December 28, 2007

Tamale Festival

Well, I'm at home in the Midwest with the family, but not doing a whole lot of baking. Hopefully that will change soon, but in the meantime, here is a post that's been languishing in my "drafts" pile for quite a while.

Tamale Festival
Macarthur Park, Los Angeles. November 2007.

A beautiful day for a tamale festival. And yes, the name of the festival is grammatically incorrect.

Beverages- Horchata, Tamarind juice, Kool-Aid, etc.

Beautiful Macarthur makes this seal sad.

Bacon-wrapped hot dogs...mmmmm.


Don't know the name of this dish...we'll just call it "deep fried, with chicken"

And finally, the tamales! greasy.

December 18, 2007

L.A. Rain and World Peace (in cookie form)

Ah, Los Angeles in the rain...on the one hand, it's nice to have some weather to break up the monotony of constant sunshine (I know, I know...), and I do love the rain, but on the other hand....the rain does a lot to make an already disfunctional and unattractive city even less appealing. Dirty water pours down streets and sidewalks not designed to handle the runoff, puddles have oily slicks on top, sewage and toxic substances are washed out to sea via the Los Angeles "River", creating hazards for wildlife and swimmers.

And the people! You'd think they'd never seen rain before. Outside with a (SoCal native) friend, there was a nice steady rain, nothing too bad. The friend snuggles into her parka and says, "Wow, it's really coming down!". Traffic becomes even more of a nightmare, since drivers have no idea how to handle the rain. They become so confused by the missing sun and all that wet stuff falling from the sky that many of them drive even more erratically than usual, speeding through lights and barely missing innocent, wet pedestrians (yes, you, lady in the blue SUV from this morning).

Oh, and don't get me started on the local news. What with all their "MegaDoppler3000"s and "Stormtrack!" broadcasts, you'd think a hurricane was a-brewin'. Without fail, every major rainfall brings a story like this one, investigating how the average Southern Californian feels about the rain (short answer: some like it, some don't. Groundbreaking journalism!)

What's my point here? Actually, I don't think I have one. Perhaps the point is that this is a perfect day to stay in, listen to the rain, and bake your favorite cookie. And this is a good one- Dorie Greenspan's ever-popular World Peace Cookies. Insanely chocolaty and a little salty, they are amazing right out of the oven, but even better once they've cooled.

You can find the recipe here- I used the same recipe and Anita's notes are very helpful. I will add a few of my own observations:

-If you don't have fleur de sel, you can use fine sea salt (in this case reduce amount to 1/4 tsp). You could even use table salt if nothing else, but one of the joys of eating this cookie is hitting a large fleck of sea salt - you want the salt to be a prominent flavor and texture.

-When you add the dry ingredients, make sure not to overmix. The dough will look dry, but it should all come together when you press it into logs (kind of like pie dough). Too much stirring will make the cookies tough. My dough looked like this:

-I like to finely chop a block of chocolate by kind of "shaving" its edges with a sharp knife- this makes nice small bits of chocolate.


December 9, 2007

Honey Sesame Cakes

This recipe, originally from Alice Medrich's Pure Dessert, has already appeared on a few other blogs, but it's popular for a good reason- it's unusual, yet easy to make, and the end result is a delicious, visually appealing dessert. I opted to make a dozen small cakes instead of one large cake because, well, who can resist a wee cake.

Thinking that honey would pair well with sesame, as it does in many Greek sweets and fun candies, I experimented with exchanging some of the sugar for honey. In the end, the flavor of the honey was indeed discernible, but did not come through as much as I would have liked. I might try (cautiously) increasing the amount of honey in future batches.

Honey Sesame Cakes
adapted from Pure Dessert by Alice Medrich

makes 12 small cakes

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking soda, plus a pinch
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
2 large eggs, room temperature
2 1/2 tsp toasted sesame oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
scant 1/4 cup honey (I used orange blossom)
scant 1/2 cup buttermilk, room temperature
1/4 cup toasted black sesame seeds

-Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a muffin tin or 12 small molds.

-Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl.

-Place the butter in a large bowl and beat for a few minutes. Add the sugar and beat for several more minutes until it is light-colored and fluffy.

-Add eggs, one at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition.

-Add honey, vanilla, and sesame oil and mix thoroughly.

-Add a third of the flour mixture, and beat just until combined.

-Add half the buttermilk and beat until combined.

-Add half of the remaining flour mixture, the rest of the buttermilk, and then the rest of the flour mixture and sesame seeds. With each addition, mix only until just incorporated. If you're using an electric mixer, you might want to fold in the sesame seeds with a spatula so as not to overwork the batter.

-Divide batter evenly between muffin tins or molds.

-Bake for about 15 minutes, until the tops of cakes are golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

-Let cakes cool in tins for a few minutes, then remove from pan and cool completely on a rack. Sprinkle with powdered sugar (once the cakes are cool) for extra fun and excitement.

Cakes will keep for a few days in an airtight container.

November 28, 2007

Archaeology FAQ

I realize that despite the fact that this blog is supposed to be about archaeology and baking, (however those two things may intersect...if they do at all), it's been pretty heavily weighted toward the baking end of things. So in an effort to focus a little more on archaeology, hopefully without completely boring those of you who are more interested in what I bake, I'm going to start from square one and present to you a little Q & A about archaeology. Here are many of the questions that I am often asked myself, along with a few I just made up.

What is archaeology?
Archaeology is the study of past human culture based on material remains. In other words, it is a way of learning about the lives of humans in the past by looking at what they left behind. We use many tools in this study, from written records, to artifacts (objects created or manipulated by humans), to preserved plant and animal remains.

So you guys just go out and dig in the dirt all day, right?
Not exactly. Excavation is only a small part of archaeology. In fact, the vast majority of archaeological work is done in the office, library, or laboratory and is much less glamorous than popular culture makes it seem. Most of the time archaeology looks like this:


Before an archaeologist can dig, he or she has to do a great deal of preliminary research. And after the excavation is over, there are artifacts to deal with, data to analyze, and reports to write and publish.

And when we're "out in the field", archaeologists do more than just dig. Mapping, surface survey, and remote sensing (survey with fancy machines) are all ways that archaeologists gather data. Digging is just one of many methods we can use.

Is archaeology a real job? I thought it was just something you study in school.
Believe it or not, you can make a living as an archaeologist. Most archaeologists in the United States work in cultural resource management (CRM). CRM is a field devoted to the protection and management of our nation's cultural resources (archaeological sites, artifacts, historic properties, etc) in the face of a growing and expanding population and rampant development.

Many other archaeologists are educators- teachers and university professors. In addition to teaching courses, they also research, write, and do fieldwork. And of course some archaeologists work in museums, as curators, educators, and exhibit designers.

Do archaeologists dig up dinosaurs?
No. Those are paleontologists.

But I thought--

What does archaeology have to do with baking?
Very little, as far as I can tell. They are just two of my favorite things, and I like to talk about them both. I guess I could study what people baked in the past, or bake ancient recipes (or brew ancient beer), or eat really old food...but let's not get crazy here.

I hope our little conversation has been helpful. I'm always open to more questions, so feel free to ask. And if you're looking for some more interesting archaeology-related stuff, here are some links:

Archaeology education

Archaeology 101 from the Archaeological Institute of America: A good introduction to archaeology, plus a handy glossary, bibliography, and review of archaeology-related tv shows and movies.

Archaeology Magazine's Interactive Digs
: Black Sea shipwrecks, Civil War prisons, George Washington's distillery (!), and more!

Archaeology Education from Ohio State University: A basic, but thorough, introduction to such topics as archaeological survey, excavation, and Greek history and archaeology.


My pal Bill's blog started out this summer as a chronicle of his archaeological project on Cyprus, so look at the early posts if you want to know what it's like to plan and implement this kind of project. Now he blogs about everything from Byzantine churches to travel in Greece to the history of the University of North Dakota.

Shameless plug: Read about my adventures on an archaeological project in Greece this past summer.

Archaeology & Food

The Trouble With Blood: Julie Powell takes on ancient cooking (full article not available online, unfortunately- but the recipes are! I dare someone to make the lamb liquor.)

Moche Foodways Archaeological Project

November 24, 2007

Pie update

Ok, so the pumpkin didn't turn out so well, but this apple pie, made with the very same crust, on the very same morning, turned out beautifully. I used Cooks Illustrated's much talked-about vodka pie crust recipe, which, while kind of a pain to work with, did in fact produce the flakiest pie crust I've ever had. So all is well.

Happy belated Thanksgiving, everyone!

November 22, 2007

I don't want to talk about it.

Behold, the saddest pie in all the land.

November 15, 2007

Pumpkin Bread Pudding

Mmmm...pumpkin. Can you tell it's fall? Can you tell that despite LA's unnervingly consistent and unending sunny weather, some Midwestern instinct deep within me is screaming "Pumpkin! Cinnamon! It's fall-- now bake, woman!".

Fall doesn't really happen here, but I can live in denial and pretend that the air is getting cold and crisp, the leaves are changing, and it's time to break out the hats and mittens. This bread pudding helps me live in my fantasy world a little bit longer.

The recipe is originally from Gourmet (October 2007), but I used Deb's version, which boosts the flavor by doubling the spices and adding some bourbon. The secret to really tasty bread pudding, I've discovered, is to use challah, preferably homemade, but even not-so-great storebought challah can be transformed into fantastic bread pudding.

Pumpkin Bread Pudding

1 1/2 cups whole milk or half-and-half
3/4 cup canned solid-pack pumpkin
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs plus 1 yolk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
Pinch of ground cloves
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
2 tablespoons bourbon (optional)
5 cups day-old challah, cut into 1-inch cubes

1. Preheat oven to 350°F

2. Whisk together pumpkin, cream/milk, sugar, eggs, yolk, salt, spices and bourbon, if using, in a bowl.

3. Put bread cubes in an 8-inch square baking dish and pour pumpkin mixture over top. If you have time, let it sit for a half hour or more (can even do this overnight, for an easy weekend breakfast) to let bread soak up liquid.

4. Bake until custard is set, 25 to 30 minutes.

November 12, 2007

When a friend gives you pumpkins...

Make pumpkin pie! A friend brought me a nice, big sugar pumpkin back from her recent romantic getaway to the pumpkin patch (?), and I knew I had to make a pie out of it. I had to try, at least once in my life, to made a pumpkin pie completely from scratch.
The verdict? Well...

