Sunday, September 25, 2011

It's got Raisins in it. You like Raisins: Pork Cake

My friend Stella is on a historical kick at the moment. She's been exploring old cookbooks, posting crazy recipes and lore and shared this little tidbit from De Witt's Connecticut cookbook and housekeeper's assistant.(1871):

A little four line bit that contained all the ingredients, directions, processes and proclamations regarding this dessert. Yep, dessert. Yep, with pork. I imagined, on reading the recipe, that it would be something like a cross between mincemeat and barbeque. In keeping with the time, it was likely to be heavy, and primarily flavored, well, like cloves and raisins. So why in the world did I make it? Because Stella is allergic to pork, and there it was, a cake made with pork. I had to know.

When you think about it, we make cakes with eggs and butter and don't give it a thought. Eggs provide protein and structure, butter is lovely lovely fat. But really, couldn't both those things be replaced? Well, there's protein & fat in ground pork so that should work. As for structure, well, this was never going to be angel food.

I did have a concern (many, actually) about the pork. Pork as we know it is a lean meat, bred that way because of crazed calorie conscious consumers in the 80s who demanded more fat be removed during trimming and less fat present in the meat itself. Well, my only fat in this cake would be from my pork. Luckily, my farmer's market has a couple of terrific meat producers. They understand fat, and why it is good. They smile at me when I ask for fatty things. I got to hear all about boar hybrids and proper diets and was presented with more ground pork than I needed which is good because I really want to just eat the pork, sans cake. Mmmmm pork.

And so, armed with scale and scoop, I made the cake. Easy mixing, one big bowl. I did a half batch, because I don't commit to seven cups of flour unless I know what I'm getting in to. The batter was thick enough going in to the oven that a toothpick came out clean *before* I started baking it, so I relied on instinct for doneness and in that slow oven doneness happened at about the hour and a half mark. After baking, the half batch weighed 3 pounds, 2 ounces. Sheesh.

So..... how was it?

Now, I'm inclined to think well of spice cakes in general. I love a good spice cake, gingerbread is one of my all time favorites. Yes, there was a bit of a meaty aroma while this was baking but it wafted away after coming out of the oven. It was dense, like a good hearty meatloaf, but the flavor was... not bad. There were raisins and cloves and molasses and it was pretty good. However, it felt like it had developed its own gravity field and it was only a matter of time before spaghettification began. But it was certainly palatable. I did find another pork cake recipe, this one from about 50 years later that used eggs and baking soda, but at that point I would say skip the pork, and just go for a good gingerbread recipe.

But hey, now I know.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Let's Try Science! Antler Cookies part 2

Cookies were an easy choice for my experimentation. I like cookies, I have many basic cookie recipes that are only leavened with baking powder, and from what I understood about the science of how this worked, the results had a good chance of being edible. Edible was important, because I was going to eat these things no matter what.

It has been said that I get caught up, sometimes, in details. I don't think this is a bad thing, mostly. And, of course, this kind of project just feeds that repressed scientist in me. The plan was I would make a basic sugar cookie, one batch of which would be leavened with baking powder, the other with an equal measure of powdered antler.

"But," said Crazy Brain Me, "you know that differences in mixing time, ingredient temperature, baking temperature all those things will make a difference!"

"Shut up, Crazy Brain Me! I'm just making cookies to see if this works." I said.

"Yes, but you want to *really* know, right? You don't want to just maybe have it work because of something else, right?"

Sigh. Crazy Brain Me was right. So I just made one batch all in the bowl but the leavening and mixed it until almost combined. Then, I pulled the mix out, scaled it, divided the dough in half, and mixed half with the baking powder and half with the antler powder. The dough logs rested for an hour, and then were baked. Of course, Crazy Brain Me kept coming up with new and exciting variables, but dammit, I don't have two ovens and they would have different hot spots so Crazy Brain me could just shut up.

In case you are curious, yes, there was a definite stink while the antler cookies were baking. Not painful or oh-god-fumigate levels, but enough to avert my nose when opening the oven door.

