Sunday, February 28, 2010

Half-Baked No More

Baking has been around since the dawn of time. There are pictures of bakeries depicted in ancient Egyptian tombs. Larousse Gastronomique cites the baker as the oldest of the food professions. As long as humans have ground grain into flour, we have been baking.

Baking is in my DNA. My grandmothers both baked and my mother provided me with my early training. I remember an elementary school homework project where I baked a simple butter cookie called Petticoat Tails. Somewhere in my unwieldy files, I still have the handwritten recipe sketched out in my expressive grammar school penmanship.

I love the tactile feel of baking, the soothing rhythmic motions, and the sensual aroma of anticipation that fills the room. Early on, I became quite fond of licking the beaters. I own so many different types of baking pans that the closet where they are stored resembles an abstract work of art.

I grew up using a gas oven, and I was more than a little dismayed to discover when I moved into my house that the oven was electric. For the first time in my life, I started to experience “baking flops.” The temperature was never right, and forget about browning. The oven was temperamental to say the least. Cakes looked pale and anemic, and there were times when cakes would fall, or even burn. There were too many times when I was forced to throw out the first attempt and start all over again. Eventually I learned to develop a certain empathy with the electric oven and produced some pretty good results, including a popular line of Retro Cakes.
I love the tactile feel of baking, the soothing rhythmic motions, and the sensual aroma of anticipation that fills the room.
But life in the kitchen is all about the journey and now I have traveled back to baking with gas. The electric oven is just a memory, replaced with a shiny new Viking Stove.

It’s a gentle giant with a traditional baking setting and one for convection baking as well. Handing someone like me a convection baking setting is like giving someone who writes on a chalk board an IPad, just to see what will happen. I may actually have to read the instruction manual.

This Apple Crumb Pie is one of my first forays into the brave new world of baking in a gas oven. The raisins plump up from the juice of the apples, and I’m kind of reveling in the golden bronze color and the delicate, buttery crunch of the crumb topping – something I wasn’t able to achieve with an electric oven.

I’ve got gas, and it’s a good thing.

©2010 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, February 21, 2010

No Pressure

It was the culinary bogeyman of my mother’s kitchen when I was growing up. It would hiss like a demon and often appeared on the verge of exploding. And, there was usually some strange orange substance hidden in its bowels.

Beware the dreaded pressure cooker!

Some years have passed, and one would hope I have shed my fears of kitchen gremlins and foods that are a good source of Vitamin A. For the most part I have, but old habits die hard. Although I’ve been intrigued by the promise of lightning-fast preparation of food, the classic pressure cooker that I picked up at a tag sale sits idle (and depowered) in my basement.

All I need is a good suggestion to take action (the power of suggestion may be my Achilles heel), so when I read a post by Debby at Feast for the Eyes that mentioned her electronic, programmable pressure cooker, it was enough to inspire some online research and a purchase. About a minute-and-a-half transpired and I was the proud owner of a Cuisinart Electric Pressure Cooker.

In my defense, this was not a typical impulse purchase. I have been considering the idea of pressure cooking for years, and I even read the Consumer Reports product evaluations online before purchasing. So it was a well-informed, lightning-fast purchase. And, it was on sale.

So what might you expect if “Kid Flash” joins your culinary team?

Imagine fresh lentil soup in about 15 minutes, where the lentils are tender but firm and you can taste the flavor of the carrots:

Homemade chicken stock is produced in about 90 minutes on a weeknight:

Various recipes using beans and legumes – like this hearty “Chili Con Chickpea” come together quickly. The beans require no pre-soaking:

White rice comes out sticky and firm like the takeout variety, and brown rice takes only about twenty minutes. Vegetables, like butternut squash (which I now actually like) cook in about 3 minutes. Cannellini beans for a White Chicken Chili can be made the day before, in just under 45 minutes, and stored in the refrigerator until it’s time to prepare the dish.

The best news is that the device is programmable, so everything cooks according to the exact time needed. The lid locks into place during the cooking sequence, so the possibility of a Mount Vesuvius -style eruption is unlikely.

It’s kind of become my go-to kitchen pot, which is weird, since I just had a new gas stove installed (a behemoth - more on that later).

