The Cider Press – Comfort Me With Apples

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In addition to the many things mentioned in my previous post, fall also brings my favorite drink: Apple cider. I’m not talking about that Juicy Juice nonsense that comes ultra-pasteurized, overly filtered, with added sweeteners. I’m referring to the real deal: freshly pressed apple cider. As in, the kind that comes from apples you’re holding in your hand one minute, and that are crushed to release their delicious brownish gold nectar the next.

Alexir’s mom grew up on a farm just outside of Arlington, WA, which has since been passed on to her aunt and uncle. I’ve heard her mention “the cider press” several times during the time I’ve been dating Alexir, but we’ve been busy each year when the time comes.

This year however, we were determined to make it work. Despite both having to work in the afternoon, Alexir and I roused ourselves from sleep hours before our normal time (8am feels so much earlier than 10) last Sunday and followed Lynelle up to the farm. There was going to be a potluck, so I dug some of our summer peaches out of the freezer and made a little peach upside down cake.

20140928_002919When we arrived, I was expecting to see a few apple trees and a pumpkin or two. Instead, there was an orchard with at least 20 trees, including others scattered about the property. I even spotted a pear tree or two in the mix. Unlike so many of the gnarly, sickly apple trees you find in the more urban areas, these trees were thriving. Their branches drooped from the weight of all the fruit they bore.

20140928_111655This was after Aunt Kate and Uncle Den has spent the morning picking 10 milk crates or more full of apples.

20140928_111710  They had also been kind enough to load a table full of various apples, tomatoes, beets, and other garden delights in easy-to-transport containers for us. Like a free farmers market.

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Apples and tomatoes!

I could hardly contain myself

And beet, oh my!

And beet, oh my!

As if the apples weren’t enough, Kate and Den also kept a 20×20 ft vegetable and herb garden in their upper field AND a squash patch in their lower field. They invited us to pick whatever looked good, as they didn’t want anything to go to waste. I was hesitant at first, not wanting to take much of this bounty they had grown for themselves. Then I saw their basement

REAL farm preserving

REAL farm preserving

They had shelves upon shelves or various jars with pickles, jams, syrups, vinegars, and *hello* raspberry wine!

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Corn relish, complete with a note for the recommended application come the right time.

Corn relish, complete with a note for the recommended application come the right time.

This wasn’t counting the numerous bins of giant curry, acorn, and butternut squash littering the floors. Food, real food, everywhere!

Pickles!

Pickles!

Rhubard Syrup. Yum!

Rhubard Syrup. Yum!

After spending a few minutes in there, I realized they were serious about sharing fruits and veggies with the family. We strolled down to the lower field to pick out some pumpkins as we waited for other family members to arrive.

Decisions, decisions..

Decisions, decisions..

I could not keep myself from taking just a few pictures. With a light misting on everything, it looked extra pristine.

20140928_101749Between the pumpkin plants, I discovered red and blue hubbards, oblong acrons, and little itty bitty butternut. While slowly at first, I ended up with a bucket full of treasures.

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Giant sugar pumpkins

Giant sugar pumpkins

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Love that long stem

pumpkins

We carried our bounty back to the car to prevent any confusion about what belonged to who later.

I asked him to pick a small one.

I asked him to pick a small one.

We were invited to take our pick of the upper field as well. I could’ve stayed in the garden for hours. Monstrously large versions of every vegetable. Each time we reached for a “normal” sized bunch of greens, the vegetable that emerged was easily 2-3 times the expected size.

20140928_104343A little cornfield took up the back few rows.

If you grow it, we will come

If you grow it, we will come

Even the herbs looked magnificent

Sage, in all it's dew-dropped glory

Sage, in all its dew-dropped glory

Another "pick a small one" moment gone terribly awry

Another “pick a small one” moment gone terribly awry

Other folks started to arrive, and we regrouped to say “hi” and start organizing for the cider press. To my surprise, they had not one, but two presses. One that was hand operated, and the other electric. Everyone started moving to their respective areas (the men hovered around the presses, and most of the women hovered around the tables for filtering and bottling) and the process began. I was mildly concerned about needing to leave early, as there were literally bushels upon bushels of apples to process.

20140928_111539ALL the apples…

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The hand press worked by breaking up the apples in a chipper-type attachment, then those pieces are fed into the main chamber. Once full, a crank on the top of the chamber pushes a solid piece down to compact the bits and release the juice.

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This flows through some wood slats and out a single spout into the catch pan. This pan is then passed over to the tables for filtering. The bin is dumped through a colander into a bucket to remove large debris (bits of apple, seeds, leaves). This is then dumped through a fine mesh into a pourable pitcher to be portioned into gallon jugs.

Lynelle helping set the filter station

Lynelle helping set the filter station

With the number of hands we had available, the process went surprisingly quick. Before I knew it, there were 6 gallons of cider lined up. Then a few more. I think we made it into the 20’s before the clock stuck 12:30 and Alexir and I had to leave to make it to work on time. Someone snapped this shot at the end of the cider press when the board was full.

Final count We sped home, our car weighed down with all the fruits, veggies, and 4 gallons of cider. I was so thankful for the opportunity to not only observe the farm, but be a part of a very “farm” process.

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It was such a whirlwind getting to work that I didn’t even empty the car (except to refrigerate cider). After work, I spent a good hour cleaning, trimming, and admiring everything we’d picked. Cue montage of sexy food pics

A little bit of everything

A little bit of everything

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My favorite picture of the day. Bitty butternuts showing off their curves

My favorite picture of the day. Bitty butternuts showing off their curves

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Beet stems. Pickled later that night

Beet stems. Pickled later that night

I loved it. The fresh air, all the real food. I’m setting myself up for a massive fruit/veggie process this weekend. I even stopped by the homebrew supply store yesterday and picked up a set to make about 2 gallons of hard cider!

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Hey, Challah, Hey! Or, How I Fell For Fall

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In the blink of an eye, the summer sun pulled back and the clouds grew heavy with rain. Each year, I watch the autumnal equinox approach with increasing anticipation.

As a child I thought it had to do with the first day of autumn bringing my birthday. The thought of gorging myself on sugary cake and opening presents was rather appealing. But as adulthood took hold, I felt the love remain even when the significance of my birthday lessened.

Looking around this week, particularly for us in the pacific northwest, it feels as though a love story of epic productions is unfolding before me. The mistress of summer, hair the color of spun gold and filled with a rainbow of flowers, clad in grassy green. She runs barefoot and free through the sand. And then there is her beau, the tireless worker gentleman of fall; in clothes of orange, yellow, and brown. He toils away, harvesting and storing in anticipation for the hard times. Their reunion, albeit brief, is so full of joy, the sky can’t help but weep from happiness. The trees explode in celebrations of color, giving their last gifts before retiring to become food for next year’s plants.

We as people of the state known mostly for rain, seem to welcome this with a great degree of happiness. While summer is the time for exploration and freedom, I find many people pushing to overdo it, struggling to fit every ounce of fun in every moment of sunlight. As the fall comes, people stretch out their arms not to feel them bare in the sun but to hold one another. Chillier weather brings more hugs, comfier clothes, hot cocoa dates, longer cuddles in bed in the mornings, and a greater willingness to stand over a hot stove and pour some love into fall food.

Alexir could sense it in me at the store today, and suggested I pick up supplies to make my own personal fall comfort food: lentil soup with bacon and herbs. When I go for this particular dish, I go all the way: homemade vegetable stock, all organic veggies, herbs from our porch garden, goat cheese, and homemade bread.

When we got home from the store, I was in a rush to start the process. However, our upstairs neighbor, Petros, caught sight of us and insisted we come upstairs to chat. He is both hilarious and an extremely generous soul. He also shops at Costco every few days, and brings home enough to share. We entered with our groceries, and left with a ziploc full of bay leaves. The last ingredient I had forgotten at the store!

Bread came first, and it had to be challah. Rosh Hashanah is this week, and the bakery near my work makes such beautiful crown challahs. It has been on my mind since seeing the sign. So, three hours and plenty of things to distract me later, I had a loaf of bread.

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During the first proofing period, I had time to make a big pot of vegetable stock. I’ve posted a recipe previously, feel free to search previous posts. In today’s case, I had some extra veggies needing to be used up, so I added a few extra carrots, a parsnip, and a whole fennel. The resulting stock was a vibrant orange and more complex than my average.

My base was smoked bacon, sweet onion, rainbow carrots, and garlic. This was simmered until everything was tender and the veggies had a chance to soak up all the rendered bacon fat. Don’t kid yourself, you know wasting bacon fat is one of the most offensive things to a cook. “Love, peace, and bacon grease!” as an old sous chef used to say.

Smells like smoky deliciousness

Smells like smoky deliciousness

Once things were starting to brown, I added the lentils. Whole foods has a whole mess of lentils in their bulk section. I love having access to different types of lentils depending on the application. For soup, I prefer to cook them down until they start to fall apart a bit, so I opted for the local brownish pink lentils (I believe they’re chilean green variety from a WA producer).

The last 10 minutes of cooking are my favorite. All the smells come together. I finish it off with a splash of white wine. Then I wander onto the back porch in my bare feet, enjoying the rain-soaked ground, and grab handfuls of lemon thyme and chives to stir in at the last minute.

20140926_191820And, like the sudden appearance of fall, everything comes together in a flurry of toasty bread and smoked bacon. Bowls are filled with the steaming soup, a pinch of chives, a hearty crumble of goat cheese, and a slice of challah (with the likely addition of another slice halfway through the bowl).

My love letter to fall, in a bowl

My love letter to fall, in a bowl

I’ll no doubt make the same soup several times again over the course of the winter months. Any day where I have the time to devote and the desire to be comforted. Alexir really seems to enjoy it too, bonus! Here’s to the rain, sweater season, and toasty kitchens with loved ones.

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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

Standard

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!