dashes of garlic powder to the cubed Velveeta and milk sitting in my slow cooker, I called to Chris, in the living room watching a football game.

“Hey, Chris, do you have any peppers you can chop up for my cheese dip?” I asked.

Chris, who grows container peppers every year and then saves them for the winter, is always thrilled to be asked to add peppers to something. “You bet!” he said, jumping up and running for the freezer.

He came back a few minutes later with a bag full of peppers.

“I only need a couple of peppers,” I said, explaining about not having any Rotel.

“Yeah, I know,” he said.

He chopped up a habanero and put it in with the cheese mixture.

“That’s probably enough,” I said.

“No way!” he said. “One pepper will be totally covered by the taste of the cheese.”

“I don’t know …” I said.

But Chris proceeded to chop up another habanero and five or six cayenne peppers and dump them all into my cheese dip.

We took the dip to the party, and it was the hottest cheese dip I have ever tasted in my life. It looked beautiful, and nearly everyone tried some. Then, as people passed through the serving line and settled down at their tables, all around the room I could hear voices calling for a drink, gasping, and pleas for relief. At one point, I took a bite myself and I think I screamed.

Chris was very, very proud of himself. This is a man who once won a special prize at a chili contest for having made chili so hot that no one was sure what it tasted like, but it sure was hot.

Yes, nothing suits a church party like the dip I am now calling “Chris’s Hot as Hades Queso.”

Rotel Cheese Dip

One can of Rotel tomatoes

½ block of Velveeta

Milk to suit the cook’s taste (approximately ¼ to ½ cup)

Cut the Velveeta into cubes and put the cubes in a microwavable container. Add milk.

Microwave Directions

Microwave in a covered dish for about four minutes. Stir. Microwave in small increments until the cheese is melted. Watch the dish to make sure it doesn’t spill over. After the cheese is melted, stir in the diced tomatoes. You may want to microwave it about one minute more to reheat the mixture after adding the tomatoes.

Slow Cooker Directions

Add all ingredients and turn the slow cooker on low for about two hours, stirring occasionally after the first hour.

Hot Version

Use (1) Rotel or (2) plain diced tomatoes with a couple dashes of garlic powder. Add chopped hot peppers. Know that the more you add, and the hotter the pepper, the hotter your dip will be.

On New Year’s Day this year I decided to fix something for dinner that I’d never made before: Polish sausage and sauerkraut. I don’t know why I had a hankering for sauerkraut, but I did, and I’d heard that sausage and sauerkraut is in some places a traditional New Year’s meal.

I used a package of brat-length thin Polish sausages so that we could have Polish dogs instead of eating sausage piled on a bed of sauerkraut. Although Chris is never excited about sauerkraut, he was pretty excited about the idea of Polish dogs. We’re definitely a hot dog and bratwurst-loving family.

Here’s the recipe I used:

 

Polish Sausage and Sauerkraut

Makes about four cups

Ingredients:

1 lb sauerkraut

1 lb Polish sausage

1 small white onion, thinly sliced

3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed

(optional: 1/2 cup dry vermouth)

1 cup chicken broth

1 tsp. caraway seeds

1 bay leaf

1/4 tsp. dry mustard

Directions:

  1. Drain the sauerkraut and cover with cold water. Soak for 10 minutes.
  2. While the kraut soaks, combine the Polish sausage, onion, garlic, (vermouth, if using), caraway seeds, and dry mustard in a medium saucepan. When the sausage is browned, add the chicken broth and bay leaf and bring to a simmer.
  3. Drain kraut again, and this time squeeze out as much liquid as possible.
  4. Add the sauerkraut to the mixture and return to a simmer. Cover and cook over low heat about 30 minutes. (Alternatively, put in the oven at 350 for approximately 40 minutes.)
  5. Remove the bay leaf and season to taste with salt and fresh ground black pepper.

For Christmas, Chris gave me a Dutch oven made by Lodge. A Dutch oven is a thick-walled (usually cast iron) cooking pot with a tight-fitting lid that can be used both on the range top and in the oven. I’d never had any cooking dish that could be used both on the range and in the oven. How cool is that?

I asked for a Dutch oven because so many recipes I’ve seen called for one, including a couple of recipes for some personal favorites: chicken fricassee and macaroni and cheese. In the past few weeks, I’ve made both dishes with my new Dutch oven and got to make use of the range-to-oven versatility for both meals. Boy, is it fun to use!

It is not, however, fun to clean any dish in which you have made macaroni and cheese. That said, this baked macaroni and cheese recipe, which my mother emailed to me, is absolutely delicious and worth the time it took to clean the pot—my lovely, cast-iron, pre-seasoned Dutch oven.

Macaroni and Cheese (from New World Pasta

8 oz dried elbow macaroni (2 cups)

2 tbsp butter or margarine

2 tbsp all-purpose flour

1/8 tsp ground black pepper

1-1/2 cups fat-free milk

12 oz of Velveeta (or processed cheese product), broken up

Directions:

Cook macaroni according to package directions; drain.  Meanwhile, for cheese sauce, in a large saucepan or Dutch oven, melt butter over medium heat.  Stir in flour and pepper.  Add milk all at once.  Cook and stir until slightly thickened and bubbly.  Add cheese, stirring until melted.  Stir macaroni into cheese sauce in sauce pan, stirring to coat.  Cook over low heat for 2 to 3 minutes or until heated through, stirring frequently.  Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.  Makes 4 servings.

Oven Macaroni and Cheese:  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Prepare as above, except increase milk to 2 cups.  (If mixture is not in a Dutch oven, transfer mixture to a 2 quart casserole.)  Bake, uncovered for 25 to 30 minutes or until bubbly and heated through.  Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.

A few weeks back, I volunteered to make Christmas dinner, because my mother-in-law was scheduled to work all Christmas Day. I, on the other hand, would be home and available to cook.

I let Chris decide what he’d like for dinner, and he chose ham. I’d never baked a ham before, but I said I’d do it. A couple of days before Christmas, Chris’s brother dropped off a spiral-cut ham for me to bake. Thanks to his work schedule, he wouldn’t be at Christmas dinner himself, but we planned to send ham and all the fixin’s to him after dinner was over.

Spiral-cut hams are typically fully cooked, so you just have to warm them before serving, unless you want to serve cold ham. It was going to take quite some time to warm up a ham the size of the one Jeremiah brought over. The package recommended two and a half hours at 275 degrees, so I popped the ham in the oven at 2:15 p.m., planning to take it out of the oven at 4:45 and serve it at 5 o’clock.

Around 4 p.m., I mixed up a cranberry glaze (taken from Joy of Cooking) for the ham and began a pot of mashed potatoes. I’d never made mashed potatoes myself before, although I’d helped my mom make them once or twice. The thing is, I hate mashed potatoes. But most people, including my husband, seem to love them, and they go well with ham, and it was Christmas, after all, so I thought, Why not? For the potatoes, I combined an online recipe with one in my new 2006 edition of Joy of Cooking.

At 4:45, the potatoes were coming along swimmingly, and the cranberry glaze was on the ham, but the ham just wasn’t hot. Frustrated, I checked my Joy of Cooking, which suggested baking a fully cooked ham at 325 degrees, a full 50 degrees hotter than suggested by the instructions that came with the ham. Stupid instructions! I wound up having to turn up the oven to 400 degrees for the last several minutes, and shortly after 5 p.m. got the ham warm enough to eat. But it still was not as hot as I would have liked.

The ham tasted good, even if I wasn’t happy about the baking process. And the cranberry glaze was delicious. (In fact, it was so good that I used the leftover glaze a couple of days later as a topping for baked chicken breasts—baked them beneath the cranberry glaze at 350 degrees, covered, for 40 minutes. Yum!)

Also, Chris and his parents told me the potatoes were great. They certainly looked good—white and fluffy as any I’ve ever seen—and they smelled good too. The ranch dressing, everybody said, added a nice flavor.

Finally, Chris begged me to try a bite, and I did, but couldn’t stomach ’em. I just flat out don’t enjoy mashed potatoes, no matter how pretty they are. You know how much easier my life would be if I could enjoy a big pile of mashed potatoes? For one thing, then I wouldn’t have to hear Chris telling everyone how weird I am.

Below are the recipes for the best parts of our Christmas meal: the glaze that I loved, and the potatoes that Chris loved.

Cranberry Glaze

1 can of cranberry sauce, jellied or whole

¼ to ½ cup brown sugar

Orange juice (amount left to the cook’s discretion)

Optional: whole cloves

Mix cranberry sauce, brown sugar, and orange juice. If you are using the glaze on a ham, remove the ham from the oven 45 minutes before the end of the baking time. If you want to use cloves, press them into the outside of the ham. Spread cranberry sauce mixture over the outside of the ham and return the ham to the oven.

Ranch Mashed Potatoes

3–4 baking potatoes, peeled, cut into chunks

1 bay leaf

2 cloves crushed fresh garlic

2 tbsp butter

¼ cup Light Ranch Dressing

For best results, cut potatoes into equal-size pieces to ensure even cooking. Cook vegetables, garlic, and bay leaf in boiling water in large saucepan 20 min. or until tender; drain and remove the bay leaf. Add butter and dressing. Mash until light and fluffy.

Overnight Orange Rolls

For Christmas morning 2010, I decided to bake some homemade orange rolls. I chose an overnight cinnamon rolls recipe I got from Chickens in the Road.

This recipes starts with the same dough I used to make pumpkin spice swirl bread in November, the loaf of bread that was only half-cooked and which I had to throw away after arriving at the church women’s breakfast.

I prepared the rolls on Dec. 24 after getting home from our German Mennonite Christmas Eve dinner at Chris’s mom’s house. They didn’t take long—I mixed the dough, let it rise, rolled the dough into a long, and cut it into 12 pinwheel rolls that I lay in my metal 9 x 13 pan, the one that has a lid. Then I shoved the pan in the fridge, where Christmas Day’s ham already waited.

On Christmas morning, the rolls weren’t raised as high as I expected. I wasn’t quite sure how they ought to look. So I let them sit out for about 45 minutes before baking them. It took about 35 minutes in the oven for them to reach the shade of golden brown I wanted. Once they were done, I let them cool a couple of minutes and then I spread an orange glaze over the top.

Unfortunately, as yummy as the rolls themselves tasted, I didn’t like the orange glaze. I might have liked it better as a thicker icing. The thing is, I make the Pillsbury orange rolls in a can every Saturday, and I’m used to the taste of the orange icing that’s included with those. My boys love the Pillsbury orange icing too—I mean absolutely LOVE it—and they were upset that these new orange rolls were merely glazed and not thickly iced.

“Where’s the icing?” Jonah complained.

“It’s on there,” I said.

“I don’t see it!” he said.

“I promise you, I put icing on the rolls,” I said.

“No, you didn’t,” he said, inspecting the roll carefully. Then he wailed, “I want my icing!”

“Tough,” I said. “You get what’s on there.”

Yes, it was a peaceful Christmas morning breakfast in the Nichols family.

At any rate, the next time I make these rolls I think I’ll use a powdered sugar white icing and spread it on thick. Preschoolers expect icing that they can see.

One-Pan Recipe (makes 12-15 rolls)

1 ½ cups warm water
1 tsp yeast
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar*
(Optional add-ins: 1/3 cup oil, 1 egg)**
3 ½ cups flour

*If you have a sweet tooth, add up to 1/3 cup sugar to the dough instead of 2 tablespoons.

**If using oil and egg, you’ll need about 1/2 cup more flour.

In a large bowl, combine water, yeast, sugar, and salt, along with oil and egg, if using. Let sit five minutes. Stir in first cup and a half cup of flour with a heavy spoon. Add more flour a little at a time as needed, stirring until dough becomes too stiff to continue stirring easily. Add a little more flour and begin kneading. The amount of flour is approximate–your mileage may vary! Continue adding flour and kneading until the dough is smooth and elastic. Let dough rise in a greased, covered bowl until doubled. (Usually, about an hour.) Uncover bowl; sprinkle in a little more flour and knead again. Roll out onto a floured surface into an approximately 15 x 8 rectangle.

Orange Filling:
2 tbsp plus 2 tsp butter (softened)

4 tbsp sugar (or brown sugar)

2 tsp cinnamon

2 tsp orange juice

1 tsp orange zest or extract

Brush dough with melted butter, orange juice, and orange zest. Combine sugar and cinnamon; generously spoon onto dough, taking care to get right up to the edges.

Roll dough up and seal seams. How many rolls you get will depend on how you cut the slices.

Place rolls in a large greased pan. To bake right away, let rise 30 minutes to an hour, until doubled, or for overnight rolls, stick the pan (covered) in the fridge. They’ll be risen and ready the next morning.

Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for approximately 30 minutes.

Orange Glaze
For an orange glaze on top, stir together 1 cup powdered sugar, 2 tablespoons orange juice, and 1/4 teaspoon orange extract or orange peel.

Two days before Christmas, Chris emailed me a recipe from a co-worker for something called “Glass Candy.” This co-worker had brought some to a work party and he thought it would be something I’d like to make. I’d never tried making candy before, but it looked pretty easy.

