experiments in cooking

Posts tagged ‘Joy of Cooking’

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.]

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.

Chocolate Butter Cookies

Jonah and I are making cookies pretty much every Sunday afternoon or evening lately. This week he asked if we could make chocolate cookies. I thought that sounded a little bland.

“Chocolate chip cookies?” I suggested.

“No, chocolate cookies.”

“How about no-bake chocolate cookies?”

“Just chocolate cookies,” he insisted.

So I decided to use the “Fourteen-cookies-in-one” recipe from my Joy of Cooking. It’s a basic cookie recipe which you can vary slightly in any number of ways. Joy of Cooking includes a variation for a basic chocolate cookie. Well, it’s a chocolate-cinnamon cookie; but, as I often do on Sunday nights when I’m tired, I forgot an important ingredient featured in the name of the cookie. This time I forgot the cinnamon, so we just made plain chocolate cookies.

To add some interest, and a bit of a challenge, I decided to roll out the dough and use cookie cutters. I haven’t used cookie cutters in years, and when I did it was mostly under my mom’s supervision, so I was looking forward to the chance to develop my own skills in rolling and cutting cookies—and teaching Jonah how to do it too.

I dug out my cookie cutters from the back of a kitchen drawer and from a tin in a cabinet above the stove. Most of the cookie cutters were Christmas-y, but I did find some round biscuit cutters, a teddy bear cutter, and a rabbit cutter.

After chilling the dough, I rolled it out, which turned out to be tricky. The dough kept getting stuck to the rolling pin. I don’t know if I needed to flour the surface more, or the rolling pin, or what. But eventually I did get it rolled out, and Jonah helped me cut the cookies. Finally, I used candy sprinkles to give the bunnies and teddy bears eyes.

When the cookies were done, Jonah and I thought they looked great, but Chris was a little taken aback by the eyes.

“Wasn’t that a cool idea?” I asked.

“Little creepy,” he said.

After supper, we all tried the cookies. Neeley took one bite, spit it out, and cried “Icky!” Lately he has no interest in my cookies. Jonah liked them; he ate the one I gave him as well as Neeley’s. I liked the cookies too—they weren’t bland at all, and they reminded of something I’d tasted once.

When Chris tried a cookie, I asked him if they reminded him of anything.

He thought for a moment.

“You know,” he said, “I think they taste like Annie’s Chocolate Bunny Grahams. Only softer and—well, better.”

That was exactly it! This cookie tastes like Annie’s Chocolate Bunny Grahams. Only better, which is probably because of the two sticks of butter in this recipe.

That’s why I’m calling them Chocolate Butter Cookies.

And the next time I make these, I’m going to use a cow cookie cutter I found when I was putting the other cutters away and call them Chocolate Butter Cows.

“Fourteen-in-one” basic ingredients

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ pound unsalted butter cut into 14 pieces, at room temperature (that’s 2 sticks)
1 cup superfine sugar (you can also pulse granulated sugar in a food processor for 1 minute)
½ teaspoon table salt
1 large egg yolk
1 large egg
2 teaspoons vanilla


To make them into chocolate cookies:

1 ounce melted semisweet chocolate (I used cocoa and oil)

¼ cup cocoa

½ tsp cinnamon (optional—because they taste good even if you forget the cinnamon)

On medium speed, mix butter, sugar and salt until fluffy. Add egg yolk, whole egg, vanilla and melted chocolate (or wet chocolate mixture) and mix until well blended. Reduce speed to low and add flour and dry cocoa slowly until well combined. Divide dough in half, wrap and refrigerate until firm. (At least 1 hour and up to 2 days. Dough may also be frozen for up to a month.) Preheat oven to 375 degree F and prepare 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper.

On a well-floured surface, roll dough out to 1/8 inch thick. Cut cookies with cookie cutters. May re-roll scraps one time. Any scraps left over at this point should be rolled into balls, placed on a cookie sheet, and flattened. Place cookies on baking sheets and place sheets into oven (one on lower rack, one on upper). Bake for 6–10 minutes, rotating sheets half way through baking (watch closely for browning).

