Saturday, August 29, 2009

Sourdough Pancakes

Two weeks of constant attention (after close to six weeks of inattention), and it was time to test my sourdough starter (Edwina). Let's just say she had the Summer off. I'd determined that today would be the most auspicious time to do it, and that sourdough pancakes would be the best method for it. Bread was out of the question. I didn't want to go to all the effort of baking bread just to find that my starter was a non-starter, so to speak. Pancakes on the other hand, if I had to dump a batch of those, I like to think that I could bear the amount of disappointment that would entail.

I should have checked the weather report before fixing on today for pancakes. Should have checked the weather report and our calendar. Not only are we having another ugly heat wave, but I forgot that Hubs had a breakfast meeting this morning. A breakfast meeting with pancakes. I would just have to cook the whole batch and freeze what I don't eat, I guess. Nothing like heating up the kitchen and standing over the stove for an hour making breakfast for one. Oh yeah.

Friday, August 28, 2009

From Pâte de Fruit To Plum Jam

Today I recooked the two big jars full of failed Pâte de Fruit from two weeks ago with half of a split vanilla bean until all the sugar from the outside of the candies dissolved. When it reached temperature I filled pint jars and processed them in the water canner according to directions in the Ball Blue Book Guide.

I ended up with just under two and a helf pints of Plum Vanilla Jam. The vanilla is not super noticeable, but it was only an afterthought after all. The jam is a little on the thick side (due to all that extra time in the cauldrons), but it tastes pretty good, and slathered on a crispy hot piece of buttered toast... you'd never know it was once a botched batch of Pâte de Fruit.

psst... I won't tell if you don't!
  • Plum Jam adapted from Plum-Vanilla Preserves recipe, page 308, Williams-Sonoma Holiday Favorites, 2004.
  • Remake instructions for "soft spreads without added pectin", page 122, The Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving, 2009.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Dorie's Dimply Plum Cake

Dorie's Dimply Plum Cake
Cardamom* should be renamed cardayum. Sadly, I won't get my way. Not officially at least. But in my world, it's cardayum. Of course, that's much too dorky of a name for such an intensely exotic spice. Like cinnamon, it is at once warm, sweet, sharp, and heady. But that's where the similarity ends. Invigorating, but in a drowsy, laid-back sort of way. Kind of like the last few weeks of summer. Maybe that's why I put kd lang's Invincible Summer on the stereo while I made this cake. It has the same feel. Late August. Still summer but almost autumn; days are still hot, but now, mornings are getting chilly. Feeling less like iced coffee and more like hot tea. This plum cake would go with either really, but I think it's leaning more toward the pot of tea. Lately, so am I.

Plum Cake Contenders

Plum cake recipes that should work with "regular" plums as well as Italian prune plums. Many of these call for cinnamon or cardamom in the batter. Uh oh, I think I feel autumn approaching...

Friday, August 21, 2009

Nothin' But Plums

I have been learning all about plums lately. Which ones are good for baking with (meaty, dry varieties like Italian Prune Plums). Which ones are better for making jams with (small tart varieties like Greengage and Damson). Which ones are best for just eating (probably the ones I bought). You get the picture. It's always a challenge to find just the right recipe, not only for the kind of fruit you have on your counter, but also what you're in the mood for. Just because I have a bunch of raspberries doesn't mean I'm in the mood to make Raspberries Macerated in Wine Mille Feuille with a Lemon Chantilly Cream, or indeed am even in the mood to eat it. O.k., so that was a bad example. (Sorry for the drool).

Right now I have plums. Dark purple-skinned large plums. And I still don't know the variety. So in my quest to use them, and enjoy them, before it's too late... here are links to some yummy-plummy delights, most of which (I just realized), would benefit from pairing with whipped cream, ice cream, créme fraiche, or Greek yogurt... go figure.
Did you know that there are no plums in plum pudding, and there never were? Sometimes now referred to as Christmas pudding, it contains raisins, which used to be called plums in 17th century England. Apparently there really are figs in figgy pudding... in case you were wondering.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Peach Pastries

Yesterday I made the last Peach Crostata. I made it as big as I could and crammed in as many leftover peaches as was possible. Would you believe there were still enough left to make one more normal sized crostata? Amazing. I was unable to dredge up enough enthusiasm to make yet another batch of pie dough, but I was also unwilling to throw out the rest of the peaches. Their time had come though (and almost gone). It was now or never, and they knew it too. Then I remembered the puff pastry in the freezer. Yep, a whole box, unopened and not even past its expiration date. That's almost as rare as a lottery win around here. A quick Google search brought up a bunch of recipe options, but since my peaches were already mixed with pie ingredients, I had little choice but to just wing it.

So here's what I did: I rolled out one sheet of the puff pastry to a 10 x 7" rectangle (approximately). Trimmed the edges straight with my pizza wheel, then sliced it in half, making two 5 x 7" rectangles*. Next, I scored a line around the inside of each, about 3/4" from the edges using the back edge of a dinner knife. I laid as many peach slices inside the scored lines as would fit comfortably. Then I squeezed a couple more in. The last four slices in the bowl were the uckiest ones, so I didn't feel too terribly bad not using them (instead, they will find new life as compost). I sprinkled a little cinnamon and brown sugar over the fruit, because it just felt right. After assembling, I popped the pastries into the freezer overnight, pan and all (that fruit was on a slippery slope and I didn't want to take any chances). This morning I took the pan out of the freezer to thaw for 20 minutes. Preheated the oven to 400°, then put the pan with the pastries in to bake for 20-25 minutes (rotating half way). Let it cool a little on a rack, sprinkled some powdered sugar on top, and breakfast was served.

Now, I know this is somewhat unorthodox for breakfast, and I would normally not make something like this for that meal. That being said, we both really liked the way it turned out. A lot. I could definitely see making small individual pastries this way and serving them to guests after a nice meal. Maybe with a little dollop of whipped cream and some chopped pistachios. It's a little fancier looking than the crostata, but just as easy. Easier even, if you buy frozen puff pastry. Mine was purchased at one of the large grocery chains and contains a few things I can't pronounce. There does exist a brand that uses real butter (shocking, isn't it?), and I'm sure I can find it at one of the many over-priced specialty markets we have around here. Of course, for a truly faked dessert when you're in a pinch, you use what you've got or can get quickly and easily. While I would love to serve only the very best healthful and organic foods to my friends, time and (mostly) budget sometimes take precedence. For the most part, our friends and family fall into two different foodie groups. There are those that do not get overly concerned about nutrition labels, but really love great food; and those who are very scrupulous nutritionally, but know that eating off track, every once and a while, is an unavoidable part of life. The Hubs and I kind of sit the fence between the two, which pretty much means we eat whatever we want but feel really really guilty about it.

I'm just kidding about that last part.

*Handy Tip: After cutting pastry into desired shapes, transfer it onto the prepared baking pan before putting the fruit on it. It's much easier that way. Why I can't seem to remember that step, is beyond me.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Blackberry Syrup

I am over my love of real maple syrup. When we needed to take out a loan in order to buy some, I said, "That's it. We're breaking up." Who needs it anyway? (Shush! Me too, I'm just not admitting it.) I don't think I've ever heard of a year when the blackberry crop was set back by a bad winter. Certainly not in California. Heck, have you ever even tried to get rid of a blackberry vine growing in your yard? God love 'em, they just keep coming back, year after year, after year. You know that saying about lemons? Well, it applies here too: If life hands you a ton of free blackberries, maybe think about making syrup with them. Make a big batch of it for all the pancakes, waffles, oatmeal, yogurt and ice cream you'll have in the coming year. And while you're at it, blow "raspberries" at those maple-tapping syrup producers and their high-priced tree sap.*
  • Blackberry Syrup (also Blueberry Syrup and lots of other good canning info to check out)
*Yeah, I know... when prices come down I'll probably be in front of you in line to buy it. But that doesn't diminish in any way the total summer-in-the-middle-of-winter goodness that is homemade blackberry syrup on a stack of hotcakes in January. In fact, while you're at it, throw a vanilla bean in with it.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Peach Crostata

Peach CrostataThese crostatas (crostati?) are so stinkin' easy! I may never make a regular pie again. I really don't mind making pie crusts; they just never turn out the way they should, and I never know exactly what I did wrong. This "foolproof" crust is not only a snap to make, but geez, you just fold it over the fruit and you're done. No pressing it into a pan (no pan!), no crimping the edges, no blind-baking (or pre-shrinking as I like to call it), and no disappointments. There's no denying it, I am in love. And it's for real.

After the Plum Crostata went so well last Wednesday, I knew that it would be the perfect thing to serve at our bbq on Sunday. Unfortunately, there were no more Italian prune plums at the store. Word to the wise: when you see them, buy them. I think I've said this before. You won't get a second chance. We took home some lovely peaches and regular plums instead.

The only other snag* was from me trying to be more efficient (save time, cut corners) by attempting to make a triple-batch of the dough. This action sent my nemesis, the food processor, into what can only be described as a culinary coronary. "Spock, where the hell's the power you promised?"** There I was dumping the whole mess into my largest mixing bowl and madly working my vintage pastry cutter into a frenzy (and my shoulder into a flare up). You know, if not for the occasional physical pain, it really is so much simpler to just do things manually sometimes. But then I'm just an old-fashioned girl/techno-phobe at heart.

Peach Crostata from The Boston Globe
[[This link no longer works... CLICK HERE for the recipe]]

Notes: I divided the dough into three equal portions, wrapped them each in plastic wrap, and stuck them in the fridge. The recipe called for 6 large peaches per pie, and the flat I got at CostCo contained eleven. I figured it was probably enough for 2 pies. My lovely assistant and I washed, pitted and sliced all the peaches and tossed them with the other ingredients (doubled since I was making two). I suspected that I had way too many peach slices for two pies. It turned out that I had enough for all three pies with plenty to spare. I'll do the math later and try to figure out how many peaches are actually required per pie.*** They turned out wonderful. Served them on our "good" cutting boards and cut them into wedges with the pizza cutter. Rustic. Casual. And oh, so tasty.

Notes from the Next Day: I whipped out a double-batch of the dough today (manually) and made one crostata tonight when we got back from the movies. Used the left-over peaches from Sunday. I rolled the dough out to a 14" circle this time so I could try to fit more of the peaches onto it. Worked great. No problems at all. Love this dough.

Notes from Two Days After That: Had leftover crostata yesterday for breakfast so I didn't make the other one until today. I mean, really, peach pie twice in the same day? It's just too much. I've got to have some semblance of restraint, haven't I? Peach pie once a day though, that's perfectly reasonable. Even recommended. By me. Oh, and I made it with the rest of the left-over peaches from Sunday. Ah well, soon enough it will be winter and this will all be just a beautiful memory. Me (huddled by the fire for warmth): "Remember last summer when we had peach pie every single day?". Hubs (gnawing on a stale crust of bread): "Mmmm, yeah. (lets out a long wistful sigh) How could I ever forget?"

*I lied. There was another snag. I assembled the first crostata and it was perfect. Unfortunately, it was also still on the cutting board. My lovely assistant asked, "Didn't you want to do that on the baking sheet?". Uh, yeah. Luckily no one else saw. Did I mention that I did the same thing on Wednesday?

**Kirk to Spock in the movie Star Trek IV, to which Spock replied, "One damn minute, admiral". My food processor replied to me also, but I couldn't possibly repeat what it said. This is a family-friendly blog after all.

***I'm told the answer is: approximately 1.83 CostCo-sized peaches per pie. Important to note that peaches purchased or picked anywhere else may produce a different result.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Pâte de Fruit (Part Deux)

While I'm waiting for the Plum Pâte de Fruit (Pâte de Plum?) to cool, I figured that I might as well try making some with the left over blackberry slurry that's sitting in the fridge. It's certainly easier than making jam in this heat, and I'm not sure what else to do with it. I thought about blackberry syrup but the process is the same as for jam (too hot). Or I could make blackberry smoothies every day for three weeks. That would surely be too much of a good thing. One thing I know: I'm not going to waste it. I worked too hard for it! If it had been a nice cool foggy morning when we went a-pickin', I might feel differently. It wasn't. The sun was up early and by the time we got to the shrubs, it was already hot. We were sweaty, tired and stained purple by the time we were done, and my legs were sore for three days where I had leaned against the ladder for so long. Then there was the washing of the really ripe warm berries which was no small feat in itself. Have I mentioned how long it took to put all of it through the food mill? Crank, crank, crank, keep cranking, crank, crank, crank some more... (hint: it's not electric). No sir, I'm not wasting a drop of that blackberry juice.

Pâte de Fail

My beautiful but rapidly ripening Italian prune plums were calling to me. "Use us or lose us!" they pleaded. There was a partial box of prune plums from CostCo and 5 or 6 random homegrown plums that someone gave us. With some difficulty, I pitted all the plums I had (almost 4 lbs.), and made a huge mess in the process. These are definitely not freestone plums (klingon is more like it). Thinking there's got to be an easier way to pit them, I spied my melon-baller* in the dish rack (recently used to core pears with). It worked surprisingly well. I wish I'd thought of it earlier. Less mess.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Oatmeal Ginger Pear Crisp

I had planned on making Pear-Ginger Preserves today, but quickly realized that my bounty of (free) little pears were too soft to stand up to the rigors of canning. The pear preserves would more than likely become pear mush, and I didn't want to go to all the trouble of canning them only to end up with something I didn't want.

What I also hadn't reckoned with were the interesting things that you can sometimes find in homegrown fruit. Enough said. It turns out that in the end, I wouldn't have had enough pears for the preserves anyway. So, there I was with a bowlful of peeled, cored, cut up, not-so-firm pears in lemon water. A mad panicky search ensued; tearing through my cookbooks for a recipe that called for thusly prepped pears. Cook's Illustrated came through, as they often do.

I had wanted something simple (you may well wonder why I was looking in Cook's Illustrated), and I found the perfect thing: a Pear Crisp. Simplicity itself. It required roughly the same amount of pears that were sitting prepped and waiting, ever so patiently, on my counter. After a little tweaking (because of all the stuff I didn't have), the dessert went together quite fast. I even used the food processor again. Two days in a row... maybe I should just leave it out on the counter next to the toaster? Nah.

Oatmeal Ginger Pear Crisp
Adapted from the Pear Crisp recipe on page 23, Cook's Illustrated, September/October 2007.

For the topping:
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
1/2 cup flour
1/4 cup brown sugar
6 pieces crystallized ginger, chopped
2 Tblsp sugar
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp salt
6 Tblsp melted butter, cooled
1/2 cup old fashioned oats

For the filling:

2 Tblsp sugar
Pinch of salt
1 tsp cornstarch
2 tsp lemon juice
15 small pears

Preheat oven to 425°. Place rack in lower-center position. Place all topping ingredients except butter and oatmeal into food processor. Pulse in 1-second bursts until nuts are finely chopped. Add melted cooled butter to nut mixture and pulse until wet and crumbly looking. Add oatmeal and pulse until evenly distributed. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together all filling ingredients except for pears. Peel and core the pears, then cut them into chunks no smaller than 1-inch. Toss the cut up pears with the lemon and sugar mixture in bowl. Pour into an 8x8-inch baking dish. Crumble the topping evenly over the pears with your fingers. Bake for approximately 30 minutes, or until topping is browned and juices are bubbling.

Cool on rack for 20 minutes before serving.

P.S. It's another "dessert today, breakfast tomorrow" recipe! I'm really liking these. They're so very versatile...

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Italian Prune Plum Crostata

We were having guests for dinner tonight, so this afternoon I made an Italian Prune Plum Crostata. Why this recipe? The usual reasons: looks easy, sounds tasty, and all the ingredients were on hand. I had always wanted to try one of these rustic free-form pies. Today was the day I finally did it. I even dragged out the dreaded food processor. I have a love/hate thing with that machine, but it does make short work of pie crusts. In my dream kitchen there is a special drawer just for the food processor and all it's many mysterious bits and parts. There is also someone to remember how it goes together, what all those parts are for, and who will wash all of it when I'm through... But I digress. You can make this with almost any fruit: plums, peaches, apples, pears, etc. And should you have any of the Crostata left over, it makes for a lovely breakfast the next morning.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Italian Prune Plums

We must be heading toward the autumn side of summer. I can always tell. Fall colors start to appear on certain shrubs and trees, the days get noticeably shorter, and Italian prune plums make their brief appearance at the market. Mom always made a certain plum cake when these little beauties were available. I haven't mastered her recipe yet, but I keep trying. Here are some other tempting recipes that feature these lovely little plums...

Sunday, August 9, 2009

ER Jam Session

It's 1:30 a.m. and I just finished making a batch of ER jam. Yes, emergency jam. The strawberries we bought just two nights ago needed to be used "stat!" (right away), and the blackberries that we picked this morning were so ripe they were falling apart while we were picking them. Oh, and it was a scorcher today. Surely, the kitchen (and I) would get over-heated during this whole thing, so I waited until late at night to start. The fog never came in, and it never cooled off. Bad weekend for this venture, I'm afraid.

Overall, it went pretty well. Most of the delays and hitches were due to my attempts at coordinating everything this first time out (in other words, my not knowing what to do). Who can you call after midnight with jamming queries? There is no 24-hour jam-support hotline that I know of (unless you have a Mom who is a jam-making night-owl). I just did my best and prayed it would all work out and not end up being a colossal waste of time, money, fruit, water, utilities, and oh yeah, sanity. In the end, the lids all "pinged", signaling a good seal. The next day all the seals passed their test and were holding tight. All was right with the world. Except for this darned heatwave.

Triple Berry (ER) Jam
I followed this recipe for Bumbleberry Jam, substituting blackberries for raspberries and doubling all the quantities. The final yield was 1 quart (divided between 1/2 pint jars).

Notes: I had read that wild blackberries had more seeds than proper varieties, so I ran mine through a food mill (medium) before I did anything else. Got rid of most of the seeds and ended up with a bowl of opaque purple slush (some might call this "dye"). Then I picked over and washed the strawberries. I had a little more than 4 cups of them and the recipe called for 2 cups, so I decided to double it. There was certainly plenty of blackberry "slurry" and I had lots of blueberries. The jam came out a little thick, but it's spreadable. The blackberries kind of steamrolled the other berries in terms of color and even flavor, but they all add to the overall taste of it.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Whole Wheat Chocolate Chip Cookies

I took a chance with a new chocolate chip cookie recipe. That in itself isn't news. What's different is that I doubled a new chocolate chip cookie recipe trusting that I wouldn't end up with dozens of clunkers (as opposed to dunkers). And I doubled a chocolate chip cookie recipe with the words "whole wheat" in the title.

You see, the last time I used whole wheat flour in a cookie recipe, it was because I didn't know any better and it was the only flour my Mom had on hand. Those cookies turned out horribly. That's why I was so curious about this recipe. And why I simply had to try it. I'm glad I did too. Of course these are made with white whole wheat flour (which wasn't available back when I was in Mom's kitchen).

I really only taste the whole wheat flour when the cookies were in their raw state, but don't get me wrong, it's not unpleasant. Nope, not at all. I made sure. When (and if) baked, they are buttery and wonderful and not the least bit healthy for you...

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Rosemary Lemon Couscous

Couscous has got to be the world's fastest and easiest side dish. That's why I love it. The Hubs is not so enamored of couscous in general, but he liked this one. That makes me happy because I like to make couscous. It was the rosemary and the lemon that did it of course. Did I mention how fast it cooks? Five whole minutes... five unattended minutes. You just gotta love that.