Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Raisins, Rules and Irish Soda Bread

Raisins occupy two places in my world: the palm of my hand, from where they will be tossed into my mouth, and in bread. Raisins do not belong in cookies, cereal, cake, muffins or the like. I don’t know why I dig raisins in bread or by themselves but will summarily pick them out of a piece of carrot cake or avoid oatmeal-raisin cookies altogether.

This week’s Baking with Julia project is Irish soda bread. I love Irish soda bread with raisins, which, according to contributing baker Marion Cunningham, are not a traditional ingredient in Irish soda bread. Since the bread has only four other ingredients—flour, baking soda, salt and buttermilk, which were readily available in most Irish kitchens—I have to assume raisins were not staples in many Irish households. Okay. I’m Irish, and I’ll eat raisins only two ways, so I’ll buy that.

Prior to baking this bread, which was absolutely delicious and contained plump, juicy raisins, I hadn’t eaten Irish soda bread in probably 20 years. The last Irish soda bread I’d eaten was from a bakery in Woodlawn, a neighborhood in the Bronx.

I had been visiting a friend and passed the bakery on my way back to the subway station. The round loaves inside shouted out for me to get in there and buy one of them, which I promptly did. The girl behind the counter sliced it for me, and I watched as she swept the errant raisins into the plastic bread bag. I still had a few more blocks to get to the subway, and by the time I got on the train, I couldn’t help myself. I tore into that bread like someone who had not eaten for days. My fellow passengers looked on in mild disgust, and no one had the courage to sit beside me until we stopped at Grand Central Station. By the time the 4 train had delivered me to my Fulton Street stop in lower Manhattan, the bread was almost gone.

The BWJ loaf was consumed with a bit more restraint—and butter. This bread is so easy to make and so perfect for breakfast, I just may add this to my repertoire. Ms. Cunningham also says that because of “the wee bit of fat that’s in the buttermilk,” by day’s end the loaf will “turn as hard as the Blarney Stone.” My loaf lasted two full days. Luck of the Irish, I guess.

To see the Baking with Julia recipe for Irish soda bread, visit the blogs of Carla and Cathleen. Or, why not buy the book?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Rugelach, How Do I Love Thee?

My husband, Dan, and I could not have more different culinary tastes. I think our different religious upbringings (his Jewish, mine Lutheran) have a lot to do with that.  That said, he has introduced me to some really incredible foods that, had I married a fellow Lutheran, I would never have experienced. Rugelach is among the things he brought into my life, and I can’t thank him enough for it.

Oddly, my favorite rugelach west of the Mississippi is the apple rugelach from Ralphs, the West Coast arm of the Midwestern Kroeger chain. Ralphs was featured in the opening scene of The Big Lebowski, when Jeff Bridges (as the Dude) shuffles through the supermarket clad in a ratty bathrobe and slippers in search of half-and-half, which he opens, drinks from then pays for with a check. The Ralphs rugelach is tender, flaky and sweet and pretty much anything one could want in a piece of rugelach. I sought to duplicate that with my rugelach. I came close with the taste, but not the presentation.

I substituted pears for apples. I found great chunky pear preserves at the Gelsons market in Northridge, days before it closed for good. These pear preserves are naturally sweet and contain no added sugar. Do you know how hard it is to find pear preserves, any preserves, really, without added sugar? It’s hard. I wish I could have photographed these pear rugelach, but, alas, while they were tasty, they were not pretty. I added a pinch of ground ginger to the filling, which was a pretty good idea, if I do say so myself.

The original recipe in Baking with Julia calls for either prune or apricot butter as the filling. I set up being picky in the first paragraph, so when I tell you I abide neither prune nor apricot, you cannot be surprised.

To see the recipe for rugelach, visit the blogs of Margaret and Jessica. Or, why not buy the book?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

When It’s 85 Degrees in February

This is my fifteenth winter in Los Angeles. You’d think that by now I’d be used to July weather in February. I’m not. But, I am trying to enjoy it. While my New York family members dig themselves out of the snow and deal with hat hair, I am skimming my pool and drawing the daffodils that have once again graced me with their presence in my backyard.

It’s not all great on the Left Coast in winter, though. From January through March or sometimes April (!), without fail, I am plagued by allergic rhinitis and rhinoconjunctivitis of the most intense caliber. I can’t breathe, have a red, raw, sore throat and it hurts to keep my eyes open. I can’t wear eye makeup, which just spreads the misery to those who have to look at me. Sometimes allergy meds alleviate the symptoms, but mostly I tear through boxes of Kleenex and count the days until April. I never had allergies growing up in New York, so there is something that blows through or grows in Los Angeles in the winter that my body summarily rejects.

When it’s 85 degrees in February and warm lemon-ginger tea no longer soothes my aching throat, I must turn to ice cream.

Oddly, last summer I didn’t use my ice cream maker once. A few weeks ago I dusted it off, literally, and put it to good use. Coffee ice cream is a popular dessert item in this house, so I decided to try my hand at it. I had some toasted almonds and dark chocolate in the cabinet, and I threw those in as well.

The result almost had me forgetting about the allergies and my dreams of moving to Portland, Oregon. Almost. I still think Portland would be a really cool place to live, and I didn’t sneeze once either time I was there.

I won’t make the mistake of neglecting my ice cream maker this summer. I plan to frolic with fresh, local blueberries, peaches and strawberries.

Even if you don’t experience summer-like temps in winter or have terrible allergies, make a date with your ice cream maker. It’ll get you in excellent practice for summer.

Espresso Almond Chunk Ice Cream
Makes about a quart

I love Medaglia D’Oro instant espresso, but feel free to use whatever floats your boat. Same goes for the chocolate: Use chocolate you really like to eat. If dark chocolate isn’t your thing, use milk chocolate, semisweet—you get the picture.

1 cup reduced-fat (2%) milk
⅔ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons instant espresso
2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Generous pinch sea salt
½ cup almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped
2 ounces good dark chocolate, coarsely chopped

1. In a large mixing bowl, combine the milk, sugar and espresso and mix, using a whisk or hand mixer, until the sugar melts. This takes me about 5 minutes with an electric hand mixer.
2. Pour in heavy cream, vanilla and sea salt and mix until just combined. You don’t want to start whipping a ton of air into the cream.
3. Pour the mixture into your ice cream maker and churn until thickened, about 20 minutes. Pour in the chocolate and almonds and churn until they are well mixed in, about another 5 minutes.
4. Spoon ice cream into a container and put in the freezer for a few hours until it hardens up a bit. If it gets really hard, take it out of the freezer 15 minutes before serving to facilitate scooping.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Fear and Chocolate Truffle Tartlets

In his first inaugural address, Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” I think he was right on the money with that one.

This week I confronted one of my biggest baking fears: piecrust. And, like childbirth, I had built it up to be far more heinous than it actually was. I think I was more afraid of my fear than I was of the piecrust. I had to do the crust twice because the first batch was way too crumbly. (I did childbirth just once, and luckily Max was just the right consistency.) I think my measurements may have been a bit off on the crust. I did invest in a pastry scraper prior to attempting the second batch, and I’m glad I did.

 I made the Chocolate Truffle Tartlets for Valentine’s Day. I’m generally not too gung-ho about V Day, and I hate going out to dinner. I’d much rather stay home and cook. The tartlets were pretty good. I’m total chocolate lover, but there was something about these that just didn’t rock my world. Maybe I was tired from a long day of work, and I would have felt differently if I weren’t exhausted. I don’t know. It was probably the crust. I truly enjoyed the filling and would have been very content to consume it in its entirety with a wooden spoon while listening to Adele, who often accompanies me in the kitchen.

The recipe calls for biscotti or amaretti cookies as part of the filling. I couldn’t find biscotti that looked up to snuff and I’m not a big fan of amaretti cookies, so I used these almond thins. They are delicious, but I think the filling would have been fine without them.

 So, another baking fear conquered, and I think when I’m caught up on sleep I will feel more triumphant.  I’m looking forward to rugelach, which I’ve been wanting to make for years, on March 6. If you’ve never eaten rugelach, treat yo self and partake as soon as you possibly can.

 The recipe for Chocolate Truffle Tartlets is here, here, here and here. Or, why not buy the book?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Tuesdays with Dorie: Baking with Julia

Last fall, I decided that I would start to do things that scared me. Not Jackass-type or illegal things; things that at first thought really excited me, but when that annoying, loud voice would chime in with, Are you nuts? You can’t do that! I would bail on the idea. When I read that Tuesdays with Dorie, the online baking club, was starting up again and was going to bake through all the recipes in Baking with Julia, I knew it was a sign. I love and respect Baking with Julia as a book, but the thought of actually baking stuff from it terrifies me. There’s bread in that book and pies with real crust, which scares the crap out of me and which I chronicled last week. And, oh, yeah, there’s a flippin’ wedding cake in that book! Horror, horror and more horror. I joined Tuesdays with Dorie immediately.

 My first attempt at the starter recipe, White Loaves (pages 81-82), was an epic fail. The dough didn’t rise, the bread was as heavy as a brick, and the kitchen looked as though the gents of the World Wrestling Federation had stopped by for a scrimmage.

The recipe calls for a stand-up mixer, which I don’t have. Instead, I halved the recipe and used my food processor. When the bread was not the equivalent of the bread in the book, I thought, Of course, I need a KitchenAid mixer. I can’t make bread without a KitchenAid mixer. After I took a few minutes to breathe, I realized that my hearty Western European and Finnish ancestors made bread without the help of any electric devices, and if they could do it, heck, so could I.

I used bread flour of the second loaf, which was a vast improvement, but it didn’t look exactly like the bread in the book. True, I had used a larger loaf pan, but I didn’t get exactly the results pictured in the book. The bread, however, was delicious—the golden crusty outside protected the spongy, fragrant inside. Dan and I ate it, buttered, with my favorite lentil soup, and Max happily brought the remainder of the loaf back to his bachelor pad to share with his roomies.

 I was feeling a little disappointed in my bread until I saw the January 29 episode of Downton Abbey. When Mrs. Patmore, the cook, brings a loaf of bread into the kitchen during one scene, I quickly paused my DVR. Mrs. Patmore’s loaf of bread looked almost exactly like mine! She cut it into thick slices as she talked to the kitchen assistant, Daisy. I watched that scene about three times, not paying a bit of attention to the dialogue. I just wanted to see Mrs. Patmore slice that beautiful bread.

Next recipe: Chocolate Truffle Tartlets. With real piecrust. Gulp.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Pie scares me. I have no trouble eating pie. In fact, I rather enjoy it―especially with vanilla ice cream. It’s making pies that scares me. More specifically: The thought of making piecrust causes the room to spin, and I have to lie down for a few hours or watch a Sandra Bullock movie.

Dan does not abide pie. He sees no reason to eat hot fruit. He will eat pumpkin pie and chocolate cream pie, both of which I’ve made with success…with the Pillsbury already-made crust. By now you should know I’m pretty much a from-scratch girl, but I figure, why mess with what works? Those Pillsbury piecrusts are delicious and they never fail. Except when they tear in the middle after you unfold them, and even then they can be “glued” back together with a little water and deft finger work.

When Max was little one of his favorite things to eat was chicken pot pie. When I actually read the ingredients in the frozen brand I was feeding him I almost had a coronary. I might as well have been putting embalming fluid into his apple juice. That’s when I first became acquainted with the Pillsbury piecrusts and making my own chicken pot pie. From there I moved on to dessert pies without fruit. Whenever I used the Pillsbury crusts at (gasp!) Thanksgiving, the guests would assume the crust was homemade, and I would do nothing to disabuse them of that assumption.

Last Thanksgiving I was all set to make a pumpkin pie with real crust. Then I got the bright idea to make a pumpkin cheesecake, which Dan and Max preferred hands down. Though the pumpkin cheesecake was way more work, I felt let off the hook because I didn’t have to make the piecrust. This is completely irrational, I know.

Max loves fruit pie and made quick work of the pear-apple crisp. I find myself waking up these days thinking of what other crisps I can make: peach, plum, pluot, just pear, just apple and blueberry have made the list so far. Max said he’d like to try a meat crisp. I encouraged him to make this. I also told him when I’d next be out of town.

I know the day will come when I’ll have to confront head-on making my own crust. But, until that day comes, I’m going to exhaust and happily consume all my crisp ideas. Except for meat.

Pear-Apple Crisp
Serves 8
Adapted from Ina Garten

I dig Ina. She’s a curvy Jewish chick who’s a talented, not-formally-trained cook. I also love her glossy, perfectly-close-to-her-head hair. I saw the Barefoot Contessa episode where Ina made this crisp sometime last year, and I vowed to make it. When the opportunity came up, I had to punt a bit with some of the ingredients, hence my slight adaptation. I used more pears than apples; Ina’s calls for equal amounts. The original recipe calls for some fresh-squeezed orange juice and zest, which I didn’t have, so I doubled the lemon juice and used just lemon zest. Ina also says to use Bosc pears. I think mine were Bartlett, and they were delicious. I made a pint of vanilla ice cream to go along with this as well. Guess what I ate for breakfast the next day, sans the ice cream?

The filling
6 ripe pears (about 3 pounds), peeled, cored and cut into big pieces
2 large apples (about 1 pound), peeled, cored and cut into big pieces
Zest from 1 lemon
¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 2 lemons)
½ cup sugar
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

The topping
1½ cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup sugar
¾ cup brown sugar, packed
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 cup old-fashioned oatmeal
2 sticks (16 tablespoons) cold, unsalted butter, diced

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
2. In large mixing bowl, stir together pears, apples, zest, lemon juice, sugar, flour and spices. Pour into a 9x13 baking dish.
3. To make the topping: In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, sugars, salt, oatmeal and butter. With clean hands, work through until mixture resembles large crumbs. Ina says to use an electric mixer with the paddle attachment. I do not possess this piece of kitchen equipment. If you do, feel free to preserve your manicure and mix on low speed for 1 minute.
4. Sprinkle mixture evenly over the fruit and cover it completely. It may seem like a lot of topping. It isn’t.
5. Bake for 50-60 minutes, until the topping is browned and the fruit is bubbling. Serve warm, with ice cream if you roll that way.