Tag Archives: cooking

Toe vs. Mat

kitchen mat with decorative surfaceThe consequences of moderate-term sleep deprivation are many: frontal lobe activity is surpressed, leading one to blurt out inappropriate statements at inopportune times; memory fails, rote calculations become just out of arms’ reach, which can be amusing when trying to tip a waiter; and manual dexterity decreases alarmingly. For those Dungeons & Dragons geeks out there, consider this loss on a scale of -5 or so, something along the lines of a major cursed item. For the rest of us, I have an illustrative story.

Last January, shortly after moving back to Walla Walla from Seattle—not the more popular of the population shifts between the two cities, to be sure—I embarked on a sundries and staples trip to Costco. The big box store is an hour away, but I deeply appreciate only buying toilet paper twice an annum, so being in a mood to stock up for a while, I ventured the crowds. Read More…

Deep Fried Oreos

deep fried oreosI pride myself on cooking well, and across cuisines, ingredients, and meals of the day. If someone can’t eat a certain kind of food—close friends know I never eat raw tomatoes—I enjoy coming up with substitutes, different recipes, and so on. Cooking to me represents an ever-shifting journey that feels at times like archaeology. There is literally nothing I can come up with in the kitchen that hasn’t been done by someone else before me, so I at least attempt to hold that history sacred when I’m fixing up a dish.

When I found out we were with child, after all of the excitement rolled through us, one of my first thoughts was that I’ll be able to adjust to whatever food preferences Susanne has for the duration of the pregnancy. And yet this moment marked the peak of my culinary confidence in this regard. Read More…

Purple soup of a Thai persuasion

After our Indian cooking class a couple of weeks ago, Susanne and I headed out to Uwajimaya, the Asian grocery, to stock up on ingredients. After all, I’d either made a dish (palak paneer) or watched other people prepare sides and entrees, so surely I was past Square One for Asian Cookery. To be honest, I wasn’t really that overconfident, but I did think I’d be able to pull off something like a coconut soup. Sure, it wasn’t on our list of items to create in the class I attended, but Thai soup and Indian curried broth for poaching fish aren’t exactly total opposites, either. Read More…

Cooking from the hip

Susanne and I ventured a few blocks from our apartment last night to take part in a cooking class on Indian cuisine with HipCooks.com. Our rationale was that 1) we love Indian food in all of its permutations, and 2) Walla Walla has nothing close to an Indian restaurant, so learning a few techniques and recipes is a critical life skill once we return to the desert side of the state. Read More…

Peach chicken noodle soup

chicken noodle soupI am a very good cook, if I do say so myself. I don’t brag often, or at least, I’ve been told not to brag, so in my attempts not to be a condescending ass, I button my lips rather than assert things I think I’ve gotten good at over the years. Perhaps it’s out of fear that someone much more gifted will be sent to my side the very moment I start posturing, and suddenly, I’ll be next to James Beard who will smile authentically, and I’ll just look like a total dipshit. And anyway, my list of things on which I have any hope of bragging is rather short.

But, at risk of sounding stuck on myself, I’ll go ahead and say I’m a good cook, and I’ve picked up a sense of tastes that go together, how to build a complex and enjoyable flavor profile, good ideas on textures and color and pacing people through several courses. I don’t have perfect skills—looking at a pile of minced onions, there is too much variation among the pieces for me to pretend at a French Culinary Institute degree. But I know the difference between minced, chopped, julienned, or rustic cut. I can make a mother sauce in the French tradition of Bechamel or Veloute, though I have no master’s sauce to compare mine, so it’s possible my vinagrette tastes like horse ass. I do presume someone would have mentioned this by now, however.

All this said, I don’t always use a recipe when I’m making something. In fact, I rarely use instructions unless it’s a cuisine I don’t know. So when Susanne, sick on the couch with a croaky voice asked for some chicken noodle soup, I said sure and headed to the basement to get some organic stock. This was only because I thought I’d used all of my homemade chicken and duck stock for a beef noodle soup I’d made earlier in the week, also to help soothe her cold. And there is nothing that doesn’t feel a little more luxurious when duck stock is added to it. Nothing culinary, that is. I don’t advise adding duck stock to say, one’s Mark Twain first edition book collection.

(Note to college students everywhere: if you are hacking up your gallbladder all over passersby on your way to class, just turn around and go back to bed. Your professors don’t like it when you make them sick or give them laryngitis.)

I chopped up some chicken tenderloin and threw it in my pot with some heated olive oil, letting it brown and crisp up a little, then deglazed the pot with one box—the last box—of stock, making a mental note to get some more from Costco next week, because well, we buy our cooking supplies in bulk. This meant I’d made about 4.5 cups of soup.

A while later I added some egg noodles and once they’d plumped up, saw that the stock had cooked down a bit too low. I just couldn’t bring myself to add water. That would kill the gorgeous balance of flavors and seasonings I’d added, not that Susanne’s palate could taste them at the moment. It has been scientifically established that chicken soup boosts one’s immune system, so what would watering it down do? Weaken it, I supposed.

Not acceptable. I opened the fridge, remembering Susanne telling me that we still had one jar of homemade stock in there—cue the little oval of Susanne over my shoulder, saying “we still have one jar of homemade stock in there,”—and I stuck my head in, looking for something beige in color, liquid, and in a mason jar.

Alas, this is not as exclusionary as I would have hoped. I smiled, seeing my target, launching my hand upon it, grasping it with my opposable thumb, my marker of humans’ dominance over this realm for the last 50,000 years, and triumphantly emerged with my prize. It did not occur to me that I should check the contents, primarily because the back of our refrigerator is like Siberia, and things only dream of decomposing there. I think there’s a member of the czar family back there. It really limits the usable space in the rest of the fridge, which is kind of annoying.

I will say that I had a moment, half a second at best, where I wondered why the jar didn’t have any fat floating on top, but that thought didn’t slow me down, not one bit. I poured in the entire jar and stirred the pot—lest I be lazy and not really combine the new contents well, or something—and put the lid back on, letting it simmer a bit more before I served any to Susanne.

Several minutes later she passed through the kitchen on her way to the bathroom and noticed that jar of the peach syrup I’d made last summer when canning peaches was sitting, empty, on the counter. Even in her sickened haze, she knew what the jar was, and lifted the lid to the soup. A unique odor of savory chicken and syrupy, peachy goodness greeted her.

She put the lid back on the pot.

I was on the couch, giggling at some news story or other. Oh, the French Canadians! Or oh, that silly Glen Beck!

“Honey,” she asked me gently, “why did you make peach chicken noodle soup?”

“What,” I asked. The poor dear, she was losing her mind. I should do more for her to get her better.

“You put the jar of peach syrup in the soup. Why did you do that?” At this point, she began chuckling.

“Oh no, did I?” I thought it was chicken stock. . . .

“Mm hmm.”

“Crap.”

She did her best and ate half a bowl, and honestly, I think it was only possible because she couldn’t taste a darn thing. For my part, I poured it down the toilet this morning. It’s not a flavor anyone needs to try. Just take my word for it.

Photo by Kevin H. from Flickr.

Baking a cake standing up

Last year I was still somewhat out of commission after knee surgery when Susanne’s birthday rolled around, and by “out of commission,” I really mean, “still taking sponge baths.” This year I’m mostly back to my old form—I’ve returned to a bowling league, have kept up my routine at the gym, and can squat again when I need something from a low cabinet, which is pretty much the only time I squat—so I figured cake making would go easier this time around.

I should know by now not to make assumptions regarding the ease of anything. And still, I persist in my idiocy.

For her part, Susanne had requested a Schwartzwald Kirschtorte (say that 10 times fast), a.k.a. a Black Forest cake, but she’d thrown in a couple of twists: she wanted a layer of chocolate ganache in the middle of the cake layers, instead of the usual whipped cream and cherries, and she wanted, on advice from her mother, the cherries that go atop the cake to be dipped in chocolate. In the spirit of the upcoming Vancouver Olympics, I’ll explain the level of difficulty this entailed. Now your standard Black Forest cake, with its spongy chocolate cake layers, has a rating, under the old figure skating scale, of 3.2 out of 6 total, but because it also calls for whipped cream and systematic pricking with a fork so that it will uptake the kirschwasser liquor, has a final technical difficulty of 4.1, or in the new International Judging System, 8,237 points. Because I also had to make a ganache, dip cherries previously cured in liquor, and use that liquor as the base for a homemade liquored syrup, my new difficulty rating was a 5.8, or in the IJS, let’s see. . . carry the one . . . computing . . . 13,482 points.

But I was up to the task. I was certain of this.

