Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Kolache Revolution

When it comes to what's popular, food is really no different than clothing fashions. Every year, it seems like there is something different that everyone is talking about, whether it is cupcakes or glammed up hotdogs. I'll admit, I'm a sucker for a food trend. I was a huge fan of the rise of the cupcake, and instantly wanted to make those delicate almond macaroons when I learned that they were becoming all the rage on the east coast.

The downside of living in middle America is that all of these trends manage to find their way here 1-2 years after they've already become old news on the coasts. Again, with amusing similarities to fashion. There is exactly one dedicated cupcakery in Sioux Falls, OhMyCupcakes, which opened a good year after everyone started saying cupcakes were passe. So it goes.

So I'm going to start my own culinary trend. Are you ready?


Unless you are, or live near a Czech community, you may not be familiar with these delicious little pastries. Essentially, they are a sweet roll, similar to the dough used to make cinnamon rolls, filled with a fruit, nut, or savory filling.

When I was a child, we would attend The Chicken Soup and Kolache supper in Fairfax, IA, hosted by the Free Masons in my grandparent's hometown. Local women would prepare many dozens of cherry, apricot and poppyseed filled Kolaches in their own home kitchens, then bring them to the supper to share and sell for fundraisers. The soup was nothing amazing, but I would look forward to the supper all year, in anticipation of one of those delicious poppyseed kolaches. They're adorably compact (usually being no larger than the palm of your hand), rich, and permanently associated in my memory with traditions, comfort and home.

What's more interesting, as far as I can see, you almost never see kolaches as a standard bakery item. Somehow, the kolache has fallen behind the cinnamon roll and the muffin into a realm of obscurity. Why not resurrect it?

 Take this recipe, friends and go forth! It's actually my grandmother's so be nice to it.

Grandma Eileen's Kolaches

The dough

2 c. cold water
2 sticks oleo, hacked up (I used butter---but I still hacked it up)
½ c. sugar
1 tsp. salt
………. Heat all of the above slowly in a sauce pan to 120 – 130 degrees

6 c. flour
2 pkgs dry yeast
2 eggs, beaten

Mix 3 c. flour and the yeast in large bowl . Add to this the heated liquid from above, mixing slowly. Add to this 2 beaten eggs & mix at slow speed ½ min. and then beat at high speed 3 min. Add 3 more cups of flour, beating in by hand.

Cover the bowl with greased saran wrap, and let rise 30 min to an hour. I let mine rise for the full hour, and it expanded just a bit.

After the dough has doubled in volume, remove on to a lightly floured board. It helps to use a greased or sprayed spatula to remove dough from the bowl.

After removing dough on to a floured board, take a tablespoon and cut dough off in chunks and form into 2 in. domes. Think about the same size as a ball of cookie dough.

Now the fun part: Baste thoroughly with lard.

My mother claims that commercial lard just isn't what it used to be, and is really not any better than using butter in this case, although I disagree. While I'm sure it tastes different than it used to, I think that lard is definitely a pivotal element to this recipe. It gives the rolls a slightly richer, more savory flavor than butter, which I think is not to be overlooked. I'd also like to take this opportunity to apologize to a few of my vegetarian friends, who I covertly fed these kolaches to, forgetting about the whole lard thing. Well, you guys liked them anyway!

Gently make impressions in the centers and fill with fillings. I used cherry pie filling and a modified poppyseed filling.

Poppyseed Filling
Mix 1 can poppy seed (Solo), 4 graham crackers (4 of the qtr sections) & 3 tbsp milk.

Let kolaches rise again [10-15 min.]. Top with a mixture of ½ c. flour, ½ c. sugar, 1 tbsp. cinnamon. 

Bake until golden to light brown. When taken out of oven, baste thoroughly with lard one last time.

Eat, enjoy and start the kolache revolution!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

I am thankful for...

Waking up to the smell of ready-made, delicious coffee.

Yeast that rises and rises past all expectations (and expiration dates)

Family that overlooks imperfections, like misshapen, over-proofed bread, to declare it delicious regardless. Conversely, there is my husband, who, with a wonderful honesty, will always tell me if my bread misshapen, while also telling me it is delicious.

Yummy snacktime interludes, always available when I need a break. Can you believe that these were just waiting for us when we arrived from a long 7.5 hr drive?

Tried and true recipes that can be made year after year by heart. This one happens to be the beginnings if veggie stuffing.

Dinner plates filled to the brim.

And side plates too!

Hope everyone had a wonderful thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

How to Make a Birthday Dinner: Part Two

And as promised, the second half of the birthday meal....

Problem #2: Steakhouse at Home

A good steak dinner makes a special, and delicious birthday meal. Fortunately, cooking steak is relatively simple, as long as you remember to keep it simple. For this dinner, I purchased two giant T-bones from the grocery store---this state might not have the strongest appreciation for cheese or microbrews, but it sure does appreciate good cuts of beef. The steaks were sprinkled with kosher salt and fresh pepper, then seared in a pan with a tablespoon of oil for 3-4 minutes per side. I used a meat thermometer to cook mine to medium (about 150 degrees) and Dave's to rare (about 120 degrees).

With the steaks I served corn, twice baked potatoes and a bottle of Dave's favorite wine. The corn was, well, corn and the wine was delightfully as expected, but the potatoes were a high-calorie masterpiece in themselves. I highly recommend these---just don't weigh yourself afterwards.

