Monday, October 29, 2012

not your typical dinosaur cake

My son recently turned three.  This is when the strangers really come out of the woodwork. They take one look at my son's hazel eyes and just swoon over his unbelievable lashes.  Oh will you just look at those eyes, they say.  He is really going to give those girls a run for their money, they continue. They ask how old he is and then follow it up with a clasping of the hands, a tilting of the head, and all of those falsely nostalgic memories swimming to the surface of their minds, erupting in huge sighs and a great big, "ohhh, don't you just LOVE this age?"

I say falsely nostalgic, because they obviously don't have very good recall.

Terrible two has nothing on three.  At two, my son's language skills were just starting to develop, so his frustration would usually culminate in screaming or crying tantrums.  I would give him a minute to release his angst, and he would come around.

But now he can talk.  And he can talk well.

So these days, his frustration ends up with scathing, indignant, dastardly remarks that chip away at my heart, eyelashes or not.  Yeah, lady, I really just LOVE this age.

But then suddenly, as quickly as it had started, he looks up at me with those beautiful hazel eyes like big sage green marbles flecked with gold, those feathery lashes directing his gaze toward mine, and he says in a quiet little voice, "I'm sorry mama."  Then he falls into my arms, buries his face into my neck, gives me a long, satisfying squeeze, puts his hand on my face and asks, "are you happy, mama?"  "Yes, lovey, I'm very happy."  "I love you so much mama.  Stay with me all day."

Ok fine.  I really do love this age.

And I am really getting into this whole cake making thing.  

Having a child with a life threatening dairy allergy, I bake a lot.  I bake for birthdays, I bake for other kids' birthdays so that my son has something fun and safe to eat, I bake because it's a Tuesday, and I bake because it's sunny outside.  Or cloudy.  Or rainy.  Or Wednesday....

For my daughter's birthday, I made 3 cakes because I couldn't decide which one to do.  I also had three ideas of how to decorate.  It was a very indecisive day...  Fortunately, they all turned out pretty well, and we didn't have any leftovers.  The yellow cake was a spur of the moment happy accident which was extremely fun to do.  And to be honest, I really just love frosting (working with it as well as eating it!)

But for my son's cake, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.  Dinosaurs!!  I grabbed a sheet of paper and started to draw.  I had a lovely scene with a couple of brontosauri wading in a compositionally placed pond, with other recognizable behemoths roaming the frosting-ed terrain.  Oh, I'm sorry, apatosauri- the brontosaurus isn't actually a dinosaur anymore.

What was that, you say?  You didn't know that the brontosaurus was a fraud?  Well see, here is a little tidbit of information that really sets mama makes from scratch apart from the rest.

Way back in 1874, a remarkably complete skeleton of a brontosaurus was discovered.  The only problem is that it had already been discovered and named apatosaurus.  The previous more incomplete skeleton was from a juvenile apatosaurus, leading scientists to believe one was a smaller and completely different dinosaur.  This discrepancy was unveiled in 1903. They kept the brontosaurus name though, as a synonym.

And then, the Flintstones.  (This is my hypothesis, which will remain untested.  By me, at least.)

It may have been their brontosaurus pet, Dino, and their constant consumption of brontosaurus burgers at the drive in (which I never really thought of as being completely disturbing, but they are, in essence, eating their beloved pet), that set the scientific community on its ear to officially remove the name brontosaurus from the books in 1974.

The big scandal came in 1989 when the post office released a set of dinosaur stamps:  the t-rex, pteranodon, stegosaurus, and brontosaurus.  The public was outraged!!  Then they went on to (and here's my favorite part) accuse the post office of "fostering scientific illiteracy."  Oh, the horror!

Well, as you can see, the apatosaurus does not make an appearance on this cake.  My husband took one look at my drawing and put in his two cents.  "How about you add construction trucks to the scene, like a dig?"  Sheer genius.  I took it one step further and actually dug into the cake.  If I'm going to make an excavation, I really wanted it to be excavated.  And how excited was I to make the skeletons....  I found a recipe for marshmallow fondant, grabbed some of Ian's trucks, and set to work.  I can't wait for the next cake......

