Monday, December 26, 2011

Happy Holidays!

I hope everyone is enjoying the holidays. I'm having a lovely time with my family in Austin and I am taking a mini vacation from blogging.

I am not doing much cooking down here, but I did make this Tunisian Soup with Chard and Egg Noodles for dinner on Christmas Eve, which received many compliments. Paired with a fresh salad and warm, crusty bread, it made for a festive, satisfying dinner that was enjoyed by the whole family. It is fast and healthy, and would also be great for New Year's Eve.

I will be back in time for the New Year. See you then!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Baking Class: Snickerdoodles

We are having a cookie exchange at work today. I'm kind of excited because I've never participated in one before. The closest I have come is when I lived at Five Girl Farm in Austin and we all baked for the holidays together, so we had a variety of cookies around the house for the whole holiday season. I have tried to do it by myself over the years, but there are only so many cookies one person can make in any given season, and even less that one can consume and only so many one can give away.

And I was getting tired of my usual rotation, as I've mentioned in an earlier post. I wanted to make something new our exchange, but something that I associated with Christmas. And I thought back to that time when we all baked our holiday treats together at the Farm, and I remembered Susie's Snickerdoodles.

I had never heard of Snickerdoodles before my housemate Susie made them, and I laughed at their silly name. A native Austinite, Susie had grown up making them. They looked like a sugar cookie with cinnamon and sugar instead of just plain sugar, but when I took a bite of them it was immediately evident to me that these were much more than sugar cookies. Crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside, there was a unique, tangy undertone from the cream of tartar that was like nothing in the world I had ever tasted. She was kind enough to give me the recipe, but I never made them.

So I thought this would be a good time to pull out the recipe and give them a try. But when I went to get it, I could not find it. I have no idea where it went. I do still have all of my old recipe index cards in the original box, and as far as I know it has stayed there untouched for all of this time, but the recipe was not there. So I looked in my backup book, and then my computer files, but it was nowhere to be found.

This bummed me out. I couldn't make the same cookie that Susie made all of those years ago without her recipe. And, if I don't have the Snickerdoodles recipe, what other recipes have I lost over the years that I don't yet know are gone?

I turned to my many cookbooks, but could not find a recipe for Snickerdoodles in any of them. I finally found one in the International Cookie Cookbook, but it used baking powder and baking soda instead of cream of tartar. I know that shouldn't make that big of a difference, but I wanted to get as close to the original recipe as I could and the cream of tartar lended that indefinable tang that made those cookies so darned good. I finally found some recipes online and, after comparing a few of them, came up with what looked like it would work.

And it did work. These are delicous, and almost as good as I remember them. I am betting that the original recipe had shortening in it, because they were softer and not as crisp as mine turned out, and the centers were more chewy as well. But these are definitely keepers. I won't wait so long to make them again.

I am looking forward to our exchange. I wonder what everyone else will bring? (And, because it's me, I'm also bringing a batch of sand tarts. Those have nuts, though, and we have allergies in the office so this way I have something for everyone.)
Home Cookin Chapter: Cookies

makes about 5 dozen cookies

2-1/4 cups all purpose flour
2 tsp cream of tartar
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp ground cinnamon

Mix flour, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl and
set aside.

Beat the butter with a hand mixer on medium speed until it is creamy.
Add the sugar and continue beating until the butter and sugar are well
combined and fluffy.

Raise the speed to medium high and add the eggs, one at a time, making
sure it is well blended before adding the second egg.

Set the hand mixer to low and mix in half of the dry ingredients. When
the batter gets too thick for the beateres, switch to a wooden spoon
and add in the rest of the dry ingredients. Form the dough into a ball
and set it in the smaller bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and
refrigerate for at least 30 minutes (or up to 3 days).

Preheat the oven to 350 deg. F. and line baking sheets with parchment
paper. Roll the dough into 1-inch balls and place them on the baking
sheet, leaving plenty of room for the cookies to spread. Place the
dough back in the refrigerator between batches.

Bake the cookies for 13-16 minutes, until the edges are slightly firm.
For best results, turn the cookies around in the oven after about 7
minutes. Do not let the cookies get too brown.

