Make It Snappy

“Gingerbread was brought to Europe in 992 by an Armenian monk named Gregory of Nicopolis. French priests began making it and it spread to other parts of Europe. It arrived in Sweden via Germany; Swedish nuns used it to ease indigestion. The town of Market Drayton, in Shropshire, UK became known for its gingerbread around 1600, and gingerbread became widely available in the 18th century.”

I kind of giggled when I saw that Swedish nuns used gingerbread to ease indigestion because back in Michigan, there is a very well-known local ginger ale that is used as a cure-all for stomach problems (as well as for basting Easter hams). It has long been known that ginger has medicinal properties and can be used to treat nausea, indigestion, seasickness, and diarrhea. When mixed with water, ginger can be helpful for preventing heat cramps, and it is used in innumerable folk remedies. Not to mention that it’s a staple in most Asian cuisine, as well as some Caribbean foods.

This past week, I was invited by a co-worker to a cookie swap/ugly Christmas sweater party. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of a cookie swap, party attendees bring cookies to eat and exchange, and everyone leaves with a variety of sweets. I was very glad to attend mostly so I could have the excuse to bake and eat cookies.  However, I was at a loss when I thought of what kind of cookies to make. Should I make something creative, like decorated sugar cut-outs? Something easy, like a drop cookie? Will I have time or energy to make cookies at all? What if someone brings the same thing as me? Luckily, the party had a Facebook invite, and everyone posted the kinds of cookies they were bringing, and I settled on my tried and true standard: a gingersnap.

I have used many gingersnap recipes before settling on my favorite, which is inspired by a recipe I found on The Savory Notebook. I altered it slightly partly on accident and partly on purpose. The original recipe calls for one stick of butter, and when I made the recipe for the first time, I accidentally used two. It didn’t seem to impact the cookie much at all, so I left it at two sticks. The original recipe also calls for 1/2 tsp. of cloves; I cut it down to 1/4 because I don’t like too much clove taste (and it is mighty strong). Lastly, the original calls for three ounces of crystallized ginger; I used four ounces just because I like using it.

Chewy Gingersnap Recipe

2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature

1 cup granulated sugar plus extra for rolling

1 egg

1/4 cup molasses

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground ginger

4 ounces crystallized ginger chunks, minced

Pam spray, to grease the cookie sheet

1. Preheat the oven to 375°. Sift flour, baking soda, salt, and spices together; set aside.

2. Cream butter and sugar together. Mix in molasses, then mix in egg.

3. Add dry ingredient mixture in batches, scraping down the batter. It will be fairly thick.

4. Stir in crystallized ginger.

Here’s where you have to make a decision: to chill or not to chill. These cookies are going to be rolled into balls and the dough may be a tad sticky. Putting it in the fridge for even 20 minutes will make your life much easier.

After chilling, form the dough into balls. As someone with more than the usual amount of OCD tendencies, I used a tablespoon spring-loaded scoop to portion it out. That way, all the cookies are exactly the same size, and it’s already somewhat ball-shaped once it comes out of the scoop so I didn’t have to get my hands too dirty.

Roll the dough balls in granulated sugar, then place them two inches apart on the greased cookie sheet. Bake in the oven for 8-10 minutes, and cool on wire rack. They will look slightly under-done and very dark, but that’s okay. When they cool, they will be very chewy. This recipe should make about four dozen cookies… at least it does when I use my tablespoon scoop.

The cookies were a big success at the party, and I even had a dozen or so to leave at home to eat later. They are so tasty and spicy, and it’s totally easy to eat a couple at a time. I make these a lot in the winter- for some reason, more so when my school district cancels class because of snow- and they really are the perfect holiday cookie.

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From Scratch, Part Two

And thus begins my second installation of From Scratch. Drool.

