Friday, May 22, 2009


There's a fairly substantial culinary mythology surrounding beaten biscuits. I'm sure that academic culinary historians know the true story, but it's pretty clear that most of what you read on the Internet is third-hand information written by people who've never actually eaten, let alone made, a beaten biscuit. And, really, there's nothing wrong with that because, these days anyway, the beaten biscuit is either entirely or almost entirely a mythical creature. Some of the information I've seen suggests that they're still common, or at least available, in Kentucky and Maryland, but I grew up in Maryland, and no one has ever served me a beaten biscuit. They may be a creature of the deeper south, but when I was a child, my family often traveled as far south as Georgia and Alabama to visit relatives, and I never saw any beaten biscuits there, either. (On the other hand, when I was in college, I knew a young woman from Kentucky who mentioned in passing that, as a child, she had been served beaten biscuits by an elderly woman. At the time, I didn't know enough about them to follow up with an appropriate level of curiosity and/or skepticism, but I believe we have at least one credible account of beaten biscuits having survived into the 1970s.)

Not that any of that is surprising. My best sense, from what I've read, is that the beaten biscuit is a creature arising from the ready availability of free (i.e., slave) labor and the not-yet-createdness of commercial baking powder.

My first encounter with the notion of beaten biscuits came from reading the original version of Joy of Cooking, where the process is described by the Rombauers, who, I can't help but believe, likely never actually followed the recipe. They describe it as something that requires both labor and time, but they also have the breezy you-can-do-it-ness of those DIY hosts who tell you that you can lay your own hardwood flooring. I have laid my own hardwood flooring, and I am here to tell you: you can't do it. YOU CAN'T DO IT. Leave it to the professionals.

Anyway, somewhere in my store of never-used cookbooks, I have a variation on a Junior League cookbook produced by some woman's group or other in Kentucky, and it includes a food processor version of beaten biscuits. But I can't find that cookbook. I received it as a gift many years ago from my then-sister-in-law, and while it was somewhat entertaining, it didn't seem very useful, aside from the beaten biscuit recipe, which, I may just have mentioned, I can no longer find. But the ideas that a) beaten biscuits are something worth trying, at least once, and b) they can be accomplished with the help of a machine (in fact, they were, apparently, often made with something called a "biscuit brake," and Joy of Cooking says you can also prepare the dough by passing it ten times through the coarsest blade of your meat grinder) have stuck in my head lo these many years.

I'm also planning to serve salmon mousse at an upcoming church fundraiser, and I had originally thought to serve it on relatively thin, relatively small baking powder biscuits. I was going to add dill to the dough, then slice the biscuits in half and make a mini sandwich of the salmon mousse plus a very thin slice of English cucumber. But then I thought, "Hey! Why not try beaten biscuits?" So the other night I decided to try a test batch. I halved and slightly modified the JoC recipe. I made a fairly stiff dough in the food processor. Then I folded it over and whacked it a couple of times, just to be able to say I'd beaten it, then I put it in the KitchenAid with the paddle attachment for five minutes, then I rolled it out a couple of times, then I wondered whether the whole notion of breaking down the gluten even makes any sense, then I pulled the dough into pieces and ran it through the food processor for a minute until it came back together, then I did that exact same thing four more times, then I rolled it out as thin as I could, then I cut it into small rounds, then I pricked the rounds with a fork, and then I baked it.

And I have to say that the results were pleasing. But I also have to say that they tasted a lot like a slightly puffier version of a water cracker and that baking powder biscuits, which are immensely less work, are a lot better. I will say that the reported keeping qualities of beaten biscuits are true. A baking powder biscuit needs to be eaten very soon after baking or there's not much point. A full twenty-four hours later, the beaten biscuits still tasted the same. But, then, so do water crackers.

Of course, it's possible that I just didn't execute them properly. For one thing, I rolled them a lot thinner than is usual, but I was going for something to serve salmon mousse on. Perhaps, given enough time and 500 whacks with an axe handle, I would have gotten something revelatory rather than just tasty, but I don't think so. I think that, like many myths, beaten biscuits improve by being dreamed about rather than by being realized.

Anyway, here's the recipe.

Beatenish Biscuits

2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. baking powder
1 t. dried dill
1 T. vegetable shortening, frozen
1 T. butter
1/4 c. cold milk
ice water

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Combine the flour, salt, baking powder, and dill in the food processor and whirl briefly to combine. Add the shortening and butter and pulse until the mixture resembles a coarse meal (you know, like you're making biscuits). With the motor running, add the milk. Then slowly add the water until the dough forms into a ball. Knead it briefly, fold it up a few times, roll it out, beat it, tear it to bits, put it back in the food processor, and abuse it in whatever way seems like a good idea at the time. Eventually, the dough should be nice and smooth or whatever, so roll it out, cut out the biscuits, put them on a baking sheet, prick them well with a fork, and bake them for about thirty-five minutes, or until they're barely browned.

Remove the biscuits from the oven, let them cool, pour yourself a glass of wine, sit down, and rest your arms. Eat a biscuit, then put the remaining cooled biscuits in a tin, as evidence. Tell everyone you know that you made beaten biscuits, and then lose the recipe. Experience profound gratitude for the advent of commercial baking powder.

Monday, May 18, 2009


I realize that I haven't posted in forever, but I try to think that I haven't lost all my readers: I've instead gained a great deal of privacy. This could come in handy. In just under two weeks, there's a fundraiser for the music program at church, and I'm doing substantially all of the food preparation. (People offered to help, but asking people to make specific things would require a level of organization that I just don't have. A few people will show up on the afternoon of the fundraiser to help assemble things, and a bunch of other people will carry trays around.) So I can put my recipes here, for my own reference, and when attendees ask me for any of my recipes, I can say, "Oh, I just found it online. I can't remember exactly where." And this will have elements of truth (while being, in substance, a complete lie, which makes it even better) since each recipe is stored in its own post, and I certainly don't memorize the URLs for individual posts. I will, of course, be happy to give any of my recipes to anyone who makes a suitable donation to the music fund. Yeah, I know, but it's for a good cause.

Anyway, the hoped-for scale of the evening combined with my personal desire to serve a large variety of nibbles, means that I need to prepare things that can be fully or nearly completed either well in advance (and preferably frozen) or with relatively little effort. (It also means that at some point I have to become organized, because I'm also singing, and frazzled is really not a good mood in which to perform "La Vie en Rose." Mme. Piaf certainly had more than her share of troubles, but she appears to have been at one of her high points when she wrote the lyrics, and, in any case, one doubts that she was ever frazzled.) This chilled tomato soup meets both criteria. It can certainly be prepared several (probably many, but why push it?) days in advance and left in the refrigerator, and it's a snap. That's because its main ingredient is a bottle of V8. Sue me.

My doctor has recently encouraged me to limit my sodium intake, so I used a bottle of low sodium V8 for the test batch, which is now in my refrigerator, and which I am working my way through eight or so ounces at a time. And it's good, but it needs salt, so I'll probably use regular V8 when I prepare the final batch. Or perhaps I'll use one bottle of each, since I'll probably need a double batch. Also, the amount of horseradish in the recipe is the amount I think would likely be good. I thought I had horseradish in the refrigerator, but when I got home, the bottle was very nearly empty, so I only got a little less than a teaspoon, and the soup definitely needs more. You can adjust to taste, of course.

Also, dill isn't the only way to go here. If I find some nice basil next week, I might finish the soup with that. Cilantro would also be good. The dried dill works pretty well, but fresh would probably be a better idea. I used nonfat Greek style yogurt because there's already going to be a lot of very heavy food at the fundraiser, so I thought something light would be a wise choice. But either whole milk yogurt or sour cream would also be yummy.

I haven't worked the recipe out yet, but I'm going to serve small amounts of the soup in tiny cups and make some sort of cheddar cheese straws/wafers as a companion piece. That way it'll be sort of like communion. (The addition of the onions and, especially, the yogurt make the color not quite right, but the room will be dark, probably.) I may not make the communion inspiration explicit to the guests: most Unitarian Universalists are as fond of sacrilege as I am, but there are some who wouldn't appreciate me telling them to take a body-of-Christ-cheddar-cheese wafer and follow it with a blood-of-Christ shot of tomato soup. Chacun a son gout, I reckon.

Chilled Tomato Soup

2 T. butter
1 c. chopped sweet onion
1 T. flour
A 64-ounce bottle of V-8
Freshly ground black pepper
1 T. prepared horseradish
1 c. Greek style yogurt (nonfat or whole milk, as you prefer)
1 T. dried dill

Melt the butter in the bottom of a large saucepan. Add the onion, cover, and cook until very lightly browned. Add the flour, stir well, and cook for another three to five minutes.

Add 2 cups of the V-8 and the ground pepper (to taste). Bring to a boil, then simmer for three or four minutes. Turn off the heat. Let the mixture cool to a temperature that your blender can handle (or use an immersion blender if your mother didn't break yours). Add the horseradish, blend until smooth, then return to the pot. Add the remainder of the V-8, whisk in the yogurt until smooth, and stir in the dill. Adjust the seasoning. Chill thoroughly.

Since cold soups typically require more seasoning than soups to be served hot, it's a good idea to put a teacup or small soup bowl in the freezer when you start cooking. Then when you've added the cool and cold ingredients, you can put a small amount of the soup in the cold teacup, put the whole thing back in the freezer, and taste it five minutes later to get an idea of how it's going to taste when it's served.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Not Unlike

I have, for many years now, resisted the allure of dark fruitcakes. It is true that I have often, particularly at this time of year, leaped to the defense of fruitcakes whenever some misguided and underinformed soul has issued a blanket condemnation of fruitcakes as doorstops. And I've made black cake, which some would say is the cake that all dark fruitcakes hope to become in their next lives. But I haven't made the traditional dense and rich dark fruitcake of the sort that my mother makes. And I love it, truly I do. Even though my mother includes those horrible red and green cherries in her dark fruitcake, she also includes the best pecans, and she cloaks everything in a really good, spicy dark cake. What she ends up with is notably humongous, and it lasts, wrapped in cloth, soaked in spirits, and then wrapped again in aluminum foil, in a closet for much of the following year, disappearing a slice at a time.

I am very happy with my light fruitcake. I have always been very happy with it, and, now that I've perfected it, I'm happier still. But I still wanted a dark fruitcake that I could slice up and pass around to all the fruitcake haters out there whenever one of them mentions either doorstops or bricks. And then a few days ago, I was going through the pantry, trying to make some space so that V. wouldn't have another storage-related meltdown, and as I was going through the dried fruit section, I realized that I hadn't done anything with the big bag of prunes that I'd bought recently from Costco. And that got me thinking about my awesome prune cake and how I'd wanted to try it again with a few modifications, and that got me thinking that the prune cake was not entirely unlike a black cake, though with fewer fruits and a much shorter maceration period. And I would be remiss here if I didn't mention that my original prune cake was based on a prune cake by redfox, to whom I cannot link because her blog has now gone underground, most likely because she did something to piss off Big Prune.

Anyway, I made this cake twice to try to get it just the way I wanted it. It was very good the first time, but I decided that I wanted more prunes, more chocolate, more nuts, and more spices. I also further lowered the baking temperature, to make sure that I didn't get any burning. Unfortunately, I used up all of my black walnuts (they'd been in my freezer for almost two years, but they were still delicious) in the first batch. The recipe would almost certainly be even better with black walnuts, but they're expensive and hard to find, and it's very good with good old English walnuts. If you have black walnuts lying around though (and you don't want to just send them all to me, even though I swear I'll give them a good home), you could use half as many of those.

I'll admit that part of the reason for increasing some of the ingredients was to get the recipe to the right size for three smaller (8.5x4.5) loaf pans. The first time I made it, I prepared three pans, but when two were filled, I only had enough batter left to make the two small crescent-moon-shaped cakes you see in one of the pictures.

This is a very dense, rich cake, and perhaps it's not for everyone, just because it's so dense and rich and flavorful (though not overly sweet). Of course, some people have a terrible aversion to prunes, but you can get around that by failing to mention the prunes. I think it's an awesome cake, but it takes a bite or two before you can properly appreciate all the delicious subtleties. I have a few of these wrapped in cloth and soaking in port, and if I remember, I'll report back on how they age.

It occurs to me that the addition of some dried cherries to the fruit mixture would be a good thing, but I forgot to add any. Next time, perhaps.

The Prune Is Not Unlike a Cake Fruitcake

24 oz. prunes
4 oz. candied orange peel
1 oz. candied ginger
1 cup port
2 cups walnuts
8 oz. (2 cups) all purpose flour
1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1/4 cup cocoa powder
2 t. ground ginger
2 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 nutmeg, grated
8 oz. (1 cup) sugar
8 oz. (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
2 t. vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
6 oz. bittersweet chocolate

Cut each prune in six or eight pieces. Finely chop the candied ginger. Put the prunes, candied ginger, and candied orange peel in a container and add the port. Close the container and macerate overnight. Invert occasionally to make sure all the fruit has a chance to soak up the port.

At some point before you begin the final batter preparation, toast the walnuts at 300 degrees for ten to fifteen minutes, being careful not to burn them.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Prepare your pans.

Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and spices in a bowl. Mix well and reserve. Finely chop the chocolate and reserve.

In the bowl of your stand mixer, cream the butter thoroughly. (See my most recent post for a discussion about butter creaming, etc.) Slowly add the sugar, and continue mixing until well creamed and fluffy. Scrape down the bowl, if necessary. Add the eggs one at a time with the mixer running. Stop to scrape down the bowl, as necessary. Add the vanilla.

With the mixer on low, slowly add the dry ingredients. When well incorporated, add the nuts and continue mixing. Add the macerated fruit, then add the chocolate. Scrape down the bowl, make sure the batter is well mixed, and fill the loaf pans. Smooth the top, then put in the oven.

Bake for about an hour at 300, or until the top springs back when lightly pressed. Let cool in the pans for at least half an hour, then remove from the pans and let cool completely. If desired, soak some cotton fabric in additional port, then use it to wrap the cooled fruitcakes. Put in a large plastic bag and close tightly.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Perfect Fruitcake

I have been a bad holiday baker this year. I did make some lebkuchen for the church bazaar, but I haven't made more since, despite L.'s insistence that they were the best ever. There's still time, I suppose, but usually by now I'd have made a lot more. And, truly, this seems like the year to dial back the commercialism and to crank the baking up a notch.

But I reckon there's still plenty of time, and a couple of days ago I set out to try a new fruitcake recipe. For years, my standard fruitcake recipe has been the Fruitcake Cockaigne from Joy of Cooking. It's a very good recipe, and it produces a very good white fruitcake. Even people who don't like fruitcake like it. But this past weekend, I had to make something for the bake sale for my daughter's ballet company's Nutcracker performances, so I decided to make the pound cake from Joy of Cooking, (I followed the recipe exactly, except that I omitted the mace and added a teaspoon each of lemon and almond extracts, and I measured the flour and sugar by weight -- a pound of each, naturally -- rather than by volume. Oh, and use the option where you add the eggs whole, not the option where you separated the whites and then beat them and fold them in: who the hell wants a fluffy pound cake?) and it was truly wonderful. And I remembered (and then verified) that JoC described Fruitcake Cockaigne as "not unlike a pound cake." And I suppose that's true, after a fashion, but if you look at the proportions, the butter and egg content are far short of what's in a pound cake. I wasn't sure that a pound cake with nuts and fruit mixed in was quite what I wanted, but I thought that something even less unlike a pound cake would probably be very good, so I doubled the butter and added an egg so that instead of the classic 1:1:1:1 proportions of butter, flour, sugar, and egg in a true pound cake, I was closer to 0.75:1:1:0.75. Very rich, indeed, for a fruit cake.

I had thought that because the pound cake recipe makes two 9x5 loaf pans, a similar recipe with the addition of four cups of fruits and nuts would require a third pan, but, as it happens, the recipe perfectly filled the two loaf pans.

There are several items that are more important than usual when you're making a pound cake or a not-unlike-a-pound-cake fruitcake:

1. It is not in the nature of this cake to release from the pan easily, so pan preparation is important. I melt shortening in the microwave and apply it to my (metal) loaf pans with a brush. I cut a piece of waxed paper to fit the bottom of the pan, put it in the pan, then brush the whole pan (including the waxed paper) again. Then I flour the pan.

2. You should start out with your butter and your eggs as close to room temperature as possible. I usually do this by leaving the butter out for a couple of hours, but there is also a "soften" setting on my microwave that will work if I forget. You can't let the butter melt, but it shouldn't be cold, either. When I'm starting to do my mise en place, I put my eggs in a bowl and cover them with hot water from the tap. By the time I'm ready to add them, they're usually near room temperature.

3. This is a recipe that you should not rush. But the butter in your mixer and let it cream while you're preparing the pans. Add the sugar gradually, and then let it cream with the butter for five minutes or even longer. Do not worry about overbeating at this point. You will also be baking the cake for a long time at a relatively low temperature.

4. Light fruitcakes sometimes have a problem where the fruits at the edge of the cake burn. Soaking the fruits overnight in rum takes care of this and also gives great flavor.

As it happens, I was a little bit late getting my pans in the oven, so that even after I'd gone out to pick up A. and L. from L.'s ballet and then brought them home for a while, when it was time to take them over to their mother's house, only one of the cakes was done. (I found one nonstick pan and one stick pan, and the nonstick pan, being darker, finishes the cake five to ten minutes earlier.) The other was close, so I turned off the oven, opened the oven door for a few seconds, closed it again, and left. I was letting A. drive so that she could practice for her driver's exam, and she had to unload a bunch of stuff from the car (she flew back home Saturday from a semester in Guadalajara), so it was about forty-five minutes before I was home again. The top of the cake looked slightly odd and flat, but I pulled it out of the oven then and depanned it a few minutes later (both cakes released perfectly). When the cakes were cool, I decided to wrap the other one in cloth and let it soak in more rum for a week or two, but I figured I might as well cut into the other one to make sure it was properly baked.

Words cannot do that cake justice. So, so good. I'm still going to let the other one soak in the rum for a couple of weeks because, heck, it can't hurt, right? Also, fruitcakes are easier to slice thinly after they've absorbed some booze. But this is a cake that you can serve as soon as it's cool, and it will be awesome. Not unlike a pound cake. But better.

Perfect Fruitcake

2 cups mixed dried fruit (suggestion: 1/4 c. candied ginger; 1/2 c. dried blueberries; 1/2 c. dried cranberries; 1/4 c. candied orange peel)
1/2 cup dark rum
2 cups pecans
3/4 lb. butter, at room temperature
1 lb. granulated sugar
6 large eggs, at room temperature
2 t. vanilla extract
1 lb. all purpose flour
1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. mace
1/2 t. nutmeg
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. cardamom

The day before you're going to bake the fruitcake, combine the dried fruits and the rum. Cover and leave to macerate.

Sometime before you're going to bake the fruitcake, toast the pecans for about 12 minutes at 300 degrees. Be careful not to burn them.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Prepare your pans. Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and spices. Mix well and reserve.

In your mixer, cream the butter thoroughly. Gradually add the sugar to the butter, and let them continue to mix for several minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. Scrape the bowl down if necessary. Beat in the vanilla extract.

At low speed, gradually add the dry ingredients. When thoroughly combined, scrape the bowl down again, if necessary. At low speed, add the pecans. Add the fruit and rum mixture and fold in until well blended.

Divide the batter between the prepared pans. Bake for about 85 to 95 minutes, or until the cake springs back slightly when pressed.

Remove from oven and let cool in the pans for half an hour. Remove from pans and let rest on cooling rack until thoroughly cooled.

You can slice and serve the cake as soon as it's cool. You can wrap it in plastic and slice it a bit at a time. So far, my cake's two days old, and it tastes the same as on the day it was baked. You can also wrap it in cloth, apply your spirit of choice, and then wrap it airtight for as long as you think wise. Add more spirits occasionally.

Monday, November 17, 2008


[Picture here. Eventually. I promise. No, really.]

Last weekend was the somethingth annual church bazaar. I'm really not much of a joiner, but if someone thinks to ask me to do something, I'll usually do it because a) I want to help out, and b) it's just easier to accept than to say no. This policy has its drawbacks, of course: I once spent three years as church treasurer, and, in retrospect, saying no would probably have been less work. But all anyone asked me to do this year was to make something edible, so I decided to try out a few things for the bake sale. I didn't remember to take pictures of any of them, though, so I'll probably only post the other recipes if I make them again, which means that you'll likely be seeing yet another lebkuchen post. I had thought that the lebkuchen I made last year couldn't be beat, but I think this year's were even better. The recipe really wasn't all that different, though. I made some minor adjustments in the spice mixture, but mostly I just used significantly less flour than in the past and made the lebkuchen as drop cookies. This requires a very special technique where you run your hand under cold water and then use it to flatten the cookies, and you may not want to try that without an advanced degree from a culinary institute or, in the alternative, some experience playing with children and Play-Do, but, well, I digress.

I really wanted to make some meringues this year. I'd tried, a month or two ago, several batches of meringues with a chocolate and orange flavoring, and the results were tasty, but they were also flat and chewy where I wanted them to be crispy and puffy. I had hypothesized that the problem was either that I was using too little sugar or the wrong kind of sugar. So this time I used more sugar, and I used regular granulated sugar. And the meringues came out just right, but I also used a little bit of cream of tartar this time, and that's more likely why they came out just right. Anyway, the meringues were very tasty, and they weren't oppressively sweet, so maybe I'll just stick with this recipe.

"Omms" is, obviously, an abbreviation of "orange mocha meringues." I joked, when I was working the bake sale table on Saturday, that the cookies are so named because they inspire meditation. I'm not sure this is at all true as they are more likely to induce excitement than calm, but it's a good name, right? You can go further, if you like, by abbreviating "orange mocha meringues, mmm" into "ommmmms," but then people might thing you were being silly, even if the cookies are very tasty, which they are.

Orange Mocha Meringues

4 egg whites
1/4 t. cream of tartar
1 cup + 1/4 cup sugar
The finely grated zest of one orange
4 T. cocoa powder
1 T. instant coffee
2 ounces dark chocolate, finely chopped
2 T. finely chopped candied orange peel

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment, or use Silpats.

You will want your egg whites to be as close to room temperature as possible, but you don't want them to sit out for long periods of time. I generally separate my egg whites, put them in a bowl, and put the bowl over a saucepan of water that is as hot as the tap will make it. Then I let them sit while I assemble the rest of my ingredients. They probably don't make it to room temperature before I start beating them, but it's better than nothing.

Combine the 1/4 cup sugar, the cocoa powder, the orange zest, and the instant coffee in your coffee or spice grinder and grind until fine. You are doing this mostly to grind the instant coffee up. If you have access to instant espresso powder and your orange zest is already very finely grated, then you can just combine the ingredients and reserve them. Putting them through the grinder also turns your sugar into instant dissolving sugar, which is nice but probably not essential.

Put the egg whites into the bowl of your mixer and turn the mixer on low. Add the cream of tartar and beat until the eggs are foamy, then increase the speed to high. When the egg whites look like they're reaching the soft peaks stage, gradually beat in the 1 cup of sugar, and continue beating the egg whites to the stiff peaks stage. You can, by the way, do all of this by hand, which is a good idea if (and only if) you hope to compete on Top Chef some day.

Turn the mixer off and verify that you've got stiff peaks. Then turn the mixer on low and add the cocoa/sugar/coffee/orange zest mixture. Mix very briefly. You want to get the mixture mostly incorporated into the egg whites, but you don't want to overbeat them. Fold the chopped chocolate and candied orange peel into the meringue mixture. This will also finish mixing in the cocoa mixture.

Using two teaspoons, drop heaping teaspoonsful of the meringue onto the prepared baking sheets. You can put them relatively close together, but leave a little room since they will likely spread a tiny bit during baking. I can get about thirty-five of them on a half-sheet pan, but since I can't get them all on one pan, I typically get about thirty on one pan and fifteen on the second. Whatever works for you. Similarly, you can make them larger or smaller if you like.

Put the trays in the oven and bake at 300 degrees for forty-five minutes. Turn off the oven. Ideally, you'll leave the meringues in until they cool, which will take several hours. If you need to bake something else afterwards, leave them in for as long as you can, then take them out and let them finish cooling. As soon as they're cool, peel them off the parchment/Silpat and store them in an airtight container. I used large ziplock bags and then transferred them to some printed cello bags that I got at the dollar store (25 for a buck: what a deal!)

I made two batches of the meringues, and I only added the finely chopped candied orange peel to the second batch. The first batch was very nice, but I found the orange flavor a bit too subtle for my tastes. I still wanted to sell both batches, though, so when I packaged them for sale, I filled each bag with half pre-peel and half post-peel meringues. Otherwise, I figured I'd have complicated labeling and marketing issues, possibly leading to fisticuffs when some members learned they didn't have candied orange peel while others did, and, well, fighting in church should probably be discouraged, in spite of its obvious entertainment value. Besides, the meringues might get crushed, and that would be a bad thing.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Dirty Almonds

Yesterday evening, we were heading into DC to have dinner and see a movie with some friends. One of them was driving down with us, so I invited him to stop by early and have a martini. I have already put down for posterity my thoughts about martinis, so I will do my best not to bore you with yet another diatribe about people who try to pass off vodka-based drinks as martinis. Nor will I rail yet again against the attachment of the -tini suffix to places where it clearly ought not to be.

Instead, I'll just say that when you're going to be serving someone a martini, it is a considerate and usually appreciated gesture to serve him or her an accompanying nibble. A dish of nice olives will suffice, and if I'd had no time to do anything, I'd certainly have opened a jar of Kalamatas from Trader Joe's and called it a day. But I wanted to do a little bit more than that, and I hadn't really planned ahead far enough to make marinated olives, and I had (as I always have) a large bag of almonds from Costco in the pantry, so I figured I'd make some spiced nuts.

The easiest (and possibly the best) spiced nuts are Laurie Colwin's Rosemary Walnuts. But I wasn't sure my walnuts were quite up to snuff. One of the best characteristics of the almond is its relative slowness to turn rancid. When your walnuts or your hazelnuts might have started to take on an off flavor, your almonds will still be just right. That's one of the main reasons (along with their relative inexpensiveness) that I use almonds instead of hazelnuts when I make lebkuchen. Anyway, I also wanted to do something a little more involved than the Rosemary Walnuts, so I spiced up my almonds.

I've made several recent attempts at spiced almonds, and the results had all been pleasant, but none of them had been exactly what I wanted. Even with this attempt, I had to make adjustments as I was going along, mostly to fill out the flavor profile, but what I ended up with seemed just right to me, even if it wasn't necessarily what I was going for when I set out.

Dirty Almonds

1 T. butter
1 dash Liquid Smoke
3 cups raw almonds
1 t. salt
1/2 t. cumin
1/2 t. ground dried chipotle
1/2 t. smoked sweet paprika
1 T. sugar
1/4 cup dry red wine
Black pepper, to taste

In a nonstick skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the Liquid Smoke and stir. Add the almonds and toss well to coat.

Mix together the salt, cumin, chipotle, and paprika. Continue to cook the almonds, tossing frequently, for three or four minutes. Sprinkle on the sugar, toss well again, and continue to cook and toss for another two minutes.

Pour the wine over the almonds. It should begin to evaporate immediately. Continue cooking and tossing until the wine has completely evaporated. Grind some pepper over the almonds, and toss again. Taste and add additional salt if necessary.

Transfer the almonds to a lined baking sheet (I use a Silpat) and put the almonds in a slow (250 - 275 Fahrenheit) oven for about ten minutes, or until dry. Let cool.

A few notes: while I generally favor kosher salt in cooking, in this case, you don't want a salt that's too coarse. You could whirl your kosher salt in your spice grinder of course. I happen to have a small collection of fancy salts that I almost never use, so I used some pink salt that I bought about eighteen months ago when I was in Manhattan and drunk. It was a ridiculous amount to pay for a container of salt, but it was probably cheaper than having another drink, and now it's sort of a souvenir. In the same vein, I have a small amount of very coarse pink salt that I picked up last year in Florence, and which I may never get around to using. But I think it's cooler than, say, a snowglobe. I also picked up a fake Rolex while I was in Florence when I happened to be sober.

I was going for a smoky flavor here, obviously, but there are other flavor profiles that would probably work equally well, so I encourage you to play around with spice combinations. The sugar caramelizes and works as a glue to make the spices adhere to the almonds. It also adds something to the flavor, but there isn't enough sugar to make the whole thing sweet. I tossed the wine in because there was a part of my palate that felt like it was being ignored, and I reasoned, correctly, that wine would give that spot some attention. It also seemed to help with the caramelization.

I'm not sure the oven period is really necessary, but it seemed like a good idea after adding the liquid to the recipe. If you put these in a bowl or container right out of the oven, they'll stick together a bit, but when they're cool, they'll break apart again easily and then they'll stay separate.

These made an awfully good accompaniment to the martinis yesterday, but I think they might be even better today. I also think they'll make a good addition to Christmas baskets. It's mid-October, so it's really getting to be time to start on my Christmas baking.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Orange Blossoms

It's fall here in the anapestic kitchens (and, one presumes, elsewhere), and that means that it's time to candy orange peel. As I've mentioned, ad nauseum, in my infrequent recent posts, I'm trying to watch what I eat, so I haven't had much of a chance to try to make something inspired lately. And candying orange peel might not seem like the ideal place for inspiration: I make it myself only because what I find in the supermarket is highly overpriced and, more to the point, of dreadful quality compared to what I make myself (or what you can find in the supermarket if you happen to live in Germany, but I happen to not, more's the pity, though I'm not sure that I have an especially Teutonic temperament). Still, the thought of spending two days (off and on, mind you: when you candy orange peel, there's a lot that goes on that takes much time and little attention) making the same old, albeit excellent, candied orange rind didn't, ahem, appeal, so I wondered what I could do differently. And, really, it didn't take me long to think that what I probably wanted to do was to candy the orange peel in a cardamom-flavored red wine heavy syrup. It just seemed like a good idea. And [spoiler alert!] it was. The result was not only divine, and something that L. now asks to eat whenever she's over, but something I really couldn't get anywhere else, even in other countries. I mean, as far as I know. I suppose it's perfectly possible that there's an entire cardamom-wine-flavored candied orange peel industry in Peru or some place, but if there is, they aren't exactly beating down my e-mail inbox to sell it to me at a reasonable price.

Anyway, because candying orange peel is a production to begin with and because I was trying something special, I also decided that I wanted to go for a special shape. I had (note past tense) a small, six-petal-flower-shaped cutter with a diameter of just under an inch that I thought would make ideal candies. So after stepping out to Costco and buying a box containing three dozen navel oranges, and after carefully removing the peels from each orange in only three pieces (long, shallow cuts with a sharp paring knife makes this feasible), I began to stamp little flowers out of my 108 orange peel segments. Sadly, the flower cutter was not all that much thicker on the non-cutting side than on the cutting side, so the process was somewhat painful for the palm of my hand. So I covered the cutter with a folded up dish towel and applied more force. That worked for a while, but the cutter, alas, soon began to deform, so that my flowers were slowly morphing into amoebae. Eventually, I switched over to the smallest of my crenelated circle cutters, which is both sturdier and much more comfortable to use. The results are not quite as pretty, but they are pretty enough, and I had, fortunately, already cut a large number of flowers.

Traditionally, my main use of candied orange peel has been not as candy but as an essential ingredient in my annual mega-batches of lebkuchen. When you've gone to the trouble to cut out small pieces of flower- or near-flower-shaped peel, you don't want to turn around and grind it up. On the other hand, when you've cut out pieces of peel, you have all the negative spaces leftover, and it's an easy matter to quickly chop these up and process them to get the candied orange peel ordinaire that is so essential to my holiday cooking. Right now, I have two fairly large tubs of regular-shaped candy, and a huge container of irregular candied peel. And it's all good.

I'm going to give the recipe for the candy with prepared peel as the starting point, but I'll also tell you how to prepare the peel. After you've peeled the oranges and cut the peel, by whatever means necessary, into the shapes you want, you put them in a pot that's big enough to hold them easily (and with three dozen oranges, that's a realllly big pot: my eight-quart stockpot wasn't big enough), you cover them with cold water, you bring the water to a boil, you turn the heat off, you let the peels soak in the water for a few minutes, and then you drain the peels in a colander. Then you repeat the entire process until you have boiled the peels up to five times. I did five full boils this time, and the peel is delicious (and probably ideal for L.'s palate), but I wonder whether it wouldn't be even better with a tiny bit more bite. I let one of my boils (the third, if memory serves) go on rather longer than I'd planned. I might go with three or four boils next time, but it's hard to say, and the flavor is certainly still excellent after the fifth boil. What I'm trying to say here is that if you only did one or two boils, your orange peel would be very bitter, but beyond that, the procedure is very forgiving. I mean, I know that almost no one besides me ever actually bothers to candy orange peel, but I wish more people would. This recipe is really awesome, and if you make it, you'll be able to serve something that just isn't otherwise available. The red wine gives it a very dramatic color, and the red wine and cardamom both give it a wonderful flavor.

Orange Blossoms
Eight cups prepared orange peel
2 cups dry red wine
1/2 cup water
5 cups granulated sugar
20 pods cardamom
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 t. ground cardamom

Open the cardamom pods to get at the kernels inside. Discard the papery covering.
In a large, heavy saucepan, combine the red wine, the water, and the 5 cups of granulated sugar. Cover tightly, and place over medium heat. Bring the syrup to a boil, stirring if necessary to dissolve the sugar. Add the cardamom kernels and let boil, uncovered, for five minutes.

Add the prepared orange peel, stir well, and return to a low boil. Cook uncovered for approximately one hour, until the peel is translucent. You should not run out of syrup, and you do not need to cook the peel until the syrup is all absorbed. You can use the extra syrup (at full strength or diluted with a simple water-and-sugar syrup) for another batch.

Drain the peel and put it on a rack over a half-sheet pan. Set your oven to its lowest setting (170 degrees on my oven), and put the rack, pan, and peel in the oven. Leave it there overnight. If your oven doesn't go as low as 170 degrees, then turn the oven off and on occasionally so that you don't burn the peel.

Combine the last cup of sugar and the ground cardamom. Remove the peel from the oven when nearly dry and let cool. Toss the peel in the sugar and cardamom, return to the rack, and return the rack to the low oven until the peel is dry but still soft. Let cool to room temperature, and store in zipper-topped bags or sealed containers.

I still have a little bit of last autumn's peel left, and it's still tasty. Some of it's gotten hard, but some of it's still soft. If it gets hard, you can still use it in cooking, but if you're making candy, you're going to want to keep it well sealed so that it doesn't dry out. At the same time, you have to make sure that it's dry enough so that it doesn't get moldy if you store it for long periods. The best solution is to eat it or gift it before the end of the year, but with a very little bit of practice, it's easy to have your peel end up in the zone where it keeps well without getting too hard.

Some of your orange blossoms will have pieces of cardamom sticking to them from the candying syrup. This is very much a feature rather than a bug: the cardamom mellows and becomes even tastier during the long cooking.

I took the syrup that I had left over from making the orange blossoms and added additional sugar and water (2 to 1) to candy the rest of my orange peel. When I'm making peel for lebkuchen and other cooking uses, I go ahead and dry it more than I do for the orange blossoms. I usually make enough to last the whole year, and the flavor isn't hurt by extra drying. When it's time to use it, I soak it in a little rum or pour a small amount of boiling water over it so that it's easier to work with.