Twice Baked Potatoes
Serves 2

2 large baking potatoes
1 tbs melted butter
1/2 c sour cream
1/4 c milk
2 tbs butter
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 c shredded cheddar cheese
2 green onions, sliced
2 strips bacon, cooked and broken into pieces

1. Preheat oven at 425. Pierce potatoes all over with a fork. Microwave on high for 5-10 minutes until fork goes through potatoes with light resistance. Check every three minutes or so; cooking times can vary depending on the size of your potatoes.
2. Let potatoes cool for 5 minutes. Slice about 1/3 of the top of each potato, length-wise.  Scoop out the flesh from the potato skins and put into a bowl, leaving about 1/4 in. of potato flesh remaining inside skins for stability. Brush inside of skins with melted butter and bake in preheated oven for 10 minutes.
3. Add sour cream, milk, 2 tablespoons butter, salt and pepper to the potato flesh, mashing with a potato masher to smooth out lumps. Add 1/4 cup shredded cheddar and one chopped green onion and mix.
4. Scoop potato mixture back into skins. Top with remaining cheddar and bacon pieces. Bake for another 10-15 minutes until cheese is melted and bubbly. Top with green onion slices to garnish.

Alright. I really better get back to that gym now.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How to Make a Birthday Dinner: Part One

Birthdays, even if they aren't my own, are times I always look forward to. After all, anytime you have an excuse to go out, eat at a fancy restaurant, consume cake and have a drink at your favorite bar is pretty much a good day for everyone involved.

So what happens when your birthday boy is sick of restaurants, is not a big fan of cake and hasn't yet found that perfect Cheers-quality bar?

Problem #1: Cake Apathy

I love desserts, in pretty much all its forms. I don't think that's a secret. The Husband, on the other hand, seems to have an underdeveloped sweet tooth. He regularly turns his nose up at cakes of all kinds, calling them too sugary, too fluffy, too dense, too boring, too bland (my response to this is usually "but its CAKE."). The one type of cake that he does like (other than cupcakes, due to a long standing and little understood dessert dispute with a friend --don't ask) is cheesecake, specifically pumpkin cheesecake.

For the past 5 years or so, I've made the same cheesecake for this man's birthday, despite my nagging desire to tweak everything I make more than once. He likes it how it is, and since it's his birthday, I restrain myself.  After all, I suppose it is pretty good as is.

Dave's Birthday Marbled Pumpkin Cheesecake
adapted from Renee at www.allrecipes.com

1 1/2 c crushed gingersnap cookies
1/2 c pecans, chopped fine
1/3 c melted butter

16 oz cream cheese, softened (Philadelphia is best)
3/4 c white sugar
1 tsp vanilla
3 eggs
1 c canned pumpkin (Libby's only)
3/4 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp nutmeg
dash of allspice and ginger
caramel sauce

1. Preheat oven at 350. Mix the crushed gingersnaps, pecans and melted butter together in a bowl. (I pulse the gingersnaps and pecans in a blender to crush them, though a food processor would probably work better. If you want to go low tech, a plastic bag and a rolling pin will also work just fine, though it will take more time.) Press the mixture into the bottom of a springform pan, and up the sides about an inch. Don't worry about getting it perfect; it won't really matter later.

2. Bake the crust in the preheated oven for about 10 minutes, and set aside to cool.

3. Blend the cream cheese, vanilla and 1/2 c sugar in a mixer until smooth. Add eggs one at a time, blending well between. Set aside 1 cup of this mixture.

4. To the remaining mixture, add the pumpkin and spices, blend well. Pour the pumpkin mixture over the cooled crust. Drop spoonfuls of the reserved cream cheese mixture on top and swirl with a knife.

5. Bake the cheesecake for 45-55 minutes, or until set. The top of the filling will begin to crack around the edges when it is done, but the filling at the center will still wobble slightly when the cake is shaken. This is fine: the cheesecake will continue to firm up in the pan while it is cooling outside the oven. If you cook it until it is completely firm, it will be overdone. Allow the cheesecake to cool completely, and leave in refrigerator for at least 4 hours before serving. Run a knife around the edge of the pan before releasing the springform.

6. Serve slices of cheesecake with drizzled caramel sauce. Personally, I think this is crucial; it really brings out the pumpkin flavor, and makes the entire dessert seem more decadent and special.

Well guys, that's one awesome cheesecake for you. In my next blog we'll cover, in admittedly backwards order, how to do a killer main course. Vegetarians beware, this one's not going to be quite as up your alley!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Gumbo: Part of a Balanced Work Out

The work out freeze has ended!

Finally after nearly an entire year stuck in a contract with our old gym in Madison, the contract has finally expired and Dave and I can finally justify joining a gym!

Its been months for me, and probably over a year for the hubby, but we're determined to return these flabby abs and weak little chicken arm to their former glory. The biggest change I've noticed, however, after working out consistently for about two weeks is unfortunately not a pair of rock hard abs, but instead something rather counter productive: I'm hungry ALL THE TIME.

I suppose making (and eating) a batch of oatmeal cookies doesn't help the situation.

In an effort to get the most out of his work outs, Dave is seeing a personal trainer for a few sessions.  Along with a butt-kicking work out schedule, the trainer has suggested a few foods as part of his new work out diet.  He was practically giddy when he showed me one item on the list.


I don't like shrimp. I'll eat them ever now and then, but mostly, I think they just taste like fishy meat grapes.

Dave loves shrimp. When I tell him that they taste like fishy meat grapes, he replies "mmmm, yes exactly. Delicious."

I'd prefer to just not bother with the funky little crustaceans (is that what they are?), but it's doctor's orders. Plus, I'm not one to back down from the personal challenge of trying to make something that I don't like actually palatable for ME.

So of course, whenever I'm out to make a recipe that is guaranteed to be good (and likely packed with plenty of lengthy extra steps), I turn to my good old Cook's Illustrated. This time, its Creole Shrimp and Sausage Gumbo.

Not being from the South, I mostly just know OF gumbo; I've had it maybe once of twice before, but its definitely not part of the standard meal line up.  As it turns out, there's probably a good reason for that.

Gumbo is not for the faint of heart, or the short on time. Like many southern dishes, its designed around the assumption that you have the time and the love in your heart to Do. It. Right.

First, there is the roux, which is where any good gumbo starts. It's made from vegetable oil and flour, which is heated for about 20 minutes while stirring literally constantly until it turn a deep chocolate brown. The roux is the base of the soup and if you don't take care of it, there's no point in doing the rest.

To the roux, you add diced celery, red bell pepper, onion, garlic, assorted spices, and a fish stock made from shrimp shells and clam juice. This cooks for another 30 minutes.

Then my favorite part, the andouille sausage goes in. Another 30 minutes. Finally, the final element that precipitated the entire affair comes to the stage--shrimp,added only in the last 5 minutes of cooking. Finish with chopped scallions, parsley, and a spoonful of rice and volia! You've got a gumbo.

All in all, the entire process took about 2 hours, which is a pretty long time for what is essentially a very meaty stew. But it's like I said; lots of care, lots of time.

Dave thought the gumbo turned out great. In his words, "Ah, Southern food. Tastes great, but always manages to look like poop."

I agreed that it tasted pretty good, but really...I could have done with less shrimp. They were palatable, but really, after all that effort, I mostly just wanted to eat the broth and the sausage. So I guess in the end, it's a part win. If I had to eat shrimp to survive, this would definitely make it easier. But given the choice between shrimp and not shrimp---verdict still goes to not shrimp.

The recipe for Oatmeal Cookies used in this blog can be found in Baking Illustrated: The Practical Kitchen Companion for the Home Baker. The recipe for Creole-Style Shrimp and Sausage Gumbo can be found in The Best of America's Test Kitchen (2008)

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Healthy vs Unhealthy

I am aware that I may not eat/make the healthiest food around. If I have to choose between something tasting good, and something being healthy...well, life is too short for light mayonnaise.

This isn't to say that I don't try to make some food a bit healthier, or at the very least insert some veggies. But when all is said and done, and I've made something that I think is actually worth eating--can I really call it healthy anymore?

Case Studies: Healthy or Not Healthy?

Case #1: Eggplant Parmesan with Spaghetti

  For Healthy: Aside from containing plenty of vitamins and minerals, eggplants are also frequently piled onto the antioxidant-rich, new age brain food band wagon. Also, complex carbs like pasta are good to consume 30 minutes before a work out---so this meal LEADS to healthy activity.

For Unhealthy: Lots of cheese and frying involved. Technically, I have made these by baking the eggplant instead of frying...I just like it better when it's fried. Big surprise.

Case #2: Tofu Peanut Stir Fry

For Healthy: Packed with veggies, including snow peas, red pepper, carrots onion and of course, tofu! What's even better, it tastes really good. This is what I call my "tofu conversion" dish. I've made this for a number of tofu haters who even admitted that it tastes great. So not only is this healthy---it's gateway healthy.

For Unhealthy: Once again, to get this to be so tasty, I bread the tofu with a tasty breading and spice blend, then fry the crap out of them. The peanut sauce on this is amazing ( House of Tsang's Bangkok Padang Peanut Sauce) but I would have to say that the breading and frying is what makes this dish. It makes the tofu taste great, without attempting to make it taste like anything else. I think that's what I love the most about this dish; its delicious tofu, not tofu pretending to be bacon or turkey and failing.

Case #3: Cheetahs

For Healthy: This is one of those foods that never really sounded appetizing to me until someone gave them an adorable name. Yam fries, sprayed with canola, liberally sprinkled with cumin and salt, and baked until spotted (like a cheetah!), then dipped in ketchup and BBQ sauce. More nutrients than potatoes, and this method of cooking is far healthier than traditional frying.

For Unhealthy: How much ketchup is too much ketchup to make a yam palatable? Is it really healthy to eat that many yams? Yes, I ate all of these myself.

What are your favorite meals of possibly questionable healthfulness?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

My-So-Called Vegetarian Life - Part Two

Part two of the vegetarian experiment has concluded, and this researcher is for one, glad. Attempting to cut out (ok, lets be honest--- pretty much just limit) my meat intake did make me feel better in many ways. It did however, have some slightly unhealthy backlash, most prominently would be the discovery of this:

Lucky Charms was--and is--my favorite unhealthy kids cereal. Whenever I'm feeling rather personally indulgent, I usually end up buying a box. The only reason I sometimes stop myself is honestly just cost--its hard to justify spending the breakfast fund on something I know has pretty limited nutritional value, and which I know will probably be gone in under two days. Mike Birbilgia, a comedian after my own stomach,  commented on this phenomenon once---essentially, to the effect that (sugar cereal) is like crack, and you don't buy crack for some time in the future---you buy it for right now.

At any rate, I fear that I have basically found the equivalent of rocks -- Hy-Vee's own generic Magic Stars. It's as good as Lucky Charms, and probably a third the price. Yes, I ate this entire bag, for more meals than I care to admit. Hey, it says it includes calcium right on the bag. It's ok then, right?

Then of course, there were other deliciously unhealthy discoveries, such as my mock cookie dough.

I've seen a number of other recipes for healthy-ish eat-alone cookie doughs, usually made with protein powders, and the like. This way, you can sort of feel like there is some health value to what you're eating.

Not this, baby. It's just a scaled down version of everything that goes in cookie dough---minus the egg. Its laughably easy, and completely unhealthy. All you can really say for this, health-wise, is that it WON'T give you salmonella poisoning.

Lonely Girl Cookie Dough

1-2 tbs softened butter
1 tbs brown sugar
1 tbs white sugar
1/8 tsp vanilla

1/8 c flour (give or take)
dash salt, baking powder and baking soda
As many chocolate chips as you can handle

Mix first four ingredients. Add the rest. Eat in one sitting and then hide all the evidence.

So, in conclusion, vegetarian does NOT necessarily mean healthy, especially when I am left to my own devices. That's an entirely different conscious choice--and one which I am clearly not making at the moment.

But that's a whole 'nother blog.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

My-So-Called Vegetarian Life - Part One

Some of you may have remembered some sort of previous claim about trying to go vegetarian this week, due to the absence of a certain meat eater.

We're four days in, and I'm discovering certain things, some of them surprising, some of them less so.

1. Veggies make me miss friends
While I've perfected and honed many a meat-laden dish with my husband and family, most of the vegetarian meals that I make are permanently associated for me with a few friends---who I miss very much.

Grilled Cheese sandwich with sauteed zucchini and tomato, a la Erica. This meal makes me think of chatting in her kitchen, drinking wine, making food, and making plans for our husbandless honeymoon (Scotland/Venice/around the world extravaganza without sig. others).

Later this week, I'll be make a squash curry--which I've never been able to make as well as my friend Josie---which makes me think of cooking at our college apartment, where there was always someone to talk to, and probably someone doing something interesting in the kitchen with vegetables, exotic fruits, or brownies. 

2. There no substitute for a good blender.

Well, I suppose there would be, if I also had a food processor or an immersion blender--possibly the only kitchen appliances I lack. A few months ago, you see, our blender died---or perhaps attempted to destroy itself, I'm not sure. All I know is, there was smoke, and so it went in the garbage. Since then, I've been discovering that there are a few key recipes that are nearly impossible to make without it. Smoothies for one. Hummus for another.

I'm not even going to tell you how long it took me to make the hummus on this plate. Suffice to say, it was ridiculous, and it never really reached the consistency I prefer.  But still, it was better than anything store bought this side of the Atlantic. Seriously guys---make your own hummus. Here's a basic recipe I like:

Rebecca's Hummus

1 can garbanzo beans, liquid reserved
1-2 cloves mashed garlic
3 tbs tahini paste
2 tbs lemon juice
1/2 tsp cumin
dash cayenne
approx. 2 tbs olive oil
 salt to taste
paprika to garnish

Mix it all up in a blender, using the garbanzo liquid to reach the right consistency you want, and the olive oil to add silkiness. This is basically what I do, although it always varies a little. Like when I am lacking a blender, and have to mash up the garbanzos with a pastry blender by hand.

3. Bacon does not fix all veggies

This was definitely a surprise to me, but bacon, as it turns out, did not do a lot for Brussels sprouts. I used this recipe from Senor Tyler Florence of the Food Network, for Bacon-Braised Brussels Sprouts, and was shockingly underwhelmed.

It was just unnecessarily busy, as if attempting to hide the sprouts and failing---because lets face it, Brussels Sprouts with always be Brussels Sprouts. It was a sad waste of bacon. Although, full disclosure, some of the failure of this dish may me due to the fact that I basically quartered it, based on the amount of sprouts I had, and I'm not sure how accurate I was (what is a fourth of a dash? A touch?). Next time, I'm just going to steam or roast these with some garlic and douse them in butter. Because that combination never went wrong, right?

Tomorrow, since I have the day off, I'll be working on my curry and possibly diving into a baking project. Any suggestions, fair readers? Note: I have to be able to either eat it myself, or pawn it off at work on Thursday. So I'm thinking not an English Trifle.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Local Best: the Coffee Travesty

So, I realize that I've been holding out on you guys. I mentioned in an earlier post that I was looking for the best coffee shop in Sioux Falls--and I believe I have found it.

Coffea Roasterie - Staffed with a collection of passionate baristas, Coffea is part of this back-to-basics trend in coffee, that's just as concerned with producing a high quality cup of coffee as it is with making beautiful latte art. And their latte art is pretty darn good.

Get a large latte to go through their drive thru, or come in and select from an array of drinks and brewing methods ( I think they have five or so, from French press to Chemex.). They roast their own beans in house, and even have one roast Ethiopia Nekisse, that earned them a 96 rating on coffeereview.com.

The environment at Coffea is perfect as well: The business shares a common seating space with the Little Cellar Wine Company next door (selling, of course, wines), so you can meet someone for coffee...AND wine. I love the meeting of my two favorite beverages in one--it reminds me of Barriques in Madison.

But now, on to the part about the travesty. Like many cities, Sioux Falls has a yearly contest in which residents vote on their favorite businesses in Sioux Falls, from hair salons to Chinese restaurants. Here, its called the Local Best.

After visiting Coffea, and discovering its wonder, I of course wondered how it rated on the Local Best. Drinking a caffeinated circle around this city, I expected it to be rated fairly highly---nothing else really seemed close. And it WAS in the top five...but what it was behind made me sad: The list.

STARBUCKS is #1? REALLY? Look, nothing against Starbucks, because I definitely appreciate its presence in airports and would even acknowledge that it deserves to be on this list somewhere in Sioux Falls, but #1? Saying that Starbucks is your favorite coffee is like saying that McDonald's makes your favorite burger. It might be true, but its also sort of sad.

Looking at more categories on the list makes me even sadder for the people of this city, because it reads like pin-the-tail-on-the-chain-store.

Best Pizza...Papa Murphy's

Best Steak...Texas Roadhouse

Best Chinese (saddest of all)...Hy-Vee. Its not even a restaurant, its a grocery store cafeteria.

But then, it isn't  like I've had very good luck with local restaurants --- comparatively, a reliable chain begins to sound appetizing.

Not that I'm giving up. I've got a birthday coming up, and damn it, I'm going to find a restaurant worth going to, or get food poisoning in the process! Wish me luck.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Everything But the Bacon

I had a friend in college who had this pattern she repeated over and over again.

After a particularly stressful bout of academia, she would go out and binge drink for what usually amounted to anywhere from 4-48 hours. Upon awaking the morning after her alcoholic bender, she would proclaim to anyone who could hear that she would never EVER drink again. For the next month or two, she would stoically refrain from drinking anything with even the faintest taint of the evil substance.

Then, classes would get more demanding, she would start finding herself staying at the library later and later...and the whole thing would start over again.

I've always found this treatment of vices pointless; if you're going to have a vice, just accept it and moderate it--don't pretend its not there by going on benders every few months.

However, that doesn't mean you shouldn't think about quitting.

I've been thinking about quitting my own vice lately--not caffeine, alcohol or nicotine---but meat.

As an animal biologically designed to eat other animals, you may think it incorrect to label this as a vice. After all, meat itself is not necessarily bad for you---and lets face it, we're designed to live off of other living things, whether they be plant or animal--there is no way around it.

However, sometimes I go on what could be called "meat benders," long stretches of time where it seems like I can't go for a single meal without consuming some sort of animal product. After these benders, I feel more sluggish, fat, and usually a little depressed, likely resulting partly from the first two symptoms. I remember what it felt like the last time I ate a salad---was that days ago, weeks, months? Time blurs when you're on a meat bender. Surely, I was more alert, lively and happy when produce was in my diet.

So, I vow to go meat free for a period of time.

But it never lasts. Partly, its because I'm living with someone who has no desire whatsoever to go on a journey of vegetarian discovery with me. He'll humor my tofu stir frys and vegetable stews, yes, but isn't planning on giving up burgers and steaks anytime soon. Partly, its also because, admittedly, I like meat. I think there are a number of meats I could give up, simply because I wouldn't mind leaving them out of a lot of dishes. But then there are others...like bacon.

While I'd love to give up eating pigs in particular for emotional reasons, bacon tastes like nothing else. It makes everything taste better, including vegetables.

bacon wrapped asparagus = divine.

So is it possible that I could be a vegetarian, and give up every meat except bacon? Would that actually be healthier, or would I just end up putting bacon on everything?

I guess I'll find out--in another week, the hubby will be gone for a few days at a work conference, and I'll be left to fend for myself culinarily. I'll probably be buying a lot of things I'm still afraid to make for him (due to an expected negative response) such as brussel sprouts and squash. I'm going to see if I can go meat-free, and try to maybe even make something that's worth preparing again in the process.

If you have any recipe suggestions, feel free to let me know! I'm in the mood to expand my horizons.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

An Elegant Pie

I like to think I'm a pretty good baker, but there are some things that I just can't touch: one of them has always been Elegant Farmer Apple Pie.

For those of you who don't know---Elegant Farmer is a fabulous bakery and deli in Mukwonago, WI, famous for their amazing pies in paper bags. I make a pretty good pie, but I've never made anything that even comes close to their delicious, crackly crusted apple pie. Nothing comes close, nothing.

But what is life without goals?

With a free afternoon, and a bag full of assorted apples,  I decided to try to replicate the most amazing pie ever. Unsurprisingly, I don't think I duplicated it--but I came closer than I have before.

To start, the pie of course needed to be made in a bag:

Safety Note: Apparently, you're not REALLY supposed to bake pies in old grocery bags, because the dyes and composition of recycled paper bags aren't regulated for baking purposes. So if you're not as lazy as me, and don't feel like living life on the edge, use parchment paper.

The bag, whatever health risks it may pose, did succeed in producing the pie's characteristically crisp, perfectly browned crust.

The crust itself, which I hadn't been able to figure out previously, was also a success.

Pulling from a lesser used recipe on allrecipes, I tried out a topping that's essentially equal parts butter, sugar, and flour. The result is crackly, crunchy, and just what I was looking for.

The pie was delicious, but it could still use some tweaking. Dave described it as "too Christmas-y," which I believe means "too much nutmeg." Also, he made the point (and I might agree) that there may have been more of that crackly crust, and less of the normal, base crust in the original. As a crust person, I think more crust is always an improvement.

Too bad I don't have my very own test kitchen, or I'd make this again right away! As it is, I've got most a pie sitting here that's just not going to eat itself. I'm sure I'll b making pie again in the near future, however--and I will definitely be using this crust!

Edit: This is the recipe I used to approximate Elegant Farmer's Apple Pie: Apple Pie in a Brown Paper Bag 
Again, however, there is too much nutmeg, in my opinion, and the quantity of apples called for seems a bit high. I used closer to 2 lbs for my pie. Also, I used (gasp!) Jiffy pie crust mix for the bottom of the pie instead of their recipe. When I perfect this, I'll post my complete recipe with edits.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


I've been a bad blogger.

A lot has happened in my life since July 29th, though most of it not food related. I suppose I'm a rather odd blogger, in that when my life turns all topsy turvy, I prefer not to blog about it, at least while all the chaos is occurring. Maybe because I like to know what the ending is to the story I am telling.

Of course, there are other reasons too.

We've had guests

August, which we have not only dubbed the "Month of Bad Mojo" for its annual consistency for turning our lives upside down, was also a month of many visitors---which resulted in blogs taking a definite trip to the back burner.

I ate a lot of crap

In the same way that a blog about exercising would be pointless if you sat on your butt all the time and played Halo, a blog about food seems pointless when you're eating frozen pizzas and corn dogs. But then, I should be eating better than that. No excuse!

We got remarried. 

Towards the end of the chaos, Dave and I celebrate our vow renewals at Devils Lake in Wisconsin with friends and family. It was a blast, probably partly because we didn't bother to worry about taking any photos. The food was wonderful, but the only food related photo from the event I can find is this photo my friend Erica took of the fabulous cupcakes.

  They WERE probably my favorite part though, so I suppose that's not too bad. This does, however, lead me to the last lack of blogging snafu:

I have no idea where the camera is.

Somewhere between South Dakota ->Devil's Lake->South Dakota, the camera went missing. Its very hard to post photos on a blog without a camera. So if anyone sees it, let me know. Until then, awkwardly posed phone pictures it is!

But enough excuses.

If I want to do this blog, I have to have the incentive to do it myself. So from here on out, I'm going to pledge to do at minimum, one post a week. If I don't hold to that, you can all yell at me, but mostly, I should yell at myself.

Coming up on the blog...

An excess of meat at the wedding has got me thinking again about being a vegetarian. Could I do it?...

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Love of a Good Cookie

Sometimes, life can surprise you.

Also, chocolate chip cookies.

I love making chocolate chip cookies, but I've never had any kind of secret recipe; I use the recipe on the back of the Tollhouse Chocolate Chips, and I'm proud of it. Of all the recipes I make, its the one I've probably changed the least. Because really, what can you change about chocolate chip cookies? How could they really get better (while of course, still being decidedly chocolate chip cookies)?

Of course, I have an answer to that question. It's Cook's Illustrated. I've mentioned before how Cook's Illustrated has rarely led me astray---their recipes are always good, and all their improvements on old standards in the past have always been impressive (their green bean casserole is AMAZING). The only rub tends to be, are all of these improvements and recipe machinations worth it? The green bean casserole, for instance, though fabulous, is usually a two day affair to prepare (rather than the 5 minute prep to the Campbell's recipe standard).

Their chocolate chip cookie recipe, though delicious and a definitely improvement, of course involved more steps. So you tell me---do these extra steps sound worth it?

Extra Step One: Brown the Butter
This give the cookies a slightly more complex, nutty, toffee flavor. Also makes the batter even more delicious to eat right out of the bowl. If you've ever browned butter though, you know know that its really easy to go past that perfect point into something disgusting. So be careful!

Extra Step Two: Rest the Batter
After you mix the wet ingredients, you going through a process of whipping for 30 seconds, then resting for 3 minutes. You do this over and over, about three times, until the batter becomes smooth and shiny. This seemed to make the batter a much more uniform consistency with nice lift.

Extra Step Three: Weigh the Flour
I know that lots of serious baking recipes tell you to weigh the flour; I usually choose to ignore this. But, in principle, for something as finicky as cookies, I understand the principle--and I did happen to have a food
scale. So I gave it a try.

I don't know if my proportions were more accurate, or if it was the batter resting , but the cookies turned out perfect. They didn't over spread, and they didn't turn out too cakey or dry; they were just the right amount if crispness and chewiness.

I suppose to really tell if its the recipe and not just luck (which is an important factor in baking) I'll have to try these again. But assuming it works. what do you think? Are these steps worth a reliable, toffee-rich chocolate chip cookie?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

An Ass Out of You and Me

When given the option of going to a local restaurant, or going to a chain, I'm always going to go with the local restaurant. This is because I assume that local restaurants will always be more interesting, more memorable, and just BETTER.

So the following is a lesson is about what happens when you assume. 

Are you following where this is going?

I don't want to get mean about this---because then no one is going to learn. So lets start out with the positives.

The Tea Steak House is cute, with a down-to-earth, local feel. In a small town like this (Tea, SD), this is where the old, long term locals eat. Which is always a good sign---when you see old people eating somewhere, you have to think that they've done something right to get them to keep coming.
 It's unpretentious, relaxed, and has very affordable lunchtime prices on everything on the menu. Their special, for instance, was around only $5. 

Everyone there seemed nice, polite and genuine.

Now, onto the food. This is the part where things go more downhill.

I ordered a steak sandwich with fries. 

Now, I make certain assumptions about the word "sandwich" that I am beginning to believe must be some sort of unfair cultural presumption--I assume that "sandwich" implies "something between two slices of bread" or at the very least, if you want to get generous about it, "something between two slices of something else." Unless I was supposed to shingle the fries together and make the bun myself, I'm pretty sure this is not a sandwich.

But maybe I am wrong---which I am starting to think because this is the SECOND TIME this has happened to Dave and I. The other incident involved an unfortunate evening at the Gateway in Sioux Falls, wherein Dave received a burger inexplicably sans bun. Upon asking for a bun, said waitress seemed very confused, as if the request of a bun could be likened to asking for extra marshmallows in your beer.

Yet, I digress. Assuming I am the one who made a mistake, lets move on. How was that steak sandwich?

Do you like a thick unrendered fat ring and an absence of seasoning on your steak? Then this one is for you. On one hand, if this slab of meat HAD been sandwiched in a bun, it would have been impossible to eat, as so much of the steak was not edible. 

It was cooked to the doneness I asked for. So points there.

There were other issues at this meal, but I won't go into them in detail. Lets just say, they ran out of the special, the order was delayed, and at the end of the meal, this candy display was looking mighty appetizing.
But then something happened that it is very difficult to gloss over. 30 minutes to an hour after we left the restaurant, two of our party of three came down with food poisoning.

I'm not the CDC, but it's not looking good for you here, Tea Steak House.

I CAN proudly say that I was not one of those three to fall ill, which is actually rather unusual. I have inherited my paternal family's stomach, which is notoriously known for being made of a soft, porous material that soaks up any intestinal malady around. I couldn't figure out what I had or hadn't eaten that neither of them had, so I was left to conclude that it must be something that I am consuming that they are not. 

Could it be kombucha?

 (This batch turned out great, by the way. Strawberry flavored, and made in smaller 20 oz bottles definitely preserves some of that fizziness better. Downside is that the bottles are clear, so you can see all the goopies.)

So, wrapping this all up....I wanted the Tea Steak House to be good. I really did. I was so in their corner. And I'll always be in the local restaurant corner, rooting for kitschy coffee shops and skeezy looking Mexican joints over Starbucks and Chevy's Tex-Mex any day.