The SO and I don’t eat a lot of bread. Although I do love my carbs, I grew up not being a big bread eater. I did enjoy toast, but I didn’t really care for sandwiches. Despite my mom’s best efforts, we were a Wonder Bread family. You couldn’t pay me to eat wheat bread under any circumstances. But tastes change, and I embrace the multigrain breads with gusto. We try to get the least processed bread possible, and the Archer Farms Honey Whole Wheat bread from Target seems to suit our needs. It’s got a smooth texture, it’s pretty sturdy, and makes awesome toast. We’ve been out of bread since Monday, so I was inspired to make some bread from scratch. I found this recipe from Martha Stewart and halved it since I didn’t need two loaves, but kept the amount of honey the same and used Pam spray to grease the bowl and the loaf pan.

Pretty simple ingredients (that I all had on hand, interestingly enough): unbleached flour, whole wheat flour, wheat germ, salt, honey, yeast, and water.

Sift dry ingredients together.

Combine warm water (around 100-110°), honey, and yeast. Set in a warm spot for 10 minutes until it becomes foamy. If you’re using that packet of yeast that’s been sitting in your pantry for who-knows-how-long, it won’t foam and you’ll have to get a new one.

Once your water mixture is nice and foamy, make a well in your dry ingredients and pour in the water. I used a butter knife to incorporate everything together, then turned out the dough onto a heavily floured counter top. I kneaded by hand for about 10 minutes, adding flour whenever the dough became sticky. Follow the recipe’s instructions for rising and baking, and your bread will come out looking like this!

The crust was thick but chewy, and the insides were soft and had a nutty flavor. You really need a good serrated knife to cut it, but it made excellent toast with some Nutella on top. I can’t really slice it thin enough for a sandwich, but it’s good for breakfast. I joked with the SO that if I could make bread every week if I didn’t have to work, and it reminded me of a little poem I learned from a Laura Ingalls Wilder book about doing weekly chores.

“Wash on Monday, Iron on Tuesday, Mend on Wednesday, Churn on Thursday, Clean on Friday, Bake on Saturday, Rest on Sunday.”

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From Scratch

“Originally a sporting term, the phrase ‘from scratch’ means to start from the beginning without any preparation or advantage.”

I can’t count the number of times I’ve used the term ‘from scratch’ without really knowing where it came from. I’ve always known that in terms of cooking and baking, it means to cook without any kind of pre-made mix or concentrate and that stuff from scratch is always better- perhaps not easier to make, but whatever- than anything that comes prepared in a box. In my orgy of making things from scratch this Thanksgiving week, my SO finally asked where the saying comes from and I couldn’t tell him. The Phrase Finder had an excellent description of the saying’s origins. In basic terms, a “scratch” usually indicates the beginning of a sporting match of some kind; whether it’s cricket, boxing, or cycling, a line was drawn or scratched onto the ground to serve as a starting point. To start from scratch means that you started at the very beginning; someone with a handicap would start ahead of the line whereas someone without an advantage would start at the line. This makes sense in baking because boxed mixes do give you the benefit of pre-measured dry ingredients; add wet ingredients, pour into dish, and 35 minutes later: baked good-ness! Who can be bothered to take the extra ten minutes to measure flour, sugar, and things like that?

Other than the potato-leek soup I posted on Wednesday, I’ve made two truly from scratch recipes: pumpkin pie and honey wheat bread. My pie was the from-scratchiest pie you can get: I used my homemade pumpkin puree and I made my own pie crust. The only advantage in the pie was the use of my food processor. My bread was very from scratch as well: I kneaded the silly thing by hand for around ten minutes since I don’t have a stand mixer with a dough hook. The advantage with the bread was that I made my oven into a proofer to speed up the rising process: I put the oven on a warming cycle until it warmed up, turned it off, then put a shallow bowl of boiling water in the lower rack to increase the humidity inside. I’ll cover the bread in a post in the next day or so.

