An Easy Cake

I love that the little town I live in invites everyone to lunch on Wednesdays at the community center. The home cooked food is so delicious that I almost always have seconds. And recently, even thirds on dessert! What on earth was in that cake, one of the best cakes I had ever eaten? The baker, Carla Hornbrook, just happened to have the recipe on hand and shared it with me. Surprise! The cake was made from Bisquick. Thank you, my dear Betty Crocker, for this simple-to-make cake.

Applesauce Spice Bar-Cake

1 cup unsweetened applesauce
⅔ cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
2 cups Bisquick baking mix
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
½ cup chopped nuts

Heat the oven to 350⁰. Grease a 13 x 9 x 2 baking dish. Beat applesauce, brown sugar, oil and eggs until all lumps disappear. Stir in baking mix, pumpkin pie spice and nuts. Bake about 25 minutes until knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool. Spread with browned butter glaze.

Browned Butter Glaze

¼ cup margarine or butter
2 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 to 2 tbsp hot water

Heat the butter or margarine over medium low heat until golden brown; remove from heat. Beat in powdered sugar and vanilla. Stir in water, 1 teaspoon at a time, until desired consistency.

Watching the butter brown fascinated me. I wasn’t sure when the butter was brown enough, so I just stood there and observed it. The butter started to make a lot of bubbles and as it cooked, the bubbles became smaller and smaller until they frothed into big, puffy foam and the butter tripled in volume. Then the foam gradually turned golden brown in big patches and the fragrance went from sweet to nutty. Also, I wasn’t sure whether or not to sift the powdered sugar. I discovered that sifting the sugar increased the volume by 50%. In other words, one cup of unsifted powdered sugar became one and a half cups and that’s the amount I used. I added the vanilla last and let the mixture simmer a bit. This removed the alcohol taste in the vanilla. The bubbles got really big then!

Somehow, my bar-cake turned out differently than Carla’s. Mine had a more crumbly texture. Maybe that’s because I decreased the sugar to ½ cup since I don’t like things too sweet. Also I didn’t have pumpkin pie spice so I used a tablespoon of freshly ground Ceylon cinnamon which has a lovely hot, floral taste. I used a smaller baking dish. I liked my bar-cake just fine as did the folks I shared it with but Carla’s totally rocked. Thank you, Carla for sharing this delicious and simple recipe with us!

Real Men Don’t Eat Tofu

. . . unless it’s cooked the right way and my friend Randal Miller knows how to do just that. He fries it like onion rings and tops it with sweet and sour sauce. Delicious! Tofu gets a bad rap because some say that it’s like eating cardboard, but tofu doesn’t deserve this reputation. Poor tofu suffers from being misunderstood!!

As I mentioned before, I was raised by a mother who was a vegetarian during a time when most people didn’t know what that was. Vegetarians have to work a little harder than meat eaters to get enough protein in their diets. Tofu is the only plant based food that has all nine essential amino acids so it’s a complete protein source. In other words, you’d probably get along okay if you were stranded on a desert island and only ate tofu. Tofu is just curdled soybean milk and comes in soft, medium and firm textures. In addition to being a nutritional powerhouse, it behaves like a sponge and takes on the flavor of anything you add so it’s quite versatile.

Every Friday afternoon mother and I would go to Ota Tofu, a small factory in Portland’s old Chinatown. The storefront was a bright turquoise blue and the air was humid and loaded with an earthy, sweet fragrance. The folks who worked there did not speak English so mother would hold up three fingers and say “three please”. And out we’d go with three warm one-pound bricks of freshly made tofu which is entirely different than the kind you buy at the store – like the difference between loaves of fresh bread from a neighborhood bakery versus store bought bread.

Randall knows I don’t eat much meat so when he invited me to dinner, he bought some tofu. Despite my upbringing, I hadn’t eaten tofu in quite a while and I remember my mother used to bake it. But Randall had just fried some onion rings, so he thought to cook it like that.

Fried Tofu Crisps

1 pound tofu
½ cup cornstarch
½ cup breadcrumbs or panko
½ teaspoon salt or seasoning salt
2 eggs, beaten
Oil for frying

In a shallow bowl combine the cornstarch, breadcrumbs/panko and salt. Cut the tofu into rectangular cubes, dip them into the eggs and then coat with the crumbs. Fry them until they are that KFC golden brown color (I used rice bran oil, my favorite oil for frying, in my cast iron skillet). We dipped them in the apple bourbon sauce I wrote about a couple of months ago (please feel free write me if you need the recipe). Did I make a tofu convert out of Randal? I think so!