But when you go to a place and get a tasteless meal, poor service and food poisoning, it really makes you wistful for a bit of reliable consistency. Even if you have to go to Applebees to get it.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Nick's Gyros: A Dramatic Reinactment

Scene: Open on Nick's Gyros, small Greek restaurant in Sioux Falls, where two people, a husband and a wife, are waiting in line to order at the front counter. They both eye the menu inquisitively. Suddenly, it is their turn. They approach the man at the counter.

Man: (stares vacantly at the couple, pencil in hand. He has the dead eyes of a man who has worked too long and too hard, and now no longer gives a crap about what you would like on your sandwich)

Rebecca: Hi, I'd like the gyro plate and some baklava.

Man: Would you huma-sever-mmmuh huh-fing?

Rebecca: What was that?

Man: (looking exasperated) Everything on the sandwich?

Rebecca: Oh. Yes, thanks.

Dave: I'll have the gyro sandwich, toppings on the side.

Man: $14.29

The couple pays and walks over to a table to wait.

Dave: (looks around at decorations) The Greeks really have to get over using only blue and white.

(A fifteen minute conversation ensues about the development of the Roman arch. Abriged due to complete pointlessness of conversation)

The food arrives.

Rebecca: One little piece of feta? How sad. I need cheese. I'm from Wisconsin.

Dave: Wow, the tomatoes are actually fresh. I thought they'd be gross and mushy. That's why I always get them on the side.

Eating ensues.

Dave: (eating a french fry) These are not good.

Rebecca: Are you just saying that so I won't try to eat any of your fries?

Dave: No, I'm saying that because they're not good.

Rebecca: (shrugs and eats all the fries) Want a piece of baklava?

Dave: Not really. I already ate two lunches today.

Rebecca: Lunch meetings?

Dave: Yep. Didn't pay for either one.

Rebecca: (takes a bite of baklava) I hate you.

Dave: How is it?

Rebecca: Pretty good. Not bad, but I've had better.

Dave: Yeah, that's how I feel about this whole meal. They definitely benefit being the only Greek place in town. If Oakland's Gyros was to open up here, they'd blow them out of the water.

Rebecca: Is that a chain?

Dave: (looks highly affronted) I never took you to Oakland's Gyros in Milwaukee? (Another long rant ensues about the virtues of Oakland's Gyros.)....and they don't cut their meat right! It's supposed to be long strips of meat, not chunks!

Rebecca: So, verdict in the end?

Dave: It was ok, but I have no real desire to come here again.

Rebecca: I don't know. It was kind of greasy, but I'd come here again. It was not expensive at all, the portions were pretty big, and it gives me my gyro fix. Win.

----End Scene-----

Note: Actual conversations in this drama may have been altered without altering their meaning or the eventual outcome. If you would like to perform this play at your school or community theater, please contact the administrator.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Tale of Two Restaurants

I may have accused Sioux Falls of lacking variety in its restaurants in the past, of perhaps not knowing what vegetables are. While I stand by my statement that it would definitely not be easy to be a vegetarian here, I've recently come to notice a bit more variety here than I've seen previously. Case in point: two restaurants Dave and I have been to recently. The first;

Don't let that classy name fool you; Senor Wiener is basically one run-on penis joke of a restaurant. But really, I mean that is the best possible sense. So many restaurants--and people for that matter--take themselves so seriously these days. We're afraid of being corny. Witty, ironic, even kitschy, yes; but never corny, and certainly not coarse. Senor Wiener knows what you are thinking about it---and its laughing right along with you. Along with the ongoing genitalia jokes ("that's a big wiener you got there" on their commercials), the restaurant itself decorated obvious, and gleefully photoshopped photos of the "owner"--- some sort of Mexican hot dog mogul---with various icons throughout history, from Hitler to Bill Clinton.
The food is a similarly varied selection of hot dog creations that span the gamut of the very simple (Naked Dog---just a hot dog and a bun) to the creative and complex (The Aloha Dog -- pineapple, pepperoni, mozzarella, bacon and ranch). I was curious about some of their crazier dogs, but Dave and I decided to go with a couple of old stand bys, mostly because we were just looking for a snack. I went with the a carnival favorite: The Corn Dog
  Alright---perhaps I should have warned you: the photos is the post will not be awesome, as they were taken with a blackberry. But then, hot dogs never really LOOK that great, they mostly just taste great (or, one hopes). The corn dog was exactly what I'd expect from a corn dog---but I did sort of wish that I'd gotten one of the more interesting ones.

Dave, on the other hand, enjoyed the artery clogging Chili Cheese Dog.
I didn't eat any of this cheesy delight, but I believe Dave found it acceptable. Yowza.

And now for something completely different...

  I would describe this place as being like Cold Stone Creamery, but with salad instead of ice cream. Like cold stone, you select your base (a variety of greens, including romaine, iceberg, spinach and a spring mix) then you select fix ins and a dressing.  There are of course also a selection of intriguing signature salads if you don't feel up to making your own brilliant creation.

The restaurant itself is bright, and chain-like, though I believe this is the first location. Taking the "Green" concept to heart, the cups and cutlery are biodegradable, and clearly labeled food waste and recycling bins make it easy for customers to help to do their part.
I went for the BLT salad (this girl likes bacon), but made the unfortunate mistake of getting my salad "mixed up," just because I wanted to see the saladista ( Salad attendant? Salad server? Salad maker?) mix it together with her cleavers.
This just reminded me that there is a reason I don't order chop salads---if I wanted my food to look like it does in my stomach---well, I don't. I'm big on presentation, and the salad looked a lot better before it was chopped up. The salad tasted pretty good, although the bacon was disappointingly tiny bits which could have been from a prepackaged bag. I could have made this salad myself. Which, I suppose is a pitfall of a restaurant like this---you should pretty much always be able to make what they make.