From-Scratchiest Pumpkin Pie

I wish I could take credit for the recipe, but it’s the Libby’s brand pumpkin pie recipe. But first, pie crust construction (recipe courtesy of Barefoot Contessa). My trusty but tiny food processor. I could only do half of the crust at one time which was not terribly convenient and resulted in one half being more wet than the other. I put the butter and shortening in the freezer to make them very, very cold and used ice cubes to chill my water. Every person I’ve ever seen make pie crust emphasizes keeping the dough super cold and I guess it has something to do with keeping the butter cold so it can make steam which results in a flakier crust… :shrugs:

After I chilled my dough for most of the day, I rolled it out and put it in my pie pan. I did have scraps but couldn’t bear the thought of throwing them away, so they’re in the freezer, waiting for the day until they can be useful. I put the pie pan back into the fridge after I put the crust in to keep it cold while I made the filling. You may have noticed that I rolled out the pie crust on my dining room table; that’s because my kitchen counters are made of tile and aren’t conducive to successful pie crust construction. I’d still be scraping pie crust dough out of the grout on my counter tops.

The recipe calls for a 15-ounce can of pumpkin puree, but my freezer package was 2 cups which would technically be 16 ounces, but whatever. I made sure the puree was completely thawed and room temperature, as well as getting my eggs to room temperature (Ina Garten insists on this and I think it’s important, too).

I mixed the pie filling in this old bowl that belonged to my future mother-in-law and was given to my SO when he moved into his college apartment. My mom had a set of them, a red one like this and a bigger orange one. I think the orange one cracked and I was sad, as if I’d lost a member of the family. This bowl is hanging in there, even though it does have a big chip on the rim.

The finished product. It may not have that deep orange-y color that is so characteristic to pumpkin pie, but that’s because my pumpkin puree was not as dark orange, either. The SO was very pleased with it; the only thing that he would change is that the texture was not as smooth as what he was used to. This again is explained by the pumpkin puree; since I don’t have a full-size food processor, I was unable to really get that fine puree consistency that I was looking for. Truth be told, this was the first pumpkin pie I had ever tasted. Ever. As you may know, I have issues with texture and pumpkin pie has a very distinctive custard-like texture that is somewhat unpalatable to those with texture sensitivities (you may laugh, but I’ve gagged from the texture of canned pears and thrown up at canned peaches). I did manage to eat a whole tiny piece of the pie and I do have to say it was very delicious, but I can understand what my SO meant by the texture being somewhat off; it was sort of stringy. He still liked it and is bent on eating the pie by himself.

I heard a Christmas commercial on the radio advertising cookies and other baked goods that help “make the holiday” and those cookies could be found at Walmart in the form of Pillsbury’s pre-made cookie mix, Tollhouse chocolate chips, and Crisco. Now, I enjoy cookies from a tube just like everyone else, but it sends a shiver up my spine to think that holiday cookies have now been dumbed down to pouring a dry cookie mix from a bag into a bowl, adding melted butter and an egg, and *presto* cookies! Everyone is happy as they enjoy their processed cookies in a cozy kitchen as snowflakes fall outside. Whatever happened to a mother teaching her daughter to make chocolate chip cookies from scratch? The finer points of pie crust are lost now that you can simply pick up a pre-made crust at the mega-mart on your way home, or- God forbid- you can just pick up an already-made pie from your mega-mart’s bakery. I know that not everybody has time to wait around for bread to rise, but if your daughter grows up thinking that chocolate chip cookies come from a stranger at the Walmart bakery… maybe you need to take a half day off from work and fix that.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving from the fierce Thanksgiving Lion!

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Vichyssoise

“Vichyssoise, named after the French town of Vichy (pronounced Vee-shee), is a thick soup made of pureed leeks, potatoes, onions, cream, and chicken stock.”

We are anxiously awaiting the arrival of a massive cold front here in SGPS. The high here was 80 degrees which, for the day before Thanksgiving, is absolutely ridiculous to me. I have celebrated Thanksgivings in northern Great Lakes State with feet of snow on the ground and we would drag our Christmas tree home that weekend. The cold front still has not arrived, but I made my soup anyway. I had a leek leftover from a casserole I made two weeks ago and didn’t want it to go to waste, so I did some research on potato-leek soup.

Potato-leek soup is also called vichyssoise and is traditionally served cold. Even though it has a French-sounding name, a chef at the Ritz-Carlton in NYC is credited with its creation. I have only had one chilled soup before in my life- a gazpacho at a wedding in San Diego that was divine- and I figured today was not going to be the day for a cold soup. After researching, I decided that instead of using someone else’s recipe, I wanted to try my hand at recipe writing. This is what I came up with.

Agatha’s Potato-Leek Soup

Three slices center cut bacon, diced                                                                                                     One pat unsalted butter                                                                                                                     One leek, white and pale green parts only, cleaned                                                                    One russet potato, peeled and diced small                                                                                          One small shallot, minced
One garlic clove, minced                                                                                                                  One cup chicken broth                                                                                                                     Two cups half and half, warmed                                                                                                          Salt and Pepper                                                                                                                                     Dash Tabasco sauce

1. Heat a medium pot over medium and add bacon. Cook until brown and drain on paper towels, leaving the drippings in the pot.

2. Melt the butter in with the bacon drippings. Adds the leek, shallot, and garlic and saute over medium heat until soft and they begin to brown.

3. Add potato, chicken stock, and half and half. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium low and simmer until potatoes are soft and begin to break down. While the soup simmers, set a fine sieve on top of a large bowl.

4. Once the potatoes are softened, take soup off heat. Transfer soup, ladle by ladle, to the sieve. Using your stirring spoon or a rubber spatula, press the potato/leek mixture through the sieve. The liquid will drain on its own, and there will be some of the mixture that will not make it through the sieve. There will be potato sticking to the outside of the sieve, so make sure you scrape that off.

5. When the soup mixture has been pressed through the sieve, return the liquid mixture to the pot to simmer on the stove until you are ready to eat it. Season it with salt and pepper to your taste, and add a dash of Tabasco. Serve it hot with a little olive oil and the cooked bacon on top.

This was a really, really delicious soup. After the first two mouthfuls, I had to get up and get a bigger spoon because I was shoveling it in so fast. Unfortunately, the cold front had not come through by dinner time, but I was okay with being a little warm.

Step four was kind of hard to do by hand. I know that people will use food mills instead of pressing it through a sieve by hand or use an immersion blender to just puree it all together, and those are two kitchen gadgets that I am currently coveting (a food processor above those two, of course). Some recipes I read did not have a puree step, but I really liked the smooth texture of the soup once I put it through the sieve. Martha Stewart even had a recipe that used already mashed potatoes instead of uncooked diced potatoes, and that seemed really convenient. Looking back on it, I would have definitely made more bacon and made it more of an essential ingredient instead of a garnish, but bacon is not a traditional vichyssoise ingredient. The SO really liked the soup, so I guess that’s all that matters!

This will be the first of quite a few Thanksgiving entries as I have the extra time to cook and I imagine this weekend will be an orgy of cooking and blogging. I am pretty tired since I made a pumpkin pie (which I will feature) and the soup today, but I’d rather cook than do nothing!

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Leavening Agent

“A leavening agent is any one of a number of substances used in doughs or batters that causes a foaming action which lightens the finished product.”

There are three main types of leavening agents: biological, chemical, and mechanical. Biological agents, which include beer, buttermilk, and yeast (which all contain some kind of bacteria), work by releasing carbon dioxide as a part of the bacteria’s life cycle. Chemical agents such as baking powder and baking soda work by releasing a gas- usually carbon dioxide- when they interact with moisture and heat. Mechanical methods, such as creaming butter and sugar together or whisking eggs whites, introduce tiny air bubbles through mechanical force.