There were definite, obvious differences between the cookies even right from the oven. The Antler cookies (labelled A because I am not clever) were more colored, and crisper. The Baking powder cookies (B, same reason) had a softer texture, and very little color in the same amount of time. And as for taste, well, I had to subject other people to these cookies, so I took them to see friends at the farmer's market*.

The tasting came down to this: if you like crispy cookies with a more pronounced salt note, you liked the antler cookies. If you wanted a creamier, sweeter cookie, you liked the baking powder ones. Me, I am a crispy cookie girl all the way so I have to say, yep, I am totally going to make antler cookies again. And antler biscotti. And probably a savory antler cracker.

Antler Cookies:

8 oz cool butter, cut in chunks
.5 c sugar
2 egg yolks, save the whites for brushing the dough later
.5 t vanilla extract
.25 t lemon zest
1 t lemon juice
.5 t grated antler powder
.5 t salt
2.25 c all purpose flour
raw sugar

1. Cream together butter and sugar in a stand mixer with a paddle until smooth
2. Add yolks, lemon zest and juice, and vanilla, mix on low speed and scrape bowl.
3. Add dry ingredients and mix on low speed until just combined.
4. Divide dough in 4 and roll into logs. Wrap logs in plastic wrap and chill for at least 1 hour.
5. Preheat oven to 350. Brush each log lightly with egg whites and press raw sugar around the log. Slice into cookies about a quarter inch thick or less, and place on a parchment lined cookie sheet.
6. Bake 10-12 minutes or until light golden brown, rotating the sheet pan once. Cool completely on a rack. Share. Eat. Marvel at your apocalypse preparedness.

*an interesting note: a debate sprung up on whether or not these cookies could be considered vegetarian, as the antlers were naturally shed and therefore there was no animal trauma involved. I went the safe route and asked folks before offering cookies. If you have an opinion, I'd love to hear it.

Let's Try Science! Antler Cookies part 1

I sat in my living room, looking at a piece of naturally shed antler from Bend, OR, a box grater, and a tiny pile of shavings that were the result of almost an hour and a half's worth of labor.

This... was going to be interesting.

Cooks get excited about weird things. If it is stinky, obscure, odd and edible, chances are a cook wants to do something with it. So, there was a sense of inevitability in my soul when I first heard about antlers being an early method of leavening baked goods. "I! Have! To! Do! This!" The synapses declared it, and there but for the grace of St. Honore go I. Or something like that.

First: acquisition. Luckily the internet makes conversation between strangers possible, so Ron Zimmerman was not simply helpful, but also supportive of my internet stalking/agenda. A hunter, eBay, antique store... the age didn't matter, he stated. OK! I explained the situation to basically everyone I met. My neighbors casually made my day, "Oh yeah, "they said, "we sell them as dog treats at the pet store. " Genius!

Second: preparation. Um, dudes, bones is hard. Antlers are hard. I looked at the antler piece. The cats sniffed it. I consulted awesome people. Microplane, maybe? Well, kind of, and the result was very fine but miniscule amounts and the microplane needed an edge to work from. Well why not the stubbly, sharp, knuckle destroying side of a box grater. Aw, yeah... Still slow going, but the result was a powder finer than I had expected, certainly finer than my salt.

Yes, I thought to myself, I can work with that.

Now I just need to bake. And what should I bake? Cookies, of course...

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

After the zombie apocalypse, there will still be cake

Best thing I have heard recently that I now have to try: before there was baking powder, there was deer horn. That's right, antlers, ground fine, can be used as a leavener in the same ratio as you would use baking powder. Similarly to baker's ammonia, it is stinky on baking, but the smell disappears when cool. And, bonus, like baker's ammonia it actually results in a better texture.

Now who's got an antler they can send me?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Grasping at Straws

This has not been the best summer. I admit it, I've been struggling to put a good face on things but when you find yourself listening to Queen's Innuendo for motivation you aren't in the best place.

You need a Shirley Temple.

Ok, maybe you don't, but I do. I don't know what it is about this drink that wraps me up in footie pajamas and says, "It's ok, you can have fun now.", but it never fails to make me feel better about the world. Of course, as a grown up I can play with it in ways that wouldn't have been suitable when I was eight. Also, as a grown up, I can decide how many cherries it gets. This may be the best part, especially when you use cherries you have done up yourself. Or, if you have had a really bad set of weeks, you can do something like what I did. You can get really crazy and take someone else's inspiration and really customize your drink. Like, for example, making a cherry cheesecake shirley temple float.

Put rum cherries in the bottom of your glass(about a dozen, depending on how your day was.) Top with rum from the cherries, and some cherry syrup. Add cheesecake ice cream. If you think cheesecake tastes like ick, you can use vanilla or almond ice cream. Pour ginger ale over the top. You may need another cherry. Or more rum.

And footie pajamas.

Cherry Syrup

750 g of cherries, pitted (I used Ayers Creek's amazing montmorency cherries)
150 g sugar
50 g water
a dash of bitters
a squeeze of lime juice
a pinch of salt

Put everything together in a pot and bring to a gentle boil. Boil for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Strain through a fine strainer into a bowl pressing all of the syrup out of the fruit. The syrup will thicken slightly when cool, but you can reduce the strained syrup to intensify its flavor and thicken it if you want (you risk scorching it, so use caution!). Cool and store in a covered container in the fridge. I have no idea how long it will keep because I use it too quickly.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Ideas worth borrowing

I was going to do a big ol' thing about lavender this morning but then I left a burner on and now I have to deal with a house full of smoke. So, here's some things that have inspired me lately from other people:

4. chicken skin crusted pot pie (yes, you read that right)
7. lime cordial (seriously, I've made many batches of this stuff now. love it.)
9. eggs in a corn silk nest ( I know, it's Ideas in Food again, but how lovely is this?)

Ok, the smoke appears to be clearing. More news as it happens.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

18th century brain in a 21st century head

Inspiration is surprising. It involves something like a jolt, an invisible hammer smacking you between the eyes and you had better make sure you don't blink or you may miss it. At least that's how it works for me. And let me tell you, I love being inspired. I love the a-ha, the whoa, the holy crap, even the sound of everyone in the room smacking themselves on the forehead and saying something like, "Duh!" The moment of revelation.

Maybe that's why I'm a sucker for even bad police procedurals and still get all antsy when watching the end of Star Wars.

If I had to shove a label on myself, I'm kind of a stickler. I like making lists, checking statistics. I like having a correct procedure to follow. I tend to lean to the traditional, will absolutely look stuff up in the middle of arguments to see who is correct. Yeppers, one of those. I even still put two spaces in after the period (although I have progressed past the indented new paragraph.) When I decided to go to school for cooking, I went to a pastry school, and not just any pastry school, a French one. The correct way, indeed.

The thing is, having a correct way can be limiting. While it gives a necessary backbone for our skills, it also can provide restriction against the creative, the innovative. I can make a damn good croissant. I've been doing it for years now, regularly critique my own work against my own high standards. I also go out of my way in my free time to compare the work of others. What are they doing differently than me? How can I improve my own technique within the realm of the correct procedure? And always, the beacon is the plain butter croissant. Like those pizza lovers who truly want to appreciate a pizza and therefore always order a plain pie, I look to the basic as the standard bearer. Maybe you make newfangled stuff, but if you can't do the real thing who needs you, right? Right?

What happens when you find someone who can shoot your basic technique the hell out of the water at a significant distance who is also choosing to ignore that in favor of the new, the different, the (dare I say it) incorrect? Can you be so arrogant as to be dismissive simply because it is not the done thing? Or do you see the hammer coming and don't blink?

Today I took croissant dough and stuffed it with kimchi and cheese. It was fun. And tasted amazing. Hell, yeah.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Putting myself out there

There is a comfort in working for someone else. The power goes out, and I just take care of what I know I need to, and call the Powers That Be. The Powers That Be handle the bills, the payroll, the order that didn't get placed and we need right now, screaming children, screaming adults. You know, all the fun stuff. But it also means that I am, basically, anonymous. The work I do is rightfully attributed to the place where I work. Unless someone recognizes me (it took the guy who runs the farmer's market, a regular customer, two years to make the connection) or I volunteer the information then I could be anybody or nobody. Now, I am not the kind of person to take advantage of that and slack off. This industry is way too small and I have too much respect for myself and those who I work with to not want to produce consistently great stuff. If I do make an error I am more critical of myself and my work than even my bosses, even if the customers don't know the mistake was mine.