Creamed Chicken and Bow Tie Heaven

This morning I got an email from my husband with Bow Tie Heaven in the subject line. The email read, I just want to say that I was thinking about your pasta dish on the way to work…it was really good!

Now that’s what I like to hear. And the funny thing is, while frantically trying to fix dinner last night, I thought dinner was going to be a failure. I was making creamed chicken, a Joy of Cooking chicken recipe combining poached chicken with a simple gravy that is typically served over rice, toast, or pasta, or baked in chicken pot pie, or baked in a casserole with pasta or rice in dishes like chicken tetrazzini or some versions of chicken a la king. And I had never made it before.

I intended to serve the creamed chicken over bow tie pasta (also known as farfalle pasta), a pasta I’ve never worked with but which I bought a bag of recently when it was on sale for under a dollar.

At first I thought I had a really great idea. But as 6 o’clock loomed and I rushed around the kitchen managing the various parts of the meal, I doubted.

Yes, I know that this particular meal doesn’t sound complicated. But, according to many cooking experts, you’re not supposed to serve new dishes to guests, and once again I had decided to try out something new on my in-laws—something that involved adding nutmeg—nutmeg!—to a flour gravy and serving it with chicken over pasta, something I never would have thought of doing a couple of months ago. I just wasn’t sure all these things really went together.

One reason for my doubting is that I felt really rushed. When I planned out how much time I needed to make the meal, I’d forgotten that the chicken breasts I was poaching would need time to cool down so I could skin, debone, and shred them. So, while trying to stir the creamed chicken gravy (consisting of butter, flour, broth, milk, salt and pepper, and nutmeg), I was also stirring a pot of unfamiliar pasta and trying to quickly shred very hot chicken, with my three dachshunds between my feet, pushing and nosing, all hoping I’d drop something yummy.

As I began to finish up each dish, I felt that each looked good on its own, but would they work together? Wasn’t nutmeg a weird spice to use in a meal like this? I couldn’t help it. I doubted my early confidence in the idea that creamed chicken and bowtie pasta would be easy and delicious. It might, instead, be weird and even a little repulsive.

When everyone was seated at the table and I brought in the dishes, I was pretty nervous. I explained to everyone that the creamed chicken was meant to be served over the pasta. And then I waited for the bad news.

Everyone served themselves and began eating. There was general silence for a few minutes. And then it came.

“You know …” said my father-in-law.

Let’s have it, I thought. You asked for it, serving a new dish to guests. Now you have to take the consequences.

“I think this meal ranks up there with your chicken enchiladas.”

With my chicken enchiladas? My father-in-law loves my chicken enchiladas!

“This is really good,” added my mother-in-law.

“This is good, Sarah,” said my husband.

“Are you sure?” I said.

The chorus of yeses was pretty definite.

“It’s not weird?” I pressed.

“No, no way!” someone said. Someone else chimed in, “It’s good! Very good.”

I almost couldn’t believe it. And then I took several bites of the creamed chicken and bow tie pasta on my own plate. And you know what? They were right. It was good.

“I’m kind of surprised this is so good,” I said. “I mean, bow tie pasta topped with a mixture that’s basically chicken pot pie filling? Wasn’t sure it would work.”

“Well, I hope you make it again,” said my father-in-law.

I didn’t tell anyone about the nutmeg.

I think it may be the secret to reaching bow tie heaven.

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

Oatmeal chocolate chip cookies taste a whole lot better when you remember to add the chocolate chips. Last week I had every intention of making them but forgot the chocolate, but this past Sunday I redeemed myself by making them correctly.

I used a “reduced fat” recipe from my Joy of Cooking book. I think the full fat version uses all butter, no vegetable oil (and also no corn syrup). All butter would have been yummy, but I think I need to guard myself from becoming too comfortable using large amounts of butter too often. If I ever need to go on a diet again, I’m going to need the discipline to put down the stick of butter.

