food


IMG_7366I’ve been making homemade marshmallows for years. With a candy thermometer and a stand mixer, they’re a simple and impressive treat. By swapping out ingredients and adding extracts, it’s insanely easy to try new flavors. Chocolate raspberry, ginger honey, peppermint…

I tell you, this blackcurrant version is the best I’ve ever made. My marshmallows are good, but the fruity tang in this batch had people saying “Wow.” And then reaching for another.

This recipe is modified from Alton Brown’s recipe, for a smaller, more manageable portion* and with the extra kick of blackcurrant at the end.

Ingredients:

  • 2 packages unflavored gelatin
  • 1/3 cup cold blackcurrant concentrate
  • 1/4 cup powdered sugar
  • 1/4 cup cornstarch
  • 1/3 cup cold water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2/3 cup light corn syrup
  • pinch of salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons blackcurrant jam

Start by putting the gelatin and blackcurrant juice into the large bowl of a stand mixer. Let it combine on its own.

To prepare the pan, lightly grease a small casserole (8 x 8 should work; I use this 6.5 x 8.5 pan). The more square the inside edges, the bigger your final marshmallows can be. Combine the cornstarch and powdered sugar. Thoroughly dust the inside of the pan with the cornstarch mixture.

In a saucepan, combine cold water, sugar, corn syrup, and salt. Cover and heat on medium high for four minutes. Remove the lid. Clip a candy thermometer to the side and continue heating, without stirring, to 240 F. Remove from heat immediately.

Start the mixer on slow. Pour the hot sugar mixture down the sides slowly, rotating the bowl. (The bowl will get hot!) Don’t worry about scraping out every drop. When you’ve poured as much as you can, turn the mixer to high.

As the marshmallow mix is beaten, it will thicken and turn opaque. It’s nearly done when it begins to cling to the sides and leave a well in the center. At that point, add the vanilla extract and the blackcurrant jam. Beat for just a minute or two longer.

Dip a large flexible spatula in olive oil and use it to help pour the marshmallow into the prepared pan. Try to encourage it to fill in the corners. You can smooth the top with the spatula or a little oil on the tip of your finger. When it’s settled, drizzle the cornstarch mixture over the top.

Set it aside for at least six hours. Because of the extra moisture from the jam, it’s especially important to let this set up before trying to cut it.

To shape the marshmallows, turn out the block on a cutting board dusted with more of the cornstarch mixture. Use a pizza cutter dusted in the cornstarch mixture to straighten the sides and cut even marshmallows. Dust every side of each marshmallow with the cornstarch mixture. I always end up with four long strips from the edges, and cut those into mini marshmallows to keep for myself. Those remnants may not be the prettiest, but they are delicious.

My pan makes two dozen big, square, delicately purple, entirely giftable marshmallows, and about two dozen little remnants to snack on.

*I’ve had the larger batch climb the beaters like Calvin’s mom’s cooking, which makes a relatively straightforward recipe into a sticky fiasco. Nobody wants that.

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VirtualCookie Exchange Blog Hop (1)For Christmas, my father only asks for two things: a handmade card and his favorite cookies. And since Linda Poitevin has organized a virtual cookie exchange blog hop, this is a perfect chance to post one of those recipes. This cookie is intensely simple–everything is combined in one bowl!–and with so few ingredients, most of them egg and oatmeal, they’re practically a health food.

Hey, it’s a magical season.

Thanks to D.D. Syrdal for tagging me, and for the recipe for Ruby Linzer Bars!

Grammy Davis’s Brer Rabbit Molasses Oatmeal Cookies

Combine in bowl:

  • 2 c. oatmeal
  • 1 c. flour
  • ½ c. sugar
  • ½ t. salt
  • ½ t. allspice
  • ½ t. cinnamon
  • ½ c. Crisco
  • ½ c. Brer Rabbit molasses (green label)*
  • 1 egg, unbeaten
  • 1 t. baking powder

Stir until just mixed

Drop in large spoonfuls on greased cookie sheet

Bake at 325°F for 12 minutes — do not overbake

*The correct brand of molasses is a vital element. Some have dared use the yellow label Brer Rabbit, even the purple label, or (poor fools!) even another brand entirely. These are dire mistakes, not to be made twice.

I’m tagging my sister Megan Engelhardt, who delivers unto us Lemon Bar Puppy Chow. And here are my last two cookie posts.

So about two years ago I got it in my crazy head that what I was going to do was learn to bake Parisian macarons, because they are gorgeous and because I heard they were notoriously the most difficult cookie in the world.

This took a while.

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But I prevailed.

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I don’t think my macarons are perfect yet, but they are reliably acceptable, which I think is about the best I can hope for in an apartment kitchen. Still! Here are the best practices I’ve developed over the many, many batches. Doing things this way, I can be relatively confident in how they’ll turn out.

This isn’t a recipe, or even a procedure! It’s more just a set of notes for each stage of the process.

Setting up

Here’s the recipe I use: http://www.yumsugar.com/Basic-French-Macaron-Recipe-21651110

This is one of those recipes you’ll want to read several times before you start, and prepare everything ahead of time so you can move seamlessly from one step to the other.

Here’s my setup. (New Year’s bubbly optional.)

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Being experienced in piping icing or batter, using pastry bags in general, is a HUGELY useful skill to come in with.

I wouldn’t attempt this without a stand mixer, because you have to mix the eggs a LOT.

The dry ingredients

I always sieve my almond meal, then measure the 2/3-cup out of the sifted stuff. This dirties an extra bowl, but it’s worth it.

At one point early on, I freaked out because I couldn’t find powdered sugar that didn’t also have corn starch in it. Turns out that’s pretty normal for powdered sugar. No worries!

When I stir my dry ingredients, I stir them until they are EXTREMELY MIXED. No beige streaks, no crumbs, no clumps. I also sometimes add a pinch of salt. I don’t know why but it doesn’t seem to hurt.

The meringue

I don’t think aging the eggs is necessarily helpful. I do think it’s important that they be at room temperature.

I don’t think you have to be especially gradual about adding the granulated sugar.

I use gel coloring because I have a lot left over from cake-decorating class. I add it after the vanilla when the merengue is practically done, by grabbing a clump on a wooden skewer (professional!) and letting it mix in. It always takes more gel to get a strong color than I expect–way more than in cake icing.

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I always make sure the peaks are VERY stiff. If they’re still settling when the mixer stops, the cookies tend to crack.

Folding it together

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I don’t like the mixing method in the recipe. I like to incorporate the dry ingredients one-half at a time using the under-over method they recommend (the key is that you’re not STIRRING, just FOLDING), but after that, I like to smash the batter against the sides of the bowl, then swipe around to bring it all back to the middle, then repeat. I try to make sure it’s thin enough to start flowing like lava.

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Piping it

The best way I’ve found to get the batter into the bag is to line a tall pitcher with the bag. A little batter will leak out. If it doesn’t, I probably didn’t mix it thin enough, and the cookies will stand weirdly tall.

I freehand it, but you can draw circles on the back of your parchment paper to make sure they’re all about the same size. It will take experience to figure out how much they spread–and that’ll depend on how much you smooshed the batter while mixing. Trial and error!

They say an inch diameter, but an inch and a half or two inches looks more proportionate to me.

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Warped cookie sheets = warped, frustrating cookies. New, flat ones are best.

In that vein, cut your parchment paper to lay flat on the tray. Oh, the regrets I have had.

DO bang your trays on the table. I hold down the parchment paper with my fingers when I do, to keep it from slipping around.

DO pop the bubbles that come to the top, and do it immediately, or you’ll get craters. I use the sharp end of a wooden skewer.

I use the flat end of a wooden skewer to clean up edges when I have to. Is there ANYTHING a wooden skewer can’t fix?

DO let them dry until they’re not tacky to the touch. If it takes more than an hour, that warns me I did something else wrong that added moisture to the batter (cold eggs? Poor mixing? Too much extract?) and they were probably doomed anyway. But I also don’t worry if it DOES take a whole hour.

Baking it

This is the part you will have to work out on your own, because it’s fiddly and your specific oven does make a difference. Here’s how it works in my stupid rented oven, though.

I use the bottom two oven racks.

I bake two trays at a time.

I preheat well in advance.

00:00 Put two trays in, as quickly as possible. If different sizes, big one on the top. (At the beginning, too much heat on the bottom can distort your cookies; at the end, too much heat on top can discolor them. I let the smaller tray take the brunt of both!) Set timer for 2 minutes.

02:00 Open the oven for, like, five seconds to let steam out. Set timer for 7 minutes.

09:00 Switch trays top/bottom, and also rotate, again as quickly as possible. Set timer for 8 minutes.

17:00 Try to pick up a cookie. If it comes off the parchment paper cleanly, it’s done; if not, bake longer, a minute at a time.

Letting them rest

I like to get them off the tray pretty quick.

Careful, they’re fragile.

I don’t know if this trick works, but I let them cool upside-down in hopes of getting good insides. I still almost never get great insides. Still working. (sigh)

I have YET to figure out how to get non-gooshy insides, not-too-hard bottoms, AND not-discolored tops. I’m willing to settle for pretty-good on all three, though. 🙂

Fillings!

I always pipe my icing rather than spread it with a knife. I usually just snip one corner off a snack-sized plastic baggie and don’t bother with a metal decorator’s tip.

This recipe uses a whopping five tablespoons of granulated sugar to stabilize the meringue, with the result that the cookies turn out sweeter than in some recipes. Therefore, I like to avoid buttercream and shortening-icings. They just get too sweet.

What I do like to use:

  • Dark chocolate ganache. Equal parts very dark chocolate and heavy cream. Put the chocolate pieces in a bowl. Put the cream in a saucepan and heat it just to the point of boiling at the edges. Pour over the chocolate. Let sit, then stir, then let sit, and by room temperature you should be able to pipe it like icing.
  • Lemon curd. Good for using up the egg yolks you generated. Recipe here.
  • Fruit fillings. Jams, jellies, and preserves, I have found (the hard way), are NOT thick enough. I’ve recently taken to heating them on the stovetop, then thickening them with cornstarch. That way it’s less likely to slide out of, or off of, the cookie.
  • Flour/milk icing. I JUST discovered this. It’s got a similar taste and feel to buttercream or shortening icing, but it’s much less sweet. I think it would go well.

In the ganache and flour icings, you can use extracts to create interesting flavors. I like chocolate-orange. Pistachio is a really popular choice.

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I tweeted up a storm tonight, making a huge (HUGE) batch of the chocolate sandwich cookies my family knows as “gobs”. (Other places call them whoopie pies or moon pies; I maintain there are subtle differences.) It took four hours start to finish. It could be easily halved except for that egg in the icing, and honestly you might want to make the full batch of icing anyway, just so you get enough.

Wilma Davis’s Recipe for Gobs

Cream together

2 cups sugar
1/2 cup Crisco
2 eggs

Then add

4 cups flour
2 teaspoons soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cocoa
1 cup sour milk
1 cup boiling water
1 teaspoon vanilla

Beat well. Drop one on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake 450 for 7-8 minutes.

FILLING:

2 teaspoons water
4 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
2 1/2 cup sifted confectionary sugar
1 egg
1/2 cup Crisco
1/2 cup Oleo
1 teaspoon vanilla

Boil water and G. sugar together for 1 minute
Cool
Beat Conf. sugar with egg
Combine the two mixture, add shortening, beat until creams

Notes:

I used unsalted butter instead of Oleo and then added salt, like a boss. I did make a second batch without the raw egg, but man, it’s not the same.

In my house, we always replicate sour milk by adding a tablespoon of vinegar to actual milk and letting it sit a little while.

Putting down a teaspoon at a time, the recipe made a literal hundred complete cookies. My mom always made them bigger, but I like the mini ones. At that size, I’m pretty sure you’re allowed to eat four at a time. I do not think the little ones took the full seven minutes to bake. I didn’t actually time them.

Don’t let the boiled sugar water cool down very long, because it’ll turn into candy.

And for archival purposes, here’s the Twitter stream that went along with it.

* I’m doing it, guys; I’m baking one million chocolate sandwich cookies, local name “gobs”. #1milliongobs

* The recipe is my grandmother’s, which she got in Johnstown, more than likely from a recent Polish immigrant. #1milliongobs

* Here’s a baking tip: rinse the back of your cookie sheet in cool water between batches. Warm sheets make your cookies spread. #1milliongobs

* Gram quit 8th grade to raise her baby brother. She eloped with Pap before WWII & did factory work until he got back. #1milliongobs

* That’s all the cookies. Now for the hard part. #1milliongobs pic.twitter.com/qc1Tbkwh

* Gram was a farm wife who rarely bothered with recipes, and got inventive: she once made jelly out of the violets in her yard. #1milliongobs

* According to my dad, the violet jelly was a beautiful shade of lavender and pretty much tasted like sugar. #1milliongobs

* Assembled gobs. #1milliongobs pic.twitter.com/bCK1kcd2

* Gram died when I was 12, after years of poor health. Anything I know about her cooking came through my parents. #1milliongobs

* And the final gob count is…EXACTLY ONE MILLION! Haha, no it’s not, it’s ninety-five. #1milliongobs

This post WAS going to be an end-of-summer gardening report, possibly a lament about how many tomatoes I’m getting compared to how many I can use, but instead I’m going to throw down my new favorite garden-fresh pizza margherita recipe. The amounts are approximate–I know a lot of people would want more cheese–but the basil, I’m serious, it should be like a whole salad on there. It turns out that the dough keeps well for a week or better in a plastic bag, so I make this a quarter of a pizza at a time. As I mentioned on Twitter, I’m sure if I ever start making this with a scratch crust I’ll ascend directly to heaven, but, well, I’ve got video games to play. Pillsbury it is.

INGREDIENTS:

– 1 Pillsbury refrigerated pizza crust (classic)
– 12-20 small-to-medium tomatoes or 20-24 cherry tomatoes

– 2 T olive oil
– 2 T apple cider vinegar

– 2 T sugar
– 1 T coarse-ground salt
– 1 t black pepper
– 2 t garlic powder

– 1/3 t olive oil
– 1 c fresh chopped basil
– 1 c fresh mozzarella cheese

Cut the tomatoes in half and lay them cut-side up on a baking sheet. If using small-to-medium size, scoop out most of the pulp; if using cherry tomatoes, leave it there. Mix the olive oil and vinegar and drizzle over the tomatoes. Combine the dry ingredients and sprinkle it over the tomatoes, reserving about 1 t. Roast the tomatoes in a 450 F oven for 15-20 minutes or until just before the skins begin to blacken. Remove from oven.

Reduce the oven temperature to 425. Spray a baking sheet with oil and sprinkle corn meal; then unroll the pizza dough. Roll up the sides slightly to form a crust. Brush the dough with olive oil and sprinkle the rest of the spice mixture on the edges of the crust. Using a fork, slide the tomatoes off their baking sheet and arrange on the dough. Cover evenly with basil and top with cheese. Bake for about 10 minutes or until crust is crispy and cheese begins to brown. Eat, and eat, and eat.

Pursuant to my recent tweet: I’m cooking Pennsylvania Dutch tonight, and everyone is invited.

This is my father’s mother’s recipe, in the sense that “recipe” means “list of ingredients with margin notes.” I’m going to list the recipe as-is, and then give you the rough amounts I used.

Grammy Davis’s Pot Pie

Meat of choice
Meat broth
Potatoes
Flour
Parsley
Salt
Black pepper

Cook the meat and put the juices in a big pot on the stovetop. You might need to add some water to that, but probably not salt if the ham is cured. Quarter the potatoes and add those. Bring to a boil, then simmer.

To make pot pie noodles, mix flour and water to get a dough. Roll it out to 1/8″ thick and cut into slices about 3″ long x 1″ wide. Drop those in the pot too. Cube the ham and put it in too, just to keep it warm. Chop fresh parsley; into the pot. Add black pepper. Boil “until it tastes like pot pie.” Consume.

My (rough) quantities: I did this with about 1.5 c turkey, 1 can chicken broth, 2 cups water, 1 bouillon cube, a shake of salt, two shakes of pepper, 2 large potatoes, 1 cup flour, a few tablespoons of water, and maybe two tablespoons of parsley. Looks like it’ll serve 4-6. I also threw in a shake of celery seed and some garlic powder. Probably not necessary. You never know.

Sometimes you have dinner, and sometimes you have dinner.


Clockwise from bottom left: Arby’s, Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Burger King

Nothing says Lent like fast-food fish sandwiches: Ash Wednesday happens, and suddenly they’re everywhere. But there are so many choices–which one’s the best? In the spirit of the season, just as Christ sacrificed himself for our sins, I have taken this bullet for you and run a comprehensive side-by-side analysis of the fish sandwiches from the four major chains. For I so loved the world. And fish sandwiches.



My stovetop is where I put my takeout bags. Literature types call that “a telling detail.”

Here’s the important thing to note right off the bat: they all taste exactly the same. There are variations in texture and mouth feel, but people: it’s a plank of fish with tartar sauce on a bun. I can’t even guarantee they all use different brands of tartar sauce. So I started my analysis the only way that made sense: dimensionally.


Engineers do it with the greatest feasible efficiency!

Of course, size isn’t everything. That’s why you have to look at what you get per unit of size. Example: Yoda easily has the highest awesome-to-Jedi ratio in the galaxy. The guy with the long neck? Watering down his own brand. Too many cubic feet of Jedi, not enough awesome.


Lame.

For calories, fat, and weight, I used the numbers recorded at http://caloriecount.about.com. Nutritional information there (and on other diet sites) differed greatly from values shown on the company websites; Arby’s online menu didn’t include the fish sandwich at all, and other websites like shapefit.com listed calorie counts much higher. I used the ones I did hoping for a consistent bias for comparison’s sake. Prices are exactly what I paid in my town, including tax; all stores were within a mile radius.


Science!

Measuring sandwiches was so much fun that I almost forgot I had to eventually eat them. But first: cross-sections.


Mmm mmm good.

At last, the tasting:

Arby’s

Arby’s starts off a strong contender. Its overlong triangular fish plank gives the impression that it is actually made of fish. The ends sticking out of the bun makes it difficult to eat one-handed, but the shredded lettuce makes it easier. Plus, at $3.29, it turned out to be the cheapest by nine cents, although not quite the cheapest by weight. The sesame-seed bun sets it apart. A good showing.

Buy if: You like your fast-food fish sandwich to look classy.

Wendy’s

Wendy’s piece of fish is disappointingly rhomboidal, but the breading is exceptional: the crispest of the bunch. The bun is as large as Arby’s, though the sandwich is slightly thicker, possibly due to the single whole piece of lettuce on top. It’s a good size, but the most expensive at $3.70 by over twenty cents (and a solid 13% more than the cheapest).

Buy if: You want a good crunch and have a quarter to spare.

McDonald’s

McDonald’s. You know I love you. But your fast-food fish sandwich is an insult. Just for starters, it comes on a standard hamburger bun with no lettuce, making it the smallest entry in my unannounced contest. I know, I know, if you had any warning you would have bulked up. It was the lowest-calorie fish sandwich, but has the highest calories-per-weight ratio, probably due to the piece of American cheese under the fish plank. I don’t know who decided to put that cheese on there but it defiles the entire concept. To top it off, this sandwich is the most expensive by weight. Come on, guys.

Someone’s going to show up and tell me that putting cheese on a fish sandwich is some kind of regional tradition and I’m dismissing a delicacy and your greatest source of local pride. If that’s the case, be sure to leave a comment telling me where you live, so I can never, ever go there.

Buy if: You hate fish sandwiches and yourself.

Burger King

The sign at the drive-through called this a “lime and cilantro” fish sandwich, which…well, see above re: tasting the same. But this sandwich is enormous. Its fish plank was a uniform 3.5″ x 3.5″ block and tied for height with Wendy’s at 2.25″. Unsurprisingly, it was the heaviest and the highest-calorie option, but also the cheapest by weight.

Buy if: You want a big meal on a small dime.

So what’s the best fast-food fish sandwich on the market? Of the four I brought home, I finished the Wendy’s. It was the second-lowest calorie choice and plenty hefty for a meal. There was no clear-cut winner, though, so here’s the full chart so that you can make your own choices.


Seriously, you have no idea how long this took.

Whether with a side of chili, fries, or jalapeno poppers, the fast-food fish sandwich is an American springtime staple. I’m going to be eating a lot of them this month. And now, I’m a fully-informed consumer. And so are you.


Bon appetit!