CSA Inspirations Part 1

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Besides some very exhausting shifts at work, the other big reason I’ve been so remiss about my blogging is because I signed up for a CSA box from Oxbow Farms. CSA stands for “community supported agriculture”. The premise lies in understanding that farming is a fairly expensive process. The cost of purchasing land, tilling, planting, irrigation, harvesting, and processing have a way of really adding up. Add to that the potential decrease in profits when a middle-man, such as a grocery store, purchases your products at a discount and then marks them up to obtain a profit of their own.

All this has driven many farmers to find alternative means to reaching direct purchasers and attempting to offset some of their overhead costs. The CSA allows people to purchase a “share” of the farm upfront. In return, the farm supplies a box of freshly harvested items once every week or two as things come into season. I’ve been pining after this opportunity since I learned about it in culinary school a few years ago, and just this year found myself able to afford it.

I chose Oxbow Farms in Carnation for a variety of reasons. 1.) They’re a sustainable, organic farm that practices fertilization in a manner safe to allow runoff into streams and rivers, and 2.) There are two pick-up locations very close to my job, so I can make the trek on the way to work . I teamed up with a classmate friend from school to share a larger box, allowing us to receive a larger variety of items and ensuring I try to utilize whatever I receive each week.

Here’s a picture from one of the first few weeks, as an example:

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That week, we had napa cabbage, baby fennel, garlic scapes, kale, carrots, and several other goodies. Each week was like opening another veggie present. You never knew what might appear.

Having this pile o’ vegetables meant that I had to put my creative side to work and come up with different ways to use one (or several) of the items before they went went bad.

One week, we had several stems of beautiful rhubarb. It was green with a ruby blush towards the end of each stalk. After a long bit of research, I made a rhubarb upside down cake. The top was covered in caramelized rhubarb pieces, and the bottom had an oat crumble that gave everything a little textural contrast. It was sweet, but not too sweet. I would definitely make it again.

Rhubarb upside down cake

Rhubarb upside down cake

Another week, though I sadly didn’t take a picture, I made a quiche. Some sauteed summer squash, chiffonade rainbow chard, a little smoky bacon, and caramelized onions.

Many weeks, I’d find myself on Friday or Saturday night panicked about the quantity of veggies I had left from the last week, and knowing I needed to use a lot in a hurry if I was going to make space for the new items. This led to several asian inspired dishes.

The first was the traditional bibimbap, which I’ve mentioned making before. There is something so satisfying about a dish that combines flavors like earthy sesame oil and warm soy with bright flavors like ginger and garlic. Not to mention the care taken on the aesthetic aspects, lining each ingredient up to make a rainbow of colors. Honestly, dishes like this encourage me to not only enjoy eating vegetables, but to crave a bowl full just to admire how pretty everything is. Alexir has specifically requested it several times, which is a major compliment coming from another cook.

All the veggies laid out first

Spotlight on CSA carrots, napa cabbage, garlic scapes, and snap peas!

It also allows me to practice my egg cookery skills. I’d say they’re slowly improving.

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A sunnyside up egg and some gochujang finish the dish

With August bringing more hot days, I thought it high time to implement a cold dish. My mind turned to the several times I’ve visited the Monkey Bridge in Ballard. They offer trays of cold noodles served alongside a collection of bowls. Each bowl is intended as an optional addition to the salad. After the various items have been mixed in, you take a forkful (technically, you’re dining with chopsticks, but I felt awkward writing “chopstickful”) of noodles and dunk them in the accompanying sauce before landing it square in your mouth.

Not to digress, but I must say that eating in this manner has a certain attraction. Eating food that you must assemble and dunk for each bite leads to a more active participation. This decreases the opportunity for distractions and helps you focus on eating instead of talking incessantly, looking at your phone, or otherwise doing anything but engrossing yourself in the meal. I love it.

For my own interpretation, I elected to forego the tray and sides. In my house, plating is often affected by how many dishes will need to be done after.

 

20140724_113148Carrots had to be included, both because they are a staple in the salad and I haven’t had a week of the produce box without them. The final product was so full of herbs, veggies, and meat, I could barely see the noodles. I think I managed the dunk and eat method twice before saying “screw it” and dumping the sauce over the salad. I’m only human.

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Some of ALL the things

 

Today’s box brought a ton more lettuce, escarole, collard greens, and potatoes (amongst many other things). I foresee more cooking inspiration in the near future.

 

As a little closing treat, here’s my recipe for the vietnamese rice noodle salad.

Vietnamese Rice Noodle Salad

2 large or 4 small servings

For the salad

  • 1 small package rice sticks or rice vermicelli (I prefer the latter, but it you want something more chewy, go with the rice sticks), cooked and cooled
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and julienned
  • 1 small cucumber, julienned
  • 2 green onions, thinly sliced on the bias
  • 12 leaves mint (spearmint), chiffonade
  • 12 leaves holy or thai basil, chiffonade
  • 1/4-1/2 cup toasted peanuts, roughly chopped.
  • (Optional) Thinly sliced beef cooked in sesame oil and soy sauce

For the dressing

  • 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 3 to tablespoons fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
  • ½ cup water
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes (or a small dried chili, if you’re feeling adventurous)
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and minced

To make the dressing: Place all ingredients in a blender (I swear by my magic bullet, I rarely make anything large enough to necessitate a full-sized blender). Blend until smooth. Adjust seasoning to taste, knowing that it will be very strong. Chill until ready to serve salads.

To assemble the salad: Divide cooked rice noodles as desired between 2-4 bowls. Depending on your preference, top with other ingredients, or serve on a separate plate. Serve cold with a small cup of dressing on the side.

 

 

Oh, Fudgesicle!

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You guys!

YOU. GUYS.

I just made fudgesicles. From scratch!

How did I make it to 30 years of age and work in however many restaurants and NOT think to make them?

My mom likes to remind me that she was pregnant with me through August and September (some extremely hot months in Pendleton, OR, where my parents lived until I was about 1). During that time, one of her favorite foods that both satisfied her pregnancy cravings and gave her a slight reprieve from the heat was fudgesicles. I can only imagine how a constant barrage of them in utero affected my cravings in adulthood.

Now, the original product is not something you’d necessarily want to copy item for item. Check out this heinous list of nutrition and ingredient facts proudly posted on the “Popsicle” website.

fudgsicle facts Yeah….thanks, but no thanks. I have a fairly firm stance on not eating foods with ingredients I struggle to pronounce. With that knowledge, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually had a fudgsicle in the last 10 years. A tradgedy to be sure.

The other afternoon, I was wading through my facebook and came across a link from David Lebovitz. He was Alice Waters’ pastry chef at Chez Pannise, and one of my pastry heros. I’d imagine that anything he linked must have some merit.

The link directed me to a post on Food 52 for fudgesicles without any weird crap in them. Actually, with only 6 ingredients commonplace in the house of any person who bakes even infrequently, you have no excuse not to try them.

Below I’ve presented the recipe divided in half. The original recipe makes enough volume for 10 3 oz. popsicle molds, which proved far too much for me. My popsicle molds are probably closer to 2 ounces. I’ve also paraphrased the recipe a bit, as I prefer short sentences in my recipes.

Fudgesicles

Courtesy of Alice Medrich on Food 52.com

Makes 5 x 3oz. popsicles (15 ounces of base)

6 Tbsp sugar

6 Tbsp unsweetened natural or dutch cocoa powder

3/4 Tbsp cornstarch

pinch of salt

1 1/2 Cups milk (any percentage is fine, I used whole for mine)

1/4 tsp vanilla extract

Place all the dry ingredients in a medium saucepan. Whisk briefly to combine. Add just enough milk to form a smooth paste. Slowly add the remaining milk. Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly. Bring to a simmer, making sure to scrape sides and bottom of the pan frequently. Simmer for 2 minutes, until starting to thicken. Remove from heat and whisk in vanilla extract. Using a pitcher or liquid measure, pour into popsicle molds. Leave at least 1/4″ gap at the top to allow for expansion while freezing. Freeze 6 hours, ideally overnight. If there is any remaining base (Or if you prefer to make ahead and freeze later), cool and keep in the fridge in a sealed container up to one week.

Absolutely minimal effort for the “real deal” fudgesicle experience. I wholeheartedly approve. I suppose some things we simply don’t outgrow.

 

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They Wish That They Were Cooks in Love

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Alexir and I returned from Oregon Country Fair a few weeks ago now (it’s amazing how time can fly as soon as OCF ends..), and have yet to share a same weekend day. We work the same hours at least, so we’re awake as the same time when we’re both home. However, spending that long with only quiet morning coffee breaks or giving the reader’s digest version of your day after work can put a strain on your groove as a couple.

Cue a 10 day stretch appearing on my schedule at work. Luckily, it was noticed and I was gifted a 7 day stretch in exchange for split days off. Regardless, even the average 5 day work week can really wear on you. Adding additional days and having my co-lead out on vacation meant a great deal of extra effort each day.

I was exhausted, grumpy, and the absence of our typical R&R days together was really hitting me. On my third or fourth day of work, Alexir offered to drop me off at work so he could borrow the car. It was one of his days off, and he had planned on doing a little shopping in anticipation of cooking us dinner the following night.

