December 22, 2010 § 6 Comments
My first memory of gingerbread: eating brunch in the West Village when we lived in New York City. I don’t remember what else we ate or the name of the spot, but I remember the setting. A red rooster painted on the steamy window greeted us as we walked in from the snowy cold to meet two friends. A crush of people were smashed together at tiny tables, giving us that sensation of eating in intimate proximity with strangers that’s so familiar in Manhattan. At 2:00 p.m., hunger rumbled in the belly I hadn’t fed since 9:30 the night before.
Someone suggested ordering the gingerbread appetizer to share. The waitress placed a blunt white plate on the table, covered almost entirely with a thick, fresh-from-the-oven slice of gingerbread. The scent of its spices wafted into our nostrils. It was deeply hued, festooned with a lopsided cap of whipped cream. A moist, cakey inside was enveloped in a faintly crispy crust. That first bite turned me into a gingerbread lover.
I made my first gingerbread three years ago. As you may have read about in my last post here about my relationship with baking, that first gingerbread came out a bit burned. Since then, I’ve tried other recipes and taken full advantage of my oven thermometer to regulate heat. Baking our own gingerbread has become a nascent holiday tradition, something I make every December before we join the traveling hordes flying to relatives’ for Christmas.
Following is the recipe my husband and I like best so far. Enjoy!
adapted from the Joy of Cooking recipe
Yields: 1 9-inch round cake or 2 loaves
Planning Notes: You can make this a day in advance of serving and keep, covered tightly, on the counter.
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons dried ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup hot water
1/4 cup dark molasses (such as blackstrap)
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted and cooled
1 large egg
1/2 cup sugar
4 tablespoons finely chopped crystallized ginger
1 — Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line bottom of baking pan(s) with parchment paper.
2 — Sift the flour into a large bowl. Add the soda, ginger, cinnamon, allspice and salt and whisk together thoroughly.
3 — Put the hot water in a small bowl or 2-cup glass measuring cup. Add molasses, maple syrup and honey and whisk together thoroughly.
4 — Put butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whisk on low speed until butter and sugar are combined.
5 — Break egg into small bowl; make sure the egg is good and there aren’t any shell shards. Slip the egg into the stand mixer bowl; whisk on low speed until combined with butter and sugar.
6 — Add half of dry ingredients to stand mixer bowl. Whisk on low speed until flour is incorporated, then whisk on medium speed to fully combine.
7 — Add half of water-molasses-syrup-honey liquid to stand mixer bowl. Whisk on low speed until incorporated, then whisk on medium speed to fully combine.
8 — Repeat steps 5 and 6 with remaining dry ingredients then liquid.
9 — Remove bowl from stand mixer. Stir in chopped ginger with a rubber spatula (which you can use to scrape the batter out of the bowl into the pan).
10 — Pour batter (which will be fairly thin and may have some bubbles — don’t worry about it) into prepared pan(s). Bake until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. If you’re using 1 9-inch round pan, it’ll take about 45 minutes (may take up to an hour). If you’re using 2 loaf pans, it’ll take about 35 minutes (may take up to 45). Cool 10 minutes in the pan on top of a rack before digging in!
Serve warm, dusted with powdered sugar or capped with a dollop of fresh whipped cream.
Notes on the Recipe
We like a spicy cake and love the bits of crystallized ginger. If you want a milder cake, cut the amount of ginger, cinnamon and allspice in half. If you don’t like spicy, chewy bits of ginger in your cake, you can omit those.
The type of honey you use will affect the flavor. If you want neutral sweetness, stick to a plain clover honey. If you like a stronger, more complex honey, by all means, use it.
Finally, you don’t need to use a stand mixer; it’s just easier and faster. If you don’t have a stand mixer, you can use a hand mixer or a plain old whisk and bowl.
December 15, 2010 § 3 Comments
I’m not good at reading magazines. Every time I open one, a neurotic voice inside urges me to read every single word on every single page. For years, I felt guilty pitching a magazine into the recycling bin if I hadn’t read everything in it, even the articles I found boring. Which meant that magazines would pile up around the house, and I’d feel even guiltier.