And, with the time I’ve saved in cooking, I’m already feeling a lot less pressure. Although on occasion, I still peek under the bed before I go to sleep at night.
©2010 T.W. Barritt all Rights Reserved

Monday, February 15, 2010

Colonial Carrot Cake, a New York Tavern and a Future President

The phrase “Let them eat cake” may have fanned the flames of the French Revolution, but according to legend, a slice of carrot cake served to war hero George Washington in New York City in the year 1783 marked the close of the turbulent years of the American Revolution.

The location was Fraunces Tavern - on Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan – and the occasion was a lavish reception for the future American President, French Ambassador Luzerne, and more than 100 generals, officers and civilians. The distinguished guests had gathered at the tavern - then known as “The Queen’s Head” – to mark the evacuation of British troops from New York City on November 25, 1783. Several days later, Washington would say farewell to his officers at the newly-renamed Fraunces Tavern.

American Patriot Samuel Fraunces was renowned for his excellent taste and culinary abilities and his tavern was a center for fine dining in colonial New York. The Thirteen Colonies Cookbook from the Montclair Historical Society (1975) reproduces the menu from that 1783 banquet which included Fresh Sorrel Soup with Sippets, Roasted Lamb with Oyster Forcemeat, Tipsy Squire and Carrot Tea Cake. For a time, Fraunces served as steward for President George Washington.

America’s Best Lost Recipes (2007) from the Editors of Cooks Country Magazine includes a recipe for “Real Carrot Cake” in the spirit of that early American celebration – a fitting indulgence to celebrate President’s Day 2010. The recipe is said to be similar to colonial spiced oil cakes, and the cake is brushed with dry vermouth and topped with a buttermilk rum glaze.
Real Carrot Cake - Adapted from “America’s Best Lost Recipes” 2007
3 cups, plus 2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup walnuts, chopped
1 cup raisins
5 large eggs, room temperature
1 ¾ cups granulated sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
1 pound carrots, peels and grated in a food processor

½ cup dry vermouth
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons buttermilk
1 teaspoon dark rum

Place the oven rack in the middle position, and preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour a 12 cup Bundt pan. Using a whisk, combine three cups flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt in a medium bowl. Toss the walnuts, raisins and 2 teaspoons flour in small bowl and coat well.

Using electric mixer on medium high, beat eggs and granulated sugar until combined. Reduce speed to medium and slowly add oil until incorporated. Increase speed to high and beat until light and creamy. Using rubber spatula, stir in flour mixture, walnuts and raisins, and carrots until combined. Scrape batter into cake pan and level. Bake 60 minutes. Test for doneness with toothpick. Remove from oven and cool in pan for 30 minutes. Turn out of pan to cool completely, at least one hour.
When cake is cool, brush the vermouth over the cake until it is absorbed. Wisk the confectioners’ sugar, buttermilk and rum in a medium bowl and drizzle over cake.

You can dine at the restored Fraunces Tavern in New York and visit the “Long Room” where George Washington bid farewell to his officers. There was no carrot cake served, but numerous toasts were offered on behalf of the 44 war officers in the room. They had been away from their families and homes for seven years. General Washington was quoted as saying:

“With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.”

For more on Carrot Cake, check out the tasty information provided by Louise at Months of Edible Celebrations!
©2010 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, February 07, 2010

The Oracle of Food History – Lynne Olver of The Food Timeline

Lynne Olver’s Food Timeline website presents a chronology of food from the dawn of time.

If you crave details on the origin of Cracker Jacks or Underwood Deviled Ham, can’t seem to locate the perfect recipe for Cape Breton Pork Pies, or need a lead on the menu served at “The First Thanksgiving” of 1621, ask Lynne Olver. She’s sure to uncover the answer.

In March 1999 the Morris County New Jersey reference librarian created the website, The Food Timeline, a list of web links on food history. The citations fit neatly on one sheet of paper. More than a decade later, the site features scores of links to sources on the origins of foods and historic recipes, and Olver is a trusted resource for thousands of students, chefs, food writers and culinary historians who seek information on the topic. If you have a question on food history, she promises an answer to most questions in 48 hours, and she does the leg work for free.