Remove the baking sheets from the oven and place on cooling racks for
about 2 minutes, then remove the cookies from the sheets and let them
cool completely on the racks. Store in an airtight container.

adapted from several recipes found online, but mostly this one.

Exported from Home Cookin 6.46 (

Monday, December 12, 2011

How To Make Peanut Butter

The last time I was in Austin I was browsing the cooking section of the bookstore (yes, there are still bookstores out there and yes, I go to them) and my eyes were caught by a book called Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, by Jennifer Reese. I picked it up and thumbed through it. Now that I am making so many things myself, I was curious to see what she had to say about it, especially the idea that there are some things one should not try to make from scratch.

I already had my own, informal and relatively unformed, list of those things that are best bought, but that list is constantly changing as I learn how to make more and more of my own food. Five years ago I would never have thought I would be making my own mayonnaise; two years ago the idea of making my own mustard, ketchup, and Worcestershire sauce would have been unthinkable. And I have been making my own bread, granola and crackers (yes, crackers) for years now.

I thought it would be interesting to compare my experiential list to hers. And mostly, I agreed with what she said. There are certainly some things better left to the experts. Until I get a bigger kitchen, canning is not in my future, nor do I see myself making a home for cows, goats and chickens anytime soon. And while I do plan to experiment with cheese and yogurt, I doubt I will go past the basic simple paneer and ricotta, possibly mozzarella. But nothing that needs to be aged or kept in a dank, dark cave.

Jennifer Reese started her project when she lost her job and was mainly looking for economical ways to feed herself and her family. While I care about my money and how I am spending it, my primary motivating force is keeping the foods that I eat as chemical and preservative free as possible. On the way, I have discovered that I actually prefer the taste of homemade to store-bought, and I can often (though not always, I admit) taste and feel the difference between the two. That was not always the case. When I first started making my own condiments, for example, they tasted nothing like the mayonnaise, ketchup, and ballpark mustard that long were my standards. And salad dressings never tasted right. But after a period of not having the commercial brands around, my attempts tasted better and better, and now I do prefer the taste of what I make myself. Like everything else, it is a process.

Nothing comes out the same every time, but it is all good, and when it is really good, it can be transcendent. As with life, if you aren't willing to experience any of the lows, you won't be able to enjoy the highs.

I was pleased to discover that peanut butter fell into the "make it yourself" category in the book, as I have been making my own peanut butter for the past six months, and I was interested to see her recipe.

I don't remember all of the details of it, but I do remember that there were several ingredients, including oil. The first time I made my own peanut butter I added oil, but I soon realized that it was completely unnecessary. All you need to make peanut butter is peanuts. Maybe salt, if you want it to be a little salty.

But you should never need to add oil to peanut butter. It can look like you do, because when you first start grinding it up it makes a thick paste of the ground peanuts that doesn't look like it will ever break up. But if you are patient and let the food processor continue to do its work, the paste does break up and you end up with the smoothest, creamiest peanut butter, one that looks and tastes exactly like the natural brands that are on the grocery store shelf.

A lot of my friends (and family) don't buy natural peanut butter because it is so hard and messy to stir together the nuts and oil that have separated after sitting on the shelf for so long. One trick I learned from my brother to solve that problem is to store your jar upside down on the shelf, so that all of the oil is on the bottom when you turn it over and open it. But if you make your own, that will never be a problem because there is no separation when it is fresh, and if you put it right into the refrigerator, it stays together. And because everything is already well integrated, you don't get that impenetrable mass of peanut paste that you sometimes get when you didn't combine it evenly.

It took me a few tries to get it to the right consistency, so I thought it might be helpful to offer a step-by-step tutorial of the process, with photos to show how it should look throughout the process. All you need is a pan, the peanuts, and a food processor. Do note that this will not work in a blender. I have it on good authority that it will burn out the motor.

This might sound like a lot of work, but it doesn't take long at all, and the food processor does all of the work. The whole process takes less than an hour (slightly more if you roast the peanuts, but you can do that as early as a few days ahead).

