Sunday, November 11, 2018

Baking My Feelings

October 27, 2018 is a date I will always remember. It was a cold, rainy Saturday morning and I'd gone to the grocery early. My husband and I were sitting at the dining room table playing cards and finishing a late breakfast when the phone rang. It was my sister in Texas calling to see if I was alright. Apparently, there'd been a shooting in Pittsburgh. I grabbed my cell phone off the charger and saw a number of notifications for missed calls, text messages and news updates. At 10:30 that morning, a man walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, the heart of the Jewish community, just three miles from my home, and opened fire with an automatic weapon slaughtering 11 people and wounding 6 more. Over the next few hours as details of this stunning tragedy emerged, fear rocked through me and my heart broke into pieces. My heart broke for the people in that congregation, for the families of those who died and for the community now faced with the aftermath. That was not my synagogue, I didn't know anyone involved, but this was my tribe, these were my people and my heart broke for all of us.

The next couple days were surreal as my phone, email and social media were flooded with messages of concern, love and support. A bad head and chest cold had settled into my body like an unwanted house guest, so I made an enormous pot of chicken noodle soup on Sunday afternoon. The following Monday, two days after the shooting, I choked back tears on my way to work, struggling to understand my ragged and chaotic emotions. By about 1:00 pm, I realized that I was not doing any good at work and I made an exit and wept the whole way home. After a few hours on the couch, I splashed my face with cold water and cleaned the kitchen. It felt good to let go of the thoughts that were tormenting me and focus on mundane tasks like scrubbing the sink and and the stove top. As I cleaned, my head began to clear a little bit and when I was done, I baked an apple crisp. With a small and simple list of ingredients, fruit crisps, crumbles and cobblers are things I no longer need recipes for. Peeling and slicing the apples, mixing in the sugar, lemon juice and cinnamon and making the crumb topping felt therapeutic and by the time I put the apple crisp in the oven, it felt like I was starting to get some mental control over the emotional chaos I'd been battling for the past couple of days. It just felt right. And as usual, the apple crisp was delicious.

The following night, I baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies and for a little extra twist, I added some finely chopped candied ginger. Again, it was a simple recipe, but the act of creaming the butter and brown sugar together until it was fluffy and sifting together the dry ingredients felt so grounding. And what could be more satisfying than biting into a warm, slightly chewy cookie fresh from the oven? It dawned on me that I was putting something delicious and beautiful out into the world to compensate for the bitterness and devastation I felt in my heart. I realized that I was baking my feelings.

In order to keep baking, I had to distribute the fruits of my labor, so the next day I brought both the cookies and what was left of the apple crisp, which was most of it, to work. It was Halloween and there was candy everywhere but my colleagues thoroughly enjoyed the homemade baked goods and I felt extremely gratified to present them. At the end of the day I brought home the empty containers and contemplated what I wanted to bake next. When they were at the peak of their season, my husband purchased a flat of blueberries and I had three huge bags of them in the freezer. Blueberry muffins seemed like an excellent choice. Muffins are not difficult to make and I found a suitable recipe that made a dozen muffins. However, for some unknown reason, I convinced myself that I needed to make more than a dozen. Looking back on it, I have no idea why I didn't just follow the recipe. In the end, I tried to make a recipe and a half of the batter, hoping for 18 muffins, but I miscalculated the measurements and the batter was extremely thick. I added an extra egg and an additional half cup of milk, but it didn't really help.
Rather than using muffin tins, I decided that batter would perform better in a bundt pan. The cake looked beautiful and I drizzled the top with a little lemon glaze, but it was dense and slightly gummy and the blueberries made big, wet pockets in the middle. It was tasty, but the texture was off-putting and almost rubbery. I talked it over with some of my co-workers the next day and someone suggested that it might make a good bread pudding. So the following weekend I cut it into cubes, discarding some of the larger blueberry pockets, put the cubes on a baking sheet and let them dry out in a 170 degree oven for a couple hours. Then I mixed up half a dozen eggs and two cups of whole milk, added some vanilla and cinnamon and soaked the cubed cake for a good 30 minutes, breaking it up with a potato masher as it softened. I poured it all into a baking dish, sprinkled the top with demarara sugar and gave it about an hour at 350 degrees. To test for doneness, I slipped a knife into the thick part of the center. When it came out clean, the pudding was baked.
It had a lovely bronze crust on top and a pleasant kind of bouncy texture without being gummy or sticky. I made a little blueberry sauce to go on top, but it would have been much better swimming in a pool of butter rum or thin caramel sauce. I cut the bread pudding into cubes and brought them to work the following Monday.

More than a week had passed since the shooting and I was finding a bit of peace in baking my feelings. The 2018 midterm elections were taking place the next day and half the country was holding its breath while the other half was blowing hot air in the build up to election day. I contemplated my baking options the night before. So far, I'd baked a crisp, a batch of cookies, a failed bundt cake and a bread pudding but what did I want to do next? Pie? Cupcakes? I needed something a little more challenging and settled on a two layer marble cake with chocolate frosting. I found a recipe and blog post that sounded perfect, which you can find HERE if you're curious. Instead of the whipped buttercream frosting called for in this recipe, I opted for my favorite frosting made with cream cheese, which I've made many times before. The tangy edge of the cream cheese keeps any cake from tasting too sweet and its my go-to frosting - you can find the recipe HERE. I had everything I needed for the cake in the fridge and pantry, but when I started pulling out ingredients, I realized that I had just enough baking powder to make this recipe. I don't think I've ever finished a container of baking powder. I use it so infrequently that I typically have to buy a fresh tub of it and throw the old one out every few years. But here I was, at the bottom of the container. A sense of great accomplishment washed over me. The moment the polls closed at 8:00 pm, I retired to the kitchen to make magic happen.
While the cake was baking, I joined my husband in front of the TV to watch election results, but in the end I found peace of mind in the kitchen, beating eggs and sugar together, measuring flour and cocoa and greasing and lining cake pans. It was 10:00 pm by the time I'd gotten the cake frosted and it looked quite impressive, but it definitely needed some time to chill in the fridge before I could cut this beauty. The thing about marble cake is you never know exactly how its going to look inside until you cut it. Not only was this cake gorgeous, but there was a surprise inside just waiting to be revealed. As much as I wanted to jam a fork into it and shove it in my greedy face, I put the cake in the fridge and went to bed. The next day, I brought it to work and sliced it with my co-workers looking on. It was absolutely beautiful inside and it tasted like heaven. We all enjoyed a slice of cake together and it filled my heart with indescribable joy.

Two days later I baked an apple pie. My brother and sister-in-law were coming to visit and she loves apple pie, so I figured I could brighten both of our lives a little by baking for her. It had been a busy week and I stopped at the store that day and bought a pre-made pie crust, which was a sign that I'm starting to come to terms with my feelings. The pie is yummy served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Half of it is sitting in the fridge right now and I have vowed not to bake again until we finish what I've already baked. While my heart still hurts, so do the hearts of my friends, neighbors and community and we are getting through this together. I don't think I'm the only Pittsburgher who is baking or cooking their feelings right now and I'm sure there will be more baking in the weeks and months ahead. In the end, there is great hope in the knowledge that we can sweeten our own small corners of the world when things seem hopeless. Let me know if you need a little lovin' from the oven. I'm more than happy to oblige.


Sunday, October 28, 2018

Dinner With Aunt Sue

This is not a story about food. Its not about a recipe or technique or some special piece of kitchen equipment. Its not about a product comparison, review or unique ingredient. This is a story about people and how food connects us.

Sue Wasserman and I grew up together in White Meadow Lake, New Jersey. Its a small, idyllic lakefront community in suburban NJ, about an hour west of New York City. We were part of the large group of kids born in the final years of the baby boom. We attended nursery school, grade school and middle school together. We went to summer camp, played sports and rode bikes together.
As we got older, Sue and I fell into different cliques and our interests diverged. She started a women's fencing team in high school and I was active in the theater program. When I was 16, my family relocated to Beaumont, Texas and by the time we all graduated from high school, I was only in touch with a couple of my many childhood friends. At some point in our 30's, a subgroup of friends reunited a few times and it was great to see each other after so many years, but Sue was not among us.

Say what you will about social media and its ill effects on our culture, but Facebook brought so many lost people back into my life and it has enriched me beyond words. Sue Wasserman is one of those people. I can't remember exactly when we started following each other on social media, but we became instant mutual fans. Sue lives near Asheville, NC and is a freelance writer, excellent photographer and a warm, charming and delightful person. She frequently comments on my food and music posts and she is also a fan of this blog. Sue inspired my post about honey cake when she came across a loaf pan in her kitchen cabinet. She's one of the coolest and most interesting people I follow. So when I started planning my travel to a conference in Atlanta, I reached out to Sue to see if she had the time to drive up and meet me for dinner.

Having lived in Atlanta for many years, Sue knows her way around and she comes to town somewhat frequently to see friends and family. When I extended the dinner invitation, she started asking around and settled on Secreto Kitchen, which was relatively close to my hotel, at least by Atlanta standards. Sue picked me up at my hotel and when we laid eyes on each other for the first time in 40 years, I was instantly transported back to grade school. We talked nonstop on the way to the restaurant.
The place was perfect and we got a table in the front corner of the cozy dining room. It was kind of a quiet Tuesday evening with just a few other tables besides us. We ordered beverages and started catching up on the last four decades.

Over an order of creamy truffle deviled eggs, Sue and I reminisced about Camp White Meadow and our years at Stony Brook elementary. The deviled eggs were yummy and the conversation was easy. We talked about our families and their expectations of us and how we paved our unique and winding paths in life. We both ordered the fried chicken and it came with a delicious sausage gravy, smooth mashed potatoes and crunchy green beans. As we tucked in to our dinner, the conversation moved to college and the early years of our careers. Sue started as a copywriter at a small ad agency before moving down to Atlanta and doing corporate communications work.
We talked about our friends, where they went and how they turned out. We talked about our mothers and the amazing influence they had on our identities. Secreto is known for its carrot cake, so we ordered a slice and dug into our philosophies on life. The carrot cake jiggled a little when the waiter put the plate down on the table. It was impossibly moist and almost custardy, as if its had been steamed, and it had a dollop of cream cheese frosting cascading over the top. As we enjoyed our dessert, we shared our hopes and dreams and talked about how it feels to reinvent ourselves. It was a three hour dinner and I wouldn't have traded one second of for all the money in the world.

The whole dinner was great, but ultimately, the food was just a vehicle for authentic human connection. Sue and I share a love for great food and we both deeply understand how a meal prepared with love provides nourishment for the body and the soul. That, my friends, is worth writing about.


Sunday, October 21, 2018

Bacon Roast

I had no idea what to expect when my husband suggested we go to a bacon roast. I mean, clearly we'd be eating roasted bacon, but the circumstances by which this bacon ended up in our bellies was a bit of a mystery. Jason's friend Barb had extended the invitation and she and I share eastern European heritage. She is of Croatian lineage, I have Hungarian roots and we both love the Hungarian dishes we grew up eating. In addition to the usual catered chicken, baked pasta and roasted veggies, Barb included cabbage rolls and haluski on the banquet table at her retirement party last spring. I surmised the bacon roast was a traditional Hungarian preparation that had eluded me thus far. Barb made the reservations and all we had to do was to show up at Huszar, pay our money and enjoy the experience, whatever that might be. As long as there was roasted bacon in my mouth, I was game for whatever the evening would bring.

In Hungary its called Szalonna Sutes and its a summer tradition in rural and farming communities, much like the classic American barbecue. Giant slabs of bacon are cut into large chunks, skewered on long sticks or roasting forks and each person cooks their chunk of bacon slowly over an open fire pit. As the bacon cooks, the fat renders and you're supposed to use a piece of bread to absorb the drippings, which eventually becomes the delivery vehicle for the cooked bacon. It takes about 30 minutes to roast a half-pound slab of bacon over an open fire, at which point its chopped into small cubes and served on the fat soaked bread with raw onion, red bell peppers and tomatoes. This is accompanied by a shot of noxious plum brandy called palinka, plenty of beer, and lots of storytelling and laughter around the fire. Literally and figuratively, chewing the fat.

On the first chilly weekend of the fall, we headed to Pittsburgh's historic Deutschtown neighborhood for our 5:00 pm reservation. Huszar is a small, welcoming, typical Pittsburgh neighborhood tavern serving authentic Hungarian fare, all prepared fresh in their small kitchen. With its small bar and cozy dining room, this is the kind of place where you instantly feel at home. Barb and her friend Nancy were sitting at the bar sampling Karlovochka beer and small but mighty shots of palinka. We joined them and the bartender brought us our beer and clear shots of palinka, which burned all the way down my throat and started a small fire when it hit bottom.

Sides and condiments
About 20 minutes later we were invited to a large patio just up the street, which had a temporary wood fence in front. There were 8 or 10 long tables with chairs, a tent with a couple of prep tables for the bacon, condiments and desserts and 3 fire pits surrounded by chairs. We walked up to the prep table, collected our long forks with our bacon on the end and headed to a fire pit to settle in with our pork. About half way through our roasting time,The Gypsy Strings arrived and a celebratory vibe overtook the whole evening as the patio filled with traditional eastern European folk music.
Desserts
It was cold outside, but the glow of the fire, excellent company and adult beverages warmed our spirits. We struck up conversations with the other folks at our fire pit and had a grand old time.

When our bacon was done, we brought it back to the prep table where our hosts chopped it up into bite sized pieces and piled raw veggies on our plates. With potato salad on the side and delicious small pastries for dessert, it was quite an abundant feast! The pork was smokey, briny and luscious. There were strains of fat running through each little chunk and slightly charred and crispy bits on the ends. Sandwiched on that fatty bread with crispy red pepper slices, juicy tomatoes and the sharpness of raw scallions, that bacon was pure delight. Barb and I had trouble finishing ours so my helpful husband took care of the remnants. No way we were walking out of that place with uneaten bacon on our plates. This is the third year that Huszar has hosted the bacon roast and its well on its way to becoming a Pittsburgh tradition. Maybe you'll join us next year.



Sunday, October 7, 2018

Semolina Pasta

It all came together so perfectly. I had all the requisite ingredients, the inspiration struck at the opportune moment and there I was, breaking out the pasta machine. For our anniversary, my thoughtful and considerate husband decided to take me on an outing in search of local produce, meat and eggs. Schramm's farm store had baskets of huge, ripe tomatoes at their peak of flavor for about $3.00. Each basket had 6 or 7 soft-ball sized tomatoes and at that price, I couldn't NOT buy one. On the way home, I realized that there were already two quarts of tomatoes from our garden in the freezer. The tomatoes I just bought would need to be processed quickly and I had the whole weekend to make it happen. As my thoughts turned to recipes, I remembered the bag of semolina flour I'd bought a few weeks earlier. There it was, the moment of inspiration. I think I actually heard a little "ding" in my head when the idea of making semolina pasta with homemade tomato sauce hit me. Don't you just love it when that happens?

There's really no comparison between your own fresh pasta and what comes out of a cardboard box.  They're almost two different food items. Mind you, I'm not knocking dry pasta here, its a pantry staple and something I use frequently. But when you want to go that extra mile, making your own fresh pasta is not as difficult as you think and it never fails to impress. Most pasta is made either with all-purpose flour, super fine 00 flour or semolina  flour and each imparts its own unique taste and texture. 00 flour is very fine and powdery, which gives the pasta dough a smooth surface and the finished product is fluffy and light when cooked. Semolina has a courser texture than flour, which results in more toothsome pasta, and the slightly grainy surface allows it to hold the sauce nicely, just like ridges on certain types of dried pasta. I found recipes that used straight semolina flour and some that mixed it with regular all-purpose flour and since this was my first time using semolina, I decided to use a mix of the two.

SEMOLINA PASTA

1 cup semolina flour
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 large eggs at room temperature
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp salt
3 tbsp water

Pasta dough can be made easily in the food processor, but if you don't have one you can mix this dough in a bowl. Measure the two flours and salt into a large bowl and mix them together. If you're using the food processor, blitz the dry ingredients a couple times just to mix them. Crack the eggs into a glass jar and add the water and olive oil, put the lid on it and shake it to blend well. With the processor running, drizzle the egg mixture in until it forms a ball, then turn it out to knead it. If you're using the bowl, just mix everything together until it forms a ball, then turn it out onto the counter and knead it until its smooth and slightly springy, which should take about 5 minutes. If the dough is too wet and sticky, knead small bits of flour in as you go until the dough no longer sticks to the surface. When its smooth and uniform, wrap the dough in plastic wrap and put it in the fridge for about half an hour to rest.

Of course, the pasta dough was the last thing I did that weekend. Making tomato sauce from scratch is not terribly difficult and it tastes infinitely better than anything you get out of a can or jar. The previous day, I turned 7 gigantic tomatoes into deeply flavored sauce using the basic process and recipe here on this blog, adding fresh mushrooms instead of dried. The sauce cooked for about three hours and while it was on the stove, I kept it covered loosely with a piece of aluminum foil. The foil allows steam to escape as the sauce reduces but keeps it from splattering all over the kitchen. Trust me, this technique will save you from cleaning tomato sauce off of the ceiling. I learned the hard way. Tomato sauce always tastes better after it sits in the fridge. This pot of sauce sat overnight and was all ready to go the next day when I started rolling that pasta.

 I took the dough out of the fridge and let it sit for about 10 minutes before rolling it. Now, a pasta machine is not necessary here, the dough can be rolled out with a rolling pin, but it needs to be really thin and since I have a pasta machine, I used it. This pasta had an interesting cornmeal-like texture, but it rolled out nicely and when it was thin enough to just barely see through, I cut it into thick ribbons, tossed them in a little flour and set them on a kitchen towel while I brought a big pot of liberally salted water to a boil. I just happened to have a small zucchini sitting in the fridge, so I cut it into small chunks and sauteed them in a skillet, then poured some of my tomato sauce in and let that heat up over low heat.
Once the water was boiling vigorously, I dropped in the pasta and gave it a stir. Fresh pasta cooks very quickly, it only take about a minute, and when it was al dente I pulled it out with tongs and dropped it right into the sauce, adding a ladle full of pasta water to keep the sauce loose. I let the pasta continue to cook in the sauce and absorb the flavors for a couple minutes before serving. A healthy grating of Parmesan cheese and a little drizzle of extra virgin olive oil brought  this bowl of handmade pasta to perfection. The chewiness of this pasta was quite pleasant and I was happy with the results. Plus, no cans, jars or cardboard boxes were harmed in the making of this dinner. All homemade, its the way to eat.


Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Best Corn Fritters

Summer is drawing to a close here in western Pennsylvania. The heat wave broke right after Labor Day and the last of summer's bounty is ready for harvest. While trolling Facebook marketplace, my clever husband found a woman in Export, PA who raises chickens and sells their eggs. After doing a little research, he'd found a nice looking farm stand and a local meat market nearby. With a slight chill in the air, he surprised me with a Saturday morning outing in search of farm fresh vittles.

We started out right after breakfast and reached our first stop Schramm Farms & Orchards not long after they opened. The Schramm family really knows what they're doing and just about everything for sale in the spacious, clean farm store is grown on their own farm. We bought ginger gold apples, onions, honey and a basket of the biggest, reddest and most fragrant tomatoes I've ever seen. But the real score at Schramm's was the corn. We bought a dozen ears of bi-color corn that had just been picked that morning. I was truly in my happy place. After a trip to C&S Meats for some chicken, we hit our final destination, our new friend Candice's house. Candice has a small flock of chickens and the younger ones have just started laying, so we bought a dozen eggs and made our way home for an afternoon of food prep.


With a dozen ears of corn sitting in my fridge, I had some decisions to make. I knew some would go in the freezer and some would be boiled and eaten right off the cob, but I had a swinging load of corn to deal with. Then I remembered an episode of America's Test Kitchen where Dan Souza demonstrated a unique method for making the most yummy looking corn fritters. By pureeing and cooking half the corn first, the batter needs less flour and delivers maximum corn flavor. That sounded just fine with me.


CORN FRITTERS:

4 ears of fresh corn
2 tbsp all purpose flour
2 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese
2 tbsp corn starch
1 large egg
2 tbsp butter (for cooking the corn)
1 small minced jalapeno pepper (optional)
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
vegetable oil for frying

The first step of this interesting preparation involves turning half the corn into a puree. I cut the kernels off of two ears of corn directly into a large, deep mixing bowl. My blender is out of commission right now, so I used an immersion blender the pulverize the corn into a thick puree. Mine was a lot chunkier than Dan's, but you can achieve a smoother texture by using a traditional blender. I put a medium skillet over medium low heat and dropped in a tablespoon of butter. Corn has a lot of natural sugar in it and it will burn if you cook it over high heat, so its best to keep the temperature moderately low while cooking this puree. It also wants to stick to the pan, so make sure you stir this mixture frequently as it cooks. Once the butter was melted, the corn puree went into the pan and I cooked it over medium low heat until it turned a deep golden color and was very thick and pasty, almost the texture of polenta, which took about 10 minutes. I scooped it into a mixing bowl and set it aside to cool. Then I cut the kernels off of the remaining two ears of corn and got ready for the next step.

Now, if you've ever made corn fritters before, you know the whole process is quite messy. Corn flies everywhere when you cut it off the cob, so I cut mine directly into a big, deep bowl. The other big mess happens when you fry the fritters and pieces of fresh corn, which are filled with water, explode when they hit the hot oil. It can be quite dangerous and my husband and I have both gotten nasty little burns from hot corn shrapnel. The solution is to cook the corn kernels first, which allows the water to evaporate and the flavors to develop. Its nice to let the kernels brown a bit in the pan to give them a smokey taste. I cleaned the pan I'd just used to cook the puree, put it over medium heat and added the rest of the butter and the corn kernels. While they toasted in the pan, I put the rest of the ingredients into the bowl with the cooled corn puree, mixing the egg up slightly before adding it, and gently blended it all together. The original recipe called for chives and a pinch of cayenne pepper, but the combo of corn and jalapeno is such a classic pairing and I just happened to have jalapenos growing in my garden. I could imagine adding a little cumin or curry powder to the basic recipe for an exotic flavor. Fresh herbs like parsley or cilantro would be good, too. Go wild, do whatever strikes your fancy.

Once the corn kernels were slightly browned. I added them to the bowl and got ready to fry these bad boys up. In a large skillet, I poured enough vegetable oil to come about an inch up the side of the pan and turned the heat to medium, allowing the oil to heat slowly so my fritters wouldn't scorch. To test the oil, drop a little nub of fritter batter in. If it starts bubbling, you're good to go. I added tablespoonful dollops of the batter to the oil and flattened each one out a bit using the back of the spoon. When the edges were golden, I flipped them and let them cook until they were GBD - golden brown and delicious. I drained them momentarily on paper towel, just to remove a bit of the oil, and ate them hot with a little drizzle of homemade honey mustard sauce, which is just 2 tbsp of mayo and 1 tbsp each of honey and dijon mustard. The corn starch in this recipe makes the fritters crispy and the cooked corn puree makes them slightly chewy and really, really corny. Plus, no splatter burns and my kitchen didn't look like a complete disaster when I was done. Serve them as a side dish, an appetizer or a snack, I promise these corn fritters are perfect for any occasion.