Thursday, July 31, 2008

Pour Some Sugar on Me

Well, last week while the site was down, I had my final week of chocolate and sugar class. We were on the sugar module, which was a very different experience. I've made edible sugar- candies, caramel, spun sugar, but this was structural sugar. This was statues and objects modeled out of hot sugar...

Sugar sculpture isn't really home baker territory. It's pastry chef territory. Not trying to be snooty, but given that it's labor intensive, requires a good deal of specialized equipment and that the final product is only edible in the very most technical sense of the word, it's not really something one would bother with at home. It's also really hot. Really, really hot.

Most pastry chefs use isomalt sugar, a special sugar treated with enzymes that resists humidity better than cane sugar. (It's edible, and is used sometimes in food products, but it has some... unpleasant... gastro-intestinal side effects if eaten in too large a quantity...yuck!) The isomalt is cooked with a quantity of water until it reaches 320F. It is then poured out onto silicone mats to cool enough that it can be pulled. Pulling incorporates air and makes the sugar glossy and easier to work with. Once pulled, the sugar is placed in a Plexiglas box under a heat lamp to keep it hot enough to work with. At this point, it can be modeled, blown and pulled into desired shapes.

One day, we were supposed to practice our blown sugar by making fruits. I was bound and determined to make a pumpkin... It only took three tries! (hahaha... bleh.) I accented it with leaves and shaded it with an airbrush. I think it turned out well.

Most of the week was spent practicing for our final project. My team planned a sculpture of a Chinese dragon on a mountain with a cherry tree and a Chinese lantern. We ran into a small kink when on our practical exam day, the chef ran out of isomalt, which meant our sculpture had to be smaller and required us to be very creative in our sugar usage. All in all, though, we were happy with our final result. Enjoy...

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Bad Robot!

As you probably noticed, my blog has been down for the past week. Turns out Blogger's spam detecting robots thought my blog was spam and locked my blog until a human could review it. It's good they have precautions in place, but frustrating that I was unable to access my blog.
Thanks for still checkin' in.

Oh, and on a side note- my oven's also been fixed. Double hooray!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall...

Variety is the spice of life, right? That's why ice cream comes in a mind-boggling assortment of flavors, it's why Madonna changes her look every five years or so, and it's why Coaster's Pub in Melbourne, FL offers over 120 varieties of beer. Yeah, you read that number right. According to their website, they offer at least 127 different kinds of beer. Sure, you can get a Bud Light or a Michelob Ultra, but why would you when you could sample something unique like a Holy Mackerel (brewed right here in Melbourne, FL)?

Kyle and I (and our friends) visit Coaster's at least once a month, sometimes more, and the most difficult part of the visit is always selecting your first beer. Do I want a stout? An IPA? A Hefe Weisse? It's a daunting decision, which is why we were so excited when we went for lunch last weekend and our server told us that they'd be hosting a beer tasting! Of course, we were there yesterday (the day of the event), with bells on for the tasting, which did not disappoint.

For $20, you could buy 12 tickets (baseball cards, actually, which we found entertaining). Each card could be redeemed for a 4oz sample pour of your choice of 70 beers. Kyle and I split a 12-pack of tickets, as did the two friends that joined us. However, we all made sure to order different beers, and we'd pass ours around to table, meaning that in actuality, we sampled about 24 different kinds! (We also instituted a scoring system, which sparked some very lively debate!)
The six beers I sampled were- Rogue Chocolate Stout (a stout, obviously), Lukaya Two Tail Ale (a pale ale, brewed in Vero, FL), Chimay Premier (a Belgian dubble), Dogfish Head Raison D'Etre (a Belgian experimental), Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA (an Imperial IPA) and Cooper's Sparkling Ale (an English pale ale). I really liked all my choices, but my favorites were the Rogue Chocolate Stout, which was dark and "chewy" with a wonderful bitter chocolate and cocoa aftertaste, and the Dogfish Head Raison D'Etre. Raison d'etre is a French phrase that roughly translates to "a reason for existing"- which I thought seemed like a pretty steep claim for a beer. However, this one came close- it had a beautiful golden brown color and a rich, slightly caramel-y flavor. Both were very good.