The results were mixed. The finished product tasted pretty good, but there were a few bumps along the road to pie-ville.

Here's what I did to make the fresh puree:
-I cut the pumpkin in half, removed the stem, and scooped out the innards (saving the seeds for toasting).
-Then, I put the pumpkin halves on a baking sheet and baked them at 375 F for about an hour. However, this wasn't quite enough time, I realized, so although baking time ultimately will depend on the size of your pumpkin, I would recommend baking the it for longer than an hour- the pumpkin should be really really soft and darken a bit in color.
-I let the pumpkin halves cool a bit, then separated the skin from the flesh (I just scooped it out). I pureed the pumpkin with an immersion blender until it was pretty smooth.
-Then, I lined a strainer with a (sturdy) paper towel, placed this over a bowl, and put the puree in the strainer to drain for a few hours. This is important. You want a pretty thick puree, or the pie won't set right.

I then used the puree to make a pie. I used Dorie Greenspan's recipe for Sour Cream Pumpkin Pie, as well as her pie crust. The filling was excellent, but-- I really should have either blended the puree more or put it though a fine mesh strainer, because the texture of the finished pie was not as smooth as I would have liked.

I had plenty of filling left over, so I poured it into ramekins and baked them alongside the pie- voila! Pumpkin pots. Serve with some fresh whipped cream.

So would I do it again? Probably not. While the pie made from fresh pumpkin was certainly quite good, it tasted pretty similar to those pies I've made with canned pumpkin and the whole roasting, pureeing, and draining process was kind of a pain. But, now I know.

November 4, 2007

Parsnip, Carrot, and Potato Soup

It's been a while since I've posted, and I'd like to blame that on being super busy with work, but the truth is I think I've hit kind of a creative slump. I'll begin to write a post, then either be at a loss for words, or finish the post and not be satisfied enough with the final product to hit "post".

Hopefully I can get back into the swing of things soon. In the meantime, here is a recipe for my new favorite soup. I realized the other day that I like parsnips. It really was a dramatic moment of realization- cartoon light bulb over my head and everything. Parsnips are a vegetable that I hadn't really thought about much- just enough to assume that I wouldn't like them. But I was wrong. Who knew?

This isn't a very exact recipe- more like a guideline for soup-making. It can be altered in any number of ways without seriously harming the soup.

Heat a large pot on medium-low heat. Cut 2 slices of bacon into 1/2-inch pieces (optional). Fry bacon until crisp (but not burnt...oops). Reduce heat to low. Add 1 medium onion, finely chopped, to pan and saute until translucent, about 7 minutes (if not using bacon, add a few tablespoons oil before adding onions). Add 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped. Cook for 30 seconds more. Add 2 large parsnips, 2 large carrots, and 1 large potato (or 6-8 small ones), all coarsely chopped. Cook on medium heat for about 10 minutes (add a little oil if needed).

Add enough chicken or vegetable broth to cover veggies, about 2-3 cups. Add about 1/2 tsp dried thyme, and 1/2 tsp dried tarragon, more or less. Bring soup to a boil, then turn down heat and let simmer, partially covered, for 30-35 minutes, or until vegetables are cooked through.

Remove from heat. Puree soup with immersion blender, or in batches in a regular blender. Add milk or cream until soup is desired consistency (1/2 to 1 cup...). Stir in some shredded cheddar cheese, if you want (highly recommended). Taste soup, then add salt and pepper to taste.

Makes 4 servings.

October 22, 2007

Apple Bread Pudding with Warm Bourbon Sauce

Here is my proud entry for Sugar High Friday #36, hosted by Spittoon Extra. The theme is "Drunken Apples"- basically, apples and booze. And yes, this bread pudding tasted better than it looks in the photo. Much better, in fact- it was positively scrumptious, and I think the booze made all the difference. The bourbon sauce is a vital part of the recipe- don't skip it! The bread pudding is good on its own, but the sauce takes it to a whole other level.
Another key to good bread pudding, I think, is the bread. I've tried to make bread pudding before with various levels of succ
ess, but this time I used leftover, slightly stale challah and it came out perfect. I'd also like to add some dried cherries to the pudding next time, for a nice tart addition.

**See the roundup for Sugar High Friday #36 here!

Apple Bread Pudding
Adapted from this recipe.
Makes 4 servings

About 2 cups bread, cut into 1/2 inch cubes (I used about a quarter loaf of challah)
1 medium firm, tart apple, peeled cored and diced
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup cream
1/8 cup honey
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
pinch salt
pinch cinnamon
pinch nutmeg (you can adjust these spices to taste)

Bourbon Sauce

1. Butter a glass baking dish (I used a 1 1/2 quart pyrex casserole dish). Put cubed bread and apples in dish.
2. In a medium bowl, mix together eggs, milk, cream, honey, vanilla, honey, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
3. Pour liquid mixture over bread and apples. Mix a bit to make sure all pieces are coated.
4. Refrigerate for about 2 hours.
5. 20 minutes before baking, preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
6. Boil a kettle of water. Put baking dish in larger metal roasting pan (or similar pan). Pour boiling water roasting pan until it comes up to about 1 inch up the side of the glass baking dish.
7. Bake 50 minutes, or until pudding is firm and top is golden brown.
8. Cool slightly before serving.
9. While pudding is baking, make bourbon sauce. Pour warm sauce over pudding just before serving.

