September 27, 2008

You Said It, John Keats!

In his poem "Ode to Autumn," John Keats described fall as the "Season of mists and mellow fruitfullness." Once again another seemingly immortal summer has weakened and dissolved into a chilly and vaporous autumn. The winds begin to roll in, forcing us to seek refuge in woolly sweaters. The songs of birds unravel with slight threads of anxiety we didn't notice when the air was warmer, thicker. Change, no longer an abstraction or a political slogan, is all around us.

We can see, hear, smell, feel, and most definitely taste this transformation from summer to fall. It's times like this when we remember that the earth's axis does, in fact, exist. We spin and tilt, spin and tilt, until--suddenly!--our environments metamorphose almost miraculously before our eyes.

This is the season of reflection, of maturation. Summer--the tube top-wearing, 20-something stripper--throws on a brown sweater and decides to teach a seminar on Women Philosophers of the Late Modern Period. This brown-sweatered Ivy Leaguer is Fall. If Fall were a woman, she would consider Dostoyesvsky "light reading." She would open curtains dramatically. Her sigh would be a rhetorical marvel; in it we would finally understand our own existence. She would says things like, "Internet? I would rather not participate in that experiment. What about passion? Where is passion in a pixel? Now, pass me the ground white pepper, darling."

Is she pretentious? Sure. But would we would love her anyway? Yes. We would always love her. Why? Because she's just so, well, cool (in an old money, New England sort of way). Plus, underneath all of that wool and lavender mist and hosiery, she's pretty damn sexy. She carries the experience of the world in the way she walks and talks and cocks her neck ever-so-slightly when listening to her super-cool friends say super-interesting things.

God, will I ever be as cool as Fall?! Probably not. I doubt terms like "super-cool" exist in Fall's vocabulary.

Maybe, however, I've gotten Fall totally wrong. Maybe she's not an Ivy League Professor in Massachusetts, but instead an organic farmer in Montana...or a lonesome cowgirl in Douglass, Arizona...or a Ukrainian egg painter. As Keats noted in his poem, Autumn is the season of mist; just when we think we have it figured out, it morphs into something new. We need drowsy eyes from which to view this season. With eyes too logical, or eyes too curious, we may become frustrated with the ephemeral nature of fall. (This is philosophy my brown-sweatered autumn woman would definitely dig. She's a fan of ambiguity.)

Here's a dessert sure to please those of you ready for the "mellow fruit[s]" of fall. It's full of everything this season is about: subtlety, calming spices, and sophistication.

Spiced Fig Upside-Down Cake (adapted from an online recipe you can find here)

Ingredients:

2 tbs. melted butter
3 tbs. brown sugar
10 black mission figs, halved
1.5 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. cloves
pinch of salt
1/3 cup olive oil, softened
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup molasses
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup rice milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 egg whites

1. Preheat oven to 350.
2. Coat a 9-inch round cake pan with cooking spray. Coat bottom of pan with melted butter, and sprinkle with 3 tablespoons sugar. Arrange fig halves over sugar, cut sides down. Set aside.
3. Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour and next 6 ingredients (through salt), stirring with a whisk. Place 1/3 cup butter and 3/4 cup brown sugar in a large bowl, and beat with a mixer at medium speed until blended. Add molasses and egg yolks; beat well. Beat in milk and vanilla. Add flour mixture to butter mixture; stir with a whisk just until blended.
4. Place egg whites in a medium bowl; beat with a mixer at high speed until stiff peaks form. Gently fold egg whites into batter; spoon over figs in prepared pan. Bake at 350 fot 55 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool 15 minutes in pan on a wire rack. Loosen cake from sides of pan using a narrow metal spatula. Place a plate upside down on top of cake; invert onto plate.

September 19, 2008

Edible Weekend Magic

After a stressful week at work, nothing calms my spirits more than spending some time in the kitchen. Come Friday afternoon, I'm tired of thinking, speaking and analyzing. I'm ready, instead, for magic. Real magic. Edible magic.

Such magic works like this: throw plants & minerals & potions together in one big bowl, blend them together with possessed hands & wrists, and toss this chemistry into the oven to complete the nearly-final step of this alchemical process. Of course, the final-final step is to take the baked-broiled-braised-roasted food into our bodies. Chew. Swallow. Digest. Live.

Nothing comes closer to magic than this. (Well, some would argue that Richard Simmons is more magical, but I'll save a discussion on his brand of magic for a later post.) Cooking is one of the only (Western) arts that allows us to become the thing we have created--literally. Unlike other art forms that are designed and manufactured to stand the test of time, we accept food's pregnable fate. Its destruction is inevitable. We add colors and decorations and fancy names to our food to ensure this destructibility.

However, I'm not so sure "destruction" is the right word to use when describing the act of eating. Sure, the act of eating involves the breaking down of matter into smaller and smaller pieces until, finally, we can no longer see certain parts of the original whole. Our bodies are gifted with minerals and vitamins and emotional comfort, none of which we can see with the naked eye. These chemical processes, charted to some extent by Science, depend on our collective suspension of disbelief. This scientific stuff happens inside of us, we think, but the fact that it does happen is also part miracle.

No, the act of eating is not a destructive act, but a magical one: one thing collapsing so that another thing can live. This is magic, a magic we perform on a daily basis--no microscopes or awkward scientists needed!

Here are my magical-alchemical-superradical plans for this weekend:

1. Lavender extract: While I won't get the chance to actually use this extract for a good two months, I will begin the infusion process this afternoon. The recipe is simple: 2 tablespoons of lavender buds + 1 cup of vodka. (I'm sure I'll find other "culinary" uses for the remaining vodka. Is "drunk" considered a culinary use?)

2. Fig Upside-Down Cake: Brown sugar, molasses, figs, ginger, cloves, butter... How could this recipe do me wrong, baby?

3. Lemon Quick Bread: One of the loaves will be reserved for a coworker of mine who's expecting his first baby in less than a month. I thought that the soft & spongy texture of the bread + the sharp wails of citrus would work well to represent everything that is baby.

4. More French Toast: I can't get enough of this ginger-cinnamon-maple-milky-moussey goodness! I feel like I've devoted an entire loaf of bread to my French Toast endeavors this week. I tried throwing blueberries onto the skillet the other day while the toast was browning, and the berries magically melted into soft pearls of creamy sweetness. Pour them over the top of your toast, and you've got yourself one helluva breakfast (or lunch, or dinner). Yum.

5. Pear & Thyme Tart: If time permits...

What do you hope to find on your plate this weekend?

September 13, 2008

Lavender Cupcakes

Most of my friends know about my love for purple food. I eat purple food any chance I get: potatoes, cabbages, plums, heirloom tomatoes, cauliflower, blueberries, etc. Tonight I get to add a new purple food to the list: lavender.

Tonight was not my first experience with eating lavender, but it was definitely my most memorable encounter so far. Lavender Dagoba bars have long been among my favorite chocolate bars on the market. Since these bars also contain dried blueberries, however, the lavender flavor always seemed to be overshadowed by the 59% dark chocolate and the zing of the berries. In other words, lavender plays more of a supporting role in these bars. It might even be the prop guy or dog-star washer. We know it's there behind the scenes, but we forget about it once the show begins.

For tonight's dessert, I wanted to give lavender the opportunity to finally put on the evening gown and reveal herself for the entertainer she really is. No supporting roles. No fancy lighting. No Governors of Alaska dissing on community organizers. Just one light shining down brilliantly on Lavender.

Since I had yet to bake with flowers, I didn't know how best to incorporate them into the batter. I could do many things to infuse the cupcake batter with the flavor of the buds I recently purchased. At first I considered making homemade lavender sugar or lavender extract. While making both is quite simple, I would have to wait 2 weeks to 2 months to use either. I could make lavender butter, but I wasn't sure if the resulting flavor would be strong enough. (Or, did I not want it to be strong?) I decided to infuse rice milk with about a tablespoon of the dried lavender. After bringing the milk to a boil, I could toss in the buds and let their floral flavor seep into the liquid. This method seemed the most promising. It would make it easy for me to guage by smell just how strong the potion was. If too strong, I could add more milk. Likewise, I would be able to add more flowers if the scent were too weak.

Below is the recipe for my Lavender Cupcakes. Since I have many, many buds left, I have plans in the works for making lavender extract. Just imagine a touch of this potion added to pancake batter or whip cream!

In other purple food news, I bought some delicious-looking concord grapes this afternoon. With wine. Do I smell another purple sorbet?!?! Maybe I can find a way to work lavender into that recipe. I think I would explode into purple vapor at the first bite!

Lavender Cupcakes with Lavender Cream Cheese Frosting
(makes 12)

Cupcakes:
1/2 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
2/3 cup cane sugar
3 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. culinary lavender buds
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 cup rice milk

Lavender Cream Cheese Frosting:
1/2 cup cream cheese
1/2 cup butter
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 lb. powdered sugar
1 tsp. culinary lavender buds

To make lavender infused rice milk (or any milk of your choosing):
1. Bring milk to a boil. Remove from heat and add the 2 tsp. of culinary lavender. Allow
mixture to sit for 20 minutes.
2. Once mixture has cooled, strain. Set milk aside for the batter.

To make the batter:
1. Cream sugar and butter together until smooth.
2. Add eggs, one by one, until mixture is foamy and airy. Add vanilla extract. Whisk with a
hand-held whisk.
3. In a separate bowl, combine the dry ingredients with a whisk.
4. Go back and forth between adding the lavender milk and the flour to the creamed sugar.
Once all ingredients have been added, whisk mixture for 1 minute until smooth. At this point I
also added some of the buds that had simmered in the milk.
5. Distribute batter evenly into muffin tins. Bake for 18 minutes at 350.

To make frosting:
1. Beat the cream cheese and the butter until smooth.
2. Add the vanilla extract. Beat until all ingredients are evenly mixed.
3. Slowly add the powdered sugar until the frosting reaches the consistency you desire.
4. Finally, add a few lavender buds if you like. Fold buds into the mixture.

Once cupcakes are done, give them an hour to cool before adding the frosting.

Unlike Lavender Dagoba Bars, there's no denying the main ingredient in these cupcakes! Every bite is lavender romping on stage in a sequins dress, her hair a great purple afro!

September 12, 2008

Desert Sand Cookies

After slightly poking fun at Mrs. Akerstrom-Soderstrom in an earlier post, I felt guilty. I mean, a Princess can't help that she's a Princess, right? If I were a princess, I, too, might decorate pigs' heads with butter. Hell, if I had princess-time and princess-money, I might even decorate my entire lawn with butter! Anyhow, to make up for my rhetorical missteps, I decided to prepare one of the recipes from Mrs. AS's book, Swedish Smorgasbord: 100 Recipes for the Famous Swedish Hors d'oeuvres (1937). What better way to honor the memory of a culinary princess than by keeping her sugary art alive!

I've been crazy-busy this past week with lesson planning, essay grading, etc. During weeks like this, sometimes a smile is hard to come by, especially when you find find 3,308 emails in your inbox all chanting something along the lines of, "Sorry I couldn't come to class today...Could you let me know if I missed anything?"

I needed to bake the rage, to knead out all of the accumulated stress before it exploded into something drastic & thunderous & nuclear. If I didn't bake--and soon!--eruption would be imminent. Pushed to the limits, there's no telling what I would have to do. Perhaps I'd be forced to break a piece of chalk in half. Haha, yes! That would teach 'em! (I think I need a hardcore guidebook.)

To avoid having to break a perfectly good piece of chalk, I instead turned to Mrs. Akerstrom-Soderstrom, Princess of Repressed Emotions. I didn't have the time, nor the patience, to create any of the complicated appetizers from the book; there would be no "Veal Saute with Peas" gracing my plate this week (or ever). I needed something sugary, something simple. It was then that I stumbled upon recipe #98: Desert Sand. Even though the title sounds a little less than comforting, the recipe itself was more Paula Dean than Komodo Dragon. I saw "Butter," and I saw SALVATION!

Since this recipe is old, I had to make one slight adjustment. It called for "salts of hartshorn," known scientifically as "ammonium carbonate" and colloquially as "baker's ammonia." Salts of hartshorn is an old leavening agent derived from the crushed horns of red deer (or Harts). "Harts' horns" (2 words) slowly evolved into "hartshorn" (just 1 word), most likely to signify this substance's transition from animal to household ingredient. While salts of hartshorn is difficult to find in the States, it is still used in parts of Northern Europe and Scandinavia.

I do not have access to the horns of Harts, and I therefore had to do a little research to find an adequate substitute. Ammonium carbonate was the forerunner to such contemporary leavening agents as baking soda and baking powder. While many sites said that using baking powder would not result in the same fluff or puff in my cookie, they said it was the next best thing.

Also, when I refer to this recipe in the future, I will definitely be adding an egg or two. The current recipe does not call for eggs, but that is probably because the hartshorn would have given the dough the umph it needed to rise and soften. The baking soda was not enough to make these cookies rise to their full potential. They were delicious, don't get me wrong, but they could have been softer, smoother, airier.

However, the sandy texture of my, uh, Sand Cookies could also have been the result of my overly aggressive oven. A few days ago I bought a portable oven thermometer, only to realize that my oven temperature has been off by 150 degrees! No wonder my cupcakes burned to a crisp. I should have heeded to the warnings of the Princess herself: "too hot an oven will make them hard." Oh, Princess...always making me out to be the clumsy other sister when my cookies go awry!

What follows is the original recipe for Desert Sand cookies from Swedish Smorgasbord: 100 Recipes for the Famous Swedish Hor D'oeuvres. Enjoy Mrs. AS's really specific directions in some parts of the recipe (make sure "with one finger" that your hartshorn is dissolved), followed by that good old fashioned inexactitude in other parts (bake your cookies "in a rather low oven-heat"). This recipe leaves a lot of room for improvisation, especially in terms of toppings: jam, dulce de leche, lavender cream cheese icing, etc. These are sturdy cookies, ready for you to knead and devour whenever work-rage strikes!


Desert Sand

Ingredients:

7.5 oz. butter
An even 7.5 oz. suger
1 Tbs. vanilla sugar
1 tsp. salts of hartshorn (I used 1 tsp. baking powder)
1 Tbs. tepid water
2 cups flour

Brown the butter carefully in a saucepan, stirring the while, and watching it closely so that it does not get too brown. Pour it into a bowl, and add the sugar while the butter is still hot. Place the bowl in a dish of cold water, and stir the mixture until it is light, creamy, and cold.

Dissolve the hartshorn in 1 Tbs. tepid, not too warm water, making sure, with one finger, that it is completely dissolved. It may then be poured into the dough. The vanilla sugar and flour should also be added and stirred in.

Shape the dough with 2 tsp. turned towards one another, so that the cakes take the shape of the spoons and acquire a smooth surface. They should be placed on well-buttered baking sheets.

Bake them on double sheets in a rather low oven-heat for about 45 minutes, until the surface of the cakes crack a little. It will then be necessary to lower the heat still further. The cakes when baked should not be noticeably darker than the dough, and they should be spongy and floury on the outside. Too hot an oven will make them hard.

Enough for 60-65 cakes.

September 9, 2008

Food, Sex, and Wordly Women

While I'm waiting for my pictures of Mrs. Akerstrom-Sodorstrom's Desert Sand cookies to develop so that I can blog away about them, I'll leave you with this interesting post titled "Top Ten Food & Sex Scenes in the Movies" from The Houston Press Food Blog. This might be one of my favorite top ten lists of all time!

Is there a food-sex scene you feel should have been listed in the top ten? If so, let me know!

Also in the sexy food vein is Isabel Allende's 1995 memoir Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses. Here's an excerpt from the book where Allende comments on the sexual rhythms of a meal: "A well thought out dinner forms a crescendo beginning with the pianissimo of the soup, passing through the delicate arpeggios of the appetizer, culminating with the fanfare of the main course, which is followed, finally, by the dulcet chords of the dessert. The process is comparable to that of making love with style, beginning with insinuations, savoring erotic juices, reaching the climax with the usual crash of cymbals, and finally sinking into a pleasureful and well-deserved repose."
If you haven't read this book yet, then you must--soon! Allende's voice in this memoir is that of a wise & worldly woman who most definitely has a silk scarf to match every occasion. She's the woman nibbling on gourmet macaroons and Madagascan chocolate truffles in a Parisian cafe. She is the woman who once cried after cracking the thin surface of a creme brulee because it reminded her of her own birth. And her own death. And the fragility of all humankind. Yes, she is that woman. Yet, while I find such literary personalities to be amusing and, at times, downright corny, I just can't get enough of them!

Another reason to read the book? Allende includes a recipe for "Orgy Soup" in the chapter titled--not surprisingly--"The Orgy." This recipe, chock-full of bacon, pork ears, pig's feet, ham hocks, veal ribs, veal hock, pork sausage, and ground pork, is sure to get your heart-rate up (or forever still) at your next, uh, gathering.

Happy eating (and sexing)!

September 5, 2008

Princess of Pig Heads

After burning not one, but TWO batches of strawberry-raspberry cupcakes last night, I thought my Moody Kitchen had sunk to a new level of moodiness. First a flood, and now a fire. I guess the Second Coming is much smaller and more localized than the Scriptures would like to have you believe. If you don't wish to experience a mini-apocalypse, stay away from my kitchen.

If you live in an old house, though, you've got to make peace with the fact that nothing is predictable. Sooner or later a hose will bust, or an oven's thermostat will grow slightly out of whack. My new place is old--90 years old, to be exact. And even though I love thinking of all the delicious meals that have been prepared and feasted upon in my kitchen throughout those 90 years--pork roast, peach cobblers, roasted squirrel, etc.--the wear and tear does, at times, try my patience as a fledgling cook. Be it true for people or buildings, the older things get, the crazier they become. For the Moody Kitchen, this craziness has lately come in the form of minor floods and burnt cakes. However annoying these issues might be (especially when my cupcakes are on the line!), they make me appreciate the tasty treats my kitchen DOES allow me to create from time to time.

In the meantime, not only have I been aggressively preparing for Hurricane Hanna (I bought two cans of beans and, uh, a candle), but I have also been browsing through 2 foodbooks I purchased at an antique shop last weekend. God, are these books entertaining!

Swedish Smorgasbord: 100 Recipes for the Famous Swedish Hors D'oeuvres (1937) is hilarious, which I'm sure was not the tone the author (or should I say authoress?) intended to create in this piece. Mrs. Akerstrom-Soderstrom (yes, "Mrs." even appears on the book's cover) says that the purpose of the book "is to give American house-wives a perception and knowledge of how to prepare the many delicacies listed among Swedish hors-d'oeuvres." I love imagining Mrs. AS in front of the typewriter--her recipe index cards by her side, her back as straight as a flag post, her husband lusting after her silently in the background while nibbling on a fresh shrimp cocktail--considering with much forehead-crinkling seriousness what American women needed to know regarding the preparation of Swedish appetizers. Her voice is controlled and authoritative throughout; the introduction even refers to her as the "authoress." (If I ever publish anything, I will demand that people call me "authoress.")

Here is another excerpt from the introduction: "Should American hostesses, seeking to surprise their families or friends with new proofs of their talent or interest in cookery, turn to this little book, and find the suggestions therein both helpful and enlightening, the sincerest wish of the authoress will have been fulfilled."

I love this Swedish woman! As cover letter-like as these words sound, isn't it the goal of almost every cook/baker to satisfy our friends and family with "new proofs" of our talent, even when that talent is imaginary (as is the case with me)? I am comforted by knowing that if I enjoy the recipes in this book, the author's wishes "will have been fulfilled"...unless, of course, my oven burns the "Mock Turtle" made of "leftover fragments of veal."


Mrs. AS, also the author of The Princesses' Cook Book (no, I am not making this up), includes recipes that range from the deliciously simple--bacon-wrapped olives--to the, uh, disgustingly simple. An example of the latter would be the recipe that caused me to fork over the 35-cents for the book in the first place: "Pig's Head." You want to know the ingredients? According to the authoress, all you need is 1 brine-cured smoked pig's head and water. Oh--and don't forget to decorate the boiled head with creamed butter. Yes, creamed butter. There is actually an illustration of this buttered, bristly delight following the recipe. It looks much creepier than the one I pasted below.
Just in case you ever want to decorate a pig's head with creamed butter, here are the instructions: "Put some creamed butter into a paper cone, with a tiny hole at the end, and squeeze. Garnish the head according to taste and write 'Merry Xmas' on the forehead."

For some reason, the word "forehead" doesn't mesh well with the word "food" for me. But, then again, I am neither a Mrs., nor a Princess, nor a Swede, so perhaps I will never know about the delights of pig forehead. I'd surely give it a try were I invited to a Swedish Christmas dinner.

At any rate, this book is worth the skim if only to be fascinated by the upper-crust rhetoric (in sometimes awkward translation) of the early 1900s. Just as I can simmer for hours in the tight-collared rhythm of Victorian prose, so, too, is Mrs. Akerstrom-Soderstrom's blue-blooded voice one that gives me great joy. While funny at times, this type of book allows me to visit a new reality--a reality where kitchen floors are forever clean, and "Creamed Salmon Tid-bits" fill my belly before the dinner bell chimes.

(I'm still unsure, however, as to what the authoress means when she tells the reader to "wash the butter" in almost every recipe. Must be a princess thing...)

The other book that I purchased might resonate a little more with my lifestyle: The Enriched, Fortified, Concentrated, Country-Fresh, Lip-Smacking, Finger-Licking, International, Unexpurgated Foodbook by James Trager. I can't see Mrs. AS uttering even half of the words in this title.

And, about Trager? He ain't no Mister. Nor is he a prince. He did, however, live in a hotel when the book was published in 1970. And, he includes a delicious recipe for boiled horse saddle somewhere in the New World section of the book. Nope, this guy definitely wouldn't be invited to the Princess's house for Christmas pig head.

September 2, 2008

Crusoe Went Crazy, So Why Can't I?

September ain't been too kind to me yet...

I woke up this morning to a flooded kitchen. After my water heater hose busted, lukewarm water rained down on my Moody Kitchen for God knows how many hours before I woke and dumbly thought, "Wow! There must be a beautiful storm pouring down on this fair town!" The water gushing from the hose did, after all, sound like a steady coastal shower.

When I looked out my bedroom window and saw nothing but dry streets, I thought I had finally lost it.

I turned from the window and followed the sound of the waterfall. At this point, I was scared, but also exhilarated: I'm going crazy, and I know I'm going crazy! Like, I'm totally aware that I'm looking for a waterfall in my own house! I always thought that I would be one of those women who would gradually go a little crazy without knowing it, you know? Never did I think the crazies would inhabit my brain overnight, and I certainly didn't think I'd be aware of them when they did arrive!

When I finally do lose my mind, I hope it feels like this morning: an aimless stroll into my kitchen-jungle with the sound of a magical waterfall guiding my every step. I felt like Robinson Crusoe, except I'm not a shipwrecked mariner who watches all of his shipmates die--I'm a community college teacher. (And unlike Crusoe, I have yet to be theorized by a literary scholar. I'm still waiting for my very own Marxist critic to describe, in clear and mechanical prose, what I mean in this contemporary phallocentric, post-feminist, pro-global, pre-future context. Until this happens, I will remain in that state of Otherhood with other, uh, Others? Maybe I am going crazy...)

When I arrived to the scene of the watery crime, I realized I was not, in fact, going crazy. The hose thingy on the water heater thingy had ruptured. Reality is always so lame and technical and predictable. Where's the freakin' jungle?!

In sum, the Moody Kitchen is out of business for a few days until I get things cleaned up proper-like. This means that, sadly, I will be eating toast and canned soup for a couple of days. Here are my plans, though, for Thursday and/or Friday:

Raspberry-Strawberry cupcakes with mascarpone icing. Maybe I'll find a way to work my week-old red wine into the mix as well.

Since I'll be oven-less (and slightly saner than expected) until the end of the week, I'll see if I can post some food poems or short-short-short food fiction onto the blog. I will also be searching for a Marxist critic who, I'm sure, has much to say about how my water heater symbolizes the aristocracy while I, the cookie-obsessing escapist, am a symbol of the modern (and silenced) milkmaid subculture.

Stay dry and mildly sane!