You want to know what’s odd? I’ve been baking a few times a week for a couple of months now, and I’ve actually been losing a little weight. I think this is partly because I’ve been eating more home-cooked food and less processed food, and also because I’ve been eating so many apples. Whatever the reason, I can afford to eat a few cookies, especially ones including oatmeal.

I think it’s obvious to everyone who’s talked to me lately that I’ve been obsessed with oatmeal and with apples this fall. How could I not be? They’re both healthy and delicious. Hey, if any of you share my feelings for apples or oatmeal, send a comment my way. Maybe not everyone wants to hear about how much you love oatmeal, or why you sometimes drool over a good apple, but I want to hear.

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies (Reduced Fat)
from The Joy of Cooking

Makes about 3 dozen 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

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 (use reduced-fat chips if desired)

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 1 sheet at a time, until the cookies are tinged with 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 to cool. (I use wax paper instead of a rack.)

Never Knew How to Knead (French Rolls)

I’ve been so swamped this week that I’ve had no time for a post, even though I did get to cook several new things last weekend. My next few posts may be fairly short.

Saturday I tried a rolls recipe from my friend Iris. They’re called Petits Pains Au Lait, which translates to “rolls made with milk.” She sent me the recipe by email, and then I had to send about a half dozen follow up questions, because I know so little about making bread. Iris says bread is forgiving … but I’m doubtful.

A moment of fun: using the flour sifter my mother-in-law gave me because she doesn’t use it, and finding it was great fun to use. I used to sift flour for my mother, years ago. I never knew why.

A moment of worry: I found that in working with the dough, I didn’t use all the flour the recipe called for.  My friend Iris didn’t seem to think that was a terrible thing. Apparently you don’t always need all the four.

About the only real difficulty I encountered was that I got to the stage where I was supposed to knead the dough for 8–10 minutes and realized I had no idea how to knead. Absolutely no idea. I was nervous to put down the dough for long, lest it start rising or hardening or, God forbid, exploding. But I quickly washed my hands and opened my Joy of Cooking hoping there was a section on kneading bread dough—and it was my lucky day: full instructions on how to knead bread dough.  

Still, though, I couldn’t figure out exactly what the instructions meant. After 10 minutes of some odd pushing, pulling, and poking the dough, it still wasn’t elastic as my Joy of Cooking said it should be.

I worked on it a few minutes more, praying to find some kind of magical movement, some kind of expert rhythm, and finally found my hands doing something that seemed to be making the dough more elastic. Then, since I was afraid to work the dough too long, after a few more minutes passed I called it quits and set the dough aside to rise.

And I can’t tell you how excited I was, one hour later, to see that the dough actually had doubled in size! I’m not sure I believed it would really rise for me. I tell you, I was elated.

I baked the rolls at 400 degrees for just under 15 minutes. Iris said they would probably be done shortly after they started to smell fragrant, and she was right. I used a pizza stone as Iris recommended, and as it was the first time I’ve ever used a pizza stone to bake, I was pleased that I didn’t burn the rolls or ruin the stone. Yay for me!

The rolls were a big hit with our steak dinner that night. Chris ate three, and our dinner guests, friends from church, each ate at least two. Also, they were fun to look at, as they puffed up into fantastic shapes.

I’m looking forward to trying them again soon. I bet I can do better next time. Now that I might know how to knead.

French Petits Pains Au Lait From Iris Goodding

4 cups white bread flour (all-purpose flour is fine)

2 teaspoons salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1/3 cup powdered milk and 1 cup warm water or 1 cup lukewarm milk (about the temperature of baby bath water)

¼ cup butter, softened

½ ounce fresh yeast (4 ½ teaspoons)

1 tablespoon extra milk for glazing 

  1. Lightly grease 1–2 baking sheets. Sift (sifting is optional) 2 cups of the flour and salt together into a large bowl. Stir in the sugar. If you are using powdered milk, stir it in too. Run the softened butter into the flour (I use my fingers to “mush” the butter into the flour).
  2. Mix the yeast with the milk or, if you are using powdered milk, with the warm water.  Let yeast and water sit about 5 minutes.  The mixture will begin to look “frothy.”  Pour into the flour mixture and mix to a soft dough.

