Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Cookbook Club

Inspired by an article by Seattle food writer Tara Austen Weaver, I've started a cookbook club with a group of friends. If you're looking for excuses to feast with friends, Weaver makes it sound pleasant on stress-free. So far, so good!

We're a small group for now, at least until we get a feel for it. Eight of us expressed interest, and six attended the first gathering. The idea is that we'll get together every 6-8 weeks, and each of us will bring a dish from the book we selected at the previous meeting. Since this was our first meeting, I brought along a dozen or so  cookbooks for us to peruse. Everyone brought a dish, loosely organized via email so we would have variety.

 Plenty and Plenty More by Yotam Ottolenghi generated a lot of oohs and ahs. Rene and I have both owned Plenty since its release in 2011, so we are familiar with its vibrant vegetarian flavors and colors. Rene contributed a beautiful and delicious tart from Plenty More, which looked just like its picture in the book. The cauliflower inside was magically firm yet tender, easily cut with a fork but holding its shape.
Judy, our hostess, made a rustic and tasty beef daube, using a recipe from Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table.  Served in a cast iron dutch oven, it was the definition of warmth on a cold, drizzly fall night.
Colleen and I are both addicted to The Great British Baking Show, and we were both inspired to try our hands at pâte à choux. Colleen opted for gougères with cheese and herbs (using a recipe from an old index card - the best kind!), and the results were lighter than air and quickly devoured. They made a perfect compliment to Jessica's cream of broccoli soup (which I failed to photograph. Sorry. Picture a lovely bright green soup, bursting with broccoli flavor).

I chose the sweet route for my pate a choux, mostly following the éclair recipe in Tom Douglas's Dahlia Bakery Cookbook (a personal favorite). I wanted to try something different, so I filled half of the pastries with chai-infused pastry cream and dipped them in a lemon-honey glaze. The other half I filled with the traditional vanilla pastry cream and covered with chocolate glaze. I'm cheating a bit with the picture - I'd made bite-sized versions, seen below, the night before for a different dinner party. Then I re-crisped and filled the remaining baseball-sized shells the next day. I tried to reheat the leftover chocolate glaze, and it was a broken disaster. Then I thought I'd melt some chocolate with cream for a quick glaze, but I seized the chocolate. Disaster #2, but eventually edible. They weren't pretty, but they were delicious!
Colleen also brought a salad, and she managed to put all of my favorite things in it: dried cherries, arugula, toasted pine nuts, and apples. I don't know what she put in the vinaigrette, but it was just right.

Last but certainly not least, Nicole brought a stunning baked ratatouille.  Layers of paper-thin sliced eggplant and zucchini nestled in a light tomato sauce with red bell peppers, served warm with a dollop of goat cheese and a rustic loaf of bread.  When I saw the "before" picture of her dish on Facebook before our gathering, I knew this cookbook club was an excellent idea.
The evening was deemed a success, with plenty of wine and conversation flowing, and we selected a book for our January meeting: Lucky Peach Presents 101 Easy Asian Recipes.  There was some debate, but we decided to save Tacos: Recipes and Provocations for a summer evening when tomatoes, chiles, and margaritas are in season. Soups and noodles just seemed more seasonally appropriate. I can hardly wait! Oh, right. We forgot to set a date...

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Wacky Cake

This is a recipe that was given to my mother when we lived in Wilton, Maine, in the 1970s. My first babysitter, Jane Edwards (born in 1900), lived across the street with her husband Bob in an orderly white house.  I remember eating mint meltaways and Cheetos (on separate occasions) from cut glass bowls in her living room and kitchen on sunny summer days.  In winter we dodged the apple trees in her yard on our toboggan once the snow was deep enough. The other side of the yard had a steeper slope, but it ended in a terrifying patch of thistles, so we took our chances with the trees.  I don't remember Jane serving this cake, but my mother's recipe card named her as the source, and I've been eating and baking it for as long as I can remember.  It's a Maine classic. 

This is the perfect dessert for surprise dinner guests or weeknight dinners.  It's a rough day if I don't have all of the ingredients on hand. It's also great for kids to help with - very few steps, no pan-greasing, and everything gets mixed in the baking pan.

Wacky Cake 

1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
3 Tablespoons cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
5 Tablespoons melted shortening, butter, margarine, or canola oil 
1 Tablespoon vinegar (whatever kind is handy - I often use balsamic)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup water

Preheat oven to 350F.
Mix dry ingredients in an 8" square baking pan.  Add wet ingredients and stir until smooth. Bake 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Cool in pan on wire rack.  Dust with sifted powdered sugar to serve.

About 10 years ago, some good friends came over for dinner.  We ate together at least once a week, and any time they came over, their daughter (who was about 6 then) would help me bake something after dinner.  I didn't have much in the house (or maybe I just didn't feel like making a big mess), so I suggested making a Wacky Cake.  As I got everything out of the cabinets, I realized that I didn't have any cocoa powder.  I apologized and explained that this was an essential ingredient, but Kaylee didn't understand. "Why can't we just leave it out?"  In 30 years it had never crossed my mind to alter this recipe, and whaddaya know, it was  good!  I've since tried adding diced dried cherries, sprinkling sliced almonds over the top with about 10 minutes left in the baking time, adding a little almond extract, and other things I don't remember.  Some versions worked better than others, but they've always turned out edible.

Thursday, November 1, 2012


James's delicious experimental cocktail (ginger ale, vodka, & raspberries)

Last weekend I made marshmallows for the first time, and now I've got the candy-making bug.  Even now that their secrets have been revealed to me, marshmallows and nougat are still magical substances.  Both start with the same basic ingredients and follow the same processes: hot sugar syrup added to whipped egg whites, whipped some more, with gelatin added for marshmallows. It all seems pretty straightforward until the syrup hits the egg whites.  That's when the magic happens! 

I don't know the science behind the process, but I bet Alton Brown does. I bet he has a show about nougat, or at least marshmallows.  It's too bad that the boiling syrup is so dangerous, otherwise this is something I'd love to do with kids.  However, safety is essential when molten sugar is in the picture!  This is one of the most dangerous things you can do in a kitchen, right up there with deep frying and lighting things on fire. If that syrup comes in contact with skin, it will burn like crazy and stick like superglue, and toward the end of its cooking time it's upwards of 250 degrees.  Yikes!

Egg whites + molten sugar = deliciousness!
The recipe I used called for peanut butter to be folded into the finished nougat.  My first taste, still warm on the spatula from spreading into the sheet pan where it would set overnight, I thought, "Wow.  How have I lived for 39 years and never made nougat?"
Fluffy Peanut Butter Nougat

I finished spreading out the nougat around 10pm, so I got up early the next morning to cut it into squares and dip them in chocolate.  I had a lot of candy in the house, and it was the last day of my work week.  The last thing I needed was to have a half sheet pan of nougat lying around all weekend! So at 7:30am I was dipping chocolates.
I didn't have enough time or chocolate to dip them all
 My coworkers were pleased. At least one said that this substance should be illegal.  Now I've only got another 30 or so pieces at home. I'm going to try freezing a few, just to see what happens.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

serious biscuits

I made a batch of "serious biscuits" from The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook (due out next week) tonight.  Lightly crispy on the outside, pillowy on the inside, and deliriously buttery through and through.  With half a biscuit left on my plate, I had a flash of genius: drizzle them with maple syrup!

book bonanza, part 1

colorful Tacoma from the 17th floor
Last weekend I attended the Pacific Northwest Booksellers' Association fall trade show with a few hundred booksellers, authors, librarians, and publisher sales reps.   The event took place at the Hotel Murano, just a few blocks from the Museum of Glass in downtown Tacoma.  Each floor of the hotel features a different glass artist, and each time the elevator doors opened a new surprise was unveiled.  It would have been fun to take a walk down each hall, but I just didn't have the time.  I guess I'll have to go back!

On Saturday evening, after a day filled with educational sessions, a horde of booksellers descended upon King's Books for a party celebrating several Northwest authors.  After a bit of mingling, each of half a dozen authors spoke for about five minutes. 

Jennie Shortridge (whose When She Flew rocks!) talked about her new novel Love, Water, Memory (kudos to the cover designer!) and the non-profit group Seattle 7 Writers, which promotes literacy in Seattle and King County through projects and events including pocket libraries in food banks, homeless shelters, and other locations.  These folks are staunch supporters of independent bookstores, libraries, and other literacy organizations and programs like 826 and Writers in the Schools.  So much to love! And they're nice people too!

Among the authors was one of my favorite Northwest artists, Nikki McClure, who told the story of her latest book (actually the first book she ever made), Apple, and another, How to Be a Cat, due in Spring of 2013.   I got a peek at the cat book, and I think it's one of her best.  I've had her gorgeous calendars on my living wall every year since 2006, and I'm excited to head to Bellevue and see Cutting Her Own Path, a retrospective of her work that starts November 13 at the Bellevue Art Museum.

If you know me at all, you know I'm a food enthusiast, so it will come as no surprise that I was excited to meet Seattle chef & restauranteur Tom Douglas and pick up a copy of his new Dahlia Bakery Cookbook.  Douglas is the kind of guest everyone wants at a party: funny, personable, and bearing several boxes of delicious treats!  Maple eclairs, pecan brownies, gingersnaps, chocolate chip cookies, and his famous triple coconut cream pie kept party-goers hovering around his table. 

