Tuesday, October 23, 2007

the great pumpkin hunt

The blog entry that took two weeks to write!

This is a story about a sugar pumpkin. Actually, it goes further back than that. One sunny autumn day, I took my bike and cycled to the other side of the city to buy a can of pumpkin puree to no avail. On another sunny windy day, I took my bike and cycled to the other other side of the city to try to buy a can of pumpkin puree, also to no avail. Dear reader, I now currently live in Stockholm, Sweden, and canned pumpkin is nearly impossible to find. As grumpy as an American is able to be severely inconvenienced by the lack of availability of canned goods, I went to the dearest fanciest grocery store at the main department store. Did they have canned pumpkin? No. But they did have the above sugar pumpkin which I snatched up. I did question the sign in the store that told me to microwave the pumpkin for five minutes. Microwave? Pumpkin? I feel very similarly about microwaving potatoes. Sure, you could, but should you?

I love autumn. I didn't grow up with autumn, but after four years living in New England, I learned to appreciate mulled cider and pumpkin everything. While I was grumpy at making my own pumpkin puree, I couldn't help but marvel at the rich orange color.

While shopping for allspice I picked up yet another pumpkin, but one from New Zealand. That sucker I intend for a savory pumpkin soup, but that bad boy is for another day.

After carrying around six pounds of pumpkin that day, I had to take a respite before figuring out how to make pumpkin puree. Which involves scooping, baking, more scooping, and then draining the pumpkin puree.

Ah, here we are finally at the batter phase. I read over two dozen pumpkin bread, muffin, cupcake, poundcake recipe to arrive at this one.

Pumpkin Cupcakes with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting
makes about 20 cupcakes
preheat oven to 350 F

If you're noticing I'm using maple syrup more often it is because I bought two huge jugs of it to last me this year abroad in Europe. I think maple syrup is ambrosia -- nectar of the gods. These muffins make the best use of all the delicious spices and formerly exotic spices: cinnamon, cloves, allspice, ginger.

1 c brown sugar
1 c white sugar
3/4 c salted butter
2 eggs + 1 egg yolk
1 t vanilla extract

2 3/4 c flour
2 t baking powder
1 t ground cloves
1 pinch all spice
1 t cinnamon
1/2 t ginger

2 c pumpkin puree or 1 15 oz canned pumpkin

Cream together butter and sugar until fluffy, add eggs and egg yolk, and vanilla extract. In a separate bowl combine all the dry ingredients: flour, baking powder, spices. Mix the combined dry ingredients into the wet until well combined. Add pumpkin puree.

Bake in muffin tins. If you have not a full set, fill the empty ones with cold water. Bake for about 20 minutes. When pierced the implement should come out nearly clean. Ovens vary so much that one has to be pretty aware. Overbaking will dry out your cupcakes, and that is a less than desirable result!

Cool before frosting.

Maple Cream Cheese Frosting

8 oz cream cheese
1/4 c butter at room temperature cut into small pieces
1 T maple syrup
1/4 c powdered sugar

Whip the cream cheese until fluffy, then add the butter at medium whipping speed. Fold in syrup and powdered sugar. Keep refrigerated.

I tried as much as possible to cut down on sugar, but as you can see, there is still quite a bit of sugar. The cupcakes have a wonderful tiny crumb and come out moist. However, I would definitely slot these cupcakes for sharing.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

a jug of maple syrup, and thou ...

BOOK REVIEW; Nostalgia for the Countryside Paired with Local Seasonal Fare

By Joy Hui Lin

“Cooking with Shelburne Farms” (Viking Group, $34.95) written by Melissa Pasanen with Rick Gencarelli strikes a resonating autumnal note.

The cookbook boasts of revolving around nine local Vermont ingredients. Lamb, maple syrup, and cheese are just a few of them.

Several things piqued my curiosity enough to agree to review this book. First, I admit any endorsement from Deborah Madison on a cookbook will catch my eye. While I spent a semester living in a vegetarian co-op discovering the wonders of homemade bread and soups rich with roasted vegetables plus the “joys” of whole wheat laden desserts, Deborah Madison’s recipes were often used to create these hearty dinners. Second, visions of pastoral Vermont pass through my mind with the deepest nostalgia. Third, the concentration on local eating is a pet food issue close to my heart.

