experiments in cooking

Posts tagged ‘food experiments’

Late-Night Yellow Cake

On Tuesday of this week, with the boys safely in bed and Chris out for a church thing, I found myself standing in my kitchen at 8:30 p.m. feeling the urge to bake something.

My poor dogs wanted me to come sit down on the couch, and stood around my feet in various poses of reproach, but I couldn’t deny the baking itch. “You’ll have to wait, guys,” I said. “Sorry about this.”

Two of them wandered off to mope in the living room, and one stayed to watch, just in case I dropped something yummy.

As I stood looking around the kitchen, trying to decide what to make, I thought about banana bread—but I’d made some two days before and didn’t want anyone in the house to get sick of it. I thought of making a small cake, because I had a very small amount of bittersweet chocolate glaze left over from a cake some weeks ago. But my favorite small cake pan was dirty. What to do?

Then I noticed three mini loaf pans out on the counter, and I decided to experiment. I opened my Joy of Cooking to search for a small cake recipe with the same amount of batter as a single-loaf bread recipe, then bake the cake as three mini cakes. And it had to be uncomplicated, because I was tired and just about at the end of my day’s energy.

I settled on an orange rum cake that looked simple and was written for a small 8-inch round cake pan, which has the same surface area as three mini loaf pans. Because I had no rum and wasn’t in the mood for an orange-flavored cake, I decided to make it a plain yellow cake—and it would no doubt be transformed into magic by my favorite bittersweet chocolate glaze, which tastes so amazing that it is a darn good thing I hadn’t discovered it during the time when I was counting calories a year and a half ago. (Please note that I’ve kept the weight off even after discovering this homemade chocolate glaze. I just had to learn self-control before it was safe for me to make and eat it.)

“That’s what I’ll do—switch up the recipe!” I told Wilbur, who was hanging out with me at the time. I don’t think he knew what I was talking about. He thumped his tail. I’m sure he was hoping I’d said “Sure, you can have a Cheerio.”

“It’ll work,” I assured him.

Wilbur thumped his tail again, but then I went to work pulling ingredients out of cabinets and transforming myself into the human baking tornado. With no Cheerio forthcoming, Wilbur got disgusted and went to hang out with the other two for a while.

Cake baked in mini loaves bakes fast. I pulled the mini pans out of the oven in 25 minutes, and that was almost too much time. Any more time and they would have been dry. Anyway, I let them cool for 10 minutes, slid a knife around the edges, and slid the cakes out onto the counter to cool. While they were still just barely warm, I iced them with the glaze.

And then I went to sit with the dogs for a while. I also figured they’d earned a few Cheerios.

Wednesday morning, to his surprise, Chris got to have cake for breakfast.

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Quick Yellow Cake (adapted from Joy of Cooking’s Orange Rum Cake)

You’ll need:
Eggs
Sugar
Salt
Orange zest
Unsalted butter
Baking powder
Evaporated milk or heavy cream

Optional: splash of vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F, and grease an 8″ round cake plan, springform pan, or three mini loaf pans.

Melt 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter and allow it to cool. (I melted the butter in the microwave and let it cool in the refrigerator while I completed the next steps.)

Whisk together 1 cup sugar, 1/8 tsp of salt, and 3 large eggs until the mixture is pale yellow and frothy.

Add to this mixture 1 ¼ cup flour and 1 ½ tsp of baking powder and gently fold together. Finally add the melted butter from earlier along with 1/3 cup evaporated milk. Stir gently with a spoon. Be careful not to overwork the batter so the end result remains fluffy and doesn’t get doughy like bread.

Pour this mixture into the greased pan and bake for 25–35 (less time if you use mini loaf pans) minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. After the cake has cooled invert it onto your serving dish and top with a chocolate glaze.

The Science of Making Candy

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!

Italian Ribbon Twists

I don’t have any idea what makes these cookies Italian, but I got them from an Italian recipe web site, Mangia Bene Pasta, so I guess they are. The “ribbon twists” part of their name is self explanatory.

These ribbon twists are made by twisting strips of pastry filled with fruit preserves and sugar, cinnamon, and chopped nuts. The process was similar to the way I twist the homemade breadsticks I’ve been making, but messier because of the preserves.

I made the pastry on a Thursday afternoon, left it in the refrigerator overnight, and baked the cookies on Friday afternoon. I had never before made a filled cookie of any kind, so I was excited to try this recipe. Everything went really well, except that when the cookies were done and I’d pulled them out of the oven, I had to leave the house for a couple of hours. When I came back, the cookies were stuck to the wax paper I’d baked them on. I tried really, really hard to get all the wax paper off the cookies. I tried to slip a spatula beneath them, I tried to peel the paper off gently, and I also tried trying to rip it off quickly, like a scab off a wound. (Yes, I have a fondness for unappetizing similes.) But I only managed to save about a dozen, plus a handful of cookie scraps that I’ll make my family eat for Thanksgiving.

From this process, I learned:

Do not leave the cookies sitting in jam that will harden. If you bake cookies filled with jam, and the jam leaks out of the cookie while it’s baking, you absolutely must remove the cookie from the baking pan (and any paper you baked it on) before the jam hardens.

Apricot jam is not weird after all. I have never, ever tried apricot jam. I’ve always steered away from light-colored jams. I don’t know why, I just found darker jams more appealing. And less “out there.” Well, I used a jar of apricot jam my mother-in-law let me have—only because it was recommended by the recipe—and they tasted really good in this cookie. So I’m a convert.

Pie pastry is not as hard to make as I thought it was. When I taste tested one of the cookies, I realized that the cookie was basically pie pastry with jam on it. I had made pie pastry without even realizing it. What was I so afraid of? Well, apparently all anyone would have had to do to get me to try pie pastry would have been to call it “cookie pastry.”

This was a fun cookie, and I will make the recipe again, because I really want to get the process right at the very end.

I took the dozen pretty ones to our church potluck Thanksgiving dinner, and they did get eaten. I hope people liked them.

Ribbon Twists from http://www.mangiabenepasta.com
(Should make about 36 cookies)

Pastry:
4 ounces (1 stick) butter, room temperature
3 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 egg yolk
1 cup flour

Filling:
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup finely chopped walnuts (or other nut)
1/4 cup apricot (or other flavor) preserves

Using an electric mixer, combine the butter and cream cheese until smooth. Add the egg yolk and mix until incorporated. Add the flour and beat just until combined. Form dough into a disk, cover and refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper.

In a small bowl, combine sugar, cinnamon, and walnuts. Set aside.

Divide the chilled dough in half. Lightly flour a work surface. Roll the dough into a rectangle about 20 x 6-inches.

Spread a thin layer of preserves on the dough. Sprinkle half of the sugar mixture on top.

Take one of the long edges of the dough and fold to down to meet the other long side.
Gently press down on the dough to seal the top to the bottom.

Using a pastry cutter [I used a pizza wheel], cut the dough into strips 1/2-inch wide by 3 inches long. Take the strip of filled dough and gently twist. Place the twisted strips on the prepared baking sheets about 2 inches apart. Repeat the procedure with the second half of dough.

Bake for 12–15 minutes, or until lightly browned. Remove the baking sheets from the oven. Allow the cookies to cool approximately 10 minutes [but no so long that they stick to the paper on the pan] and then transfer the cookies to wire racks [or a cloth or fresh wax paper] to cool completely.

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.

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.

Pulled Pork Sandwiches, Slaw, and Chocolate Cake

Pulled pork sandwiches, slaw, and chocolate cake—sound good to you?

It ought to. But it’s not just good food—it’s visionary.

Don’t scoff. Every few months, I embark on a new project to improve my life, to move me toward the vision of the person I really want to be. And things like pulled pork sandwiches, slaw, and chocolate cake are part of that vision.

See, a lot of these projects have to do with my management of our home. Actively working to improve my cooking and baking skills is just the latest project. One year ago, I started making monthly menus, because I was tired of standing in my kitchen after work every night, staring blankly around a kitchen full of food and coming up with no ideas on what to make for supper. And two years ago, I started keeping a budget, tracking all my spending, paying down debt, and living more frugally.

Oh, and then there’s the hospitality project. I guess it’s not exactly a project, but “hospitality” is part of my vision. I want to be someone who entertains regularly. I want friends to come over looking forward to tasty, home-cooked meals. Which I will have made from good, affordable ingredients purchased within a budget, planned carefully as part of an organized menu that makes everyone happy and is easy to follow.

All these projects—these efforts to fulfill my vision—have become ongoing habits, and they naturally intersect. So when I read through the weekly grocery sale papers I get by email (frugality), I look for sale items I can build into my pre-planned menu (menu organization) that will challenge or strengthen my cooking skills (kitchen savvy) and enable me to entertain guests properly (hospitality).

Several weeks ago, I decided it was time to invite to dinner some friends we haven’t had over in more than a year. I contacted the wife and settled on a date. Then I started to plan a menu, even though the date was a few weeks ahead.

Here were some of my considerations:

  • Our friends have five people in their family. We have four. What could I make to serve nine people easily?
  • What was on sale that I could buy ahead in order to make an affordable meal?
  • What menu would both challenge and strengthen my cooking skills?

