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August, 2010:

The Classic Carrot Cookbook: Cake Wrecks Edition

sour cream carrot cake

CakeWreckThe Classic Carrot Cookbook is a 1982 production of the Arizona Federation of Garden Clubs. It’s plastic-comb bound (orange comb and cover, of course) and set in Courier type that may have been printed from a word processor, but may have been produced on the small-type ball of an IBM Selectric. The copy I have was sent by a friend; it’s a thrift-store find and she sent it for my GratingCarrotsRecipes of the Damned collection, largely because of recipes like ‘Nana Salad (colby cheese, canned pineapple, carrots, gelatin and bananas, to name but a few ingredients) and Bugs Bunny Bake (carrots and Velveeta).

I leafed through this book on several occasions, hoping I could find something I’d be willing to eat that I could cook in warmer PeelingBlanchedAlmondsweather (boeuf en daube was out), and wondering if I would be taking the easy way out by making carrot cake. No, I decided; I’ve never actually made carrot cake, so it’s not cheating to do what seems like the obvious thing.

Clearly I had no idea what I was in for.

GroundBlanchedAlmondsI bear some of the blame. I didn’t read the recipe through with complete attention before I began cooking, so I didn’t realize some of the problems until it was too late to choose something else. It seemed straightforward at a glance: divide 7 eggs, grate carrots, grind up some almonds, mix it all together with sugar and spice and lemon juice and flour. The sour cream would be part of CakeIngredsa cooked topping, a sort of sour cream custard that looked simple enough. So I went about my day and got caught up in various tasks, and finally started cooking, only to realize that I had some time-consuming things to do for this cake. If I had made the cake in the morning I could have dealt with some of this more smoothly; of course I also wouldn’t have gotten out of the apartment until EggSugarAt2Minsafter 2, so there are always tradeoffs.

The first time-suck was the almonds. I needed blanched ground almonds. Two and a half cups worth. Have you ever blanched almonds? It’s pretty simple: pour boiling water over your (shelled) almonds and let them sit for a few minutes, then drain, and slip off the skins, which EggsSugarAt4Minsshould come off easily when you rub the nuts in your fingers. There are a lot of almonds in enough to make two and a half cups of ground almonds, and slipping off the skins takes time, especially if it takes you a while to figure out that if a given almond is refusing to shed its skin you should set it aside to blanch again, not work hard at it. Finally I had the almonds peeled and AddedCarrotsput them into the food processor to grind. I pulsed repeatedly, anxious to get fine crumbs and not almond butter. After a bit, the food processor stopped working. I checked the plug; I checked the little lip on the container that needs to be engaged for the machine to run; I checked the toggle between high and low to make sure it wasn’t stuck in a AddedNutsnebulous middle. No; the machine was done. I don’t know if it’s just given up the ghost or if it’s simply thrown a belt, but since it’s a fairly cheap department-store brand that I think may have been a wedding present, it’s probably dead.

I had a bowl full of almond chunks the size of macadamia nuts, and was not sure what to AddedEggWhitesdo. The blender? Doubtful; I was sure the blender would turn it into almond butter instead of crumbs, and anyway I hadn’t checked it since I nearly burned it out on the failed Oaxacan pepian sauce. Then I remembered that my hand mixer has a little mini-food-processor attachment that I’ve never used. I assembled the pieces, and even though I had to do it in three batches, I very BatterInPansquickly had all the almonds nicely ground.

I readied my other ingredients, and came to the second puzzler. The recipe says to add sugar to the egg yolks and beat for 20 minutes. Really? I read it again. “Beat egg yolks and sugar for 20 minutes.” By hand or with a mixer? The recipe did not say. I began to read more carefully. The BatterInSecondPanrecipe was close-mouthed on other issues as well. What consistency should the egg yolks and sugar be after 20 minutes? What consistency after all the other ingredients go in, before adding the egg whites? What about the baking pans — should they be greased and floured, lined with parchment, anything? No guidance. I was out of parchment, but decided against using wax paper SourCreamAndSugar— I don’t really like that for oven baking. I decided to grease and flour the pans, hoping that would be enough to keep the cake from sticking.

As for the egg yolks and sugar, I decided that beating for 20 minutes probably meant by hand; I had a feeling 20 minutes with the hand mixer would only add to SourCreamAndSugarCookingmy appliance death tally. So I beat the egg yolks and sugar for 2 minutes, stopped and examined the consistency. Nicely blended and aerated, smooth. I had a hunch this was enough. Maybe 20 was a typo? I went ahead and beat the mixture 2 minutes more, saw no appreciable difference, and decided that I was going to move on with the recipe. I added grated carrots, then the almonds, SourCreamSauceFailthen some spices (cinnamon, nutmeg and clove), then some lemon zest and juice, and finally a small amount of flour. Now it was time to add the beaten egg whites; I folded them in carefully and divided the mixture between my baking pans. They were pretty full; belatedly I thought, are these 9-inch pans or 8-inch? I pressed on and put them in the oven.

DoneLayersWhile the cake baked, I began to work on the topping. When I was prepping my ingredients earlier I noticed that I had only enough fresh eggs for the cake, but still needed 3 yolks for the sour cream topping. Wait, I thought, I have egg yolks in the freezer! I’ll just rest the container on some warm water until they’re thawed enough to scoop out 3, then float that bowl on some warm water DoneLayerCloseUPuntil they’re thawed. Microwave thawing, I reasoned, might go too fast and cook them. Um, guess what: So can warm-water thawing. I returned to my resting yolks to find worryingly solid bits at the edges. Well, I thought, mostly this is liquidy yolk, and I can spoon out the solid bits before I add it to the sour cream mixture. So I set to work: I mixed a cup of sour cream with a cup of CakeWreck2sugar and brought the mixture slowly to a boil. Then I added the beaten yolks. And despite my best efforts, little boiled-yolk bits made themselves evident, and began to multiply. Desperately I added grated carrot and chopped nuts, but the yolks continued to cook rather than to blend in. I had a dismal, unappealing mixture. Sighing, I pulled it off the heat. I would let it cool so I CakeWreck3could discard it; in the meantime, Scott and I would go pick up some eggs and something to eat, then I’d make a new batch of sour cream topping with fresh, non-pre-cooked yolks.

In the meantime, I had been enjoying the developing smell of the cake as it baked. The recipe said to bake for 50 minutes in a 375-degree oven, but at about SadScotthalf an hour I peered in and noticed that the cake looked very brown and solid on top. Could the baking time be off as well? I checked the cake with a toothpick; it came out clean. This cake was done; if I left it in another 20 minutes I would have bricks, not layers. So I pulled it out to cool.

After dinner, I returned to the CakeWithIceCream3kitchen and decided that before I began a new batch of sour cream topping, I’d turn the cake layers out of their pans. I ran a knife around the edge of the first pan, encountering some resistance along the way. Not a good sign. I inverted the pan onto the cake plate and tapped the bottom a few times, then lifted. The cake did not budge. Cautiously, I began to work around the RecipePageedge again, and chunks of the cake began to come out. Not exactly the clean layers I had been aiming for. Had I been wrong about the baking time? I sampled a piece; the cake had a nice consistency and terrific flavor. No, the cake was nicely done, on the verge of overdone; it just refused to come out of the pan. I extracted the rest of the layer and packed the pieces into a plastic SectionDividerstorage container, then tried the second layer to see if it would hold together any better. It didn’t. I had a cake wreck on my hands.

So I abandoned my plans to make the sour cream topping. Instead, we had chunks of cake with the vanilla ice cream I made last weekend. The cake was delicious.

Verdict: Cake wreck. I think I’m done with this cookbook.

Extending the deadline again; in praise of improvisation

I took a hard look at my remaining row of cookbooks and realized that there is no chance that I will cook something from all of them by the end of Labor Day weekend. And it wouldn’t be sensible anyway. It would be too much food for the two of us, and I am not inclined to host another party until the weather has cooled considerably. Also, a lot of the things I’d be making would not be seasonally appropriate.

And this is a season where it doesn’t make sense not to take advantage of the market bounty. With tomatoes, eggplant, corn and peaches abundant right now, it would be a crime not to load up and make as many fresh, simple dishes as I can.

Last Saturday I took a class from the Institute of Culinary Education called “Cooking in the Moment.” We met instructor Richard Ruben (author of The Farmer’s Market Cookbook) at the Union Square Greenmarket and spent a little over an hour going through the market shopping for fresh goodies. He showed us how to select ripe fruit, how to judge herbs, how to choose a watermelon, and how to think about combining ingredients. Corn, tomatoes, peaches, plums, scallops, lemon cucumber, sorrel, hot peppers, yellow watermelon, husk tomatoes, baby eggplant, okra, a smoked duck, raspberries, red carrots, and far more went into our bags. Then we went to the Institute and decided as a group what to make with our haul.

With Richard’s guidance we chopped onions, minced peppers, sliced beets and radishes on a mandoline, shredded sorrel, and stirred together batters. The result was a fabulous menu: duck fritters, apricot chutney, scallops wrapped in shiso leaves and grilled, watermelon-habanero relish, okra and eggplant saute with cherry tomatoes, corn salad, green beans, sauteed radishes, pattypan squash with cheese, and a “high-end cobbler” of peaches and plums topped with a simple cake batter, served with a white chocolate topping. Richard also surprised us with a limeade that started with corncobs boiled in water with enough sugar to balance the lime juice. We didn’t come away with recipes, but rather with an understanding of how to shop for good food, what kinds of flavors work well together, and how to use a creative eye when judging what’s in season.

And that’s the way I like to cook, really. I like to improvise, to play. I like to tweak the ingredients to come up with new combinations or take advantage of what’s available. The best cookbook recipes help make this possible, but there are so many recipes out there that just instruct without informing. Good recipes help you learn how to do it yourself; bad ones just expect you to follow orders. I’m too ornery to do that very often. I may do it the first time I’m trying a recipe, especially if it calls for ingredients, techniques or equipment I’m not familiar with. But once I know how the food or the equipment performs, once I know what happens when I’ve followed the steps, I like to take a freer hand.

We just bought an ice cream maker. (It was discounted on Amazon; I practically had to do it.) So today we went to the neighborhood Greenmarket and got peaches, and later today we will make peach ice cream. I’ll also make the custard base for vanilla ice cream and let it chill overnight, then finish and churn it tomorrow. And from those two recipes I expect to learn how the machine functions and how the different ingredients work together. Having mastered that, I plan to play with ingredients and flavor combinations. I’ll keep looking for recipes but I will not assume that if I don’t have a recipe I can’t figure it out for myself.

So I’m going to keep playing, and I will also work in the remaining cookbooks on a more gradual basis. I will learn from them what I can, but will not let myself feel limited by them. And from time to time I’ll post about the non-cookbook-collection cooking I do, especially if I learn something from it.

I’d also love to hear about your adventures in cooking, so please feel free to chime in with comments.

The Whole Soy Cookbook: Speedy Sloppy Joes

soy sloppy joes

SloppyJoeOnBuns3We’re in the dog days of August, and I’ve been falling behind on the cooking. There are a few reasons for this. It’s too hot to cook, for one thing. We’ve been making salad and pasta, or eating leftovers. And we had a few leftovers from Lidia’s Italy to take care of too. So it’s been a challenge to get it together for the blog.

SloppyJoeIngreds2I thought that soy sloppy joes might be pretty easy, though. The Whole Soy Cookbook has a lot of quick recipes, but many of them are similar to things I’ve done before. I’m not sure I’ve made sloppy joes since high school, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

This is a very easy recipe to prepare. The only chopping required is one onion. I heated PouringTomatoJuicesome oil in a skillet and sauteed the chopped onion with some soy ground-beef-style crumbles (3 12-ounce packets), letting them cook for about 5 minutes until the onions were soft and translucent. Then I added a cup of ketchup, 2 cups of tomato juice, 2 tablespoons of mustard, and some salt and pepper. I stirred the mixture together and let it simmer for about 20 minutes, BrowningOnionsSoySausagestirring fairly often.

Then I scooped the mixture onto toasted hamburger buns. I began with my husband’s plate, spooning soy beef mixture onto the bottom half of each sandwich.

“That’s only half,” he said.

“What?” I asked.

AddingSauceIngreds“We always had it on the top of the bun, too,” he said.

“Really?” I looked at his plate. In my family we had sloppy joes as sandwiches. And they inevitably fell apart, hence the name. Why not serve them open-faced? I spread the filling across both halves of the bun and dished up some corn on the side.

MixtureCookedThe sloppy joes were good; the soy ground beef had a good texture, and the sauce was tomatoey and satisfying. It would have been better with a fresh tomato sauce instead of the combination of ketchup and tomato juice, but it was all right as it was.

Verdict: Success. Easy and simple.

Lidia’s Italy: What to Do With a Greenmarket Haul

smothered eggplant and summer vegetables, Anna’s spaghetti and pesto Trapanese

AddingBasil2Lidia’s Italy is another cookbook I bought through a club and hadn’t used until now. Lidia Bastianich is a cookbook author, TV personality and restaurant owner (most notably New York’s Felidia), and it is clear she knows her way around Italian cuisine. The book is organized by the regions of Italy, with a wonderful range of flavors and ingredients within each chapter and from region to SpaghettiWithPesto2region.

I chose two recipes from the chapter on Sicily. This seemed appropriate; the Sicilian climate is hot and intense, which meant the summer selection of Greenmarket produce would find good use here. I wanted something I could make ahead, because I was having friends over for a sewing party, so I wanted to spend most Eggplants2of my time out of the kitchen once they arrived. I opted for a caponata or eggplant dish, which I could offer as a snack while we worked, and a fresh tomato sauce for spaghetti, which I could add to noodles when we were ready for dinner.

The smothered eggplant dish took a bit of preparation. I began with the eggplants, three modestly EggplantChunkssized beauties from the Greenmarket, which I cut into chunks about an inch wide and two inches long. More or less. Quite a few chunks were closer to an inch and a half or an inch, but I didn’t think that would matter. I tossed the eggplant chunks with some kosher salt and put them in a colander for the excess moisture to be drawn out and drained away. Next, I cut about OrangePlumTomatoes3two pounds of plum tomatoes into wedges, scooped out the seeds, and put them in a sieve for their excess moisture to drain as well. The tomatoes were orange, a lovely but unexpected color. I also chopped up some onions, celery and green olives, drained a jar of capers, and plucked and rinsed 12 large basil leaves and set them aside.

CeleryOnionsOlivesI took a few minutes to set up the flavoring syrup: I combined half a cup of red wine vinegar, half a cup of water and two tablespoons of sugar in a saucepan and brought the mixture to a boil, then let it cook until it was reduced by about half. This was easy to do, but I quickly discovered that it’s a bad idea to be downwind of the gust of steam from a pan in which you are CaponataIngredsboiling vinegar. That is one intense smell. My sinuses sterilized, I moved to the other side of the stove and set about frying the eggplant, which I had rinsed and dried after its salting time was up.

I put about a cup of canola oil into a large pan — the cookbook says to use a skillet, but I thought my big Calphalon pot would be a FriedEggplant3better choice — and heated it to medium, then added the eggplant and fried the pieces, stirring often to ensure even cooking and coloration. I removed the fried pieces to a dish lined with paper towels and let the excess oil drain off; I then discarded the cooking oil, wiped out the pan, and added a smaller quantity of olive oil to heat. When it was warm, I added the onions and celery and a AddingOlivesCapersbit of salt, and cooked them until the onion had softened and just begun to brown, about 8 minutes. Then I added the olives and capers, and stirred the mixture until the new ingredients began to sizzle a bit. I added the tomato wedges and a little more salt, stirred everything up, and let it cook for about 5 minutes.

AddingTomatoes2At this point I added the eggplant back to the pan and mixed it in, then poured in the vinegar syrup. I let this mixture cook for a few minutes, then drizzled in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and let the mixture cook for about 10 minutes more. When the timer went off, I turned off the heat, tore up the basil leaves and added them to the pot, and pulled the whole pan aside to cool to room temperature. I also began AddingEggplant2to rethink my serving plan. I had expected the vegetables to fall apart into a softer, more indistinct mixture, based on comments in the introduction such as “use it as a sauce for pasta or as topping for bruschetta.” The chunks in the pan were certainly soft, but still far too large to make an effective topping for bread or crackers. I decided to postpone any further PestoIngreds2decision until the mixture was cool, and turned to my other dish.

Pesto Trapanese is a much faster dish to make. I rinsed and dried about three-quarters of a pound of globe tomatoes, and put them into a food processor with 12 large basil leaves (clearly a popular quantity), one clove of garlic that I’d peeled and crushed with the flat of a knife blade, 1/3 PestoPureedcup of toasted almonds, a pinch of red pepper flakes and about half a teaspoon of kosher salt. I processed the mixture until it was a smooth liquid, then drizzled in about half a cup of olive oil and kept processing until the puree was a bit thicker and even in texture. I think it may have been meant to be thicker, but my tomatoes were a little larger than the cherry tomatoes called for in SpaghettiWithPestothe recipe and probably had a bit more liquid in them. If I had been making the pesto closer to dinnertime I could have just set it aside, but since I was working ahead I put it in the refrigerator.

Not long afterward, my friends arrived and we sat down for a snack before turning on the sewing machine. The eggplant mixture was indeed too chunky to easily spread on bread or a cracker, though we tried. But it tasted phenomenal. The flavors of the individual vegetables came through, and the overall mixture had a great tangy undertone (from the vinegar syrup, no doubt) and a richness, with a thick base from the portion that had broken down a bit. I think that if I were to make this again and wanted to use it as a dip or bruschetta topping, I’d throw it in the food processor and give it three or four pulses to break it down just a bit more. But in its chunky form I’m itching to try another of the suggestions from the recipe header: “use it as a sauce for pasta.” That’ll be Wednesday night, I think.

When we were ready to have dinner I cooked a pound of dried spaghetti. I realized while the water was coming to a boil that I was supposed to have brought out the pesto earlier so it could come to room temperature. Luckily it was fairly warm in the kitchen, and the sauce wasn’t really cold by the time the spaghetti was done. I drained the noodles and put them into a large pasta bowl, then added the pesto sauce and tossed the mixture together until the spaghetti was evenly coated. I passed around a chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano and a microplane zester, and invited people to add cheese if they wanted it. Everyone raved over this one, including me. I know it’s bad form to praise your own cooking, but I didn’t feel I’d really done that much, just followed excellent and simple instructions. I’m going to have to make this one again and again. In fact, I may have to do a serious Greenmarket run and make a large batch to freeze in portions. I don’t know how well the sauce freezes; we didn’t have enough left over to find out. But I think this deserves to be in weekly rotation for as long as tomatoes are in season.

Verdict: Success. Both the work-intensive dish and the easy one were well worth doing again.