October 20, 2007

Dining Out in the Electronic Neighborhood

It's amazing what you can find in your local public library. I shouldn't be surprised- my mom's a librarian and I practically grew up in libraries. But while searching for local historical resources at work the other day, I stumbled upon the Los Angeles Public Library's Electronic Neighborhood- a collection of electronic resources on the city's history which contains, among other thing, a collection of menus (mostly local) dating back to the 1860s that had been digitized and cataloged online, and made accessible to the public via an easy-to-use search engine.

This collection has led to a lot of slacking at work- I just can't stop browsing these menus. I find it endlessly fascinating to see what people ate in the past and how that changed over time.

There are a few restaurants that are still around, but most are long gone. Some have great names, like the "Bit of Sweden". Some have bizarre claims to fame, like Eaton's Chicken House ("glorifying the American chicken"), Marigold ("Best Ventilated Cafe in Los Angeles!"), and Trocadero ("The Only High-Class Restaurant in Hollywood").

Some menus are notable for their artwork, which ranges from charming to risque to featuring what is possibly the most terrifying chicken I've ever seen.

And all are signs of their times-- The World War II-era menu from Albert Sheetz Fine Foods features a stern-looking Uncle Sam eating dinner and declares, "For Health Defense! Properly Prepared to Retain All Vitamins."

Of course you have look at the menu options. What would a Los Angeles socialite eat at the Cafe Montmartre on Christmas Day in 1922? Why, "Cream of Lettuce Judith" and "Non-Fattening Parfait Amour", of course.

I'm really intrigued by the "Shish-ke-Dog" at Ken's Dog Kennel - it's so complicated that they had to diagram it on the menu. But the Temptation Sandwich at Buckhart's sounds positively revolting (buttered toast, fried ham, peanut butter, lettuce, pickles, and olives!).

And if you were craving something sweet in LA in the 1920s and 30s, you could swing by the soda fountain at the Pig n Whistle and indulge in a Creamed Buttermilk Phosphate or a Creme de Violet Sundae. (This restaurant, by the way, is still around today)

Even if you don't live in Los Angeles, I definitely recommend checking out this collection. It's kind of like rummaging through a virtual flea market- you never know what you're going to find.

For more library related food-blogging, check out Cooked Books. This blog (one of my favorites) is written by Rebecca Federman, the librarian in charge of the New York Public Library's culinary collection, and features recipes from both old and new cookbooks, historic cocktails, and general musings on the culinary past.

And, for more digitized menu collections see:
The Miss Frank E. Buttolph American Menu Collection at the New York Public Library
The Rare Menu Collection at the Cornell University Library

October 15, 2007

Cardamom Cinnamon Braids

Hooray!-- I have a new, better job, one in which I do NOT have to get up before dawn and pick fish bones out of piles of gravel. In celebration of this lucky turn of events, I baked some bread. This recipe was inspired in part by the fantastic cinnamon and cardamom rolls I made a few weeks ago, which I figured would translate well into bread form. I took a basic challah recipe, added cardamom to the dough, and rolled the ropes of dough in cinnamon before braiding to create these fragrant, slightly sweet loaves. Enjoy, and happy World Bread Day!

Update! See the roundup of World Bread Day '07 here at Kochtopf.

Cardamom Cinnamon Braids
Makes 2 braided loaves

For dough:
1 1/4 c warm (around 110 degrees F) water
1 packet (1/4 oz) dry active yeast
1 tsp sugar
1/4 c honey
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted and cooled
1 tsp cardamom
4 1/2 - 5 c flour
1 tsp salt


For glaze:
1 egg
1 tbsp milk
coarse sugar

-Dissolve yeast in 1/2 cup of warm water mixed with 1 tsp sugar. Let sit for 10 minutes, until yeast is foamy and active.
-Add remaining water, honey, butter, and cardamom. Stir to combine.
-Add flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until you get a sticky but workable dough. I used about 5 cups in total, but you may need more or less depending on a variety of factors like the type of flour you use, humidity, etc.
-Turn dough out onto floured surface and knead for 10 minutes. Dough will be soft and smooth.
-Place dough in a large oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise until nearly doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours**
-After dough has nearly doubled, gently deflate it and let it rise a second time, about 1 hour**.
-Preheat oven to 350 F.
-After 2nd rise, gently deflate dough and turn it out onto a floured surface. Divide dough in half. Here, you have a choice - you can make 3- or 6-strand braids, and either bake them freeform or in a loaf pan. For a 3-strand braid, take one half of the dough and divide it further into 3 pieces. For a 6-strand braid, divide into 6 pieces.
-Roll each piece out into long strands. Sprinkle a little bit of cinnamon onto strands and rub with hands to coat the strands.
-Working with one half at a time, braid the loaves. For good instructions on how to braid a 6 strand loaf, see this video.
-Place braids on a greased or parchment-lined baking sheet. Or, put in oiled loaf pan.
-Let rise for another 30 minutes or so, until almost (but not quite) doubled.
-Prepare egg wash: beat together egg and milk in a bowl. Brush over tops of loaves; sprinkle with coarse sugar.
-Bake 40-45 minutes, until bread is a deep brown.
-Remove from pan and cool completely on rack before slicing.

