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Chocolate frosted meringue mushroom strawberry reduction fondant bunny chocolate cake.

/because awesome:)

Happy Easter!

 

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Making yogurt is easy, affordable, and (if you’re a kitchen nerd like me) fun. It can also give you a much better product than you’ll find in stores. The process is simple: heat milk to get rid of existing bacteria and denature the proteins, cool it, then add good bacteria and give it some time to work. That’s it.

I like writing, so this recipe will be wordier than strictly necessary. Don’t let that make the process feel daunting! It isn’t.

The tricky bits, and there aren’t many, are in the details. It helps to have a thermometer. It helps to have an oversized heavy-bottomed pot, a few things like a canning funnel and conveniently-sized jars, kitchen towels to help keep the yogurt warm as it cultures, and a Post-it to keep you from hitting the oven’s on button with your yogurt inside (ask me how I know!).

None of those things are necessary, however.

Search for information on yogurt-making and you’ll find a variety of alternate recipes and methods, from counter-top to Crockpot. We’ve distilled that information and found a way that makes thick, tangy lactose-free yogurt and works for us. Tweak at will!

 

Yogurt, Plain but not Boring

Ingredients:

  • 1 gallon/4 Liters milk, whole or 2%
  • ½ C. plain yogurt with live and active cultures (~2 T. per quart)

1. Scald the milk: add milk to a large pot over low to medium-low heat. Cover and heat to 195℉, or until just simmering with bubbles forming around the edges.
2. Denature the protein: reduce heat to the lowest setting and hold the milk at 190-195℉ for 15 minutes.
3. Cool: remove from heat, uncover and cool to 115℉, or pleasantly warm to the skin.
4. Inoculate: Preheat the oven to 115℉, then turn off. Add a half cup of the milk to your yogurt starter, whisk together, then add the mixture to the milk and whisk until smooth. Leave in pot or move milk to containers. Fill one jar with ½ C. to use as starter for your next batch.
5. Culture: If using jars, place on a cookie sheet. Insulate containers with kitchen towels. Place in oven or other warm spot. Let sit for 6 to 20 hours, then store in the refrigerator.

Transfer the starter to the refrigerator after ~6 hours to keep bacteria healthy. Longer cultures produce thicker and tangier yogurt. If you’re lactose-intolerant, culture for 18 to 20 hours to give the bacteria time to digest the lactose for you. No pills necessary!

Bacteria at work. Yum.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Those are the basics. For a distillation of the tips and tricks we’ve learned over the years, read on!

Notes:

  • You can make yogurt with lower-fat milks but the resulting taste tends to be chalky and not as nice. We use 2% because Mr. Man is reasonable. I prefer whole milk myself;)
  • We bump this up to 5+ liters of milk (that’s four bags if you’re in Canada) but keep the amount of starter the same; it works fine.
  • For your starter, you want a plain yogurt with minimal additives and no sweeteners. We’ve had the best luck with more industrial-strength brands like Dannon or Stonyfield or (in Canada) Astro or Western than with some of the boutique varieties. There are other culture sources (like chili peppers!) but the grocery store is the easiest way to get started. Whatever you choose, you want bacterial cultures that are tough and ready to work. Rawr!
  • The heating and cooling cycles are somewhat time-consuming. I don’t recommend rushing the heating part of this process as that way lies hard-to-clean pans and nasty flavors, but you can speed cooling by sitting the pot in a sink of cold water. Be careful not to splash or otherwise contaminate the milk.
  • There are ways to make mesophilic yogurt at room temperature without the heating and cooling cycle but this thermophilic method works for us.
  • Precise measurements aren’t required. You need enough starter for the bacteria to get off on the right foot, but as long as you have live cultures and eliminate any competitors by heating the milk, the good bacteria will have room to work. If the yogurt isn’t thickening as fast as you like, feel free to start your next batch with an extra tablespoon or so of starter, or give it another hour or two to set up.
  • The longevity of your starter will depend on the strength of the original bacterial strain and how you treat it. We often go six or more months before buying replacement starter, and we make yogurt about once a week. If your finished product isn’t as thick as before, takes longer to set up or (heaven forfend) smells off, it’s time for new starter. We keep the starter in its own container to avoid contamination, try not to let it culture longer than ~6-8 hours, and whisper encouragements. Your mileage may vary.
  • The jars we use (see below) are perfectly sized for our needs (Mr. Man strains one for breakfast, I now use two per smoothie) but you can use any option you like so long as it’s clean and non-reactive. You could re-use quart-sized yogurt containers or, if plastic isn’t your thing, mason jars, jam jars or the pot you used to make it.
  • If you like additives, add them just before serving. Jam, honey, fruit or other flavors are great additions.
  • Straining the yogurt to make a Greek-style thick version is also easy. Use a yogurt strainer, a bag of cheesecloth in a strainer over a bowl or with a filter in your drip coffee maker.
  • Strained yogurt is a great base for dip too. I like to add grated cucumber, lemon, minced garlic, salt, pepper and herbed Boursin with a sprinkling of bourbon-smoked paprika.

Optional: for your information only, here is the list of the tools we use to make yogurt:

  • 8-quart stainless pot
  • remote thermometer
  • stainless whisk
  • stainless cup measure
  • canning funnel
  • glass jars with lids
  • cookie sheet
  • kitchen towels
  • yogurt strainer
  • one yellow Post-it

We didn’t get all of these things at once, but as we realized we needed them and that we were in it for the yogurt long haul. I’ve found the remote thermometer to be the most useful tool for this, as it lets us be precise and to do other things while the milk is coming to temperature. We use an older version of this one, but there are a lot of options out there. Your needs may vary!

For even more information on the technique and science of making yogurt, I recommend these sources:

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I’m slowly getting back into a writing routine after the holidays. Writing is hard work, and of course glucose is critical to brain function. That means I have an excuse to bake:)

I worked up this cookie recipe for a friend who is gluten-averse. It’s based on a recipe from MasterChef Australia contestant Harry Foster and produces rich chocolate cookies with a satisfying cake-like texture.

Brownie + Cookie = Brookies

  • 350g [12 oz.] 70% dark chocolate
  • 45g [3.17 T.] butter
  • 80g [8.5 T.] cornstarch
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 50g [~¼ C.] chocolate chips (more or less as you like; I use three chips per cookie)
  • 225g [1 C.] superfine sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 t. vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 350F (175C).
2. Melt dark chocolate and butter in the microwave on low (30% works for me). Stir and set aside until lukewarm.
3. In a medium-size bowl, combine remaining ingredients and beat until light and fluffy. Add cooled butter mixture and mix until combined.
4. Scoop ~1-inch balls onto cookie sheets.* Gently press chocolate chips into the tops of each ball.
5. Bake for 12-13 minutes. Let cool two minutes before transferring to rack.

Makes ~33 cookies.

* If your butter-chocolate mixture is too warm, it may look and act more like batter. Pop the bowl into the fridge for a few minutes to chill and you should be able to scoop as needed.

I’d show you a photo of the cookies but, well, I ate them all. Instead, here are some pretty examples of other lights in the darkness.

Enjoy!

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Concession Cupcakes:

Dark like my mood, but sweet like my hopes for the future.

concession-cupcakes

Today it’s time for cupcakes. Tomorrow, let’s get to work.

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Target: Caaaakkkkeeee!!!!!

Another year, another cake:) For this year’s birthday I wanted a little visual contrast, plus a way to use the last of summer’s fruit. Also, pretty. I went with that classic good time, chocolate, and a buttercreamcheese frosting.

Two layers, baked and cooled and torted to make four. To shake things up a bit, I added a thin coating of raspberry jam before frosting the first and third layers, to bring out a touch of fruit flavor. Crumb coat. Thick frosting top. Chocolate ganache trim, topped with blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, and mint, with a buttercream flower to wrap it all up.

Cutting it was scary, but worth it.

So tasty!

Cake!

 

 

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Background: I have a feeder in the yard and we get a lot of visiting birds, along with squirrels, chipmunks, and the odd raccoon. Given all this traffic, plus wind and Nature’s Mysterious Ways, we also have a lot of what real gardeners (not me) call “volunteer” plants. I found what looked like a raspberry sprout and, ever curious, stuck it into an unused planter off to the side.

Mmm, delicious, I thought. Raspberries. Or blackberries. Or whatever. What’s not to like?

And for a while, everything went swimmingly. Despite poor light, irregular watering, and general lack of care, the plant thrived. It made it through last winter unprotected and came back in the spring. Now it’s a bush-sized marvel taking up way more space than intended. Fine, I thought, I’ll trim it back. Let me just take off the last foot or so of these canes. I’ll take my trusty pruners and grab this green bit and pull the end over and…

overlord

Overlord, with roots.

What?

It turns out that there is a reason why real gardeners (still not me) do not generally welcome volunteer raspberry (or whatever) sprouts in their gardens. I knew that they were hard to kill, and that they spread via seeds. What I did not know is that these plants were lulling me into a false sense of security so that they could spread by slo-mo walking from spot to spot, rooting their cane *tips* whenever they could. Drawing their emerald chains ever tighter around me.

I had to yank hard on the cane, full weight behind the effort, leather gloves punctured by thorns and all, before I could uproot this monster. And it had friends!

overlordtoo

Overlord, with traitorous cat. Figures.

Here’s a closeup shot of the leaves; perhaps one of you out there knows the exact subspecies of plant. All I know is that if I let this go on much longer, we’ll all be calling it “Master.”

So the plant/future overlord has to go. Just as soon as I get over the cold I picked up last weekend. Time for some raspberry herbal tea, I think:)

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It’s like this: for the past couple of weeks I’ve spent a wee bit (ok, a lot) of time perfecting my chocolate chip cookie recipe.

(It also strikes me that I do a lot of recipe-related posts on Fridays. Food is definitely on my list of #ThingsILike:)

When I moved north of the border everything changed, including my usual butter, flour, chips, and oven. Mr. Man also likes his cookies with a bit more cakiness than I had with my previous recipe, so it was time to rethink, rewrite and retest.*

I know, I know, hard duty. How I sacrifice! But now Mr. Man (and you, fine readers!) have a new recipe to enjoy. Hope you like it!**

 

Chocolate Chip Cookies
2 1/4 cups [280g] flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt [a pinch less if you use salted butter]
2 sticks [8 ounces or 228g] butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups [300g] brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs, large
1 cup [175g] semi-sweet chocolate chips

1. Heat oven to 350F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper if you hate stuck-on cookies.
2. In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt [I sift, some prefer a whisk or fork, use whatever works for you].
3. In a large bowl, mix butter and sugar until creamy, about 2 minutes.
4. Add vanilla and eggs, one at a time, mix until well combined.
5. Gradually add flour mixture and mix until combined. Stir in chocolate chips.
6. Scoop ~1-inch balls onto cookie sheets.***
7. Bake for 11-13 minutes depending on dough temperature and preferred crunchiness factor. Let cool two minutes before transferring to rack.
…………
* I’m still playing with this a tiny bit (for the greater good, you understand, not because I want to bake more cookies… ok yeah, I just want to bake more cookies:). I’ll add any updates here.

** If you’re interested in how tweaking various ingredients and other factors influence cookie characteristics, Handle the Heat’s Ultimate Guide to Chocolate Chip Cookies (parts 1 through 4) is a good place to start.

*** At this point you can either bake immediately or chill to allow the flavors to develop. I’ll chill if I have time, but I don’t always have the patience:) My compromise strategy: bake a sheet right away, then make balls with the rest of the dough and freeze on a lined cookie sheet. When hard, store the dough in a plastic bag and voila, you’ve got almost instant cookies for the next couple of weeks days whatever:)

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It’s lunch time around these parts and I have a serious dumpling craving. I picked up this recipe when a grad school friend brought these dumplings to our weekly Friday afternoon get-together. I’ve always been a dumpling fan but I particularly enjoy the light, flavorful texture and warm tang of this version. Perhaps I’ll make a batch later as a reward for getting my work done.

Enjoy!

Jaouza, or Dai’s Chinese Dumplings
Dough:
2 1/2 cup flour
2/3 cup boiling water
1/3 cup cold water

1. Add boiling water to flour, then add cold. Knead well, then let stand 15 minutes, covered with a damp cloth.

Filling:
3/4 lb. ground beef or pork
2 small cans mushrooms (your choice, I usually use a healthy handful of fresh shiitake)
2 tsp. salt
1 scallion, chopped fine
2 Tbs. soy sauce
2 Tbs. sesame oil
10 oz. Chinese cabbage, chopped
1/8 tsp. ginger

2. Mix all filling ingredients together.
3. Flatten small blob of dough into a round circle. Place a spoonful of filling in center of dough and fold over. Pinch edges closed.
4. Repeat until all dough and filling have been used.
5. Steam and/or fry dumplings.
6. Dipping sauce: roughly equal amounts of soy sauce and rice vinegar or lime juice. Add sesame oil and chili sauce to taste.

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Today I’m applauding my mother, who wants to build a pollinator garden. What a fantastic idea, and one supported by the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, Honey Nut Cheerios (for obvious reasons), and many others.

She’s interested in planting a series of native plant species that will flower from early to late growing season and support bees and other pollinators like butterflies and hummingbirds. And it doesn’t have to be a large-scale project to make a difference.

I’ve talked about bees here before but the point deserves emphasis: we need them. Which is why this week I’m lauding the pest control company Ortho for removing neonics, the neonicotinoid-based pesticides linked to wide-scale bee deaths, from their outdoor products. Here’s hoping other companies follow suit soon with this and other bee-friendly strategies, before this Whole Foods nightmare becomes a terrible coffee, chocolate and fruit-free nightmare. Coffee, people!

https://www.instagram.com/p/BEI1JFTqNfU/

Dandelions are pretty (and if you don’t agree there are more targeted ways to get rid of them), weeding is good exercise, and seventy-five percent of US fruits, nuts and vegetables are pollinated by bees. And killing off millions of enthusiastic workers doing their jobs for free seems awfully self-defeating.

Why care about pollinators? Personally, I like bees, and I like food. I like to imagine a future filled with more possibilities, not less.

I also care because we’re more dependent on nature than we like to think. Because a future of limited food and little variety is a recipe for human and natural disaster (also? bland!). And because I don’t want to spend my declining years describing the rich red taste of ripe strawberries to children who have no idea what I’m talking about.

View this post on Instagram

🐛 #NationalGardenMonth #milkweed #monarchs

A post shared by Pollinator Partnership (@pollinatorpartnership) on

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For today’s installment of #ThingsILike, I give you maple syrup. (Honestly, is there anyone out there who does not enjoy this delicious treat from the northern woods?) Lucky me, it looks like this year’s wacky weather patterns have resulted in a veritable tsunami of syrup!

For those of you not intimately familiar with the process of maple syrup production, it goes like this:

[Maple] trees store starch in their trunks and roots before the winter; the starch is then converted to sugar that rises in the sap in late winter and early spring. Maple trees can be tapped by drilling holes into their trunks and collecting the exuded sap, which is processed by heating to evaporate much of the water, leaving the concentrated syrup.

Here’s a video to showing a basic tap and bucket assembly, but I’ve seen outfits with setups running what look like miles of bright blue tubing directly from the trees to the sugar shack.

Even with modern improvements, this isn’t the sort of agricultural process that can be exported to alternate climes. The trees require cold winters and sap production levels depend on spring temperatures finely balanced between colder nights and warmer days.

It turns out that the weather this March has been pretty near perfect, at least if you are a sugar maple. Waking trees drink up groundwater during the day, convert the stored starches in their roots to sugar, and pump the resulting sap up their trunks and into waiting sap buckets.

Collect, boil, repeat, at least until the sap stops running.

Making syrup requires a lot of work and patience. The old fashioned way involves big black kettles and a steady supply of wood to keep the fire going. Even with new, more efficient boilers, reducing sap to syrup takes hours.

My mother took us to a friend’s sugaring party when I was a child. My brother and I ran from tree to tree, hauling half-full buckets through the snowy woods to the kettle and back. The fresh sap tasted like the Entish draughts of my imagination, its clear cool taste instantly refreshing. We also poured hot syrup onto plates of snow to make maple taffy. Freaking amazing.

As luck (or clever planning?) would have it, I am located in the heart of maple syrup country. Quebec and Ontario are the largest maple syrup producers in Canada.

If you happen to be in Ontario this weekend and you love maple syrup as much as I do, you’re in luck. It’s Maple Weekend and I plan to stock up for the year. Because delicious!

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