“Cooking with Shelburne Farms” exemplifies this latest food trend. While there are many reasons to eat locally and seasonally the most convincing of the bouquet of reasons is that it simply tastes better.

I, myself, have been tossed into a quandary after a friend gifted us with garden grown tomatoes just a week ago. Each bite served to remind me of all the watery tasteless tomatoes I’ve eaten this year. Almost like a taunt.

However, let’s forget the tomato taunting, and focus on the beautiful Jersey cows. Previous to visiting Vermont, I had never seen such gorgeous cows with supple tan brown hides and extravagant lashes fringing their sweet brown eyes. “Cooking with Shelburne Farms” has wisely dotted their cover with these bovine beauties grazing on the rich green pastures which cover Vermont’s landscapes.

The recipes offered up in “Cooking with Shelburne Farms” are sprinkled with informative tips. For example, in a recipe about Shepherd’s Pie, they point out that steaming potatoes makes for firmer potatoes than boiled ones. This is a nuance that has escaped me since I grew up on eating rice. Also, the introduction of Shepherd’s Pie also notes that it is meant to be eaten with ground lamb, not beef. Apparently, the inclusion of beef makes a Shepherd’s pie instead a cottage pie. An error of which many have made, including myself. After their explanation, it dawned on me, of course, a shepherd shepherds sheep, not cows. Perhaps Cottage Pie should be called Cowboy Pie instead. I digress.

Trucking out to the countryside with this cookbook in hand, I was delighted to thumb through it and find a chapter on wild mushrooms replete with tips and recipes since I had been mushroom hunting that day. Does one need to go out into the countryside to appreciate this book? I don’t think so. Sometimes, city dwellers (myself included) need to open a page of a cookbook to create a memory of the countryside when it is not so easily accessible.

Moreover, the more I read through the recipes in “Cooking with Shelburne Farms” the more I am convinced of the steadfast practicality of the book. Nothing in the book lists anything that needs to be transported overseas in order to arrive at your dinner table. The recipes are rustic and hearty like “Braised Shoulder of Lamb” and “Maple Butternut Squash Soup”. They keep simplicity at the forefront to showcase the local produce and meats. When the meats and produce are themselves already tasty, the ingredients do not need overly complicated preparation methods -- which is the heart of the matter when it comes to local seasonal eating.

Also worth mentioning is the abundance of cozy types of baking recipes which include “Golden Raisin Scones” and “Chocolate-Sour Cream Cake.”

I especially enjoyed the brief vignettes into the local Vermont industries on pig keeping or maple syrup farms. My briefest concern is that the chapter introductions are printed in senior citizen sized font which startles and perplexes the eye. Why does it need to be that large? The reason escapes me.

What I most appreciate about “Cooking with Shelburne Farms” is its very modest proposal the entire book builds upon: eat local meats and produce, and local meats and produce will be good to you, too.

“Cooking with Shelburne Farms” has succeeded in its pitch to me. The reason I know this is because I’m filled with imaginings of burnt orange leaves falling from trees in Vermont, complete with an impulse to visit such a place as Shelburne Farms, and also, now, have a burning desire to make apple butter from the apples from the orchard.

Oven Roasted Apple Butter
adapted from “Cooking with Shelburne Farms”

Makes 1 ¼ c apple butter

5 lbs apples, cored, cut and peeled
½ c apple cider or natural apple juice
¼ - ½ c maple syrup depending on tartness of the apples, Grade B
4 whole cinnamon sticks
4 whole star anise, divide and tied up in 2 cheese cloth bundles

They recommend buying a good mill.

Preheat oven to 375 F. In a large heavy, shallow roasting pan, toss the apples with cider and maple syrup. Distribute the cinnamon sticks and star anise Roast until the apples are very soft, about 30-45 minutes depending on the apple variety.

Pull out the cinnamon sticks and star anise and set them aside. Run the apples through a food mill or, if they were peeled, mash them roughly with a potato masher or puree them in a food processor or blender.

Reduce the oven temperature to 300 F and spread the mixture back into the roasting pan with reserved cinnamon sticks and star anise. Taste and stir in more maple syrup if desired.

Baked until a dollop of the apple mixture on a plate releases no liquid, usually 1-1/2 hours, but this can vary depending on your apples. Stir every 30 minutes, take care to move the sauce away from the sides of the pan. You will want to do this more frequently the longer you cook it.

Remove the cinnamon sticks and star anise and cool before storing in the refrigerator. Apple butter will keep up to two weeks in the refrigerator or can be frozen for several months.

Monday, October 08, 2007

maple cinnybuns

One might notice, one bun already went missing before I could even snap a shot.

This is a whole afternoon project, but having homemade cinnybuns around is no small pleasure.

Must warn readers that this post has gratuitous bun shots.

Maple Cinnybuns

I tend to make small buns which have lots of filling because that one mouthful is blissful cinnamon sugar butter heaven. This recipe makes around 60? I'm not sure since they disappear so fast.

Sorry this is in international metric, since it's been adapted from a Swedish recipe. There are many international converters on the web, google "international converter."

900 g white flour
200 g white sugar
3/4 t salt
150 g room temperature butter (unsalted)
50 g fresh yeast for sweet dough
500 ml of whole milk

200 g soft butter
250 g sugar
4 T ground cinnamon
3 T or more of maple syrup (toss in some maple sugar if you have it)

You can use cake forms or muffin tins (nonstick) or muffin cups

1 egg for painting the tops

Some beginning pointer tips for the bun dilettante. The butter should be room temperature. Don't let hot milk kill the yeast. Freeze the buns directly after you bake them and then warm them before you serve them -- that way they taste best.

Put most of the flour in a bowl, and spare some of that 900 g for sprinkling over to see if you need more or less, or when you're rolling out the dough.

Add the sugar, salt, and butter a bit at a time, and crumble the fresh yeast.

Warm a little of the milk and then blend it with cold milk so it won't be too warm.

Either work the dough in a standing mixer for about five minute until the dough starts to pull away from the bowl. Or if you work by hand let the yeast foam a bit in the luke warm milk before mixing it in.

In a separate bowl, mix the filling. Let the dough rise 30 minutes beneath a kitchen towel. I normally set on the oven for a little bit, then turn it off before putting the dough in (it's my way of cheating on the "no drafts" rule)

After it has risen, divide the dough into 6, and roll them out to 1/2 cm thick rectangles. Spread the filling and roll them together. Cut them in pieces and use either the cake tins (I used springform). Let them rise again for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 225 C. paint the tops with egg wash and bake.

Bake buns for about 8-10 minutes.

With the muffin cups and tins it definitely only took 8 minutes, but with the stuck together buns (pull apart buns) in cake pans it took only a little bit longer (surprisingly) but tap on the buns to see if they're finished. They should feel finished, a bit like how bread sounds hollowish, but with not too much give.

I noticed first of all, that making cinnamon buns is a rather inexpensive (aside from the butter) and straightforward project. It's definitely a project meant for a calm afternoon. It is extremely important to freeze the buns right after you bake them. In the first moments when the bun is finished fresh out of the oven, that is the time to cram it into your mouth with a sigh of happiness. Wait ten minutes that same plush bun is now a hockey puck. I suppose someone really decadent could use the dry buns for bun pudding (a spin off bread pudding). Hm, that reminds me, it's time for some pumpkin desserts in celebration of fall.

I'm thinking pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin cupcakes, and best of all pumpkin bread pudding with caramel sauce. Now, to go find some apple cider to mull ...

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

food meme

This is a food meme. Feel free to publish your own responses!

1. What memorable experiences did you have at the table as a child?

I remember that after church every weekend we went out to eat Dim Sum or other Chinese food and my sisters and I once complained enough that we got to eat McDonald's while my parents ate Chinese food instead. As far as ar home, I think my mom got all her recipes out of American housewife magazines because some of the recipes started out with a can of Campbell's cream of mushroom, a pantry item I still am addicted to when recreating homey recipes my mom made. Also, my mom made us Kraft Mac 'n Cheese making me a fan of orange non cheese processed cheese for life. One of my most memorable experiences as a child was coming home on Thursdays, half days, where May and I would make lunch which consisted of grilled cheese sandwiches and canned Campell's chicken noodle soup. we'd cry dibs for making the soup because you only had to warm it. Sometimes we'd have to break into the house because our quite deaf grandfather wouldn't hear the doorbell. I don't know why they didn't give us keys! Also, deviled eggs were the first recipe I ever made.

2. How have your eating habits changed over the decades?

It was actually going to Amherst College that broke open fine culinary dining for me. I don't mean high dining, but I mean really well thought out food like the plethora of wonderful and unique restaurants in Amherst and Northhampton really widened my horizons substantially. It was at the college's international food dinners I learned to love love love chicken tikka masala and spinach and paneer dishes. While living for four years in Amherst, it made me realize that I had only been eating at chains when eating Western food, and that original restaurants were just a whole new level of better. So, effectually I went from eating Chinese food for dinner nearly every day to eating at Amherst's cafeteria (Asian food is not their specialty). Eating Western food all the time really didn't work well with me. I was eating so much less fruit (California is fruit mecca) and more pie. More cookies. More calzones. I probably won't eat that unhealthily again in my life. Lived at the Zu and started cooking for the first time in my life. Was always ambitious, at the very least. I remember my fellow Zu members being impressed with my Pad Thai, but being quizzical at my soy sauce eggs over rice (another homey dish to me). Now I think I've evened out to about half Asian and half other foods. If I don't eat enough Asian food, I get this weird malaise, as if I'm msg deprived or something. Maybe I'm just "umame" deprived. I tend to cook very ambitiously now that O and I live together and I cook less since he does weekend cooking. However, with O in my life, my big chunks of meat diet has rocketed through the roof, and it's still taking me major adjustments to maintain my diet properly while O eats three times as much food as I do, and pays very little attention to fruit and vegetables (boys, eh.) My mom always served us the leanest, healthiest foods which I think made us develop a taste for it. We didn't often eat fast food. Nowadays, I've boycotted all fast food, but I still get drawn into thinking I want a filet 'o fish from McDonken (this a Swedish nickname for the restaurant), but that's because I had my 5th b-day party at McDonald's and they' preyed upon my young consciousness.

I was initially skeptical of the organic movement, but am now a strong supporter of local eating. We try to eat produce only from Europe. No, it's not the 100 mile diet, but I just got a local grown focused Vermont cookbook and will make a strong plug for local eating here on my blog soonish.

3. If you cook, how did you learn?

I did try to learn how to cook from my mom, but it never worked. She's very controlling and apt to take over any cooking efforst in the kitchen, plus she adds soy sauce to everything. I made fettucine alfredo once and she did try to add soy sauce to the pasta sauce. Also, my mom doesn't work with recipes very much anymore since she knows everything by heart, so she's pretty useless for copying down recipes from. My sister and I have eked out a couple from her like the lasagna we grew up on that uses cottage cheese (cheaper less fatty option) instead of ricotta. As I noted above I started cooking at the Zu, a vegetarian coop situated off-campus where one had to cook with a partner a two to three course meal for thirty people every two weeks. When I was listless after graduating from college and living at home, I took refuge in cookbooks and cooked quite a lot. I have a more complex approach to food these days whereas my mom uses the leanest of everything, I'm not afraid to splurge with cream or butter or cheese for a heavenly experience. just like my maple cinnamon buns I made the other day (will post the recipe post haste), I don't make them often, so I didn't mind using a lot of butter. I read cookbooks like fiction.

I'm learning how to cook Arabic food just now. I would love to get into Persian also, and North African -- although many North African recipes are a bit too heavily spiced for me to get into. For some reason they don't seem to find that fine balance like Indian or Thai food.

4. In a crisis, do you pig out or starve?

I both cook and eat a lot when stressed out. Cooking relaxes me. I think because it's a banquet for the senses both in preparing the food and eating the food. Also, I think good cooking takes a great deal of bodily intelligence and intuition. Somehow, I thrive on that challenge.

5. Are you influenced by the Zeitgeist in your eating?

I don't know who the Zeitgeist is, is that wrong?

I'd also like to mention while I think I'm a good cook (I have to be since I'm a food writer) I often experiment and fail, but then I go back and tweak and see what's wrong. A lot of cooking failures stem from not understanding how each ingredient works -- meaning how is it best cooked and featured, and when it won't go well with what you've imagined. If any of you cook and often get disheartened, just know that there's a learning curve, and that cooking gets just more and more rewarding as you gather skills and gain experience, and then try to accomplish the next difficult thing, which is pretty exhilarating.