So in a bid for self-preservation, I don’t subscribe to many magazines. But one I’ve subscribed to for as long as I can remember is Saveur. I love that I can be transported to 20 different states and nations reading one issue, and that every time I pick it up, I learn something new about a cuisine and a culture. It’s one magazine I thoroughly enjoy reading cover to cover, and for years, I’ve read through it soon after it landed in my mailbox.
Except lately. Somehow, I’ve gotten really behind in my Saveur reading. To lessen the guilt, I’ve been piling up the magazines in the closet — outta sight, outta mind. But then they became truly “outta mind,” until I realized that I had nearly a year’s worth of magazines squirreled away amidst the linens.
Just recently, I read the May issue…and with great interest, as it had a feature by Lillian Chou, who reconnected with her roots one stir-fried dish at a time in Beijing. I love Chinese food and learning to cook it well is another thing on my food-focused bucket list. Although my mother is ethnically Chinese, she and her family have hailed from Indonesia for generations, so growing up, she cooked gado gado (more on that dish here from Pepy of Indonesia-Eats) and nasi goreng (fried rice), not Chinese stir fries.
“A good wok is the foundation of good cooking: stir-frying is said to activate food with the wok’s energy.”–Lillian Chou, “A Stir-Fry Education,” Saveur
Reading about the women Lillian visited, cooking in simple kitchens often outfitted only with a blackened, seasoned wok; a wood-fired or gas stove; and a cutting board with a sharp cleaver, I was mesmerized. Taking in the descriptions of these women’s uncompromising focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients, impeccable knife skills yielding perfectly uniform, 1/8-inch thick strips of meats and veggies that will cook evenly and quickly, and elegantly efficient moves in their kitchens, and then seeing the step-by-step recipes for four simple stir-fries, I knew I had to try them myself.
I’ve tried three of the four, and the stir-fried tomato and eggs dish has become a staple in our home. When I made it earlier this week, I was thrilled that I got to use one of the jars of tomatoes I put up when they were at their flavor peak in September (see more about my 30-pounds-of-tomatoes extravaganza here), and that I could snip shallot greens from our new garden to garnish the stir-fry instead of having to buy green onions or chives.
Below are links to the recipes and my notes on them. For the original Saveur article, click here.
STIR-FRIED TOMATO AND EGGS – Recipe here
My Notes on the Recipe
1 — Trust the recipe when it tells you to heat the wok until it’s smoking. You need the heat to prevent the food, especially eggs and meat, from sticking to the wok.
2 — Because I used canned tomatoes that had been peeled, you can see from the photo above that my dish turned out soupier than the one on Saveur’s website. It’s still delicious. Since it’s nearly winter, I’m guessing you’ll use canned tomatoes too — I think it’s better to use tomatoes canned at their flavor peak than mushy, tasteless ones flown in from South America.
STIR-FRIED MUSHROOMS AND BOK CHOY – Recipe here
My Notes on the Recipe
1 — One of my favorite dishes at Charles Phan’s Out The Door is this one — even though it’s a Vietnamese, not a Chinese, restaurant, I always envied the technique with which the veggies were cooked. Every time, the bok choy would be crisp-tender, the mushrooms pleasantly chewy, and the entire thing melded together with fresh flavors. After trying this recipe, I’m pleased that I can now make this at home!
2 — I used fresh rather than dried shiitake mushrooms. I accidentally stir-fried them 3-4 minutes versus 2, but it was a lucky mistake: they browned deeply and became nearly crisp (think: skinny mushroom fries). Yum.
3 — It’s surprising how so few flavorings can yield such a tasty dish. I think the key is buying very fresh mushrooms and bok choy.
STIR-FRIED PORK WITH LEEKS – Recipe here
My Notes on the Recipe
1 — I used regular, rather than dark, soy sauce, and while my version didn’t turn out as deeply-hued as the one on Saveur’s site and likely would not be called authentic by the Beijing ladies featured in the article, my husband and I still enjoyed it.