Still, sometimes I want the whole package. I want to be known for the work I do, to have that work recognized as mine. But that whole package is scary, and fraught with, well, other people. Other people are a chaos factor, an unknown variable. One of the things I love about pastry is the organization of it all, the ritualized predictability. If you cook sugar to this temperature, it is soft ball stage, this temperature is hard crack. People don't work that way. Joy, sorrow, allergy attacks, euphoria. Completely unpredictable.

And yet, if I want people to know my work (which I do) I have to get it out there to people. So I'm trying. Here and there, I've been offering things up. Gentle, timid sacrifices to the mob.

We'll see where it takes me.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

I just came for the appelflappen

If you spend some time looking up the finer details of Dutch cuisine (and I know you want to) you will find some discussion about the celebratory food of New Year's Eve. Alongside the oliebollen (oily balls! yummers!) you find a note about "apple folds"aka appelflappen, a short pastry filled with bits of apple not unlike a turnover.

That is not my appelflappen.

My appelflappen (I love the word so much, even if spell check doesn't.) is entirely a product of my experiences at the Big E, the Eastern States Exposition, the greatest fair anywhere ever. You can have your county fair. Your state fair, with its butter cows and demolition derbies or whatever? Not even close to the Big E. You see, the Big E wasn't just for my piddly little New England state. It was for all of them. Oh yeah! You could get maple sugar candy at the Vermont building, wait in line forever for the tiniest, most wonderful sample of wild blueberry ice cream at the Maine building. And standing proud among the fried doughs and turkey legs was the Appelflappen.

Appelflappen! A deep fried, beer battered apple ring served hot with powdered sugar. And if you were bold enough to suggest aloud that it was not simply a reason to go to the Big E but *the* reason to go to the Big E, a bell would ring, angels would chorus and you would get an extra piece.

You know I always got an extra piece.

Sadly, I hear there is no longer appelflappen at the Big E, and what I make at home, with its microbrewed beer and heirloom apples, could be construed as an elitist Portlandia version. Instead, I recognize it for what it is, a tribute to a very sweet taste memory.

Appelflappen, Big E style

The key here is getting a good baking apple, not one that cooks into sauce, but can stand up to the rigors of battering and frying. A tart apple is a nice contrast to the batter and powdered sugar.

2 c all purpose flour
1 egg
12 oz beer (I used a Pyramid Apricot Ale which was lovely, but any beer you'll drink will do)
a pinch of sugar
a pinch of salt
4 apples, peeled, cored and cut into rings
oil for frying
powdered sugar for dusting

1. Mix together flour, sugar, salt and the egg. Slowly add the beer while whisking to form a smooth batter

2. Heat the oil over medium heat until hot

3. Dip the apple rings in the batter and gently place in the hot oil

4. Fry the apple rings, turning over as necessary, until the rings are a lovely golden brown (how dark your batter will get will depend on the beer you use, use your best judgement).

5. Drain on paper towels, dust with powdered sugar, eat while still warm. Don't forget to give yourself the extra one.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Long Dark Apple Time of the Soul

Late January.

It's an odd thing. Sure, it's citrus season but citrus does so much better in the summer. I blame lemonade ads. There are nuts and chocolates, as always, but really, what we come to in the wonderful winter world of working seasonally is apples.

Not that it is apple season.

Oh yeah, that's right, all those apples were in season back in the late summer and fall and have been sitting in storage ever since. They aren't fresh. Our cabbages are fresher. But there they are, a dutiful standard until the rhubarb comes in. And the rhubarb is still a long way off.

I love apples, actively seek out interesting varieties and yet in late winter I too look at glorious apple pies and think, "Eh, ok. I don't need dessert today." And that is so wrong. Because apples are endlessly wonderful, useful, nutritious and far more interesting and challenging than any old berry. Best way to serve a berry? Straight up. How boring is that? But what is the best way to serve an apple?

In a pie? a cake? dipped in caramel? as a sauce? baked? fried? spread on toast? a tart? As chips? Dumplings? Juice? Cider? Layered with almond cake and served with toasted almond ice cream?

Straight up?