Monday, December 12, 2011

Done is Oh So Good

No food comments for this post, just some musings for my Bryn Mawr family as they enter Finals Week.

To my sister class, light blue

You're almost there!  You know the drill and you can make it!  If you're finishing a thesis, congratulations!  If you're starting a thesis next semester, best of luck and remember to budget your time.  Ten minutes of work every day adds up really fast.

To my second sister class, red

My junior year was my busiest, I'm sure yours is no different.  I am rooting for you every step of the way!  Call on me if you need anything and keep your chin up.  You will weather the storm.

To my daughter class, dark blue

This is only your third time taking exams, and while you may have the routine down, if you're anything like me you are still struggling to adapt to the high anxiety levels this time of year.  Don't forget that you're still learning how to be a Mawrter in some ways, and that you aren't expected to have your life in order yet.  Remind yourself to be patient, and practice those test-taking/essay-writing skills as best you can.  This is the time when they really solidify.

To my last darling freshmen, green

I'm sure you're terrified by your first exams, I know I was.  Breathe, focus, and try your best to relax.  You know what you're doing.  You CAN make it through.  Budget your time and ask when you need help or are confused, it's never too late.  Ignore the upperclasswomen freaking out, and don't let yourself be intimidated by your classmates' anxiety.  You are a capable student and are ten times smarter than you think you are.  You will make it.  

A special note to my Hell Family, Tiina, Nga, Alex, Emily, Dixie, and Eileen,

Remember, the Anass used to be:

Anassa Kata
Kalo, kale
Ia, Ia, Ia, Nike

Great Queen, descend
I invoke you, fair one
Hail, hail, hail, Victory

She will guide you through and give you strength.

P.S.  Go to the Silent Rave in Canaday if they're having one this year.  It's awesome.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Four Failures and a Success

The Failure

I have attempted to make fudge four times in the past month.  All four attempts have failed.  I tried three maple fudge recipes and one chocolate recipe: the first recipe resulted in maple candy, not maple-flavored fudge.  The second recipe was too soft, but had a great mouthfeel and flavor.  The third (chocolate) was grainy and barely chocolate flavored.  The final batch of maple fudge was so grainy it almost hurt to eat.  Not one of them was juuuust right.  I have exhausted every fudge troubleshooting website I can find; none of them have been helpful.  Every time I change some part of my recipe or technique a different part of the process gets messed up.  And no, I don't want to use marshmallow fluff.  Nor mini marshmallows, nor condensed milk.  Is old-fashioned fudge really such a difficult thing to ask for?


I WILL get this right one day.  Just watch.  Even if I have to beg for a marble slab, I WILL make perfect fudge one day.  Stay tuned.  But not too closely, 'cause this may take awhile.

The Success

There's this wonderful group called Philly Food Swap that's organized by some local bloggers.  I found out about them by reading Food In Jars by Marisa McClellan: I saw her post on the first Philly Food Swap, got excited, and signed up for the Winter Philly Food Swap, which was yesterday.  Approximately 35 people, displaying homemade food goods, crowded into the PA Horticultural Society Library to mingle and sample each others' food. 

I had a BLAST!  I met some great people, got a little stressed out making enough macaroons for the event, and came home with an enormous variety of delicious, locally made treats.

I came back with:
Rhubarb Liqueur (going to be FABULOUS with seltzer)
Lime and Cinnamon Apple Sauce
Meyer Lemon Curd (!!!!!)
Caramel Apple Butter
Maple & Coconut Peanut Butter (for Brother Bear, since I'm allergic to peanuts)
Pumpkin Seed Caramels (oh thank you, thank you, whomever was listening to my prayers)
Spiced Cranberry Pomegranate Syrup (martini, anyone?)
Dilly Pickles
Hot Sauce
Chocolate Whiskey Cake
Candied Bacon Fudge
Red Wheat Cinnamon Buns and
Homemade Vanilla and Vanilla Bean Marshmallows.

WHY did no one tell me that homemade marshmallows are THE BEST THING EVER OH MY GOD I MIGHT DIE AND I HAVE SO MANY OF THEM I AM SO EXCITED!

Yeah, I had a good time.  Met some great people, tasted some great food, and brought home more for the future.  I missed out on things like a homemade chai mix (with a little bit of fennel - divine!), sticky fig jam that would have made Mama Bear swoon, and some truly snazzy professional-looking cupcakes from Cupcake Friday Project, but there's always the next swap! I can't wait to go again.

P.S.  Sorry, no pictures, the camera's acting up again.
P.P.S.  Suddenly boys?  What is this?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Mascarpone Holiday

Sorry about the lack of updates!  Lots more coming soon.

I have a patience problem when it comes to cooking.  I like to be active; to stir, mix, fuss and otherwise bother whatever recipe is at hand.  This is great when I'm doing something like shortbread, which can take the abuse.  It's terrible when I'm working with a food that requires a much more relaxed, hands-off strategy, like soft cheese.  Cheese, as I have discovered, is easy.  Heat milk in some form from some animal, add an acid, and then let it sit.  Don't touch it when it's resting, don't mess with it until it's done, don't even stir it more than necessary to keep it from scorching.  This goes against everything that I think I need to do in the kitchen to get a recipe to work.  It's also why my biscuits always come out flat.  It's why I check the candy thermometer eight times a minute, and why I hover over my current project like a mother hen.  I obsess.  I worry.  I over-think. 

And my cheese STILL comes out this wonderful.  This stuff practically makes itself if you turn your back long enough.  (Actually, that's how crème fraîche a.k.a. soured cream is made.  Heat up cream.  Add buttermilk.  Let sit out for about 48 hours.  Ta da!  Awesomeness!)

I've been experimenting with home cheese making ever since my birthday, when I was given this book:

Hello,beautiful.  Why yes, we can be friends.

I started with yogurt, then moved on to ricotta and was quite successful.  I made it twice, actually.  Came out with some awesome ricotta gnocchi that I will make again, I promise.

When we hit the holiday season, I wanted to try something a little more challenging.  I had spotted a recipe for a pumpkin roll with ginger buttercream in Ina Garten's book Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics.  It required mascarpone cheese.

Mascarpone cheese is a main component of tiramisu, a decadent Italian dessert made with ladyfingers dipped in coffee and a fluffy cream mixture.  Literally translated, it means "pick me up".  If you alter the word a little, you can even change it into an innuendo, "get me up".  Thank you Suzi from Citta della Pieve for that Italian lesson.

Before I get to the recipe, we should go over the materials necessary for successful mascarpone.

First, a double boiler.  See this post if you don't have a double boiler.

Second, cheesecloth or butter muslin.  Cheesecloth is woven more loosely than butter muslin, so you'll need more layers.  I used four for this project.  If you can't find either cheesecloth or butter muslin, I've heard you can use a few layers of coffee filters (I'd go with unbleached) as a substitute.

The Set Up: four layers of cheesecloth draped in a strainer, suspended above a catch-bowl.

Third, a calibrated candy thermometer, analog or digital as per your preference.  Calibrating a candy thermometer is simple: boil a small amount of water in a sauce pan and take a reading from the thermometer.  Remember that non-instant read thermometers need a little time to come up to temperature.  The thermometer should read 212° F (or 100° C if you use metric).  A tiny bit of variation (up to about .5 of a degree) is acceptable.  Any discrepancy of more than a degree should be noted for future use.  I don't recommend using a meat thermometer for this job, although it technically might work.

Remember, patience!

Mascarpone Cheese

1 quart heavy cream
1 tablespoon white vinegar

Note: some recipes call for lemon juice, but I prefer white vinegar because it imparts less flavor.  Practically any acid will work: tartaric acid, lemon juice, cider vinegar, rice wine vinegar, etc.  The amounts necessary to curdle the milk will vary with acidity, however.

In a double boiler, heat the heavy cream to 190° F, stirring occasionally and being careful that the water in the lower pan doesn't touch the bottom of the top pan.  Whisking or stirring constantly (but gently) add the vinegar and stir until the cream begins to curdle and is thick, about a minute or two.  The cream should still be very smooth.  Immediately remove the top pan from the double boiler and allow the cheese to cool undisturbed (aka DON'T STIR) until the cheese is approximately as thick as yogurt or sour cream, about 15 minutes.  Ladle or gently pour the cream into a strainer lined with cheese cloth, set over a bowl.  Cover and let strain in the refrigerator for about 24 hours.  Discard the liquid at the bottom, stir the cheese, and use however you desire.

Because marscapone is so creamy and the curds are so small, it blends well with sweeteners and as such is used mostly for dessert.  Just yesterday I mixed mascarpone cheese with some confectioner's sugar and dipped strawberries in it for dessert.  Absolutely fantastic.

This stuff is just perfect.  If you add enough sugar and beat it long enough, the result is this spectacular combination of whipped cream and icing, perfect for icing cakes or dipping fruit.  It doesn't deflate like whipped cream and it has more flavor than regular icing. You could also make it more savory and use as a dipping sauce, although the flavor is so mild I wouldn't recommend using it as a substitute for sour cream or crème fraîche.  It won't hold up to heat, either, but it's still quite versatile.

Happy cheesemaking!

Edit: My computer corrected 'mascarpone' to 'mascapone' for no good reason I can find.  Spelling errors have since been fixed.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Biscuit Experiment

Update:  PICTURES!

My Berenstein Bear family (Did you notice?  Didja?  Didja?) loves cheese.  Pretty much any kind of cheese except cheese products marketed as cheese (I'm lookin' at you, American.  Yes, you.  Get out of the cheese crisper!) is fair game.  We love soft cheese, like brie or chevre, and will eat it on crackers.   I am also partial to a breakfast of multigrain toast with chevre and fig spread.  We love hard cheese, like jarlesberg or manchego, also eaten on crackers or as a sandwich addition.  And, we love semi-soft cheeses, like a sharp white cheddar or morbier.  What's morbier, you may be asking?  It's a wonderfully delicious cheese made of happy; one of my absolute favorites.  Check it out.  It's creamy but not buttery or slick, mild in flavor but not in smell, and has a lovely gentle twang at the end of each bite.

Oh yum!

Anyway, Papa Bear and I were browsing through our traditional Saturday morning cheese haunt in Chestnut Hill and we espied a newcomer!  A certain Espresso BellaVitano made by Sartori.  We pondered it for a little while, taking in the description (espresso rind?  Unusual...) and the overly excited label proclaiming it a "WINNER!!!".  I was a little suspicious.  But, the beauty of unfamiliar cheese is that is holds the promise of a new, wonderful experience or a new, eh experience.  Sometimes even a face-puckering, oh-holy-god-never-again experience, but those are much more rare.

So we took it home, broke out the crackers, and cut a few slices.

And were underwhelmed.

It's perfectly fine cheese.  A tad funky on the end, tastewise, but nothing offensive.  It was just a little odd. The texture was unusual, like a soft parmesan.  When broken it created faceted geography that glistened like it was wet, which is sometimes a sign of cheese gone bad, but it was dry to the touch and smelled like an aged cheese should.  It just didn't hold up to its promise, almost like it was waiting for another flavor to come along and help it be delicious.  It was 'eh'.  Ok.  It didn't draw me back in for another bite.  So, we wrapped it up and put it in the fridge, hoping that once we ran out of manchego we'd eat it out of desperation.

Chives from the garden.  Organic!  Local!  Free!

But then I mulled some cider.  Specifically, I took store-bought cider (that was downright mediocre compared to the local stuff we get that is blow-your-socks-off delicious) and simmered it with some mulling spices from Harry & David that had been given to me as a gift.  Suddenly, it was delicious.  Worth the time, definitely, because that cider will now be enjoyed instead of poured down the drain.

This, of course, got me thinking about other food I could re-purpose.  Like the Espresso BellaVitano.  Ooo, didn't I find a recipe for Brie and Chive Biscuits the other day?  Could I modify it a little?

Yes.  Ohhhhhh yes I could.  I had to increase the amount of buttermilk, since the BellaVitano is a hard cheese and Brie is soft with a much higher moisture content, but I've made biscuits before and I know how the dough should feel.

Floured wineglass biscuit-cutter, French rolling pin, and freshly cut biscuits, ready for the oven.

This also meant I got to use one of my favorite kitchen tools (besides the French rolling pin), the pastry cutter.
Taken shamelessly from
 Isn't it pretty?  The blades are exactly the most useful distance apart, so that when the butter is accurately incorporated into your batter it passes through the blades.  And, it means you don't heat up the butter by trying to mix it in with your fingers, so the final result is flakier and has a superior texture. I've heard you can also use it to mash potatoes, but we only use it for pastry dough and biscuit dough in this house.

Cheese and Chive Buttermilk Biscuits
Adapted from From Away

 2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking soda
6 tbsp unsalted butter, cold and cut into small pieces
6 ounces shredded or finely chopped cheese
2 tbsp chives, finely chopped
1 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 375°.  In a large bowl, mix together flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda.  Using a pastry cutter, combine dry ingredients and butter until butter pieces are about the size of peas.  Dough should look mealy.  Add cheese and chives and toss to combine.  Fold in buttermilk until dough comes together and is slightly sticky.  You may need to use slightly less or slightly more buttermilk, depending on weather conditions.

Turn out dough onto a floured board.  Knead gently for a scant two or three turns.  Next, roll out dough until it is 1/2" thick, flouring rolling pin as needed to prevent sticking.  Using a cookie cutter or wineglass, cut out rounds and arrange them on an oiled or parchment lined baking sheet.  Re-roll excess and continue cutting out rounds until all the dough is used.  Bake for 15-20 minutes or until biscuits have risen, tops are golden, and bottom edges are lightly browned.

Eat with butter.  Makes approximately 15 biscuits.

Dude.  DUDE.  These were awesome.  The funkiness was GONE.  The biscuits were savory and cheesy with a little hint of greenness from the chives.  Like flaky cheese-its, minus the disgusting orange coloring and crunch.  Earthy, a little salty, and tasted warm even after they had fully cooled.  I kneaded the dough just a couple seconds too long, so they didn't rise as high as they should have, but who cares?!  We only had three of these left for breakfast, they were so good.  PLUS there's an entire 6 ounce hunk still in the fridge.  I'm making these again.

A tad flat, yes.  I'll treat them more gently next time.