While the recipe called for 7″ cake pans, presumably because the Germans enjoy smaller-sized desserts, I only had one 8″ cake pan and 3 9″ pans. What was a baker to do? I went for the 9-inchers, because 9, being a greater integer than 7, must be better. I whipped up 6 eggs, my arteries screaming no at me, blending in sugar and cocoa, and arrived at a splendidly smooth batter, which, upon pouring into the pans I could see rose to a withering height of . . . three-quarters of an inch. Hmm. I crossed my fingers and hoped that the cakes would rise in the oven.

After dutifully rotating the cake pans at the halfway mark of baking, I answered the timer’s bell and saw that indeed, they had risen. They were now one inch tall. I considered marking their progress on the kitchen wall, but instead I grabbed my car keys, wallet, and phone, and headed to the grocery store, as I was now out of eggs. And I figured I should pick up some extra whipping cream just in case.

Twenty minutes later I was the proud owner of assorted dairy products, and ready for round two of cake madness. I quickly washed out the cake pans, re-buttering and flouring them, in something like double speed for this redux. I started cracking eggs again and was dismayed that I’d bought some kind of weird-shelled eggs—each insisted on leaving a little bit of itself in the bowl, so I had to fish out chips every single time.

One mixer made a new batch of chocolate cake, the other started the cream whipping process, while I melted 72 percent dark chocolate in a double boiler and made a simple syrup on another burner. Pant, pant! I was a whirlwind of confectionery! A force of baking nature!

Two more cakes popped into the oven. Chocolate was melted carefully, while the syrup boiled and oh no, started to smoke. The kitchen quickly filled with the acrid, eye-stinging fog, so I tossed the offending concoction and started again. Again. Opening the back door helped a bit, though it was mighty chilly outside.

Okay, the chocolate was ready, so I dipped cherries in the double boiler, thinking to myself that since we picked these cherries ourselves last summer, this cake was officially six months in the making. They looked cute lined up on the wax paper, drying slowly as if there weren’t a flurry of activity just a few inches away from them. I added some cream to the rest of the melted chocolate, to start the ganache portion of the program.

Finally, the layering and stacking and glazing and frosting were finished. I looked at the creation. Four hours, a dozen eggs, 20 tablespoons of butter, 3 cups of cream, 4 cakes layers, 12 ounces of dark chocolate, and many cherries later, I had this:

Black Forest cake

I was so tired and hungry from all of the cooking, I almost dropped my face into the thing and ate it all, but figured it wasn’t worth the effort to make it all over again. A few hours later, several of Susanne’s friends came over to share cake and wine in front of the fire. We oohed and ahhed over the creation and by the end of the evening, it had disappeared into our collective stomachs. Susanne enjoyed the cake but noted twice to various people, including my mother-in-law, that she only got one piece of cake out of the whole thing. So it looks like I’ll be performing again, but this time it will be the short program. A tasty, short little program.

All around the Hannukah bush, the Hannukah bush, the Hannukah bush

Boxing Day was our pretend Christmas, and I started off by stuffing a 22-pound turkey with my mother’s recipe for dressing goodness. Such an enormous bird was a bit beyond the needs of a 7-person group with one vegetarian and two minors, but as it was a free gift from Shop Rite, how could my sister refuse? So four days after coming out of the freezer to thaw, it was still solid ice inside. Susanne and I ran some warm water from the tap in it for about 45 minutes (sorry, Connecticut water resources staff), and considered it good enough to get started. My surgically repaired sister made it to the table long enough to enjoy the turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, creamed spinach, and salad, and I later brought her a slice of the cheesecake her friend Sherri and I had made. I wondered vaguely how cheesecake must taste when you’re drugged on Oxycodone and butter shots. I suppose I should ask Rush Limbaugh, since that guy has clearly had his fill of sweetened cheese.

We went for a visit to the mall with the girls so they could use their gift cards, and I was astonished to see that there is now a vendor selling cutesy underwear to teenage girls. My nieces came out of the Aerie store with peace symbol thongs, because how better to support world peace than by wearing a small strip of fabric that cost $20?

Afterward we went duck pin bowling which I can handle with my bad knee, since the balls are the size of my palms. Duck pin bowling is a treat — the tiny pins crackling like snapped twigs, and the girls cheering each point. We came back and made some turkey soup and dumplings and then retreated to the solace of the hot tub, which was a fine way to mark the end of each day there.

Monday morning we kissed the gang goodbye and road down to DC to see our old pals and their families. With each day, the frustration of the snowy fortress back in Walla Walla receded and we visibly exhaled into the places we visited back in our old stomping grounds.

Cookies of perpetual indulgence

We throw a party every year to bake and exchange holiday cookies of no particular affiliation, although there do seem to be a preponderance of Christmas trees in the mix with each year’s collection. I started the annual cookie exchange in 2003, when I was living in a 1-bedroom 3rd floor walk up, which incidentally was the only place I’ve lived that had kitchen appliances younger than me. Unbeknownst to me, Susanne was hosting her own cookie party, not surprising since we both own KitchenAid Artisan 5.5 quart mixers that we have given names. Obviously baking is more important to us than your average bear. No, I do not think that makes us weird.

What was a fun little get-together has evolved into a tag-team extravaganza of confection. We held our first cookie exchange in Wallyworld last weekend and 30 guests came by with all manner of sweet goodness: there were butter cookies, gingerbread cookies, fudge, pumpkin-chocolate-chip cookies, spice-raisin cookies, shortbread cookies, nutty cookies, fruity cookies, and some high-end store bought cookies. 

To cut some of this unending sweetness, Susanne and I made a few savory delights — her well known (in DC) stuffed mushroom caps, spinach dip, and as a joke, I made mini-wieners with Pillsbury dough crescent rolls snugly wrapped around each one. Susanne could not believe her eyes, but I said, “you wait and see, people will love them.” She continued to look absolutely horrified. 

I ran out to the store, buying last-minute things and getting some cider so we could mull it with some spices on the stove. It had started snowing. Walla Walla, although it gets about three times the amount of snow, on average, that DC does, does not own a single plow. So driving gets pretty treacherous. I put on my grippiest shoes, prayed my remaining ACL would hold out on any ice, and hopped in the car. And then drove very slowly to the grocery store. Anti-lock brakes are great, but the jittery dashboard alarm that the road is slick annoyed the hell out of me. I know it’s slippery, car, I’ve been driving for 20 years. You were just manufactured in June. Don’t tell me how to drive. 

After this altercation with our vehicle, I slipped into the grocery, grabbing what I needed, and then heading for the cash registers. In Walla Walla, there aren’t long lines for anything, really, but they’re still painfully slow. People here like to commiserate. It did, after all, take us 2.5 hours to buy a new dryer at Home Depot our second week here because the appliance salesman spent so much time chatting us up. By the end I knew his full name, favorite hobby (hot air ballooning), preferred church (Adventist), favorite restaurant (26 Brix), and had met his current girlfriend and her two children.

I stood in the line of two people (me and another person) for 12 minutes. At this point all the friendly has evaporated from my body and the three-foot radius of space around me. I am thus very consistently a rather terse, unhappy customer by the time I actually reach the cashier, but my politeness stops me from spilling over into rudeness, which is fortunate, because that would be such a difference from Chatty Cathy Cashier that it would rip the fabric of the universe, and then where would we be? Looking at the gates of hell or the 7th dimension or something, at Checkout 1 of the Safeway on Tientin Street? Not good.

Then it was off to get home, get the food prepped, and hop in the shower and find some festive outfit. I was happy, damn it, happy for the holiday party!

I showered too quickly. I left soap on my backside and realized, only after I’d gotten dressed, that this made it hard to walk. Apparently friction keeps our legs from doing the Monty Python silly walk, and I had just minimized my friction. But with 30 minutes until the party, I didn’t have time to remedy my situation. So it was that I realized that inside slipperiness is just as bad, if not worse, than outside slipperiness, like ice. At least I didn’t have a butt alarm telling me that it would be hard to keep my legs together. Actually, that’s not really how I meant that to sound. Oh, bother.

The party went off without a hitch, and two people actually squealed with delight when they saw the mini-wieners. Somehow this post has gotten off track with all the talk about butts and wieners. Sorry about that. I have pictures somewhere, of all the cookies, and when I locate the camera cord (Susanne tells me it’s in the cabinet of no return), I’ll update this post.

Cake and conversation

Susanne and I attended a potluck for members of her department at the College. We were tasked with providing the desserts, which indicated a few things, namely:

1. They must have known subconsciously to give this course to us, the cake-makers. We had not yet provided any confections to them.

