Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy 2014

Even though it didn't involve an international move (for a change), 2013 managed to be quite a roller-coaster year all the same. We finished it off with dinner at home with friends, and what is rapidly becoming a family NYE dessert tradition. (Miss B says my cake decorating skills are improving, so there's one 2013 milestone!)

Happy New Year to all of you, and here's to being ready to meet 2014 with fortitude and good cheer!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Kickass fries

Deep-fried anything is one of my most entrenched cooking fears. Well, not a fear, exactly, but I avoid it. Hot oil is dangerous, it’s smelly; you have to put food into it very carefully, and then watch it like a hawk until it’s time to fish it out even more carefully. Thus frying anything involves placing yourself at length in close proximity to both the danger and the smell, while in your concentration neglecting any small children who may be underfoot. Then, when you’re finally done, you have to figure out a way to dispose of gallons of greasy, smelly cooking oil. And that’s without even getting onto the health question.

So, I deep-fry things a few times a year; most consistently (and not coincidentally), things I watched my mother and grandmother deep-fry, like meatcakes and Christmas doughnuts, which don’t taste right made any other way and which I feel reasonably confident about managing. I have never, ever tried to fry French fries, the typical recipe for which sounds like everything I fear and loathe about deep-frying, except that you have to do it twice. When I make fries, we have oven fries.

Some time ago, however, I came across a Cook’s Illustrated recipe for Cold Oil French Fries. Instead of the traditional method, which involves plunging the fries into (and extracting them from) hot oil twice in quick succession, this recipe has you put the fries into the pan with the cold oil, and then heat them all up together (translation: zero, rather than two, times plunging in hot oil!). Then you cook them over medium heat in the boiling oil until they are brown and crispy. Then you remove them, drain them on brown paper, salt them, and eat them.

Not only is this a much simpler method than the traditional one, it has only one nerve-wracking step, as opposed to four. And the fries are, as I discovered when I made them last night for the first time (and as the title above implies), kickass.

Cold Oil French Fries
adapted from Cook’s Illustrated
The Cook’s Illustrated recipe, as they are wont to do, has various precise specifications about types of potato and oil, peeling and cutting, temperature and so forth, all of which I ignored. The fries may have been more kickass had I paid attention, but their level of kickassedness was perfectly sufficient to make my day.
The salient points that I fixed on to ensure the success of the recipe are as follows:

1. Use a heavy, Dutch-oven-type cooking pot to keep the oil sufficiently hot. (I used my Le Creuset knockoff. Bonus cleanup points if you can use one that’s deep enough to minimize oil splattering everywhere.)
2. Make sure that your fries are completely submerged in the oil before starting.

6 small to medium potatoes (I don’t know what kind these are, as I bought them in a brown bag from the guy who grew them, and I forgot to ask. I generally prepare 2 potatoes per person I’m serving, unless they’re gigantic. (The potato, not the person.))
canola oil (or other neutrally-flavored oil, such as peanut; I emptied a 750-ml bottle (~3 cups) over the fries, and added a couple of tablespoons of bacon fat for flavor and good measure)

Scrub the potatoes, remove any sprouts, eyes, or other unsightly bits, and cut into batons about ½-inch (1 cm) thick. (Note that I did not peel my potatoes, but whether or not you do is up to you.)

Line a baking sheet with brown paper and set aside.

Place potatoes in cooking vessel of choice and cover with oil.

Put the pan over low-medium heat and cover pan with a splatter screen if you have one. Keep an eye on the pan as the oil heats, stirring the fries occasionally to make sure they’re not sticking.

When the oil starts to boil, stir the fries again and check the heat setting to make sure the boil is maintained consistently without a) dying off or b) overflowing and starting a fire. Continue stirring fries every few minutes as they cook; once they start boiling, they should take 15-20 minutes to fry. Once they are consistently a light-golden brown, they are done.

Turn off the heat. Once the oil settles down, use a slotted spoon or similar to scoop cooked fries out of the oil and onto the paper-lined baking tray.

Sprinkle with salt. Eat as soon as fries are cool enough to permit injury-free consumption.

Serves 2 adults and 1 child with what appear to be leftovers, until everyone goes back for seconds.

PS: Please report back on how much time elapses before you get a request to make these again. (I got asked at breakfast this morning.)

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Holiday baking

Happy Boxing Day! I don't think I have quite managed Eight Days of Christmas Baking this year (although there is still scope for more to come during the 12 Days of Christmas), but there has been a fair amount of homemade food production around here of late:

This year's goodie bags, which went out to coworkers (DP's), teachers (Miss B's), friends (everyone's), and neighbors (ditto), were filled with jars of jam from the stash, bags of sweet and spicy mixed nuts, and something sweet. Since I produced a few of these per day over the course of a week, the baked item changed from day to day, depending upon time, inclination, and ingredients. Some selected items:

These chocolate-chip meringues were an inspiration motivated by desperation, after I used up the last block of butter I had in the house in a batch of caramel which I proceeded to burn. I made them following a standard meringue recipe (2 egg whites' worth), then stirred in a cup or so of bittersweet chocolate chips, dropping blobs on a baking sheet, and baking in the oven.

Once I got hold of some more butter, I made a couple of batches of these chocolava cookies, some for the goodie bags and a plateful to share at Miss B's end-of-year class party.

And finally, to finish off the goodie bags (and to share with my stitch group's pre-Christmas meeting), I baked up a batch of essential cookies, drizzled with chocolate ganache.

That takes us up to the morning of Christmas Eve, when I engaged in the traditional frying of Italian Christmas doughnuts. The dough is essentially a very basic, very wet bread dough - flour, yeast, and a sprinkle of salt, along with warm water at an almost 1:1 ratio with the flour. I made it up at bedtime on the 23rd and left it to rise overnight, then fried it up in olive oil until puffy and golden brown. Served warm with a puddle of honey alongside to dip into with each bite, this is the taste of Christmas for me. And my family - I made a relatively small batch of about 2 dozen doughnuts, and they're nearly gone already!

Christmas Eve dinner is as important as Christmas Day dinner in my Italian family's tradition, so I wanted to prepare a special dessert to round off the meal. Knowing that no other dessert makes my own family as happy as cupcakes, I baked a panful, and even managed to eke out a festive decoration - of sorts.

And finally - having not yet definitively answered the question, "What should our Christmas breakfast tradition be?", I decided this year to try out a popular favorite: cinnamon rolls. It was my first time ever making them, from a Nigella Lawson recipe. I generally followed the recipe, although I used only a fraction of the 3 packets of yeast called for, so that I could make them on Christmas Eve, then leave them to rise slowly in the fridge overnight and bake them on Christmas morning. They came out pretty well, although I have the following modifications in mind for my next attempt:

- need to add quite a bit more flour to make the dough roll out
- spread cinnamon filling over the base as well as on the rolled-up part (might need to make extra)
- make an icing glaze for the top

I haven't baked anything for more than 24 hours now, so I should start to feel the itch again at any moment. What to bake next?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas

Just popping in during a break in the festivities to wish a joyous and peaceful Christmas to all who celebrate - and a joyful and peaceful Wednesday to all those who don't!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

In memoriam

I was saddened to hear this morning of the death of Peter O'Toole, one of my favorite actors of all time, ever since DP and went to see a revival of Lawrence of Arabia on the biggest movie screen then still in existence in Boston (autumn 1988 at the Charles, for you locals). Here's a clip of the scene I remember best:

And another one, because even though he is best remembered for great dramatic roles such as Lawrence, one of the reasons I liked him so much was because of how funny he was, as was evident in the first film in which I encountered him - My Favorite Year. I feel this (completely random) clip captures his humorous essence perfectly:

And my favorite of his movies, which has a little bit of both:

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Summer Sundays

When we lived in England, we got into the habit of inviting people over for Sunday lunch. It’s a time-honored and universal tradition there, and is my first choice for hosting. There’s much more time for cooking on Sunday morning than there is on the average weeknight, and there’s much more time on Sunday afternoon for lingering over dessert and a cup of tea. If everything falls into place, you might even get some uninterrupted adult conversation while the assembled children a) wreak havoc or b) watch a video in another part of the house.

Maybe part of the reason Sunday lunch feels like such a natural option for me is that I grew up with it – except we called it Sunday dinner. Whatever the name, most Sunday middays found us gathered around the table, digging in to a traditional roast dinner; an unvarying rotation of roast beef, roast pork, roast chicken, or baked ham; all served with potatoes and peas, and followed by a homemade dessert.

The only time we didn’t follow this pattern was during summer vacation when, every Sunday after church, we would pack up the car with towels, buckets, sandwiches, the scotch cooler, and the eight of us, and head to the beach. My enduring memories of Sunday lunch in the summer are of ham sandwiches and carrot sticks in the car; peaches, chilly from the cooler, on the beach; and ice cream on the way home.

Maybe that’s why I still feel a bit flummoxed when I think about cooking a Sunday lunch in warm weather. My default Sunday lunch option is the typical roast dinner – large hunk of meat, roasted potatoes, starchy, filling dessert – that warms you up on a winter afternoon and leaves you ready to do little besides doze off on the couch. Unless you’re the hearty type that likes to go out for a brisk, chilly walk and work it off. (Full disclosure: I am not that type, despite DP’s best efforts these many years.)

As we enter our second summer in Australia with outdoor eating facilities at our disposal, I think I’ve hit upon a formula that works. I still base the menu around a large hunk of meat, because it’s easy and doesn’t have to be served piping hot. I replace the roast potatoes and vegetables with salads. And the dessert, instead of a crumble or a rich, heavy pudding, is something lighter and more seasonal – preferably a pavlova.

It still has that Sunday-lunch feel, and still provides opportunities to linger and chat – preferably outside, in the shade, on an afternoon that’s not so warm it’s uncomfortable, but warm enough that no one feels inclined to suggest a brisk walk.

Baked potato salad
I first got the idea of baking potatoes for salad from the fount of useful information and great ideas that is dinner with Julie; I find the texture and taste of salads made this way vastly preferable to the traditional boiled-potato method.

12 small to medium baking potatoes
~3 scallions/spring onions/shallots
2-3 Tbsp Greek yogurt
1 Tbsp mayonnaise
2-3 tsp Dijon mustard
healthy sprinkle of cayenne pepper

Prepare the potatoes as you normally would for baking (ie wash, remove eyes, poke with a fork), then put in a hot oven (~200C/400F or thereabouts) until baked. (Time will vary, depending on size and oven, from 30 minutes to 2 hours; I judge that my potatoes are ready when the skin feels papery and the potato feels soft when I squeeze it.)

Chop the potatoes into bite-sized pieces while hot, and place in a large bowl. Finely chop the scallions into the bowl, then add the yogurt, mayonnaise, and mustard. Gently mix until all ingredients are thoroughly combined. Season with salt and cayenne and mix again, tasting to check seasoning.

Serves 4 adults and 4 children, with a moderate amount of leftovers.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Slacking off

Apologies for the disappearing act the moment NaBloPoMo ended; here's a brief recap of how I've been (mis)spending my time for the last week or so:

And you?
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