The first thing you need to do is to get your peanuts. I buy roasted valencia organic peanuts in bulk at Whole Foods, but you can really use any roasted (not dry-roasted, though)peanuts. I like a dark roast, though, so I put them in a pan and roast them at 350 deg. F. for about 12 minutes, and then let them cool. Sometimes there is still some of the red peel on the nuts. I will go through them and remove as much as I can, but I do not get overstressed about it. A little won't hurt.

After the nuts have cooled, place them in the food processor bowl. I usually use a pound of nuts. That fits nicely into the food processor, and the finished product goes right into a leftover peanut butter jar from when I used to buy it.

If you have more than one setting on your food processor, put it to the highest setting and turn it on. Let it go for a few minutes, until your peanuts have been ground into teeny little pieces that look like this. While you can just let the processor go until you have peanut butter, it is a good idea to stop every once in a while and see how it looks, especially at the beginning, when you are still not sure how it supposed to look at each stage of the process.

At some point the peanuts will start to clump together as they are whizzing around the food processor bowl. Eventually, it will solidify into a solid mass on one side of the bowl that looks it will never budge and just might possibly burn out your motor. This is the point where most people believe it needs some oil to get it going. They would be mistaken. You can let it keep going and it will eventually work through the mass or, if you don't believe it will ever make it through, you can turn it off and let it pulse every few seconds. The stopping and starting of the motor will slowly move the lump around the bowl until it is evenly spaced around the bowl and moving smoothly again.

Eventually, it will look like this. You can still see the pieces of peanut, but you can also see that the oil has separated out and it is starting to get smooth. Let it run for another 2 or 3 minutes, but be careful. I have heard that it is possible to overwork it and end up with a liquid that cannot be saved, but I have not had that happen yet and I have let it run for up to 3 minutes.

And just when you think it will never happen, the last little pieces of peanut disappear and you are left with a bowl full of beautiful, smooth, creamy peanut butter, just like this. If you prefer crunchy, set aside half a cup or so (to your taste) of the peanuts and grind them to the desired size. Follow this process withe rest of the peanuts and then stir in the ground peanuts.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Baking Class: Cornish Fairings

Well, it's that time of the year kids. Christmas = cookies! And I hope not to disappoint. I'm not going to be as unrealistically ridiculous as to try to make a different cookie every day, but I have gotten a little tired of my usual Christmas baking (except for the Mexican Wine Cookies - the butter is softening for those as I write) so I am experimenting with other options.

I found this recipe for Cornish Fairings in my new favorite cookie cookbook, The International Cookie Cookbook, by Nancy Baggett. It has been sitting on my bookshelf for years now, and I finally went through recently and started marking recipes I wanted to try. By the time I was done, the book had dozens of post-it tabs sticking out of the top. In fact, I was intimidated by how many cookies I wanted to try, so back on the shelf it went so I wouldn't have to decide where to start.

I have been in a cookie-making mode lately, so I decided it was time to pull it back down and start making some decisions. I have been experimenting with spice/ginger/molasses cookies lately so when I read through the recipe for Cornish Fairings it seemed like a good place to start.

Not surprisingly, the Cornish Fairing is most commonly found in Cornwall, where a fairing was originally known as any edible treat found or sold at a local fair. Over the years it has come to be more specifically associated with this spicy gingery biscuit, or cookie as we would call it here in the States.

The main thing that interested me about this cookie is that, while it is similar to the cookies I have been making recently, it does not have any molasses in it. I was interested to see how that would make it distinguishable from the other cookies I have been making.

And it did make a difference. Without the molasses, the cookies are lighter and sweeter. The spices are there, but they do not overtake the overall flavor of the cookie. While I do love the dark, sultry flavor that molasses provides, it was a refreshing change to have a lighter spice flavor come shining through.

This recipe (and several others in the book) calls for golden syrup, which is common in Great Britain but not so common here. For years I had no idea what that was and assumed it was the same as corn syrup. It is not. According to Baggett, you can substitute dark corn syrup for the golden syrup, but the cookie will not come out the same.

