Monday, November 29, 2010

Quick and easy spice cake

Here's the scenario: the holidays are approaching and you're given the task of bringing baked goods for your office meeting/bridge club/lemur appreciation society/whatever, and you want to bring something homemade and seasonally appropriate. But of course you've waited until the last moment. As you open your fridge to start getting your ingredients together you realize – horror! – that you are all out of milk and eggs. What to do?

Here is the recipe for your situation: an absolutely delightful spice cake (really just a sweet quick bread) that requires no milk and no eggs. It is also great fun to play around with in various ways. You can vary the level of sugar depending on whether you want it to be more of a dessert or more of a breakfast item. For spices, you can use whatever sounds good (or whatever you have). Cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, ginger, etc. – those nice holiday flavors – are all welcome in any combination you fancy. I particularly like to add grated fresh ginger to give it a good bite. But most fun of all for me has been playing around with the liquid: while water works just fine, I have so far used coffee, porter, and hard cider instead, all to great effect.

The recipe is adapted from the Tassajara Recipe Book.

Quick Spice Cake

Preheat oven to 350.

Butter and flour an 8 inch cake pan

Mix together in a big bowl 1 cup whole wheat flour, 1/2 cup white flour, 1/4 to 3/4 cup sugar (depending on how sweet you want it to be), 1 tsp. baking soda, and spices (any of the following: 1 tsp. cinnamon, 1/2 tsp. nutmeg, 1/4 tsp. cloves, 1 tsp. allspice, 1 tbsp. ginger, or whatever else looks good).

In a small saucepan, melt 1/3 cup butter. Add to this 1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar, then 1 cup cold water or other liquid, such as coffee, dark beer, cider, etc.

[Quick note: if your butter is still hot, and your water quite cold, this will produce a very odd reaction, creating a kind of crystallized-looking mixture. Don't worry, this is fine, and it's also kind of cool looking...]

[Quick note #2: you could just use oil instead of butter and make it completely vegan]

Now mix your butter mixture in with your dry ingredients. Do not over-mix! This is a quick bread, so do just enough to moisten all the dry ingredients. It's ok if the batter is still a little lumpy and uneven.

Pour the dough into the cake pan, and bake for about 35 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

For an extra nice touch, sprinkle powdered sugar on top before serving.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Cooking oils

Just a quick note today to point you towards this article by Harold McGee in the New York Times. McGee is without a doubt one of the most interesting food writers in operation. His book On Food and Cooking is absolutely essential reading.

His column in the Times this week is about cooking oil. The basic point is that most oils (good olive oil, bad olive oil, refined seed oil, etc.) are pretty much indistinguishable once heated:

We were surprised at how thoroughly heat obliterated the flavors in cooking oil until they all tasted more or less the same. Even prize-winning, and costly, extra-virgin olive oils lost much of what makes them special, though they retain their apparently healthful pungency. To get food with the green and fruity flavor of good olive oil, it seems more economical and effective to fry with an inexpensive refined oil and drizzle on a little fresh olive oil after cooking.

I've always used a slightly fruity but fairly neutral olive oil as my everyday basic cooking oil, but I might consider using more seed oil now.

Readers, do you have any thoughts on this?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Lindsey's beautiful stuffed pumpkin

Lindsey, as you may recall, loves a stuffed pumpkin. And this time she really outdid herself...

These little pie pumpkins were full of rice, caramelized onions, chunks of apple, Italian sausage (from Giacamo's in Greensboro, NC), and shiitakes from our logs (yes, we grow shiitakes in our backyard).

In keeping with the autumnal feel of the dish, basque-style cider was used as a liquid (this style of cider is not at all sweet, and pretty acidic). The whole thing was then topped with cheese and baked. The cheese melted and browned, the pumpkin flesh was softened and infused with cider, and the whole thing came out beautifully... A triumph!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

You do not need to soak your beans

I was really glad to see this article in the New York Times yesterday.

It is a common (and, to me, galling) assumption that beans need to be soaked before cooking. I have seen this myth repeated many, many places, including cookbooks where the authors should have known better (Mark Bittman is a notable exception). As beans make up a very large portion of my diet, and I am always proselytizing on their behalf, I'm glad to see the truth spoken in a major media outlet.

Yes, it is true: beans do not need to be soaked before cooking. As in the recipe provided in the NYT article, dried beans can used directly in a long simmered stew, with no ill effect. Quite the contrary, in fact: this technique does a great job at melding flavors together.

But also, it is possible to cook dry beans on their own without soaking. The difference? It will take a little longer, though not nearly as much most cookbooks say.

So why soak at all? Well it will cut down on cutting time somewhat. The other potential reason is texture. This is somewhat anecdotal, but it does seem that sometimes, when using dry beans directly, the beans don't cook quite as evenly. This only seems to happen with older beans, though, which you should try to avoid anyways. And it can also be remedied by cooking the beans slowly and gently. My opinion is that, for texture, the best thing you can do is cook your dry beans in a crockpot for a few hours. It won't save you any time, but it requires practically no labor, and it really produces great results.

But the important thing to remember here: beans do not need to be pre-soaked, so don't let a lack of soaking stop you.