I started making the candy after lunch on Christmas Eve. First, I coated a cookie sheet with powdered sugar. Then I combined sugar, water, and Karo syrup in a pot. Then I read the next step: “Boil until the mixture reaches a hard crack about 300 degrees.”

No problem. I had a thermometer. But as I stood at my stove, the sugar mixture already heating to a bubbling syrup, and looked down at my thermometer, I was dismayed to see that it had a maximum temperature reading of 220 degrees. What could I do?

I considered the reference to a “hard crack.”Was “hard crack” an actual candymaking term? I had thought it was just a description chosen by the writer of the recipe, but if were a “technical” term used in candy making, perhaps it held the solution to my problem.

I flipped open my new 2006 edition of The Joy of Cooking to the chapter about candy, where I found a description of how to check the readiness of sugar syrup without a thermometer, using the cold water test. It was followed by illustrations.

Apparently the hard-crack stage occurs between 300 and 310 degrees Fahrenheit. Toffee, nut brittles, and lollipops are all cooked to the hard-crack stage. The hard-crack stage is the highest temperature a cook is likely to see specified in a candy recipe. At these temperatures, there is almost no water left in the syrup.

To perform a cold water test, you drop a little of the molten syrup in cold water. At the hard-crack stage, it will form hard, brittle threads that break when bent.

So! I could check the readiness of the candy without an accurate thermometer.

But, even with an answer in hand, I was nervous. I had never tried anything like this before, and I had no one to show me how to do it right—just a set of illustrations and some reading done on the spot while the pot was boiling.

I used my thermometer to tell me when the mixture has passed 220 degrees. Then I began testing the sugar syrup by scooping a small amount of it on a metal spoon (that I warmed in a nearby jar of warm water) and dropping it into a small bowl of cold water. The first time I did this, the syrup formed a liquid-y thread in the cold water but did not ball up or harden. My cookbook told me that this is called the thread stage.

I tested the syrup several more times. Each time it did something different when dropped in the cold water:

  • Formed a soft, flexible ball that flattened when I removed it from the water (soft-ball stage, 235° F–240° F)
  • Formed a firm ball that remained malleable when removed from the water and flattened when squeezed (firm-ball stage, 245° F–250° F)
  • Formed thick, ropy threads as it dripped from the spoon into the water, then formed a hard ball in the water and did not flatten when removed, although it could be squashed (hard-ball stage, 250° F–265° F)
  • Formed threads and not a ball in the water. When removed from the water, the threads were flexible, not brittle, and bent before breaking (soft-crack stage, 270° F–290° F)
  • Formed hard, brittle threads that, once removed from the water, broke when bent (hard-crack stage, 300° F–310° F)

When the syrup reached the last stage, I immediately added several drops of blue food coloring and about two splashes of anise flavoring. (I was so nervous that I forgot to measure the anise I used, but I’d estimate I used a couple of teaspoons.) Then I poured the mixture onto the prepared cookie sheet and let it cool completely.

When the sheet of candy was cooled to the touch, Chris and I shattered it with the edge of a meat tenderizer and placed the pieces in a glass dish. The candy looked just like pieces of blue glass and tasted like licorice.

Making glass candy for the first time was not as easy as it looked. It’s probably just as well that I didn’t know how nerve-wracking it would be, because I might not have tried it. Now, on the other side of my first candy adventure, I can say that the science experiment of progressing through the stages of cooking sugar syrup using the cold water test was pretty darn fascinating.

I’m looking forward to trying candy again. And I won’t have to do it without a clue as to the actual temperature next time, because my mother-in-law just gave me an old candy thermometer to use, one that most definitely reads up to 300 degrees.

Sweet!

Glass Candy

Powdered sugar

2 cups sugar

1 cup water

¾ cup Karo syrup

Flavoring (peppermint, anise, etc.)

Food coloring

Prepare a cookie sheet by coating with powdered sugar.

Combine in a pot sugar, water, and Karo syrup.  Boil until the mixture reaches a hard crack about 300 degrees.

(Note: if using the cold water test to check the syrup’s readiness, look for the syrup to form, after being dropped in the cold water, hard, brittle threads that break when bent. CAUTION: To avoid burns, allow the syrup to cool in the cold water for a few moments before touching it.)

Quickly stir in desired flavor and food coloring. Note: it probably will take twice as much as you think it should.

Pour onto prepared cookie sheet.  Allow to cool for a bit. If desired, sprinkle top with powdered sugar. (I liked it without the powdered sugar on top.)  Allow to cool completely.

Break apart (the edge of a meat tenderizer works well) and enjoy!

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