It is worth noting that of the cooks and chefs I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, I can tell you we fall into two particular groups:

1.) Those who cook as therapy outside of work. We find solace in our own kitchens where everything is on our terms. We can play with reckless abandon and make whatever tastes best to us

2.) Those who feel that cooking 8-14 hours a day at work is more than enough. For the sake of their sanity and preserving their passion for what they do as a living, they tend to avoid cooking at home aside from quesadillas and the occasional scrambled egg.

a668funny-American-Dad-cookingI’m a proud member of the first group, and Alexir is undoubtedly the latter. This means any offer of him cooking at home is cause for serious celebration.

The following morning, Alexir roused himself before me and started the day by making us breakfast. It was soft cooked scrambled eggs (the french style, whisked the whole time with just a hair more heavy cream than you want to admit), seared basque sausage links. And in the middle, are you serious? A small spoonful of caviar? It was lovely. Though truthfully, so rich that we couldn’t finish it all.

I went to work properly fed, with visions of our evening meal helping keep my mood afloat. We had agreed that since he was cooking, I’d pick the wine and dessert. I spent about 15 minutes towards the end of my shift talking with one of the wine stewards at my store. She brought me 5 different wines, varying in price and other aspects. I went for the àMaurice 2010 Red Blend for a number of reasons; a main one being that the winemaker was a woman. This is surprisingly rare compared to married couples or solo male winemakers. On my way out, I picked up a rose to round out my purchase (and also because we challenge gender norms like that).

When I arrived at home, Alexir had a mixed expression on his face. Having seen him cook in culinary school, and after the years we’ve been in the kitchen at catering events or in our home together, I can recognize this thought pattern from a mile away. Something didn’t turn out the way he had hoped, and he’s stewing over it. I assure him that all I notice is the alluring scent of roasted veggies and warm cocoa in the air. And herein lies the beauty of being cooks: we can and do change all the time. Something overcooks or burns? We remake it if we have the ingredients or improvise if we don’t.

 

Balsamic caramelized figs

Balsamic caramelized figs

 

I opened the wine and poured it into glasses to aerate for a while. After a few minutes of talking, Alexir had reformulated his plan. We’d have a salad first, and a slightly lighter set of sides to go with the main course. We chatted and joked, tension melted away, and food came together.

The salad was a combination of a head of lettuce from our CSA (community shared agriculture) box and a few leaves from the planter on our back porch. Figs were poached in a balsamic reduction. Just enough to have a caramel flavor, but not enough to let them get soggy. Some of the basque chorizo from the morning was sliced and cooked off. The greens were tossed with a spoonful of oil from the chorizo and a little drizzle of reduced balsamic. The figs were sliced and arranged on top. Because I couldn’t help using some of our back porch garden, I snipped a few chives over the top and picked some borage flowers as a side garnish. Over the top, a little shaved garrotxa for some tang.

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It was a well-rounded palate warm up. The chorizo was still a little bit warm when it hit the salad, so we caught some of the contrasting temperature effect. I used to hate this as a concept, but have really grown to appreciate it and the possible applications.

We took a moment to sip some of the àMaurice Red Blend. Since developing my palate more, I’ve moved away from cabernet sauvignons. They tend to be a bit too fruit-forward and sweet. That being said, this primarily cabernet blend reminded me of the things I love. Deep aromas of warm cedar and cherries. Drinking it felt like imbibing a red velvet dress.

Which brings me to the pièce de résistance: The main course. Alexir started with a heavenly carrot puree. I’m not entirely sure what went into it, but it was a fantastic base for everything.

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Yum!

 

Next was a second side vegetable. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to restrict yourself to the standard “protein, veg, starch”. Especially when you’re smack in the middle of summer, and all the local vegetables are at their peak. Purple and white string beans  made a great color contrast. Truthfully, before that night, I didn’t know that purple beans lose their color and become green. Even with a quick blanch, they fade. Still a gorgeous veggie. To highlight their contribution as a textural contrast to the puree, they were lightly blanched and shocked in ice water, then strained and dressed with fresh lemon zest and juice and a pinch of salt and pepper.

Finally came the protein prep. Two buffalo ribeye steaks. Buffalo is making a comeback as a healthy alternative to beef. Higher in omega-3’s and (at least for the moment) farmed in a more sustainable manner. The wine choice was primarily aimed at Alexir’s plan for these steaks. Into a bowl went equal handfuls of ground coffee and cocoa powder. This was followed by some salt and freshly ground pepper. The earthy flavors were rounded out by a little smoked paprika.

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A few minutes on the screaming hot cast iron pan, and he had created something that rivaled your neighborhood high-end steakhouse. It was perfectly cooked. Just enough that it was easy to slice, but rare enough that you could appreciate the more subtle flavors of the meat itself. Everything met on the plate, and we sat down to enjoy our collaborative efforts for a late night dinner (it was easily 11:30 by this point).

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It was wonderful to have a nice moment to reflect on for the rest of our busy week. I’m so blessed to have such a thoughtful partner. Hopefully we’ll have the chance to share a meal on a mutual day off sometime soon.

 

“Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.” ―M.F.K. Fisher

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The Great Wedding Cake Adventure

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“Do something that scares the shit out of you,” they say. Try new things, take chances, make mistakes. So when one of my sister’s best friends approached me about making her wedding cake, I knew I had to go for it.

The initial discussion was fairly lax. It would likely just be a bunch of cupcakes or something of that nature, the wedding would be fairly mellow, sometime in July. I said I’d be all for that. The bride, Carmen, and her fiancee lived in California, so the communication was all via e-mail and Facebook messenger.

Fast forward to October, the topic was revisited and Carmen expressed that she and Devon’s ideal cake would be modeled after the weighted companion cube from the original Portal game. This made things interesting, as I would be actually constructing a single cake and decorating it with the intention of it looking like a certain object.

The companion cube in a snapshot of the game

*Cue mini-panic*  At least I had played Portal and knew all about everyone’s attachment to the companion cube. I have a little stuffed one myself.

I pushed the thought out of my mind through the winter months, since Christmas and the accompanying stress were enough to keep me busy

Suddenly, it’s May! Time to get to some serious recipe testing. Step one was tracking down some square cake pans. Thank you for making that an easy find, Target.

Cake #1: Step two was making an initial practice cake to determine the total volume of batter necessary to make an actual cube-shaped cake. I bought a few boxes of cake mix and some tubs of pre-made frosting. While the cakes were baking, I played around with coloring and piping buttercream. After baking, I had three layers of cake that added up to 2/3 of a cube. Having accomplished the actual “test” part, I enjoyed goofing around with decorating.

Test #1 - The silly cake

Test #1 – The silly cake

Once I knocked out a recipe test with the square pans, I gained a little confidence. Which was good, because I expected myself not only to make the cake from scratch, but also the buttercream frosting and some sort of fondant to shape the cube.

I remember being 10(ish?) and attending a first holy communion of the girl my mom nannied. Her reception after the service included a huge white cake decorated in fondant. This was my first experience with the stuff. I managed a single bite of the cake and was immediately abhorred by the texture. Whatever this “squishy jelly bean insides paste” was, I didn’t want anything to do with it.

Fondant, albeit a fabulously versatile medium for shaping cake decorations, pretty much tastes like sugary crap. With all the advancements technology and the pastry world has made since the 1500’s, you would think we’d have found a better way. Huge sheets of sugar cooked with glycerin and gelatin doesn’t strike me as “delicious”.

Since I had nixed the use of fondant, I embarked on a week’s worth of research about fondant alternatives. I eventually settled on marshmallow fondant. The recipe was more or less as follows:

Marshmallow Fondant

1 bag baby marshmallows (16 oz)

2 T water

~2 lbs powdered sugar, sifted

Organic vegetable shortening

Vanilla (or other flavoring)

pinch of salt

Place the whole bag of marshmallows in a microwave safe bowl with the water. Microwave in 30 second increments, stirring with a wooden spoon greased with shortening each time until evenly melted and smooth. Coloring can be added at this point if the whole batch is going to be a single color.

Stir in powdered sugar 1/2 cup at a time, until unable to stir with the wooden spoon. Smear a clean countertop (or silpat, if you’re smarter than I and think ahead) with a thin layer of shortening and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Apply a thin coating of shortening to hands and turn out marshmallow mixture. Knead as you would bread dough, adding powdered sugar as needed until a firm, solid texture is achieved. Store in a ziploc coated with shortening at least overnight, or up to two weeks. Bring to just under room temperature. Roll out with powdered sugar.

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The result was still technically fondant. A little gummy, and very sweet. However, I felt like it tasted much better as a whole, and a much less offensive texture than the original.

Cake test #2: I Randomly told myself that since I had the 4th of July off work, I should do a cake test that day. It was my last chance to try all the recipes before taking my yearly vacation. The wedding would be mere days away once I returned.

This time, I made everything from scratch. Three layers of a buttermilk white cake, a little  homemade buttercream, and some holiday-themed fondant decorations. I was really pleased not only with the test items individually, but the fact that I actually made something that looked like something.

'Murica

‘Murica

 

More lessons. A single layer of buttercream would leave too little frosting to balance the cake and fondant. The result was a lot of lumps. Also, as much as I had been avoiding it, I was going to have to bake 4 layers to achieve a perfect cube.

Cake #3: The real deal

The Sunday before the wedding, I was in the kitchen making the components that could be refrigerated a few days without losing quality. Three quarts of buttercream and a half quart of simple syrup later, I felt more prepared.

E-mails back and forth between the bride and myself regarding cake stands, fillings, cutting implements. I had split days off the week of the wedding to compensate for the specific day I had requested. This meant I worked until 10:30pm the night before the wedding. At 11:30pm, I was pulling the first two cake layers out of the oven. At 12:30, I was removing the last two, making a double batch of fondant, and poaching strawberries in simple syrup to make filling.

After a fitful night of minimal sleep, I woke up around 6:30 and got back to work. The layers had cooled, and were ready to stack. I whipped one of the quarts of buttercream with some of the strawberry syrup and filled each layer. Then, into the fridge to rest and firm up for about 20 minutes.

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Next came the “crumb layer” of plain vanilla frosting. This is essentially the base layer, meant to cover the cake just enough to look vaguely uniform. It’s often pretty messy, and has a lot of crumbs or bits of filling smeared on it. It’s purpose is to even out any holes or ridges. Back into the fridge for another 20 minutes.

20140722_083753Finally, the outer layer of buttercream. Alexir has woken up at this point and keeps peeking in the kitchen to monitor my progress. A final rest in the fridge for an hour to make sure things are solid enough to hold some fondant.

20140722_085205The night before, I had grown so tired mid-fondant-making, I decided that it wasn’t worth cleaning the counter I had smeared with powdered sugar and sticks bits of fondant. When I headed to bed, I had covered the counter with a few layers of plastic wrap and called it good.

On hindsight, I was thankful I made that bit easier for myself. Coloring the fondant was a bit of a task, even with exact colored gel dyes. The black is never a “true black”, so making my grey meant I kept mumbling “it’s purple…it’s bloody purple…” to myself. Alexir tried to assure me after a short rest and another dusting of powdered sugar, it would be fine. At least the pink was more cooperative.

Several people have blogged about their own experiences in making companion cube cakes, and one person was kind enough to provide their readers with some rough patterns to use for cutting and shaping fondant. I used one such pattern as a guide. Even still, the process was painfully slow and arduous. Rolling, scraping, making sure each piece wasn’t sticking to the counter. The cube is a tough shape to cover with a single sheet on fondant because of the square edges. I had to cut and seal the sides to keep from having deep ridges of extra fondant.

Right around this time, Alexir reminded me it was time for him to head to the bus stop. Meaning: It was time for me to stop what I was doing and drive him to the bus stop.

I had just hit the proverbial wall. Things looked lumpy to me. The colors weren’t exactly perfect. At that moment I was underfed, exhausted, and my angry inner perfectionist was trying to ruin my day. I looked up at Alexir, kneeling in a pile of powdered sugar, both hands sticky from painting water on each piece of fondant, and said “I’ll be ready in. a. minute.” {insert death glare here} I popped on the last few pieces of the set I was doing and swept him off to the bus in a huff.

I returned home determined to adjust my attitude and bust out the rest of everything in time to catch a short nap. Things worked out, and I finished about 30 minutes later. The final product was certainly no expert job. I could see some of my mistakes, and it still bothered me. However, it was time to let go. I finished trimming the silver cardboard cake trays to size, transferred the cake to its platter, and flopped into bed for a 30 minute nap.

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The rest was a blur of showering, 3 outfit changes, and delicately loading the cake into a box for travel.  I set a half dozen towels in various parts of the box with the intention of keeping the cake plate from sliding when I made turns.

Shockingly, the travel was uneventful. Traffic sucked, but I made it in one piece with the cake. Cue a mad rush parking to set the cake down. Parking again. Returning to the cake table to tie on the final ribbon. Helping arrange the Borrachini Bakery cupcakes intended for the guests. With the table finally set, it actually looked pretty decent. Maybe I did an alright job after all.

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The ceremony was beautiful. Carmen was the most perfect, gorgeous bride. Devon (her husband) was a charismatic and kind groom. Everything was so sweet.

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When they moved to cut the cake, Carmen asked me to stand up so she could give me credit. Everyone clapped, and I was so humbled. Then, the photographer asked me to stand by the couple with the cake to have my photo taken. Squee! What?! I can’t imagine a single decent photo was taken of me at that moment. I was all smiles, toothy and goofy.

Carmen hugged me a ton over the course of the reception. She said she loved the cake (and that it tasted decent as well). At the end of the day, that was all I was really hoping to achieve. Any remnants of my stress during cake decorating dissolved.

I spent the drive home reflecting on the experience. The adventure of agreeing to something new. The rush diving head first into something both unfamiliar and (at times) scary. I not only attempted something not previously considered in repertoire, but I fucking did it!

Congratulations to Carmen and Devon. It was a supreme honor to make the cake for your special day. Wishing you nothing but love and happiness in your future together!

 

“Great love and great achievements involve great risks”  ~Dalai Lama~

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Oh Sew Green and the Buttermilk Chai Cinnamon Roll

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While at the Mother Earth News Fair this last week, I met a talented seamstress and mother of 6. Her store is called “Oh Sew Green”. Check out her facebook (and link to her etsy page). My friend, Andrea and I fell in love with her homemade alternatives to single-use products. Examples were absorbent fabric towels, to be used in place of paper towels, and reusable snack pouches to replace plastic ziplocs. My personal favorite was the elastic bowl cover. The suggested uses were to cover plates or bowls for food storage in your fridge or for transport. However, when I saw it, all I could think is how perfectly it would replace my cheap disposable shower cap as a proofing bowl cover for bread. I found the cutest fabric design. This picture doesn’t do it justice.

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I’m always imagining my favorite dishes being “just a little bit different”. I’m not necessarily trying to reinvent the wheel here, but more add a slightly different spin on a classic. So for my first recipe using my new proofing cover, I decided to toy with a new idea for cinnamon rolls. The friend who invited me to the fair love chai tea. So, why not take a normal cinnamon filling, and add a chai spice blend?

Everything nice!

Everything nice!

Make no mistake, cinnamon rolls are exactly as full of eggs, butter, and milkfat as you would imagine them to be. And that’s what makes them so awesome. Considering this was my first time recipe testing a dough recipe of my own creation, I’d say they turned out pretty nice.

Butter, spices, and a fist full of brown sugar

Butter, spices, and a fist full of brown sugar

 

 It can be a bit of a time-intensive process. Having the right tools helps.

Slicer. For meats and cinnamon rolls alike

Slicer. For meats and cinnamon rolls alike

 

Mid-process, I realized I need to order a 9″x13″ pan cover in matching fabric. Plastic wrap had to suffice this time

A proofed up and ready to bake

A proofed up and ready to bake

By the time these guys are baked and glazed, you’ll be wondering why you ever fussed about all the work. You troubles just melt away. Or maybe that’s the impending sugar rush talking.

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**A few notes about working with yeasted doughs: I think many people avoid anything involving kneading. It can be a frustrating process the first few times, but it feels like a great accomplishment once you get the hang of it. I recommend using The Kitchn website as a resource when in doubt. Their info is very accessible to the average person, and they often have accompanying videos for techniques.

A second note is the proofing process. Everything from temperature, humidity, to the type of flour and yeast used all effect the proofing time. This means your best bet is *not* to make dough and let it proof unchecked for the recommended time. Start checking the dough at 40 minutes. It will be properly proofed if you gently poke the dough and an indentation remains. If not, allow to proof for another 20 minutes at a time.

Third, and most important: maximize the effectiveness of your time. Recipes that involve proofing mean you have time to make all the other components of the recipe, do some dishes, or otherwise bust out a little work to make your life easier. Nothing helps me enjoy something I’ve cooked like not having to worry about a sink full of dishes after.

 

 

Chai Spice Cinnamon Rolls

 

For the dough

2 packages (or 4.5 tsp) active dry yeast

1/2 cup granulated sugar, divided

1/2 warm water (about 100*-115*F)

1 egg, room temperature

4 Tbsp melted butter

1 cup buttermilk

4 cups all purpose flour

2 tsp salt

1 tsp cinnamon

1/4 tsp ground cloves

 

Chai spice mixture

1 whole star anise

1/8 tsp fennel seed

2 allspice

6 whole peppercorns

4 green cardamom pods

2 Tbsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp ground cloves

 

For the filling

1 cup brown sugar

4 Tbsp butter, melted and divided

2.5 Tbsp chai spice mixture

 

For the glaze (glaze recipe can be halved)

6 oz sour cream

1/4 cup buttermilk

1/2 Tbsp chai spice mixture

3 Tbsp creamed coconut (I like “Let’s Do Organic” brand)

1/2 tsp salt

3-4 cups powdered sugar

 

To make the chai spice mix:

Toast anise, fennel, allspice, peppercorns, and cardamom until brown and fragrant. Remove seeds from cardamom pods and dispose of outer shell. Grind in spice grinder. Mix with cinnamon and cloves in a small bowl. Set aside.

 

To make the cinnamon rolls:

Combine warm water with yeast and 1/4 cup granulated sugar. Allow to proof for at least 10 minutes. In a medium saucepan, melt butter. Once melted, whisk in buttermilk and heat until just warm to the touch. Add eggs and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the mixing attachment, combine 2 cups flour with other dry ingredients. Mix in buttermilk mixture until a smooth dough forms. Add yeast mixture until combined. Switch to dough hook. Add flour 1/2 cup at a time until dough comes together and starts pulling away from the sides of the bowl. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface, knead for 6-8 minutes. Dough should be smooth and slightly sticky to the touch. Place dough in a well-oiled bowl. Cover and set in a draft-proof place until doubled in size.

Combine Chai spice mixture and brown sugar. Punch down dough and turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Gently roll out into a rectangle. Spread most of the melted butter along the dough. Sprinkle sugar mixture along dough. Starting with the end closest to you, gently roll dough. Once fully rolled, pinch ends to keep sugar mixture from spilling out. Slice (or google the dental floss trick some people use) into 12 pieces. Place in a buttered 9″x 13″ baking pan. Brush the rolls with the remaining butter mixture. Cover and proof until doubled in size.

While rolls are proofing, whisk together all ingredients for glaze in a small bowl and leave in fridge until ready to use.

Preheat oven to 375* F. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Allow to cool for 5 minutes, then spread on desired amount of glaze. Once cool, rolls can be stored in an airtight container for 3 days or frozen individually and kept for up to 2 weeks.

 

Yum!

Yum!

Camping Cuisine, Part 2: Cold Brew Coffee

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I would like to say that coffee is of little importance to me. That I could take it or leave it on any given day. But, I’d be wrong. After several years working long hours in the veterinary field, followed by working and attending culinary school, then moving on to being a cook, I’ve managed to make coffee a permanent fixture of my life.

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Dear coffee: I love you

So of course, when I consider a camping trip, I always want to consider my means for caffeine consumption. In the past, I’ve broken down and purchased the little Starbucks “instant coffee” packets. I was always disappointed by the somewhat chemically taste of them. This is why I’m so pleased with the solution I’ve found: homemade cold brew coffee concentrate. It is likely you’re camping during the hot summer months, so you won’t mind starting the day with a glass of iced coffee. The process also allows for maximum caffeine extraction. A little of this stuff will go a long way. Alexir and I affectionately refer to it as “rocket fuel”.

The term “cold brew” refers to the fact that the coffee grounds are allowed to steep in room temperature water. As you might imagine, there is a relation between the temperature of the water and the time the grounds need to steep. Plan ahead, as you would with most camping food preparation.

A few reminders:

* Use a really high quality coffee. Fresh coffee that has been recently roasted and ground at home will have a much better flavor than the cheap stuff.

* Use filtered water. It seems like an unnecessary reminder, but in the heat of the moment, I will reach my measuring cup for my sink spout. Just remember you’re not heating the water at all, so any impurities are just sitting in there. Buy a jug of spring water from the store if it’s easier.

*Make sure your grinder is set to “coarse”. If your grounds are fine, it will probably still taste fine, but the base will be cloudy

 

Cold Brew Coffee Concentrate

(from Bon Appetit Magazine)

6 ounces (by weight) coarsely ground coffee

3.5 cups (28 fl oz) room temperature filtered water

In a large pitcher or easy pour container, combine coffee and water. Stir until all the grounds have been moistened. Cover with cheesecloth or plastic wrap and leave undisturbed for 12-18 hours. I know this sounds like a long time, but it is worth the wait. The range of time is simply for your convenience. I feel that most of the mixes taste almost the same between hour 12 and hour 18. When in doubt, err on the side of longer. While the mix is steeping, I like to put my pitcher in a large mixing bowl in the back corner of my counter for added security. (My cat likes to snoop around my kitchen counters when I’m not at home. You don’t want to come home to spilled wet coffee grounds!)

Remove cover (DO NOT STIR or you will make your mixture cloudy). The grounds will have crept to the surface and made a solid blob on top of the liquid. You can use a butter knife to scoop out a little opening to pour through on one of the sides.

Line a fine mesh strainer with a coffee filter. Slowly pour small amounts of the mixture through the filter, allowing several minutes for the chunky mixture to filter. This whole process can take 30 minutes or more. I usually pour enough to mostly fill the filter, then go around doing dishes or other chores for a bit, then come back every 10 or so minutes and pour another filter full of the mixture. If you get frustrated at how slow things are moving, you can switch to a fresh coffee filter halfway through. With all those grounds, it can be tough to fit much liquid.

You can use immediately, or store in the fridge for up to two weeks. To serve, combine equal parts cold brew concentrate and water or milk. Play with this ratio for a while until you find what works for you. I love ridiculously strong coffee, so I go with a 2/3 cold brew t o1/3 water mix. Toss in some ice and a splash of cream, and I’m on the road to super-motivation!

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Yum!

This mix stores really well in mason jars, which are my preferred method. They keep well in the cooler, are leak-proof, and once you get down to the last serving of cold brew, you can just mix water into the jar and drink straight from it!

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Ready to assemble

 

 

Oh! And if you’re someone who likes sweet coffee, I know you hate drinking gritty sugar in your iced drinks. The easy solution: homemade simple syrup!

Simple Syrup

1/2 cup + 2 T granulated sugar

1/2 cup water

In a small saucepan, bring ingredients to a simmer. Remove from heat as soon as sugar dissolves. Transfer to heat-resistant container and allow to cool. Keeps in refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Happy caffeinating!

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East Meets West Somewhere Around Dessert

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This last weekend, Alexir and I were wandering the isles at PCC. Our conversation drifted into one of those cyclical “What do you want for dinner?” conversations where no one has an answer. We continued with the “I dunno, what do you want?” roundabout as we reached the bulk section. Alexir promptly walked up to the bin of large flake unsweetened coconut and declared “toasted coconut ice cream!”

Before I could even wrap my head around debating the legitimacy of ice cream for dinner, he had happily filled a bulk bag with the snowy white flakes and tossed it into our basket. Though I had been angling more towards what meat we should make for dinner, I had to admit that the prospect of another pastry project piqued my interest.

The typical coconut ice cream you’d picture is likely make with shredded sweetened coconut. While this is delicious, it is missing the recurrent theme that drives so much eastern food (imagine indian, moroccan, malaysian, etc): the application of heat to key ingredients. The things I love about a good curry, or a complex tagine, boil down to the spices being toasted just before use. When formulating my ice cream recipe, I used the same concept. Alexir’s recommendation for toasted coconut allows an added depth. I would describe it as “warmth”.

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Since I decided not to keep the large shreds of coconut in the ice cream base for freezing, I had to set aside time to steep it in the cream. I also elected to use a little “creamed coconut” to keep the flavor in the forefront. PCC carries the “Let’s do organic” brand, which is an almost solid packet. The only ingredient is coconut, so I didn’t have to worry myself with other weird stabilizers affecting my final project.

The best part: my house smelling like a tropical, toasty paradise when I was prepping the coconut.

This lovely dessert called for a worthy partner. Something that could offer textural contrast without overpowering the ice cream. I consulted my favorite book for such situations (The Flavor BIble). The book offers an alphabetical listing of hundreds of ingredients, followed by other ingredients whose flavors pair well. Using coconut as an example, the flavor list included cream, curry, vanilla, etc. As I was scanning the list, my eyes fell upon cardamom, and I knew it was meant to be.

Cardmom smells like some exotic secret love to me. When the little green pods start popping open, I’m intoxicated my the heady, floral notes wafting through my kitchen. If I were to make a cookie, I felt an assertive base was necessary. Chocolate it had to be. Good flavor contrast, a starkly different color than the ice cream would be, and always good as a little crisp cookie. I consulted several recipes before generating my own to make them to make what I envisioned. Instead of forming the dough into a typical cylinder to chill, I opted for a long rectangle. After cutting and baking, it made for some nice little wafers.

I grew impatient waiting for my ice cream base to chill, and *may* have spun it way too early. The result was a less-than-ideal texture. But the taste was everything I wanted. I promise I’ll be more patient in the future. But seriously, all I could think of was my favorite parts of curry (cardamom and coconut) coming together with sugar. Sweet, but not overly sweet. Rich enough that you felt satisfied with a small portion.

Like a promise of summer just around the corner. I keep sneaking into the freezer with a spoon for bites on the afternoons where Alexir works late. Wouldn’t you?

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Toasted Coconut Ice Cream

1 cup shredded, unsweetend coconut

2 cups heavy cream

1 cup whole milk

3/4 cup sugar

1 vanilla bean, split with seeds scraped out

1 Tbsp organic creamed coconut (preferably “Let’s do organic” brand)

5 egg yolks

1 tsp vanilla extract

 

Preheat oven to 350* F. Spread coconut on a baking sheet and bake 5-7 minutes, or until well toasted and fragrant.

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine milk, cream, toasted coconut, creamed coconut, and vanilla bean. Heat on medium, stirring occasionally, just until steaming. Remove from burner and allow to steep for 1 hour.

After an hour, strain through fine mesh strainer, pushing firmly on coconut pulp to remove as much of the cream mixture as possible. Return strained mixture to the pan, add sugar, and heat until just simmering. Place egg yolks in a large bowl. Drizzle cream mixture slowly into egg yolks while whisking continuously. Once fully incorporated, return to pan and heat over medium high. Whisking constantly, continue heating until base started to thicken considerably and reaches at least 175* F on a digital thermometer. Strain into large pan, whisk in vanilla extract. Cool until 45* F or cooler. Spin in ice cream maker until thick. Freeze several hours or overnight. Serve with fresh toasted coconut and cardamom chocolate wafers.

 

Chocolate Cardamom Wafers

4 oz (1 stick) salted butter

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup dark brown sugar

1/4 cup milk

1 tsp vanilla

1 cup all purpose flour

3/4 cup cocoa powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/8 tsp salt

5 cardamom pods, toasted, seeds removed and ground

 

Cream butter and sugars until fluffy. Add milk until combined.

In a separate bowl, whisk together remaining ingredients. Add mixture to wet ingredients just until combined. Turn out onto lightly floured surface and roll into logs. Wrap in wax paper or parchment paper and freeze at least 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350* F. Line baking sheet with silpat or parchment paper. Slice dough into 1/4″ rounds and place at least an inch apart on baking sheet. Bake for 8-10 minutes. Allow to cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes before moving to cooling rack. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 days.