**This was how long the dough took to double in size when I made this bread, but it was was a pretty warm day. It may take your dough longer to proof depending on the temperature of your kitchen.

October 8, 2007

Goodbye, lazy student life: Weekend baking and Seriously Intense Chocolate Frosting

While I can't complain too much about having a job (but I will anyways), one thing I do miss about my lazy summer of unemployment was all of the time I had to bake. Now, I have to kind of cram in all my baking time on the weekends. I know, I know- welcome to the real world.

For the past few weeks I've been working at an archaeological site in Los Angeles, doing a variety of things. Basically, the situation is that this company wants to build a large office complex on this big chunk of land, but the law requires that before they can do that, they must first assess the impact that their work would have on the surrounding area. This includes not only the environmental impact, but also whether the construction would negatively impact any cultural or historic resources, i.e. historic buildings or archaeological sites.

The first week, we were doing test trenches- basically digging big holes to see if there was any evidence of historic or prehistoric habitation at the site. There wasn't, so the project ended. If we had found something significant, the next step probably would have been a full-scale excavation, to carefully document the sites before they were destroyed by the construction.

While we didn't find any artifacts, there's been archaeological work going on at this place (which is a massive housing and retail development) for well over 15 years now, so the company I'm working for has a mighty backlog of artifacts that need to be dealt with - sorted, inventoried, etc. I'm now working in the lab and helping to, well, deal with them.

This being LA, we're never far from the entertainment industry. The building next door to the lab is a World War II era hanger where Howard Hughes built the Spruce Goose (among other things), and it is now used as a sound stage for movie production. According to my coworkers there's been some major movies shot there, but it has been pretty quiet since I've been around. Although, the other day I saw a couple of horses outfitted with those funny motion capture suits...

Anyways, back to baking. The past few weekends I've had the opportunity to bake some fantastic deserts. Last weekend I made the Alsatian Apple Tart from Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home to Yours (pictured at the top of the post). It was fantastic- easy to make and delicious. I highly recommend it.

A weekends earlier, I was the (self-) designated cake-baker for a friend's birthday party. I baked a chocolate cake and made some vanilla ice cream. I agonized for quite some time over what to frost the cake with - my original thinking was a light and fluffy vanilla icing, to contrast with the rich chocolate cake.

Well, I don't know how I ended up with this frosting- it's insanely rich and chocolaty and decadent, and not anything like my original idea. It's great for chocolate lovers, but it might not be everyone's cup of tea. I used 72% bittersweet chocolate, but you could easily use semi-sweet chocolate for a less intense frosting.

I also spread some raspberry jam (strained first to remove the seeds) between the cake layers, along with a thin layer of the chocolate frosting. This was a good move- it cut the intensity of the frosting and brightened up the whole cake.

Seriously Intense Chocolate Frosting
Makes enough to frost and fill one 2-layer cake

10 oz good quality bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate, finely chopped
4 oz (1 stick) butter, room temp and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
5 oz (a little more than 1/2 cup) heavy cream

-In a double boiler, or metal bowl set over just barely simmering water, heat chocolate and cream, stirring constantly, until chocolate is just melted.
-Remove from heat and stir in butter, 1 piece at a time, until all butter is melted and mixture is smooth.
-Allow to cool completely at room temperature, until thick and spreadable (1 hour or so). Or, cover and refrigerate until needed, but bring to room temp before using.
-Optional step: Once frosting has cooled, use a whisk or electric mixer to whip icing for 30 seconds to 1 minute. You can probably whip it more if you want a lighter frosting, but I haven't tried this yet.

October 1, 2007

Cinnamon and Cardamom rolls

I don't have a lot of time to write at the moment, what with the new job and all, so I'll just say this: Go make these. They're just that good.

September 25, 2007

Early morning bran muffins

I just got a job (yay!), but it's a temporary one and requires me to be at work at 7:00 AM (boo.) It's at an archaeological project at Playa Vista, a development down by the ocean. More about the job later, but for now here's one of the ways I cope with having to wake up at the ass-crack of dawn. I bake a batch of these muffins on the weekend, and bingo, instant breakfast for the whole week. They're hearty and filling, and easy to eat as you're out the door and sprinting to the bus stop at 5:45 AM.

I like to freeze the muffins- they thaw really quickly in the microwave or in the toaster oven and taste like they're fresh out of the oven.

Bran muffins (adapted from this recipe, itself adapted from The New York Times Natural Foods Cookbook [1971]).

makes 1 dozen muffins.

1 1/2 cups oat bran
2 cups white whole wheat flour
3/4 tsp salt
1 1/4 tsp baking soda
2 tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
2 tbsp butter, melted and cooled
2 cups whole-milk yogurt
1 egg
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup molasses
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup dried cherries (or more, up to 1 cup), and/or 1 large tart apple, peeled, cored & diced.

1. Preheat oven to 425 F. Grease muffin tin or line with paper muffin cups
2. Mix bran, flour, salt, baking soda, sugar, and cinnamon in a large bowl.
3. In another bowl, mix yogurt, melted butter, egg, honey, molasses, and vanilla.
4. Dump wet ingredients into the flour mixture, stirring only until just combined. Lumps are fine, but overmixing will lead to dense, chewy muffins. Fold in cherries.
5. Fill muffin tin with batter- this recipe makes a lot of batter and the muffin tins will be filled all the way to the top.
6. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until muffins are golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool on rack.

September 21, 2007

Grown-up Fig Newtons (plus a bonus tart): SHF 35

I admit, I've never tried a fig before, not intentionally anyways. I'm kind of a picky eater- as a kid, the only fruit I would eat were apples (preferably in sauce form or dipped in caramel), and it wasn't until I got a job at a Whole Foods Market after college and was encouraged to try all sorts of new fruits and vegetables that this started to change. I'm still striving to widen my culinary horizons- so when Ivonne at Cream Puffs in Venice announced that the theme of this month's Sugar High Friday was "figs", I took this as an opportunity to try something new.

You won't find any dramatic conversions here, though. I change in baby steps. So thinking about figs, I decided that the most logical thing to do would be to create something similar to one of my favorite childhood cookies, the Fig Newton (I didn't realize they had fruit in them back then, or my picky elementary-school self certainly wouldn't have eaten them).

I used a recipe for cuccidati (Italian fig cookies) from Gourmet magazine, which you can find here. I altered the recipe quite a bit, but I'm not going to publish my version of it just yet. It still needs a bit of ironing out, as you can tell from the series of mishaps that follows. So here's what I did:

-I omitted the nuts, because I don't like 'em.
-I didn't have any brandy, so I substituted orange juice
-I combined all the ingredients and then tried to grind them in a blender-- um, I don't recommend this unless you want to spend a half hour cleaning fig goo out of the nether regions of your blender. A food processor would have been ideal, but I don't have one. In the future, I would just chop the figs and raisins very finely.
-I added about 3 ounces of chopped dark chocolate.
-I realized too late that by omitting the nuts, I lost a full 1.5 cups of dry ingredients and my filling wound up being way too liquidy. I would say if you plan on omitting the nuts as well, cut back on the brandy/OJ and honey (the filling was really sweet anyways, so reducing the honey probably wouldn't hurt).
-Rolling out the dough and shaping the cookies was tricky. The key is to make sure the dough is well-chilled and not to put too much filling in the logs.

The finished product? Very tasty, but intense. The chocolate was a nice addition, but was overwhelming at times and I would add less next time (1.5-2 oz). I would probably make these again during the holidays- they do kind of scream "Christmas" (to me anyways) with all the cinnamon and cloves and orange. I did put the glaze on a few of them, but that made them too sweet for my taste.

I may even try this recipe again without the spices, when I want something more like a plain old Fig Newton.

I had some dried figs left over, and decided to make them into tarts. I made a fig jam using this recipe (I rehydrated the figs first, and added some extra water during cooking). The procedure for the tarts is fairly simple- make a tart crust of your choice (I used the almond sweet tart dough from Baking with Dorie), press into tart pan, top with jam, decorate if you so desire, then bake at 400 F until done (about 15 minutes for my mini-tarts). In the end, I actually liked these better than the cookies.

So, that's one small step for me towards trying something new. Will I ever work up the courage to try fresh figs? Stay tuned!

September 18, 2007

Pumpkin Scones

It's only September, and I've already began to crave all things pumpkin. When I saw Johanna's pumpkin scones on the Sugar High Friday #34 round-up, I was immediately sold, loving both pumpkin and scones. They're quite good on their own, but I decided to "Americanize" a batch of these traditional Australian treats them by sweetening them a bit and adding pumpkin pie spices (my apologies to Australia for messing with a good thing). So try the original version here, or try my bastardized American version below- both are very good in their own way.

Pumpkin Scones
Makes 6 giant or 12 smaller scones.

2.5 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
4 tbsp sugar
5 tbsp butter, chilled and cut into cubes
1/2 cup pumpkin puree (not pie filling)
1/2 cup milk

1. Preheat oven to 425 F
2. Mix together flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and sugar in large bowl.
3. Cut butter into flour mixture with fingertips or pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse meal, with chunks of butter no larger than peas.
4. Mix together pumpkin and milk in a separate bowl, then add to flour/butter mixture. Stir until dough forms a shaggy mass, being careful not to overmix (dough should be a little dry, but if it's really not coming together add 1 or 2 more tablespoons milk).
5. Turn dough out onto floured work surface and knead a few times until a cohesive ball of dough is formed. Either roll dough out 3/4 inch thick and cut with biscuit cutters, or (even easier), form dough into 2 disks, 3/4 inch thick, and cut each disk into 6 wedges. If you want larger scones, form dough into one big disk and cut it into 6 wedges.
(*optional: at this point if you want you can brush the tops of scones with milk and sprinkle raw sugar on them for extra sparkle and sweetness*)
6. Bake at 425 F until very lightly browned, about 12-15 minutes for small wedges (larger scones will take up to an additional 10 minutes).
7. Cool on rack.

September 14, 2007

Roast Hedgehog, anyone?

Here's a fairly interesting news item about the cuisine of Ancient Britain, dating back to 6,000 B.C. It's a fun piece, but I'd be interested to know who the "food experts and archaeologists" are that they talked to and what their sources were. There's actually quite a bit you can say about the diets of ancient cultures based on archaeological evidence (fossilized seeds and pollen, burnt food left on cooking vessels, etc), although I'm not sure where they got these "8000 year old" recipes, given that writing did not yet exist in Britain at that time, or anywhere else for that matter.

Traditional English Cooking: nettle pudding and other ancient recipes
, via the Daily Mail.

Anyone daring enough to take on the recipes? The garum sounds pretty tasty.

September 13, 2007

It's here!!

What is this monstrosity, you ask? Why, it's a Waring Ice Cream Parlor, circa god-only-knows -when, and I couldn't be more excited.

An ice cream maker has always been on my list of to-get kitchen appliances, but not a priority due to the space constraints in my, um, cozy kitchen. But when my mother told me, "You know, I have your grandparents' old ice cream maker down in the basement, and I'm never going to use it - do you want it?" --how could I say no? (My boyfriend is torn about this new development, being simultaneously excited by the prospect of ice cream on-demand, but already fretting about where we're going to put the damn thing).

One of my favorite childhood memories is making ice cream with my grandfather. He had a fantastic wooden hand-cranked ice cream maker that he would always bring to our family 4th of July gathering. We would smash up ice in a burlap sack with a hammer, and then pour it along with a ton of rock salt into the machine. Into the canister would go the cream and vanilla, and after we cranked the machine for what seemed like hours, we were rewarded by a bowl of very soft, very delicious vanilla ice cream.

I'm pleased that I now have access to the pleasures of homemade ice cream without all the manual labor. The Waring is of the old-fashioned variety of ice cream maker, with the ice and the salt and a motor so loud it sounds like you're running a leafblower in your kitchen. Yes, I know that I could have easily bought a newer, possibly better ice cream maker for about the same amount of money as it cost my mom to ship it to me, but frankly that would have been far too logical.

And now, it's time to make some ice cream. This could be the beginning of a very dangerous friendship...

September 10, 2007

Sourdough Biscuits

My sourdough starter is driving me nuts. It sits in the back of my fridge, all docile and unassuming, I feed it every few weeks, and it seems happy enough. But when I try to bake with suddenly turns into a temperamental, unpredictable mess, like a petulant 7-year-old throwing a temper tantrum. Sometimes it will foam up and overflow out of the bowl within a few hours, sometimes...nothing. Sometimes the bread I make from it will be perfectly edible but taste nothing like sourdough, while sometimes it becomes mouth-puckeringly sour. But it's hearty, though, I will give it that. I left it unfed for two months this summer, and I thought it was dead for sure. But lo and behold, there was still a glimmer of life, and now it's up to its old tricks.

One of the problems with a starter is that it needs to be fed every so often (2 weeks in my case, but some people feed theirs more often), and this feeding leaves a certain amount of excess starter, which can either be used in baking or discarded. As much as I like sourdough bread, I don't have the time (or masochistic personality) to bake it that often, and so I am more often than not left with a cup of starter that I eventually, regretfully, throw in the trash.

This recipe is a great way to use that extra cup of starter. The biscuits turned out light and fluffy, with a pleasant yeasty taste. Mine were in no way sour, although that could just be my unpredictable starter up to its old tricks. And they stay soft and tender for longer than regular biscuits- I accidentally left them sitting out overnight, and they were still surprisingly soft and edible in the morning.

Sourdough Biscuits
Makes 8-12 biscuits.

1 cup flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 cup (half a stick) butter, cold and cut into cubes
3/4 cup refreshed sourdough starter ***

1. Preheat oven to 425 F
2. In a large bowl, mix flour, salt, soda, and baking powder.
3. Cut butter into flour mixture using a pastry blender or fingertips, until mixture resembles coarse meal and bits of butter are no larger than peas.
4. Stir in starter. Do not overmix- stir only until mixture comes together. It will still look a little dry.
5. Dump mixture onto floured board and knead a few times until dough forms a cohesive mass. Roll dough about 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick, then cut out rounds with a biscuit cutter and place on baking sheet. Gather extra dough into ball, then repeat rolling and cutting.
6. Bake for 10-14 minutes, or until tops are lightly browned. Cool on rack.

***How much starter you will need depends on the consistency of your own starter- mine is very liquidy, so if yours is a bit thicker, you may need a little more to get a workable dough.

September 9, 2007

Greek Honey

I am a honey fanatic, and luckily for me, Greece is a great place to find great honey. Unlike, say, its wine, Greece's honey has an excellent reputation. The history of honey production in Greece is a long one and may even extend before the advent of written records, although there is little archaeological evidence to support this. Bronze Age Mycenaean (15th-12th centuries BC) tablets tell of the trade of jars of honey, but not of its production. One of the first written mentions of beehives is this charmingly misogynistic passage from Hesiod's Theogony (an 8th century BC poem about the birth of the gods) in which he compares women to drones, getting fat off the hard work of others:

"And as in thatched hives bees feed the drones whose nature is to do mischief -- by day and throughout the day until the sun goes down the bees are busy and lay the white combs, while the drones stay at home in the covered skeps and reap the toil of others into their own bellies – even so Zeus who thunders on high made women to be an evil to mortal men, with a nature to do evil." (Theogony 594-599, trans. H.G. Evelyn-White)

In the 5th century BC and later, archaeological evidence shows that bees were kept in ceramic beehives-- large pottery jars in which the interior had been incised before firing to provide a rough surface for the bees to attach the combs.

