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Desserts

Is this the end of Twinkiehenge?

TwinkieHenge

Hostess has declared bankruptcy. It sounds like the company has been struggling with debt, but that in the short term this is not likely to result in any interruption to operations. So you’ll still be able to buy Twinkies, Wonder Bread and other highly processed foodstuffs, assuming you care for that sort of thing. The NYT article strongly hints that labor and pension costs are a big issue, but if you’re getting into debt to the tune of $860 million there’s a lot more wrong with your planning than just paying your workers too well, I think.

A lot of the coverage has been suggesting, possibly tongue in cheek, that consumers may want to stock up on Twinkies just in case the company ends up folding. I can’t get behind that, but use your own judgment. They don’t actually last forever — though I held onto the ones left over from my Twinkiehenge for over a year before finally discarding them and they didn’t look appreciably changed. But I didn’t taste them to find out.

Stephen Colbert Americone Dream Cake

melted ice cream cake from The Cake Mix Doctor

CakeDecorated2

This post will just make it look like all I do is bake sweets, which isn’t true. I sometimes cook them on the stovetop, like peanut brittle. More seriously, I have been cooking some savory food, but it’s the holiday season and that means parties and festivity, and that means that like as not my contribution will be dessert.

IngredientsForCake

Oh, by the way, holiday party? That’s not an accidental phrasing. I support the secularized holiday season because it lets all of us revel in light as the dark nights draw in, not just a select few. I believe in the open, inclusive approach to this time of the year, when several holidays are taking place (one starting this very night). I think the fact that a wide variety of cultural traditions converge on the idea of a festive season of light and giving says a lot about our common humanity. I don’t give much credit to the idea of a war on Christmas, though the commercialization of it is a real if not especially new problem.

BatterInPan

As it happens, I was invited to a holiday party largely made up of humanists and skeptics, and we had a marvelous time full of good will and good cheer. I wanted to contribute something that would be fun and memorable but also easy to prepare, so I turned to The Cake Mix Doctor and flipped quickly to the recipe for Melted Ice Cream Cake. It’s very simple indeed: in a mixing bowl combine a box of white cake mix, three eggs, and a melted pint of superpremium ice cream of your choice. I considered New York Super Fudge Chunk but thought the chunks might be a problem for the mixer; I considered chocolate but wasn’t sure it would be distinctive. Then I spotted a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Americone Dream, and thought, hey! I am cake and so can you!

CakeCooling4

I mixed the ingredients together and poured them into a greased, floured Bundt pan, which went into the oven for about 50 minutes. I let it cool for 20 minutes, as instructed, then turned the cake out, which was tricky and didn’t go perfectly; I ended up with a small bit sticking to the pan, leaving a little divot on the top. Well, that’s what frosting is for.

MixedFrosting

The frosting recipe is from this cookbook as well: chocolate cream cheese frosting. It’s also easy: powdered sugar, vanilla, butter, cream cheese, cocoa. I spread it on the cake, using my offset spatula to try to shape and sculpt it a bit, then sprinkled on some gold dragees for a festive look.

SlicingTheCake

People liked it. It was most and tasty. My only complaint was that I ate way too much at the party, but that’s nobody’s fault but my own.

Holiday baking and catching up

BagsOfCookies

I’m not one of those people who goes bonkers for Christmas; I don’t string the entire apartment with lights or wear comical red-and-green sweaters or collect creche figures. We’ve put up a tree exactly once in our marriage, the one year we were in an apartment that was large enough to accommodate it (and we were as surprised as anyone that the cats didn’t knock it over; we were quite proud of them). But I do enjoy a lot of the more social, friendly aspects of the season, and my own little annual tradition is my cookie baking extravaganza.

PecanCookiesToBake

Yes, the thing I like best about the holidays involves cooking. Don’t act so surprised.

Brittles2

For the past several years I’ve been shipping cookies to distant co-workers. I have a lot of the key details figured out now. The optimal plan is to bake on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and get my boxes into the mail on Monday; I had to juggle my plans a bit this year and ended up baking on Tuesday and Wednesday, then getting the boxes into the mail Wednesday afternoon. It turns out that if you can get the Priority Mail boxes dispatched by the Wednesday after Thanksgiving you can still hit the two-day delivery target. (Possibly you can on Thursday and Friday as well but they’ll spend the weekend sitting somewhere in transit.) I’ve found in the past that the two-day promise becomes very elastic the further you get into December. One year I sent cookies that took a good 10 days to arrive; I started getting emails raving about the goodies, and was about to hit send on a message saying “took them long enough” before it occurred to me that the recipients didn’t want to know that. So I just said thank you, and then shut up.

BagsOfCaramelCorn2

But anyway, the week after Thanksgiving, things are in motion. I take that week as vacation every year, so it’s a fine time to spend the better part of a day in the kitchen. This year was my first baking marathon while still recovering from plantar fasciitis, of which I can say: ouch. Maybe a few other words. I won’t repeat them here. It turns out that standing all day is not optimal for the still-sore plantar fascia. So if you’re my podiatrist and you’re reading this — well, you already know I’m not very good at taking care of my feet, so you won’t be surprised.

GatheringIngredients

This is the kind of project for which a little planning goes a long way. When I was in junior high and we took home ec, we had to write cooking plans, which seemed laughable when we were doing single-dish projects through which we were already being coached. A friend and I lampooned the cooking plan concept for after-school snacking. “3:31: Open the freezer door. 3:32 — no, better make that 3:31:30 — remove ice cream carton and put on counter. Wait, did we say when to get out bowls? Oh, god, this is going to be a DISASTER.” But it turns out that when you’re trying to do, say, five cookies, two nut brittles and caramel corn, a cooking plan helps you save a lot of time and difficulty. If you’re smart, by the second or third year you’re making sure that you mix your doughs that need to chill the night before, and you plan to bake the cookies in ascending order of baking temperature, and you think about how much parchment you need before you go to the store.

CranberryPecanChocCookieDough

I have several favorite recipes, but I wanted to try a new one this year for the sake of the blog. I picked one from the Martha Stewart Cookies special magazine, a cherry and chocolate chunk cookie with toffee pieces that sounded yummy. Of course that meant that I couldn’t find toffee pieces at the store, and dried cherries cost the earth, and I thought, the hell with this. I already have pecans and dried cranberries, I’ll do my own chunk cookie. So I mixed up the regular base dough that I use for chocolate chip cookies and stirred in dried cranberries, pecans, and chocolate chunks. And they were good. Fragile, but good.

ChocolateCookiesBeforeAndAfter

The same Martha Stewart magazine is the source of two of my other favorites, Grammy’s Chocolate Cookies and Cranberry-Oatmeal Cookies. They’re molded in much the same way — you shape them into balls — and they bake at the same temperature. They’re very easy and they taste great.

CaramelCornBaked

That magazine is also where I get the caramel corn. No major spillage of caramel this year, and only one small caramel burn on my hand! A success!

SugarCookiesBaked2

I ran out of time this year, and so I decided to throw the undecorated sugar cookies into the freezer instead of delaying the mail shipments while I frosted and sugared. I’ll decorate those later this week and perhaps make another batch of cookies or a pan of brownies, and bring them into my own office.

BagsOfBrittle5

It’s actually a lot of fun to turn out large quantities of goodies like this, assembly-line style, lining up the unbaked nuggets of dough, lifting the cooling cookies onto the second rack, stuffing the baggies. And it’s a blessing to have people to mail them to; we’d be eating cookies until Fourth of July if we didn’t get them out of the house.

Ginger peach sorbet

ginger peach sorbet

It’s muggy and warm in my home office as I sit typing, so it’s hard for me to believe that summer may finally be drawing to a close. I’m not nostalgic and weepy about it. I cannot wait for the cooler weather. I live for autumn. Yes, even last autumn, which was one of the hardest seasons I’ve ever faced in my life, was still glorious for its weather. The crisp tang in the air as the fall breezes undercut summer’s heat. The turning of the leaves.

So far the only sign I’m seeing is that the sun is setting noticeably earlier. It’s grayer now than it was last week at this time. Granted, part of the reason is that the skies are overcast. The forecast has been threatening, or perhaps promising, rain for hours now, but it keeps refusing to come. The air remains dense and warm, and my husband cannot stop sneezing. I don’t know what pollens Hurricane Irene washed up here last week but it’s high time they went away again.

The selection at the neighborhood Greenmarket this past Saturday had changed, but I think that was less a function of the coming fall and more a result of the devastation the hurricane wrought upstate and in New Jersey. Many farms lost all their crops; anything topped by floodwater was automatically deemed unfit for consumption. Plants were damaged or killed, limiting the amount of new growth and harvest. The stalls on Saturday had a much slimmer selection than usual (granted, I didn’t arrive until closer to 1 pm, so the earlier risers may have had more to choose from). Still, I found enough to meet our needs for the coming week: tomatoes, eggplant, cilantro, bell peppers.

I looked last for fruit and found peaches, $1 per pound, and not looking bad. I loaded a bag, and thought. You can’t exactly stock up on peaches; they go bad too fast. Their rich sweetness is their undoing. But then I thought, I haven’t made ice cream all summer, and peach sorbet may be just the thing.

PeachSorbet2

I adapted a recipe from the booklet that came with the ice cream maker. The recipe was actually for strawberry sorbet, but I assumed the proportions were basically sound: 3 pounds of chopped fruit, 3 cups of water and 1 1/2 cups of sugar cooked into a syrup, 3 tablespoons lemon juice. As I was measuring the sugar for the syrup I wondered if the fact that peaches have a more unalloyed sweetness than strawberries might result in a too-sugary dessert. This gave me the bright idea to slice a couple of rounds of ginger root into the pan to infuse into the syrup.

Making the syrup is simple: you bring the water and sugar (and ginger) to a boil and let it simmer a bit. The recipe says “until the sugar is dissolved,” but I had stirred well and the sugar was dissolved before the mixture came near the boiling point, so I let it bubble gently for about 5 minutes while I finished the dishes. Then I set it aside to cool. When it was cool enough to work with, I chopped peaches, peeling off the thickest of the skin but mostly leaving it in place, then pureed the chunks. I put everything into the ice cream maker canister and stirred well, then set it churning.

PeachSorbet6

And, voila: ginger peach sorbet. It’s very refreshing. The ginger isn’t strong–just a hint that takes off the sugary edge and lets the full flavor of the peaches shine through. A fitting end to summer indeed. Now if it would just rain already.

Cherry Pie for the Fifth of July

cherry pie, from How to Cook Everything

PieWithCreamThis has been a busy year. I’ve made no progress on the remaining cookbooks from my collection, and I’ve done rather less original or interesting cooking in general than I’ve wanted to. There have been a lot of simple stir-fries and sandwiches, rather too much take-out, and more pizza than I should admit to. (Homemade pizza, at least, but not exactly health food.)

Cherries3There are a few reasons. I’ve been working a lot. I will be taking four weeks of vacation starting later this month, during which I expect to cook a lot more (among other things; I have a writing project to work on most of my time), and so I haven’t really taken more than one or two days off since December. This sounded like a much better idea last fall, when I scheduled the four-week AddingButterleave, than it did this April, when I found myself three writing projects deep and no leave time in sight. And work has been busy, as I’ve taken on some new projects, including several things that are new kinds of work for me. It’s all been very rewarding, and I am glad of what I’ve had a chance to do; but I’ve had an awful lot of evenings where I got home later than I meant to and PittingCherrieswas in more of a mood for take-out empanadas than for chopping and sauteeing something for myself. Normally I’d pick up the slack on the weekends, but I’ve also taken on a Saturday volunteer teaching project that’s extremely rewarding in its own right but doesn’t leave as much time for weekend grocery roundups and cooking ahead.

CherriesInCrust2Still, I get the bug once in a while, especially when there’s a good call to action, and Shauna James Ahern of Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef sent out a good one recently: a Pie Party. The idea is to make, photograph and post about pie in time to put up the posts and pictures on July 5. My pie isn’t gluten-free, but I don’t think that was a stipulation.

FirstCrustI got it into my head to make a cherry pie. I haven’t made a cherry pie before, unless perhaps I’ve made one with canned filling, though since it’s been at least 25 years since I’ve made pie with canned filling I kind of doubt that counts. I had seen that cherries had arrived in the Greenmarket near my work last Wednesday, though I didn’t buy any because I was going to be out right after work and didn’t want to haul them around. So yesterday I got up a bit earlier than I might have on a holiday and went to the Greenmarket at Union Square, which was mercifully quiet — usually the place is a mob scene — and found cherries as well as a few other goodies for the week. Once home, I skimmed through my cookbooks and settled on a straightforward recipe from How to Cook Everything, a longtime favorite.

TopCrustOn3I started with the crusts, so they’d have time to chill. I killed our food processor some time last year and haven’t had a chance to replace it, but the hand mixer has a little food processor attachment, and it’s just big enough to do one crust at a time, which is perfect; I’m not that great at evenly dividing a doubled amount. I whirred together flour, salt and sugar, then added butter and processed it briefly into coarse powder. I then turned the mixture into a bowl and added just enough ice water to form a ball (more or less), which I patted into a flat disk and wrapped in wax paper to chill, then did the whole thing again for the second crust.

BakedPieShauna talks in her blog about how people are often afraid of pie crust. I’m not, really, though I can see why people get intimidated. Things can go wrong. It takes practice to get the proportions exactly as you want them — and without practice it’s easy to forget that it’s probably still going to be good if things aren’t exactly as you intended. Then too, we’ve been exposed to a lot of really bad pie crusts, and we have conflicted expectations. It should be light and flaky, yes, but also rigid enough to hold a perfect wedge shape when you cut it? How does that work? No. The edges should be artfully crimped? If you like that sort of thing, sure, but the pie will still taste good if you’re a bit less picky about the shape of the crimping. Cooking is an ongoing practice, not a pass-fail exam, and unless you psych yourself out so badly that you can’t manage to do anything right you will still probably get a good result even if it isn’t picture-book perfect.

SliceOfPieWhile the crust chilled I pitted the cherries. I don’t actually have a cherry pitter, and in fact have never used one. I started out by halving the cherries with a knife to pop out the pits, but then discovered by accident that if I just pressed gently on the bottom the pit would pop pretty easily out of the top without losing that pretty whole-cherry look. So I pitted and got pretty little cherries. This surprised me, which then struck me as odd. I thought, these look like cherries should look. And then I thought, of course they do, you nitwit, they’re cherries. They’re not cherry-flavored bits, or Cherry Brand Imitation Whatsit; they’re actual cherries.

PieWithCream3I realized that while I’m not intimidated by cooking, I do get intimidated by food images. In one sense, by the good blog photography, such as you find in What Katie Ate; I can’t hope to match that level of exposure and staging, though I’m sure I could make good enough versions of the food if I gave the recipes a shot. But I also get cowed by the marketing images. I’ve gotten used to assuming that the pictures on the restaurant menus and advertising, and on the processed-food packages, are Platonic ideals of the food you might actually get. But there I was pitting cherries, and because they were cherries, they were turning out right. I was then reminded of a recent Mark Bittman column in which he talks about the advantages of cooking over eating out; he says, “When I cook, though, everything seems to go right.” The “though” is part of a comparison to dining out, which he considers a gamble; sometimes it’s satisfactory and sometimes it isn’t. And while I wouldn’t always say everything I cook goes right (I am still a bit haunted by that carrot cake), I can point to very few dishes I’ve cooked using real food and simple techniques that have truly disappointed me.

Before too long, I had a bowl full of pitted cherries, plus a spattered countertop and a mess in the sink. I wiped the counter right away to prevent staining but then returned to the pie filling, combining some sugar, cornstarch, almond flavoring and nutmeg, which I mixed with the cherries.

Then I rolled out the crusts, keeping the disks between waxed paper to avoid having to add more flour. I pressed the bottom crust into the pan, poured in the cherry filling, then rolled out the second crust and laid it over the pie. (I realized much later — like, after the pie was out of the oven — that I had forgotten to dot in a bit of butter before putting on the top crust, but the crusts were very buttery, so I crossed my fingers that would save things.) The pie went into the oven for 10 minutes at 450, then baked for 350 for another 50 minutes, and then I had to let it cool for a few hours.

So after dinner I whipped some cream, then sliced the pie and plated it. Nervously, I lifted the spoon. Would it taste good? Had I used enough sugar? Too much? Was the crust too tough? But it was great. The cherries were tart but balanced well with the sweet sauce and the rich crust. The crust was flaky, not tough or doughy, and it seemed to have lent butter enough to the filling after all. The cream was a nice complement as well. And the cherries were very pretty.

Verdict: Success. And that’s my contribution to the pie party: One cherry pie, not gluten-free and not perfect but darn good.

12 Dozen Time-Saving Recipes: Pie, and Adjustments

plain pastry

SliceOfPieHello, strangers! I have been a dreadfully inconstant blogger. I could write it all off to an overcrowded schedule — and indeed, with two new volunteer commitments and the logistical adjustments that one has to make to daily life when the weather is bad, I have been really busy — but there’s been another factor at work too. I have been Apples3letting some of the remaining cookbooks get to me.

No doubt you remember the debacle of Miss Leslie’s Secrets, when the jelly puffs were rather short on puff. Two tomes from Victorian cookbook queen Isabella Beeton promised nothing but further defeat. I paged through the thick volumes, repeatedly, searching in vain for anything I SlicingApplesAction2might be able to do. Once I’d ruled out ingredients I didn’t think I could find (isinglass?), recipes that looked logistically impossible (fireplace-size roasts), and foods I was not going to abuse that badly even for the sake of morbid curiosity (good vegetables boiled to death), I was left with vague instructions and imprecise measurements. I fretted. I worried. And finally, I gave up. I SlicingApplesam removing the two Mrs. Beeton volumes from the project.

But as it happens, this does not make my project 105 Cookbooks now. I also found a folder in which I had saved several recipe booklets when I was working on a book proposal for Recipes of the Damned. The booklets, like the proposal, have languished on the sidelines, and they didn’t make it ApplesAndSpiceinto the census back in June 2009, but I am adding them to the project now. Macaroni, Minute Rice, baking soda, and Knox Unflavored Gelatine (assuming I can find it or an equivalent) all lie ahead. There’s also a glorious new cookbook I got for Christmas, Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home, and I am not going to be so unreasonable as to insist I must cook Jell-O and canned ScoopingCriscopineapple before I can start to play with it.

I have given up on the idea of a finishing date. I’m going to try to schedule these more often, but I’m also going to give myself a chance to try other recipes — for example, from my massive backlog of cooking magazines — and to work at my own pace. They’ll all get done, yes, but PieCrustLumpswithout the maddening effects of deadline pressure.

And look, here’s one now. Sunday was National Pie Day (not to be confused with Pi Day, which is of course on 3/14). A made-up holiday, yes, but one after my own heart, and why not make pie? I wanted to improvise the filling, but decided to try a Crisco-based crust from the RollingPiecrustpamphlet 12 Dozen Time-Saving Recipes. This slim 1927 booklet from Procter & Gamble has a lot of offerings that don’t seem all that speedy, but the pie crust turned out to be nearly as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. I combined 2 cups of flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt (aka half a tablespoon), and 3/4 cup of Crisco, and stirred with a fork until the mixture was crumbly and PieCrustInPanmealy. Then I added just enough ice water to hold it together in a dough, divided it in two, and shaped each half into a ball to roll flat. The rolling went easily enough but I kept tearing the rolled crust, so finally I rolled the dough between two pieces of waxed paper so I could lay the crust in place and then peel off the paper.

CaramelInPieI filled the pie with apple slices — Granny Smiths that I had tossed with sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and a bit of flour. I then drizzled on some salted caramel bourbon sauce that I’d picked up at a craft show, and dotted on some butter. I was hoping for an effect similar to that of the salted caramel apple pie at Four and Twenty Blackbirds in Brooklyn, which is a glorious thing. I laid on the top ToppingThePiecrust, pinched it closed as best I could, cut vents, and put it into the oven. The baked pie was a beauty; as it happened, we were too full from dinner to have dessert that night so the pie had plenty of time to cool, which meant that when I sliced into it the next night it didn’t collapse into a heap of apple slices.

The pie was tasty. The crust was PieBaked2flaky and light, and while it wasn’t at all buttery it provided a good neutral foundation for the more distinctively flavored elements. The salt and apple flavors balanced well. The apples were a bit more tart than I had expected, though I should have realized that in winter they might be; I could have added more sugar to the filling, but it would also work to add a dollop of whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream to add the necessary complementary taste. Which I may do shortly. We have lots of pie left.

Verdict: Success. Good crust, good pie, and one more down.

Special Dork Tower Recipe Entry: Igor Bars

Igor Bars

BarsCutOutDork Tower is a wonderful comic strip by John Kovalic. Its characters make their way through the world with the help of gaming, geekdom, puns, and one another. One of the central characters is Igor, whose role in the strip is to represent reckless abandon. To Igor, anything worth doing is worth overdoing. He’s the kind of gamer who will stay firmly ensconced at the table for the DoughMixedlongest, most complicated, most exhausting RPG at the con. If it’s excessive, it’s right up Igor’s alley.

And nothing is more excessive than Igor Bars.

John is contributing to the book “Geek Dad II” from the Geek Dad blog folks, and because recipes should be tested before they are printed in books, he CookiesBaked3asked for volunteers to test the recipe for Igor Bars. I’ve been curious about them for ages, so decided to go for it, with a degree of trepidation more appropriate to skydiving. That’s a silly comparison, I guess, though if I did go skydiving I’d be more likely to admit it to my doctor at my next checkup.

As John explains in the recipe, CaramelsPanMilkSaltCloseupmaking Igor Bars is a great family activity because kids of different ages can all help, and because there is endless opportunity for improvisation. Little fingers can unwrap the caramels; older children can cook the sauce or melt the chocolate. Everyone can suggest improvisations and additions: more nuts! Reese’s Cups! Milk Duds! There is no wrong variation on an Igor Bar. CaramelSauceMostlyMeltedHow can there be? When something is nutritionally wrong, all the rules fly out the window.

I decided to follow the classic structure for Igor Bars and add just one variation. So I began by lining a baking sheet with parchment and preparing a batch of chocolate chip cookie dough to bake as a slab. John spells out the recipe in the version for the CaramelAndPeanutsbook, but I already know it by heart: cream butter with white and brown sugars, add vanilla, add eggs, add flour that’s been stirred with salt and baking soda, add chocolate chips, bake in a 375 degree oven for about 20 minutes. (Slightly underdone is better than overdone here.)

While the cookie layer baked I began the next part: the caramel StirringMarshmallows2sauce. I unwrapped two bags’ worth of Kraft Caramels. This is a tedious task, but soon enough I had a heavy saucepan full of little golden nuggets. I added three tablespoons of milk and 1/4 teaspoon of kosher salt, and heated the mixture slowly until it melted into a smooth sauce, stirring constantly. I spread the caramel sauce over the slightly cooled pan of cookies, then MarshmallowSaucesprinkled on a cup and a half of salted, roasted peanuts.

AddingRiceKrispies3Now it was time for the third layer: Rice Krispie treats. I melted three tablespoons of butter in the same heavy saucepan (washed out), then added a 10-ounce bag of mini marshmallows. (Sure, now that it doesn’t matter which kind of marshmallow I use, I can find mini marshmallows.) AddingRiceKrispiesToCookiesI stirred until the marshmallows were melted, then added six cups of Rice Krispies; when I’d fully incorporated the cereal into the marshmallowy mess I scooped it out onto the top of the caramel and peanut layer and used wax paper to press and spread it more evenly across the surface.

Now it was time for the variation I’d chosen: I spread a bag of peanut butter M&Ms across the top, pressing them lightly into the Rice Krispie treat layer to keep them from rolling off. They made a cheery and colorful addition.

And finally, the top layer: I melted a bag of semisweet BarsToppedWithKrispieschocolate chips and drizzled the melted chocolate over the top of the bars. I was hoping for a kind of artistic line-drawing effect, but there’s quite a bit of chocolate in a bag of chips, and my final artistic effect was more Pollock than pointillist.

I let the structure cool for a while, then cut it into more-or-less even squares (a messy business); I AddingPeanutButterMMs3just cut to a size that seemed reasonable to me and yielded 28 pieces. I put one each on plates for me and Scott, and we dug in.

Wow. Igor Bars are overwhelming. The juxtaposition of the caramel and the Rice Krispie layer is brilliant, and the contrasts are numerous: sweet and salty, chocolate and cookie, nut and sugar, marshmallow and MeltedChocolate3butter. I felt slightly dizzy after finishing my square. I began to think that John’s recipe estimate of “serves 20” was conservative; 40 might be more like it. Of course, I thought, I might see it differently if I were 13 instead of 43. When I was 13 I could drink Mountain Dew without feeling queasy, which is not true today. So serving count may vary by average age of the party.

ToppedWithChocolateA friend who has been staying with us was out on Saturday night when I made the bars, but she sampled the concoction last night. I didn’t realize that’s what she was doing in the kitchen until I heard a shout of “Oh, my god!” that had me afraid she’d managed to cut off an arm with a kitchen knife. But no, she was just swooning at the excess of Igor Bars.

BarsCutOut2Ken’s reaction in the Dork Tower strip turns out to be remarkably accurate.

I brought most of them in to work today. The dieters took one glance and determined not to come anywhere near them; others were drawn to them a moths to a flame. Nobody’s head exploded during the course of the day, so that’s good.

Verdict: Success, of the “What hath God wrought?” variety.

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.

The Cake Mix Doctor: Baking Outside the Box

birthday cake cones

CupcakeCones2If you’ve been reading this blog you’ve probably noticed that I’m kind of a snob about scratch cooking. I don’t think that every kind of processed food out there is an abomination, but I think a lot of them are, and their chief failing is that they provide a lower-quality, less tasty result, often in cases when it just isn’t that hard to make the dish for yourself.

CakeIngreds3Ann Byrn, author of The Cake Mix Doctor, thinks that cake mixes can produce subpar cakes, but they also offer two great advantages: They save a significant amount of prep time, and they are engineered to be nearly impossible to ruin. Even the most maladept baker can successfully produce a cake from a boxed mix. And rather than turn up her nose, Byrn embraces the mixes and MixingCake2offers recipes that improve on their lackluster flavors with the addition of spices, extra eggs or oil, or other secret ingredients. I’ve long been a fan of her melted ice-cream cake, which enhances a white cake mix with a pint of your choice of premium ice cream (New York Super Fudge Chunk is fun).

For the party I decided to make birthday cake cones. I started CupcakeConesInPan3with a package of store-brand devil’s food cake mix, and beat in water, oil (a bit more than called for on the box), eggs, and half a teaspoon of cinnamon. So far, so basic. Now came the fun part: I spooned batter into wafer-style ice cream cones, the ones with the flat bottoms, whose bases I’d wrapped with aluminum foil to prevent leaking. The recipe says to fill the cones only halfway, but FillingConesI think I could have added a wee bit more. (I had some leftover batter, which I poured into standard cupcake liners.) Once I’d filled all the cones, I carefully maneuvered the pan into a 350-degree oven and let the cupcakes bake for 25 minutes. (I was expecting all the cones to fall over as I moved the pan, but they were stable. Whew!)

BakedCones6Now it was time to make the frosting. Byrn has an extensive chapter of frosting recipes; as she says, cake mixes are one thing, but frosting mixes and canned frosting are pretty bad across the board, and homemade frosting can be extremely easy to make. I sifted 3 cups of powdered sugar. This is probably the most finicky part of making frosting, if you use a sifter, as I did, but you could FrostingIngreds2also get satisfactory results by pouring powdered sugar into a bowl and giving it a whirl with the mixer blades, then measuring it out; the important thing is to break up any clumps so you have a fine, consistent powder and you’re not overpacking the measuring cup. I set the sugar aside and put one stick of butter (softened) into a mixing bowl with 2/3 cup of cocoa, and stirred ButterAndCocoa2them together on the lowest mixer setting until they were evenly blended. Then I added the sugar, 1/3 cup of milk, 2 teaspoons of vanilla, and a pinch of salt, and mixed them on the lowest speed until they were just blended, then turned the mixer up to high and beat the frosting another 2 minutes or so, until it was fluffy and light. Total prep time, including sifting the powdered sugar: about 7 minutes.

FrostingMixed2We frosted the cupcakes and decorated them with candy sprinkles, which is always loads of fun; I find I can usually make this my last piece of party prep and enlist the help of the earliest-arriving guest, or even make decorating a main party activity. People do love to slather on the frosting and get creative with the colored sugars and decorating pieces.

CupcakeCones4The cupcakes were really delicious, too. The added cinnamon wasn’t really easy to pick out as cinnamon, but it gave the chocolate a richer undertone. The frosting was rich and chocolatey as well, though I had a moment of puzzlement when I first tasted it — then I realized that I’ve gotten into such a rut of making cream-cheese-based frosting that I was assuming any homemade frosting should have that subtle tang. It was just dandy without it, though.

Verdict: Success. I’ll want to make these again, playing with flavors and frostings.

The Twinkies Cookbook: Twinkiehenge

Twinkiehenge

TwinkieHengeTwinkies are the epitome of processed food: spongy, resilient, wrapped in plastic, with only slightly more flavor than the wrapping, they are globally recognizable and endlessly the same. They couldn’t not be Recipes of the Damned. So when I saw The Twinkies Cookbook in the discount section at Barnes & Noble a couple of years ago, I had to buy it. What could one possibly cook with Twinkies?

PuddingIngreds2So many things, though “cook” is not always the operative word. An astounding 49 recipes, ranging from Twinkie Kebabs to Twinkie Ice Cream to Twinkie Tunnel Bundt Cake (yes, cake with a tunnel of Twinkies) to Pigs in a Twinkie. (In the upsettingly named chapter “Twinkies and Meat,” which only contains three recipes, thank heavens.) You can blend Twinkies into a milkshake. You can deep-fry them and serve them with chocolate sauce. (We tried that at Chipshop in Park Slope, Brooklyn; meh, unable to hold a candle to the deep-fried Cadbury Creme Egg.)

Oreos2But of course for the party I had to try Twinkiehenge.

It’s very simple. You start by mixing up some instant chocolate pudding, according to the package instructions. The recipe called for a 5.9-ounce package, but all I could find was two 3.9-ounce packages. This didn’t bother me; have you ever noticed that you never hear the phrase “too much pudding”? I mixed up the pudding and put it into a serving bowl, and topped it with crushed Oreos, about 16 cookies’ worth.

CrushingOreosNow it was time to add the Twinkies. The recipe says to cut Twinkies in half crosswise and stand them up on end, with the rounded edges up and the cut ends pushed into the pudding. But this seemed to me to be only halfway there. Stonehenge isn’t just standing vertical stones; it’s the crossbars that make it truly distinctive. Without them I’d have Twinkie Rapa Nui. So I halved a few Twinkies lengthwise as well and laid them atop the posts, and voila: Twinkiehenge.

CrushedOreosSome of you may have found the combination of chocolate pudding and crushed Oreos familiar. When I was in my teens, back in the last century, our Y-Teens gatherings often featured a dessert known by a number of names: Better than Sex, Better than Robert Redford, God in a Pan. (Yes, we were in our mid-teens and Robert Redford was in his late 40s at that point. What can I say? The man can still bring it.) BTS was made of chocolate pudding, crushed Oreos (often still a bit chunky), and whipped cream or Cool Whip. We did not bother with Twinkies, or henges.

PuddingAndOreosOf course on Saturday it took us a while to get around to eating Twinkiehenge. It’s one of those dishes that looks too pretty, or at least too goofy, to eat. But we cast aside our fears of little Twinkie Druids casting little Twinkie curses on us, and dug in. Unsurprisingly, the combination of pudding and Oreos was tasty. The Twinkies didn’t really add anything to that. They didn’t detract; they were just kind of there.

TwinkieHenge3Verdict: Success, albeit silly. I don’t think I’ll be bothering with the Twinkie part again, but we’re working on transforming too much pudding into no more pudding.