2 — I also didn’t belabor the pork slicing. Instead of 2-inch by 1/8-inch strips, mine were probably more like 2 inches by 1/4 inch. I cooked the pork about 4 minutes instead of 2, and it turned out great.
History and Nutritional Info
Bok choy: This member of the Chinese cabbage family has been cultivated in China for 6,000 years. A 1-cup serving of shredded bok choy has only 10 calories and is a significant source of vitamins A and C, folate, and calcium.
Leeks: Leeks have been cultivated since the time of the ancient Egyptians. Romans thought leeks would improve your singing voice; Emperor Nero was nicknamed Porrophagus (leek eater). Leeks are an excellent source of vitamin C, folate, vitamin B6, iron, fiber, and antioxidants that enhance cardiovascular health.
When in Season and How to Select, Store, & Prepare
Bok choy: In S.F., in season year-round. Select bok choy that have bright, fresh green leaves with no brown spots or wilting. Store bok choy in a plastic bag in your refrigerator for up to one week.
Leeks: In S.F., in season year-round. Select leeks that are firm, straight, and less then 1 1/2 inches in diameter (bigger ones are more fibrous), with dark green leaves, white necks, and no yellowing, wilting, cracks, or bruises. Store fresh leeks unwashed and untrimmed, wrapped loosely in a plastic bag to retain moisture, in your fridge, for one to two weeks. When preparing leeks, remove tough outer leaves, cut off the root, and slice leeks in half lengthwise. Fan out the leeks and hold them under running water to wash out all of the dirt (often, dirt will be hiding inside the leeks’ layers and folds). Most recipes call for the white and light green portion only and tell you to discard the dark green tops. I trim off the very top bit, then slice the dark green portion very thinly and use in stir fries, or I use the dark green parts for stock.
How to Grow Your Own*
I haven’t grown my own bok choy or leeks, but I am going to try planting leeks early next year (if it ever stops raining). I’ve read that bok choy is a bit trickier, since it attracts slugs and snails in hordes, which take up residence in our backyard as if they own the place. So I’ll probably rely on my friendly farmers’ markets for our bok choy needs, at least this coming year.
How & when to plant leeks: Sow seeds outdoors (in S.F.) January through March. Direct-seed 1/2 inch deep and 1/2 inch apart, then thin seedlings to 3-6 inches apart. You can also plant purchased seedlings to get a head start.
How & when to harvest: Pull up baby leeks whenever you need them. For mature leeks, dig them when they are at least one inch in diameter, usually in September. Harvest as needed throughout winter but finish picking by March or they’ll go to seed.
*Adapted from Golden Gate Gardening by Pam Pierce, p. 230
December 13, 2010 § 12 Comments
“Why should we all use our creative power…? Because there is nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold, and compassionate…” –Brenda Ueland
There’s something special about receiving a homemade gift for the holidays. It feels personal, in that good way. The gift itself, and the story that hopefully accompanies it, tell you something about the person giving it to you: his talent for baking, his family’s dedication to making the best limoncello, her thoughtfulness in remembering how much you love the smell of fresh pine when she hands you her home-made wreath.
I’d like to think that the joyful, alive energy that imbues people as they create that gift for you also gets passed from giver to receiver.
We all have a creative side. Perhaps, for example, you can (or want to) produce scrumptious candy, capture arresting photographs, craft creamy goat cheese, fashion delicate jewelry, cultivate Christmas cactus, or make the best, unexpectedly spiced popcorn anyone’s ever had.
Whatever your creative power (whether it’s something you’ve done all your life, you’ve just begun, or you’re interested in starting), is there a way for you to use it this month to give someone a distinctive gift and a tale about yourself?
By giving something homemade, you may also give yourself a gift: moments where, in flexing your creativity, you feel generous, joyful, lively, bold, and compassionate.