You can't drink all that beer without something to munch on, and the menu at Coaster's offers plenty of options. For the most part, it's good old fashioned pub grub, but, damn is it good pub grub! On days when I'm feeling virtuous, I order the broiled Mahi salad, on more indulgent days I get buffalo wings (Kyle loooooves wings and we've eaten our fair share around town, but in my opinion, these are some of the best in Melbourne). Today, though, the "Turben" caught my eye- a Ruben, made with turkey instead of beef. Kyle agreed that it looked good, so we decided to order the "humongous" size (all the sandwiches come in regular or humongous) and split it. It arrived, and more than lived up to it's name- it was huge!!! (The picture over there is half of the humongous sandwich! Half!) It was also super yummy- the rye bread was toasty but not greasy (a common pitfall of toasted/grilled sandwiches), there was just enough sauerkraut and dressing... so good. It might just be my new favorite there.

I want to especially thank the owners, Dave and Wendy Swartz and Joe and Shannon Baun, who were so nice letting me take their pictures (and pictures in the pub). They were so warm and friendly, and you can tell just talking to them that they are really passionate about beer and what they do.

All the beers we sampled (plus more) were available on the regular menu (though the beer menu changes based on seasonal availability).
If you find yourself on Florida's Space Coast, be sure to visit Coaster's Pub, located at 971A E. Eau Gallie Blvd., Melbourne, FL 32937. (The corner of A1A and Eau Gallie.)

Friday, July 18, 2008

Oven Exorcism

I really thought today would be a nice, mellow Friday. I didn't have to work, so I woke up and had a light breakfast (Greek yogurt with berries and a cup of Earl Grey), poked around on-line a bit, then went to the library, where I paid my late fines and picked up a few books, including Heat by Bill Buford, which I have been wanting to read for sometime now. I considered several good-looking cookbooks, but decided to wait until I had a working oven. I was gone for maybe an hour, tops.

I am home for maybe ten minutes, and my oven starts beeping. "Hmm?" I say to myself as I head into the kitchen. The "pre-heated" light is blinking on my oven, and it continues to beep, which is normal for when it is preheated, but is not normal now, as the oven is off. I notice a note on the counter- "Replaced timer. Have to order baking element. Tuesday at the latest. -Maintenance Guy." I think that oh, maybe since Guy replaced the timer, it accidentally got turned on, and it's the timer going off. Upon closer inspection, this is not the case, as the timer light is not on, and the display screen mysteriously says "F2". I press the off button anyway. Of course, nothing happens, but I notice the oven (which is set to "Off") is really hot. I open the door, and the broiler is blazing away. This is not good.

I call the office (with the beeping continuing in the background) and explain the situation. Office Lady tells me as soon as Guy is back, she'll send him over. Fifteen minutes pass. The beeping hasn't stopped, and the apartment is starting to smell like a cross between an overheated computer and a hot-melt glue gun. I call again. Lady is polite but unconcerned, and firmly tells me Guy isn't back yet. I ask her to page him, she says she will.

Half an hour passes. The apartment is about 90 degrees, the air conditioning is running furiously, the beeping continues, and I move anything even remotely meltable/flammable away from the oven, which is so hot I can barely touch it. I am a raw bundle of nerves- freaked out, worried and totally pissed. I call the office again. Lady is a little annoyed and tells me Guy went home (?!*@!) but that she just sent Other Maintenance Guy out with some tickets, including mine. She says he probably went to the others first (of course, she probably didn't mention that mine might be kind of important.)

I call Kyle, angry and almost in tears (probably not helped by the fact that I have been to scared to go anywhere near the kitchen to make myself lunch and I am starving), and whine about the situation to him.

Half an hour later and still nothing. My head hurts, and I'm not sure if it's hunger, the beeping (which continues, uninterrupted), stress or the fumes. I call Kyle again. His co-worker suggests flipping the circuit to the oven, and I feel stupid for not thinking of that over an hour ago. I flip the circuit off, and the beeping stops, finally. I put our oscillating fan in front of the oven, grab a banana, and collapse on the sofa.

Finally, three hours and fifteen minutes after the whole ordeal began, Other Guy shows up. "Your oven doesn't work?" he asks. (Clearly, Lady didn't explain the situation to him. Grrr.) I explain the situation to him, and he seems concerned. He fiddles around with the now-cool oven and replaces the new timer with the old timer. When he flips the circuit, everything is back to the way it was before. Not normal, just the way it was before. He tries the oven out. "It still doesn't heat up," he says. "I guess Guy's ordering that part." I tell him I don't care right now, as long as the beeping stops and the oven won't burn down the apartment.

I finally eat something when he leaves- some cherries, some soy crisps and two microwaved s'mores. I'm so frazzled now... It was a long day. So, the devil is still in my oven, but at least its quieted... For now...

To the Moon!

Recently at pastry school, I've been in a chocolate and sugar class. It was divided into two sections, chocolate and sugar. (You probably could have guessed that...) We just finished the chocolate section Wednesday, which ended with a final project- a chocolate centerpiece. I'll be honest, I liked making bon bons and truffles and chocolate candies, but the centerpiece was a stressful affair.

In case you've never worked extensively with chocolate before (which I hadn't prior to this class- though I had eaten chocolate extensively) there are several steps required to ensure that your chocolate will dry smooth and shiny, will be hard and will release properly from molds. Every kind of chocolate you will ever buy, from a plain ol' Hershey's bar to a box of Godiva truffles (yum!) has gone through this process, called tempering.

Tempering is basically a process in which you melt your chocolate to a specific temperature (it varies by the type of chocolate), then you pour it out and paddle it on a marble or stainless steel table until it cools to a specific temperature, then you warm it back up to another specific temperature. If you don't temper chocolate, it won't harden properly, it will have a grainy texture and it will have a sticky feel.

After tempering the chocolates (we had to use white, milk and dark in our sculptures) I poured them out, let them cool slightly and cut out my pattern pieces (which I had made from paper the day prior). Once all the pieces were cut out and cooled, I carefully assembled them using more melted chocolate and a special cooling spray that cools the chocolate so it sets faster. Some were assembled flat, others were assembled once the piece was upright on the base. The final touch was some bon-bons and chocolate garnishes on the base, some edible luster dusts and filigree work.

Mine, as you can see, was space themed, with a comet, stars and the aurora borealis. (The aurora borealis was done with colored cocoa butter and luster dusts.) From the base to the tip of the comet's tail was probably about 15in. Chef liked it, and I got an excellent grade, which was gratifying, as my goal for the project was to make something that at least wouldn't collapse under its own weight.
We just started working with sugar last night, which is a very different process. Much hotter. I should probably stock up on burn cream.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Red Beans and Rice Didn't Miss Her

As previously mentioned, the oven is out of commission. Still. And no one has come by to look at it. Still. I may need to make another phone call.

With the oven broken, my plans for Boston-style baked beans were out, but in addition to the bag of white beans I had in the pantry for that, I had a bag of small red beans. I also always have brown rice on hand, so I decided to take a culinary trip a little south of Boston and make a Louisiana favorite- red beans and rice.

Red beans and rice is a staple of Louisiana Creole cooking (which is different from the more rustic Cajun cuisine). It was traditionally served on Mondays, which were laundry day, as a housewife could put the pot of beans on the stove and let it simmer while she focused her attention on the wash. Soaking your beans overnight cuts down on the cooking time a bit, but it'll still take at least two hours to cook. I didn't do the laundry while mine was cooking, but I did go to the gym and got some paperwork done...
Contrary to popular belief, Creole and Cajun cuisine isn't traditionally melt-your-face spicy. (We can thank the 90s "blackened-everything" fad for that- not saying I don't occasionally like a bit of blackened fish or tofu, but it's not really representative of the cuisine as a whole). There is a bit of spice, but its more about the depth of flavor, rather than making it so hot it doesn't taste like anything. These beans have just a hint of spicy bite, a slight smokiness and a unique creaminess. Just thinking about them makes me want to eat! You serve them over white or brown rice- I prefer the nuttiness and slightly chewy texture of the brown rice, personally.
I started my dish with a small amount of andouille sausage, a smoked, coarse Cajun sausage that is lightly spiced. Since the sausage is really just for flavor, rather than the focus of the dish, I only used about 4oz for the whole pot. To spread it out, I cut it lengthwise, and then into thin half-circle coins. This made big enough pieces that every now and then, you got a pleasant bite of sausage. I sauteed the sausage a bit in the pot to melt out some of the fat (andouille is already cooked.) Since I used chicken andouille (by Aidell's), I knew there wouldn't be much fat, so I added about a tablespoon of canola oil to the sausage. If you were using a regular pork andouille, you wouldn't need the additional fat. If you can't find andouille, you could use kielbasa or even hot Italian sausage. Of course, the dish is easily made vegetarian with the omission of sausage.

Between the andouille and the "holy trinity" (what Cajun and Creole cooks call the mixture of onion, celery and green peppers), the beans make the whole house smell delicious! If you can smell that smoky, oniony, garlicky goodness all day and not get hungry, you have a will of iron, my friend!

Red Beans and Rice

Serves 4 hungry people

  • 1 1/2cups dry small red beans or kidney beans, soaked overnight and drained
  • 4oz andouille sausage, cut into half-circle coins (optional)
  • 1Tbsp Canola oil, if needed
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 green pepper, chopped
  • 3 ribs celery, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 2tsp Cajun seasoning or 1/4tsp cayanne, 1/4 tsp dried oregano, 1/2 tsp ground pepper and 1tsp salt
  • A few dashes hot sauce (I like Tabasco's Chipotle Sauce)
  • Water (as needed)

In a large pot, cook andouille and oil (if using a lower-fat andouille) until andouille is fragrant and some of the fat has cooked out. Add the onion, celery, green peppers and garlic and cook until onion just starts to soften. Add the beans and enough water to cover (about 4 or 5 cups). Add the bay leaves, spices and hot sauce. Bring to a rapid boil and cook for about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to med-low and cover pot. Check on the beans every 20-30 minutes- give them a stir to prevent sticking and add a cup or two of water if needed to keep beans covered. After about 2 hours taste a bean to check doneness. If bean is still crunchy, cover pot and cook another 30-60min. If bean is done, adjust seasoning, adding more salt and spices if desired. If the beans are "soupier" than you prefer, remove the lid and bring the beans to a boil for a few minutes to cook off some of the liquid.

Serve beans over cooked white or brown rice, with a bottle of hot sauce on the side.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Oven Drama

Monday, I boiled some pasta and made a lovely goat cheese and Parmesan cheese sauce. I put it in a casserole dish and artfully arranged tomato slices, chopped kalmata olives and a panko/olive oil crust on top. I put it in the oven for half an hour and... Nothing happened. My oven is broken.
The range still works, but the actual oven itself barely heats up. This is frustrating, as, ironically, all my meal plans this week needed to be baked. Of course.
I called the apartment office yesterday, but no one has stopped by to look at it yet. They're re-finishing the breezeways at the apartment, so I think maintenance is a little tied up with that activity... So it may be a while before I have an oven again, which makes me a little sad, as I had some baking I wanted to do. Guess it'll have to wait.
I also re-worked my meals for this week to use the stove only- luckily, the ingredients for the other meals will keep. Right now I have some red beans boiling on the stove top, and they smell heavenly! Yum!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Marshmallow 101

It was a busy weekend, but my Sunday evening was nice and open, so Kyle and I planned to make marshmallows. As luck had it, while I was getting my ingredients ready to go, my sister-in-law called and asked if she could stop by. Of course we said yes, and she helped the marshmallowing by being our official session photographer.

There are several advantages to homemade marshmallows- the taste of a fresh homemade marshmallow blows store-bought marshmallows out of the water (or the hot cocoa), they melt nicer, you can make them any flavor you want (mint? vanilla bean? Yum!), plus you know and control the quality of the ingredients. Homemade marshmallows don't contain high-fructose corn syrups, preservatives, artificial flavoring (unless you choose to use them) or food dye (even plain white marshmallows contain blue food dye. Weird, right?) Also, everyone is super-impressed by your mad culinary skills when you serve them a homemade marshmallow!
As I mentioned, making marshmallows is really pretty simple, and the prep only takes about 30-45min, but once the process is started, you can't really stop. You'll want to have everything you need- equipment, tools and weighed ingredients ready-to-go. (The fancy-pants culinary term for this is mise en place, which translates roughly to "put in place".)

  • Be mindful- You will be cooking a hot sugar syrup. This is probably not the safest activity for young children. I am not responsible for burns or injuries.

Also, to give proper credit, I did not create this marshmallow recipe- it was given to me by my tres French chef instructor at school. I do not know where he got it, as it was handwritten on a slip of paper.

As far as tools and equipment goes, you will need-

  • A candy or digital thermometer
  • A saucepan
  • A heat resistant spatula or wooden spoon
  • A stand mixer or hand mixer, large stainless steel bowl, and a buddy
  • A well buttered glass 9x13 pan
  • A small bowl
  • A scale
  • A sifter or fine meshed sieve
  • Pizza cutter
  • A timer

Collect your tools and then weigh your ingredients (sorry, this is a by-weight recipe. Digital scales are about $20 at Target or Bed Bath and Beyond. It's a good investment.)


Makes 60+ marshmallows

  • 6oz water
  • 16oz sugar
  • 1.25oz honey
  • flavoring of your choice (I used 1/2tsp vanilla bean paste)
  • 1oz unflavored powdered gelatin
  • 6oz ice-cold water (in addition to above quantity)
  • 5 egg whites
  • 1.25oz sugar (in addition to above quantity)
  • About 1c confectioners sugar and 1c cornstarch sifted together
Once you have everything weighed out-

In your small bowl, dissolve the powdered gelatin in the ice water. Stir to ensure there is no dry gelatin. It will be very thick.

Attach your candy thermometer to your saucepan. Put water, honey and your flavor in the saucepan and heat on med-low until honey dissolves. Once honey dissolves, add the 16oz of sugar. Stir gently to dissolve the sugar, then allow to cook undisturbed until it reaches 275F. (This is sometimes called the "soft ball" stage.) Use extreme care with hot sugar!

Once sugar reaches 275F, carefully remove thermometer, and stir in gelatin paste. The sugar will bubble when the gelatin dissolves- this is because the water in the gelatin is boiling off in the hot sugar. Again, be careful. (You can see it bubbling a little in my picture.)

Set sugar aside for a moment and whip egg whites in the mixer (or with hand mixer) until they are frothy and start turning white. Sprinkle on the 1.25oz sugar and continue whipping (as if making meringue) until you reach medium-stiff peaks. (When you pull the beater out and turn it upside down, the egg fluff should just barely droop at the peaks.)

If using a stand mixer, set it on low and slowly and carefully drizzle the hot sugar syrup onto the egg whites. If using a hand mixer, have your buddy hold the hand mixer and with it on low-med while you slowly and carefully pour sugar syrup over the egg whites. Pause periodically to let your buddy ensure the whites and syrup are well mixed. Once all the syrup is Incorporated, set your timer to 8 minutes, crank your mixer to its highest speed and whip it like you're in Devo.

When your timer goes off, quickly pour your marshmallow goo into your greased 9x13 pan. Smooth the top. Using your sifter or mesh sieve, dust the top generously with your confectioner's sugar/cornstarch mix. Let marshmallows set for 1-2 hours. This would be a good time to tidy up.

Once marshmallows have firmed up, gently pull them out of the pan. If you greased the pan well, this will be pretty easy. Lay the slab o' marshmallow powdered side down on a sheet of aluminum foil. Dust the unpowdered side.

Using a pizza cutter, cut your marshmallows into small cubes. Toss the cubes in your remaining sugar/cornstarch.

Voila! You're the proud owner of a big ol' pile of homemade marshmallows!Toast them, make s'mores, plop 'em in hot cocoa, eat 'em plain... the possibilities are endless!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Oh, I Know I'm a Tease!

Last night was perhaps the most glorious night of my pastry school career... We made marshmallows. I have to, perhaps, explain my deep, passionate love of marshmallows. As far as I am concerned, marshmallows are a tangible manifestation of joy, goodness and light. And I'm just talkin' about store-bought Stay-Puft type marshmallows... Homemade marshmallows, I learned last night, will turn your world around and will change your life. Maybe I'm being over-dramatic, maybe I'm speaking the dead-honest truth.

Also as it turns out, marshmallows are pretty easy to make. There's a lot of steps involved, and a bit of patience required, but none of it is difficult. I joked to one of my partners last night that I wanted to make "a hundred marshmallows"- it was a joke, but our chef made it sound like one batch of fluff only made a small amount of marshmallows, so we doubled the recipe. Even accounting for the fluff we ate straight out of the bowl, and the marshmallows that never made it to the final dusting, we still had well over a hundred. Tonight, were going to cover some of them with chocolate! Eeep!

Here's some pictures of me making marshmallows, and one of Alia following good sanitation protocol, of course...

I promise a recipe and a complete marshmallow tutorial soon- I've enlisted Kyle's help this weekend to make a batch at home, so I can photograph the steps. Sorry to be such a tease, but the wait will make the reward that much sweeter!

In the meantime though, I do have a simple recipe for delish homemade hot cocoa. I pilfered a few marshmallows last night, because the thought of a big mug of chocolate chaud for breakfast was just too tempting!

Chocolate Chaud aux Guimauves
(Hot Cocoa with Marshmallows)
Serves 1
  • 1Tbsp good quality cocoa powder (preferably dutch process- I buy mine from Penzey's)
  • 1/2-1Tbsp sugar, to taste
  • 2oz boiling water
  • 8oz milk of your choice (I used vanilla soymilk)
  • pinch cinnamon (again, I use Penzey's China Cassia)(optional)
  • tinsy-weensy pinch cayenne pepper (optional)
  • Marshmallows
In a small saucepan, begin heating milk over low med-low heat. In a small, heatproof dish, whisk the cocoa, sugar and, if using, the cinnamon and cayenne. Pour the hot water over the mixture and whisk to remove any lumps. Add the cocoa slurry to the milk and heat to desired temperature. Pour in mug and top with copious quantities of marshmallows.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Simple Summer Salad

I live in Florida, and it's July. It is mind-bogglingly, eyeball-meltingly hot outside, and there's no relief in sight until... probably October. Summer always puts a crimp in my culinary style, as I love hearty soups, potatoey dishes and other warm and cozy winter-type foods. Usually I just live in denial and keep making things like split pea soup well into August. Maybe I'm getting old, but somehow, the idea of sweating while I eat has started to lose its appeal. This summer, I'm trying to keep things light and season appropriate (I can't promise that I'll completely abandon my wintery foods, but it's a slow recovery process...)

