Friday, September 17, 2010

Don't F%^&K with Tradition

We have a tradition here in our family. Dad/family member/friend calls the house to say colleague/friend/they are coming over imminently. Or, better yet, mom comes home from work, looks at the clock, remembers she's supposed to be somewhere in an hour/someone's coming over in an hour, and a frenzy of cleaning and what should we serve them/take to the function ensues. It's tough to wrangle 3 kids, a preoccupied (at all times) hubby, a vacuum cleaner and a wardrobe change all at the same time. Enter the Butterscotch Brownie.

Recently we had one of these panic attacks. Mom and Dad had a meeting with their research students/minions amidst the whirlwind of painting the house. (still. just finished today. woot!!). I had seen the recipe for Golden Brownies on the back of the Rogers brand (kind of like Western Family and the like. But Canadian. I'm still in Canadia.) bag of golden yellow sugar. What the hell is 'yellow sugar'?!?!

The recipe seemed SO reminiscent of my mom's Butterscotch Brownies, I thought I'd give them a shot.

If you look closely, past the shiny crust and the Mister Donut plate, you can see the gooey.

I thought they came out tasting fine, but the texture was oddly.... off. They never baked completely all the way through, even though I had them in there for waaaay longer than the recommended 30 - 35 minutes (I think I did almost an hour). My Dad thought they were too sweet. My mom commented that "one student ate 4" (I really hope he was too stoned to get sick).

Nuts are never optional.

The past week or so, as I have been painting, it has been kind of nagging me - the recipe felt really familiar. Soooo..... I looked it up.

Turns out the recipe is identical in all but 2 ways to the original Joy of Cooking's Butterscotch Brownie recipe.* 1) the backofthebox Rogers brand recipe has no salt or baking powder in it. The wacky texture now makes sense, and 2) the amounts are the doubled recipe from the JOC (which my mom always did anyway, so kind of for this particular difference.)

But this recipe did do its duty - made me nostalgic for a time long gone, made my parents look good to their starving grad student minions, and gave me a chance to escape painting for 20 minutes to bake.

So all in all - good, but don't mess with Mrs Rombauer and her original creation.

*I HATE the new edition of the Joy of Cooking. I find it shameful and annoying that they kept the title. It is a bastardization of an American classic, and should never ever be confused for the real thing. Go steal your mom's copy. Seriously. It is not the same.

Again. Do not f%^&k with tradition.

UPDATE: The above link actually references and laments the omission of the Butterscotch Brownies recipe. See? I'm just THAT cool.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Evil yet sexy

Yup. Evil yet sexy. That is totally how I feel about corn and corn products. Corn is one of those things that I LOVE to eat, and yet is one of the foods that I politically have more of a problem eating than some other things. There's just something so innately comforting that the flavor of corn provides - an original comfort food for sure.

Now. That said. I am more interested in eating my way through my pantry and not wasting food when I move, than buying politically correct foods to eat between now and then. So. I get to eat my polenta guilt-free. Yay!

I grew up with my Dad making family breakfasts on the weekends. More often than not they consisted of grits, eggs, bacon, sausage, fried onions, fried potatoes, fried kidneys (when he could find them), toast .... They key word here being grits. There was something awesome about heaping butter, salt, pepper, and hot runny eggs on top of hot grits and diving into the whole mess - especially with the added tradition of having had to wait FOREVER for breakfast as our Dad always slept in so late on the weekends..... And our grits were smuggled into the country by my Dad whenever he went back to the states (especially when he went back to visit our family in NC - he would get them straight from the mill then!)....I wonder what the poor Japanese customs officers would have thought had they ever seen the 15 and 20lb bags nestled in among his shirts....

It is impossible to capture the sexiness that is polenta in a photograph. I tried. I failed. I moved on.

I do not have Bob's Red Mill polenta... hehe. For what you can get out here on the west coast, I like Golden Pheasant* the best. While working at an upscale restaurant here on the coast, we always made the polenta in milk with herbs and added copious amounts of goat cheese, etc, to the final product. While that was absolutely scrumptious, it is waay to rich for me on a normal day to day basis. I see lots of recipes in blogs and cookbooks where people are trying to impart more flavor into the polenta so that it doesn't taste so 'plain'. I can't help but wonder if they either don't like the taste of corn, or if the polenta they're using isn't good enough to taste like corn.....

Pork chops marinated in pureed onion and spices. Sauteed peas in pan sauce.

Either way, I prefer to keep it simple - and put something really flavorful on top. That way you don't mask the corn flavor, and the richness of what you put on top will get absorbed into the corny goodness. Yumm.

Spread out in a bread pan awaiting its next life seeped in awesomeness

People always seem upset by leftover polenta as well - it does congeal into whatever shape it's sitting in, and this seems to bother those who try to reconstitute it and have it be the original consistency (which IS possible, by the way). I prefer to spread the leftovers into a pan and use it in other forms. My favorite is to fry squares in a pan and put eggs on top. It also makes a great substitute for noodles in lasagne - I recommend letting the top layer get crispy by only putting a little bit of cheese on it - it's awesome!

* Golden Pheasant Polenta is distributed by The Polenta Company - they do not have a website.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Fun with Seaweed Alliteration

Or Agar Agar, as the case may be. Really I just get silly when thinking of post titles.

Anyway - I have had blocks of agar agar in my cupboard for a REALLY long time. I have been meaning to make something with it for quite a while now and just never got around to it. Growing up in Japan, agar agar was ubiquitous and was the main ingredient in the majority of traditional Japanese (and adopted Chinese and Korean) desserts. In high school I remember having friends who ate nothing but kanten (literally means 'agar agar') for a while, which was a very popular diet at the time.

Agar agar is super cool. While it does need to be heated for it to dissolve into the liquid it's suspended in, it sets at a much higher temperature than gelatin. Ie, you don't have to chill it down to get it to set. Molecular Gastronomy buffs will recognize agar agar and it's slightly different properties (it's been used at high end restaurants for a while now), and the seemingly endless possibilities that agar agar opens up. Dude. You can eat warm aspic if you do it with agar agar. Just the thought makes me happy....

With all that background, and nostalgia to boot, involved - I was a bit at a loss as to what I wanted to do with it. So....I made the three recipes on the back of the package.

And boy did these take me back! They are the quintessential summer desserts in Japan where temperature and humidity go hand in hand right up through the 90's - and then you get the muggy rainy season! The Japanese fight natsubate with these types of cooling dessert (among other things...but those little bells just piss me off). Also gelled desserts are reminiscent in appearance of water, water is cool, there fore they cool you down. Get it?

Unfortunately my house is currently 55 degrees.....

Recipe 1*: コーヒーゼリー (kohii zerii, coffee jelly)
  • reconstitute 2 bars of agar agar in 500 ~ 700cc's (roughly 2 - 3 cups) of water by shredding the bars into bite-sized pieces and bringing the mixture to a boil .
  • add 150 ~ 200g (3/4 ~ 1 cup) sugar, bring to boil and dissolve
  • remove from heat
  • while stirring briskly, add 1 tsp instant coffee
  • after it has completely dissolved, pour into mold(s)
Note: kohii zerii is traditionally served in single molds with heavy cream and simple syrup on the side so you can fix it - just like you would your coffee! Or with condensed milk set in the bottom of the mold (and frozen so they don't mix) before pouring in coffee-flavored mixture. Disturbingly enough, kids *love* this dessert in Japan.

With frozen berries as fruit cocktail is not normally something I have. Or eat. Anymore.

Recipe 2: 中国風みつ豆 (chuugokufuu mitsutou, a version of annindoufu)
  • reconstitute 2 bars of agar agar in 300cc's (1 1/4 cups less 1 TB) of water by shredding the bars into bite-sized pieces and bringing the mixture to a boil
  • add 300cc's (1 1/4 cups less 1 TB) milk, 150g (1/2 cup) sugar, almond essence (it didn't say how much - I used 1 tsp-ish)
  • bring to boil and dissolve
  • pour into mold; chill
  • once set, cut into bite-sized diamond shapes
Cutting this into diamond shapes is crucial. In Japanese cooking, proper presentation is almost as big a factor as flavor - it's just not right if it's not the right shape. Mitsutou is served with fruit cocktail or fresh fruit in simple syrup.

With strawberry puree. I refuse to call it 'coulis'.

Recipe 3: 牛乳かん (gyuunyuukan, milk jelly)
  • reconstitute 2 bars of agar agar in 300cc's (1 1/4 cups less 1 TB) of water by shredding the bars into bite-sized pieces and bringing the mixture to a boil
  • add 300cc's (1 1/4 cups less 1 TB) milk, 50~80g (1/4~1/3 cup) sugar
  • bring to boil
  • pour into mold; chill
Gyuunyuukan is usually cut into bars, and garnished with strawberries or Kiwi. I dunno why.

*Recipes translated by me. Grams & cc's converted by me. And then I realized my measuring cup has both oz and ml on it. So. Not tested. I also took the liberty of filling in a few gaps in information not provided on the labeling as it's assumed it's common knowledge. Example - first instruction of recipe 1 just reads "reconstitute 2 bars in 500 - 700 cc's of water". They assume you know it has to be brought to a boil.


OK. Really I just like to yell "Balls!" sometimes.

Thanks for taking the picture Payshee before they all got eaten....

I had almost a whole bag of shredded coconut for some reason or another, and I decided to make these Coconut Treats off the back.

I was a little wary of a few things. 1) there seemed to be a minute amount of sugar in these to be called treats (and I don't even really *like* sweets), and 2) these look extremely fattening. When I was mixing the dough, I became wary of something else: 3) the dough seemed uber crumbly and not really coming together.

But please remember these are COCONUT treats. When I added the coconut, the crumbly mess that was the 'dough' miraculously came together into a smooth stiff recognizable cookie dough. Why? Fat. Coconut has a lot of fat. (But it's OK, I'm sure of it).

Once these came out of the oven - all of my fears dissolved. Kind of like the texture of the coconut treat I put in my mouth. Yumm. So good. They're like a tropical version of Mexican wedding cakes or Kourambiedes. Both of which I happen to adore (and I really don't know anyone who doesn't).

I would recommend these to anyone who doesn't like traditional coconut desserts - I even had a 12 year old who *hates* coconut eat about 20 of these. The trick is the fact that there's no coconut extract in them - just shredded coconut. (I hate that fake coconut flavor that extract imparts to food, as well).

Monday, July 12, 2010

Oodles and oodles of poodles with noodles

(*That would be a nod to my favorite children's book, that is, I believe, now out of print....)

Noodles!! Nooooooooodles!! Say it with me, NOOOOOOOOODLES!!!

OK. I get REALLY excited about all things noodle. It could be from growing up in Asia, it could be because my parents never really did potatoes as a starch growing up and noodles were a great change from brown rice (blech), it could be that I like playing with dough.....for whatever reason noodles make me happy.

I learned how to make pasta while working at a restaurant in coastal CA, and I made ravioli, tagliatelle, tortellini, you name it, almost daily for about a year. While I did *not* learn from an Italian grandmother, I learned from someone who did learn in Italy (although he doesn't speak Italian and it's unclear as to whether his instructor did). My pasta skills were further edited by the sous chef and my mentor at the restaurant.....and here we are today.

At the restaurant we always made them with about 60% semolina and 40% all-purpose flour. That is, until we ran out of semolina flour and the pasta phase was declared over and therefore no semolina flour got ordered. (I continued making pasta just about daily with only all-purpose flour for about another 6 months - until it was found out I had been making it without semolina, the chef got mad, and I didn't have to make 30 orders of ravioli 20 minutes before service ever again)

At home I rarely have semolina flour, and I usually make pasta noodles without. I often have store bought pasta in weird shapes on hand (shells and whatnot), but for straight up noodles I usually make my own. It doesn't take a lot of time, is totally worth it flavor-wise, and dagnammit, its impressive! (amaze your friends! Make noodles!)

Or I *thought* I didn't have any semolina flour.... as I get to the dregs of my pantry, I unearthed a bag of Bob's Red Mill (gasp! Big surprise!) Semolina Flour. Lo and Behold - there's a pasta recipe on the back.

Pasta making is one of those things - kind of like pie crust - that is almost more about feel than a recipe. Hence grandmothers who have been practicing for 50 years make a pasta far superior to that of the likes of me - even if I have made pasta over 100 times. And as with most things you do over and over - you develop certain habits and little quirky routine-type things while making it. I have a certain cleanup routine that morphs into setting up the pasta roller that I do while the dough rests after being kneaded (this routine also involves opening a beer, but that's just me). I always use my pasta roller (hand crank, Italian, $5 at a garage sale - possibly the most expensive thing I've ever purchased at a garage sale, and oh so worth it! At the restaurant, we always used a KitchenAid attachment). I have a bamboo pole that is suspended from the ceiling at about head height directly over my kitchen counter that I hang pasta from to dry (it tucks up onto a few nails and is out of the way the rest of the time....). Did I mention the fact that I like noodles?

This recipe is quite good, and quite possibly foolproof. I shed as many habits as I could, and followed the recipe to a T. I didn't use my pasta roller, and I actually measured things. While the feel of 100% semolina dough felt very strange in my hands, the end result was definitely yummy, and had a slightly more toothsome quality to it than the pasta I have been making of late.

To sum up: this recipe is awesome, you don't have to know what you're doing to pull off great noodles (a plus!), you don't need any special equipment to make it (unless a rolling pin falls under that category for you - in which case, use a wine bottle. If you have neither a wine bottle nor a rolling pin.....go buy one. Or the other. Either, really), and it has more than inspired me to rethink the way I've been making pasta recently and to experiment with bringing semolina flour back into the fold.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Crackers! Bob! Finally!

I have a love/hate relationship with Crackers. (I also have a love/hate relationship with Bob's Red Mill as you may know....).

Crackers are that amazingly lovely vehicle for toppings, and are also fabulous to eat straight. This is, however, mostly if you buy them. And if you buy them - they are SO bad for you. What makes them so light and flaky and yummy is all the fat and I always eat a bunch of them and then feel horrible about what I've just done. Nevermind the toppings that may have occurred..... They are also horrendously difficult to make at home and have them come out....dlectable. I don't know why but they always come out dry, tough, or greasy. Or a combination thereof.

But crackers hold a super soft spot in my heart, and so I persevere. Another one of those growing up things. Memories of being camped out in some National Park, or campground, or logger road with a busted oil filter, or at home on a Sunday.....with my mom and dad and 2 sisters, cheese, salami, sardines, onion, pickle, zataar.....fighting over the last sardine and whether or not to open another can....

I have made countless cracker recipes. Countless. Karen Solomon's recipe thus far has been the closest thing to a delectable cracker that I could come up with. And don't get me wrong - her recipe is a really good one. Especially the rich cheese version of her basic cracker.... (and her book is fantastic!) I was just on a quest for a *delectable* one.

In preparation for my trans-continental move, I have been trying to eat my way through my pantry. As you may have gathered, I am getting down to the bottom of the barrel here, and things are getting strange. (I wish the 2 cans of corn smut I have had recipes on the backs of them!). Things are also getting to be heavy on the dry staple side of things. Things are getting Bob's Red Mill saturated. Enter the Bob's Red Mill Dark Rye Flour. I had made some rye bread the other day, and noticed that the back of the package has two recipes on it, neither of which are for rye bread (which would be too obvious, I guess?). I decided to give the rye cracker* recipe a shot. Mostly I was in a surly mood and took the words "These crackers are far superior to any commercial brand cracker we have ever tasted. You will love these crackers" as a challenge. The words 'they obviously were never given Ritz crackers as kids' seriously came to mind. The audacity of the statement probably furthered my surly mood as well, knowing me....

Holy moly. These dang things are AWESOME! I am a huge fan. I have now made the recipe several times**, and I can say without a doubt that they rock my world. They are my new favorite cracker, and they are delectable alone or covered in whatever topping you throw at 'em. Finally Bob's pulls through!

I will say one flattering thing about Bob's, though - they need to hire me to come in and rework some of their recipes. If they were written a bit better, I might like them (as a whole) more. And dude. The recipe on the bag and the website should match, no?

*Recipe differs from that on the bag. The back of the bag calls for Turbinado sugar, not evaporated Cane juice, and for Margarine instead of butter. While I think (most) margarine is pure evil, this recipe just doesn't come out as well with butter. Worth getting some non-evil margarine from your local evil Whole Foods or some such.

**I burned the first batch, dropped the second on the floor, and the third got eaten too quickly. Thus the above photos are batch #4 (I had to keep trying until I had some photo-worthy ones, no?) As such, I had a chance to experiment with butter vs margarine and Turbinado sugar vs brown vs white. Use whatever sugars you want, but only use margarine. Also - feel free to do the whole thing in a food processor. So much easier, and if you have it set on pulse, you won't harm the texture of the cracker one iota.

Monday, June 28, 2010


Growing up, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I ate fudge. OK. Maybe not - but fudge was not something that was often found in our household. (May I remind you that our household was mostly homemade treats, and yours truly was unaware of the existence of Oreos when embarking upon that adventure we call kindergarten?) My paternal grandmother used to send my Dad some at Christmas, but this only continued until I was 10 and we moved to Japan. Come to think of it, I don't know that any of that fudge passed my lips....

Now when I think of fudge, I think of Granville Island in Vancouver, BC. There's a fudge shop* that I love to go by every time I'm there. The extremely attractive young guy stirring the giant copper pot may have had something to do with catching my eye the first time I passed by, but these guys truly know what they're doing. They still make their fudge entirely by hand and if you've ever made candy, you might begin to understand the difficulty of making 'real' fudge. (OK, really most people screw it up because candy thermometers tend to NOT get used. But still....). These guys do it in giant 20 or so gallon batches. The smell of the fudges wafts around the market as well, so you could be sniffing some fresh fruit or fish or whathaveyou, and all of a sudden you'll get a whiff of fudge, and whatever is in your hand is dropped like a hot potato and you're off in search of the source of that heavenly scent.

And I don't even really *like* chocolate. Or candy, for that matter.

That's how good these guys are.

In an attempt to get rid of the marshmallows leftover from the Rice Crispy Treats, I went to the back of the marshmallow bag in search of inspiration. There were two recipes, and one happened to be for 'Easy Fudge'. I am such a skeptic when it comes to the 'easy' versions of things - I will seriously go out of my way to make things in the traditional method; a habit that both shocks and awes some of my houseguests.... so I figured I would give this one a try. Mostly to prove my point that traditional methods are traditional for a reason.


This stuff was seriously tasty. A tad too sweet for me, but then most things are, so I'm not surprised. What surprised me the most was the fact that the texture came out right. Often fudge gets grainy when not made well, and some of the 'easy' versions I've had have been too creamy. This stuff's texture was spot on. The consistency of chocolate was there, but it was smooth and firm. A friend who stayed at my house for a few nights was given free rein to eat as much as she wanted - and half the pan was eaten when I came back. Need I say more?

Western Family** Easy Fudge Recipe:
1 3/4 cups sugar
2/3 cup evaporated milk
2 TB butter or margarine (...blech)
Dash of salt
1 1/2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
About 20 Marshmallows, cut into quarters
1/2 cup broken walnuts
1 tsp Vanilla

In heavy 2 quart saucepan, combine first four ingredients. Bring to boil over medium heat; boil 5 minutes, stirring constantly (thus negating the need for the scary SCARY candy thermometer, see?). Remove from heat; immediately add chocolate chips and marshmallows. Stir until chocolate and marshmallows are melted. Stir in nuts and vanilla. Spread into a buttered 9x9x2" pan (I would seriously suggest buttering the pan and then lining with parchment and buttering that as well. Getting this stuff out was a bit tough). Cool; cut into squares.

*the name of the shop is the Olde World Fudge Company. They don't have a website (yet), but they're the only ones there. Hard to miss!

**why oh why does Western Family NOT have their recipes online so I can just link to them? WHY?!