To inspire you, following are:
1 — A starting list of food- and garden-focused homemade gifts that we’ve received or given over the years
2 — An easy yet elegant molasses almond toffee recipe that you can make and bring to a holiday party or make a double batch of and wrap in shiny boxes or crinkly cellophane bags tied with shimmery ribbon to give away
Starting List of Food- and Gardening-Focused Homemade Gift Ideas
- Chocolates (toffee, truffles, peppermint bark…)
- Limoncello made with lemons from your backyard
- Preserved or pickled produce from your garden
- Tennessee Christmas cookie recipe accompanied by homemade cookie mix and a bottle of bourbon, from a Volunteer State native (just received this on Sunday; cannot wait to make these and eat ‘em with bourbon!)
- Orchids you raised
- Sausages made with your old family recipe
MOLASSES ALMOND TOFFEE
adapted from the Tartine cookbook recipe
Yields: Approximately 1.5 pounds
Total Time: 45-60 minutes active plus time for toffee to harden
Planning Notes: When cooking, I like prepping as I go to save time. With candy-making, however, I recommend reading the recipe all the way through and measuring all ingredients beforehand because you need to work quickly once the sugar starts cooking. When cooking sugar, keep a small bowl of ice water nearby in case you burn yourself. I’d also get a candy/oil thermometer for this recipe.
2 cups almonds (you can do all of them sliced or 50/50 chopped/sliced)
1 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup golden brown sugar
3 tablespoons water
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 teaspoon blackstrap or other dark molasses (molasses has a slightly burnt, sour flavor; if you don’t like that taste, you can probably use corn syrup or rice syrup instead, though I haven’t tested the recipe with those)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into 1/4 or 1/2 inch pieces (I like 70%, but you can use a less bitter chocolate if you like your toffee sweeter)
1 — Line 13-by-18-inch baking sheet or pan with parchment paper or nonstick liner. Spread half of almonds over the bottom of the prepared pan (if you’re doing 50% chopped almonds, use the chopped ones here).
2 — Clip candy/oil thermometer onto a 2-quart, heavy saucepan, ensuring the tip is at least one inch above the bottom of the pan. Place butter in pan and melt over medium heat. (The size of the pan is important; you want it to be small enough in diameter so that the thermometer is submerged at least a couple of inches in the toffee mixture so you get an accurate reading.)
3 — As soon as butter is fully melted, add sugar and stir to combine fully. Then stir in water, molasses, and salt.
4 — Cook, stirring very occasionally, until the mixture registers 295 degrees Fahrenheit on a thermometer. This will take about 7-10 minutes, and the mixture will become a slightly dark caramel color (it’ll be darker than a regular caramel because of the molasses).
5 — Immediately remove from heat as soon as the thermometer registers 295. Stir in the vanilla and baking soda (the baking soda makes the toffee crunchy), ensuring the baking soda is thoroughly incorporated. Be careful; the soda will make the mixture bubble up.
6 — Pour the hot mixture evenly over the almonds in the prepared baking pan/sheet. Work quickly, as it’ll start to set up immediately. Use a lightly oiled rubber or metal spatula to spread out the toffee if necessary.
7 — When the toffee has cooled to the touch but is still warm, spread the chopped chocolate over it and let the toffee’s heat melt the chocolate. Smooth the chocolate with an offset spatula once it’s fully melted; you may need to spread bigger chunks to get them to melt.
8 — Sprinkle the remaining almonds over the top, pressing them gently into the chocolate with the open palm of your hand so they stick.
9 — Let cool and harden completely. Break into pieces. They’ll keep in an airtight container for several weeks, but don’t freeze.
Notes on the Recipe
- The original recipe calls for toasting the almonds in the oven at 325 degrees Fahrenheit for 7-10 minutes. I thought that toasted almonds, bittersweet chocolate, and the molasses combined to make a candy that was a tad too bitter, so I decided to reduce the bitterness by leaving the almonds untoasted.
- The original recipe also called for 1 3/4 cups of granulated sugar, but I like the mellower flavor of using some brown sugar.
- The first time I made this, I plopped the butter, sugar, water, molasses, and salt in the pot all at once (per the recipe). Because they started at all different temperatures, the sugar burned before the mixture reached 295 degrees Fahrenheit. Throwing out that batch was sad. That’s why I now melt the butter first, then mix in the sugar, then add the remaining stuff (thanks, candy-making-expert-mom-in-law, for that tip!).