2. They thought something like dessert was the easiest course to pass off, because most people just put oil and eggs into a bowl with mass market cake mix. Thus, they were trying to go easy on us.

3. They figured we’d all be too drunk after drinking Walla Walla wine to care if the dessert was passable or not.

Truthfully, Susanne volunteered us for dessert. But in her defense, she waited to see what others picked first, so somehow the desserts portion of the meal hung around during the selection process. Who would have expected that Dessert would be like the fat kid who doesn’t get called for kickball and is left standing there at the end pushing up his glasses looking miserable? But enough about me.

We showed up with an apple caramel cheesecake and a chocolate budino. I did not get a picture of the chocolate budino, unfortunately. I did, however, capture the cheesecake.

 

Caramel apple cheesecake

Caramel apple cheesecake

The potluck was nice, consisting of a cold quinoa salad, mixed greens, the standard but perennial favorite of cheese and crackers. There was also a vegetable enchilada casserole, Greek stew, shrimp pad thai, and a “hot dish,” which is verbiage for a Minnesotan casserole, which officially made it A Potluck from Around the World. They did indeed enjoy our offerings, and I think we achieved our goal of cementing a reputation for well cooked and baked delicacies. I know there’s a lot of “cementing” in front of us, but we’ve only just begun — we’re only 6 weeks into living here. There are a lot of good meals ahead of us.

Today Susanne and I went to our new favorite Colville Street Patisserie, and there we met two older ladies from town who struck up an interesting conversation about Social Security and disability. There’s something about a smaller town, perhaps, that lends itself to more intimate talk, for it is such that we discovered one of them receives an SSA disability check. Her friend said she’d remember my name because she lives in Everett, Washington. I suppose I have to get over there at some point and take a hokey picture next to the sign. When the woman from town said she got her first check three weeks after filing an application, I knew she must have a terminal condition. She was smiling, she was enjoying an eclair, and she said she was going to be happy for every day she has left. She’s taken in 37 foster children over the last 20 years, and we got into quite the discussion about how our country handles social services. It was an interesting mix of old-style conservatism (read: pull yourself up by your bootstraps) and an affection for children and their interests that smacked of veteran social worker. She clearly still wanted to make a difference, life by life. She certainly left an effect on me.

My life in the midst of bacteria

It appears that it is not illegal in the State of Washington to produce or purchase unhomogenized, unpasteurized milk. Of course, they also have medical marijuana up here, but that’s another story. This story is about yogurt, hence the bacteria.

I suppose if one is going to be situated in a small town — call it a city if you like, but really, if we’re talking fewer than six digits of people, we’re talking town. Anyway, if this small town is in the corner of a state bordered by people nostalic for the Wild West and people nostalgic for fascism, one needs to begin playing to one’s strengths, in this case, baking and cooking. Not that these are the only things that one does, but when one begins referring to oneself in the third person (and people don’t bring up Suede of Project Runway), baking and cooking are the easiest strengths to highlight. So bear with one. Erm, me.

Susanne and I were invited to a farm share dinner, which was nice because we used to do those occasionally in DC. We asked what we could contribute and were delighted to be told: DESSERT. So I thought about making cheesecake, as I have in years past, when I’ve made delights like these:

 

Caramel toffee cheesecake

Caramel toffee cheesecake

 

A caramel toffee cheesecake with the traditional graham cracker crust. There’s also the chocolate mousse cheesecake with an Oreo crust, and finally, the brownie and chocolate swirl cheesecake with a vanilla sponge cake crust.

None of these, however, did I make for the farm share dinner. I made this, a chocolate fudge cake with a masala chai-infused ganache.

Hopefully it went some distance toward making some friends! 

 

 

 

Chocolate cheesecake

Chocolate cheesecake

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

chocolate fudge cake

chocolate fudge cake

Meanwhile, I made my first foray into growing bacteria in milk, or rather, I made some yogurt last week. Baking the cake was a motivator, so I poured 8 cups of raw milk into a nice large pot and made it not raw anymore by bringing it slowly to 180 degrees. I wound up with three batches setting overnight — a vanilla batch, a plain batch, and a small batch with local organic honey. It turned out really well! Now I need some recipes using yogurt because 8 cups of yogurt is a LOT of yogurt to get through in its two-week life span.

Maybe that’ll be my new career — yogurt maker for the stars. I just need some flavor ideas that are novel and hip, and I’m in business.

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