Saturday, April 26, 2008

How Green is My Kitchen – Bothering More

How green is my kitchen? Well, technically, the answer would be “not very.” It’s “Chestertown Buff” a handsome shade of gold, available through the Benjamin Moore Paints Historical Color Collection.

But green is no longer a just a palette choice, but a philosophy as the more enlightened of you well know.

I’m not big on jumping on bandwagons, but Michael Pollan’s piece “Why Bother?” in the April 20th edition of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, gave me pause. Pollan discusses the personal impact we can each have on climate change, and made me consider the fact that my kitchen and some of my behaviors were probably more wasteful than I care to admit.

Pollan eloquently cuts through the verbal clutter of issues around carbon footprints and food miles and makes a strong case that the climate-change crisis is actually “a crisis of lifestyle – of character, even.” Pollan writes, “The Big Problem is nothing more or less than the sum total of countless little everyday choices, most of them made by us (consumer spending represents 70 percent of our economy), and most of the rest of them made in the name of our needs and desires and preferences.”

OK. I get it. I need to change and only I can make it happen. But, where does one start, especially on suburban Long Island, where the grid marks of consumption and mall traffic were firmly established after World War II? I’d love to plant a garden, but I’d never be able to care for it, and the nearest farm stand is about 75 miles away.

But, “home grown” and “sustainable” can be achieved in lots of different ways. “Culinary Types” do have the skills to prepare fresh and exceedingly edible food that is less dependent on highly-processed and excessively-packaged ingredients. So, I’ve resolved to find small solutions that as Pollan writes, may “actually beget other solutions, and not only the kinds that save carbon.” I recently revived the neglected and hibernating bread machine on my kitchen counter, and I realized that for the time it takes to drive to the supermarket, I could actually bake my weekly loaf of bread instead of buying it. It is a small investment of time to measure some simple ingredients and I produce a glorious loaf of nutritious and nutty whole wheat bread, flavored with molasses. The very thought of homemade bread in the pantry is a tantalizing reason to get out of bed, and I can’t wait to indulge in another crusty slice each morning with breakfast. It’s a positive contribution to the environment, and it might also be good for the soul.

For me, the change in behavior becomes even more focused if the results are tangible. Trying to calculate the cost savings of home baked bread is a little like contemplating the miracle of the loaves and fishes. I’m not an arithmetic genius, but some simple math does tell a compelling story. One loaf of commercially-packaged whole wheat bread costs $3.89 which, if I buy one loaf a week, adds up to $202.28 per year. By comparison, a 5-pound bag of organic whole wheat flour costs $4.99 and a five-pound bag of unbleached bread flour costs $3.95, a total of $8.94. If I purchase commercial bread for three weeks, it costs $11.67. So, the cost of the raw ingredients for multiple loaves of homemade bread is already less than the price of just three loaves of commercially-packaged bread. More important, as an eco-friendly colleague of mine pointed out, I will eliminate 52 inner plastic wraps, 52 outer plastic bags and 52 plastic fasteners from the waste stream. Given the uncertainty of the stock market, these are pretty good dividends.

However, there is more that can be done. What are your small culinary solutions? I’d love to know. And, check back in the weeks ahead as I begin to redecorate T.W. Barritt’s kitchen in shades of green.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Cake in Imitation of a Haunch of Lamb from 1895

It is high time that we give serious and scholarly consideration to cake in the shape of a haunch of lamb.

Cake, shaped like meat? At the very least, it appears a scandalous mixing of culinary metaphors, at worst, a truly shocking proposition for the vegetarians among us. Yet, there is definitive historical precedence for a confection that would appeal to carnivores.

Certainly, the movement of patisserie inspired by architecture is well known to those who followed the exploits of the brilliant French pastry chef Antonin Careme, but the philosophical mingling of cake and animal protein is perhaps more obscure. One need only look to the Victorians who had a penchant for sculpting their food into whimsical creations. This recipe was uncovered by Australia’s Old Foodie in the Encyclopaedia of Practical Cookery, by Theodore Garret published in London in 1895. This colossal tome included extravagant recipes from the top chefs of Britain’s grand hotels, and Cake in Imitation of a Haunch of Lamb could quite handily feed a banquet hall filled with Victorian dandies:

Cake in Imitation of a Haunch of Lamb (a la Soyer)

A dish of this character is of no extraordinary value, even as an eccentricity. Put the yolks of thirty-six eggs in a basin with 3lb. of caster sugar, stand the basin in another one containing hot water, and whisk the eggs till rather thick and warm, then take the basin out of the water, and continue whisking them till cold. Beat the whites of the thirty-six eggs and mix them with the yolks, then sift in gradually 3lb. of the best white flour and the finely-chopped peel of two lemons, stirring it lightly at the same time with a wooden spoon. When quite smooth, turn the batter into a very long mould and bake it. When cooked, take it out of the oven and leave till cold. If not convenient to use so large a mould, the Cake can be baked in two separate portions, and afterwards joined together with icing. When cold, trim the Cake with a sharp knife into the shape of a haunch of lamb. Make a hollow in the interior of the Cake, but fill it up again with the pieces, to keep it in shape. Colour some icing to a light gold with a small quantity of melted chocolate and cochineal, and coat the Cake over with it, and leave it till dry. Make sufficient strawberry or vanilla ice to fill the interior of the Cake. Form the knuckle-bone of the lamb with office-paste; moisten the interior with brandy and preserved strawberry-juice, then fill it with the ice. Put the haunch on to a dish, fix a paper frill round the knuckle-bone, and glaze it over with a mixture of apricot marmalade and currant jelly. Melt a small quantity of red-currant jelly with some red wine, pour it round the haunch, to imitate gravy, and serve. (Garrett, Theodore. The Encyclopaedia of Practical Cookery. London, 1895)

Certainly, lamb and it’s more mature sibling mutton have inspired everything from iconic images of great Kings to fanciful ladies’ fashions. Why not cake as well? The pool of gravy made with red-currant jelly is particularly captivating.

The discerning host must consider whether serving a dessert course that resembles an entrée would cause significant confusion to guests? Is the meal concluding, or is it beginning yet again?

Our homage to Cake in Imitation of a Haunch of Lamb does take certain liberties with the original recipe, but playing with one’s food is certainly an acceptable post-modern pursuit.

This post is dedicated to the Old Foodie, who never fails to unearth the most extraordinary events – and retro cakes – in culinary history. It is a trifle late for her Mock Food Week, but of course, one must always cook lamb to the proper temperature. There is no rushing these endeavors.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Wondrous Bread

Growing up, Wonder Bread was the “It” loaf in the grocery store.

I can just hear the gasps out there in the blogosphere. Stick with me. This story will improve quickly.

We had to have Wonder Bread. Hey – have pity! We were just little guys. Taste and nutrition really weren’t relevant. We were fascinated by the red, yellow and blue balloons printed on the wrapper. It was the heyday of Captain Kangaroo and Super Friends and the dawn of kid marketing. That airy, spongy white bread was entertaining, too. We would roll it into balls and pop it in our mouths. It was just that soft.

Fortunately, Mom was health conscious, and Wonder Bread made a quick exit from the household as whole grain breads began to appear at the supermarket. We dined on many varieties. My favorites were kid-friendly – date and nut bread or raisin cinnamon bread spread with cream cheese. Today, I’m a total convert as I forage for nutty grains and double fiber in the bread aisle. Wonder Bread seems so 1960s.

I’ve done some extensive study in bread, but the differences between the conditions of the industrial-sized classroom and the home kitchen can be significant. I love kneading, but I’m really challenged when it comes time for the bread to rise. In class we had proofing boxes, but my kitchen is just a little drafty. I’ve tried leaving the dough by the heater in the basement, or putting it in the oven on keep-warm, with minimal luck. I even read recently that putting the dough on top of a television while viewing is an option. I wonder if an episode of The Tudors will make the dough rise more quickly than a rerun of The Andy Griffith Show?

During the recent kitchen decluttering, the Regal Breadmaker caught my eye again. It had become invisible on the counter after many years of neglect like most specialty appliances do (I’m surprised my professional declutterer didn’t target it for extinction.). It has always felt a little like cheating to resort to the breadmaker after all that intensive, hands-on class work, but then I have an epiphany. We used monstrous electric mixers with digital programs that handled the kneading in class and we let the dough proof in temperature-controlled boxes. It’s not really that different. So why not let technology be my bread-baking friend? (Give me about three minutes, and I can rationalize and dispel most forms of guilt with a quick wave of the hand.)

I have a touch of trepidation. The big box has been asleep for several years, but it emerges from hibernation and soon it is whirring and squealing like Cinderella’s furry friends. The ingredients for Raisin Cinnamon loaf layer into the bread pan in minutes – bread flour (the high protein flour has more gluten and results in better structure), golden raisins and fragrant cinnamon. Dropping the raisins into the machine as the dough rotates and kneads is almost as much fun as those red, yellow and blue balloons of yesteryear, if not just a trifle dizzying.

Admittedly, the process is devoid of most of the Zen associated with bread baking, because the machine does the heavy lifting. While it’s not the same sensory experience, with a little help from my breadmaker the results are satisfying and the exotic, warm smells of raisin and cinnamon fill the kitchen. Spread with Crosby’s Bees Honey from Vermont, it is truly a Wonder-ful bread.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, April 06, 2008

A Mini-Obsession - Dorie's Coconut Tea Cakes with Cardamom and Rum Cream Glaze

I confess. I have recently developed a little obsession with mini-bundt cakes.

I usually try to vary my kitchen experiments, but ever since those Little Jackie Ds popped out of the oven, I’ve been on a quest to find recipes that I can, well, miniaturize.

I’ve heard about this syndrome before. In some people, it manifests itself with an overpowering desire to bake macarons.

Of course, I’m not gaining any deep insight from this endeavor, or preparing to start a business. I’m just eating the results and probably gaining at the waistline.

My issue with obsessive behavior is not new. I once aspired to own every recording ever made by Olivia Newton-John. A pasta obsession (I would eat it by the pound) in the mid-1990s resulted in a bit of excess weight-gain, just before the low-carb craze took over. The Hollywood writers strike did little to curb my addictive fascination for the TV program Lost. Every day at 3:00 PM, I make a Pavlovian-trip to the office vending machine for a bag of M&Ms – dark chocolate only. Then there’s that issue with red sweaters, but it’s really just a seasonal obsession.

I’ve also had a strong attraction to the diminutive. Don’t bother super-sizing for me. Growing up, I was a big fan of the pint-sized super hero, The Atom who had the power to reduce himself to microscopic stature and I voraciously read every volume of The Borrowers, a British classic about a family of tiny people who live under the floorboards of an English country estate. And, I had trouble containing my glee when the Irwin Allen TV science fiction fantasy “Land of the Giants” was released on DVD. The show never made the big-time but I loved the episodes of a Lilliputian band of explorers who crash in a land filled with gargantuan adversaries.

Dorie Greenspan’s “Baking: From My House to Yours” is the perfect guide for anyone looking to experiment a bit. Her “Playing Around” section of each recipe encourages the adventurous, and I promptly begin to mess around with her classic Coconut Tea Cake, found on page 194. In my miniature world, a single bundt cake divides into six, and I guild the lily of what she describes as a “plain cake” with cardamom and a dressier rum cream glaze. The little cakes have a nice kick with the flavors of tropical coconut, jaunty dark rum and the mysteriously seductive essence of cardamom.

Mini-Bundt Coconut Tea Cakes with Cardamom and Rum Cream Glaze

(Adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan)

Two cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
A pinch of salt
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
1 cup coconut cream (she recommends canned, unsweetened coconut milk, but that was unavailable)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter cut in pieces
4 large eggs at room temperature
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons dark rum
¾ cup unsweetened coconut

Generously grease and flour six to nine mini bundt molds (the coconut can tend to make the cake stick to the pan). Sift together flour, baking powder, salt and cardamom.

Put the coconut cream in a saucepan with the pieces of butter. Heat until the butter is melted. Remove from heat but keep warm.

Fit mixer with whisk attachment. Beat the eggs and sugar at medium high speed, about three minutes until pale and thick. Beat in vanilla and rum. Reduce speed to low, and add the dry ingredients, mixing just until blended.

With mixer on low, add coconut. Then add the warm coconut cream and butter, just until combined. Divide batter among mini-bundt molds, being sure to cover the inner tube with the batter.

Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for about 25 minutes. Let cool 15 minutes and then remove from pan.

Drizzle mini-bundt cakes with Rum Cream Glaze (1 tablespoon rum, one tablespoon cream and 1 cup sifted confectioners sugar whisked together until smooth) and sprinkle tops of cakes with more coconut.

Inevitably, this mini obsession will end, and I’ll move onto something else, like filling every room in the house with cut tulips, or collecting every piece of writing ever published about George Washington. But, if in the near future, I happen to announce that I am starting a new blogging project – something along the lines of baking 365 days of mini-bundt cakes – somebody please stop me.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Whiskey Rebellion – Jack Daniel’s Mini Bundt Cakes with Caramel Glaze

As spring is trying to overcome its shyness in New York, I head south to Tennessee to celebrate the birthday of brother James. He has recently relocated to the Nashville area. We come from a family of history buffs and spend some time during the visit learning about the many statesmen and politicians who emerged from the Volunteer State.

After that, we decide to do some first hand research on the really important historical figure of the region – the inventor of Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey.

It is a Sunday, and the parking lots for the local houses of worship in suburban Nashville are overflowing. We, however, are on our way to a distillery, which we will shortly learn actually has an ecclesiastical connection. Perhaps there is a chance we won’t go straight to hell.

As we leave the populace behind us, the strip malls become rolling green hills, dotted with cattle. We note a few tractors and some splashes of yellow forsythia. There is a Piggly Wiggly Store, and a number of gracious antebellum homes with log cabins out back. An establishment called Antiques & Uniques is offering concrete lawn art for sale. The selection includes the Blessed Virgin, Saint Francis and a Confederate Soldier. It’s all part of the charm of Middle Tennessee.

Some 75 miles south of Nashville, we arrive in the village of Lynchburg, a slumbering hollow with a population of 361. It is also home to the Jack Daniel's Distillery, where they’ve been making Tennessee Whiskey the same way since the 1860s.

At the spanking new visitor’s center, tucked into a stony hillside, we are met by an imposing statue of Jasper Newton “Jack” Daniel, also known as “Gentleman Jack.”

Our tour guide is Brian, a lanky rascal with white hair, a leathery complexion and a whiskey-mellowed voice. He invites us to follow him, and take it “slow and easy, the Jack Daniel’s way.” Brian takes us to the original office of Jack Daniel, located on the grounds, and now listed on the National Historic Register. We are told that Jack learned the process of making whiskey from a Lutheran minister, something they never bothered to mention to me in confirmation class. When the minister finally found religion, Jack took possession of the still and the rest is history. To say Jack Daniel’s was inspired by the divine might be pushing it a bit, but it makes James and me feel a little less like a couple of heathens, spending Sunday afternoon at the distillery.

In the office, we view the original safe. Now, here’s a cautionary tale that illustrates the virtues of patience. One morning Jack had difficulty opening the safe and kicked it out of frustration. His toe got infected, and days later he died from a blood infection. So much for slow and easy …

Inside the modern distillery, we are warned not to take flash photos, because the whiskey vapors are volatile. Tennessee whiskey is made from corn mash, but the formula is actually 80 percent corn, 12 percent barley and 8 percent rye. All over the property, the tree trunks are pitch black, the bark reacting to the yeast that fills the air. We walk past giant steel vats, where the corn mash bubbles like witches brew. We view the charcoal mellowing process, which gives the whiskey its distinctive flavor, and walk through the dimly-lit barrel room where the whiskey ages. The air in the barrel room is intoxicating. Brian advises us to “walk slow, breath deep and savor the flavor.”

Since Lynchburg is located in a “dry” county, you can’t buy Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 brand there, and in fact, we actually end the tour with a refreshing glass of lemonade. No sense getting arrested so far from home. So, feeling a little parched, I purchase a bottle when I return to New York and recreate those Tipsy Fudge Cakes, soaked with Jack Daniel’s, that are available for purchase in every souvenir store in Tennessee.

Using the recipe found here, I bake up a half-a-dozen chocolate mini-bundt cakes (which only need to bake for 20-25 minutes) glazed with caramel whiskey sauce. With deep, rich flavors of dark chocolate, coffee and mellow whiskey, these “Little Jackie Ds” are slow and easy, just the way Gentleman Jack would have liked it.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved