Monday, May 31, 2010

So proud

I’m so proud of myself! I made those ribs, and they far exceeded my expectations and fully met my hopes. I'm pumped.

I was pretty convinced I would ruin them, you know. I’m not so confident around large chunks of meat (they tend to go all tough on me), so my success was extra sweet. I may even have crowed about it a little.

Now that I look back on it, the ribs weren’t at all hard to make. It only felt difficult because I had no idea what I was doing. I did, however, have sense enough to pick a recipe from Julie's blog. That woman has a knack for churning out high-quality and high-quantity food on a daily basis, and she writes about it in such a way that you feel like you can do it too.

I tried, that day, to crank out the food a la Julie, but even with my mother’s help, I struggled. We were on our feet for hours. My mother grated, chopped, pitted, topped, sliced, minced, peeled, and mashed till her eyelids sagged and her shoulders slumped. And then she washed dishes till her eyes crossed.

I cooked, gave orders, cooked more, and gave more orders. Mom thinks I could have a restaurant, but even with kitchen staff to boss around, I’m convinced I never could.

Along with the meat, we fixed two different salads (both good, but no swoonage happened), skillet cornbread (swoonage happened), oven-roasted asparagus, and Sour Cream Ice Cream with Three Reds Fruit Crumble (copious amounts of swoonage ensued). We were prepping dishes for other meals, too, plus I had done a bunch of cooking already that morning. But even though I was bone-weary, when I got up the following morning, I headed straight out to the kitchen to make a cake (which you’ll hear about later).

Perhaps I need an intervention?

So, reflecting my current state of no-holds-barred cooking, I’m going to pile on the recipes. There will be a barrage of food-related posts (okay, perhaps only two or four, maybe five), so I suggest you just go ahead and surrender now. Or else clear out.

First, the ribs.


Mr. Handsome wrestled them from cooler to fridge that evening, and the next morning I made a dry rub mix.


After rubbing them good with the mix (I took the "rub" part very seriously)...


I cut them in half again so that the once gargantuan slab of meat was now in four, more reasonable pieces.


I let them sit at room temp for a couple hours before popping them back into the fridge for another six hours. Mid-afternoon I plunked them onto two trays, tightly covered them with foil, and baked them for nearly three hours. Then out to the grill (very low heat) they went, where I repeatedly brushed them with sauce and turned them, in between times closing the lid.


Niecelet lovin' on the meat

The end results were flavorful, not terribly fatty (I discarded a couple cups of grease after the baking), and fall-off-the-bone tender. Yee-haw!


Barbecued Pork Ribs
Adapted from Julie's blog, Dinner with Julie

1 rack of ribs (as in, a whole-honkin' half of a pig, about 9 pounds), cut into quarters
2 tablespoons smoked paprika (or plain)
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 teaspoons black pepper
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2-3 cups sweet barbecue sauce

Six to twenty-four hours before cooking time, mix together the dry rub spices (everything but the sauce) and rub it on both sides of the ribs. There may be a little leftover which you can either save or toss. (I tossed.) Let the ribs sit at room temperature for an hour or two before covering tightly with plastic wrap (I wrapped them up in individually and then piled them into one pan) and transferring them to the refrigerator to “marinate” till you are ready to cook them.

Place the ribs, meat side up, in two trays that have sides and cover them tightly with foil. Bake at 300 degrees for 2 ½ hours. (Warning: they don’t smell that great while baking—not at all how you hope they will taste—but stay calm, they will be delicious.)

Using tongs, remove the ribs from the pans (be cautious when pulling the trays out of the oven because they are sloshy-full of hot, bubbling fat) and transfer them to a couple plates. Brush them all over with barbecue sauce and put them on the grill. Grill on very low heat, lid closed, for thirty minutes, turning and basting every ten minutes.

And that’s it!


About one year ago: Rhubarb Tea and Rhubarb Tart

Friday, May 28, 2010

The ways we play

I not only expect my children to be perfectly well-behaved, keep their nails trimmed and not pick their noses, I also expect them to kowtow to me five times a day.


Okay, so not really. They did this all on their own. They’re really into mother worship. It’s the cool thing in this house.


Okay, so that’s not true either.


They were just messing around, doing their thing which consists of pulling out the off-limits dresses, sneaking the boots from my closet, digging through Miss Beccaboo’s makeup collection, and patching it all together with some dress-up clothes.


The Queen Motif has been central to their imaginative play. Probably because I treat them like slaves.


Don’t over-analyze this, okay? Thanks.

In other news, I think I’m way over my head.


I got the brilliant idea to make ribs this weekend. I’ve never made ribs before (not counting short ribs) but how hard could it be, right?

Well, turns out ribs are a little trickier than I thought. After clicking my way around the web, I lost a good deal of my cocky I-can-do-anything attitude, but still, I called the meat shop and got prices, gasped a little, steeled my resolve, and planned a trip to town. These ribs were no longer a take-it-or-leave-it idea, they were essential. I had to learn how to do ribs. My mental and emotional stability depended upon it. End of story.

Except that it wasn’t. At the butcher shop I asked for a whole rack of ribs. “Do you want them cut in half, or the whole rack?”

“The whole rack,” I said confidently.

Soon a beefy man came forth from the back room where buzz saws whined and knives thunked, bearing high my (hold the load!) massive rack of ribs. I gulped and watched wordlessly as the man wrangled them up onto the scales to weigh them. Slowly it dawned on me that they would fill my entire oven. Come to think of it, I didn’t even have a baking pan large enough to hold them!

“Um, could you maybe cut them in half after all?” I asked timidly, my previous bluster squashed flat under all that pork.

Now the cut-in-half ribs are sitting in the cooler out on the porch. I didn’t realize I would need to clear out half of my refrigerator to make space for some barrel-chested pig.

My plan (unless one of you convinces me otherwise) is to coat the ribs with a dry rub mix, bake them at 300 degrees for two-and-a-half hours and then finish them off on the grill. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. (Lots of other yummies are in the works: this morning’s shopping cart held seasoned rice vinegar, serrano chilis, tomatillos, avocados, limes, cabbages, tomatoes, lemon curd, and sour cream. When I got home I called my mom to tell her to stop eating now.)

The pork isn’t the only new thing I’m trying these days. I’m taking on another endeavor, one that I am most excited about (and non food related). I’ll give you three guess (if you already know, please hold your tongue).

About one year ago: Asparagus, Goat Cheese, and Lemon Pasta and De Butchery, in which we chop the heads off our chickens and put them in the freezer, and The Tip of the Strawberry Iceberg.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

We love you, Wayne

After living nearly ten years with a brain tumor, my friend’s husband Wayne is nearing the end of his life.

On Monday I told the kids that Wayne will soon die, maybe tomorrow, maybe in two weeks, maybe in a month. “You were aware that it was getting close, right?” I asked, trying to gauge their level of understanding.

Yo-Yo said, “Oh yeah, we know all about it. I wish I could make myself big and make him all better.”

Miss Beccaboo chimed in, “I hope he dies in his sleep. And I hope he dies when I’m asleep and when I wake up no one tells me.”

On Tuesday morning I asked the kids if they’d like to go see Wayne. The girls both said yes. Yo-Yo said no.

“Do you want to take him anything?” I asked.

“Let’s make him a cake,” Miss Beccaboo said. “And we could write ‘We love you, Wayne’ on the top of it.”

“That’s a nice idea,” I said. “But he’s not eating anything, you know. Mostly just some applesauce when he takes his pills.”

“Then how about we make him an applesauce cake!” Sweetsie said.

“Well now, that’s a thought,” I laughed. “But he couldn’t eat that either. But you know what? Let’s make him a cake anyhow. Even if he can’t eat it, I bet he’ll still like it. And the rest of the family would enjoy it.” And then I put my head down on the table and sobbed, worn out from the previous night’s crying jag, raw from the horribleness of it all. (This is what I do now, cry at the least provocation. I cry on the phone, while I’m hanging up the laundry, while I’m driving. My eyes are sore, I have trouble concentrating, and I snap at my kids. I crave sleep, but even when I get it, I feel tired, all muddly and distractable.)

So I blew my nose, hugged Sweetsie who was watching me warily, her eyes rimmed with tears. And then I made a cake. Or, rather, chocolate chip peanut butter brownies spread with chocolate ganache, our love scrawled across the top in peanut butter frosting. I made the whole thing, for the most part, but the kids hovered and tasted and admired. It was a joint-enough effort for me.


Wayne was sleeping when we got to their house, but then he woke up and Shannon wheeled him out into the room. The Baby Nickel, the only child present at the time, stared and grinned, grinned and stared. Shannon said, “Say hi to Wayne,” but Nickel just grinned away. Wayne poked him as he rolled on by.

Sweetsie came into the room then and as she tip-toed by his chair, Wayne stuck out his good arm and attempted to tickle her. (It’s his signature move, teasing, tickling, and rough-housing the kids.) She giggled and, suddenly shy, crawled onto my lap. “Go get the cake and show it to him,” I urged. And she did, approaching him slowly, the cake extended in front of her. Wayne took it from her, read it, and passed it back. I told him the story about Sweetsie’s applesauce cake suggestion. He looked at me, expressionless (the brain tumor has squelched his affect), but he heard—his eyes told me so.

When it came time to leave, Miss Beccaboo walked by his chair and Wayne snagged her, hugging her to him.

Or so I’m told. I was out on the back deck trying to convince Yo-Yo to come in and say goodbye to Wayne. Yo-Yo refused, and once safely in the van he burst into tears. I didn't blame him, really.

This afternoon I got an email from Shannon saying that Wayne ate some of the cake. In fact, he loved it so much that she had to take the plate away from him so he wouldn’t get too much in his mouth at one time and choke. He kept grabbing for it though, she said. The sneaky guy.

I hollered from my desk, “Hey kids! Guess what! Wayne ate some of your cake and he loved it!”

They came running, eyes wide, incredulous smiles lighting their faces. “He ate it? Really?”

The Baby Nickel asked excitedly, “Wayne’s not going to be dead now?”

My heart seized. I said, matter-of-factly, but gently, “No, honey, he’s still going to die. But he liked our cake. Isn't that neat?”

About one year ago: Aunt Valerie's Blueberry Bars

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

With milk on top

Allow me, please, to introduce you to Strawberry Shortcake With Milk On Top, your new best friend.


I grew up eating strawberry shortcake like this, for supper. It’s simply biscuits, berries, and milk—a heartier, more filling version of the gourmet, whipped creamy affair, but still glorious indeed, simple and lush, eaten with complete abandon since there was nothing else offered to fill up on.


It went something like this: one of the first hot evenings of the summer would find Mom standing at the kitchen sink in her empire-waist sundress, her thick hair frizzing about her head and her glasses slipping down her nose, rapidly topping a big bowl of berries, just-picked from the garden out back. The tray or two of biscuits that were baking in the oven would be making the kitchen even hotter (and everyone crankier), so she’d declare we’d eat out at the picnic table and Jennifer, get the old plastic tablecloth out of the drawer, and Will someone come fill up the water glasses? Dad would come into the kitchen to carry out the heavy tray loaded with filled glasses and bowls and clanking spoons, and the rest of us would trail behind, bearing milk, sugared berries, and the trays of piping hot biscuits, the back door slamming shut behind us.


We’d crowd around the wooden picnic table, bare knees bumping, the evening breeze tickling our sweaty necks. After whizzing through a rendition of Johnny Appleseed, we’d fall to, crumbling biscuits into our bowls, smothering them with berries and drowning the whole mess in cold milk. The simple food quickly filled our tummies and muted our tempers, but still we’d eat, gorging on the glorious sweetness until our stomachs distended and our eyes glazed over.


Summertime bliss, that’s what strawberry shortcake suppers are. Try it for yourself and see!

(Note: it may be cultural, this love of dousing baked goods with milk. One of our favorite lunches, growing up, was peanut-butter-and-jelly-bread with milk on top. Even now, my brothers like to put their shoofly cake or apple pie in a bowl and then pour milk over top. So I don’t know, maybe you have to grow up with this kind of food in order to enjoy it. On the other hand, maybe not?)


Strawberry Shortcake With Milk On Top

The original recipe calls for all white flour, but I use half whole wheat. Whatever you do, keep it simple—which is the whole point of summer suppers, after all.

For the biscuits:
1 cup flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar, plus more for sprinkling
4 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup milk

Mix together the dry ingredients. Using your fingers, cut in the butter. Stir in the milk. Drop spoonfuls of the batter (it’s thick like cookie dough) on to a greased cookie sheet. Liberally sprinkle each biscuit with more white sugar. Bake the biscuits at 425 degrees for 10-15 minutes.

For the strawberries:
1-2 quarts strawberries, washed, topped, and sliced
1/4 - ½ cup sugar

Mix together and set aside till ready to serve.

To serve:
Crumble one or two biscuits into a bowl. Spoon strawberries over top. Drown in milk. Devour. Repeat.

About one year ago: Ranch Dressing.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Knowing me (plus, a sexy supper)

My kids know me. The other night I walked into the kitchen as Mr. Handsome was in the middle of scolding Yo-Yo for doing something mean to The Baby Nickel. As I passed by the table, I shot Yo-Yo the most heavily weighted, reproachful look I could muster. And then Yo-Yo piped right up, “Don’t shoot me a reproachful look, Mom!” Dang! That boy knows how to hit the nail on the head—thunk!—dead center.

We’ve been reading the book What The World Eats by Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio, Menzel being the same fellow who wrote Material World. The kids and I were discussing the world obesity problem (did you know that there are now as many overfed people in the world as underfed?), and I explained a little about Michelle Obama’s efforts to curb child obesity. Miss Beccaboo said, “When I get big, I’m going to work in a school and be a cafeteria lady and feed everybody your good bread!” That girl knows how to melt my heart.


Later, after picking some strawberries from the garden, Miss Beccaboo came into the kitchen to wash, top, and slice them. Along the way, she discovered an old onion bag and put it on her head like a hairnet. Already playing the part of food service maven, my girl is.


Remember those ridiculous outfits my children were wearing the other day? Well, here’s a picture of their craziness. I particularly like Miss Beccaboo, waggling her finger like an old school marm.


And look at her stance! Hips thrust forward, arms akimbo, chin jutting.


She makes me feel like I’m living a real-life slapstick comedy.

Back to What The World Eats. My kids notice everything in the pictures: the rotting teeth, the porky bellies, the bottles of soda, the lack of silverware. We were all floored by the amount of meat reportedly consumed by an Australian family of seven: more than fifty pounds of meat a week. I got constipated just looking at the picture!

Our meat consumption is considerably less than those particular Aussies, but I still feel like it’s on the high side. We eat between three and eight pounds a week, I think—maybe a couple pounds of ground beef and a chicken (they weigh in at about three pounds). We eat bacon, sausage, and ham, too, though I usually use them to season dishes, not to fill us up as the main course. We do eat lots of eggs, though—well over four dozen a week—and a fair amount of cheese. It would be a fun (but tedious) exercise to assemble all the food we eat in a week and snap a picture of it. Maybe sometime when I'm bored.


When we do have ground beef on hand, one of my favorite ways to serve it is in chili. It’s a simple dish and everyone likes it. I’ve taken to adding dark chocolate to the mix.


Doing so makes me feel like Tita in Like Water for Chocolate, subversive and sensual. I feed the chocolate-spiked chili to my family and then watch for strange symptoms—the tearing off of garments, unexplained weeping, giddy laughter. All of which might happen, mind you. I just can never be sure that it’s on account of the chocolate. I can assure you, however, that no one has streaked across the yard buck naked and jumped on a strange man’s horse.

Yet.

I’ll let you know if that changes.


Chocolate-Kissed Chili
Adapted from Simply In Season

You can pretty much do whatever you like with this recipe. Want more green pepper? Put it in. No garlic? Take it out. A hotter dish? Pump up the chili. The biggest discrepancy is with the beans. I like a lot of beans in my chili, but I know other people like less. Do what you will.

Keep in mind that leftovers freeze well.

1 pound ground beef
2 ribs celery, washed and diced
½ cup diced green pepper
1-2 onions, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced, optional
2 quarts stewed tomatoes (not drained)
2 cups corn
4-8 cups cooked beans (red, black, pinto, etc), semi-drained
2-3 tablespoons chili powder
2 teaspoons salt (may use part smoked salt)
1 ounce dark chocolate

Garnish and accompaniments:
Fresh cilantro
Sour cream
Cheddar cheese, grated
Hot sauce
Tortilla chips, cornbread, or flour tortillas

Cook the beef, celery, pepper, onions, and garlic in a kettle over medium-high heat till the beef is beginning to brown and the vegetables are tender, about 10-15 minutes. Dump the contents of the kettle into a crockpot and add the remaining ingredients. Cook on high heat for 4-6 hours, stirring occasionally. Taste to correct seasonings and serve. (Turn the heat back to low if not digging in immediately.) Serve with the garnishes, all the time keeping a sharp lookout for strange men on horseback.

About one year ago: Fowl-ness

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The boring blues

Confession: I am often bored.

I realize that this statement is tantamount to blasphemy, considering that I have four kids, a husband, a large garden, a blog, and that I homeschool, read, watch movies, cook much of my food from scratch, go for walks, talk on the phone, chair a church commission, clean house, etc. With all that responsibility you would think The Boredom Feeling wouldn’t even be on my radar.

But alas, I am not only sometimes bored, I am often bored.

I know, I know! Something is seriously wrong with me.

I’ve always been this way, ever since I was a little kid lollygagging on the living room floor, the oppressive cloud of Nothing To Do pressing me down into the ratty brown carpeting. My mother didn’t cater to my whines, not one little bit. I got oodles of lectures on the value of productivity, so many, in fact, that the P-word became my most hated word in the whole entire English language. (Now that I’ve grown, the P-word and I are on very friendly terms, though it hasn't done much to solve my boring blues.) And more often than not, if I fussed to her that there was nothing to do, I found myself with a damp rag in my hands, listlessly dusting the kitchen chair rungs while resolving to never, ever confide in my mother again.

Now I have my own house, my own ratty brown carpet, my own chair rungs and I still get shadowed by the Nothing To Do cloud. Now, however, the cloud is more like a mist, damp and creepy, seeping into the corners of my being, pushing on me from all angles, slowing me down.

This is not depression, mind you. In fact, for the most part I’m an optimistic, up-beat, cheerie person (except for when I’m not). I manage and accomplish just fine. But I perpetually struggle to keep myself motivated.

I think that I might be a fruitcake to have this problem. I know no one else who battles boredom like I do. I am surrounded by people who never seem to have enough time in the day, who have projects going from morning to night and who are able to keep themselves motivated, moving briskly from project A to project B to project F and so on.

Me, on the other hand, I piddle and fritter and sigh. I force myself do things. I maintain.

There is certainly plenty to do, but for me boredom is not an absence of things to do but a lack of pressure. And this is the crux of the matter because I don’t like to be pressured. (Oh the ironies!) I limit my social engagements, stridently protecting our quiet country life, keeping our evenings free for reading, movies, popcorn, and lots of chit-chat. I am careful not to tax myself with too many commitments. But then, with too much freedom and not enough pressure, I lose steam. I get bored. With the reverse, too much pressure and not enough freedom, I get irritable and tense. It’s a balancing act of the most intricate sort, one I have yet to master.

After suffering under the boredom curse for my whole life, I have come to believe that my inclination towards boredom is not a character flaw, but rather a personality trait. Certain people are never bored; other people are. It has something to do with wiring. (Yo-Yo and Sweetsie get bored a lot [and it irritates me to no end]; Miss Beccaboo and The Baby Nickel do not.)

I don’t have an answer for why or how I’m bored, but I do know that I’m a high-needs person (just ask my husband, or my mom). I need to be fed, intellectually and emotionally, on a pretty extravagant scale. No matter how many inspiring books I read or radio shows I listen to, the country life is sometimes deficient in intellectual stimulation for little ol' extroverted me. (Living in an isolated Nicaraguan village for two years was pure agony for my needy self, physically painful, exhausting me in ways I had never before experienced.)

("Absorption." This might be another way of looking at the issue. I have trouble staying absorbed. There are a few specific times that I am fully absorbed: working on photo albums or something artsy, writing, meaningful conversations.)

Some days my life is frenetic. Days when I have errands to run or appointments to keep. Days when the garden is in full riot and I’m up to my elbows in canning jars and sauces and salsas and peaches. But still, even when life is intense, I find myself fighting the draggy boredom blues.

I just thought you might like to know that about me.


Oh yes, and that I spice up my boring life with a set of fat, waxy lips.


I think everybody ought to have a pair for when the going gets dull.


About one year ago: Cinnamon Tea Biscuits

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

In which good literature leads to a cake

Have I ever told you that I’m in a book club? Well, I am. It all started a couple years ago when a friend asked me if I’d like to join her club. (I feel so elementary schoolish, talking about a club like-so, as though we tote around ratty albums stuffed with our scratch-n-sniff sticker collections and snicker about boys.) At that point the group consisted of mostly older women; they wanted a young person in the group to provide a different perspective. Or something. (I’m not sure they knew what perspective they’d be getting with me aboard, but now they have it!) While there is another woman that is only a half dozen years older than me, the majority of the woman are my mother’s peers.

I love my book club. I love that the woman are older than me, in a totally different stage of life with a totally different set of issues. I love it that the house where we meet is tidy, no men or children on the premises, and we drink tea out of matching cups and saucers. And I love it that we never all like the same book (and more often than not, we are polarized). The club is the modern day equivalent of a quilting circle, minus the quilt and the productivity factor, and since I hate sewing in any form, it’s a perfect fit for me. I much prefer to shred books than to rip seams.

Book taste, like food, is so subjective. What one person enjoys, another despises. This past Monday we discussed Olive Kitteridge, a book recommended by yours truly. Some of the women outright disliked it, others found it humorous, and a couple even enjoyed it. Next month’s book is The Lacuna. I am halfway through it and thus far I don’t have anything good to say about it (besides noting that I enjoy, as always, Kingsolver’s writing style). Once thing is certain: because of this book club, I am covering a wider range, plus a greater quantity, of reading material.

We only read one book a month, but many more titles get tossed around. Someone keeps a list of all the suggestions, a list I draw on if I find myself in need of more ideas. One of the recent titles was The Help by Kathryn Stockett. After hearing some of the women rave about it (too many had already read it to make it worth a group read), I put the book on hold at the library. And then when it finally made its way into my home, I devoured it, hook, line, and sinker.

The book is about the black help in the South, written by a white woman from the perspective of the black women, and what a fascinating tale it is. There were three (main) things that intrigued me. First, I can not, for the life of me, imagine having another person wait on me hand and foot, fetching me ice-cold drinks, watching my kids, cleaning my house, cooking my food, and doing my shopping, thus freeing me up to gossip on the phone, obsess over my cuticles, and play cards. The thought both charms and disgusts me.

Second, I do not understand the logic of the white Southerners. Black people couldn't use the whites' bathrooms or shop in their grocery stores but they could wipe white babies’ butts and cook white people’s food. It makes no sense at all.


Third, Minny’s caramel cake. Minny was the mouthiest of the black help (I adore her), and her famous cake kept popping up throughout the book.


Minny’d say things like, I a on make you a caramel cake, mister, jus’ you wait, and my heart would start beating faster just at the thought of that cake. By the time I was halfway through the book, I knew I had to make one if it was the last thing I did. As soon as I slapped the book shut for the last time, I hustled my little rear straight out to the kitchen where I whipped up three different caramel cakes in as many days. I was obsessed.

I’m neither Southern or black, so I really have no caramel cake-making credentials, but I can read and I can cook, so I sniffed my way around the web, comparing recipes and taking notes. I learned that most caramel cakes consist of a simple yellow cake and that the cake gets its name from the icing which is, obviously, caramel.


chilled brown butter

Cake number one came with high reviews, but I found it to be depressingly bland. If I first browned the butter, I mused, it might ratchet the flavor up a notch. The resulting cake number two was more flavorful but dreadfully dry. Cake number three, with more eggs and regular flour and lots of browned butter, hit the nail smack on the head. Which was a good thing for I was growing weary of all the browning and baking.


The icing was another adventure. The first one was pallid and syrupy. The second attempt was crunchy and gross.


But then I got smart. I checked Stockett’s website, and there, lo and behold, I discovered she had kindly posted the icing recipe for all her salivating readers, of which there are many.


Her icing was simple, classy, and delicious.


Please, do not be dismayed by my cumbersome caramel cake history. I’m a slow learner.


Of course, I don’t know if my final result is an authentic authentic Southern caramel cake. But I do know that the cake is tender and yellow, flecked with lots of brown speckles from the browned butter, and that the icing is richly caramelesque.

It is for Minny (and myself and you) that I make this cake.


Caramel Cake
The cake recipe is adapted from the blog Dessert First, and the icing comes from Kathryn Stockett’s website.

The cake dries out more quickly than some, so eat it within the first day or two. It is best, though, eaten just a couple hours after pulling it out of the oven. Then it is buttery, light, and soulfully sweet, the perfect thing to go with a cup of strong, hot coffee.

3/4 cup (1 ½ sticks) butter
1 2/3 cups sugar
2 eggs, plus 4 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 ½ cups, plus 2 tablespoons, flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups milk
1 recipe caramel icing (recipe follows)

Brown the butter by melting it in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and then cooking it over medium-high heat till the butter solids turn chocolate-y brown, about ten minutes. Swirl the pan occasionally to keep the butter from burning. Pour the browned butter into your mixing bowl and set it in the fridge for an hour to solidify. (Fifteen minutes in the freezer works, too.)

Butter two 9-inch cake pans and line them with wax paper.

Mix the flour, baking powder, and salt together and set aside.

Take the browned and slightly hardened butter from the fridge and use a hand-held mixer to beat it till it becomes light and creamy. Add the sugar and beat some more. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. Beat in the vanilla.

Add the dry ingredients alternately with the milk. Divide the batter between the two cake pans and bake the cakes at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes, or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Let the cakes cool for ten minutes before cutting around the edges and inverting them onto a cooling rack.

While the cakes are cooling, make the caramel frosting.

Caramel Frosting

2 ½ cups sugar, divided
1 egg, beaten
½ cup (1 stick) butter
3/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla

Measure ½ cup of the sugar into a heavy-bottomed saucepan and heat it over medium heat till it is runny and brown (darker than golden, but not burnt).

While the sugar is melting, melt the butter in a separate saucepan. Once the butter has melted, remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the milk, the remaining sugar, and then the egg. Set aside.

Once the ½ cup of sugar is nice and runny, add the contents from the other pan, crank the heat up to medium-high, and boil it for about ten minutes, stirring frequently, until the mixture begins to pull away from the sides and the temperature registers 230 degrees on a candy thermometer.

Remove the kettle from the heat, whisk in the vanilla, and then continue to whisk the mixture for several more minutes, or until the caramel has cooled and thickened a little. Ice the cake layers. (Keep in mind that the caramel will harden as it cools, so work kind of quickly. If the icing gets too stiff, Kathryn says you can whisk in a little cream to thin it out.)

About one year ago: Garden tales, part two and A storm: talking points rained out

Monday, May 17, 2010

A spring tradition

After a couple weeks of not being able to use my word documents (thanks to a computer that was filled to the gills), I now have a smaller, brand-spanking-new computer with BIG space. I’m slow to acclimate to new technology and I still don’t have the ability to load pictures, but that should (keep your fingers crossed) be fixed soon. And then I’ll be able to show you all the stuff I’ve been up to.

But since I can’t show you yet, I’ll have to settle with telling. And you’ll have to settle for reading, not just looking.

I’m such a demanding blogger, making you work like that. Shame on me.

Anyway, last week it rained. And then it sunned. And then I scurried down to the local greenhouse, bought lots of plants, and came home and threw them—whump, whump—into the garden. Over the course of two days, I planted the entire garden: tomatoes, peppers, jalapenos, anise, fennel, dill, carrots, beets, cucumbers, beans (October Sky, red, black, and green), edamame, and corn. (We have a little space remaining, but it's reserved for Miss Beccaboo’s popcorn and a row of sweet potatoes.) Yay me.

It wasn’t just me doing all the work, I’ll admit. I got Mr. Handsome to help (he’s missing a few teeth now), but it was me instigating the whole thing. And that’s the truth.

I worked outside most of the day on Saturday, so it was fitting that our menu was garden-based, more so than it usually is. For lunch we had a huge salad of fresh lettuce, spinach, thinned chard, radishes, and spring onions (and with ham, boiled eggs, sunflower seeds, raisins, and oven-roasted tomatoes). There is nothing quick about salad when you have to pick and clean the lettuce. That’s why I make it a habit of preparing a huge bowl of salad—for the next several days we are set to go.

Supper's colors were spectacular: yellow! white! green! red! Skillet-blackened asparagus topped with poached eggs (and buttered toast to mop it up with), lemony shortcake, sugared strawberries, and billows of whipped cream.


But what I really want to tell you about is the salad we had for supper the night before: a spinach-strawberry salad.


I look forward to this salad every spring—its shockingly brilliant colors, the tangy-sweet dressing, the crunchy buttery pecans. It’s the embodiment of sunshine and bare feet.


I fixed a large bowl of the salad, and between the two of us, Mr. Handsome and I put away the entire thing.


I first ate this salad at a church potluck, a picnic at a local park. I still remember who brought the salad (Keith) and where exactly on the table the salad was placed (a little beyond a box of pizza). As you can see, it made quite the impression on me.



Strawberry Spinach Salad

1 large bag of fresh spinach, about 10 ounces (though I never measure), cleaned and torn
1 pint fresh strawberries (again, I never measure), cleaned, topped, and sliced
½ cup chopped pecans
1-2 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
½ cup sugar
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 tablespoon minced onion
1 tablespoon poppy seeds

Melt the butter in a small skillet and add the pecans. Toss them about till golden brown. Transfer them from the skillet to a bowl (so they don’t continue cooking and burn to a crisp) and set aside.

In a blender, whirl together the vinegar, sugar, oil, salt, mustard, and minced onion. Blend it well, till it’s creamy smooth and pale pink. Pour the dressing into a pint jar and stir in the poppy seeds. Set aside.

Immediately before serving, put the spinach in a large salad bowl and toss with the dressing. You probably won’t need all of the dressing. Put whatever is left over in the fridge for the next day’s salad (because there will be a next day’s salad)---to use, simply bring to room temperature, and shake well before serving.

Top the spinach with the sliced strawberries and the toasted pecans. Heap high your plate and dig in!

Serves 2-8, depending on appetites and whether or not there is anything else is for dinner.

About one year ago: Garden tales, part one.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Savory rhubarb, a sprightly affair

I first started thinking about rhubarb in terms of savory after doing some reading in my honkin' huge food encyclopedia. My book reports that in Iran they serve rhubarb in stew and that in Afghanistan it gets added to spinach. In Poland they cook it with potatoes and aromatics. And so on. It got me to thinking. Clearly, I was underestimating my rhubarb.

So I started searching through my cookbooks and poking around on the web. There wasn't much out there. I attempted some rhubarb smothered pork chops. They were edible, but not something I'd repeat.

I dug deeper. The pickings were few and far between and I began to get discouraged. But onward-ho I pushed. I had a persnickety hunch that we, the rhubarb sweeties, were missing out on something special.

And then I discovered lemon-rhubarb chicken. I was right! We were missing out!


The idea of this recipe is simple: make a rhubarb sauce, reduce it, and serve it over chicken.

(Actually, the original recipe was a bit more complex. It called for stuffing rhubarb into chicken breasts. I opted to simply stuff and roast a whole chicken. The final dish tasted marvelous, but there was one little problem: my rhubarb is mostly green, remember, and mushy green rhubarb and a chicken carcass---well, let me stop there. I knew, however, despite the dish's less-than-desirable appearance and thanks to my cast-iron stomach, that I had landed on a keeper.)

The sauce is profound, like spring on a spoon---light, tangy, sweet, sprightly. It calls to mind nymphs and druads, carpets of moss and fairy dust.

I've changed the recipe up even more, simplifying and beautifying as I typed. The final dish is still not going to win any beauty contests---pale sauce with white chicken on white rice (unless, of course, you dress it up with sprigs of parsley and slices of lemon)---but your tongue will sing multitudes of praises. And if you serve it with brilliant green asparagus and some pickled beets, you'll have a feast for the eyes as well as the tummy.




Lemon-Rhubarb Chicken
Adapted from the February 2007 issue of Bon Appetit via Epicurious

A note about storing ginger: I store fresh ginger by peeling it, roughly chopping it, packing it into a jar, and then topping the jar off with sherry. Stored in the refrigerator, it keeps indefinitely.

about 4-5 cups cooked chicken, chopped
5 tablespoons olive oil
6 tablespoons minced onion, divided
4 1/2 cups diced rhubarb, divided
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons lemon zest
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup sliced ginger (unpeeled is okay)
3/4 cup sugar
6 tablespoons brandy
4 cups chicken broth
1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds (or one whole star anise)
1 bay leaf
salt
black pepper

Saute 2 tablespoons of the onion and 2 cups of the rhubarb in 2 tablespoons olive oil for five minutes, or until just beginning to soften. Stir in the lemon juice and zest. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed skillet. Add the remaining onions and rhubarb and the ginger; saute for about ten minutes. Add the sugar and brandy, bring the mixture to a boil and boil hard for one minute. Add the chicken broth, fennel, bay leaf, some salt and pepper, and simmer over medium heat for about an hour, or until the broth has been reduced to about two cups. Strain the sauce, discarding the solids.

Return the strained sauce to the (wiped out) heavy-bottomed pan, add the reserved rhubarb and the cooked chicken. Heat through and taste to correct seasonings.

Serve over rice.

About one year ago: Bald-Headed Baby and Raspberry-Mint Tea

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Springy dip

I've been on a dip kick. It started with these naked babes and went downhill from there. I made hot artichoke dip and no one in my family liked it but me. (There's gotta be something seriously wrong with people who don't like hot artichoke dip. I refuse to justify their strangeness.) I served pesto torte. I bought the ingredients for guacamole and pico de gallo. (Can you tell that I've recently acquired Pioneer Woman's cookbook?) I made double and triple batches of pita chips multiple times.

In fact, I have two more bags of pitas sitting on the counter just waiting to be dressed with butter, chopped up, salted, and baked. If you haven't made them yet, you really must. We are all absolutely nuts about them. Head over heels in love. True love.

And I served them to company this weekend and they commented about them several times, impressed that I had added no extra seasonings.

They're really good.

If, by chance you missed my post about them, or the link for the post in the first paragraph, I'll include it again right HERE. I'm just trying to make it easy for you.

Okay, I'll stop now.

(Please make them.)


Back to the dips.

So I was talking pesto torte and baked brie and salsa (well, not the salsa, but I could've been) and then Mavis up and said, What about the hummus, huh?

And I said, Dang! She's right! I forgot the hummus!

So now I give you the hummus. It's my favoritest hummus recipe. I can eat embarrassingly enormous quantities of it.


That is, if I were to be the type of person that gets embarrassed about my hummus consumption. But I'm not. The stuff is good for you. There is nothing to be ashamed about.

This hummus is not only nutritious, pretty, and creamy, it's lemony, garlicky, and parsley-y. (Say "parsley-y" three times fast and you'll feel like you have the palsy. Or maybe it's just me?)

It's filling enough to be a main dish, and if the mono-color offends you, serve it with some carrot sticks and fresh fruit.


Go on, now. Make it. Throw you and your buddies a springy dip party. (When summer hits, you can branch out and make it a skinny dip party. If you're that sort. But if you do that and get embarrassed, don't blame it on the hummus.)

And whatever you do, spring or summer, DON'T FORGET THE PITA CHIPS. (Geesh.)

Hummus
Adapted from The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen

The fresh parsley and lemon juice are crucial. Do not use substitutes.

2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
1 large handful of parsley
2 scallions, roughly chopped
3 cups cooked chickpeas (or 2 15-1/2 ounce cans), rinsed and drained
6 tablespoons tahini
6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
1/8-1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon cumin

Place all ingredients in a food processor and pulse till well-mixed and creamy. (Or, if you prefer, you can leave it a little chunkier.) Taste to correct seasonings.

Store in a tightly lidded container in the refrigerator.

Serve with crackers, PITA CHIPS, or fresh flour tortillas.

About one year ago: Rhubarb Sorbet

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Warts and all

I landed upon a new blog one morning this past week and it put me in a deep, dark, dank, foul mood. The mother/blogger had a skinny waist, smooth skin, and seven kids. She dressed like she worked on a New York runway. She was gifted with a camera. She hammed up life in ways that I don't even dare to dream of. For example, to celebrate Easter, she created a backyard fairyland complete with a white-gauzy Sukkot tent (yes, wrong analogy), a table spread with linens and giant bouquets of flowers, real chairs, and glass platters of iced goodies, candies, and the like. Her kids were magazine-worthy in their pastels, sundresses, be-ribboned hair, and chubby pink bare feet. Clean bare feet. Everyone was flashing smiles right and left.

As I scrolled through her blog, I got grumpier and grumpier. Everything was peaches and cream to the nth degree, and the deluge of God-talk didn't help matters. I felt like I was suffocating.

(Let me say here, the woman may be a real dear. I don't know her, and I wish her nothing but the best. These musing just come about as a result of my quick observations, some slap-dash judgment passing, and the resulting emotions and personal insecurities. Forgive me.)

That night I ranted to Mr. Handsome about the blog. He looked at me, bemused, and said, "If you don't like it, why are you reading it?"

He was missing the point entirely, and I told him so.

It took a lot of thinking and some conversations with some people other than Mr. Handsome before I figured out what was bothering me. It wasn't that I envied the women (well, except for her stunning figure). I certainly have no desire to make gauzy tents in my backyard or to dress up my kids for photo shoots. Shoot, half the time my kids look like they just came out of the bush, dirty, stinky, and with burrs in their hair. (And sometimes it's even worse than that. When I got back from town the other morning, Yo-Yo was sitting on the porch in a clown suit, a blue wig atop his head and a red clown nose strapped to his face. Miss Beccaboo was wearing a conglomeration of things, including an old lady's blue zip-up bathrobe, a sequined red skirt with black poodles on it, a see-through cape, a scarf, and a sunbonnet. She had stuffed her underwear so that she was fat, in an inner tube sort of way. It was a sight to behold.)

No, the thing about the blog that rankled me was this: presenting life as though it consists of just sundresses and cherubic children is dishonest. Life holds both beauty and pain. To talk only of the one part cheapens the whole.

Not to mention that it puts thirty-four year old women who have to comb through their children's hair on a daily basis to ensure all the lice are gone in a very bad mood indeed. (Excuse the bad sentence structure. I'm not going to nitpick it.) (And yes, the lice are gone.)

Plus, I have some serious issues with employing God-talk to condone peaches-n-cream stories.

The next morning I discovered another blog. This mother/writer was nearly killed in a plane crash two years ago. She survived, but her face is horribly deformed from the burns, and she's still undergoing surgeries. She has four lively children, a lived-in house, a caring husband, and a new perspective on life. She grieves the loss of her old self, but she's ever so thankful she's alive, able to press her disfigured lips against her babies' soft, perfect skin.

This blog did not rankle. I was challenged, saddened, grateful, and inspired. I stood up from the computer and viewed my own home, a home filled with clown suits, burrs, arguments and head lice, with new eyes. My life is rich, no white gauze necessary.

I don't blog everything about my life, to be sure, but I try to be candid. When I first started this blog, I felt like a con artist. I was only writing about bits and pieces of my life. If I talked about packing Mr. Handsome's lunch, then I worried that you would think I always pack his lunch and that I'm much nicer than I really am. If I talked about my kids cheerfully doing their chores, then I worried that you might think they always did their chores like so. But as I built my blogging history, I became more dimensional. I didn't worry so much about pulling the wool over your eyes. I was more or less (hopefully more) showing you who I am, warts and all.

Not everyone is inclined to splat as freely as I do, and some people splat even more. Honesty takes many forms, but the bottom line? A sugar-coated life (either blogged about or not) is not at all nourishing.

Still, I have a long way to go.

Just the other day I stopped at my friend Kris's house to pick up something and she came over to the car to say hi to the kids. She and I started talking about movies, and I mentioned that my kids weren't going to be allowed to watch the traditional Sunday night movie because earlier that week they had, unbeknownst to me, snuck the TV up to their room and watched a movie. When I had called up to ask what they were doing, they said they were having a reading party, the little stinkers.

Yo-Yo piped up, "You shouldn't be telling your friends about the stuff we do!"

"I tell my friends lots of things about you guys and they still love you," I said (rather patronizingly).

Yo-Yo's retort was swift and logical. "Well, then I should tell your friends about how you really are at home! You do all kinds of stuff that you don't tell them about!"

Kris chimed in, graciously smoothing things out, "As do all of us. And we still love each other."

Apparently I have not yet attained Atticus Finch's ability to be the same in house as on the public streets (some days I don't even try all that hard, I admit). This failing of mine is one of my warts, no doubt about it.

Maybe I engineer more gauzy structures than I'm aware of?

And that, my dears, concludes today's ramblings.

Cheerio!

About one year ago: The mother of his children.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Nekkid

I'm not going to be able to not talk about food for the couple of weeks while I wait for my new computer to get here. I just can't. This means that any new recipes I post will be pictureless. (My computer is so full that it's groaning. It spazzes out if I try to upload even one itty-bitty picture.)

This grieves me. I love to look at pictures of food. I love to take pictures of food. I love to write around pictures of food. But it's just not happening.

Perhaps I'll update these posts later with pictures, but perhaps not. It depends on many things, such as the amount of time I have on my hands and whether or not I remember. I'm just a reed, blowin' in the wind....

(Now, on May 17, new and improved, with pictures!)


Two Sundays ago I was polishing off a bag of Stacy's Simply Naked Pita chips while sitting on the sofa in the downstairs bedroom. Shortly thereafter a gigantic kettle of boiling chicken broth exploded across the kitchen. Because I was staring at the bag when the eruption occurred, the image of that empty bag of pita chips is now seared into my brain for eternity.


Those pita chips became an obsession. I wanted to make them. I had to make them. I googled and read and googled some more. Everything I read said they were a cinch to prepare. So I bought a bag of pita bread, coated the pitas with melted butter, sprinkled them with lots of salt, hacked them up, and popped them in the oven.


That evening when Mr. Handsome mentioned he was kind of hankering for a snack, I scurried to change into my birthday suit, wrap myself up in plastic wrap, and fetch him the jar of chips.


Okay, so only the last part was true. But really, that scene from Fried Green Tomatoes where the plump wife outfits herself in nothing but plastic wrap in hopes that her husband will notice her is one of my favorite parts. That and the part where she repeatedly rams her car into the back of another car that dared to take her parking space.


So I gave Mr. Handsome the chips, listened to him crunch for a minute and then said, "So waddaya think? Are they as good as the bought chips?"

"No," he said. I wrinkled my nose and turned back towards the sink. Darn, I'd have to do some more experimenting.

"They're better."

Yes! I did it! I can make pita chips better than Stacy! I'm a naked pita chip superhero!


And now, by following the simple instructions outlined below, you can be a superhero, too!

If, for whatever reason, the chips don't turn out exactly right, remember---there's always plastic wrap.




Naked Pita Chips



I used Toufayan pitas, but I think any pita would work. Do not, however, substitute the pitas with flatbread; flatbreads do not have the air pocket and are therefore not as light and crispy.

1 12-ounce bag of pita bread (about six pitas)
4 tablespoons butter, melted
salt

Brush both sides of each pita with the melted butter. Cut the pitas into wedges or squares. Pile them on a cookie sheet and sprinkle generously with salt. If there is any remaining butter, drizzle it over the pile of cut pitas. Use all of the butter.

Bake the pita chips at 200 degrees for 2-3 hours, tossing every hour, until dry through and through. And then toast them a little more. They have to be dry, dry, dry.

Add more salt as needed.

Cool the chips to room temperature before storing in an airtight container.

Serve these with hot artichoke dip, pesto torte, and/or baked brie. Or abandon the adornments and eat them buck naked.

The chips, I mean, not you.

About one year ago: Mr. Handsome's sandwich