Dave, of course, representing the masculine quotient of our estrogen laden lunch party (outnumbered 2:1) ordered the least veggie-like of the salads. The taco salad.

Didn't look too bad, but Dave said they added too much queso sauce to it. Again, South Dakota---veggies NOT bad!

All in all, Mixed GO GREEN! had potential, and I like the concept. However, I've never been one of those girls who orders a salad at every meal---I like salads, they're just rarely the only event in my meal. This lead to the unfortunate/fortunate side effect that immediately after leaving Mixed, we were slurping malts at the Sonic Drive In across the street. So much for healthy.

Also, for anyone wondering--the Kombucha turned out great, and I even tricked a number of people into trying it. I liked the flavored bottle better, though I think next time, I'm going to try to use smaller bottles. The slight carbonation was more pronounced when I first opened the bottles, but dissipated on later openings. Smaller bottles would preserve it better, I think. No one has died from it yet!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Kombucha in the Making

Well, the day is finally here: Kombucha bottling day! It has been a long, arduous journey (alright, actually just two weeks).

Some of you may remember from past posts that I obtained a Kombucha, or SCOBY (aka Scobi Baby) starter from a friend in Madison....who obtained it from another friend...who obtained it from an Amish Lady, who gave her the recipe that follows.

This is probably the first thing that struck me about Kombucha, this mythical quality it seems to have, shrouded in hippy lore. Some people say it comes from Russia (tea kvass); others that it comes from gypsies, others still from the Chinese (the immortal health elixir), or of course, the Amish. These days, Kombucha isn't just a drink, its a symbol of a certain kind of nature-driven, probiotic lifestyle (which is ironic, since many of the same parents who I hear touting Kombucha are also obsessed with Purell).
I'm not really making Kombucha because I want to test it's health food properties. Although, it would certainly be intriguing. Kombucha is reported to do everything from reducing depression to fighting cancer. However, all research thus far on Kombucha has been based on anecdotal evidence and animal tests. To date, no human trials have been reported in any medical or health journal.  So, you will not, and probably should not, find any licensed physician recommending Kombucha for medicinal purposes anytime soon.

Also, as a note of caution, because of the manner in which Kombucha is made, there is a danger of "bad bacteria" growth. Incorrectly brewed Kombucha has the potential of leading to metabolic acidosis, which can be fatal. The evidence for this, however, also seems rather anecdotal. As thinking human beings, we can assume that most foods may pose a risk if consumed excessively, or if prepared improperly. This is true with Kombucha, as it is true with raw eggs and bagged grocery store spinach.

So, with a healthy dose of caution, and an open mind---lets get fermenting! 

Step One: Bring a gallon of distilled or filtered water just to a boil in a large pot, made from stainless steel or glass (not aluminum). Straight tap water is not recommended, because you want to start with as few impurities as possible.

Step Two: Add 1 cup granulated sugar, and stir until dissolved. Then, add 8 tea bags, or servings of loose tea. You want to chose PLAIN tea; no added dried flowers or fruity stuff. Just plain old green, black or rooibos tea. For my recipe, I chose to do half and half:

        Black Assam Tea
Organic Rooibos

Let this steep for 5-20 minutes--general consensus is a bit longer than you would steep tea normally. 20 minutes seems a bit far out on the spectrum to me, but if you forget to take it out at the exact right time, the point is that you'll probably be ok.

Step Three: Take the tea out, and cover the pot of sweet tea. Let this sit covered for 8 hours or overnight, until completely cooled.

Step Four: Pour the tea into a large jug with a wide mouth. Glass is preferable; I used a sun tea pitcher, which also has a pour spout that comes in very handy later.

Step Five: Add the SCOBY Baby. Most recipes recommend at this point that you wash your hands again and take off all metal jewelry, as the culture is very vulnerable at this point. Just pick up the baby gently, as slide it into the jug, pouring the tea starter in the container with it.

 Scoby Baby Starter

Step Six: Cover the top of the jar with a few layers of cheesecloth, and secure with a rubber band. Do not seal with a tight fitting lid; it is important to let the Kombucha breathe; it is ALIVE!

Fermenting Kombucha

Now, you wait. Place the jug in a a cupboard or in a corner where it will not be disturbed. Leave it there for 2-2.5 weeks. Try to resist opening it up, because this will only endanger your culture.

The Scoby Baby, now your new Mother, may not sit on top of the tea; it may float to the bottom, of sit somewhere in the middle. This is fine. If you use a clear jug, you'll be able to see all the funky layers of the Mother.

As the Kombucha ferments, the culture will form a new layer on top of the jar. This will be your new baby, which you can pass on to friends!

Unfortunately, I made the mistake of filling my jug too full. The new baby began to grow right up to and through the cheesecloth. I attempted to peel it off the cheesecloth, but alas, it was too late.

The new baby attached and mixed with the cheesecloth to such an extent that there was no way to separate them.

With a heavy heart, I made the decision to abort my baby. Take that, google search engines!

Step Seven: Bottle your Kombucha! Alright, we're into the home stretch. If you would like to flavor you Kombucha, this is the time. I flavored half of it with half a container of frozen juice concentrate. It seems that lighter flavors work better, but who knows; add what you like!

I left the other half of the Kombucha plain (as you can always add flavor later) and bottled both into glass growler jugs from my favorite Madison brewery.

I sealed the jugs, then put them back in my cupboard to sit for another 5 days. When this is done, I'll refrigerate it and then it'll be ready to drink.

I still haven't tasted it, but I have high hopes! Mostly  to me, it just a fun food experiment.

On another note, if anyone out there would like a Scoby baby to make their own Kombucha, let me know. If I keep up with this, I'll be making a new one every few weeks!