Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Cracking a Caged Cake is Better than Blowing Out Candles

I have two confessions to make...

1. I didn't trust anyone to make my birthday cake this year.
2. I also didn't trust myself to make a cake from scratch either.

Yes, it's true. I can't make cakes from scratch, at least not a delicious moist, cake with a light, fluffy crumb. Sadly, every time I attempt a cake from scratch it turns out dense and dry. I follow cake recipes with surgical precision, and I take care not to over bake them, but still I'm disappointed. And, when you're celebrating another year of your life lived, well, you don't just want to leave the cake making to chance.

So really the only reasonable solution was to make a boxed cake, but to trick it out so no one will pay any attention to the fact that without Betty Crocker I'd be a culinary flop.

It also just so happened that I had recently watched an inspiring episode of The French Chef with Julia Child. The episode was entitled "Gateau in a Cage." The concept of a caged cake was at once strange and dramatic, in other words, perfect for my birthday. A caged cake is a cake encased in a domed netting of caramelized sugar. The sugar is crunchy like toffee, but has a richer caramel flavor.

It looks like this:
You all know how much I heart Julia Child. But I especially love her when she gives inspirational speeches regarding spun sugar. In this episode, while she's waiting for the sugar, corn syrup, and water mixture to come to the boil and caramelize, she says, "People are scared of recipes that have spun sugar. They think OH! I couldn't do that. This is one of those awful American syndromes of fear of failure. If you're going to have a sense of fear of failure, you're just never going to learn how to cook. because cooking is--well lots of it is--one failure after another, and that's how you finally learn. For instance, you have got to develop an "I-don't-care-what-happens" attitude." She continues on with her little lecture, waving her fist in the air for added emphasis, "A souffle can fall, omelets can go all over the stove, but I shall learn. I shall OVERCOME. That sort of women's liberation."

How could I not believe I could conquer spun sugar after that?

It starts out simple, really, with 1 cup of sugar, 1/4 cup corn syrup, and 1/3 cup water. These boil together on high heat for about 5 minutes, or until the faintest touches of caramel color begins to show. Then it's taken off the heat and allowed to cool. The syrup mixture gets darker and darker as it cools. (The first batch I made was overdone and had a slightly scorched taste, so I made another...)

The mixture cools until it thickens enough to drizzle well. Then, using a spoon, I drizzled the mixture over a buttered mold, which in this case, was a Pyrex casserole dish a cake pan.

Then, the cages cool slightly before they're removed from the molds.

If you aren't incredibly careful, they will shatter and make a big mess like this one:

Then, I made a third batch of caramelized sugar...

In the end though, I had a beautifully encased German Chocolate Cake filled with homemade coconut pecan frosting and topped with dark chocolate ganache.

When serving time came, I got to crack the cage. If you listen carefully you can hear my friend, Scott say, "I didn't even realize those covers were edible until you broke them."

I'm a year older and a year wiser. Wiser knowing that cooking, sometimes, is several failures after another. Which means, I think I'm finally smart enough to try making cakes from scratch again. And maybe by next birthday, I'll have cake baking from scratch mastered. Maybe.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Gratitude for Small Things like Oatmeal

I've noticed lately that winter doesn't bother me as much as it used to. I've taken a more reflective approach to the cold and the snow and the sunless days. I can't change it, instead I've learned how to just BE in it.

Being in winter means enjoying the fact that the pace of my days is a bit slower, and that the food on my plate is comforting, warm, and hearty.

Specifically winter makes me grateful for:

1. A hot bowl of oatmeal first thing in the morning.

2. The beauty of icy crystals on my window in the morning sun.

3. Being able to justify putting on pajamas as soon as I get home from work because it's dark.

4. Cuddly, warm cats on my lap.

5. Toasty wool socks.

Honestly, the more I eat oatmeal, the more I love it. Waking up with a meal that is warm and creamy, fragrant with cinnamon and dotted with jewels of dried fruit is a fine way to accept the day graciously, and openly.

Of course eating your breakfast with a happy, purring cat sitting in your lap helps too.

I have eaten a bowl of oatmeal every single morning for the past 19 days, and I'm not tired of it. Oatmeal is a blank canvas. Oatmeal will take any suggestion or whim that you throw at it, and embrace it. I see starting a pot of oatmeal each morning as a ritual open to endless variations. Simply put, oatmeal is expansive.

Here's the basics for A Bowl of Oatmeal Possibilities:

1 cup liquid, (milk, soy milk, rice milk, water it doesn't mater.)
pinch of salt
1/2 cup quick-cooking oatmeal

Bring your choice of liquid to a boil. Add a pinch of salt. Stir in oats and cook until desired consistency is reached, about 1 to 3 minutes.

Stir in any combination of flavorings:

Dried Fruits, such as: cranberries, raisins, cherries, apricots, dates, figs
Fresh Fruits, such as: sliced bananas, sliced pears, diced apples
Nuts, such as: toasted almonds, chopped walnuts, sunflower seeds, peanut butter
Sweeteners: brown sugar, vanilla-scented sugar, maple syrup, honey, chocolate chips, coconut

Sprinkle liberally with cinnamon and top with yogurt if so desired.

I've never made the same bowl of oatmeal twice, but at its core it is always comforting familiar, like a favorite pair of wool socks. Oatmeal isn't glamorous, in fact its allure lies in its humble proletarian roots. Oatmeal makes me feel well and balanced and grounded. And that's the way I want to start my day, 19 days in a row and counting...

So what 5 things are you grateful for this winter?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Diaphanous Roasted Kale

There are no bad vegetables, only people who prepare vegetables badly. So if you hate {insert any vegetable you had a traumatic childhood experience with here}, I would say you just need to find an appropriately fabulous way to cook it.

Or, maybe you've never even come close enough to the unappreciated, yet maligned vegetables of this world to actually eat one. Perhaps the infamy of certain vegetables has been enough to thwart you from even trying it. If that's you, well, you're in for an adventure. One word: KALE.

Now before you call me an over-the-top vegetable evangelical I must explain that until about six weeks ago I had never eaten kale either. And let me tell you, my years without kale-- over two decades devoid of the lusciously dark leafy green--those were the lost years. Do not delay with kale. Add it to your bucket list because I have such an ingenious way to cook kale that almost anyone will LOVE it.

The root of most people's kale abhorrence is texture. Kale is kind of like the black heavy-duty garbage bags of the vegetable kingdom. Its leaves are tough, possibly rubbery, and even when boiled down the can have a slightly alarming spring back reaction when you sink your teeth into them. Not only that, but like other greens kale can be bitter. And finally, I've found most people are baffled by what to do with it. Sure if it's Curly Kale, it has some beauty, albeit the fleeting beauty of a tawdry spinster wearing a dress with too many ruffled petticoats. But honestly, I've seen kale applied more times as a garnish than as a dish. If you live near a store that stocks Tuscan kale you might be inclined to think that a kale leaf was something a lizard sheds. Simply put, kale is quirky.

So here's what to do with a weirdo vegetable no one likes: you roast it in the oven with olive oil.

Like every single other vegetable (asparagus, parsnips, carrots, turnips, tomatoes, beets, cauliflower) just to name a few, it turns out phenomenally well when cooked this way. It's just impossible to cook a vegetable badly if you roast it with olive oil.

It's embarrassingly simple.

Diaphanous Roasted Kale

Wash some kale leaves and remove the tough stems. Any type of kale will work: Dinosaur, Tuscan, or Curly. Dry the leaves with a clean kitchen towel. Spread the leaves in a single layer without crowding on your largest cookie sheet. Gently drizzle with olive oil. The key is to gently coat each leaf, but not drench it. Now, massage the olive oil into the leaves. This step is crucial because if the kale is not completely coated in oil it will not crisp evenly. Sprinkle with salt and fresh ground black pepper if you'd like, and roast at 250 degrees for about 17 to 33 minutes. Each batch I've done has timed out differently, so start checking for crispness early and often. The only way you can flub up this recipe is to let the leaves burn. As soon as all leaves have reached desired crispness, remove from oven and devour immediately, using your hands.

The end product has an earthy toasted flavor and crunch not unlike a fresh potato chip. However, underneath the toast and crunch is a fresh, sharp--well--green flavor for lack of a better word.

The leaves come out looking fabulous--as I hope you can see from the picture--after roasting they become translucent and luminously green.

I am totally smitten with this kale, this light of my life. I crave it. I blame this ravenous compulsion to buy, roast, and single-handedly polish off mountainous amounts of kale on a vitamin deficiency. Perhaps I'm missing vitamins A, C, and K, or folate, or potassium, or magnesium, or iron, or any other of the nutrients kale packs, or perhaps roasted kale leaves are just good. Damn good.

Friday, January 2, 2009

More Pork Related New Years' Wishes

Upon opening my email today, I found this.

My brother-in-law wished me a Happy New Year from Switzerland where they truly delight in all things pig. It's kind of hard to make out, but did you notice the pig tongue in the center of the display case?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Ringing in the New Year with Pork

Reflecting back on 2008, this was the year of the pig. (Forget what the Chinese Zodiac said about the rat.) In February, I watched the slaughtering and butchering of a pig. Then I made head cheese out of the head. I decided that that adventure was the culinary zenith of 2008. Rather than make me swear off pork forever, the experience did the opposite. I craved all things pork.

So fittingly, I made a New Years' Eve meal that was appropriate for celebrating the end of Sarah's personal year of the pig. For an appetizer, I made almond stuffed dates, wrapped in bacon. It's true. Everything is better with bacon. They are also ridiculously easy to make, if a bit tedious to assemble. The flavor, however, is worth it. The dates nearly caramelize in the oven, and the salty bacon, the sweet date, and the crunchy almond exploding in your mouth all at the same time, well, it's just a bit spectacular considering it's all wrapped up in such a small little bundle.

Here they are before they go in the oven. In my cooking and eating haste, I overlooked snapping an after picture.

Almond-Stuffed, Bacon-Wrapped Dates

Simply take pitted dates, push an almond into the center, and wrap with half a strip of bacon (avoid thick cut bacon). Secure with a toothpick (off centered, avoiding the hard almond in the center,) and bake on a rimmed baking sheet at 350, until the bacon is done, about 25 minutes, turning once so they brown evenly.

I also made Hoppin John, completely from scratch this year. I simmered the black-eyed peas with a pound of smoked pork neck bones, and I could not believe how incredibly smoky and earthy they turned out. Hoppin John, with a side of greens, will supposedly bring good luck. The greens, in particular are supposed to bring you more folding money in the new year.

I love New Year's if only for the fact that it's a holiday that invites reflection, nostalgia and list making. These are my favorite past times. (An understatement, I know). Add to this a blank 365-day slate of possibility laying in wait, and an excuse to get really drunk, well this is just my type of holiday.

While I've thought about listing a Prose and Potatoes 2008 Greatest Hits list, the idea tired me out and made me bored. I also thought about a Biggest Bloopers of 08 list, but honestly, I don't document the flops because I'd rather forget them as quickly as possible. The only exception here would be the Spam Sushi experiment. What the *&%! was I thinking?! However, I will tell you about one disaster. It was an angel food cake with lemon curd filling that tasted like sweaty, raw eggs and had the texture of a kitchen dish sponge. You can find the recipe, here, if you want to mock how ridiculous it is to fill an angel food cake with lemon curd and then, smother the whole shebang in boiled icing. What was I thinking?!

Instead of those lists I give you the list of culinary adventures I want to have this year. Here are the things I want to do with food and cooking throughout 2009, in no particular order.

1. Make my own ricotta and mozzarella cheese. (And hopefully taste raw milk for the first time.)

2. Make homemade sesame seed bagels.

3. Learn to can tomatoes from my garden.

4. Make dandelion wine and Lemoncello.

5. Cure my own corned beef.

6. Cook and eat beef tongue.

7. Make pirogi.

8. Make coffee can ice cream.

9. Make Baked Alaska and other frivolously retro desserts.

10. Make something with dried lavender flowers.

Am I missing anything? Is there some wonderful culinary curiosity that I should explore this year? I'd love your suggestions. And what about you? Is there anything that you've always wanted to learn how to make but have been holding back and putting it off? What is it? I'd love to hear about it.