Her inspiration for the website came from James Trager's The Food Chronology [Henry Holt, 1995].

“I was editing a reference newsletter in the late 1990s and thought it might be fun to feature food history sources,” she explains. “There were several excellent food history books but precious little online that was usable for reference purposes. In my profession, citing sources, especially primary sources, is critical to responsible research. When the initial timeline was uploaded, it included a handful of links to vetted sources and could be printed on one 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper. As time progressed, and questions came pouring in, it became evident that the only way to continue was to do original research and upload the content. For me, this was the ultimate convergence of professional vocation and personal passion. I was hooked!”

She seems to enjoy the thrill of the hunt, and admits she has always been naturally curious. “That's one of the reasons I became a public reference librarian,” says Olver. “We get to investigate new things every day.”

Olver is not a trained chef or an academic, but she has more food information at her fingertips than most of us encounter in a lifetime. And, with a reference librarian’s mind for details, she quickly cites the Food Timeline’s vital statistics, and notes that she rarely goes off duty.

“Librarians count everything,” says Olver. “From March 1999 to January 2010, I've answered 21,239 food history questions. Questions are cataloged and answers retained for future use. New content is uploaded weekly. Our FAQs reflect our most popular questions. Uploading them for ready access saves time for everyone. And yes, when I go on vacation I take the laptop and flash drive.”

Olver’s Food Timeline Reference Library in New Jersey contains over 1,500 books.

Olver says inquiries sent to the Food Timeline have been all over the culinary map from Day One. She recalls a notable early question from an elementary school student who wanted to know what "pease porridge" was (from the Nursery Rhyme). Food Timeline questions generally fall into nine categories: requests for old recipes (Pineapple Daisy Chiffon Cake), historic company/product information (Vita Boy potato chips), general food history (bananas), recipe origins (Beef Wellington), historic menus (1960s cocktail party), period foods (Shakespeare's foods), old prices (how much did food cost in WWII Germany), famous people's favorite foods (U.S. presidents), and place-specific food traditions (St. Louis Toasted Ravioli).
She says she was drawn to the topic of food because “it is a common denominator of humanity that binds us all together.”
“Food transcends history, geography, technology, social class, and economic status,” says Olver.
The Food Timeline is divided between links that describe the “beginnings” of food, and a chronology of historic recipes.

Far from being a dusty antiquarian quest, Olver thrives in a digital world of technology and delicious data bytes.

“Technology plays a significant role preserving and sharing information in all topics,” she says. “Digitized collections have made primary materials more accessible. Databases facilitate identifying and obtaining articles from newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals. Ebay, blogs, company webs, and foodie chat boards complement standard research sources by offering product information and local history. We've been Tweeting since last April. It's a great way to share notes of popular interest and spread the word that food history information is out there! The Internet is also a great way to connect with experts. We reach out to culinary and scholarly experts regularly for assistance with complicated questions.”

She sometimes forsakes the library for work in the field. “The best part of food research is sampling dishes in their natural habitat. Dungeness Crabs in Seattle; Philly Cheese Steaks at Pat's, Fra Diavolo at Patsy's, cherry pie in Michigan, lobster rolls in Maine, wine tasting in Sonoma & Napa, experiencing the waiters at Musso & Frank's...”
Is there any piece of information, she can’t find?
“Yes,” she admits. “Among the most vexing are: (1) Definitive origin of the phrase Monkey Dish (a perennial culinary school assignment (2) What was Guildmaster Sauce (served in Pullman dining cars) (3) Who coined the phrase "Changing the Lady," (refers to chef's jackets). If any of your readers can provide these answers we’d be much obliged.”
Olver has uploaded hundreds of historic recipes. A recipe for James Beard’s Zucchini bread is a personal favorite – one of the earliest and most influential of the many zucchini bread recipes that proliferated in the 60s and 70s.
As long the world community continues to cook and eat, Olver will add links, building out The Food Timeline. She sees the project as a public service.
“I love connecting people with information,” she says. “Sharing food history is my way of giving back to the community. Over the years I've had several offers for commercial partnership and I've turned them all down. My public librarian core believes information should be available on a fair and equitable basis to everyone.”

©2010 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved