Friday, November 28, 2008

a little german chocolate to go with your thanksgiving

While the rest of, oh, the United States of America was baking pumpkin pies on Wednesday night, I was nervously embarking upon my very first German Chocolate Cake Baking Adventure. A very special family member of ours has a birthday that always falls on or around Thanksgiving. Therefore, she has to share her celebration with Turkey Day since all the family is already gathered here in Brooklyn. Or rather, Thanksgiving has to share with her. Regardless, we wanted to bake her a really special birthday treat to underline the fact that we're more thankful for her than for poultry or squash. It's the least we could do, right?
I used a recipe I found at David Lebovitz's luscious website, where I also learned that German Chocolate Cake isn't actually German. I know; who knew? It was invented by Baker's Chocolate to get people to buy their product, and I think it worked. I didn't follow the recipe exactly: As usual, Mary was the Greatest Girlfriend Ever and baked the cakes from a mix before I got home. And instead of the dark rum that Mary Jo Thoreson added to her syrup in the original recipe, I substituted about a teaspoon of vanilla for those in our group who don't like alcohol-infused desserts. 
Before you rush off to make this for your best friend and great uncle and favorite cat who just love German Chocolate Cake, I must tell you that this took me a long time to make, probably because I was so petrified of messing it up. For someone such as myself whose baking repertoire most frequently consists of drop cookies, this was a challenge. However, I have the assurance of all our Thanksgiving/Birthday guests that it was, indeed, worth it. Plus, despite my fears, there were no disasters.

The first exciting part was making the custard for the filling, something I've never done before. The smell and taste of the eggs as they thickened with the cream was velvety. Next I successfully cut the cakes in half(!). And finally there was the part where I found out how to properly assemble the pastry bag and tip and tried to make the frosting around the top somewhat pretty before it melted. 
Looking back on this experience, I think I would do it again. It was such fun to stumble and furrow my brow through each new step, and even more fun to hear the exclamations of the German Chocolate Cake-lovers who had previously only tasted the store-bought kind. Thanks to this cake, I'm now the proud, if somewhat confused, owner of a pastry bag, so I may have to try to hone my piping skills sometime soon. But for today, I'm thankful for chocolate-loving family and friends and for new adventures in baking.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Apples to Applesauce

One of the many things I get giddy about come fall is apples. Especially in the Northeast, small McIntosh apples come in season in late September, just forcing me to buy big bagfuls. I put them in my fridge and subsequently start putting apples in everything from lunch sacks to oatmeal to salads. Searching for things to do with the aforementioned plethora of apples now in my possession, I stumbled upon Shauna's applesauce-making instructions last weekend. She told me it would be easy, and I believed her, by gosh (she seems like a very trustworthy person). So I whipped up two servings of spice-kissed, chunky applesauce with which to top my Saturday morning oatmeal.

Chunky Applesauce-Serves 2
Adapted from Shauna James Ahern
Prep and cooking time: About 30 minutes, depending on how saucy you want your sauce

4 apples, peeled and sliced (I like to mix a couple sweet ones like  McIntosh and crispy ones like Jazz or Granny Smith)
1/2 cup water
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
Pinch of Nutmeg
Tiny nub of ginger, grated
Optional: brown sugar, honey or agave nectar on top

First, bring your water to a boil. Then throw in your spices and ginger. Now dump your apples in. I stirred it occasionally, because I have this fascination with stirring things, and I would recommend that you do, too. It will take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes to become sauce, depending on how firm your apples are and what consistency you want. I felt like a chunky applesauce, so I kept my apples more apple-ey and less saucy.

Now scoop out your applesauce into a bowl or on top of your oatmeal, squash soup or other fall treat. I really liked this applesauce with no sugar, but I sprinkled some brown sugar on top to stir into the oatmeal.



Sunday, November 16, 2008

A book, a cabbage, an adventure (Part II)

If you caught my post on October 26th, you'll know exactly what's been sitting in a veiled tub on top of my refrigerator for the past three weeks. The mysterious contents of my tub have been patient, biding their time and twiddling their thumbs until their day of glory finally arrives. Well ladies and gentlemen, that day has finally come.

This evening in a moment of culinary epic-ness , I pulled back the cheese cloth to unveil my very first homemade sauerkraut. It was purple. It was sour. It was tangy and flavorful. In short, it was everything I'd ever wanted from a three-week-old fermented cabbage. Perhaps you may find my enthusiasm misdirected. I am, after all, aiming it at a microbe-packed vegetable mash. But allow me tell to you just a few of the reasons that homemade sauerkraut is something to celebrate.

Reason #1: Homemade sauerkraut is culinary alchemy. You start with cabbage, salt, and your own two hands, and you end up with a zesty condiment/side dish that in no way resembles the vegetable from which it came. This, my friends, is what they call getting something for nothing.

Reason #2: Homemade sauerkraut is the embodiment of your individuality. I'm deadpan serious when I say that no two krauts are ever the same. From the vegetables you choose, to the spices you select, to the very microbes that call your kitchen home, there are myriad factors that ensure that each sauerkraut is unique and special. Have you been searching your soul for what makes you different from everyone else? Start by making a sauerkraut.

Reason #3: Homemade sauerkraut is tastier and cheaper than the store bought stuff. Plain and simple, folks.

Reason #4: Homemade sauerkraut makes you a cooler person. Picture this. You're at a swanky party chatting with two dapper gentlemen. After one casually mentions that he recently purchased an original Van Gough, the other notes that he just finished his latest batch of homemade sauerkraut. Yeah, I'd give the second guy my phone number too.

Reason #5: Homemade sauerkraut is one of the world's healthiest super-foods. The vast majority of store-bought sauerkraut has been pasteurized, meaning that all the beneficial live cultures have been killed. Your homemade kraut, on the other hand, is teaming with them. Fermented foods have long been hailed as exceptionally good for the body. When microbes break down the nutrients in a given food for you (as is the case with fermentation), the nutrients become more accessible during digestion. Even better, eating the microbes themselves in fermented foods helps to replace your own gastrointestinal flora, so that other foods are more easily digested as well. Sound unnecessarily medical? It's not. All this simply translates to fewer belly aches, more vitamins, and increased health and happiness.

Reason #6: Homemade sauerkraut isn't the end, but rather, it's just the beginning. Check out this quirky website to learn about the millions of recipes that call for a tasty homemade kraut. Of particular interest is the dessert section...

Happy Krauting!


Sunday, November 9, 2008

It's 6:30 am. Do you know where your breakfast is?

I've done something very...very... stupid. Last month I got myself a gym subscription (smart)...and I paid for the entire year in advance (very dumb). Sure, I got the 20% discount. They even waived my signing fee. But now, I inevitably find myself waking up every morning at 6:30 am and promptly engaging in a mental battle of epic proportions. Get out of bed and face the brutal early morning Chicago cold, or lay in bed for another hour cursing myself for wasting money? Decisions, decisions.

Luckily, I've stumbled upon a solution that helps make that daily battle just ever so slightly more resolvable. Did I say solution? I meant recipe...

After a few bouts of wild-eyed experimentation (which may or may not have resulted in pots of burnt seeds, trays of soggy oats, and pans with dried cranberries cemented to the bottom) I've finally developed the bar I've been waiting for. It's not too sweet, it's got both protein and fat, and it's just the right amount of food to eat before a painfully early work out. I do hate to brag, but my oh my aren't they tasty as well!

Adriana's Cranberry Coconut Granola Bars
makes 12 bars

1/4 cup coconut milk
1/4 cup raw honey
2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1/4 cup sunflower seeds
1/4 cup dried, sweetened cranberries
1/4 cup chopped raw almonds
1/4 cup shredded coconut
2 large eggs

Step 1:
Preheat your oven to 225 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 9in x 9in baking dish and set aside.

Step 2: In a large skillet over medium-low heat, stir together coconut milk and honey until melted and fully mixed together. Add oats and continue stirring until they are evenly coated. Continue cooking oats, stirring frequently to prevent burning, for another 5 minutes or until they begin to smell...more oaty? Anyhow, I think you'll know it when you smell it.

Step 3: Add all remaining ingredients except eggs and stir contents of pan until evenly mixed. Remove pan from heat and let sit for 5 minutes or so until the pan itself is no longer too hot to touch. Meanwhile lightly beat eggs in separate bowl. When the pan has cooled, pour beaten eggs into the mixture and stir until evenly coated. It's important that your pan cool before adding the eggs lest they cook before getting mixed in. I promise you, no one wants scrambled eggs in their granola bars.

Step 4: Dump mixture into the greased pan and use a spatula or your hands (my personal favorite cooking tool) to press the mixture into the mold. Press down as firmly as possible so that you get a nice, dense bar. This will keep it from crumbling and falling apart when it's cut into individual bars. Put pan in the oven and bake at 225 for roughly an hour. This amount of cooking will give you somewhat chewy bars. If you prefer crunchier granola bars, I would recommend removing them after an hour and cutting them apart before continuing to bake them for another 15 minutes.

Step 5: Remove from oven and carefully cut into bars or squares with a sharp knife. Allow to cool completely on a wire rack before wrapping them up individually and placing one near your gym clothes and keys.

Nutrition Note
One of these bars has 130 calories, 5 grams of protein, 5 grams of fat, 2 grams of fiber, and countless grams of tasty.

Rain and Renewal

Adriana's right. The past week has been a jubilant exclamation; news-wise. People danced in the streets (literally) in metropolitan centers worldwide on Tuesday, and the following days, cultural icons decried election disappointments. I've felt weepy with glee and chagrin for days, and that isn't even mentioning the fact that work deadlines chased me until 6:00 Friday night. When I woke up on Saturday morning to a forecast of all-day rain, I sighed. To me, rain signifies comfort. That damp earth-smell reminds me of Sunday afternoons cuddled on the couch beneath blankets, surrounded by books and steamy tea. It reminds me of intensive baking endeavors with Adriana and the way our families eagerly devoured our finished products. For me, rain is a big ol' excuse to unwind. And what better way to do that than to retreat to the kitchen to create something to nourish a tired body and brain? This weekend break I took to restore must have paid off, because I'm thoroughly proud of what I produced in the kitchen tonight.

Polenta With Wild Mushrooms and Chicken Leftovers-Serves 4
Prep and Cooking Time: 35 minutes

4 cups chicken or vegetable stock (preferably homemade or low sodium)
1 cup polenta (try to avoid the instant stuff if you can)
About 2 ounces wild mushrooms (or Shiitake, as I used)
1 Tb. olive oil
A few ounces of cooked chicken, shredded haphazardly
1/2 cup dry white wine or vermouth
Salt and pepper to taste
Parmesan or another hard cheese, for grating on top

Step 1: Boil your stock in a small soup pan, and pour in the polenta. Keep that boiling for 30 minutes, at least. Whisk it every once in a while, because otherwise it will stick to the bottom of the pan. Heidi recommends wearing an apron, as the polenta has a tendency to spit as it boils, which you'll find endearing until it burns you.

Step 2: Clean the dirt off your mushrooms with a paper towel or cloth, and remove any woody stems. Cut them into strips if they're big, or leave them as they are if they're little, like bite-sized morels. 

Step 3: After the polenta has been cooking for about 20 minutes, heat the olive oil in a pan, then toss in all the mushrooms and pieces of chicken. Let this heat up for about a minute, then pour in your wine or vermouth and cook for about 3 more minutes, until the mushrooms look a little wilted. Taste both the polenta and the mushrooms as they cook, and add a pinch salt and pepper if either one seems to lack flavor.

Step 4: Once the polenta has been boiling for about 30 minutes, pour some into a shallow bowl. Top this with your mushroom-chicken mixture. Grate some parmesan on top.

Step 5: Bask in self-appreciation that you have created such a warming, rich, and delicious dinner in little time and with not too many bowls to wash. Also congratulate yourself that this meal delivers lots of niacin, Vitamin B12, Vitamin A, and Vitamin C through the polenta, and lots of Vitamin D through those tastily earthy mushrooms.
The past week may have been rough for you, too, but I can see the next one from here, and it simply burgeons with hope.

Of Politics and Plantains

I'm not going to lie. Ever since Tuesday night I've been walking on clouds. After all, I was standing amidst a crowd of 175,000 elated, jittery supporters in Grant Park in Chicago when the T.V. flashed the breaking news: Barack Obama Elected President. I've spent a lot of time in the days following thinking about what this will mean for Americans in the next four years. A lot of policy change, for sure, but there's something more...something I couldn't quite put my finger on. "Could it be that, for the first time, I'm...I'm...not actually embarrassed to be an American," I asked myself. The little cynic inside my head seemed blind-sided by the revelation and offered no rebuttal.

These were the thoughts that were running through my head as I flipped through a new cookbook yesterday afternoon in search of dinner. If Barack Obama can take on a war in Iraq, America's broken reputation among the international community, environmental destruction, capital hill corruption, a failing health care system, and an ailing economy, I can probably take on a new recipe. See? This man is an inspiration to us all.

And what better way to celebrate America's triumphant return to the international community than by exploring a truly international dish? The dinner decision had been made: Smokey South-American Chipotle Chicken Stew, coming right up.

I found the original version of this recipe in one of my all-time favorite books, GRUB, by Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry. If you've never heard of this book, and you're even remotely interested in sustainable agriculture, food justice, organics and your health, or just delicious recipes, please, please, please check this book out from your local library (sorry, the Chicago Public Library's copy is taken!) While the stew turned out to be quite delicious, especially after re-heating it the next day, it was cooking the plantains that turned out to be the most fun. If you've never fried a plantain before, go out and get one now. Yes, you. Get yourself a plantain and fry it, because I assure you it's an experience unlike any other. Part culinary challenge and part game, preparing the plantains (and working to keep them from burning) was a bucket of fun. Besides, the plantains turned out to be the one ingredient that really made this sweet, smokey stew something different.

Smokey South-American Chipotle Chicken Stew
Adapted from GRUB
Prep time: 20 min
Cooking Time: 1 hour 10 min

5 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup thinly sliced red onions
2 chipotle chilies, canned in adobo sauce, finely chopped
10 garlic cloves, finely chopped
One 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
Coarse sea salt
3 medium red potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1/2 in. pieces
1/3 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken meat (I used the breast meat, but thigh would work well too) chopped into small, bite-size pieces
2 large ripe plantains, cut diagonally into 1/2 inch slices
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Step 1: Cook 2 tablespoons olive oil, onions, and chipotles in a medium saucepan over high heat for 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Reduce the heat to low and cook uncovered for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and cook for 5 minutes more.

Step 2: Add tomatoes and stir constantly over medium heat until mixture has cooked down to a thick consistency, about 10 minutes. Stir in the vegetable stock and 2 teaspoons salt (or more, depending on your taste).

Step 3: Add the potatoes and chicken, bring to a boil, cover the pot, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for about 45 min to an hour, or until the potatoes have softened and the stew has thickened a bit.

Step 4: While the stew is simmering, prepare the plantains. Warm the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add half of the plantain slices and fry until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes on each side. Drain the plantains on paper towels. Fry the second batch of plantain slices.

Step 5: Add the fried plantains and cilantro to the stew and simmer for 5 more minutes.

This stew is hearty, spicy, and delicious all on its own, but you can also serve it with a grain of your choice (brown rice, quinoa, and amaranth are all good bets).

Nutrition Note

In writing this post, I did a bit of research on the nutritional value and health benefits of the plantain. There seem to be a number of dubious home remedies associated with this enormous banana, and I can't help but share a few of my favorites with you:
  • Banana or plantain has been widely used as an anti-wrinkle treatment. Mash 1/4 banana till it becomes a smooth paste. Cover your face with it and leave it for 15-20 minutes before rinsing with warm water followed by splashes of cold water. Pat it dry.
  • You can use banana peel inside out for treatment of warts. Use the peel inside out and cover the wart by taping it. Once the peel turns black remove and continue this for some weeks to get relief from wart.
  • If you are pregnant, and want to avoid leg cramps, eat bananas before going to bed.
Home remedies aside, the plantain, along with its more conventional banana-cousins, does boast a number of health benefits that are supported by people with an "M.D." after their name. Being rich in vitamin B6, vitamin C, potassium, and manganese, as well as dietary fiber, help give bananas their claim to fame.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Grains on the brain (or, how I was fooled by a faking fruit)

Inspired by my recent Ode to Oatmeal, last night I ventured into the grain section of my local grocer. First amaranth, then barley, now farrow and millet. Endless possibilities of whole-grain goodness danced through my head...that is, until my eyes settled on an unassuming box towards the bottom of the shelf. "Kasha?" The name seemed better suited to a Russian poodle than to an oddly pyramidal-shaped, dark-brown grain, but having never met a grain I didn't like, I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt. Into my cart it went where it settled alongside the rest of my impulse buys.

This morning, however, a little pre-breakfast googling revealed a shocking truth. Yes, I had been hoodwinked by this innocent-looking grain...or should I say FRUIT! That's right, though it behaves and tastes a whole lot like a whole grain, Kasha is in fact toasted buckwheat groats. Buckwheat is actually not a wheat at all, but rather a fruit from the same family as rhubarb and sorrel. Ok, maybe not that shocking of a truth, but at the very least a good fact to know for cocktail parties.

My stomach was growling so I put away my laptop (and my indignation at having been tricked by a side-dish) and set to work preparing my kasha. This was my first attempt at cooking it, and I decided to make it into a sweet, breakfast porridge. The result was tasty, simple, filling and unique...could you ask more from your breakfast meal? For those of you stuck in a breakfast rut, I highly recommend seeking out this funny-shaped grain fruit.

Sweet Breakfast Kasha
- Serves 3

1 cup kasha
1 egg, lightly beaten
2.5 cups boiling water
Cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom or any other sweet spices that you like
Whole milk and your favorite sweetener

Step 1: Beat the egg in a saucepan and then mix the dry cup of kasha and your spices into the egg until everything is evenly coated.

Step 2: Bring water to a boil in a kettle, and then add it to the saucepan with the kasha in it. Bring the entire mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce to low heat and cover.

Step 3: Let the kasha simmer for 20 minutes, and then remove from heat.

Step 4: Sprinkle sweetener (I like brown sugar, personally) over the fluffed up kasha and pour milk over the mixture.

Step 5: Tuck right in to your toothsome bowl of breakfast bliss.

If you're cooking for one, toss the extra kasha into a tightly covered container and refrigerate it for tomorrow's breakfast!

For you nutrition nuts out there, I have some more wonderful news: one little serving of kasha has 6 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber, enough to keep your belly happy (and quiet) all the way through your 11am staff meeting. Plus, this audacious snack is filled with vitamins and minerals, especially packing in the magnesium, manganese, copper and niacin.

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Adriana Willsie and Kylie Springman ©2009