Ian, "digging" his cake......

chocolate cake

This recipe makes enough for a double decker 9" cake.  I think for this giant double decker sheet cake, I had to double the recipe for each layer.  So I had to increase this recipe 4 times for my son's cake.  His third birthday cake was a quadruple cake...

2 c. flour
2 c. sugar
1/2 c. cocoa powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 c. buttermilk (for those dairy free eaters out there, mix 1 c. soy milk with 1 tbs white vinegar; or you could use 1 c. straight coconut milk)
1/2 c. vegetable oil
2 eggs
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 c. hot coffee

Preheat oven to 350˚F.  Lightly grease and flour two 9" cake pans, and line the bottom with parchment paper.

Sift the dry ingredients into the bowl of an electric mixer and blend on low until combined.  Combine the buttermilk, oil, eggs, and vanilla.  Add wet ingredients to the dry, slowly on low speed.  With the mixer on low, very slowly add the coffee and blend until just combined.  

Pour the batter into the pans and bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.  Cool in pans for about a half hour, and turn out to a cooling rack to cool completely.

vanilla frosting

5 tbs softened earth balance butter or unsalted margarine
2 c. powdered sugar
2-3 tbs soy milk
few drops of vanilla

Combine the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer on medium low speed.  I usually drape a dish towel over top to keep the sugar from blizzarding all over the counter and on my person..  Once a ball is formed (this should take a few minutes), turn the mixer to low, and add the soy milk/vanilla a little bit at a time.  Mix until thoroughly combined, turn the mixer to high, and whip it up for about 10 minutes, stopping to scrape the bowl if needed.  Then add coloring, a drop at a time, until the desired color is reached.

chocolate frosting

6 tbs softened earth balance butter or unsalted margarine
2 c. powdered sugar
1/4 c. cocoa powder
1/4-1/2 tsp cinnamon
2-3 tbs soy milk
few drops vanilla

Sift the cocoa powder, sugar, and cinnamon together into the bowl of a stand mixer.  Add the butter and follow same directions as above.

*This frosting is very forgiving.  If you feel that it is too thin, just add more soy milk, but remember to add it slowly, mix thoroughly, and then crank it to high and whip like mad.  If it seems too thin, add more sugar, again, starting slow, mixing thoroughly, and then cranked to high.

marshmallow fondant

I only used a fraction of the recipe to make the dinosaurs (1 c. mini marshmallows, a touch of water, and a scant cup of powdered sugar), and truth be told, I only used a fraction of that.  I ate the rest.  That's right.  I ate it.  And I didn't share it with anyone...

1 bag mini marshmallows
2 tbs water, adding more if needed
2 lb bag confectioners' sugar
Crisco shortening- you'll just want to keep the lid off so you can scoop it out.  Or if you are more hygienic than I, you could put about 1/2 c. into a bowl

Place a heat proof bowl over a pot of simmering water.  Melt the marshmallows and water in the bowl, stirring occasionally with a rubber spatula, until melted.  Mix in about half of the confectioners' sugar, a little at a time, until you reach a stirring impasse.  You want it to still be malleable, but stiff enough so that it is difficult to stir.

Grease your hands and the counter with the crisco until you have a nice coating.  Turn out the marshmallow mixture onto the crisco, and knead the same way as bread or pasta dough.  Knead the mixture for about 10 minutes, adding more sugar if the dough becomes sticky.  Re-grease the counter or your hands as needed.  If the dough starts tearing, just add some water, a few drops at a time, and knead it in.  Just like pasta or bread dough, the ball will become smooth and elastic after minute 8 of kneading.  

Once you are satisfied with your dough, form it into a ball and tightly wrap it in plastic wrap.  I then put the wrapped ball into a ziplock bag and tried to get out as much air as I could.  I then put it in a cool, dark place overnight.

When you take out your dough to make figures, you may have to knead it a bit to get it going again.  If it seems too soft, sprinkle it with some sugar and knead it in.

For my cake, I used the fondant as is, but if you want to color it, you can knead in food coloring as you need it, or you could make the shapes first and then paint them with some food coloring mixed with water and a brush.  That is my next project......

Monday, October 22, 2012

buffalo barley stew

A few weeks ago, I subscribed to an organic delivery service called door to door organics.  They take fresh produce from local farmers, put it in a box, and ship it right to your door.  I used to get this a few years ago, but then when we moved I didn't set it back up.  I am so glad that I subscribed again!

This time around they have a whole shop section, where you can buy farm fresh items other than produce.  When I saw the buffalo stew meat, I just had to get some.  If you've never had buffalo meat, it really isn't that much different than cow.  It has a bit of a stronger flavor, and because it is much leaner, it tends to be a little tougher.  I thought it would make for a great slow cooked, stewed deliciousness....

I've said it before, I'll say it again.  I love soup.  It is so easy, fulling, nourishing, and just downright satisfying.  Of course, stew is the same; just chunkier, thicker broth, and a longer cook time.  And sooo good....

buffalo barley stew

Obviously, if you don't have access to buffalo meat, you can just substitute regular ol' cow.
This recipe is actually just my beef barley stew, modified.  I love to serve it with some good, crusty bread and a great big salad.

2 tbs olive oil
1 - 1 1/2 lbs stewing meat, cut into cubes
4 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
4 c. water
1 onion, chopped
3 carrots, roughly chopped
3 celery sticks, roughly chopped
2 parsnips, peeled and roughly chopped
large pinch of dried thyme
large 1/4 c. pearl barley
4 c. beef stock
salt and pepper
chopped fresh parsley

Heat oil in large heavy pot or dutch oven over medium high heat.  Sear the meat until well browned on all sides.  Add the garlic and water.  Give it a good stir, scraping up all of the brown bits in the pot.  Heat to boiling, reduce the heat to low, and simmer, partially covered, for about an hour.  Skim off the foam as it rises to the top.

Add the vegetables, thyme, barley, and stock.  Simmer, partially covered, until meat is very tender, about 1 1/2 hours.  If the soup becomes too thick, add water.  Cut off the heat and season with salt and pepper.  Add the parsley and serve.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

roasted tomato bow ties with fresh pasta

In the beginning of the summer, my husband went to the plant store.  He came home with probably 7 different types of tomatoes, and 7 pots for each type.  At least.  I thought he was nuts.  Last year, we grew tomatoes, but we were not organized in the least.  We had tomato plants and tomato carcasses all over the place.  It was a mess.  I was so convinced that we would have a repeat year, so I gave him a pretty hard time over it.  Poor guy.

So we planted the tomatoes in June (geez, was it July?  We got a late start this year.  And I am really enjoying the use of the word "we"-  I didn't plant anything).  Every time I went outside, I questioned the whole tomato plan.  Where the #$%@ are the tomatoes??  I was so impatient to make fresh tomato sauce, and yet every time I went outside with my colander, I came up empty.

But it's like they say:  if you plant them, they will come....

 All of a sudden, they all came in all at once.  We couldn't eat the tomatoes fast enough!  And the broccoli. Oh man, I don't think I will ever really be able to eat store-bought broccoli again.  It is so tender and sweet and perfect when you grow it yourself.  The zucchini, eggplant, cucumbers, radishes, spinach, swiss chard, kale, and all the herbs we would ever need.  I love growing herbs.  And so do the kids- they pick off the leaves and pop them into their mouths.  The corn was ok- I had one stellar ear, but the rest were weird and thick skinned.  I've heard that it takes a couple of years for the corn to establish itself.  Who knows.  I am not the gardener in the family.

I was allowed to have a garden once.  It was a wildflower garden, where you just sprinkle a packet of seeds onto the ground and add water.  Yeah, it all dried up and the only plants that grew were prickly weeds....

So with all of our beautiful, sweet, fresh, totally unsprayed produce, I could make tomato sauce whenever I wanted!  Which was pretty often....  And what would really make the fresh tomato sauce? 

Fresh pasta, of course.  

I have been making it for a while now, mostly in the form of ravioli or spaghetti, but this time I decided to make little bow ties!  They were so easy to make and a perfect little size for my kids' little hands.  This was definitely a case where the extra "help" was actually helpful..

*Time management tip*

The thought of making fresh pasta may be a little daunting.  But just know that from start to finish, it takes about an hour, give or take.  But you can easily make the whole meal at the same time so that it gets to the table all at once.  Start to make the pasta after you put the tomatoes into the oven for roasting.  By the time the sauce is completely finished, after all the roasting and simmering, your pasta will be rolled, formed, and cooked and ready for the table!  And if some unforeseen circumstances occur (which are commonplace in my house), don't worry.  You can take the sauce off the heat and reheat it later if necessary.  Also, after the pasta is bow tied, you can let it sit and dry for however long you need.

To make the sauce, I didn't really measure anything.  I just took enough small halved tomatoes to fill a baking sheet.  I then drizzled it all with olive oil, some sea salt, a few sprigs of thyme, and put the whole thing into a preheated 400˚F oven.  I roasted them for about a half hour, until their juices oozed and they started to get browned on the edges.  I then heated some olive oil in a pan, sizzled in some chopped garlic, and put in the roasted tomatoes.  Because they had lost much of their juice, I took about 1 to 2 cups more tomatoes, put them into the blender for just a few seconds, and then dumped their juicy sweetness into the pan as well.  I set the heat to low, gave it all a good stir, and simmered for about 40 minutes.  If it gets a bit dry, just add some water.

Oh.  And I also added bacon, well....  because it's bacon!  

When I buy bacon, I find that I will use about a half a pack at a time.  I'll take the rest and put it into a freezer bag, squeeze out the air, and pop it into the freezer.  It freezes beautifully, and whenever I need to use it (for a sauce, for example) I just take it out and chop it while still frozen.  So that's exactly what I did here.  I cut the frozen piece with scissors (this piece was actually half of a half, since I had already dipped into my bacon cache), it was about 1/4 cup uncooked bacon.  I crisped it up in a pan and scooped it out and put it right into the sauce.  The smokey flavor of the bacon (or prosciutto if you have it) pairs so wonderfully with the sweet and tangy tomato sauce.

fresh pasta

2 cups all purpose flour, plus about 1/2 c. extra for dusting
1/4 tsp salt
4 eggs
2 tsp olive oil

I have made pasta all by hand before, but it really is just so easy to do in a food processor.  Put the 2 c. flour and salt into the bowl of the processor and pulse a few times to mix.  Then add the eggs and oil, and pulse until it comes together in a ball.  Generously flour your work surface, and turn out the dough.  Knead the dough for 10 minutes, and you really have to stick it out for the full 10 minutes.  It doesn't really start to come together until minute 8.  

It will be sticky at first, so you have to keep adding flour, a sprinkling at a time, until it is tacky, but not sticky.  In the end, the dough will be smooth and elastic, and a bit tacky.  And keep in mind, that the more flour you add, the tougher it will be in the end, so add the flour sparingly.

Take the dough ball and cut it into quarters.  Put the whole thing underneath an overturned bowl.  You need to let the dough rest for 15 minutes to activate the gluten.  

I have a pasta machine, which is really just a roller with a crank.  It also cuts it into spaghetti if you like.  If you do not have a pasta machine, you can roll it out with a rolling pin.  The basic premise is this:  take one quarter of dough, sprinkle it with flour, and put it through the largest setting on the machine (1), or roll it flat with the rolling pin.  If it is still sticky, fold the flat dough into thirds, sprinkle with flour, and roll again.  When the dough gets a nice elastic smooth consistency, then you can just keep rolling until you get it to the right thickness.  If you use the machine, put it through the 1 size, then take it down to 2, then 3, then 4, and then to 5 for cut out pasta shapes or 6 for spaghetti.  This all sounds like a lot to know, but once you make it, it's really easy to see how tacky and smooth it needs to be.

When you are finished making the shapes with one quarter of the dough, put the formed pieces onto a dish towel and let sit until you finish with all of the dough.  Do one quarter at a time, and keep the remaining dough underneath the bowl.  If you take it all out at once, the dough will dry out.

*forming the bow ties*
When the dough is smooth and rolled out, take a pizza cutter or knife, and cut the dough into 1x2-inch pieces.  To make a bow tie, you want to slightly roll the centers of the long sides in, and then pinch them together in the middle.  Sound confusing?  Maybe a visual is more helpful.

Maybe another?

How about one more?

Bon appetit!!

Monday, October 1, 2012

fried apple pies

I have a confession to make.  Up until my daughter was born, my husband and I had a tradition.  Every time we went to Europe, we would find a McDonalds.  I know, I know. What kind of jerk travels around the world to fabulous destinations like Amsterdam, Berlin, and Switzerland, to be surrounded by delicious, genuine, local fare that you would never really find in the States, only to go to a McDonalds?

This jerk, that's who.  Why?

Three words:   fried      apple      pie.

That delightfully greasy, flaky, molten lava hot deliciousness is not available in the States anymore.  And until 2007, I could only find it overseas.  In 2007, however, McDonalds put that awful baked apple pie on the menu everywhere.  My beloved fried apple pie was gone.

Why I had never thought to make it before is beyond me.  Maybe I was in denial.  Maybe I was trying to forget the apple pie of my eye, so that it couldn't hurt me anymore.  Whatever the reason, the time for grief and woe is past.  This is the dawning of a new era.  A new era that includes fried apple pies.

Whenever I want.

fried apple pie

1 half of a double crust pie dough (recipe to follow)
4 apples, peeled and chopped
3 tbs Earth Balance butter
1/4 c. sugar
1 tbs brown sugar
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp ginger
scant 1/8 tsp allspice

Heat about 1 inch of oil in a large, heavy pot over medium heat.  If you put in a thermometer, it should reach about 350˚F.

Meanwhile, melt the butter and sugar together in a skillet over high heat.  Add the apples, brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and allspice, and cook, stirring often, until tender with crisped edges, about 10 minutes.  

Take 1 dough patty and roll it out into a rectangle, about 1/4-inch thick.  Cut the large rectangle into 4 smaller rectangles, or rectangle-like shapes (which is what mine turned out to be).  Put a couple tablespoons of the apple mixture on one side of the shape.  Be sure to leave about a half inch dough border.  Smear a watery finger along the dough border, and fold the other side of the shape to seal.  Crimp the edges with a fork or your fingers.  Or both, as in my case.  

I probably could have made them look neater, or I could have taken better pictures, but with the constant chorus of "Fried apple pie.  Fried apple pie!  Fried apple pie, mama!!  Fried apple pie!!!" I had to move quickly.  The natives definitely won that war....

pie dough for double crust pie

2 cups all purpose flour, plus more for dusting
2 sticks Earth Balance dairy free butter, cubed and very cold (I will cube my butter first and put it in a bowl and into the freezer while I get my other ingredients together)
1 tbs sugar
1/2 tsp salt (the Earth Balance is salted, so I usually omit the salt here, or at most I'll add a pinch.  If you use unsalted butter however, add the salt)
8 tbs ice cold water, give or take

This dough is fantastic.  I usually freeze half to ensure I can throw together a pie at any given moment.  Because you never really know when you'll need a pie.  Which happens over here.  A lot. 

I have done this by hand for years, but just recently I started using the food processor.  I have found that since having kids, I am usually in a hurry.  Food processor pie dough is perfect.  But you have to be careful not to over process.  You want to be able to see chunks of butter throughout the pie dough because when the butter melts, it forms pockets of buttery steam which is what makes the dough light and flaky.  If you don't want to use a processor, than by all means, just mix it with your hands or a pastry blender until the butter is about the size of small peas.

Put flour, sugar, and salt into food processor.  Pulse a couple of times to blend dry ingredients together. Add butter all at once and give it about 5 pulses.  I don't like to pulse it too much here, because there is more pulsing to come and at the end, I want my butter in bigger chunks.  Add the water, a couple of tablespoons at a time.  Pulse 2 or 3 times after each addition, just to mix it in.  The pulses should be very quick.  The butter chunks should be the size of large breadcrumbs or small peas.  

Once the dough has come together, turn it out and gather it into a flat ball.  Cut it into two pieces, one slightly larger than the other.  Wrap each patty in plastic wrap and put them in the fridge for at least an hour to let the dough rest.