After searching for years, I finally found Lyle's Golden Syrup at my neighborhood Treasure Island, but the last time I was in Austin I actually found some at HEB, a local chain, so it has gotten easier to find. It is worth seeking out if you plan to make this recipe, or any recipe that specifically calls for it. Corn syrup is not at all the same. Golden syrup has the same taste, look and feel as pure cane syrup (or perhaps I should say, as I imagine pure cane syrup to taste; I can't say as I've ever tasted it). Corn syrup, while probably just as sweet, has less flavor, and the flavor is more muddled. There's a muted tone to it that somehow blunts the sweetness in an undesirable (to me) way. Your mileage may vary, of course.

But, whether you use the golden syrup or dark corn syrup, you really should try these cookies. They are light, sweet, and spicy without the sometimes cloying cloak of molasses.

Home Cookin Chapter: Cookies


Makes about 4 dozen cookies

2 cups all-purpose or unbleached white flour
1-1/4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1-1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
3/4 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 cup unsalted butter, slightly softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1/4 tsp finely grated lemon zest
2 Tbsp golden syrup

Preheat the oven to 375 deg. F. Generously grease several baking sheets and set aside. Thoroughly stir together flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves.

In a large mixing bowl, combine butter and sugar and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until light and smooth. Add egg, lemon zest, and golden syrup and continue beating until thoroughly blended and smooth. Gradually beat in about half the dry ingredients. As dough stiffens, stir in remaining dry ingredients using a large wooden spoon.

To form cookies, pull off small pieces of dough and roll between the palms to form 1-inch balls. Space about 2-1/2 inches apart on baking sheets. Press down balls with the heel of the hand to flatten them just slightly.

Place in the upper third of the oven and bake for 9 to 11 minutes, or until cookies are a rich brown and slightly darker around edges. (The cookies will puff up and then "fall" as they bake, which gives them a crackled surface.) Remove baking sheets from oven and let stand for 1 to 2 minutes. Then, use a spatula to transfer cookies to wire racks and let stand until cooled completely.

Store cookies in an airtight container for up to a week. Freeze for longer storage.

from The International Cookie Cookbook, by Nancy Baggett (Stewart Tabori & Chang, 1988)

Exported from Home Cookin 6.46 (

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Can Organic Feed the World?

I don't write as often as I would like to about food politics because I do not take the time that I should to do the research to make sure that I know my facts, and can produce sources with which to back them. Of course, I have my opinions, and those come through regularly in my posts - at least I hope they do.

Fortunately, there are others who do take the time to do the research. Barry Estabrook is one of those people. In this piece, he provides a cogent rebuttal to a post by Steve Kopperud, a lobbyist for agribusiness, who claims that Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle are living in an ivory tower and have an unrealistic approach to food production, and that sustainable, diverse, organic farming cannot feed the world.

However, from what Mr. Estabrook is saying, and from the studies he cites (something conspicuously lacking in Mr. Kopperud's post), it looks like sustainable, diverse, organic farming may be the only thing that will feed the world.

But don't take my word for it. Read the piece yourself.

Photo found at

Monday, December 05, 2011

Chicken Noodle Egg-drop Soup

This lovely soup was born of my desire for something quick and comforting when I was recovering from a nasty virus I picked up the last time I was in Austin. The last thing I felt like doing was cooking, let alone making a trip to the grocery store, so my only option was to forage through my freezer and pantry.

It is a good thing I keep my freezer so well stocked, even though I often complain about how full it is. I was pleased to discover a quart of chicken stock in there, and some noodles on my pantry shelf. A quick chicken noodle soup was just the ticket.

But of course I had to get creative with it, even as awful as I was feeling. I did not have any chicken and I wanted to use some kind of protein, so I decided to make an egg-drop soup, which inspired me to give the soup an Asian twist. I quickly revised my plan and added ginger, napa cabbage, fish sauce and garlic chili paste to the broth.

In record time I had a delicious, soothing, nourishing dinner. The Marsala added a sweet counterpoint to the sourness of the fish sauce and the heat of the chili paste. The pungent garlic chili paste cleared out my sinuses for the rest of the evening, so I was able to get my first good night's sleep since getting sick.

Until now, I had never made egg-drop soup. Several online sources that I looked at before adding them said that the strands would be more silky if cornstarch was added to the liquid, but I did not feel like messing with it so I just dropped them into the liquid as it was. As you can see in the photo, the eggs did not make those lovely strands you find in the egg-drop soup they serve in Chinese restaurants. I might try it with the cornstarch next time, but I can say with no hesitation at all that there was no loss of flavor doing it this way.

The beauty of this soup is that all you really need is the chicken stock, the noodles and the eggs. You can add whatever vegetables you happen to have. Instead of ginger, fish sauce and garlic chili paste, you can add thyme or poultry seasoning. The options are virtually endless.

The beauty of this soup is the quickness and ease with which you can make such a hearty meal - perfect for those evenings when you get home late from a mind-numbing round of Christmas shopping and want to indulge yourself without having to work for it. It will rejuvenate you enough to go back out and do it all over again the next day. And if you want to make it vegetarian, just use vegetable broth and leave out the fish sauce - nothing could be simpler.
Home Cookin Chapter: My Recipes


Makes 4 servings

2 Tbsp + 1 tsp oil, divided
1 Tbsp minced garlic
1 Tbsp minced ginger
1/2 onion, chopped
1/4 napa cabbage, sliced
1 quart chicken stock
1 tsp fish sauce
1/4 tsp garlic chili paste
1/4 cup thin noodles
1 Tbsp Marsala wine
2 eggs, well beaten
green onion and fresh parsley for garnish (optional)

Heat oil over medium-low heat in soup pan. Add garlic and ginger and cook, stirring frequently, for 2 minutes. Add onions and cook until translucent. Add cabbage and salt and cook for about 10 more minutes.

Add the stock, chili paste, and fish sauce and bring to a boil. While the stock is coming to a boil, heat the remaining teaspoon of oil in a small skillet. Add the pasta and cook, stirring constantly, until the pasta is toasty brown. Remove from the heat.

When the stock is boiling, add the noodles. Cook them for 2 minutes less than the package directions. Stir in the sherry. Turn off the heat and slowly add the beaten egg in a thin stream, stirring constantly.

Garnish with green onion and parsley and serve immediately.


Exported from Home Cookin 6.46 (

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Baking Class: Sweet Rolls

Bagels were a staple in our house when I was growing up, and every Saturday morning my father would drive down to Three Brothers Bakery and come home with a couple dozen assorted bagels, which would last us through the week until the next Saturday, when he would go get more.

But every once in a while he would surprise us, and come home with a box of assorted Danish instead (or on those rare, special occasions, both). This was mostly when we had company for brunch. Cherry, apple, lemon, pineapple and cheese - I loved them all and it was always a little bit of torture having to decide which one I was going to have, because it meant that I would not be having any of the others. The dough was more chewy than flaky, and it was soft and buttery. The fillings were fruity and not too sweet, and there was just a hint of glaze threaded over the top to add a touch of sweetness to the dough. Left alone, I could have eaten the whole box myself but, alas, two was the most I ever managed to wrangle.

When we moved to Dallas it took a while, but my father finally found a place that had decent bagels. But that was all they had, and I don't believe I ever had a Three Brothers danish ever again. And no danish I have had since has been able to come close to my memory of the taste of those lovely treats. I realized that it was probably my memory of how they tasted that made later pastries suffer in comparison. Whatever the reason, I just haven't been all that interested in sweet rolls.

A search for a recipe for hamantashen, however, led me back to sweet rolls in a curious way. In my memory they were cookies, and we made them in Sabbath school one year - at least we put the filling in the pre-made, pre-rolled dough and folded over the corners to make the hat-shaped triangles - but I kept running into recipes that had a yeast dough. It confused me - was it a cookie or a pastry? Having worked so successfully with yeast these past few years, I decided to go for the yeasted version. (More on that later; I flaked out and missed writing about them in time for Purim, but I hope to get to it this year.)

It turns out that the base for the hamantashen was a basic sweet bread recipe that could not only be made into hamantashen, but was also good for sweet rolls and other sweet breads. I don't know what prompted my decision, but I was happy enough with my success with the hamantashen that I decided to take a stab at the sweet rolls.

The recipe looks daunting, but it is actually fairly easy and does not take that long. It was easy enough, and the sweet rolls went over well enough (including a request for the recipe) that I have already made them again, and plan to put them into a semi-regular rotation. And now that I am making my own jams, I don't have to worry about whether or not I have any in the pantry. These days I almost always have a jar of some kind of home-made jam in the freezer.

These sweet rolls are actually not like those ever-elusive Three Brothers sweet rolls at all. But they are very, very good.

I believe it is worth mentioning that the directions for the recipe in the cookbook is one paragraph long. It tells you what to do, and assumes that you know how to do it. If I hadn't been making breads and baking as much as I have been these past few years, I don't know that I would have known what to do, so I have expanded the recipe to include more detailed instructions.

Here are the instructions for making the dough:
"Dissolve the yeast in warm water. To the scalded milk add the butter, sugar, salt, a little nutmeg and lemon. When lukewarm, add 1 beaten egg or the beaten yolks of 2 eggs; stir in the yeast and only enough flour to knead. Knead dough until smooth and elastic. Cover tightly and let rise until doubled in bulk. Cut dough down, form into desired shape and bake in a moderately hot oven (375 deg. F.) until browned."

It seems easy to me now, but there was a time when I would not have known what to do. I hope my version will be easier for the less experienced cook to feel comfortable enough to jump on in and get started.
Home Cookin Chapter: Breads and Muffins

Makes about 20 rolls


1 package active dry yeast (3/4 Tbsp)
1/4 cup warm water (105-115 deg. F.)
1-3/4 cup scalded milk
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
Dash nutmeg
Grated rind of 1/2 lemon
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed*
2 cups white whole wheat flour*
1 egg
1 egg white mixed with 1 tsp water
Coarse (sanding) sugar, optional


1 lb blueberries, strawberries, figs, or any other fruit, fresh or frozen
1/4 cup sugar
grated rind of 1/2 lemon
2-4 Tbsp water

*I have also successfully made this dough using 100% whole wheat white flour.

Put the warm water in a small bowl. Add the yeast and let it dissolve.

Once the milk is scalded (do not let it boil), remove from the heat and add the butter, sugar, salt, nutmeg and lemon zest. When the mixture is lukewarm, pour it into a large mixing bowl. Add the egg and the yeast and mix well.

Combine 2 cups of all-purpose flour and 2 cups of white whole wheat flour and whisk together. Add to the yeast mixture and stir vigorously. Add more flour as necessary until a soft dough has formed. Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead until it is smooth and elastic, adding only as much flour as necessary to keep the dough from sticking.

Put the dough back into the bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Leave in a warm place to rise until it has doubled, about 1 to 1-1/2 hours.

While the dough is rising, make the filling: Combine the blueberries, sugar, lemon zest and water in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and let simmer until the blueberries have broken down and the sauce has thickened. Set aside to cool.

When the dough has risen, punch it down and turn it out of the bowl. Preheat the oven to 375 deg. F.

Divide the dough into two equal pieces and set one aside, covering it with plastic wrap. Roll the first piece into a 1-inch thick rectangle. Cut into 2-1/2-inch circles and place close together on a baking sheet that has either been greased or covered with parchment paper (I use parchment paper). Repeat with the second piece of dough, re-rolling the leftover scraps and cutting more circles until you have used up the dough. Let rise for about half an hour, until they have almost doubled.

With your fingertips, make a cavity in the center of each roll (dip your fingers in flour if necessary). Drop about 1/2 teaspoon of the blueberry filling into each hole. Brush the dough with the egg white mixed with water, being careful not to smear the filling. Sprinkle the coarse sugar over both the dough and the filling.

Bake 20-25 minutes, until the rolls are golden. Start checking after 10 minutes. Let them cool enough for the filling to set.

Adapted from The Settlement Cookbook, Third Edition Newly Revised (Simon and Schuster, 1976)

Exported from Home Cookin 6.46 (

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