I made a list of a number of possible main dishes. Then I checked that week’s sale ad and found that SuperSaver had pork butt roasts on sale. I would have to buy two roasts to get the advertised special, but if it turned out to be too much food for our guests, cooked pork freezes and reheats easily. I settled on pulled pork sandwiches, and because I knew my friend makes most of her own bread, I asked if she could bring homemade sandwich rolls.

Next, flipping through my Joy of Cooking, I found a simple recipe for hot apple slaw. I had a surplus of apples in my basement, so I wouldn’t have to buy any apples—just cabbage, which is inexpensive. The recipe called for cider vinegar, and I had only rice vinegar on hand, but I did some research on substitutions for cider vinegar and decided I could use the rice vinegar and add a splash of apple juice.

Next, I made a short list of simple desserts for which I had ingredients on hand and asked Chris to pick from the list. He picked chocolate cake, so I planned to make a sour cream fudge cake with homemade chocolate icing.

Here was the final menu:

  • Pulled pork sandwiches served with BBQ sauce
  • Homemade sandwich rolls (brought by my friend)
  • Hot apple slaw
  • Scalloped potatoes (brought by my friend)
  • Sour cream fudge cake with chocolate icing (all made from scratch)

And here’s what I had to do for the meal:

Pulled Pork

I did not have experience slow cooking two large pork roasts, although I’ve done one before. I had to borrow my mother-in-law’s oblong roasting oven and stack the roasts side by side.

First, I had to finish defrosting the roasts and used my microwave’s Defrost setting to do so. Then I rubbed each roast with salt, pepper, and garlic powder and stood them in the roasting oven. I did not add any water. I cooked the roasts at 350 degrees for two hours, then turned the oven down to 250 and cooked them seven hours long. At 5:45 I moved the roast to a large serving bowl and shredded it with a fork. Dish done!

Hot Apple Slaw

This was a brand-new dish for me, and I have never cooked with cabbage—or used caraway seeds, which I had in my cabinet although I’d never used them. The recipe called for frying bacon in a skillet and then using the hot fat for the rest of the slaw. Instead, I melted bacon fat I keep on hand, but you could skip the bacon fat altogether and use oil. Anyway, I melted the bacon fat and then added three tablespoons of rice vinegar, a splash of apple juice, two tablespoons of water, one tablespoon of brown sugar, and one teaspoon of lightly crushed caraway seeds. (I put the seeds in a plastic bag and used a meat tenderizer mallet to beat them, a process that didn’t pulverize them but did release their aroma.)  When this mixture came to a boil, I added three cups of finely chopped red cabbage (turned out to be easy to chop) and one finely chopped peeled apple. I combined all ingredients and then cooked the mixture for two more minutes. Next I transferred the slaw to a serving dish and garnished it with real bacon pieces. Dish done!

Sour Cream Fudge Cake with Chocolate Icing (all made from scratch)

This cake was easy to make, but to make it really work I had to sift all the dry ingredients using the old sifter my mother-in-law gave me, and I had to save one fourth a cup of coffee from my breakfast that morning to add as a liquid ingredient. The cake took only 25 minutes to bake perfectly—good height, good texture, nice and moist. Dish done!

The biggest challenge I had with this cake was selecting an icing. I don’t much enjoy thick frostings. I wanted something chocolate. I didn’t want anything super sweet. I wanted something easy. I wanted an icing that would keep frozen so I could make a large batch and reuse it later for another dessert. And I wanted something that didn’t call for any ingredients or tools I didn’t have, which ruled out, among others, recipes requiring a double boiler or milk chocolate.

After evaluating all the frostings and icings in my Joy of Cooking, I selected a Chocolate Glaze that turned out to be a nice, dark chocolate icing: not too thick, not too thin, not too sweet, and easy to make. Plus, any unused glaze can be frozen for up to six months. I’m telling you, I am never going to buy store-bought frosting again.

So my family and our friends ate all this food, and we had multiple bags of pork left over.

But does it really matter? Am I crazy for putting so much thought into a single meal?

I used to think that spending a lot of time planning a meal was pointless. I mean, you eat it, and then it’s gone. And you still have the dirty dishes to do. But here’s the truth: I enjoyed every minute of the planning process, I enjoyed cooking, I enjoyed serving our friends, I enjoyed eating my own food, and right now I am enjoying thinking back on the whole thing.

I tested and improved my cooking and baking skills. I had food left over for later. I didn’t waste money on expensive convenience foods I could make myself. I served fresh food instead of processed junk. I gave people I love a good meal.

There was nothing pointless about it.

Pulled pork sandwiches, slaw and chocolate cake really are visionary. You think I’m crazy, you come over and we’ll talk about it over some cake.

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