A natural outgrowth of loving fat as I do is loving fried foods. There is a bit of truth in the claim that Texas is the heartland of all-things-deep-fried, and not only at the state fair (though that event lays a credible claim to being the epicenter of glorious fry-dom) but right on through this great and glorious state. Logically, living in this state should keep me in a state of bliss. As it happens, there are less than perfect and even somewhat horrendous fried foods (including at the State Fair of Texas, forgive me O sainted Big Tex), but there really are a whole lot of goodies that, no matter how swell they are from the beginning, get just that much better by virtue of bathing in hot fat until crispy.My state of residence is far, far from the only place where recognition (or worship) of the marvels of frying food dwells. There is, of course, a long and respected tradition of such wonders, well documented in the great cuisines, from elegant tempura to calamari fritti (thank you, Chicago John!) and arancini, chiles rellenos and those magical Vlaamse Frieten of Belgian dreams. If it can be cooked, it has a good chance of being fry-able. Why, there are a number of foods that are treated to the process more than once, not least among them the ever-popular twice-fried tostones and Chinese green beans and leading up to such modern classics as that Southern inevitability, chicken fried bacon. Beyond that are the infinite possibilities of frying that the scientists of food never fail to pursue with great delight: long before state fairs all across the US got so seriously competitive about frying, to the point where they don’t even bother with any fatuous titular attempts to disguise the degree of culinary craziness and just come right out and call their recipes Deep Fried Butter and Deep Fried Sugar, there were pioneers of the art dunking candy bars, haggis, Twinkies [aficionados of the famed snack cake will be relieved that despite the demise of its American parent company the Canadian distributor appears to continue production] and pickled eggs into the hot oil at Scottish chip shops.Despite all of the fantastic and phantasmagorical delights possible in the whole fried world, there are times when simple is grand enough. Think of oven fries–julienned Russet and sweet potatoes tossed with half olive oil, half melted butter and seasoned with lemon pepper and salt and chili powder (and rosemary, if nobody green-phobic is dining with you) and roasted in a medium oven until toasty and browning nicely–they go with practically anything, and are easier than easy to make. Then again, there are some of the classics that are well worth the mess and fuss. Fried chicken, for example. Coat it in buttermilk (or if you, like me, haven’t any on hand, in yogurt) seasoned with salt, pepper, cinnamon and cayenne and soaked for a couple of hours; shake off all of the excess yogurt or buttermilk and coat the pieces in a mixture of 1 part cornstarch, 2 parts fine masa, and 2 parts potato flour, seasoned with salt, pepper and chili powder. Fry until golden and finish in a medium oven–conveniently enough, the temperature used for oven fries works pretty nicely for such purposes. And coincidentally, one fried food (oven fries) tastes rather yummy when paired with, say, another one (fried chicken). Or so I’ve heard.
Nearly every time I get in the mood to bake something I’m missing one or more of the necessary ingredients. This happens often enough when I’m making non-baked goods, but it’s almost a given with baking, because I simply don’t bake all that often: too much wheat flour and sugar makes this sweets-addict too likely to get tummy aches or just plain to overindulge. And the fact that I don’t bake terribly often means that, in that most scientific of culinary skills, I’m the least a genius about getting the fussy proportions and timings and temperatures correct. But I still do like to bake once in a while.
Though I feel pretty safe making all sorts of substitutions in cooked and raw dishes, simply finding analogous items–ingredients that have plenty of similar qualities and can therefore be expected to fill similar roles in the combination–I know less about what the ingredients used in baking are supposed to do, unless you’re talking about spices and flavorings, and so have always been more timid about fooling around with the recipes for baked goods. But lately, I’ve come to be more of a believer that life’s too short not to have a little kitchen adventure more often, and that if I’m not using outrageously expensive ingredients the worst that can happen is that a batch of something goes so far awry that it’s just plain a failed experiment. That’s what trash bins are made for, no? I’ll bet few scientists ever made their paradigm-shifting discoveries without a few boneheaded false starts and cock-ups and misdirections and outright failures along the way either, and, well, brownies are not exactly rocket science.
Ingredients: Plain ‘classic’ brownies call for the following ingredients and proportions:
4 squares (4 ounces/113 grams) Baker’s Unsweetened Chocolate–I substituted semisweet baking chocolate. It’s what I had in the cupboard.
3/4 cup butter–while baking recipes almost always specify unsalted butter, I almost always use salted butter anyway unless there’s a lot of additional salt in the recipe; salt heightens sweetness and intensifies other flavors as well. And I love salt.
2 cups sugar–I substituted dark brown sugar for a deeper flavor.
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup flour–I substituted instant masa flour (a fine corn flour usually used for tortilla- and tamale-making)
Then I added a few ingredients of my own to make a darker-chocolate brownie and give it a slight Mexican twist:
1/2 tsp baking soda–since the masa flour wouldn’t have gluten like the wheat flour to make the brownies rise a little, I figured they should have a boost in leavening. Look at me, being all fake-scientist-like!
1/2 tsp salt plus 1/8-1/4 tsp ground black pepper–again, wanting to intensify the spicy chocolate of the brownies–plus 1 large tablespoon Dutch processed cocoa–yet more chocolate boosting–plus 1 tablespoon cinnamon
Heat your oven to 350°F–mine runs hot, so I heated it to 325°.
Line a 13×9-inch pan with an oversized piece of baking parchment, folding it at the corners to fit and cover the sides as well as the bottom. One piece, no leaks.
Microwave the chocolate and butter together in a large microwaveable bowl on high until the butter is melted. Stir until the chocolate is melted and completely combined with the butter. Blend in the eggs and vanilla. In another bowl, mix all of the dry ingredients. Add them gradually to the wet mix, stirring until everything melds, and pour the batter into the prepared pan, pushing it into the folded parchment corners to fill them.
Bake 30 – 35 minutes (again, with my super-hot oven, I baked mine for more like 20-23 minutes) or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs. Better to under-bake these than the opposite–fudgy, chewy brownies are good; dry, not.
The parchment will let you easily pop the whole sheet of brownies right out of the pan.
Makes 24 brownies. Mine were still a little too baked, thanks to the hot-hot oven, so I quite happily compensated for the slight dryness by frosting the ones that weren’t immediately devoured. (A number of them were. Clearly, the over-baking didn’t destroy them so badly that the members of this household wouldn’t cheerfully destroy them in another way.)
No, I’m no fussy decorator. But I loves me some tasty frosting. And I wanted something that was earthy and yet juicy, something that would stand up to the depth of the spiced brownies and still have a little homey heartfelt quality to it, even if it wasn’t very frilly. I chose strawberry frosting; after all, las fresas are a fantastic favorite fruit treat in some of the Latin-American cuisine I’ve had the pleasure of
inhaling eating. And this is just an easy take on buttercream icing.
Grind about one cup of freeze-dried strawberries to a coarse powder. I did mine in the blender, but if they’re dry enough you could even crush them with a wooden spoon in a heavy bowl–leaving some bits rough gives a little burst of berry flavor in the finished frosting and reminds us there are real berries involved. Add to the berry powder about a cup of powdered (confectioner’s) sugar, a teaspoon of vanilla, a cup of soft butter, and a tablespoon or two of heavy cream. Blend them together well, adding more sugar and/or cream as needed for flavor and texture. Apply liberally to the brownies, cake, cookies, tongue, etc, as needed for improved state of bliss.
I sprinkled them with some edible glitter just for good measure. A little extra pizzazz never really hurt anything. But you could just sprinkle yours with the stardust of your affection and it’d be just as glamorous and grand.
This whole brownie-baking urge of mine was motivated in large part because I felt like making a sort of Valentine’s Day treat; since we’ll be in the car on a work-related jaunt much of the actual Valentine’s Day, I figured today was a reasonable substitution for the occasion. Since both my husband and I love chocolate and baked treats but do better with less wheat flour, I figured substituting corn flour could be a decent and respectable enough Tex-Mex way of dealing with that part of the equation. And since neither of us is a stickler for celebrating only on the official or ‘correct’ dates for anything, we’re both quite willing to celebrate the American holiday of love-and-romance any old time we can. Because for love, there really is no acceptable substitute.
We are leaving one season and entering another. Time to divest ourselves of pretense and the impulse to be over-elaborate when making a change. I see people all around me worrying that their Thanksgiving menu isn’t finalized, their Fall-themed altar of mantel decor not as impressive as the next neighbor’s, and their Halloween costumes not thrilling and polished enough to accompany their hundred handmade sweets for the twenty-seven tiny Monsters who will come knocking. Better, sometimes, to enjoy simpler approaches and simpler pleasures! Autumn can be:
Extricated from fussiness.
At the change of each season I do have a tendency to shift in my flavor preferences. When it’s been summer-hot out and finally becomes cool, those warming, earthy, old-fashioned and evocative spices and scents of Fall–cinnamon and cardamom, roasted roots and mushrooms, sweetly freckled pears and chalky-skinned, slightly scabby McIntosh apples (not the electronic kind, mind you) begin their annual siren songs of woodsy, sit-by-the-hearth allure. And I can go a little crazy.
It’s easy to go a bit wild, to be the over-swung pendulum flying to opposite extremes, when one has been long immured in the cooling pools of summer’s lovely seasonal foods and beginning to long for something different. But of course delicious flavors needn’t be exaggerated to be glorious. Sometimes the over-the-top approach is indeed precisely what I desire, since I’m a more-is-more kind of person in general, but sometimes a little subtlety is also a welcome thing. A restrained hand in the kitchen can allow a smaller assortment of lovely notes to interplay beautifully, and the pleasure of savoring one gorgeous individual taste at a time, too, can provide moments of sublime happiness that stretch well beyond the culinary.
I know this stuff perfectly well in my head, but my heart frequently scarpers off with my stomach quick as the dish with the proverbial spoon, and once again I have to calm myself and remember that there’s plenty of time in the season for me to slow down and savor the flavors before the next change arrives. It happened again last week, and I had a narrow escape from the annual autumnal overkill. I pressed aside my rabid plans for the sort of dangerously delirious feast that would’ve kept me comatose right up until the next fit of wildness did hit me at Thanksgiving. Fanning myself thoughtfully with a big spatula, I got busy making a much less complicated, sautéed and simmered, soup treat and found it as satisfying as could be.
Hearty Cauliflower & Mushroom Soup
Simmer 1 bunch of fresh sage leaves in 1/2 lb of pastured butter (I use salted–I’m very fond of my salt, thankyouverymuch) until the butter’s golden brown and fully infused with the herb and the leaves have given up their moisture. Strain out the leaves onto paper and let them crisp up nicely, giving them an additional sprinkle of salt if desired for crunch. Sauté 2 cups cauliflower florets and 1-1/2 cups sliced brown mushrooms (both can be fresh or frozen) in plenty of the sage butter until they’re soft and caramelized. Add a little liquid–water, dry sherry, broth, buttermilk or cream as you blend it all with a stick blender. No need to get it thin or even quite smooth: this is a rustic Fall soup, after all. Garnish it as you wish: a swirl of buttermilk or Crème fraîche, some crumbled crispy bacon, some deeply caramelized onions, or just a generous toss of those crisped sage leaves.
There’s only a little bit left to complete this recipe: take your bowl of prepared soup, curl yourself in the arms of a big, well-worn overstuffed chair, bundle up in that wonderful old afghan lap-rug your granny crocheted for you in your youth, crack open a musty classic book, and lap up your thick soup with a big, deep spoon. Sigh, turn page, sip, repeat. Winter’s just a few chapters away.
Yesterday was rather long. Heck, it stretched right into today. But that, as you all know, is not inherently a bad thing. I would never begin to compare a day’s labor in the midst of my remarkably comfortable life with one in the farm fields, in the classroom, the clinic, office, or certainly in thoughtfully and lovingly caring for children, parents, friends–one’s own or others’. And when the goal of the work is hospitable and happy, why then so should the work be also. As it was. So, long story short, a long day can end in feeling short enough!
That, after all, is what makes anything resembling hospitality happen. If it’s done wearily or begrudgingly it’s bound to show. Even I, in my natural state of obliviousness, can generally tell from the other side of the table whether the hosts’ smiles are forced or genuine, whether the invitation was obligatory or willingly made. I credit myself with enough savvy to be able to differentiate between a relaxed conversation with a friend on the porch and her frantic attempt to make a life-saving dash for her car. And to my knowledge, I have never failed to find something that everyone in attendance could and would eat or drink on any given occasion. It demands a small amount of forethought, but then the pleasures of good company would be ever so much lessened by, say, a case of anaphylactic shock brought on by a stray peanut or an understandable case of high dudgeon induced by serving a roast of bacon-wrapped pork loin to my orthodox Jewish friends or a traditional but utterly inappropriate Asian feast of glazed short ribs and chicken feet when a vegan comes to call. A simple inquiry beforehand can put off any number of embarrassments.
It can’t, however, protect me perfectly from serving things that some among a larger group won’t love. That’s yet another reason that it’s helpful to offer a wider assortment of things in smaller quantities, when I can. No one has to feel any obligation to try everything, nor should they be forced to choose between only two or three things that are all less than favorites or just go hungry and thirsty when everyone else in the room is happily munching and sipping away. Thus, knowing we were all going to be either performing or hearing some beautiful Spanish music, I was rescued by the easy outlet of serving a tapas-style array of food and drink. I’ve already admitted that authenticity of product was less a factor in this party than simply being inspired by the notion, so when I tell you what I served I hope you’ll be as cheerfully accommodating as our guests were.
Almonds: Marcona almonds (those lovely little fat Spanish almonds), served simply as toasted in olive oil with a little sea salt; sticky, spicy-sweet almonds that I glazed in a pan with honey thinned with extra dry sherry, salt, cracked black pepper and lots of cinnamon; and savory almonds that I toasted in blood orange olive oil with fresh rosemary and alder smoked salt.
Celery sticks, plain as plain can be, because someone nearly always longs for the very simple and fresh among the more complex tastings of a snacking party.
Mango-Manchego bites: Tasty as it is, I had no membrillo handy to serve with cheese, so I wrapped cubes of Manchego in narrow strips of mango fruit leather. That turned out to be a fairly popular move, and it was certainly easy enough to assemble each with a toothpick, so I’ll keep it in mind for the future.
Marinated treats: Spanish olives–I just took a batch of the standard grocery store pimiento stuffed green olives, drained them of their brine and replaced it with dry Sherry and extra virgin olive oil; Marinated mushrooms–I bathed some sliced medium-large cremini mushrooms in a simple vinaigrette dressing of balsamic vinegar, red wine, olive oil, salt, pepper and thyme.
Chorizo-Date bites: Again, simple as can be–dry-aged chorizo, casings removed and meat cut into small pieces, and each piece speared on a toothpick with a cap made from a quarter of a sweet Medjool date.
Papas Bravas: My version of the popular spicy potato bites–dice scrubbed, skin-on russet potatoes into about 1 inch cubes, toss them with olive oil, salt, pepper, smoked paprika and chili powder, spread them out in a greased baking pan, and brown them in a medium oven.
Fig Bread: I didn’t have any fig bread handy, but I did have a batch of my nut-and-seed bars in the freezer, and I did after all have some figs in this batch–so I whizzed them up in the food processor (and crumbled the recalcitrant harder-frozen bits by hand), melted a bar and a half of white chocolate I had around with a heaping tablespoon or two of cocoa powder and a spoonful of instant coffee and a pat of butter, stirred that in to the crumbs, and chilled it all, patted flat, in the fridge until it was solid enough to cut into cubes. I rolled the cubes in a mixture of powdered sugar and cinnamon to keep them from stickiness.
Drinks: I had other things around, but what ended up getting used was mighty easy, and I got the impression that no singer left un-slaked. Besides store-bought limeade (the plain lime juice and cane sugar and water kind) and water, I had a cooler of beer and a big pot of Sangría. That was it. The Sangría, always an ad-hoc concoction in my house, was a mixture of hearty red and sweet white wines, homemade orange liqueur (made some months ago with vodka from home-candied mandarin peels, fresh mandarin + lemon + lime juices, and dried coconut and brown sugar for the sweetening), a small bottle of Mexican green apple soda, a small bottle of green apple hard cider, a tin of sliced peaches canned in fruit juice, a pint of sliced fresh strawberries and a pint of frozen blackberries. All I can say about my Sangría methodology is it’s very much a matter of combining what I have on hand at the moment with what I’m in the mood for on the occasion, the liquid equivalent, I suppose, of my casseroles.The happy conclusion to the story is of course that, whatever I prepare (or don’t), it’s all about the company we keep, and my partner and I are pretty good at surrounding ourselves with outstanding people. So, was the food good? Good enough! The drinks? Wet enough! The company? Outstanding. The party? Just exactly right.
Every cook of any skill or talent level knows–or should–that one of the best inspirations for the next dish or meal is found in cleaning and tidying the kitchen. It doesn’t mean I have to completely reorganize and sanitize every square centimeter of the place constantly, though undoubtedly I could stand to do both a little more often. But even the most cursory, quick cleanup of fridge, pantry or cupboards can remind me that I’ve stashed away a number of tasty items that ought to be used before they become lost in the mists of time. Petrified vegetables and mossy fruits, sandy-bleached spices and unrecognizable bogs-in-jars are all interesting science projects in their way, I suppose, but rarely likely to serve the purpose of good taste or nutrition for which they were initially acquired.
So I’m setting out on a mission, albeit at a sauntering pace, to see if I can’t catch up with some of my longtime plots and plans in the culinary realm and get a neater and more easy to clean workspace in the bargain. Today’s inspiration came from a fellow blogger who offered a recipe that sounded like a wonderfully easy mash-up of a traditional German chocolate cake’s glaze (with the broiled coconut topping) and a raisin spice cake. Mostly, it made me want to bake a gooey cake, something I’ve simply not done in forever. In my typical style, it was not that there was the remotest chance of my following the inspirational recipe even to a mild degree of accuracy, but the initial concept that thus urged me on was greatly appreciated all the same. In honor of the inspiration I went through my stores of dry goods like a little tornado and came up with a few ingredients that I thought would suit the occasion pretty well. I give you:
Texas Tornado Cake
Blend together the following ingredients. I did so by pulsing it all together in the food processor until it was a coarse flour-like consistency, but you could certainly hand shred, chop and mince the ingredients and then blend them.
1 cup of raw cane sugar
1/2 cup dried apricots
1 cup shredded raw carrots
2 Tablespoons of candied orange peel
2 Tablespoons of candied ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon of more of ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
In a saucepan, bring to a boil 1/2 cup of butter and 1 cup of water, adding the prepared coarse meal of previously blended ingredients and cooking briefly to blend. In a separate large bowl, blend together 1-1/2 cups of mesquite pod flour, 1/2 cup of coarse almond meal, and 1 teaspoon of baking soda. When the wet ingredients have come to a boil, pour them into this dry mix and blend quickly. Pour the batter into the greased baking dish and level it as needed, and pop it into the oven for about 15 minutes.
While that’s baking, mix together the sticky topping ingredients. I just squished it all together quickly with my hands.
1/2 cup butter
1-1/2 cups brown sugar
1/2 cup almond meal
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon crunchy flake salt (I used Maldon sea salt)
When the cake comes out of the oven, crumble the topping mix over it fairly evenly, and pop it under the broiler just until it caramelizes. Cool, cut, eat. A little ice cream or whipped cream would not, of course, be amiss with this, but it can be eaten like a brownie or blondie just fine, too.
The problem is this: the stuff is too darned tender to even hold the shape of a small bar or square of cake. Needs better structure. Flavor? Oh, yeah–I mean, after all, look at all of the butter and spices and the mesquite flour and apricot and orange nuances. But it’s as crumbly as heck. What are gooey cake crumbs good for? Yes, that’s right folks: ice cream add-ins. So now I give you Texas Tornado 2.0:
Yes, it looks mighty mish-mashy, like it’s right in the middle of the tornado. But by golly, it’s a lot pleasanter than being pelted with flying cars. In fact, it tastes pretty danged delicious. All it took was to crumble the whole pan of erstwhile cake up into chunky crumbs and stir them into unsweetened vanilla whipped cream. Yes, unsweetened–you saw how much sugar went into that cake, y’all. 1 pint of heavy cream, whipped up with a generous 1 teaspoon splash of good vanilla; fold in all of the delicious ‘dirt’ you made of the cake, put it in a sealed container, and freeze it. If you can wait that long. It really makes a pretty tasty pudding without ever freezing it, if your sweet tooth is aching already. So I’ve heard.The surprisingly spiced-mocha scent of the mesquite flour is quite strong when the cake bakes. So much so, that I almost forgot it wasn’t actual brownies or chocolate cake in the oven. Which in turn may mean that I have some chocolate baking to do soon too. Something that holds up structurally, I should think. But I’m not sure I care. There’s always an alternate use for good food-parts. These things happen when I start rummaging around in the kitchen stores, don’t you know.