Today, I made my first recipe using my homemade pumpkin puree. I wanted to make a pumpkin spice cake for my work’s faculty Thanksgiving lunch, but I had to miss it because I had to go to a training where I learned how to properly restrain Autistic children. Of course, I had to make the cake anyway so I decided to make it tonight so we could enjoy its wonderful spiciness for the week leading to Thanksgiving. I got the recipe from Country Living through some simple Googling. I was really hoping to find a recipe that used molasses, but whatever. This recipe was really similar to the pumpkin muffin recipe I used a while ago except it used butter instead of oil, it has more eggs, and I used a hand mixer for the cake.

Which leads me to a digression: I have always loved KitchenAid mixers. My mom had a dark blue one when I was growing up, and I was always amazed at what the machine could do. Double batches of cookies, bread dough, whipped cream, shredded cheese, hash browns, ground meat- the last three with the help of its handy attachments- this mixer could do anything. When I was a kid, they only came in a few standard kitchen colors, but now they come in over a dozen colors, and I could have one in each so I could rotate them seasonally. Unfortunately, these kitchen wonders retail for about a third of my monthly salary, so I’ve had to make do with my hand mixer my mom got me for Christmas about three years ago. Now don’t think I’m knocking my hand mixer; it has served me well and definitely proved to be better than your average Walmart hand mixer. But there’s something to be said about not having a tired arm by the time you’re done with a recipe and someday soon, I’m going to burn out its poor motor by making something intended to be made with a food processor.

Anyway. Back to the subject.

Overall, this recipe was pretty solid, but there are two things I would change about it. Firstly, it’s poorly written. Usually, dry ingredients are listed at the beginning and wet ingredients are listed in a group afterward, but this recipe did not follow that pattern. This lead to my confusion about the amount of baking soda and baking powder, which are both leavening agents (see what I did there?). I put in two teaspoons of baking soda and one teaspoon of baking powder, instead of the other way around. I know that if you screw up the amounts of leavening agents, it can really screw with your final product. Too much baking soda in cookies results in thin, spread-out, crispy cookies that taste a little off; incorrect amounts of leavening in cakes can make it over inflate or not rise properly or just ruin your cake in general. I do think my cake fell a little once it set, but it wasn’t too bad.

Secondly, I added some additional spices. The recipe only calls for cinnamon and nutmeg, and most pumpkin-related recipes will have those two in addition to ground ginger and cloves. Cloves are mighty powerful, so you only need 1/4 to 1/8 teaspoon depending on the size of your recipe, and I put in a 1/2 teaspoon of ginger. Luckily, I have whole nutmegs on hand- which you should get if you’re ever able- and grating a 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg is hard work, especially if you’re holding the last nub of a nutmeg.

The cake turned out wonderfully, and I regret the fact that my camera is out of juice. I served it with cream cheese frosting, and the SO mistook it for carrot cake. I have to keep it in the fridge because of the frosting, but it is delicious. It’s definitely something worth serving to friends and not having on hand to eat by yourself!

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Polenta and Red Sauce

“Polenta is an Italian dish made from boiled cornmeal. A peasant dish, it can be made from any type of flour depending on region. When boiled, polenta has a creamy consistency because of the gelatinization of its starches.”

I learned something interesting about corn at the expense of the SO’s brother-in-law over the summer. BIL is from Treviso, Italy, which is north of Venice. He came to America last year to marry my SO’s sister, and now lives in America with her. Over dinner one day this past summer, we had corn on the cob which is one of BIL’s favorite things to eat in the entire world. I do have to say myself that sweet corn from Great Lakes State is particularly delicious. Anyway, the SO’s dad called BIL a porco, which is an Italian slang term for a pig. Apparently, corn is only raised in large amounts to feed pigs. Unlike the United States, corn is not a staple of Italian diets and it is common to poke fun at people who like to eat it, thus the reason why the BIL was called a pig.

I love corn. It was my favorite vegetable growing up, and just about the only frozen vegetable that I would eat. My mom always told me- and rightly so- that corn isn’t really a proper vegetable because of its starch content. I had never tried polenta before I met the SO, and it wasn’t really a staple of his diet, either. It’s a fairly easy dish to make and can be served in any number of ways that make it totally awesome. You might have seen tubes of prepared polenta in stores where you can just slice it and fry it in a pan or grill it. Most people will prepare the polenta then pour it into a baking sheet and allow it to cool; the polenta will form a sheet and you can cut slices from it. I have done this and the SO prefers his polenta this way, but I prefer mine creamy (like grits) with some red sauce and lots of cheese. Today was an especially blustery day here in SGPS, so I figured polenta with red sauce would be a perfect dish.

Recipe for Polenta

  • 1 cup polenta or finely-ground cornmeal (NOT instant polenta)

I was finally able to finish off my package of polenta from Forward Foods, a local shop in downtown College Town that sells organic cheeses, groceries, and coffee.

  • 4-5 cups water
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp butter

Bring 3 cups of water and salt to a boil in a large pot. Using a whisk, slowly pour the polenta into the water. Continue to whisk for about 2-3 minutes and turn the heat down to between medium low and low. It is very important to whisk like your life depends on it in this first stage. Whisking quickly improves the texture of the polenta and the more you whisk, the better it gets.

Continuously monitor the polenta; if it begins to bubble like a volcano, take it off the heat until it cools down. I will tell you now: polenta will boil and sticks to everything, and burns like magma. It takes about 30-40 minutes for the polenta to finish. Constantly stir it with your whisk and add water, a half cup at a time, if it becomes too dry. Once it starts to pull away from the side of your pot, it’s done. Add your butter, and you can decide what to do with it from there. I just serve it creamy, but here’s where you would put it into a buttered dish to cool if you want to cut it into slices.

I began my red sauce before my polenta. I started by oven roasting the tomatoes first; the middle of November is when tomatoes begin to resemble cardboard in taste because they are no longer in season. Roasting the tomatoes helps to condense their flavor and results in a much better sauce. I sliced the stem end off the tomato and took the seeds out with a metal spoon. Once I strained out the seeds over the sink, the extras became compost fodder. The tomatoes were sliced in half, placed on a rimmed baking sheet, and drizzled with olive oil. I sprinkled them with salt and pepper, and, according to a Martha Stewart recipe that the SO found, put them in a preheated 425 oven.

Normally, I have nothing but praises for Martha and regard her as the go-to expert for everything domestic. However, seven minutes into cooking time, the SO asked me about a random hissing noise coming from the kitchen. I went to investigate, and the hissing noise was the sound of the olive oil as it splattered onto the heating element in my oven. The oven itself was filling with smoke- the smell of burning olive oil is the worst- and I had to open the back door to air out the kitchen. I’m not sure if it was the cooking temperature or the amount of oil I used, but if I hadn’t listened to the SO, my tomatoes would has scorched and caught on fire. I took the tomatoes off the cookie sheet and drained the remaining oil off it, then put the tomatoes back in the oven at 350. I kept them in there for about 30 minutes until they began to brown and were totally soft.

Making tomato sauce is about the only good thing my blender does. I put the tomatoes in the blender with about 250 mL of Dadi broth and half of can of tomato paste and hit the puree button.

After the tomatoes were nice and puree-y, I began my usual routine of straining out any chunks. I have a big issue with texture and I can’t stand any kind of chunk or seed in my tomato sauce. Once I take out the seeds and strain the tomato puree through a sieve, the tomatoes are usually rendered into a kind of tomato water. In the last six months or so, I’ve been trying really hard to expand my acceptance of different textures and chunks of tomatoes has been on my list. Sooo… I ended up ditching the sieve and put my sauce straight into a pot to simmer with garlic and onion powders, oregano, basil, rosemary, salt, and pepper.

My sauce and polenta simmered at the same time and were done at approximately the same time. I spooned up some polenta into a deep bowl, topped it with mozzarella, put sauce on top of that, and then topped it all with freshly grated Parmesan. The polenta was on the super creamy side, and once it all mixed together, it resembled a really thick soup. It was just the heartiest, most appropriate dish to eat on a cold, blustery day.

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