Many thanks to our host, the inimitable Sweet Pea, owner of King's Books, and the staff, both human and feline, who probably had a sizeable mess to clean up when the rest of us headed back to the hotel for the Nightcapper party and met another 30 or so authors.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Pear pancakes

and then there were four

I woke up this morning thinking about the six remaining pears on my kitchen table.  They need to be used today.  I've already made pear cupcakes and pudding cake this week, so I wanted to use them for breakfast and make something at least marginally nutritious.  I considered adding them to oatmeal or making crepes, but eventually I decided on pancakes. 

I usually use the basic pancake recipe in my Betty Crocker's Cookbook (the one Mom bought me about 20 years ago after I went off to college) and alter it in whatever way comes to mind: toasted nuts, fruit, spices, etc.  Today I substituted 1/2 cup of whole wheat flour for some of the all-purpose flour and added 1/4 teaspoon of almond extract as well as 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla.

Even though I have a few dozen fancier cookbooks, I still refer to this book often for basic ratios and recipes (oatmeal cookies, for example).   I've always been a messy, somewhat disorganized cook.  On the pancake page, there's a big oil stain at the top that matches the one on the facing page.  Over the years I've improved a great deal, but this book definitely has its battle scars.  I'm no stranger to getting halfway through a recipe and discovering that I'm missing a vital ingredient. Fortunately James is generally willing to make last-minute trips to the store.

Okay, enough babble, on to the pear pancakes!  Here's the rough recipe for the pear topping.  I didn't measure or write down anything :

2 firm but ripe pears, peeled, cored, and sliced about 1/4 inch thick
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup real maple syrup

Put all of the pears in a large bowl. Combine all of the spices in a small bowl, break up any clumps then add them to the pears and toss to combine.  Melt the butter in a saucepan or skillet that's big enough to hold all the pears with a bit of room to spare.  Once the butter starts to bubble, add the pears and stir.  Cook just long enough to warm the pears through, then add the maple syrup and bring to a simmer.  Remove form the heat and set aside.    Now make your pancakes in whatever way you like, whether it's from a box or from scratch. Spoon the pear topping over them.  The pears will break down a bit as they sit in the hot maple syrup, but that's okay.  They'll still be delicious.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Cheryl greeted us with a delicious rhubarb custard pie.
(Oops, I just found a draft of this unfinished post.  maybe I'll finish it one of these days)April 2012- After talking about a bookstore tour of San Francisco for months, last weekend I boarded a plane, planning to rendezvous with my mom, who lives in Kentucky, at SFO.   By some miracle of airline kismet, both of our flights arrived early (!) and without incident. We met at the BART station and boarded a train for the East Bay, where Cheryl collected us in her car to complete a planes, trains, and automobiles journey.  In fact the trip began just north of Seattle with a bus and light rail to the airport, so I managed to travel all but the last mile without a car.

Cheryl browsing at Readers Bookstore
We enjoyed a leisurely morning of coffee and pie, then headed into the city.  Our only plan was to go to a bunch of bookstores, so we got off the train at Civic Center Station and aimed for Books, Inc. at 601 Van Ness.  A quick look at the map put the SF Public Library's main branch in our path, so of course someone said. "Let's just pop our heads in and check out the building."  To our delight, we found a little bookstore called Readers at the Main, run by volunteers of the Friends of the SFPL.  This lovely, well-lit little shop boasted a well-organized  inventory with plenty of bargains, and we were a little sorry we'd found the shop so early in the day, reluctant to buy too many books that we'd have to lug around the city.   We talked of coming back but knew we probably wouldn't make it.   I think this was the first time I said, "Next time we do this...."
City Hall
After making our purchases, we set off anew, strolling through the plaza in front of City Hall, where all sorts of delicious smells wafted from a raft of food trucks, and we watched a freshly-married couple having their pictures taken in front of the gilt-detailed dome.   In retrospect, this was a good start to our somewhat random walking tour; wide, clean sidewalks alongside museums and theaters made us feel less conspicuous when consulting the map and snapping pictures.
Large Four Piece Reclining Figure, Henry Moore 1973
Within a short walk we found Books, Inc. and Rich, a fellow bookseller I'd met at a conference in January.  He kindly pulled out a Streetwise San Francisco map and pointed us on a pedestrian-friendly route to our next destination, 826 Valencia, a writing center for kids that raises funds in part by operating San Francisco's only independent pirate supply store.  I have been a fan of Seattle's 826 branch, the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Store, since my first interstellar journey, so this was a must-see while in SF.   ARRRR!
En route to 826,  we stumbled upon Miette, a cute little confectioner that Cheryl and I recognized from their eponymous book.  Sadly, everything I wanted to buy in the shop would have been crushed or melted by the time our day ended.  Oh well. I'd just have to drown my sorrows in more pie later.  

We found Valencia Street and paused for a seat and a snack at Venga! Empanadas.  With so many great eateries to try, we agreed to snack our way around the city rather than have a full meal.  I had the spinach, Cheryl tried the sweet corn, and Mom ordered the mushroom, all freshly baked.  They were all baked to order and tasty, though mine would have been much better if it hadn't been cold in the middle.