Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Knitting Cake

It's been a while since I've had a non-food post... so here ya go.

I come by my craftiness naturally; my mother is a musician, knitter, cook, crafter, and most remarkably, an amazing calligrapher* (she does wedding invites, if you're in the market...). She is also hard to shop for. So when her birthday came around in May, I lucked out when I stopped by a yarn sale in Oakland, and the saleslady suggested I make a "cake" out of a giant skein of yarn she was trying to get rid of. So I bought the skein and some ribbon, and picked up some cake toppers with candles at the drug store, and 15 minutes later I had this:

She loved it so much she refuses to knit with it, and it sits perched in her living room 4 months later. Good thing it's not a real cake!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Speedy Turtles

Chocolate and caramel are two of my favorite things. So naturally, combining them is my goal in life.

The Epicurious recipe for Turtle Brownies* has a total prep time of five and half hours. Um, what? Who has the patience and self-restraint, while the sweet aroma of baking brownies wafts through the house, to not eat said brownies, let alone brownie turtles? Not I. Admittedly, four of those hours are to be spent cooling in the fridge. But brownies are better warm and gooey.

So here's my Speedy Turtle recipe. Use brownie mix. I like Ghirardelli best, but there are many excellent choices, including some tasty gluten-free options (those have definitely gotten better over the years!). When the brownies come out of the oven, start making the caramel layer:

Bring 3/4 cup sugar, 1/3 cup corn syrup, and 3 tablespoons of water to a boil.

The recipe says the will be caramel colored within 10 minutes, but I have experienced it happening much quicker. While it's bubbling, mix 1/2 cup cream (or substituted half and half or whole milk) with a dollop of vanilla in a little mixing bowl, and place the pecans on top of the cooling brownies. When the caramel is done, get it off the burner quickly, dump the cream and vanilla in, and whisk until it stops fizzing so feverishly.

Then pour on top of the brownies.

Skip the semi-sweet chocolate glaze, they are PLENTY sweet without it. Stick the pan in the fridge until you can't bear to wait any more. Cut and eat.

Failed Alfredo

Two things I learned recently:

1) Do not try to make recipes on the back of "novelty pasta" boxes. It doesn't work out.

2) Alfredo sauce needs to be made with whole milk or cream. Nonfat milk does not work.

However, there's a silver lining; I discovered an easier, cheaper way to make alfredo sauce. Next time you're hankering for restaurant-style alfredo, just pick up a jar of the stuff at the store. Then put it on the stove, and add white wine. That will thin it out so it's not so globular, and give it an authentic Italian taste. Once it's nicely incorporated and steamy, take it off the heat and add parsley. Ta-da!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Monkey Cookies

JT is just a little bit batty sometimes, and started calling these cookies "Monkey Cookies" instead of "Cowboy Cookies." I love how this recipe combines the best part of oatmeal raisin cookies (the oatmeal) and the best part of chocolate chip cookies, and makes it into one cookie, plus nuts.

I made them pretty much exactly as the recipe* suggests, plus a dash of cinnamon. I did eat a lot of dough, which the recipe does not include. There are lots of recipes out there, and some call for pecans, which are fantastic, and add a certain buttery flavor.

The verdict from JT and our friend Hilary? "Awesome monkey cookies."

Monday, August 23, 2010

Sneaky Mashed Potatoes

I was in charge of cooking tonight's family dinner for my parents & brother. Yay! I made my Make-Do Marinade for a tasty tri-tip steak, a salad, and brought half a frozen Gluten Free Chocolate Pear Torte that I served with ice cream. I thought the meal needed mashed potatoes. So I scrubbed, quartered, and boiled the potatoes.

The problem? There's no butter in my parents' house currently.

My sneaky solution? I used the standard mashed potato ingredients (milk, salt, parsley) plus three tablespoons of brie. Brie? Yes brie. Just be sure to add it while the potatoes are still hot enough to melt the cheese.

I don't know many households that have brie but not butter, but hey, it worked. And it was simply scrumptious. In fact, I might prefer it.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Follow-Up: Shortcut Frosting

All in all, I was disappointed by the latest edition of Real Simple Magazine. Leopard prints are back in? No.

But one particular idea was golden, and perfectly timed with yesterday's Shortcut Cupcakes: Shortcut frosting. If you're in a time pinch and can't spare time (or money, or ingredients), simply use a marshmallow. Stick it on top of the cupcake a few minutes before the cupcakes are done baking, and let it melt deliciously. Passing on the genius to you!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Delightful DeLemonade

A simple summer drink that is always a party hit, and a great way to enjoy a non-dehydrating, non-intoxicating drink with a wine flavoring.

Martha Stewart suggests using the remaining red wine in the bottle after a party to make wine cubes, which she suggests you later use to make soup stock. Awesome idea, right? One problem -- leftover wine??? Not at my parties.

But I make wine cubes nonetheless, and find them quite handy.

This drink, described as "delightful" by my friend and former room mate Kendra, is just simple Country Time lemonade with a wine cube floating on top. I love how the colors stay separated while the cube is melting, but the cool part is how the slowly swirl together as you drink it.

If you want to be super fancy, squeeze your own lemons and add water and sugar. I also like to add a little bit of honey to my lemonade, particularly if I'm using Meyer lemons, which tend to have a bitterness about them that regular cane sugar doesn't quite conquer.

To good health!

Shortcut Cupcakes

Sometimes you just don't have the energy to make cupcakes from scratch. Or the ingredients. Sometimes people are coming over and you need something quick. Here's my solution:

Use a Betty Crocker-like cake or brownie mix. Make as directed. Before spooning it into cupcake or cake pans, add half a cup of white chocolate chips, and half a cup of regular. Or whatever you have handy. You could even throw in some nuts. But the REAL secret to making them seem scrumptiously home-made is the flavoring. I am a big fan of orange extract flavoring. But others are great too -- almond, hazelnut, peppermint, etc. Put in a few teaspoons of flavoring and no one will guess they're technically store-bought. Remember to hide the box!

Top creatively, and remember sprinkles can make up for a lot.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Bridesmaid Dress, Meet Bedsheets

Ok, the fabric was never an actual bridesmaid dress. But once I finished the bedskirt, it did feel a little like a bridal party had exploded under my bed. I picked the color because I thought it would compliment the soft tan of the fitted sheet. I think the flash of the camera makes the fabric seem a little more... maid of honor... because the real-life color of the fabric is not so inclined to throw you a bachelorette party.

I used a twin topsheet from my college days as the under-part holding the skirt together under the mattress (you can't see that part). Then I hemmed, gathered and pinned the would-be bridesmaid dress to the old sheet. Every time I laid any fabric on the ground, my kitten would attack it, making it quite difficult to finish the project. But I think little cat approves, as she now has even more to conceal her when she's hiding from me at medicine time.

  • Lay the sheet on top of your mattress. Cut it to fit the size of the mattress exactly. You do not need to leave extra for seams. In fact, you shouldn't, or the edge of the sheet will be visible around the edge of the mattress.
  • Cut the 3 yards of fabric you've selected for the skirt into three or four strips lengthwise. Make sure these strips are wide enough to cover the box-spring or area between the frame and the floor, plus an extra 2 inches for seems and gathers.
  • Hem one side of each of the four strips.
  • Double-baste the strips on the opposite side of the hem in preparation for gathering.
  • Sew the strips together to make one looong strip. Make sure all the hems are facing the same direction.
  • Gather the double-basted side of the sewn-together strips until the gathered edge is about half as long as the strip was before you gathered it.
  • Pin the gathered side to the sheet. Each strip should cover one edge of the sheet, with the seams meeting at the corners. You may have to adjust your gathering to make it fit better. Sew in place, making sure the gathered fabric doesn't make any funny loops or bumps or unwanted scrunches.
  • All done! Trim all those threads and slip it under the mattress.

Cost: Three yards of shiny, shiny gown material, plus an old sheet from college. $20, depending on how expensive the fabric is. I once made a bedskirt using an old sheet and some beautiful sheer fabric I found in the remnant pile at the fabric store for $4. Woohoo!

Candy Corn Brittle

Candy corn is not my favorite. My former room mate Kendra and I discussed our dislike for it on several occasions. One particular time was shortly after I met JT and was making a batch of this brittle in hopes of making a good impression.

In Kendra's words: "I don't like candy corn. Every year I try it, just to make sure I still don't like it, and every year I remember why I don't like it and pledge not to try it again. It's not the initial taste. The initial taste is fine. But then it's that weird middle and aftertaste that just doesn't go away. Ugh. It haunts me. Talk about scary... what a perfect Halloween candy."

But JT still likes it, and I still like JT, so I am bringing back the candy corn brittle, even though it's off-season. I definitely like this brittle more than plain candy corn.

1.5 Cups sugar
1/4 Cup water
1/2 Cup corn syrup

½ teaspoon salt
1 cup candy corn
2 T butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon Baking soda

In saucepan, combine sugar, water, corn syrup. Cook mixture over medium-low heat, stirring constantly until sugar is dissolved. Increase heat and bring syrup to boil. Cook until candy thermometer reads 300 degrees or hard crack stage. This will take at least 10 minutes.

While it's bubbling, place a buttered sheet of foil on a flat surface (counter, cookie sheet, whatever).
 When the syrup reaches 300, remove from heat, add salt, butter and vanilla. Then add soda mixture, mixture will be foamy. Stir in candy corn and allow it to melt a little.
Pour brittle onto buttered foil and spread. Allow to cool completely before breaking into pieces.
Store in an airtight container.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Variation on Pear Jam: Caramel Pear Butter

I accidentally singed a second batch of pear jam*. Whoops.

But you know what slightly burnt sugar becomes? Caramel. And you know what makes caramel even tastier? Butter.

So I used my immersion blender on the pears and then threw in two tablespoons of butter while it was still hot. The result? Even tastier than the original pear jam! Next time I'll add more butter for a smoother, creamier result.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Ugly Shirt, Become Kinda Cute

I had this shirt I bought a while ago. It was pretty ugly. The concept was nice, I guess. But the sleeves were too tight and the torso not tight enough, so it looked odd. Plus it had a strange neckline. So I pulled off the sleeves and made the neckline lower. What do you think?

I kind of wish it was a dress. It would be cuter as a dress. But trust me, this was an improvement.

Make-Do Marinade

I find a good marinade can make anything delicious, especially on the grill. Growing up, my dad had his go-to marinade recipe for chicken and steak, which he passed down to me. You can find it here*.

But I'm not going to the store to get lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, or dijon. Not today.

My substitutions:

For the lemon juice: orange juice. Close enough.
For the Worcestershire sauce: A1 sauce. I know, I thought it was funny too.
For the dijon: regular mustard.
And I forgot to add the balsamic vinegar. No great loss, there are plenty of great flavors without it.

Mix all the ingredients in the recipe, with the substitutions above, in a gallon plastic bag with thawed chicken breasts. Let sit for a few hours. Then fire up the grill and cook.

The result?

Mom can't tell the difference between my recipe and my dad's. The lesson: never be afraid to get creative!

Gluten-Free Chocolate-Pear Torte

I think the word torte sounds a little pretentious, so I'm just going to call it a very rich cake, ok?

My father has celiac disease. The real version of wheat (gluten) intolerance, not the new-age, hipster, I'm-choosing-not-to-eat-wheat-because-it-clouds-my-aura gluten intolerance. The real deal. So when I saw this recipe*, I thought I'd try it to surprise my dad with a gluten-free version. Too bad I forgot he's out of town for the week...

But we move on. Torte freezes, right?

My substitutions:

I had no dried pears (although I do have some drying), so I used some of yesterday's pear jam, adding a little less sugar since the jam is so sweet.
I didn't have poire williams, so I used plain brandy.
I didn't have quite enough chocolate, so I used what I had (7 oz) plus 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder.
And of course, I used gluten-free baking flour instead of all-purpose.

Going into the oven:
I baked it 10 minutes shorter than the recipe suggests, and it was nice and moist.

I decided to forgo the suggested chocolate glaze, as the comments on Epicurious said the pear flavor was lost. So I left it untopped and gave my guests the option of pear jam, leftover cream cheese frosting, ice cream, or no topping. It went well with the cream cheese frosting*, as well as vanilla ice cream.

The result? The torte is TASTY. And VERY RICH. However, the pear flavor is completely lost, as is the brandy flavor.

My suggestions?
Skip the pears. Use applesauce.
Double the brandy.
The almonds are tasty and good for you. Add more.
Only use 6 ounces of baking chocolate.
The glaze is excessive. Leave it out.

Simple Salad Dressing

I love this combo of flavors on just about anything. Today it's on spinach, pears and goat cheese. Yum!

1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 T plain mustard
salt & pepper
small glove of garlic, minced

Mixed in my fancy salad-dressing-mixer. But you can use a water bottle, jar, whatever. (The recipe on the mixer is not the one I used.)

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Pear Jam

My sweetie and I have a thing about pear jam. Not that it's particularly important to either of us. But it's been a running joke since about the third date.

Me: I got some cute little Christmas presents from my students today.
JT: Yeah? Like what?
Me: Some candles, stationary, and one kid gave me pear jam. You know, like jam, made out of pears.
JT: Oh is that what pear jam is? Thanks for explaining that. I couldn't have figured it out myself, based on its name.

So while JT is home visiting family for 2 weeks, I am making pear jam.

Pear jam is SUPER easy:

  • Cut up about 4 or 5 pears into slices, removing stems and cores.
  • Mix them in a bowl with a cup of sugar.
  • Put the bowl in the refrigerator overnight. The sugar and pear juice makes a liquid when you let it sit long enough.
  • The next day, put half a cup of water in a pot. Add the pear-sugar mix, making sure to get the sugar and juice in there.
  • Add cinnamon and nutmeg if you're awesome.Let it bubble for 20-30 minutes on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until pears are soft and mushy. Then take it off the stove.
  • If you have an immersion blender, use that, otherwise pop it in the blender or food processor. Don't over-process it.
  • Put it in a container and pop it in the fridge. Epicurious says you should use it in a week, but I bet it would last at least 2.

Blue Velvet Cake

Having gone to college in the South, and been in a sorority where red velvet cake was the traditional celebratory dessert, I know my red velvet cake. So I was very excited to see a variation on the theme: Blue Velvet Cupcakes*.

I made the recipe as specified, with a few variations: I didn't want to run to the store just to buy buttermilk, so I researched substitutes for buttermilk*. Lo and behold, other people agree that buttermilk is a practically useless commodity. Although it was not listed in the link above, I used a cup of plain yogurt pre-mixed with a tablespoon of vinegar. The idea is that vinegar supplies the tangyness that is so distinguishable in buttermilk recipes. The cake recipe does call for another tablespoon of vinegar at the tail end of mixing. The end result had no traces of vinegar flavor (thank goodness).

I didn't have the specific brand of food coloring, so I just used my McCormick coloring. The little bottle of blue was plenty, plus a good squirt of red (so it doesn't come out grey, although the batter will look slightly grey with a hint of purple before baked.) Also, I discovered my muffin tin had gone missing when I moved recently, so I made a cake instead of cupcakes. No great loss there. Baking time was extended by 10-20 minutes.

The cake wasn't very pretty before it was frosted, probably because the natural browning of the crust and the blue food coloring made it look green-brown. But a good cook knows that a quality frosting can fix almost any cake:

The cake received rave reviews by discriminated palates at the weekly ladies' night.

After the fact, I find it amusing that my love for velvet cake began in a red state, and now I've moved home to a blue state. My cake color has changed accordingly.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Yogurt Making

Today I tried making yogurt. I know, kind of an adventurous undertaking. It was fun, though! Very easy. I used the recipe I found here. To keep the milk-turning-into-yogurt warm, I left it on top of the metal barbecue in the sun, until it got cool, and then I put it on top of the stove as I used the oven. Then, once the oven was cooler, I put the bowl in the oven for a few hours.

However, the texture was a bit odd, which made me nervous. I tried a few bites and nothing happened. I want to try again with 1 or 2% milk, and perhaps I won't have the same issue. Try it and let me know if you have any tips!

Cost: $0, if you have half a gallon of milk about to expire, plus a container of yogurt. Otherwise, around $5.