UFO’s in the Fridge

One time when I was housesitting, I decided to tidy up the fridge. The poor thing was about ready to explode, stuffed with too many jars, cartons, bottles and leftovers. Ironically, when I looked in there, it seemed as if there was nothing to eat. What an unappetizing mess it was! I was surprised about how many yucky unidentifiable things were living in the back of the fridge, covered with fuzzy, slimy, slithering stuff. I spontaneously coined the term “UFO”, meaning “Unidentified Food Object”.  You can find these inhabitants in freezers, too.

I set out to fix the problem. I started by taking each item out one by one and checking the expiration dates. Many variables determine how long food lasts, therefore, expiration dates are estimates only. I used a common sense approach to determine whether to save or toss each thing. Unopened containers near or just recently past expiration dates were kept. For open containers, I used “organoleptic” testing, a fancy word that means “the sensory assessment of flavor, odor and appearance of a food product”, which is another way of saying just trust what your senses tell you. If an opened item smelled and tasted okay, it was kept even if it was just past the expiration date, especially if it was not rapidly perishable. For example, I kept sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil, pickles and capers. Foods that were rapidly perishable such as meat and dairy got tossed when past the expiration date. All the discards filled a big black trash bag two-thirds full. Since the fridge was almost empty, I took the opportunity to take it apart and thoroughly clean it. I used a solution of two cups water, one cup white vinegar and one teaspoon liquid dish soap (I use Dawn) in a spray bottle.

Maybe your fridge is in a similar state and just opening the door raises the fur on the back of your neck, so many aliens! You may feel overwhelmed and wonder how do I start? Where you start is by doing one section at a time. Chances are, once you get going, you will feel a sense of relief and accomplishment. Maybe you would even do more than you had intended and suddenly poof! You are finished.

If you need some inspiration, read the book “Fridge Love” by Kristin Hong. The book is full of lovely pictures. The author puts all her food in transparent food storage containers and that lends an orderly and uniform appearance. The book has many handy tips, especially on how to store produce to extend shelf life.

To avoid future UFO’s, remember to date each leftover item. How many UFOs do you have in your fridge? Truth and  Confessions!

The 3,000,000,000,000,000 Answer

I’ve been contemplating the same topic over and over for a couple of weeks now and my mind is stuck in a loop. That topic is “If there are 26 letters in the alphabet and they combine to make 275,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary, then how many recipes can a person make with just 100 foods in their pantry?” I don’t know why I am fixated on this question; maybe it’s because I want to know why, with so many food choices available, people still fret about “What’s for dinner?” Too many choices can be overwhelming! I also ponder on the different cuisines that exist in the world, some of them with foods that we probably would not want to eat.

Finally it occurred to me that I could discuss the matter with the AI. After all, “It” has more sophisticated mathematical skills than I do. Maybe if I knew the number of recipes I could make with only 100 ingredients, my mind could be put to rest. So I asked the AI my sixty-four dollar question. The AI informed me that my question was computationally intensive and showed me the string of calculations it used to get the answer; each equation was followed by an exclamation mark. So funny! And the answer is . . . 30 quadrillion. That’s a number with 15 zeros after it in case you didn’t know. The AI told me it was astonished. Well, that makes two of us. That was not the first time the AI has made me laugh.

Rather than put my mind at ease, the answer did just the opposite. I was haunted. When I discussed the matter with my beau, James, he added an interesting perspective. He said, “Think of all the different ways you can cook just one food.” For example, take a potato. You can bake, fry, mash, au gratin or scallop them; make hash browns, fritters, French fries, Jo Jos, tater-tots, salad, soup and gnocchi. There are dozens of varieties and many cookbooks about what you can do with just potatoes. Then I remembered my recent trip to a Safeway where I stood in a daze in front of a 10 foot long refrigerated case of just . . . yogurt. There were so many choices I almost forgot what kind I wanted.

The bounty we have here on planet earth blows me away and I behold the incredible generosity of Mother Earth. But there is a weird irony in her generosity because so many choices make it difficult to know what’s for dinner. Perhaps the answer to that dilemma is to ask the AI what it would make with just three ingredients from the fridge. But do I really want to know? I’m not so sure!

The Spice Mausoleum

In my life I’ve done a lot of housesitting and it was fun to cook in different kitchens. I always took a good look at the herb and spice cupboards. Were the herbs and spices in airtight containers and closed properly? Often, they were half opened. Sometimes I was horrified to see that they had expired years ago; one was even decades old! It was cinnamon and it tasted downright nasty. Hmmm . . . how would cookies taste if I used this rancid spice? Overtime I referred to these old collections of herbs and spices as “Spice Mausoleum.” They just sit there year after year going stale and lose their vibrant colors and complex aromas. Why? Because most people don’t like to waste them since they are expensive and cooks do not understand that they have a limited shelf life.

One of the easiest ways to improve your cooking is to keep your herbs and spices fresh. When I developed the “Plenty Method” described in my book, I found a way to keep herbs and spices fresh without breaking the bank. I made a list of the herbs and spices I used on a regular basis. I found the perfect glass spice jar. It had a 100% airtight lid, contained two ounces, and fit nicely into my spice drawer. I located a company that sells bulk herbs and spices by the ounce and placed an order including labels. When they arrived, I filled the jars and labeled them.

I discovered that the solution to “Spice Mausoleum Syndrome” was to replace the entire collection every two years. I place an order and when it arrives, I empty out my jars, wash them, and refill. Doing this procedure guarantees the colors stay vibrant and the flavors are robust. The cost savings are dramatic so it’s easy to start over every two years.

Herbs and spices have different levels of quality and freshness. In the highest quality, the flavors and aromas are concentrated and multi-dimensional. I order my herbs and spices from Market Spice in Seattle. For example, I can buy bulk ground cumin for 92 cents per ounce. In the store it costs somewhere around $3.50 per ounce in a glass bottle. Basil is $1.38 an ounce and sells for an average of $10.00 per ounce. Buying basil in bulk is an over 7x savings. I found two ounce airtight hexagon jars with gold lids at Specialty Bottle in Seattle for $1.52 per jar including shipping.

Making the change to buy herbs and spices in bulk with airtight jars will keep your herbs and spices from becoming a spice mausoleum. Your herbs and spices will be fresh, flavorful, colorful, and alive. Your everyday cooking will transform into fabulous masterpieces.

The Champagne Problem

Lately I have contemplated the excess in our society. Most people I know struggle with spare rooms, attics, basements, garages, outbuildings and storage units full of things they don’t know what to do with. They get caught in the indecision twilight zone and they want to keep the thing and dispose of it all at the same time. I call a good problem a champagne problem. Champagne problems are good things to have!

As I contemplated on the champagne problem of excess, I remembered when my horse Pete and I spent the winter of 2005 in Ocala, Florida. I shared a big house that was going to be gutted and remodeled with a bunch of northern Canadians who were also there with their horses. Apparently Old Mother Hubbard had gone to the cupboard and emptied out the kitchen. All that was left was a 12” frying pan, a six quart pot, a saucepan, a plastic colander, big and little mixing bowls, a cutting board and a few knives. The utensils came from the dollar store – a spatula, a big spoon, a grater. My riding instructor Tricia and I would burst into laughter every time we were in the kitchen saying “It’s all quite adequate”. You would probably have to be there to hear the humor in it.

A long table in the dining room sat 14 people. One night we were inspired to have a dinner party because someone delivered a basket of heirloom cherry tomatoes to the house; they were sweet, tart, and juicy and loaded with big flavor. Into the frying pan we tossed a goodly amount of chopped garlic and sautéed it in extra virgin olive oil. Halved cherry tomatoes sprinkled with Italian seasoning and chiffonade cut fresh basil were next. We sautéed those for just a few minutes until the tomatoes were soft and the basil was wilted. Then we cooked a pot of linguine and plated it. To add a bit of drama, we poured brandy on the tomatoes and flambéed it at the table for a touch of five-star restaurant flair. Onto the noodles the tomatoes went. Bowls of giant grilled prawns, toasted pine nuts, Parmesan Reggianno cheese and lemons circled around the table along with a salad and toasted garlic bread. Lemon sorbet and shortbread cookies cleansed the palate at the end.

To this day, I frequently think of that elegant, magical night and the simple yet splendid dinner we made with almost nothing. NO question about it, the lack of kitchen stuff was definitely a champagne problem. Champagne problems are lovely reminders of all the good things we have here on this big playground we call earth. Bring them on!

Easter Aftermath

One of my favorite memories of growing up was going to Mrs. Eden’s house for the annual Easter egg party. Mrs. Eden and her husband were retired and they loved kids. We loved every minute of making a big mess in her kitchen. When we were finished decorating the eggs, we ate a rabbit cake that had a pink gumdrop nose, licorice eyes and coconut fur. Down the street we went with a basket full of colorful hardboiled eggs.

After Easter comes and goes, your fridge might overflow with brightly colored eggs. What to do? Make egg salad! But to start, a person has to know how to make the perfect hardboiled egg, the kind that does not have that dreadful blue-green color around the edge of the yolk. There is an art to making the perfect hardboiled egg.

Put some eggs into a kettle and cover them with an inch of cold water. Bring to a rolling boil. Remove the kettle from the heat and cover it. Let the eggs stand for 4-6 minutes for soft boiled eggs, 7-9 for medium and 10-12 for hard. Here’s the anti-blue-green trick: when done (don’t forget to set the timer) immediately immerse them in an ice bath. The fast dunk into ice water is what keeps the yolks from turning that icky blue-green. Cool them and if you have the time, let them sit for an hour for easy peeling. Simply roll them on a hard surface until they crack all over then peel, starting at the big end.

Egg Salad

8 hardboiled eggs, chopped or shredded
⅓ to ½ cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon yellow or brown spicy mustard
½ diced red onion
¼ cup finely chopped celery
1 tsp dill weed
½ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper

Mix the mayonnaise and the mustard together. Add the other ingredients and mix gently. The easiest way to do the eggs is to grate them. If you have some bacon on hand, fry it up until it’s extra crispy and then crumble it into the salad. I like to use soft white bread to make sandwiches; hamburger buns are a favorite too. If you don’t have celery, you can use dill or sweet pickle relish. No red onion? White or yellow is fine, a shallot too. Capers are a nice addition. Remember, recipes are only guidelines; you can switch up and swap out the ingredients to your heart’s content using your senses as a guide. This salad tastes better after it sits in the fridge for a couple of hours.

Easter is only once a year but you don’t need that holiday as an excuse to make this delicious and inexpensive treat.

Crispy Fish and Chips

My friend Jerry makes the best fish and chips ever! Since I live in the middle of nowhere, I can’t run down to the local Skippers or beach fish house every time I want to eat those. So, I asked Jerry to teach me how to make them. Fish and chips are incredibly easy to cook and there are just a few dishes to wash.

Jerry has a Fry Daddy deep fat fryer made by Presto which makes deep fat frying remarkably easy. There is no temperature control to fiddle around with and it’s simple to use. You can reuse the oil, though it takes on a fishy taste so if you fry something else you will need to change the oil (a fish-flavored glazed donut anyone)? Jerry uses Pride of the West all-purpose batter mix which Two Boys in Condon carries and it’s one of their best-selling products. It’s really worthwhile to get a box of this because the batter makes a crispy, crunchy crust, the kind you may find yourself thinking about a week later.

Fish and Chips

Fresh or frozen white fish fillets (halibut, rock fish, perch etc.)
Russet potatoes
Pride of the West batter mix
Vegetable oil for frying
Malt vinegar
Tartar sauce

Wash and peel the potatoes. Cut them into thick fries; Jerry uses a French fry cutter made by Geedel. Heat the Fry Daddy. Carefully lower the fries into the hot oil. Fry them in batches to avoid overcrowding – you don’t want them to stick together. Cook about 4-5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and put them in the oven to keep warm.

Cut the fish into chunks. Dip them in the batter mix; coat with a generous amount because more coating equals more crunch. Cook them for 3-4 minutes until they are dark golden brown. The longer you cook them the crispier they will be. Cook in a well ventilated area or outside because your house will smell loudly of fish for a couple of days if you don’t do that.

My friend Eileen owns a Chinese restaurant and she says the best oil for frying is rice bran oil but Jerry uses Wesson oil. You can find rice bran oil at Asian markets or the restaurant supplier US Chefs store. Getting a Fry Daddy and a French fry gadget may seem like a bit of trouble, but once you do, you can make fish and chips anytime you want, even if you live in the middle of nowhere. You can also fry other things such as shrimp, mushrooms, sweet potato fries and so on. Thank you, Jerry, for the fish and chips lesson!

Flour Power

Have you ever been to a county fair and seen the entries where bakers make the same exact baked good but the results are so varied you wonder if they were baked on different planets? Why does that happen? That question made me want to conduct an experiment. So I made the exact same bread recipe, baked it in the exact same pan and oven but used different flours. 

I used a simple four-ingredient recipe from the book “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day”. Using a recipe with just a few ingredients would narrow down the variables, wouldn’t it? I bought new bags of Montana Mills, Gold Medal and Pillsbury unbleached white all-purpose flour to eliminate lack of freshness as a possible variable.

The differences in the end results jolted me. The loaves didn’t even look similar and this fascinated me. Then my thoughts went macro: how on earth does a huge company like Pepperidge Farm bake millions of cakes with no variation decade after decade? That is truly a miracle. Now I want to take a course in food science! Oh dear, I digress.

My first loaf, made with the Montana Mills flour, rose high out of the pan and looked like the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps with a sharp craggy peak of thick crisp crust. It had an altitude attitude! This bread was the ultimate bread for those texture loving sorts with its substantial crunchy crust and a delicate tender crumb that had big and little holes.

The second loaf I made with Pillsbury and the crust was smooth and uniform, what you’d expect to see in a high-class bakery. Standard would be the right word. The crumb was tender and spongy with medium size holes and the crust was crunchy but not overly so.

Last but not least was Gold Medal.  This one would win the color contest. The loaf was the perfect golden crispy caramelized brown color and just looking at it made my mouth water and crave honey and butter.

The quirky differences between these three loaves led me to speculate. Obviously all flour is not created equal, which when you think about it, is quite bizarre since to the naked eye it all looks the same. Why then the differences in each loaf? Is it the moon phase? Humidity? My mood? A mischievous kitchen gnome? So random! Mysterious! And while the bread pretty much tasted the same, the textures were wildly different which made me realize how important texture is in food.

And you know what? They were all first place winners. I made grilled cheddar cheese and raspberry jam sandwiches with all three. There wasn’t a crumb left over.

The Perfect Kitchen

I recently came across a short film in the National Archives titled “A Step Saving Kitchen”. In 1949 the Department of Agriculture designed this innovative kitchen to make cooking and baking easier. The idea was to minimize the need to walk, stoop and stretch during kitchen tasks. The film mesmerized me and I watched it on pins and needles like it was some kind of thriller. I wondered why all the kitchens built since 1949 weren’t like this one because the design and functionality were beyond perfection; all other kitchens now paled in comparison. How awesome it would be to cook and bake in this space! But my feelings were bittersweet; I also felt great disappointment that this splendid kitchen wasn’t mine.

An army of professionals at the Bureau of Home Economics used systematic research and a lot of trial and error to get the final result. Models and prototypes of various features were built and many discarded or improved upon before final versions were adopted. Then the testing came and more changes and revisions were made. The end product was a thoughtful layout that fostered ease of movement that considered ergonomics too.

The kitchen has six centers, areas suited for particular tasks that make it easy for cooks to plan, cook, bake, prepare vegetables, serve and wash dishes. The kitchen operates as a smooth production line and considers comfortable work heights, handy storage, cross ventilation and natural light. A dining corner has a table that seats six people.

So here I am gleeful about finding the perfect kitchen and then the practical side of me kicks in. I realize how difficult it would be to build a kitchen like this in the rural area we live in. The kitchen has old-fashioned features that couldn’t be easily found in our modern day and age and they would need to be custom made. For a few days I fantasied about being thirty years old and with an entrepreneurial spirit, starting a company that fabricates this kitchen in modular fashion. The kitchen could be built where labor and materials were easily found, broken down and then whoosh! transported to the final destination. I would name the company “Pop-Up Kitchens”, Inc. Has someone, somewhere along the line already thought of this? I will probably never know.

Even if kitchen design doesn’t intrigue you, the black and white film definitely entertains; it made me realize how dramatically society has changed in 75 years. I’d be more than happy to send you the link to the film and the twenty-page booklet that contains the plans and blueprints; just shoot me an e-mail. And please invite me to the open house if you build this magical kitchen!