Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Tea for Two (or Three, or Four...)

Another one from the archives: Welsh Tea Cakes! I made these about a month ago, just before my ankle surgery. I had a very busy week scheduled, after a very busy week before that, and realized that I finally had one day when nothing was going on. I pledged to do whatever I felt like that day (plus a load of laundry and tidying whatever mess I made), and decided that I felt like baking. I pulled out a recipe that I've had for years, and peeked in the pantry for a way to enhance it. The recipe was for a Welsh Tea Loaf, molasses-flavored and raisin-studded. Normally molasses and raisins are two big hints that something will be delicious, at least to my mind, which is I'm sure why I saved the recipe in the first place, but when I have made it in the past, the flavor was lacking. It was good, but muted; it needed some tweaking. I wanted the molasses flavor to be much stronger, but without the hint of bitterness that lots of molasses can sometimes impart. I also didn't want to drastically alter the texture of the loaf by adding so much extra liquid. Moistness is nice, but I didn't want a sog-fest. A rummage through the pantry revealed a small bag of dark muscovado sugar left over from gingerbread baking last Christmas. Muscovado has big molasses flavor without so much of the moisture, so it was exactly what I wanted. I replaced two thirds of the white sugar in the recipe with the muscovado, and baked it in muffin tins instead of an 8x8" square. 
The little tea cakes came out perfectly! Moist, with rich molasses flavor, they were just what I had been hoping for. Hubband didn't like the original recipe when I made it for him way back when, but he just couldn't get enough of this more flavorful version. Who knows if this cake is authentically Welsh or not, but it certainly goes wonderfully with tea, or coffee for that matter. They were even better when eaten outside in the garden, slathered with homemade strawberry preserves. 
Homemade strawberry preserves? Yes, a few months ago Hubband and I ventured south a little bit and found a hydroponic strawberry farm, where we picked about 15 lbs. Mom came over a few nights later when Hubband was out and we washed, hulled, diced, simmered, and canned all fifteen pounds (with a few set aside to roast in balsamic for ease of future ice cream batches). It was my first time canning, and pressure-canning at that. Each jar sealed tightly, and after dividing them up with Mom, using them on pancakes and toast, and on these tea-cakes, we still have some to spare. I think we'll certainly be doing that again. Especially when you do it like this:
with a strawberry-basil-lemonade cocktail on the side! 

Welsh Tea Cakes
adapted from goodness-knows-where

I kept it simple for this first time, but I think adding cardamom, cloves, and/or a bit of nutmeg would be really nice as well!

2 2/3 C water
12 oz raisins
4 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 C butter, softened
1 C dark muscovado sugar
1/2 C granulated sugar
3 eggs
2 Tbs unsulphured molasses
1 Tbs vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt
4 C AP flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine water and raisins in a saucepan and place over medium heat. Bring to a boil and then turn down the heat to simmer for 2 minutes, to plump the raisins slightly. After two minutes, remove from the heat and add the baking soda. Set aside to cool. Cream together the butter and sugars, then add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each. When incorporated, add the cooled raisins, cooking liquid, molasses, salt, and vanilla. Mix, then add the flour and mix until incorporated. Pour into a greased 8x8 pan or divide among 24 greased muffin cups. Bake 50-60 minutes for 8x8, 30-35 for muffin tins. Once baked, let cool in pan (8x8) or turn out onto wire racks (muffin tin). 

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Little Something Sweet

This past weekend we celebrated my niece's second birthday. Continuing the tradition we started on her first birthday, Mom and I go over to my sister's a few hours early to help decorate the house and work on the cake. Because of my ankle, I didn't help with the house decorating, but when it comes to the cake it's a group effort: my sister baked the cakes, whipped up the frosting, and tinted it to her heart's content, I did the piping on the two large character cakes, and Mom did some piping (her first time!) on some small character cakes and kept the baby quiet and content (most important job of all). My sister also frosted and piped a small round cake with one of Mom's even smaller character cakes on it, specifically for the birthday girl to get into as deeply and messily as she wanted. The big character cakes took a bit of time as most of the surface area was covered with a star tip; I need to work on my speed, because I think I caused my poor sister a little bit of stress! The birthday girl has recently discovered a deep love of SpongeBob Squarepants, so that was the theme. Here is one of the two large character cakes that I did:

Here is the small round for our birthday girl, frosted and piped by my sister, with a small character cake on top by Mom. 

There was also a 3 1/2 year old at the party, my niece's cousin, and he was entranced by the sight of these cakes. He insisted on being able to smell them! "I'm not gonna touch Mommy, wanna smell! [SNIFF] Mmmm." Both he and my niece were prepared to eat cake the moment the party started, and it was with some difficulty we persuaded them to wait a little while and participate in activities other than staring at cake. 
It was a great party, everything turned out really well, and eventually we all got some cake. Can you ask for a better day than that? 

Simple Vanilla Buttercream

This is the recipe we used for our frosting. It is stiff enough to hold intricate piping designs, but will eventually soften in your hands as you work the bag, so plan accordingly. It's not too sweet, and has great vanilla flavor thanks to the bean paste. I'm posting it in its most simplistic state, and it really couldn't be easier to scale up for bigger projects like this one was. 

1 stick butter, room temperature
1 C confectioners' sugar
1 tsp vanilla bean paste
a sprinkle of salt

Whip together with electric beaters or a stand mixer in whatever multiple amount you need! 

Thursday, March 19, 2009

As Promised

As promised, here's a (not very good) photo of the pizza I mentioned last week. It was inspired by a recipe I have for a pizza with Sicilian flavors: Spicy Italian pork sausage, pine nuts, and raisins. I used that recipe as a jumping off point and removed the pine nuts (Hubband isn't a fan) and added onions that I first caramelized in some rendered homemade-bacon fat, upped the amount of raisins, and sprinkled on a hint of red chile flakes. Topped with fresh mozzarella, and chopped scallions after coming out of the oven, it's quickly become one of our favorites for its sweet-spicy-salty flavor. 
I tried something new, born of necessity, for my pizza sauce on this pie. Out of cans of good crushed tomatoes, I searched the pantry and found I did have a small can of stewed tomatoes. I crushed them up and added them, along with juices, to a pot with minced garlic, salt, pepper, and a splash of balsamic vinegar. I added chopped fresh basil and oregano from our garden at the last minute to preserve their flavor. The vinegar was gorgeous in the sauce; it played up the sweetness of the raisins, rounded out the spice of the sausage, and lent a little acidity, along with the tomatoes, to cut through the richness. The fresh herbal flavors of the basil and oregano also helped to enliven the pizza and play off that richness. The sauce turned out so well that when we made the pizza for the second time last week, I went the stewed tomato route again! It makes a slightly chunky, rustic sauce that just works really well for these toppings. 
No real recipe, as this was purely an exercise in eyeballing amounts. I hope you'll try this flavor combination, if you haven't already!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Small Changes

Well, I'm becoming more and more mobile, thanks to my trusty rolling office chair, which I'm using as a substitute wheelchair. Don't laugh, it's much faster than my crutches thanks to our wood floors, and it enables me to carry things. You try getting a bowl of cereal from the counter to the table on crutches! 
Anyway, I'm not back at the stove yet, but I made a couple of changes to the format here on the blog and thought I'd mention them. I've updated and expanded my blog list, as I do faithfully peek in on quite a few every day, and the list I had here was much smaller than the one in my 'favorites' folder. I also added a new widget in the left sidebar, for followers. I just have one lonely follower right now, so she's a super celebrity, all alone in the box, featured on the page! Everyone give a big hand to Liz, from What's To Eat Baltimore? ! If you would like to be notified of updates to this blog, please feel free to click on the big grey "Follow" button, and you can join Liz in the most exclusive club on the Web, or you can choose to follow privately and leave her all alone in there. 
That's pretty much it for format changes, other than the little bit of juggling I did with the order to things in the sidebar. I'm off to roll into the kitchen, to attempt making pizza dough from my chair. We're having a wonderful new-ish pizza tonight, one we've only made once before. I've got pictures of our first one, so I'll post about it soon! 

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Little Break (Figuratively and Semi-Literally)

Once again, I find myself apologizing for things being so quiet around here. Things have been unsettled in Chez Marshmallow for a few weeks now, as we've been preparing for an upcoming event that would put me in a different position; less standing at the stove watching sizzling, bubbling, burbling pots and instead more sitting, looking at this:
Last Thursday I underwent ankle surgery, thanks to a hole in the sidewalk that I managed to find with my shoe heel last New Year's Eve. The prognosis is good; everything has been repaired, resected, and resewn, but I have two and a half more weeks of no-weight-bearing to muddle through before I can get back into the big, black, heavy walking boot that I never thought I would actually look forward to. I have a few backed-up posts that I can put up in the meantime to break the silence, and I'm really hoping to get back to the stove soon. Hubband has been keeping me well fed with lovely homey meals (although I sent him out for Thai food tonight, whee!) and taking better care of me than anyone could ask for. Many thanks to Mom as well, for running over while Hubband has been at work this week and making so many things easier. 

Monday, March 2, 2009

Comfort Food

Do you ever feel like you were born in the wrong decade, or the wrong area of the world? I do. I pull out the pots and pans for at least one meal every single day, whether it be breakfast or dinner, and usually both. As far as I can tell, not everyone does that these days. More evidence? Once a month I like to bring in a baked good to the place I volunteer, and I've actually had a group of (ahem) older gentlemen tell me that they were surprised I had made them, because "young women these days, they don't know how to bake anymore." 
As for occasionally feeling that I was born in the wrong part of the world, it's because the food I crave isn't usually "American". Fried chicken? No. Hamburgers? No. Well, sometimes. But for real comfort, give me Asian! Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, or some sort of pseudo-version of any or all of the above. I love rice! Granted, I love bread too, but sometimes I just CRAVE some rice, the taste of soy sauce, the bite of ginger. 
I know that I'm lucky to have been born when and where I was: An era when women wearing jeans isn't scandalous, access to higher education and any career path, an equal partnership with my spouse, and access to recipes and ingredients from all over the world. Sometimes though, I still wonder why things like this appeal to me so deeply:
Perhaps it's just that I appreciate anything this delicious!
Beef Shortribs braised with Chinese flavors, over (pseudo-Asian) pineapple fried rice. This recipe was adapted from one of my favorite cookbooks, Simple to Spectacular by Vongerichten and Bittman. Each segment of the book gives you one master technique and follows it with four increasingly complex variations. This is the third level (I stopped short of the marrow butter version) but it is still very easy; the real complexity is the flavor. I adapted it based on my extreme dislike of cilantro and I also cut down on the star anise, as I find it can be quite strong. They recommend serving it over plain white rice, but I always use brown for its health benefits, and my pinapple fried version didn't detract from the ribs at all. The sweetness of pineapple and sharpness of scallions played very nicely with the ribs, and I used a light hand with the soy, ginger and garlic. Overall, this was a resounding success, and will absolutely be made again. I hope you try it! 

Short Ribs Braised with Chinese Flavors
adapted from Simple to Spectacular, Vongerichten & Bittman

4 Tb neutral oil, such as canola
4 lbs beef shortribs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large yellow onion, peeled and chopped
4 medium cloves garlic, peeled and smashed with the side of a knife
1/4 C roughly chopped, unpeeled ginger
2 TB sugar
3-5 star anise pods, depending on your preference. (I used 3)
5 dried chiles (Strangely hard to find in my area, I used red chile flakes instead)
2 TB Szechwan peppercorns
20 parsley stems, washed (They called for cilantro, but I wanted mine to be palatable. HA!)
1 C dry sherry (I used 3/4 C Spanish brandy, because that's what I had. It was tasty.)
1/2 C quality soy sauce
3 C water
2 TB peeled and finely minced ginger

Put 2 TB of the oil into a deep, heavy skillet or casserole and turn the heat to high. Season the ribs well with salt and pepper, then brown them well on all sides. This will likely cause some smoke, so turn on the vent hood or open a few windows. When all the ribs are well-browned, take them out and set them aside, then very carefully pour out the fat and wipe the pan. (I crumple up a paper towel and use tongs to run it around the pan.) Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Put the pan back on medium-high heat and add 2 more Tb oil. (If you want to just save 2 TB of the previous oil/beef fat, I won't tell.) Add the onion, 1/4 C chopped ginger, and sugar to the pan and cook, stirring often, until the onion is deeply browned. Add star anise, chiles, and parsley stems and cook for a minute, then add sherry, soy sauce, and water. Add the ribs back to the pot, cover, and place in the oven. Once or twice an hour, turn the ribs in the liquid. Braise for 3-4 hours, until the meat is meltingly tender. Remove the ribs and set aside. Strain the cooking liquid, pressing hard on the vegetables to get all the goodness out, and skim off as much fat as you can. If you have the time, refrigerate the liquid to make it easier to remove the fat. Pour cooking liquid, minus fat, back into the pot and bring it to a boil until it's slightly reduced, then add meat and minced ginger. Heat the ribs through again, check seasonings, then serve with your choice of accompaniments.