Saturday, January 16, 2010

Not Every Cake Can Be Amazing

Despite the alluring picture of a cake topping this post, I am not writing about secrets to build amazing cakes. No, this post is about my failures. I was rereading through my old cooking posts (someone else please tell me you enjoy re-reading your own old posts - I do.) and noticed that in my introduction to Someone's in the Kitchen I mention that I'll share with you my cooking failures as well.

I have not lived up to this - unless you tried any of the recipes I posted about and you thought they were failures. If so, don't tell me, so I can remain in my ignorant state of feeling special. Not that frequent failures, or more usually "less than spectaculars" don't happen in my kitchen. Often I'll even prep pictures, and then the final product just isn't worth recommending. I've been working on learning how to make good layer cakes this last year. For the cake above it was a sponge cake with cream filling. Sponge cakes are dryer than the traditional American layer cake, so they recommend brushing a sugar/water glaze over the cakes to moisten them. I did that, but when we ate the cake, it was still very dry for American tastes.
Then the next day we had some more (those layer cakes sure make a lot of dessert!), and the sponge cakes had finally moistened up. I wish I knew how to transfer this to successful Sponge cake layers - I guess make and decorate the day before hand, and just choose durable frosting.

This was my birthday cake. I felt on a lemon kick, so made a recipe out of a cookbook that had lemon curd dropped into the batter before baking, a lemon curd filling, and a lemon icing. Avram thought it would be a little much. I didn't. Avram was right. Also, the icing never quite emulsified properly, and so although the flavor was right, the texture and spreading capabilities were off. You can tell how the frosting is bumpy in the photo. I had that same experience earlier this year. I've been attempting to move out of the traditional butter,cream (or milk) and powdered sugar frostings into the wide world of seven minute frosting, fluffy white frosting, Italian meringue buttercream frosting and the like. Mostly I've learned there's a reason for the ease of the powdered sugar buttercream frostings. I think once I perfect the methods, these other frostings will be better, but they definitely aren't the dump and mix type of dessert. The texture (when done right) and the flavor is better, and healthier (if this can be said of any frosting type) than the regular frosting. And the homemade simple buttercream is ten times better, in my opinion, than the cans of frosting from the store.

So if you really want to dress up a cake, make a box mix, and then fill and frost with homemade frosting. Making a homemade cake is also magnitudes harder than making a box cake. Except pound cakes, which are ridiculously easy. However, I think once I master them, they will be worth it - they can stand up to layering better, and have ultimately a better flavor from the butter instead of the oil. Also, for my birthday cake that I made I finally broke down and bought Soft White Wheat flour, found in grocery stores under the White Lily brand. This flour made all the difference in the tenderness of the crumb in the cake. I highly recommend buying some, and using it for any pastries, desserts, etc. that you make. In nicer cookbooks (ie, the ones with large pictures I get from the library), they will even specify for soft wheat flour, sometimes called pastry flour. EDIT - I actually meant to say cake flour, not pastry flour. Usually it's just called cake flour, but all cake flour is is soft wheat flour. See, that is how long it's been since I've read dessert cookbooks as a hobby.
This tart came with the strict instructions to buy the best chocolate you could afford, since chocolate was the main flavor. I used the generic bakers chocolate found in grocery stores everywhere, and the tart was kind of boring. I guess the book meant what it said. Quality of ingredients really does make a large difference in the finished product, which is why if you use margarine for daily use, I would still always, always bake with butter. Butter performs better, tastes better, and produces a better product. Always. (Except for pie crusts, which need shortening to be flaky).

None of these were flat failures - they still tasted good. I think less-than-exciting dishes happens in everyone's kitchens, whether they're erratic homemakers or professional chefs. Remember, though, that even though I'm still learning how to actually do really nice homemade cakes and frostings, that I've come a long way from my first homemade cake. Same thing with anyone and cooking. Even if you try recipes and they don't work, that doesn't mean you should give up and only ever buy Macaroni and Cheese and frozen pizzas. There is a definite learning curve in the kitchen, but you get to reap the benefits from learning every day, for the rest of your life. And if you're like me, and obsessed with learning how to make yummy, fancy desserts, your health gets to reap the benefits (?) of large doses of sugar as well.

Four Grain Flapjacks

Sadly, this is the only picture I actually took of the finished pancakes. Despite Elisheva's expression, we all love these things, including Elisheva.

For Christmas my uber-organized sister Mandie put together a cookbook for my Mom with each kid contributing a recipe with pictures of the grandkids making it/eating it/just looking cute. This is the recipe we put together for her. I wish I could say I invented this, but it actually came from the new and updated Joy of Cooking cookbook. I love that book. Avram and I checked it out of the library, and kept it for over four months on renewals, because we couldn't give it back. Then my mother-in-law gave me it for Christmas, and now I can be happy for forever.

Although I planned for a cute family togetherness cooking experience to take pictures of, real life intervened. First Lydia and Elisheva fought over the one purple apron that my Mom made for Lydia. Lydia won that one, but then in a spare moment Avram kyfed the controversial apron and hid it. Good thing Elisheva is getting an apron for her birthday in a few months.

Avram began assembling the ingredients, but by this point Elisheva was starving, and demanded breakfast NOW!

The dark underbelly of cooking and trying to take cute pictures while you have hungry kids to feed.

We gave her cheerios, and food comforted all Elisheva's sorrows.
Lydia helped Avram stir the dry ingredients, while Avram did the actual work to make this meal happen.Despite pictoral evidence, these are as quick as any pancakes (not from a mix) to put together - just ten minutes or so. And we do love them.

Four Grain Flapjacks

Whisk together in a large bowl:

1 cup whole wheat flour

¾ cup all-purpose flour

1/3 cup cornmeal

¼ old-fashioned or quick-rolling rolled oats

2 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

In another bowl, combine:

1 ¾ cup milk

¼ cup (½ stick) butter, melted

¼ cup honey

3 eggs

Quickly mix the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients. Cook as for pancakes - on medium heat, until bubbles form on the top, then flip and cook on the second side until brown.

We really like to eat these pancakes with real maple syrup. Sure, it's five times as expensive as the fake stuff - but because it tastes so good, you don't need to use as much. And the extra grains can make you feel virtuous and lovely.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Easy Chicken Dinner

Some days I get to four p.m., and despite the fact that I plan daily menus every week, I have nothing planned to cook. (Note: never plan to eat leftovers for dinner. This will only mean you will have magically eaten all the leftovers in the house prior to that planned dinner). Other weeks I want comfort food, or don't feel like putting much time into cooking dinner.

At these times I always turn to my favorite easy (but doesn't look that way) dish: Chicken and Cream of Chicken Soup Gravy. Yeah, so it could use a more snazzy name, but comfort food is so good it doesn't need a deceptively exciting name like potatoes dauphinoise (scalloped potatoes) or fois gras (yuckity yuck yuck). I'm a little embarrassed to be posting a recipe that uses a cream of chicken soup can - I feel that I belong in a community cookbook from the fifties and up, where it seems every recipe involves some sort of cream of ____ soup. But I can't help it, this dinner is just that good.


Chicken. The recipe, specifically the gravy, tastes better if you use at least partially boned chicken, so I usually do one Chicken Quarter (leg & thigh) and one breast, since Avram loves white meat. I grew up making this with only drumsticks, and thought that was great too.

Cream of Chicken Soup. One can works for a thigh, drumstick, and large breast. Up the cannage according to your chicken. I often dilute the soup a little for more gravy - I'll use a quarter to a half can of milk (I can't even be bothered with a measuring cup, this recipe is so low-key), and mix it with the soup in a separate bowl first. Also, I will sometimes add rosemary to the mixture, if I'm feeling high class. This time I added two cans of soup, just because I love gravy so much.

Take the chicken. Thaw it in the microwave, or in the fridge for a couple days before hand if you're really prepared and awesome, unlike me. Pull off the skin if using a drumstick or thigh. I use a paper towel to grasp the skin and pull it over the end of the drumstick - this prevents my hand from slipping off the raw skin, and is very effective at getting the skin off.

Put the chicken in a casserole dish, and cover with the soup. Cook at 350 degrees until done, anywhere from 45 minutes for breast only to 65 minutes for bone-in meat. When preparing this meal for the pictures, I was too lazy to even thaw the chicken all the way (hence the skin on in the pictures), so I cooked it for an hour and a half. No matter - the chicken doesn't get dry covered with all the good gravy.

I usually make mashed potatoes to eat with this meal, but this time I made rice, and loved the combination. I also love peas with this.

This is a simple, down home meal, but I love it (have I said that enough times yet?) My girls love it too - Lydia kept on serving herself extra gravy. In college I served it to an apartment of guys in my ward, and they could not stop exclaiming over the dish. I told them how to make it, and they went on to try all sorts of exciting new variations, like adding cheese. I promise it'll change your life too - and if you eat it often enough, even your waistline.


Please stop buying the yucky large peas, and go out, this very minute, and buy Petite Green Peas, known in England as Petite Pois. They are small and yummy and vibrant and your tastebuds will thank you forever. Now when I eat normal peas I think they taste like Lima Beans. Lima beans, may they never pass my lips again, would probably taste like...fois gras. At my local grocery store these yummy peas even cost the same as the regular peas, but even if they cost more, they are completely worth it. Specifically look for "petite," and not just fresh, or whatever. I never had these until England, and I've never looked back since then.