Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Two Stars and a Lemon

How did I end up in such a fix this past Sunday? I had committed to making lemon cookies for a teacher's luncheon, that's how. And I just had to decide to bake from scratch instead of a mix, didn't I? My plan was to use this recipe I had found on one of my favorite i-phone apps, Allrecipes. Incidentally, my multi-talented friend The Nervous Chef., also described a partiality to allrecipes.

Now, I love to cook, but my feelings about baking are more reserved. Baking can be great creative fun, but I find it less forgiving than a lot of cooking, and doing it requires some acts of faith: once the dough is made, I have to shove it into the dry oven heat and relinquish control, waiting for the final results. Also my main priority these days is feeding my family of four. So my baking plans seem less practical, and they often get shelved along with the flour and baking powder. Yet, every few months, I get this inexplicable urge to tackle some floury, sweet treat from scratch. Maybe it relates to some of those early warm memories I associate with Maria: Waking up to the delectable smell of warm buttermilk biscuits on weekend mornings; trying to shape the sticky, playdoh-like dough of corn tortillas into flat circles; and painstakingly trying to shape raw ladyfingers into uniform crescents before sliding them into the oven, all under her patient, amused tutelage.

Anyway, for whatever reason, my committment to the teacher's luncheon sparked a desire to create from scratch. So here are the results:

Attempt #1: A disaster. I tried for lemon cookies and got a Big Goopy Lemon of a dish. Within five minutes of the little round dough balls sitting in the oven, they all melted down into a runny, buttery pond. What the heck happened?! I tried frantically to reconstruct my mistake as I pulled the trays out of the oven and peeled the bubbling mess off the parchment paper. (Hint: parchment paper makes clean-up a lot easier!) I consulted the recipe again, and realized that in my haste, I had followed the "suggestions" posted under the original recipe, but it wasn't complete. I had left out the eggs, and had added not nearly enough flour. But I was a woman with a mission and a load of silly pride, so I kept going.

Attempt #2: Better. This attempt yielded little lemon scones that were surprisingly not bad. My husband adored them, which took the edge off my frustration. OK so that is what happens when you add too much flour, and 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder. Good to know, but I really needed cookies. One more try.

Attempt #3: Finally, cookies! I added not as much flour, and didn't bother with the baking powder at all. Plus, I added a few drops of Boyajian Pure Lemon Oil* purchased last week at Dean & Deluca in Georgetown, and reduced the lemonade concentrate to about 2 tablespoons.

In addition, I tweaked this lemon-icing recipe, substituting the lemon oil again for the lemon juice, but still adding 1 drop of red food coloring to give it a pinkish hue. My oldest son stepped up to the plate and beat the lumps in the icing into submission. (Children can have an amazing amount of patience for such tasks. They would make any 17th-century chef proud.) The result was a satiny-smooth icing. I poured about half of it over the cookies, storing the remainder in the fridge.

By this point, about 2 1/2 hours later, my kitchen was a wreck, and I was spent. Plus it was past the kids' bedtime by about 30 minutes. But I felt my mission for luncheon cookies was accomplished.
Now, what to do with the remaining icing? Hmmm...
To be continued!

*This oil is unparalleled for a pure, rich lemon scent and taste.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Seeing White -- The Sequel

At the rate the snow is falling, I will be able to manufacture industrial quantities of snow cream and sell it. Since my last blog entry, yet another blizzard began yesterday (Tuesday, February 9th), and the white stuff is still falling hard today. The entire DC area has broken all of its snowfall records at this point. Frankly, we are running out of places to put the snow. At least we still have power! *Knock wood*.

Today as I set my metal mixing bowl on the blanket of fresh snow outside, I set my sights on the goal of making snow cream from a different recipe, just to vary the repertoire. Today's recipe is as follows:

1 12-ounce can evaporated milk
3/4 cup sugar
4 heaping tablespoons Hershey's Special Dark, Dutch Processed Cocoa Powder
14 cups snow

Yes, folks, I had a chocolate org*sm. This was an impossibly thick, dark, rich chocolate snow cream. In fact, the recipe was so rich, 8 cups of snow only yielded a dark brown sludge. So I doubled it, and the result was an incredible triple-chocolately dessert, very smooth and scoopable. The only minus was the occasional bitter-chocolate lump in the mix. But overall, it had the consistency of a soft sorbet.

Having tried recipes with both condensed and evaporated milk, I prefer the latter. The evaporated milk provided a more neutral flavor which allowed the intended snow cream flavor to stand out, whereas the condensed milk, while tasty, seemed to compete with the added flavors for dominance. So my final vote is for this recipe. Please note, though, if deep dark chocolate repulses you, you might want to reduce the amount of chocolate to 1 or 2 tablespoons, and use Milk-, rather than Special Dark, chocolate flavored cocoa powder.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Seeing White

How can snow fall for this long? I am looking out our windows in disbelief as I ask this question. The snow started falling yesterday, mid-morning, and it has fallen steadily since then. It is now 4:15pm in the afternoon on Saturday, and the world outside is a blur of white: white snowflakes swirling, a steadily rising blanket of white covering what used to be our front yard, white as far as the eye can see. I understand why the Inuit have over one dozen words for snow*, and they use clever eyeshades to prevent snowblindness. I could use such an apparatus myself. This is looking to be the worst snowfall on record for the Washington, DC area, at least since records have been kept.

There's nothing like extreme weather to shatter our illusions of control, is there? Not that we haven't tried to control what we can. We grabbed the shovels like bulls by the horn and have been steadily shoveling the driveway every 2-3 hours or so since yesterday. But...what if the snow keeps falling? What if we hurt our backs? What if...well, we can't live by imagining the worst. We can just do our best, be thankful for the good stuff, and roll with it. And if the snow does nutty horrid things, there will come a point where ya just have to laugh. In the meantime, we need to keep shoveling and look at the up side of snow.

Enter snow cream.

"What the heck is that?" I wondered, as I read about someone's childhood memories of making this with her grandparents during snowfalls. I figured it was something creamy, and probably sweet. Ice cream made with snow? When I plugged the term "snow cream" into Google, up popped hundreds of entries. Most of the sources confirmed that snow cream is indeed ice cream made with snow and other ingredients. The notion of making a food with snow is, not surprisingly, very old. Yet in the USA at least, the concept appears to have taken hold predominantly in the South. The article, Desserts that Fall from the Sky by Eliza Barclay, cites some intriguing origins and variations. I can therefore add snow cream to my list of Southern foods I have discovered since moving from my native Chicago to Virginia almost two decades ago, along with grits and turducken. I picked this snow cream recipe and planned my strategy.

I did my best to observe the general rules of snow hygiene upon tackling this project: wait for the snow to fall for at least two hours, because it takes about that long for pollution to clear the atmosphere. And of course, pick a clean area free of animal tracks or other products (no duh) from which to collect the snow. Place a metal bowl down and let the snow collect in it. I did all these things to the best of my ability. After about 2 hours, the bowl was full. (This gives an idea of how strong the blizzard has been, too!)
Indoors, I mixed the ingredients of vanilla and sweetened condensed milk together. Then I brought the snow in, measured 8 cups of it into a large bowl, and poured the cream mixture over it. I rapidly mixed the whole thing together, and voila! Snow cream.

The verdict: this stuff is delicious! The color is darker than store-bought vanilla ice-cream, more like a rich tan. But our younger son and I ate it up, and loved it. Maybe tonight I will try another variation of it, like chocolate or cinnamon, as noted on the internet. Also, the consistency of snow cream when made with this recipe comes out more like ice milk or sorbet than ice cream. If you prefer the more creamy, smooth, almost elastic consistency of Italian gelato, add only 4 to 5 cups of snow. However, I noted that it kept well in the freezer overnight, in a Tupperware container. (But I wouldn't store it for too long, for fear of bacterial growth.)

Also, maybe next time I will try to use a simple heavy cream base with sugar. While the condensed milk tasted divine, it tastes so rich and distinctive that I couldn't do too much to alter it. I tried adding some Hershey's chocolate syrup to the already-made snow cream, but my son said "it still tastes like vanilla". So much for me trying to make a Chocolate Cheat version.

Ok, now that I have partaken of Mother Nature's bounty in a dessert, I will go mitigate her effects on our driveway. Back to shoveling more snow.

* debunks the myth of the Inuit having hundreds of words for snow.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

McGuffins, Medallions and Bread, Oh My!

Way back this winter, my husband and I also went to a French Restaurant in Georgetown. Over a delicious meal of beef medallions, warm croquant bread, and other tasty sundries, we got on the subject of movies about food. As he enthusiastically recalled Ratatouille and No Reservations, I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat. Time to fess up my feelings.

"They sort of leave me cold", I admitted.
"But I thought you would enjoy them!" Andy exclaimed, disappointed. (See how my hubby thinks about me? What a sweetie.)

So I got to thinking about this. His expectation was that I would love these movies because they center around food, one of my favorite things in life. So why did I have this reaction? Some films involving food I adore, but why not these?

Don't get me wrong. All of these films have their good moments. Ratatouille's most touching moment for me came at the very end, involving a touching personal memory. (No spoilers provided here!) And I laughed hard when Catherine Zeta-Jones stormed out of the restaurant kitchen and knifed a thick cut of redmeat into the table of a dissatisfied patron, demanding, "Raw enough for you?" in No Reservations. These films were definitely watchable and fun. But they didn't hook me, didn't linger in my memory, once they were over.

I think this has something to do with the purpose that the food serves in the lives of those who prepare it. When food is a McGuffin, does it work for me?
The food, or more precisely, the act of preparing food, is used in different ways in these films. In Ratatouille, an animated film, the MacGuffin is the finely tuned nose of a rat who lives with his fellow creatures in a sewer. His passion for creating tasty food drives him to the Big City of Paris to cook under cover, literally: He hides under the hat of a young guy who has absolutely no feel for cooking, and hilariously directs him around the kitchen, preparing wonderful dishes. It makes for a great animated film. The action moves at a frenetic pace in a prestigious restaurant kitchen, where there is cutthroat competition among chefs to create the perfect dish. The pace is probably realistic, but it left me exhausted. Ratatouille is really a story about being true to one's identity and following a dream in the face of difficult odds and disapproval. But it was too "Type A" and driven for my taste. *
This is the same feeling I get when I watch TV shows like The Iron Chef...not that I have too much time for TV these days!

In No Reservations, something similar occurs, in that the film is truly about finding one's path in the face of tragedy. But again, food is secondary, subservient to this goal. The chef, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, is in therapy, then her sister dies, leaving her as her niece's guardian. She essentially hides behind her trade to avoid life. Why is this the case? What happened in her childhood, that her therapist tries to touch on, but she waves away? These questions go unanswered. Too bad, because then maybe I would feel more of a connection to her as a character. And most frustrating for me, as someone who loves the taste, texture, smell of food -- I found the movie really devoid of that very sensory experience. This movie touched on food, but didn't reveal what it symbolizes for the main character. Ok, they showed us spaghetti, but not what went into making it -- either the labor of chopping vegetables, or what this particular dish meant to the chef making it. So food felt too much like an obvious prop for the Corporate American Dream come true.

In contrast are the films that left a mark. These I want to see again and again. The most personally touching for me is Like Water for Chocolate. Cooking is Tita's only form of personal expression, given the tightly controlled life she must live under her mother's strict and bitter eye. Heartbroken when she is not allowed to marry her true love, she pours all of her passion into her dishes. Throughout the scenes, the years, we see the labor of love, of desire, that her dishes are for her. This is done in such a poetic, sometimes humorous way, with the magical realism of Mexican cinema. Close-ups of the food, of her family savoring or rejecting it, of the warmth, emotionally and physically, of the kitchen, reminded me so much of my own memories of kitchen-dwelling days with Maria. One of her recipes, the quail in rose-sauce, comes to her through the voice of her now-deceased nanny, Natcha. Food reveals Tita's attachments to the people in her life. It does not feel like merely a prop, but an essential piece of her life, for better or worse. I get the sense that the author, Laura Esquivel, has a passion for cooking, because she includes recipes in the book.

And the movie Julie and Julia skillfully weaves between the lives of a modern-day young woman and her idol, Julia Child, through cooking. Cooking gives the main character Julie an anchor and focus on life, and of course, Meryl Streep is an amazing Julia Child. Not to mention those recipes look mouthwatering, and I really appreciated the cooking tips sprinkled throughout the film.

Another film that touches on this is Spanglish. The main character, a chef and dad played by Adam Sandler, feels sadly alienated by the trajectory his life is taking. A truly sage moment comes when he says that he dreads getting a star-rating of 4 stars for his restaurant. He describes how that rating "took the heart right out of the place [where he used to work as a cook]"...then upon seeing the fateful 4-star rating in the morning paper, he exclaims, "F**K YOU!" In short, he wanted food to continue to be a labor of love, a personal passion, not a vehicle for prestige. And somehow, I can relate to that. Maybe it's why I never want to open a restaurant. The pressure really freaks me out. And I wonder, how do the really successful folks, chefs and musicians and such artists, do it?

Even in films where food is not the central subject, it, or characters who prepare it, can still evoke powerful moments. Think of the Flan scene in Real Women Have Curves. Or the Noodle-Chef in Kung Fu Panda.

So my pattern seems to be, I lean toward films in which food underscores a personal quest, or one in which it appeals to the sense of smell, taste, and touch. These are the McGuffins I want to follow.

Favorite "food books":
Garlic and Sapphires
Strudel Stories
The Language of Baklava

Favorite Food Movies:
Like Water for Chocolate
Julie & Julia

On my list:
The Minimalist Cook

I welcome any further suggestions you may have for me by way of creative works and food.

* though in the link, the reviewer adores the film. It somehow did something for him that it did not for me. Like the character of the critic in the film shows, maybe it really is fundamentally our own issues and preferences that makes a meal, a film, or any creative work, of interest...or not.