Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Cake fail!

Some time ago I posted about my problem with cookbooks. I have too many of them I don't use often enough. In that post I said I would try to use them more often and would blog about the results. Well, it's been awhile, but finally I have something to report - an exciting failure. I think we need to talk more about our failures because we learn as much from experimentation and failure (stretching our boundaries) as we do from our successes. I'm putting my money where my mouth is. And where my cake went.

I needed to make a dessert for dinner with friends. Rather than go to any of my tried and true recipes or the store, I decided to try something from one of my old cookbooks. After some pleasant reading I settled on this one, The New Pennsylvania Dutch Cook Book by Ruth Hutchinson, (c) 1948 and 1958. Each chapter begins with some homely advice, the recipes themselves are straightforward and largely attributed to various wives - Mrs. Donald Hellferich, Mrs. Thomas B. Keck - with a few single women and men tossed in for good measure.

The molasses cake recipe looked good - I love molasses - and I had all the ingredients on hand. While the recipe had some unfamiliar steps and proportions I thought it would be an adventure. And it was.
Here is what I learned:
  • Creaming 2T of shortening into 1c of brown sugar is a challenge. 
  • I thought 1c water AND 2c molasses seemed like a lot of liquid for this recipe. I was right (see below) and need to remember to trust my instincts.
  • I'd never tried the soda-and-vinegar leavening method. I enjoyed the grade-school volcano experience. 
The batter was very liquid. I didn't add more than 1T extra flour, since this was a new recipe. I just poured it into the loaf pan and popped it into the oven.

Fifteen minutes later I smelled something burning. The cake had risen so much - and was still so liquid - that it had boiled over and a quarter of the batter was burning on the floor of my oven. I put a cookie tray on the bottom shelf, scraped off what I could from the oven and decided heck! it's summer! I'll turn on the fan and let it go.

After 45 minutes it was still molasses soup. Clearly something was amiss.

At 1:25 I finally took it out of the oven. The middle was still a thick liquid while the sides were a dense, soft cake. Kind of like a hot fudge pudding. Hmm. I scooped it into a bowl and we ate it - hot molasses pudding. Delicious. But not what I expected nor anything I could bring to our hosts. And my oven was a mess.

Next time I'll plan on the extreme leavening and make it in a much larger bowl, maybe use less water and more flour, or just go with the pudding effect. It was a good learning experience.

I ended up bringing strawberries to our hosts. And a story. Now they want to come over and taste the molasses pudding. I just hope when I make it deliberately it turns out half as well.

(c) 2010 Laura S. Packer

Monday, June 7, 2010

Quick sage pesto

For dinner tonight I made a quick pesto for boneless chicken thighs on the grill. I used to be afraid of pesto, always measuring out all the ingredients, but have finally realized it's just a matter of throwing a green herb, garlic and olive oil into the processor.The photos are terrible, so you just get the recipe. I expect the pesto would be great on potatoes too.

In a food processor or mortar and pestle smush together:

  • a lot of garlic (I used an entire head of cloves)
  • at least 10 good sized sage leaves, fresh from the garden
  • enough olive oil to encourage emulsion
  • salt and pepper to taste

Smear it on your chicken, potatoes, whatever and grill. Don't breath on anyone afterwards, this is a lot of garlic. Enjoy!

(c) 2010 Laura S. Packer

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Dried limes


Some ingredients seem magical and unreachable. Their very names, even in translation, evoke distance, time, an immigrant's longing for home, the stories we tell to remind ourselves we are not lost to those we love. My list is undoubtedly different than yours (these may be everyday ingredients to you!) but here are a scant few:

Szechuan peppercorn
Black mustard seed
Durian fruit
Cashew fruit
Zahtar
Dried limes

Now, I've used or eaten most of the things on this list at one time or another. I fell in love with cashew fruit in Brazil, I love the pop of black mustard seed when I make Indian food, szechuan peppercorn thrills and then numbs my taste buds (though I don't cook well with it) and I've gotten past the initial shock of durian fruit to taste its subtle sweetness. But dried limes have long eluded me. I could see them in Middle Eastern grocery stores and wonder how on earth would I use them? Then I'd be distracted by the halvah and olives, forgetting to get dried limes just to see what they're like.

Last week the New York Times food section ran an article highlighting some dried lime recipes. I jumped at the chance. And now, having made dried lime drink, I'm hooked I will try other dishes and see what transpires.

Dried Lime drink, from the New York Times with my notes

Break 2 dried limes into several pieces. (You can use a mortar and pestle or put them in a sandwich bag and smack them with a hammer. Their shells give after the second or third push with a pestle, but it seems almost a shame to crack them.) You can find dried limes in Middle Eastern grocery stores. They are lovely, suggestive memories of limes, inexpensive, you'll buy more than two in a bag and be glad you did.

Inside you will see soft, dark lime flesh, missing all moisture.

Combine 4 cups water, 1/4 cup of sugar and the lime pieces in a small saucepan, bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 4 minutes. Next time I may use less sugar.

Remove from heat and strain through cheesecloth or a coffee filter. I lined a colander with one coffee filter and that worked well.

Discard the solids. The NYT recipe suggests you don't add the sugar initially but add it now. I prefer making dissolving the sugar as the water comes to a boil. It's up to you.

While you can drink it warm I preferred it cold. I added a few mint leaves from the garden for brightness.

It tastes like the stories limes might tell each other in the corners of smokey coffeehouses, absolutely a  lime drink, but with far more undertones than limeade. It was redolent with lime oil, tart and almost a bit sour. It was absolutely refreshing and lovely.

Try it. 

I'm going to go searching for more once-upon-a-time ingredients. Who knows what might happen?

(c) 2010 Laura S. Packer