Honey production is still a major part of Greek agriculture, and we encountered plenty of beehives while doing our archaeological survey there. Greek honey is also, unfortunately, quite expensive (as honey tends to bee in most parts of the world, I suppose). My absolute favorite type of Greek honey is pure thyme honey- its flavor is amazingly floral and complex. It is also the most expensive type of honey- 12 Euros for a little jar in one retrospect maybe I should have bought some, as it is very difficult to find here, and sooo good.

The honey pictured above was the only jar I brought home for myself on this trip. Its flavor can pretty much be summed up in one word: SWEET! The sweetness hits you like a truck but fades fast- there's not much depth of flavor here. Still, very nice on toast, and I 've yet to meet a honey I didn't like.

For more information on the history of honey production in Greece and elsewhere, see The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting, by Eva Crane. Taylor and Francis, 1999.

September 7, 2007

Greek Wine, Rose Jam, and Pigs: Travel in the Peloponnese

In case you're just tuning in, I'm describing my adventures this summer on an archaeological project in Greece--see the previous two entries for background. We worked at the site Monday through Saturday, with Saturday being a “half” day (we got off at 12:00, which hardly makes it a half day, really). Some weekends were spent relaxing on the beach or sleeping, but often we took the opportunity to travel.

On the second weekend of the project we journeyed into the mountains to the south of Sikyon, to the site of Nemea. We had worked a “half day”, from 6:00 AM to noon, then piled in to our rental cars and beat-up project trucks for the short journey to the site. On the way there, however, we made an important stop.

The Lafkiotis winery is located in Ancient Kleonai, not far from Nemea. Now, Greece, perhaps justly, does not have a reputation for good wine (quite the opposite in fact), but in reality there are many quality wines to be found if you look hard enough. Nemea is a region known for its wine production, which ranges from reputable wineries to homemade stuff sold in re-used water bottles on the roadside. And let me tell you, if you've never had homemade wine from an old water bottle...just don't.

Since our project director was a friend of the owners of Lafkiotis winery, after a brief tour we were treated to a tasting of four different wines. At this point I was feeling a bit woozy, since I had just spent 6 hours working in the sun and hadn’t eaten any lunch…but how could I pass up a free wine tasting? We tried two whites and two reds, and while the whites were good, the reds were really outstanding (this coming from a white wine drinker). The reds were both Agiorgitiko, meaning that they were produced from a variety of grape that are unique to Greece, and had been aged in oak barrels for a year.

After the wine tasting, we stumbled back to the cars and were on our way to the site of Nemea. During the 6th and 5th centuries B.C., Nemea was home to a temple of Zeus and to famous athletic games, kind of like the Olympics, in which athletes would come from all over Greece to participate. The stadium has been pretty well preserved, and tourists can still run a footrace on it if they want. However, as we found out, unlike ancient Greek athletes, tourists cannot race in the nude and there is a guard on hand at all times to enforce this rule.

By this point it was 3:00 PM, and having toured the archaeological site in midday heat with nothing to fuel me but wine and some cookies I found in the car, I was fading fast. Thankfully, we at last sat down for lunch in a local restaurant, and my patience was rewarded with a nice hunk of lamb and some lemony potatoes. And more wine. Needless to say I didn't last long after this.

The next weekend it was off to Nafplio, a very nice town in the Argolid region of the Peloponnese. If you are ever in Greece, I highly recommend going to Nafplio. Once a Venetian stronghold, its old town is characterized by lovely Venetian architecture, two imposing fortresses, Turkish fountains, and a large, open plaza where locals and tourists gather in cafes for an afternoon frappe and some people-watching. Add to that decent restaurants and some nice beaches nearby, and you’ve got yourself a great place to spend a weekend.

I’m going to cheat a little and tell you about a trip we took last year to Stymphalos, which, if you remember your Greek mythology, is home to the Stymphalian birds…you know, the ones that Hercules fought as one of his twelve labors…not ringing any bells? In any case, the site is located in a swampy area in the mountains of Arcadia, and doesn’t see a lot of tourists, which is a shame because Arcadia is a lovely place- mountains, orchards, marshes, the kind of place where it suddenly doesn’t seem so implausible that gods were born here and nymphs inhabit the landscape.

Before making our way to Stymphalos, we stopped at a gorgeous mountain lake for a swim, then headed up to a monastery perched high on the mountain above. The monastery was several centuries old and looked its age, but there were still a few monks living there. When we entered the monastery we were greeted by a monk who offered us cold water and spoonfuls of their monastery’s special product, rose-petal jam-- made from just rose petals, sugar, and water, it was shockingly sweet but very tasty, the rose petals still fresh enough to be a bit crunchy.

A few of us spent the night in the town of Stymphalos, known for its pig farms, the archaeological site, and not much else. Pork was the local specialty, slabs of meat from pigs that had been roasted whole over coals all day. A by-product of this and another local favorite was kokoretsi, grilled pig offal wrapped in intestine…needless to say, I was not adventurous enough to try this.

So much pork…and after a long night on the town in Stymphalos, there’s really nothing like walking out onto your hotel balcony and seeing this first thing in the morning:

See the other installments in this series: