Archive for the ‘baking’ category

Oatmeal is not very photogenic!

May 11, 2008

It wasn’t until I started taking pictures of food, just for fun and long before this blog ever came into being, that I really began paying attention to the minutiae of the visual appeal of food. I always new that food could be beautiful, that the colors and shapes that you can create with food are amazing and that it is in part so fantastic because these artistic creations are fleeting, generally being consumed within only a few minutes or hours of their being finished. I mention this hear because I wanted to write a post about a new breakfast I’ve been eating over the last couple of weeks, well not really new because I’ve eaten it before, but just breaking out of the routine of the same peanut butter and banana sandwich that I have been absolutely wedded to for probably two years now. That’s not to say that I don’t still eat that sandwich, just that I have incorporated a new option into the breakfast repertoire and it seems to be working out well. So the dish in question is called “Apple Oatmeal Pudding” and it is definitely warm and satisfying. But, as with many of the dishes I realize that I make at home, it is not very photogenic. Obviously the restaurant industry can expend a lot more time, energy, and even money into the presentation of the food they put on their plates. They are, after all, trying to tantalize their customers. This is not to say that we should not attempt to do this at home, but more to comment that it is the first thing to go when we’re time crunched and have other priorities, but still want to make time to cook for ourselves. As long as the food is tasty, healthy, and filling, then that’s all I really care about at this juncture. I’d say I rely more on the plate or bowl that the food is served in to amplify its appearance, than any sort of garnish or architectural construction made of food. Again, these are accoutrements I’d definitely consider if there were other people involved in the bargain, but since it’s just me, why take the extra effort? (I can, by the way, think of many and justifiable reasons to take the extra effort, but the pressure of productivity on my dissertation wins out.) I wonder also if I am detecting a trend in my food preferences that is at the opposite end of photo-worthy, meaning mushy, soupy, casserole-like foods that must be the stuff of nightmares for food stylists. Perhaps I will question a food stylist the next time I meet one (or I should more accurately say the first time I meet one), about the creative ways in which they work around this general genre of food. What they do to enhance its appeal. In the meantime I will try to keep a better eye out in magazines and such…

So that whole long intro was really a plug for you to give the Apple Oatmeal Pudding recipe a try. If you like oatmeal in the mornings, this is a nice way to bake yourself enough for four days in advance, then all you have to do is microwave it for a few minutes and add some milk to get it to the desired consistency and you’re golden. It’s actually a bit thicker of a consistency because the baking allows the oatmeal to set, but not in that gross “it’s now a huge brick” sort of way, more like a casserole that’s held together with the oatmeal. I love the recipe, which is a hand-me-down from someone in my mom’s office about ten years ago, because it really gives you a warm feeling inside. Let me know what you think! Just don’t be deterred by the photo which, as I hinted above, is not entirely inspiring. We can and do feast with multiple senses, but it doesn’t always have to be with the eyes first.


Baking in the middle of the night

April 22, 2008

In delving more into historic recipes over the last couple of months, and by delving, I mean actually making, I have been struck by the fact that many of the older recipes require a lot more time in the kitchen, or at least are not nearly as instantaneously ready as most of those that we are used to today. This is in part because of the central focus of food in the lives of people in times when it was not readily available in restaurants, take-out joints, all-nite mini marts, and basically around every corner. When you have to plan ahead, and sometimes months ahead for your meals, then the fact that preparation of a particular dish might take you several hours or days, seems like small beans, as long as you have food on the table at the end of the day.

The first time this fact became obvious to me was when I recently made a plum pudding using a recipe from Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747). The recipe had been translated by a group of culinary historians (the Past Masters) into modern-day measurements and directions, though still meant to be prepared in a pot of boiling water that was placed over the fire in a large fireplace. The batter is placed in a “pudding cloth” (a piece of linen, which I didn’t have, so used a cloth napkin that I didn’t feel much attachment to) and is simmered in the boiling water for 5 hours.

Being someone who doesn’t spend a great deal of time in my apartment, what with school and extra curriculars and spending time with friends, etc., I don’t often have 5+ hours in which I’m home at a stretch, except, of course, when I’m sleeping. Thus began a growing trend where I start multiple-step or time-consuming recipes that require getting up in the middle of the night to do the next step or monitor the progress in one way or another. I can’t say that this is the best way to get a good night’s sleep, obviously, but it can be fairly entertaining to wake up at 2:30 in the morning and pull a cake out of your oven.

My latest adventure in this vein was the making of a baba au rhum or rum cake. For whatever reason, in this day and age where you can so easily be overwhelmed by the sheer number of recipes that fit your criteria once you decide what you plan to make, I find myself making decisions about which recipe I’m going to use without even having read through the entire set of directions. That’s how I ended up setting my alarm multiple times last night to get up and do various different steps in this cake recipe. I made the mistake of trusting that it would take roughly the amount of time that the recipe claimed it would, which we all know is total bollocks, I usually multiply it by 1.5 to get actual estimates. But the recipe promised a finished product in 2 hours and I started at 10pm, so I figured I’d be done a little after midnight at the worst. HA! That’s where I got the 2:30am cake comment earlier in this post, cause that’s when I pulled the baby out of the oven, and it wasn’t even done then, ‘cause you have to wait for it to cool and then pour rum syrup into it, which takes another 20 minutes. So you can see how accurate of an estimate that turned out to be. I suppose I should have been suspicious from the get go because of the fact that there was yeast in the recipe, hence rising time (this being one of the main reasons that I hardly ever make recipes which involve yeast), but, like I said, I made a snap decision on the recipe because it was recommended and I had the ingredients and it sounded good.

So at the time I wrote the above I couldn’t actually comment on how said rum cake turned out since I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to taste the fruits of my night of interrupted sleep’s labor, but I will do so now… There are definitely no complaints on the eating end about the amount of rum in this cake! It is soaked to the brim and then some, leaving excess pooling on the plate at the bottom. This recipe is definitely different than what you might think of for your typical rum cake because of the yeast bread, which I actually really liked. I have to say that the top part was a little bit more cooked than I would have liked ideally, but I was asleep and I’d set the timer for 10 minutes shy of what the recipe said, because I was using a different pan (a loaf pan), but next time I’ll know it needs even a little less time. I am a big sucker for anything gooey or mushy and this recipe absolutely has some of those qualities because of the added liquor in the bread. Above all it’s just a fun / funny experience to be baking and sleeping simultaneously. Not that I’m suggesting this as another area of our lives where we should start to multitask, well maybe every once in a while.

An 18th Century Meal

February 23, 2008

I don’t know about the rest of you, perhaps my imagination isn’t as good as it could be, but I learn best by doing, through experience. For this reason, I have recently decided that it is imperative that I actually prepare some of the recipes that I read all the time in the cookbooks that I use in my research. A perfect opportunity to do just that presented itself this past weekend when my sister came to visit for the first time since I moved to Philly almost five years ago. What better way to welcome her to city and to introduce her to my friends, than to throw a party with an 18th century theme to the menu? I was a bit hesitant to suggest it to her since she is not known for being the most adventurous of eaters, but when I did she said full steam ahead, and I jumped into party-planning mode. I was definitely pleasantly surprised by how many of my friends were ready and willing to attend a meal that they knew so little about, but then they’re all pretty adventurous and certainly very tolerant, after all they put up with me.

Planning a menu was certainly a bit of a stretch for me, first because there were so many dishes that I wanted to make I didn’t know where to start, second because we had a few vegetarians in the group, so I had to make sure that they were sufficiently fed (despite the main course, which I’ll get to in a second), and third because I’d never entertained for such a large crowd before and I absolutely didn’t want people to leave hungry. To address the first problem I turned to a couple of my favorite historical sources for the recipes that I ended up making. All of the recipes I chose would have been made in Pennsylvania and the surrounding states in the past. Not all were specifically regional foods, but they would have appeared on the tables of people who lived in this region, whether or not they also appeared elsewhere in the country. The first cookbook I is one published by the Past Masters in Early American Domestic Arts entitled The Pennsylvania Housewife: English Household Receipts of the Middle Colonies. This book was written by a group of individuals who actually cook these historic recipes in period kitchens using period kitchen implements or reproductions. Knowing several members of the group, I can comment that they are a reliable source for tips on the best ways to prepare these foods, for they are the ones who have made them the most recently and accurately and have given the receipts (recipes) the most scrutiny. In the cookbook each recipe starts with the original as copied from the 18th century cookbook and then is followed by more modern instructions, including measurements of ingredients (which didn’t become popular until the 19th century) and step-by-step instructions as to how to prepare the dish. Because members of Past Masters typically prepare these recipes on the hearth, they do not include oven temperatures or exact cooking times, but any relatively well-informed or logical cook can figure these out. Two other cookbooks I utilized in preparing the menu for this meal were both compiled by William Woys Weaver, a well-known culinary historian of the Pennsylvania Dutch and author of a number of books on their cuisine and history in this area. They included Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking (1993) and Sauerkraut Yankees: Pennsylvania Dutch Foods & Foodways (2002).

The main course was a big question because not only was it necessary to feed a large number of people, but it was also an opportunity to potentially add to the collections in the zooarchaeology lab, something I’m always trying to work into my meals. In the end my advisor and I decided that a suckling pig was the way to go. I have archaeological examples of suckling pig and therefore wanted some comparative materials to know what size and age range I’m dealing with, besides the fact that it’s also an extremely impressive meal to present on the table. A meal that would have been a community-wide celebration during the 18th century, something that was highly appreciated by the Pennsylvania Dutch, and something that many people in the modern world do not have much exposure to. You’ve seen me comment before on this blog about the ever-expanding distance between modern consumers and our meat sources, how the animals that our protein is derived from are becoming less and less recognizable in the cuts they purchase in the supermarkets as more and more become boneless, skinless cuts. Having a whole roasted suckling pig at this party would bring people to the absolute other side of the spectrum and force them to literally come face to face with their meal, to own up to the fact that they were eating part of an animal, and even a cute young one at that. These are all lessons we should consider and, I think, test ourselves on if we are to continue to eat meat and to support modern animal agribusiness which focuses on meat production above all else. If we cannot face the prospect of eating meat when we can see exactly where it comes from, then can we really justify eating it? On top of this fact, the 18th century fully embraced the display of heads and other very recognizable body parts on the table. Not everything was served up in smaller cuts cleansed of their animalistic qualities. People in the 18th century took pride in their ability to serve an entire animal on the table, it demonstrated wealth and prosperity, generosity and bounty. Yes, to serve a truly 18th century meal, I did feel that a whole pig was, in fact, the perfect main-course to serve.

As far as the vegetarians at the meal were concerned, this was not a problem per se, but it did take some careful consideration. If you look at printed menus in cookbooks from the 18th century, you’ll see that meat was always the star of the meal, it appeared in almost all of the dishes on the table, and vegetables were served as sides to or garnish on these more prominent dishes. In order to prepare a meal to appeal to the modern sensibilities where vegetables are the healthier and more desirable aspects of the meal for many, I needed to switch around the focus of the meal from the meat dishes to the sides. This is not to suggest that the number of sides prepared for the meal was more than typical during the 18th century, simply that they played a larger role in the overall proportion of the meal than did the meat dishes. If I had been preparing a strictly 18th century meal, there would likely have been several meat dishes on the table in addition to the suckling pig, and on top of the sides.

The final menu for the meal was as follows:

Pretzel Soup with Peanut Roux
Johny Cakes – the middling sort
Winter Squash Pudding
Spinach with Eggs
Whole Suckling Pig
Dried Cherry Pie

Recipes for most of the dishes will appear on the side bar. The asparagus recipe has been omitted because we simply steamed them and added kosher salt and cracked black pepper. The Whole suckling pig we did not end up cooking ourselves because the animal was too large to fit into my oven, a smaller than standard little affair measuring only 16” wide and deep and 14” tall. With the pig being 18 pounds and longer than 16” even when folded in half (we measured it at the butcher’s), I thought it best all around to allow the butcher to roast it for me, he offered after all. So the pig was roasted in the oven at the butcher’s shop with sage, thyme, garlic, salt and pepper on a spit in the oven for about 4 hours, basting it with butter. Apparently, for those who are interested, this animal was likely between 12 and 15 weeks (3-4 months) old. Animals of this age do not have a whole lot of fat in their bodies yet, so though he saved the pan juices for us, the butcher also included a couple of tubs of pork (as in full grown animal) drippings, to make gravy from. We purchased the pig from the Hollywood Meat Market (1039 S. 9th St.) and actually carried it back to my apartment tied down to a big piece of plywood and covered over in aluminum foil, though apparently this didn’t fool too many people as we got a lot of looks and comments on the street, as well as a couple of car honks. The Hollywood Meat Market specializes in roast pig, so if you’re looking for something similar for an event you’d like to host, I can recommend them as very helpful and accommodating. Ask for Pete if you want something pig-related, he’s the go-to man there.

As for the other dishes, I think the biggest favorites were the pretzel soup and the dried cherry pie. The soup is more like an apple cider soup, thickened with pretzels and served with peanut butter, the flavor combination is unbeatable and it’s amazingly and surprisingly filling (also super easy to make). The dried cherry pie was also delicious and the filling was quite unique, starting with dried fruit rather than canned cherries or fresh. It gave the interior of the pie a very chewy and sweet consistency that was different than any other I’ve tasted, but really fantastic, more like a chewy candy bar than a pie filling (you can play around with the degree of stickiness by altering how much you cook down the filling). I was also very intrigued by the winter squash pudding which had only a few tablespoons of rose water in it, but the flavor became infused throughout the dish and provided a different set of taste sensations than you typically get, especially with squash. I hope you’ll try out a few of these recipes on your own and see if you can incorporate some historic food into your modern life. Until the next food adventure, happy eating!

Oh, and check out some photos from the meal in the slideshow below.

Pumpkin Bread Pudding with Caramel Sauce

November 29, 2007

There’s something about the changing of the seasons and each new holiday that rolls around that seems to set the mind to memories of years past, of recipes tried, of both successes and failures and of dishes you want to make again, just because, you know, it’s that time of year. I guess for some people this is how traditions are started. I notice it myself as I start to get a little older and am no longer completely tied to the traditions of my family, that I’m developing my own customs, my own habits.

For the minute this inclination means that I’ve pulled out a recipe that I only came across a couple of years ago, a recommendation from a close friend who had made it for a dinner party and deemed it a smashing success. Pumpkin Bread Pudding with Caramel Sauce. This, I thought, I’ve got to try! And from that year on, this dish has become part of my yearly fall/winter tradition (depending on when the cold really settles in). I probably made it two or three times that first year (I tend to get a bit obsessed when I first discover a killer recipe) but I’ve also made it every year since then and it’s certainly one of the first recipes in my file that I think about when I’m pondering what I might want to toss into the oven on a cold evening to warm up the house and bring sweetness to the air.

I urge you to give it a go yourself, if you’re so inclined. I personally love using the potato bread as it completely dissolves when you add in the liquid and that’s somehow so satisfyingly mushy (probably completely lacking in nutritional qualities, but hey, it’s dessert, what do you want?). I also lighten the recipe by using milk instead of half and half and if you don’t like too sweet of a dessert, then you could probably cut down on the brown sugar, though I like it just the way it is. Serve it with or without the caramel sauce, it’s fabulous both ways, depending on how invested you want to get and whether you’re going to eat it all in a fairly short span of time. This recipe also freezes well. I just cut it up and wrap individual portions in saran wrap and put them in the freezer for those days when I get that craving for something ooey and gooey. Hope you enjoy this as much as I have and perhaps it will become part of your tradition, I’ve got a pan of it in the oven right now!

P.S. You’ll find the recipe under the “Recipes to live by”

Cinnamon-Apple Cake, yes please!

October 31, 2007


I love baking! One of the main reasons is the awesome aromas that invariably fill your house / apartment whenever you’ve got something in the oven. I would be in heaven if I could come up with a reason to bake something new every day, seriously (not that I’ve got the time). It’s a sense of home and comfort that really comes from nothing else. And I truly like baking more for other people than I do for myself, because it’s an opportunity to show others that you care about them and that you were willing to spend time on them. I suppose this is revealing my domestic side, but then I never claimed to not have one, in fact I’m rather proud of the domestic skills I do have and the pleasure that I take in some of the activities that others consider to be downright drudgery. Granted, I don’t have to do this every day and I am generally only taking care of myself, but at the moment things like baking and cooking seem more like fun and adventure than like a chore.
This evening I tried a new recipe, in honor of Halloween, for Cinnamon-Apple Cake (I’ll add the link so you can make it too if you are so inspired). I think it is going to be a real winner at the party tomorrow night, if the batter is anything to go by. And by the way, it’s a personal rule of mine that I have to lick the spoon, no matter how many raw eggs there are, I’m sorry, tough! Here’s a picture so you can get an idea of how it turns out (though the picture with the recipe online is more appetizing, if I’m being truthful).
Next time you’re feeling a little homesick or your house / apartment is missing that extra umph, just try whipping up a batch of muffins or a cake. It’s the easiest thing in the world and it’ll make you feel so much better.
P.S. I only ever make things from scratch, just try it, it’s seriously only a few more steps than the box mixes and you’ll feel so much better knowing exactly what you’re putting into your body, even if it’s just more sugar, eggs, and butter. =)