Sunday, April 30, 2006

Measuring Up

I'm probably not measuring up to your expectations of a good food blogger, but that's not what I'm thinking about just now. I'm thinking of the problems that can arise because of the American habit of relying on volume measures instead of weight in recipes. I have a decent collection of old cookbooks, including several that are compilations - church cookbooks, fundraising cookbooks, etc. Many of the recipes are things I'm not interested in making, but I've found some gems in the cookbooks. Mostly I like the bit of history they represent. Some of them are old enough that I don't think I could get some of the cuts of meat they use.

I almost always come across some recipe that sounds interesting, but it'll have an ingredient that baffles me. Like "1 #10 can of tomatoes". Okaaaay.....should those be whole tomatoes? Or diced, or stewed? Does it matter which form they're in? But more important is what is a frigging #10 can? How much tomato product is in this can? What kind of a way to measure ingredients is that??

I think it might be some kind of food industry or canning standard, but I don't know that for sure, and I'm not willing to risk the outcome of a lot of cooking on that guess. Besides, have you noticed that lots of products have been shrinking over the years? Five-pound bags of sugar used to be the norm, but now I see them as well as four-pound bags....which means I need to compare prices carefully to make sure I'm getting the best buy, and the quantity I think I'm getting. Twelve-ounce cans shrank to 11.5 ounces...and sometimes, they've shrunk even further. (Usually the price doesn't drop when the amount of product does, so this tactic is really a very sneaky price increase!) Anyway, my point is I don't know, and I don't know how to figure out how much is in a #10 can of tomatoes. So recipes that have measures like that will probably remain untried.

If you like to bake, the measurement problem is still there, but it just shifts form. Why do your biscuits sometimes turn out light and flaky, but other times they're so heavy that they could be used as anchors for your kid's toy boat? Maybe you used whole milk sometimes, and 2% other times. More likely, you probably measured your flour differently. One cup of flour isn't always the same amount of flour....if you tap the cup, or rap it on the countertop while measuring, you pack more flour into the same volume, which can mean leaden baked goods. If you sift the flour into the measuring cup and sifted flour isn't specified, you might end up with not enough flour - so your creation may collapse from the lack of structure. Some recipes are more tolerant than others, but even your basic chocolate chip cookies will be best if the ingredients are measured properly, and consistently each time.

Escali kitchen scaleI've known this for a long time, but I haven't really done much about it other than refine my measuring skills, and try to be consistent in making measurements. But when I started making truffles, weighing the ingredients became a lot more important. So I bought a kitchen scale, a pretty yellow Escali from Target. It has everything I needed - taring, decently high capacity, measurements in ounces, pounds and ounces, or grams - and it didn't cost a fortune. And did I mention that gorgeous yellow? I'm a sucker for cheerful colors in my kitchen, and I'll confess that the yellow sold me on this scale. It comes in several different colors, which I think is great. Form does follow function in my kitchen tools, but it follows very closely.

Almond puff loaf closeupNow that I have this handy, pretty gadget, I decided to try it on a recipe I have both volume and mass measures for, and which I've made several times the usual American way - with volume measurements. Okay, I confess: I was wanting something sweet for breakfast and decided to try making my famous almond puff loaf using the weight measures. It's a fairly easy recipe, and gets raves every time I make it. Don't worry, it isn't overly sweet - yummy with coffee though! I've adapted this recipe from one I got from King Arthur Flour. It's two layers of pastry topped with preserves and a light glaze. Neither of the pastry layers has any sugar, so you can easily vary the sweetness of the loaves by your choice of fruit preserves and how much you use, and whether you use the glaze or not. I've made this in several flavors, but I think the lingonberry version I did today has been the best so far. Raspberry, cherry, and apricot are also very good choices. Hubby brought the lingonberry preserves back from an IKEA stop after his last business trip. You can't get them online - or any of their foodwares. Bummer! (If you're wondering what lingonberries taste like, they're tart, but not nearly as tart as cranberries, and have a light fruity taste rather like raspberries. They're worth finding - the taste is marvelous with pancakes, waffles, or in lefse too!)

This recipe, already pretty easy, went much faster using weights. The result is pretty, very tasty, and can be served warm or cool. It's a good way to really impress breakfast or brunch guests too! It isn't gluten free, though.

Almond Puff Loaf
16-20 servings


Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter one wide (9 or 10 inches) or two regular cookie sheets and set aside. Once the oven is preheated (or using a heavy skillet over medium heat), toast 2 to 2.5 ounces (1/2 to 2/3 C) slivered almonds until they're a light, golden brown, stirring occasionally. Set aside.

First layer:
1/2 cup cold butter, cut into pats (1/2 C)
4 1/2 ounces flour (1 C)
2 ounces water (1/4 C)
If you're using unsalted butter, add 1/4 teaspoon salt.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the butter and flour (and salt if you need to add it), blending with a pastry blender or fork until crumbly. Stir in the water. The dough will become cohesive, though not smooth. Divide into halves (about 4 5/8 oz. each). With wet hands, shape each piece of dough into an approximately 11 x 3 inch rectangle on the greased baking sheets. They'll puff up in the oven, so only use one sheet if you can leave 4 inches between the loaves. Set aside while preparing the second layer.

Second layer:
8 ounces water (1 C)
4 ounces butter (1/2 C)
4 1/2 ounces flour (1C)
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon almond extract1
If you're using unsalted butter, add 1/4 teaspoon salt.

In a medium saucepan, bring the water and butter to a boil. Stir until the butter melts, then add the flour (and salt if you need to add it) all at once. Stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture thickens, begins to steam, and leaves the sides of the pan. Remove from heat, and beat at medium speed for about a 1 minute, just to cool it down a bit.

Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each until the dough loses its slimy look, and the egg is totally absorbed. Stir in the almond extract.

Divide the batter in half, and with wet fingers, spread over the dough strips on the pan, covering each completely. Make sure the first layer is covered completely; if you want a smooth look, try to spread and smooth this layer as neatly as possible.

Almond puff loaves with lingonberry preservesBake the pastries in a preheated 350°F oven for 50 minutes to 1 hour, or until deep golden brown. Remove from the oven and transfer to a wire rack. The pastries will have puffed up in the oven, but will deflate as they cool.

Spread each warm pastry with 3-4 ounces (1/3-1/2 C) jam or preserves of your choice. Sprinkle the toasted almonds over the preserves.

Blend 2 ounces (1/2 C) powdered sugar, 1 tsp vanilla, and about 1/2 ounce (1 T.) milk for a glaze, and drizzle over warm pastries. Cut into squares or strips and serve.
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1:If you prefer, you can use vanilla extract. If you do this, then you can pair preserves with other nut toppings for more versatility. Try toasted chopped pecans with raspberries, blackberries, cherries, or cranberries, or walnuts with apples or pears, for example. (Back to recipe)

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Rice Flour is Pretty Easy to Make (and Bananas Keep Forever in the Freezer)

I was looking through my recipe bookmarks to find a new banana recipe. You see, I have this small problem.....I never throw bananas away! When they get brown, I put them in a freezer bag and store them in the freezer. When I want to make banana bread, I get a few out, let them defrost, and add them to the recipe. They're a lot easier to mash after being frozen, but the taste and texture aren't affected.

According to hubby, the bananas are threatening to take over our freezer, so I have a week to use a bunch of them or he'll throw them out. The horror! Throwing away perfectly good food....Well, Ilva's gluten free recipe for banana cake with almonds sounds really good. In the comments, I noticed that Catesa asked about finding rice flour. I don't know about the Netherlands, but it's available lots of places here. But why worry about buying it when it's pretty easy to make yourself? It's been a while since I've done it but there isn't much to it.

To make rice flour, just whirl uncooked rice in a blender or food processor until it's finely ground. If you want a very consistent, fine texture, you could use a fine mesh to sift the larger bits and keep processing them. The machine should be totally dry, so the flour doesn't get gummy, and the flour should be stored in an airtight container. Especially if you grind it extremely finely, rice flour can be used as a thickener for sauces and gravies. I don't know whether it's my impatience or if manufacturers have better equipment, but my rice flour usually makes them a little too gritty for me. Works great in everything else, though!

So.....anybody else got some good ideas for using frozen bananas? Baked items are my best hope, as the texture won't be right for puddings or pies or one of my favorites, bananas Foster.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Cochinita Pibil

This is one of the best pork dishes I have ever had. You can think of it as a Mayan version of barbecued pulled pork. And just like American barbecue recipes, there's no one recipe that's right or most authentic. I learned how to make cochinita pibil (pronounced ko-cheen-EE-ta pee-BEEL) from the wonderful women of a large Mexican family I got to know while living in the southern part of the country, and from online research after I was home. Despite being in her 80s, Abuelita (which means grandmother) was an active matriarch, and oversaw the weekly Saturday comida (the main meal, usually served in the early afternoon) for her family. I learned so much from her and her daughters!

Cochinita pibil takes two days to prepare; the meat is covered with a thick paste of seasonings and marinated overnight. It takes some time both days to prepare, so it isn't something you can whip up quickly, but the results are worth the effort. I'll give the recipe and instructions Abuelita used, and include the changes that I make for my family. The recipe is a little complicated too, so please read through it before starting your mise en place.

Cochinita Pibil - from a wonderful Mérida grandmother, with my own changes
Serves 6


All Ingredients:
3.5-4.5 pounds of pork, preferably the loin, with fat
2 oz. or more achiote condimentado (achiote condiment; there are several brands available, or you can make your own - Abuelita didn't1)
2-3 t. salt
1-1 1/2 C. Seville orange juice, divided (or approximation of blended citrus juices2)
2-5 cloves garlic, crushed, divided
banana leaves or heavy duty aluminum foil
1 medium red onion, very finely chopped
1-3 habañero or other chiles3, very finely chopped
4 ripe tomatoes, chopped
1-3 T. chopped cilantro
12-24 corn tortillas

First Day:
Squeeze the orange juice or prepare the juice blend, and set aside. Pierce the pork all over with a fork. Rub about 2 t. of the salt, then 1/4 C. of the juice over it. Set aside while preparing the achiote.

Prepare achiote condiment from scratch or get out a sufficient amount of premade condiment to coat the meat well. If desired, add extra 2-4 cloves of crushed garlic to the achiote, along with the remaining juice, and mix well. Rub the spice mixture all over the pork (you may want to use gloves if you don't want stained fingers).

If you have banana leaves, sear them briefly (just to make them flexible) and wrap them tightly to cover the pork. If not, place in a nonreactive container and cover with aluminum foil. Refrigerate overnight. Cover and refrigerate unused orange juice or juice blend.

Serving Day:
Preheat oven to 325° F. Put a rack in the bottom of a Dutch oven or other large oven-safe pot. Pour 1/2 C. juice in the pot; place the pork on the rack. (If using the banana leaves, keep it wrapped in them.) Cover with a tight-fitting lid or heavy duty aluminum foil. Cook for 2 hours, or until tender, marinating the pork occasionally with the pan juices.

While the pork cooks, prepare a salsa with the red onion, chiles, tomatoes, cilantro, 1 clove crushed garlic, about 1/2 C. orange juice or blend, and salt to taste. Mix well and cover. Flavors should be allowed to blend at least an hour before serving. Check and adjust seasonings if necessary before serving.

Roughly shred the meat. Pour the pan juices over it and mix well. Hold, covered, in a warm place if necessary while preparing the tortillas.

Warm the tortillas either by heating them briefly on both sides over a low gas flame, or in a cast iron skillet over medium heat on an electric stovetop. Keep tortillas warm in a clean kitchen towel if you don't have a lidded container to keep them in. Cochinita pibil with lime slices

To serve, place about 1-2 T. of shredded meat in the middle of a warm tortilla, and top with salsa. Wrap tortilla around the fillings and eat with your hands - but have a napkin handy, as the taco will be quite juicy. My adopted family serves a salad, rice, and black beans to accompany the cochinita pibil, making a large and very satisfying meal! For our meal, I just served a salad with it. That left plenty of room.....well, some room for dessert - Orangette's vanilla bean buttermilk cake with glazed oranges. It was a divine way to finish the meal!

But, back to the pibil....doesn't that picture look gorgeous? Okay, I'm busted. Yes, my family was in such a hurry to eat that I didn't get any pictures of my pibil to post. Seriously, you never want to stand between hungry teenage boys and their food! I found this picture in a wonderful photo essay, The Streets of San Miguel. If you have any questions about the recipe or procedures, just leave a comment and I'll do my best to answer you. Confusion isn't an excuse for not trying this delicious recipe!
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1: I'm pretty sure Abuelita used El Yucateco brand achiote condiment, but there are several different brands, and you can go from buying the annatto seeds to getting a case of achiote online. Or if you have a Mexican grocery nearby, check it out. It will probably have at least one brand. Every brand I've seen says to use the condiment as is, without adding anything except the citrus juice, but it tastes more like Abuelita's if I add a clove or two of garlic and about 1/4 t. ground cumin. Maybe she added that when I wasn't looking....If you want to make the achiote from scratch, this recipe from Diana Kennedy is very good.

1 rounded T achiote seeds
1/4 tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp Mexican oregano
12 peppercorns
3 whole allspice
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1/8 tsp powdered chile seco (may substitute hot paprika)

Grind the achiote seeds, cumin, oregano, peppercorns, and allspice together to a fine powder. Crush the garlic together with the chile seco, salt, and add 3 T. orange juice or juice blend; mix with the other powdered spices. The mixture should be a thick paste. (Back to recipe)

2: If you don't have Seville oranges, and most likely you won't, here's a very good equivalent. Mix all the following together to yield about 1 cup of blended juice:
2 tsp. finely grated grapefruit peel
6 T. orange juice
6 T. grapefruit juice
4 T. lemon juice
4 T. lime juice
(Back to recipe)

3: Habañero chiles are very hot! Unless you know you like hot salsas, use only one habañero, or substitute one or two jalapeños. That's what I do, and it makes a peppy salsa that isn't too hot for anyone in our family to enjoy. (Back to recipe)

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Stained Fingertips

Achiote paste Not from coloring eggs (hubby's doing that this year)....nor am I doing a Lady Macbeth impersonation. Last night I started one of my favorite Mexican dishes, cochinita pibil. It's a colorful and flavorful pork dish that I learned how to make in Mexico. Achiote is the magical stuff behind cochinita pibil. Achiote is another name for annatto seeds, which gives the paste its signature color.

If you think you're familiar with Mexican food because you've had several varieties of tacos, burritos, and enchiladas, you probably don't know as much as you think about it. Mexico is a pretty big country that's divided into several states. Just like the USA, some states grow a lot of wheat, and in others corn is the major grain. That's why some dishes use wheat tortillas and others call for corn tortillas. There's a lot of variety in the cuisine, depending on what can be grown locally. And don't get me started on the cheeses! It seemed like every town I visited had its own version of the local specialty, and many of them were superb. How I long for a good bit of manchego or queso de Oaxaca, which is the original "string" cheese. Most "Mexican" restaurants in this country just don't do Mexican cuisine justice.

Cochinita pibil is a specialty from the Yucatán peninsula. The Mayans lived there, and their influence is still found in the foods and the language. If you're ever there, do see the ruins because they're amazing, but also explore outside of the cities and you'll probably discover pockets of mostly Mayan culture and the most amazing food! A lot of dishes are wrapped in leaves and cooked, most often banana leaves. In old times the food was put in a hole in the ground which had hot coals at the bottom, and was covered with more coals and buried, and allowed to slow cook for hours. (One of my neighbors made the most amazing tamales this way in her back yard. She used a modern metal cooker, though.)

I'll post a full recipe soon, and hopefully I'll get some pictures too. We'll see if I can hold off the family long enough once the meal's ready! The meat slow cooks in the achiote and Seville orange juice until it's soft. Then it's shredded and served in warm tortillas along with habañero salsa. The lady who taught me to make cochinita pibil used three habañeros in her salsa, but there's only two of us in the family that can handle their heat. So I cheat and use jalapeños, which isn't authentic but still very good.

Back to the kitchen I go! The pork has marinated all night and needs to be put in the oven, and I have to make the salsa and a cake for dessert. But now I'm homesick for the sunny blue skies and beautiful old architecture of Mérida.

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