Kyle and I are super-nerds and loooove going to Epcot (we have Disney annual passes). Every now and then, we brave the polka band and eat at the Biergarten in the German pavilion. Two of my favorite dishes there are cold salads- one is a spelt salad with herbs and the other is a tomato and red onion salad with vinaigrette. They're refreshing and light, and very summery. This dish was inspired by those salads. Since I usually mix the salads together at the restaurant, I decided to combine the two into a single salad.

Spelt is a middle eastern grain, and is chewy and nutty, but it can be tricky to find at the store. Given that, and that I was too lazy to drive across town to the health food store to try to find it, I used kasha (buckwheat groat). My grocery store carries the kasha in the section with Kosher foods. Pay attention, though- it comes in several different granulations. I meant to buy a coarse grind, but spaced out and wound up buying the fine grain. The result was very much like cous-cous when cooked, and was pretty good, so if you liked, cous-cous could easily be substituted. I just kind of eyeballed the vinaigrette, and adjusted it by taste.

This salad is even better the next day after the flavors have really melded. If you're lucky enough to have a grill (which I don't) it would be great with grilled corn on the cob and a grilled portabella as a light, summery meal. Me? I ate it as a side dish with some Amy's Mushroom and Olive Pizza (yum!).

Kasha and Tomato Salad

Serves 6-8

  • 4c cooked kasha, spelt or cous-cous
  • 3 med-large ripe tomatoes, chopped
  • 1/2 red onion, finely diced
  • 1/2 cilantro, roughly chopped


  • 1/4c spicy deli-style mustard
  • 1/4c apple cider vinegar
  • 1Tbsp honey
  • 1/4c olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

In a small dish, whisk together the mustard, vinegar and honey. Still whisking, slowly drizzle in oil. Salt and pepper to taste. Toss kasha with dressing, add tomatoes, onions and cilantro. If necessary, toss in more vinegar or mustard. Chill, and serve cold.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Easy-Peasy Fruit Crisp

One of my favorite things about summer is the abundance (and affordability) of produce, especially berries! Yesterday, while grocery shopping, I walked into the produce section, and all I could smell was berries! I decided I had to make a dessert to take advantage of them. The two prettiest berries at the store were the strawberries and blueberries... I briefly considered a strawberry-rhubarb pie, but I wasn't really in the mood for something as fussy as a double-crust pie, and strawberry shortcake was out because we just had some this weekend, so I turned my attention to the blueberries. I made up my mind that a fruit crisp would be the perfect vehicle for the beautiful berries. I considered a triple berry crisp, but the raspberries and blackberries at the store were looking a little past their primes, and were also still a bit pricey. Once I got home, though, I remembered I had a bag of frozen raspberries, and decided to make it a double berry crisp. It was just as well, because the frozen raspberries hold their shape better in the finished dessert.

I love baking, but between school and work I do so much of it, that I don't usually feel like baking anything too elaborate or labor intensive for everyday home baking. (I'm a little more inclined to break out the big guns for guests...) I like fruit crisps and cobblers because they're easy and adaptable- just change your fruits, and you can make them in any season. They can also be made with frozen or fresh fruit, which adds to the versatility. (Frozen fruit is generally picked and frozen in season, meaning that it's tasty and just as nutritious as fresh, perfect for strawberry cravings in December!) For this recipe, substitute about 2-3 bags of frozen, unsweetened fruits for fresh. (Cherries, berries, peaches, rhubarb, &c work best- I would avoid mangoes, guava or other fruits that aren't normally cooked.)

This fruit crisp is delightfully easy to throw together, and is even a little lighter on butter than many recipes. Since I used fresh blueberries, which are rich in a natural thickener called pectin, I didn't use a starch thickener for my filling. The juice in the filling of this crisp has a consistency similar to chocolate syrup. If you'd like a more pie-like thickness for the filling, or if you're using fruit other than blueberries, stir 2 Tbsp of cornstarch into the sugar before sprinkling it on the fruit.

Double Berry Fruit Crisp

Serves 8

Fruit filling
  • 2 pints (about 20oz) fresh blueberries (or about 1.5 bags frozen)
  • 1 bag (about 12-16oz) frozen raspberries- unsweetened, unthawed
  • 1/2c sugar
  • zest and juice of 1 lemon

Crisp Topping (strussel)

  • 1c quick cooking oatmeal
  • 1c all purpose flour
  • 1c brown sugar (I like dark, but light is fine, too)
  • 1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks
  • 3Tbsp slivered almonds

Preheat oven to 350F. In a 2 1/2qt oven-safe glass dish (a 9x13 glass dish would work in a pinch, too) mix the blueberries and the frozen raspberries. Sprinkle evenly with sugar. Sprinkle on the lemon zest, and drizzle the lemon juice over top.

In a separate bowl, mix the oats, flour and sugar. Using your fingers or a pastry cutter, break the butter into the dry ingredients until the butter is in small bits (roughly the size of a ball bearing). Do not make a paste- the mixture will look dry and crumbly. (It should look dry, but if you squeeze some in your fist, it should stick together.) Mix in almond slices. Sprinkle all of the topping over the fruit mixture.

Bake uncovered for about 1 hour, until the fruit is bubbly and the topping is golden and crisp. Allow to cool at least 15 minutes before serving. Top with vanilla ice cream, if you'd like.

This would be a great dinner party dessert, too. Simply prep the fruit mixture and put it in the baking dish. Prep the topping and set it aside in a covered container in the fridge. Once the guests show up, sprinkle the topping on and stick it in the oven. By the time everyone's done with their entrees, the crisp should be done. Pull it out and let it cool a bit while you clear the table and make coffee for everyone, then dish up the warm crisp with vanilla ice cream. Everyone will think you are a domestic goddess (or god!)

Monday, July 7, 2008

A Retro Drive-In

On Saturday, the whole family went to dinner at a Topeka landmark, Bobo Drive In. It's a tiny, cozy, super-retro drive-in that has been in Topeka for almost 60 years. It is no longer in the Bobo family, but the current owners inherited the original recipes and have stayed true to tradition. With someplace this entrenched in local culture, you have to. My grandparents are full of stories about friends who had their first dates at Bobo 50 years ago, and hell, looking around the joint confirms that a good percentage of the staff have been there for longer than I've been alive.

Recently, it was featured on an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on Food Network. You can actually catch the episode several times this month, if you're curious. I don't know if it was the publicity or if it was typical, but the place was slammin' when we were there. We luckily got tables, but right after we sat, the other booths and the counter filled, and people were standing in the small dining room. I tried getting some interior shots, but it was just too crowded. I did get one of the menu, though. Kyle and I both got regular cheeseburgers, and shared an order of onion rings. The two house specialities are the Spanish Burger (a hamburger with a sweet and spicy tomato sauce) and their homemade apple pie. Kyle and I were too stuffed to even think about pie (I feel like all I did this week was eat!), but Grampa was kind enough to let me photograph his pie before he tucked in.
Like I've said, I'm not really much of a meat-eater, especially red meat, but Bobo has good burgers. They're thin patties (of course fresh, not frozen- this is beef country!) that are cooked on a flat griddle and are liberally salted while cooking, resulting in a crispy, salty crust that's pretty darn tasty. Though generally I prefer a veggie burger, if I'm going to eat the real deal, these rank up there.
If you ever find yourself in the Topeka area, and are craving a burger, you can find Bobo at 2300 SW 10th Ave.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Get the Hell Out of Dodge

It's been difficult to find a few spare moments to use the computer this week. We leave Kansas this evening, and for the most part, the morning is unplanned, so I was able to sneak online. (However, I can't get my father's overly complicated uber-computer to upload my pictures to my blog, so I'll put up pictures once I'm back home on my computer.)

We left Florida on Wednesday super-ridiculously early (once at the airport, I had to wait for the coffee shop to open- that's early.) My mom picked us up at the airport, then we picked up my dad (he had a doctor's appointment) and we left for Dodge City at about one. From Topeka to Dodge City is about a four hour drive, so we really spent the whole day traveling.

First, a brief history of Dodge City-
Dodge City was once considered "The Queen of the Cowtowns" and was at one point in time or another home to Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday and Bat Masterson, amongst other well-known Western icons. The cattle industry was vital to Dodge. Cowboys would drive cattle east to Dodge, where they would sell them and ship them east via railroad. Dodge City had a reputation of rowdiness and debachery. Drunk cowboys, buffalo hunters, gamblers and other ner'do-wells would fight, creating the need for the Boot Hill Cemetary. The townspeople with families and friends would have formal funerals and were buried at Fort Dodge, but the drifters rarely had mourners, so when they were shot in a barfight, they were buried, boots and all (hence the name Boot Hill) in poorly marked graves. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Dodge City was romanticized in the radio-drama and TV series Gunsmoke.

We had reservations at the Boot Hill Bed and Breakfast in Dodge City, which was in a prime location for sightseeing, as it was just across the street from the Boot Hill Museum, just a few blocks from the restored Santa Fe Railroad Depot, Downtown, &c. Kyle and I were in the Matt Dillon Suite (as in the character from Gunsmoke) which had a balcony that overlooked what remains of the Boot Hill Cemetary. Oooooh... Creepy!
Our first night, we got tickets to the chuckwagon dinner and saloon show at the museum. Dinner was very midwestern- Beef brisket, roasted potatoes, coleslaw, creamed corn and biscuits. I'm not really much of a carnivore, so I only had a bite or two of the beef, and mostly filled up on carbs. The food was good, but nothing fancy. Afterwards, there was a staged gunfight in the street, and then we filed into the saloon for the variety show. It was corny, and the performers were certainly not Broadway-bound, but it was fun, and a good way to end our first day. (As you can see, Kyle was excited to get his picture with the saloon girls!)

Day two (really our last day, as it was just an overnight trip) was spent at the Boot Hill Museum. We were suprised, because from the street, it just looks like a re-creation of a Western street front, but inside, there is a large variety of historical artifacts and information on the history of Dodge City. Up by the cemetary is another museum building (only a couple years old) that focuses more on the history of the Americn West. They're very well done and infromative- I could have spent several more hours there, but we were on a bit of a schedule.
After the museum, we drove another 10miles west of Dodge to see the ruts of the Santa Fe Trail and then headed back eastward towards Topeka.

I'll have a more food-centric post in the next couple days!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Snack Smarter

Tonight Kyle and I are heading into Orlando. We booked a room at a hotel near the airport to make tomorrow morning a little less heinous. Our flight leaves at 6:30a, which means even staying close to the airport, I'm going to have to wake up at a quarter til way too freaking early. One of the (many) things I hate about waking up early is that it throws off my eating for most of the day. I have to eat breakfast early, which then means I'm ready for lunch at about 8:00a, which then makes me sad because I know lunch is still four hours away... And when traveling that means I probably eat fast food for breakfast, and then I'll eat whatever the stewardesses toss at me on the plane (gross peanuts, pretzels, weird cookie-biscuit things, SkyMall magazine...) and I'll probably still buy a snack at our destination. All before lunch. Not really a good plan.

I decided this time to think ahead and get some healthy snacks to bring in my carry-on. I got enough for the plane, but also for our sightseeing day in Dodge City (so excited! Eeep!) so I won't have to rely on the stewardesses, gas stations and vending machines for nourishment.
I bought:
  • Maple brown sugar organic instant oatmeal. (about all that's open at the airport as early as we're going is McDonald's and Starbucks. I figure I can get a soy latte and a cup of hot water at Starbucks and make the oatmeal for breakfast. That and an apple should be a good start.)
  • 1oz bags of almonds (Kyle hates it when we get pretzels instead of peanuts on the plane, but the peanuts are always greasy and icky, I think. This will be a much better on-plane snack option if he gets hungry. It's also easy to carry in my purse for sightseeing.)
  • Dried cherries
  • Apples (The easiest and sturdiest fresh fruit option I could think of.)
  • Kashi granola bars (These I actually had in the pantry already- look! Pumkin Spice ones!)
  • Cheddar Mini Rice Cakes (in case we get in the mood for something a little more junk-food-esque.)
  • True lime packets (I love these- it's dehydrated lime juice in a little packet. I like to add these to bottled water. I find it encourages me to consume more water, and everyone knows how dehydrating airplane air can be.)
  • Tea bags

I'll be portioning out the dried cherries and rice cakes into smaller baggies for ease and convienience. I really think this "emergency food kit" will help me avoid my regular travel downfalls. It gives me a healthy breakfast, as well as filling, nutritious snacks to hold me over until lunch or dinner.

On a non-food note, I also am bringing my ipod, to which I downloaded some cardio workout videos from, in case I have time/feel inclined to exercise on vacation. We'll see if that happens.

My next post will be from Kansas!