Archive for February 2010

Mercenary Muffins and a Harbinger of Spring   3 comments

Muffins are one of those foods that I usually avoid. Like grocery store birthday cakes, they contain too much fat and sugar and not enough flavor. Only rarely are they worth their calorie count. I always feel like a bit of a chump when I have to pay money for one, which occurs from time to time (most often when I visit the local coffee shop and want just a little something to go with my cappuccino).

As with many other baked goods, muffins aren’t really difficult to make and call for ingredients that are usually on hand: flour, butter, milk, eggs. There are, however, a few fairly rigid rules that must be observed when making muffins: mix with a light hand to obtain a tender texture and eat them almost as soon as they come out of the oven to enjoy their fleeting splendor. A muffin turns to stone even an hour out of the oven and tastes about as appetizing.

The fact that most commercial bakers ignore these rules means that you’re really better off making your own at home, which is what I did on Sunday. I followed a recipe from my favorite muffin cookbook, The Joy of Muffins: The International Muffin Cookbook by Genevieve Farrow and Diane Dreher.

I like a lot of things about this cookbook. I like that it has a subtitle; I like that it features all kinds of muffins for all kinds of purposes: sweet, savory, breakfast, main course, dessert, and microwaveable (yikes!). I like that it features recipes that are, as the title implies, internationally inspired. I like that the authors often succumbed to whimsy when naming their muffins: “Johnny Appleseed Fudge Muffins,” “Gilroy Garlic Muffins,” “Yankee Economy Muffins,” and “Hungarian Hussar’s Muffins,” to name a few.

But the thing that I like most about the book is that you can open it to any page at random, choose a recipe, and invariably wind up with delicious muffins. This is exactly what happened on Sunday, when, after a quick flip through the book, I settled on “Hungarian Hussar’s Muffins.”

How could I not make muffins named for Austro-Hungarian mercenaries?

Well, actually, they take their name from a traditional Hungarian cookie called Huszarcsok, or Hussar’s Kisses, which are a bit like the thumprint cookies that I once made in a high school home economics class (is this course still offered as an elective in public high schools?). I like the idea of eating a muffin inspired, however indirectly, by a group of highly efficient mercenary soldiers, so if anyone asks, I’ll just pretend that I don’t know anything about the kisses.

The muffins turned out to be very worthy namesakes, every bit as impressive as their military counterparts. They were light, airy, and only a little bit sweet (the muffins, I mean). They also house a surprise — a bit of jam inside of each muffin. Of course, my jam sunk down to the muffin bottoms, but they were no less delicious for it. I adapted the recipe just a bit and included a new favorite secret ingredient, Fiori di Sicilia, which is a combination of vanilla and citrus oils and smells like the most incredible perfume you’ll ever encounter. It’s available from the King Arthur website, but be forewarned, if you like baking at all you’ll spend entirely too much time and money there.

I served the Hussars with grapefruit sent by my lovely sister-in-law for Jim’s birthday, but hastily and greedily enjoyed by all three of us. Here are all 18 of the grapefruit nestled cozily in our refrigerator on Thursday night:
I’m only a little bit embarrassed to confess that today, Monday, only 4 remain.

They provided just the right counterpart to the Hussars.

Hungarian Hussar Muffins (minimally adapted from The Joy of Muffins)

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 tsp. grated lemon rind

1 1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. salt

1 large egg, beaten

4 tbs. butter, melted

1 cup butter milk

2 tsp. lemon juice

1/4 tsp. fiori di sicilia

Cherry jam

1/4 cup sliced almonds

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease a standard sized muffin pan. Mix flour, sugar, lemon rind, baking power, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. In another bowl, whisk together egg, butter, buttermilk, lemon juice, and fiori di sicilia. Make a well in the dry ingredients and quickly add liquid ingredients. Fill greased muffin tins one-half full, then add 1 tsp. jam to each and cover with batter. Sprinkle tops with almonds and bake until golden, about 15-20 minutes. Makes 12 muffins.

Finally, here’s a very welcome harbinger of Spring, a tiny daffodil picked from our friend Angie’s garden and brought home to me by my daughter. Surely, this sweet gesture deserves the gratitude of a mother as well as the kisses of a Hussar.

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Posted February 22, 2010 by snpulling in Uncategorized

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Again with the Sickness   1 comment

2010 has not been a healthy month for me: first an ear infection and now a stomach virus…and it’s only February. Perhaps I should adapt the blog to my condition and write about the foods that sustain me through the worst.

All of us have foods that we gravitate toward when sick. Many of these are obvious: saltines, toast, rice, bananas. However, some food preferences make very little sense to others. An old friend of mine swears by a glass of ice-cold pickle brine to combat her hangovers, which strikes me as much less appetizing than menudo, the time-honored Mexican remedy for the ailment.

When I was in my first trimester of pregnancy, the only thing I really wanted to eat were Thai basil rolls from the restaurant down the street and Greek yogurt, which I had to order online at the time and at great expense.

Outside of pregnancy, my own illnesses seem to fall into two distinct categories: respiratory and digestive. The former gets treated with lashings of hot lemon tea while the latter always calls for Campbell’s chicken soup with rice.

Now, I’m not seriously going to offer a recipe for Campbell’s chicken soup with rice, nor any other chicken soup recipe today (although I have a great one for the future). When I’m sick, I want the pure Warhol soup experience: the red labeled, condensed formula, sodium bomb.

Anything else is just madness.

The lemon tea recipe comes from my mother, and it’s a soothingly delicious beverage that I should really make more often. Unfortunately, it’s of little use to me today. But in case you are in need, here’s a short recipe for a deliciously comforting beverage to enjoy in sickness and in health.

Hot Lemon Tea

2 lemons

2 tbs. sugar or honey

Water

Juice the lemons. Put the lemon juice, lemon rinds, sugar or honey, and water enough to cover in a small saucepan. Heat the lemon concoction over medium-high heat until it comes to a simmer. Simmer for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Remove the lemon rinds. Sip slowly while hot, taking care to make the odd reassuring slurping sounds. Good additions include strips of ginger (be sure to remove them along with the lemon rinds); rosemary; bourbon or rum.

NEXT MONTH’S ILLNESS: Gallstones!

Posted February 17, 2010 by snpulling in Food and Illness, Lemon Tea

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Not Exactly a Mind of Winter   Leave a comment

 

Our Snowy House

 

I always have a backlog of recipes that I want to try, but sometimes a recipe just leap-frogs over all the others and demands to be made immediately, like this one from Deb at Smitten Kitchen: Chocolate Soufflé Cupcakes with Peppermint Cream. I saw it posted on the SK website earlier this week, quickly made a grocery list, and then bid my time–we don’t usually make desserts unless we have a bona fide reason to do so. Fortunately, snow fell on Friday, and snowfall in Alabama absolutely must be celebrated. I believe it’s state law.

Snow Fell on Alabama

 

Falling snow puts me in a contemplative frame of mind. I feel compelled to try to appreciate every aspect of it, to understand its beauty in a meaningful way  — to have a mind of winter, if you will.  Then the rarity of the experience registers — I live in Alabama, after all — and I want to celebrate, to gather my loved ones around me, build a happy little cocoon of domesticity, and keep out the literal and figurative cold. I crave those small, wintery indulgences: a crackling fire in the fireplace, a bowl of warm soup, and something rich for dessert.

I don’t think this is exactly what Wallace Stevens had in mind.

Yesterday, I managed to enjoy all of my indulgences save the soup, which I’ll make tonight. The cupcakes, in particular, were perfect for my mood: a little bit dark with a hit of sweetness. Like Deb, I’m not usually a fan of flourless chocolate cake, but this recipe gets the flavor and texture of a flourless dessert just right. Similar in taste to really good brownies, the cupcakes are light and airy.

The best part of flourless chocolate cake is that there isn’t anything to stand in the way of a powerful hit of chocolate flavor, ingredients like, well, flour. Still, a lot of these desserts resemble nothing more than chocolate sludge with neither taste nor texture to recommend them.This recipe is very different, however. You can see from these photographs that the cakes rise up to lofty heights in the oven.

Then sink down into themselves when taken from the heat.

They wind up with neat little depressions in their centers, wells that simply must be filled up with something luscious. Peppermint cream is just the thing.

It even looks a bit like snow.

The Snow Man

Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Cream of Roasted Tomato Soup & Crostini with Goat Cheese & Onion Marmalade   1 comment

Another Meatless Monday posted after the fact — ah well. This tomato soup is delicious and while it takes a while to roast the vegetables, it requires very little actual effort on the cook’s part. You will need either a stick blender or a food mill. I got one as a holiday gift from my in-laws.

Food mills are impressive devices.

And milling the soup is messy fun.

Strangely enough, I’ve never really cared much for tomato soup, being more familiar with the tinny Campbell’s variety than anything decent. This recipe changed all that, however.

Cream of Roasted Tomato Soup

2 28 oz. cans of whole tomatoes, drained with juices reserved or 2 lbs. of fresh Roma tomatoes
2 red onions, quartered
2 red bell peppers, quartered
4 cloves of garlic
2 jalapeño peppers, seeded and coarsely chopped
4 tbs. olive oil
2 tbs. dark brown sugar
4 cups of vegetable or chicken stock
1/4 cup half and half OR 2% milk
1 handful of roasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
Salt & Pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Divide the vegetables between 2 9×12 inch glass baking pans. In each pan, toss the vegetables with 2 tbs. olive oil and 1 tbs. brown sugar. Roast vegetables for 2 hours, stirring occasionally.
Remove the vegetables from the oven and transfer to a large Dutch oven. Add the reserved tomato juice, stock, salt & pepper. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Purée vegetables and stock with a stick blender or food mill. Add half & half or milk and salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to warm soup bowls and top with pepitas.

Serve with Crostini topped with Goat Cheese, preferably Belle Chevre Brand, and Onion Marmalade.

Ho Hum   Leave a comment

Pear Gingerbread Upside Cake -- a heavy-handed attempt to liven things up a bit

A recent essay published in the NYT Review of Books explores the nature and uses of boredom in advance of the 2011 publication of David Foster Wallace’s final novel, The Pale King, a work that takes boredom as its most prominent theme. In her article, Jennifer Schuessler makes a case for the necessity of boredom, its relevance and importance. She writes:

Researchers have discovered that when people are conscious but doing nothing … the brain is in fact firing away, with greater activity in regions responsible for recalling autobiographical memory, imagining the thoughts and feelings of others, and conjuring hypothetical events: the literary areas of the brain, you might say. When this so-called default mode network is activated, the brain uses only about 5 percent less energy than it does when engaged in basic tasks. But that discrepancy may explain why time seems to pass more slowly at such moments.

If this is the case, then my energy-efficient mind should be whirring away like an EnergyStar-rated dishwasher, cataloging my recent past, considering the needs of others, and imaging worlds unknown.

Can’t you hear it?

Nah, me neither.

I mean, I hope all of that is happening, but right now, I just feel kind of tired of being bored. However, I have started to think about attempting to cook myself right out of boredom, which surely suggests an impending mood shift.

Either that or a lot of hot water and a very big pot.

What do you cook when you’re bored, as I am now? something difficult or easy? strange or familiar? savory or sweet? spicy or mild? hard or soft? crunchy or chewy? Need it involve a lot of special ingredients and equipment? Should it reject or celebrate boredom?

Eugene Ionesco argued that boredom is “a symptom of security.” You can’t experience it when imperiled. Perhaps, then, I should make something difficult, confront the culinary unknown: croissants, soufflés, Pavlovas?

Then again, there are so many recipes that are proven energizers: curry, lemon tart, gazpacho. Maybe I should make one of them.

Oh, but it isn’t tomato season.

Suggestions? Advice?  What do you cook when you’re bored to death? Other than your very own goose?

By the way, the pear cake pictured above was anything but ho hum. I made it for Thanksgiving and will eventually post a version of the recipe.  For now, it’s just a clever ruse.

Posted February 4, 2010 by snpulling in Boredom

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