1        Mix in as much of the flour as it takes to make the dough manageable to pick up and begin   kneading. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead for 8–10 minutes until smooth and elastic (adding more flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking to your hands). Place in an oiled bowl, cover with a light-weight towel and let rise in a warm place for 1–­2 hours (until doubled in bulk). If you are going to bake on a pizza stone, preheat the oven before step 3.

  1. Turn out the dough onto a floured surface and gently punch down. Divide into 12, shape into balls.

If you are using a baking sheet (or baking dish):

4        Place rolls on the greased baking sheet (or baking dish) spaced about an inch apart. (Let them touch if you want pull-apart rolls, but barely touching as, put closer, they will rise into each other and get too thick where they touch and possibly not bake evenly.) Cover with lightly oiled plastic wrap and let rise, in a warm place, for about 20 minutes, or until doubled in size.

5        Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Brush the rolls with milk and bake for 20–25 minutes or until golden. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Note on using a baking dish: If you use a glass baking dish instead of a baking sheet, keep a close eye on the rolls as they bake so that you take them out at the right time. Using different materials for baking can slightly alter your bake time and the texture of the finished bread.

If you are using a pizza stone:

  1. I like to bake these on a pizza stone.  If you want to do them on cookie sheets, see the original recipe.
  2. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit with the pizza stone in the oven.  Once stone is heated up, carefully place the rolls on the stone (I do this while it is in the oven) and bake for 20–25 minutes or until golden. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Note on using a pizza stone: If you are using a stone, check the bottoms of the rolls to make sure they are not getting over-cooked.

Note: Pay close attention to rolls while they’re baking as the baking time can vary from day to day.  One good indicator that they are getting close to being done is that they begin to be fragrant.

Apple Day: Honeycrisp Apples, My New Apple Peeler, and a Molasses Apple Pandowdy

The Orchard – Run on the Honeycrisps

Beautiful Melrose Apples at Martin's Hillside Orchard.

Last week I got an email update from Martin’s Hillside Orchard that several varieties of apples had ripened, including early-season Fujis, Empires, Jonathans, and Honeycrisps. So I immediately planned a Saturday-morning family trip to the orchard, with the intention of using the freshly picked apples and my new rotary apple peeler/slicer/corer to make an apple dessert Saturday afternoon—a new dessert, of course. The one I had in mind was an old-fashioned apple pandowdy described in The Joy of Cooking. Chris loves apples and apple desserts, so he didn’t require much persuasion for the trip, even though he hates getting up on Saturday mornings.

Around 10:30 Saturday morning, all four of us were finally in the car on the way to the orchard, located about 15 minutes north of Lincoln, Neb. As we neared the driveway to the orchard, it became clear that the two cars behind us were also going to the orchard.

Chris was a little worried. “They’re going to take all the apples!” he said. So we had to rush from the car to the orchard, knowing there was a chance Jonah and Neeley would slow us down. So I made Jonah run along beside me and Chris tried to carry Neeley as fast as he could.

I found Alex Martin, the orchard owner, in the Apple Barn. I saw, happily, that we had beat the other two carloads of people into the building. So I got the first chance to ask Alex where to find the apple varieties we were interested in picking. As we turned to walk down the hill to the trees, the people behind us said to Alex, excitedly, “We’re looking for the Honeycrisps.”

As Alex began to describe where to find them, Chris and I exchanged glances. These Honeycrisps must be something good.

We made our way to the Honeycrisps first ourselves, curious. I’d never had one, myself. They were pretty apples, that’s for sure. I think we must have picked a couple dozen of them, exclaiming every time we got a “good one.” It wasn’t long before other people came running along the row. I had to haul Neeley out of the way as they rushed past. Chris heard one young man shout, “He said there’s more of them further down!” And the crowd ran by.

“Forget the other apples,” said Chris. “They’re all about the Honeycrisps.”

Sure enough, as we moved through the orchard to pick a few early Fujis (there weren’t many), some Empires (a new variety to us), and a fair number of Jonathans, we never crossed paths with another human. They were all in the Honeycrisp row.

“Those things must be really good,” I said.

In the end, we purchased $22.50 worth of apples. Back at the car, I noticed one of the Honeycrisps had been slightly damaged in the picking process. It was a huge apple—must have been about 10 ounces. I offered it to Jonah. “Do you want an apple?” I said.

Jonah’s eyes grew huge as he gazed at the apple. “Uh—yeah!” he said.

“It’s a big apple,” I said. “You’ll have to share it with your brother.”

“Okay,” he said.

In the car, secure in his booster seat, Jonah took a bite. “Mmmm!” he said. He took several more bites.

“Want apple!” said Neeley.

So I handed the giant apple from Jonah to Neeley.

“Mmmm!” said Neeley.

All the way back to Lincoln, Jonah and Neeley passed the apple back and forth. Juice dripped down onto Neeley’s jacket until it was soaked. And Jonah kept giggling and saying things like “I like this apple!” and “I’m eating a BIG apple!” and “Neeley likes the apple too!”

Finally I turned around and Jonah handed me the core.

“You ate it all!” I said, wonderingly. “It must have been really good.”

“Yeah!” he said, and added, “Can I have an apple with lunch?”

So we all had apples with lunch.

The Apple Peeler

After lunch, I put Neeley in his bed for a nap and went to the kitchen to try out my new apple peeler. Since Joy of Cooking suggested Empire apples for the pandowdy, I fit an Empire onto the apparatus and turned the handle. In less than 10 seconds, the apple was completely peeled, cored, and sliced. And I was in love with my new gadget.

Because I was squealing and yelling “Come look at this!” Jonah came running into the kitchen to see. He begged to take a turn. It was so easy, he personally peeled the rest of the apples I needed for the pandowdy.

I have never seen such a cool kitchen tool in my life. Why had I never seen one used before? Oh, if only my mom could have had one when I was a child. She would have loved it.

The Apple Pandowdy

I’ve wanted to try an apple pandowdy for several weeks now. An apple pandowdy is like a deep-dish pie—just fruit filling in a dish and a top crust—no bottom crust. According to The Joy of Cooking, it’s traditionally sweetened with molasses. For the one I made on Saturday, I used half molasses and half brown sugar, apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, allspice, and a pre-made Great Value pie crust.

I used a 10-inch decorative pie pan for the baking dish. Per the Joy of Cooking instructions, I baked the pandowdy for 30 minutes at 400 degrees, then took it out of the oven, turned the oven down to 350, and cut the crust into two inch sections (like you would a brownie). Then I pressed the edges of the crust pieces down into the apple filling to allow the juices to come through, and I also spooned some of the molasses/apple jelly that was already bubbling up over the top of the crust and spread it over the surface of the crust. Next I returned the dish to the oven and baked it about 30 minutes more.

Early in the assembly process, I did make a mistake; the recipe called for ¼ tsp of cinnamon and ¼ tsp of nutmeg, but I added ½ tsp of both because I picked up the wrong measuring spoon. Fortunately, some people really like cinnamon and fall spices, so the pandowdy was a success even with the extra cinnamon and nutmeg. A friend who tried it Sunday at lunch said something about the fragrant spices—she’s a cinnamon lover.

Now, since pre-made pie crusts come in sets of two, I’ve got one more Great Value pie crust left to use. I will probably try an Apple Galette this week—which is essentially a rustic pie or apple pizza. And I cannot wait to use my new apple peeler again. I thank God for gadgets like this one—I really do.

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