Sunday, April 24, 2011

Carrot Cake sans Carrots

Happy Easter and Happy Spring! If, by chance, you’ve just been visited by the most famous rabbit of all (and I don’t mean Bugs) you might want to take a moment to reflect on the Big Bunny’s favorite food – The Carrot. Here’s a little carrot trivia to crunch on:

  • The carrot originated in Afghanistan, but the varieties grown there were purple and yellow. The ubiquitous orange root didn’t come until later.

  • Both the ancient Greeks and Romans cultivated carrots.

  • In 1607 the settlers at Jamestown in Virginia introduced carrots to North America.

  • Thomas Jefferson – who loved vegetables – harvested 18 bushels of carrots at his Monticello home in 1814.

  • The state of California is the top producer of fresh carrots in the United States.

  • The carrot consists of 87 percent water.

  • Beta carotene gives the carrot its orange color, and the carrot delivers 30 percent of the Vitamin A in the U.S. diet.

  • One cup of raw carrots contains about 50 calories, 4 grams of dietary fiber, 6 grams of sugars and over 400 percent of a single daily serving of Vitamin A.

None of these nutritional benefits are present in this whimsical Carrot Cake inspired by a recipe in the April issue of Food Network Magazine. It contains absolutely no carrot, and while the original recipe recommends purchased frozen pound cake and tub frosting, I decided to make a vanilla pound cake recipe and a batch of cream cheese frosting from scratch as the base ingredients for the recipe. Once that’s done, the rest is basically a kitchen craft project of trimming and frosting the cake and precise alignment of dozens of orange jelly beans.

I suspect there’s enough sugar here to assure I’ll be hopping down the bunny trail by late afternoon.

©2011 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

The Winner of "The Encyclopedia of Sandwiches" Giveaway

Congratulations to Jane of the delicious blog, Jane' s Sweets & Baking Journal. She's the random winner of the giveaway of "The Encyclopedia of Sandwiches" by Susan Russo. I'll be contacting Jane via email to arrange for delivery. Jane is an amazing pastry chef and bread baker, so there will likely be some incredible sandwiches in her future, too!

©2011 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, April 21, 2011

One a Penny, Two a Penny, Hot Cross Buns

The catchy phrase above is actually an early form of a marketing jingle that English street merchants used to sell hot cross buns on Good Friday centuries ago.
Today, the jingle is less prevalent, but mass-produced hot cross buns certainly flood the supermarket during the duration of Lent, costing a bit more than a penny or two. There’s a certain charm to the verse, but it would give me pause if the bakery manager at Stop & Shop broke into song.

This is my second attempt at making hot cross buns, and my first success. The sweet yeast dough is enriched with egg, butter, citron and raisins and scented with nutmeg and cinnamon. As the fragrant aroma fills the kitchen, I look into the history of this traditional Good Friday baked item that many believed held extraordinary powers – perhaps an eighteenth century super food.

The earliest recorded mention of hot cross buns is from Poor Robin’s Almanack in 1733, although stories of buns stamped with a cross to mark the crucifixion of Christ date back as early as the Middle Ages. Some believed hot cross buns could cure disease and others thought the loaves would never mold or decay (one would suspect the commercially-produced buns contain enough preservatives to deliver on that promise).

Other historians believe that associations with the bread of the Eucharistic meal – also stamped with a cross – and the imagery of Christ as the bread of life contribute to the supernatural lore associated with hot cross buns.

One custom involved people hanging hot cross buns in their homes all year long to protect against sickness, fire and other calamities. It would be an interesting experiment to try, but I don’t think my hot cross buns will last that long.

(Don't forget you've got just a few more days to participate in the giveaway of "The Encyclopedia of Sandwiches." Leave a comment on the previous post and mention your favorite sandwich by 11:59 PM EDT on Saturday, April 23, and you'll be eligible to win a copy of Susan Russo's new book.)

©2011 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Giveaway: Susan Russo's "The Encyclopedia of Sandwiches"

Sandwiches are my guilty pleasure, but I’m hardly a gourmet when it comes to slapping some filling between two slices of bread. For me, it’s all about fast flavor. I like the simple preparation, the quick satisfaction of hunger and the easy clean up. Some sandwiches are pantry specials - the ingredients always within reach in a pinch. I can go for days existing on Fluffernutter Sandwiches or Tuna Salad made with Miracle Whip, and I still crave several favorites from my youth - Bologna with Yellow Mustard on White Bread or Cream Cheese and Jelly (cut in four small squares, of course).
You might say I need to expand my sandwich horizons. Fortunately, my pal Susan Russo, "The Food Blogga" has come up with the perfect answer. She's just published "The Encyclopedia of Sandwiches" with Quirk Books. Matt Armendariz provides the sumptuous sandwich photography.
Take a look inside, and you will truly appreciate the artistry of the sandwich. Susan delves into the history and tasty trivia behind some retro stacked favorites (who knew the hot dog was once called a “Frankfurter Sandwich?), and creates some new classics that take the art of the sandwich to a whole new level. Not only are the recipes lip-smacking, but it's an engaging read.

Susan is known for healthy and delicious California cuisine and fresh farmers market fare - so I tracked her down to find out what it was like to turn her culinary prowess to the archetypal finger food, in her new role as the Queen of Sandwiches:

TW: How many sandwiches did you make while researching the book?

Susan: Well, I made the 110 sandwiches in the book (some more than once), some variations and several that didn't make it. So I'd say about 200. And if you're wondering if I gained weight - yes!

TW: Do you think the sandwich has been overlooked or underrated in the past as a culinary institution?

Susan: Until fairly recently, the sandwich was underrated. Nowadays sandwiches are hot! I think the introduction of international sandwiches such as the bahn mi and Italian porchetta have made the sandwich seem suddenly sexier. It also helps that over the last several years, exclusive restaurants such as Campanile in Los Angeles have created artisanal (and expensive) grilled cheese sandwiches, thereby elevating the humble sandwich's status. And with so many celebrity chefs including Tom Colicchio and Rick Bayless opening up sandwich shops, the sandwich's status just keeps soaring.

TW: Your dedication included your husband and notes that he has eaten every sandwich in the book. Did he have a favorite?

Susan: The Muffuletta. I think he actually sang when he ate it.

TW: Was there a piece of sandwich history that surprised you the most?

Susan: Yes. I was surprised to discover that the homey PB & J was once considered a delicacy due to its high price. It wasn't until the introduction of mass-produced peanut butter in the 1920s that it became the iconic American favorite we know today.

TW: Some readers might be surprised to see our favorite "Food Blogga" including the Spamwich in the book. What's your response?

Susan: Well, since the book's title is The Encyclopedia of Sandwiches, I just had to include the Spamwich. I'll admit I'm not a fan, but I didn't let my personal tastes affect my choices in writing the book. But there are plenty of people who really enjoy the Spamwich. If you can believe it, Hawaiians love the pink stuff so much they eat an average of six cans per year. You can even find it at some McDonald's and Burger King restaurants.

TW: What's your go-to bread?

Susan: Crusty Italian. I like a muscular, chewy bread.

TW: What's your "guilty pleasure" sandwich?

Susan: A potato chip sandwich with peanut butter and pickles. I can't believe I just admitted that.

TW: What do you see as the essential ingredients for an outstanding sandwich?

Susan: I think it's subjective, so my honest answer is your favorite bread, your favorite fillings and anything else you want to squirt or pile on top!

To celebrate the publication of Susan's new book, I'm giving away one copy of “The Encyclopedia of Sandwiches” to a reader of this post chosen at random. Simply leave a comment before 11:59 p.m. on Saturday, April 23rd that mentions your favorite sandwich and you'll be eligible. Sorry, but we are only able to ship within the United States. The winner will be selected and announced on Sunday, April 24th. Meanwhile, I'm off to buy some Spam and a jar of pickles. Or maybe I’ll really go crazy and indulge in a Banana Fluffernutter!

©2011 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Milk Truck and Moonshine

It is not an exaggeration to say that with Zany’s untimely departure, I fall into a deep depression and lose my appetite. Food has lost its flavor, and I subsist for days on nothing but peanut butter and Fluff sandwiches. My college roommate Ford McKenzie decides an intervention is needed and summons me to Brooklyn for a serious meal and a stiff drink – in that order.
I arrive in Brooklyn on the afternoon train, and we head for the Brooklyn Flea, an indoor market at the site of the former Williamsburg Savings Bank building. Ford looks dapper in a weekend uniform of denim jeans and black leather jacket. We are joined by my de-cluttering consultant Rosemary. Several years ago, she famously revamped my kitchen cabinets, but has yet to figure out the best way to sweep out the cobwebs in my brain. Always stylish, today she looks a bit like Catherine Denueve with a touch of retro bling and her blonde hair swept back in a leopard print scarf. We fit in perfectly with the Brooklyn hipster crowd, assuming nobody asks for ID.
There have been sightings of a mysterious “Milk Truck” that serves grilled cheese sandwiches at the Flea. I scan the surrounding streets, but there’s no truck in sight. Ford suggests we enter the Flea, but my stubborn streak is showing. “What good is going inside?" I say. "A food truck would be on the street.”
We wander the vendor booths, eying the range of antiques, crafts, funky sunglasses and artisanal pickles. I quickly make a purchase of several retro Pyrex mixing bowls. Rosemary thinks I have too much kitchenware, but she gives me a free pass on this one.

We follow the signs that read “Food Court This Way” and eventually find ourselves deep within the basement vault of the bank. There, we discover a collection of tables covered with red-and-white checkered tablecloths, kids in strollers, Gen X and Gen Y, dogs, fry tables, and the distinctive aroma of grilled cheese. In one corner of the vault, the Milk Truck has set up shop with a several tables and a griddle.

“But, where are the wheels?” I demand to know. “Food trucks are supposed to have wheels.”

“There’s no truck. It’s still a concept,” explains Ford. “He’s working here while he renovates a truck and gets the permits, and then he’ll go mobile.”

I’m having a little trouble accepting the fact that I can’t even smell a hint of 10W-40 or axle grease in the air, although the scent of melted cheese is starting to win me over. Rosemary wastes no time, consults the chalkboard menu and gets on line to place an order. She requests “The Classic,” because as she puts it, “I’m a classic.” It’s made with aged Wisconsin Gruyere and cultured butter on Levain Pullman bread. I select “The Classic with a Twist” – aged Wisconsin Gruyere on rye with champagne-pickled onions and mustard.

Ever the iconoclast, Ford chooses a “Ham & Cheese” made with Applewood smoked ham, Vermont aged cheddar and Coleman’s Mustard on Rosemary Pullman bread. Fearing that we might still be slightly dairy-deprived, we order two milk shakes – Vanilla Bean and Bittersweet Chocolate.

The meal is udderly brilliant. Imagine the best Saturday afternoon childhood lunch you’ve ever had and then quadruple the pleasure. The sandwiches arrive in grease-stained paper wraps and are crisp, hot and supremely savory, dripping with stringy melted cheese. I consume quite a bit of the shakes – because bittersweet chocolate is good for you – and become transfixed by the swirls of vanilla beans in the vanilla shake. We are flush with the love of lactose, and I must admit I’m feeling a little better.

For something completely different, our next stop is Bushwick. The landscape is industrial, and we wander the street for a bit, searching for some sign of the Kings County Distillery. The business was established about 11 months ago by partners whose hobby was making whiskey. Word-of-mouth spread rapidly, and now there is a seven-day-a-week operation in a renovated Bushwick warehouse. The owners are part of the burgeoning food and drink culture in Brooklyn – people in their early thirties who are crafting the kind of products they want to enjoy.

There is a decidedly no-frills approach. The walls are painted the color of butternut squash, and everywhere we look there are white plastic buckets filled with bubbling corn porridge – the fermenting mash that will eventually deliver a crystal-clear (and legally-produced) “Moonshine” or a slightly-more-aged bourbon whiskey. The finished product is bottled in flasks, and slapped with a label that looks like it was typed on an antique Underwood typewriter.

So what’s the process for aging quality whiskey? Surprisingly (or maybe not) Ford has the answer: “Good scotch is aged ten years or more. Bourbon and rye are aged one-to-six years. Moonshine is aged the amount of time it sits in the back seat of your car during the trip from the still to your house.”

The Kings County Distillery Moonshine is, well, edgy. But isn’t that what life in Bushwick is all about? The master distiller Colin Spoelman describes the taste of the bourbon whiskey “like a wet twig with cinnamon and vanilla spicy notes.” The description is dead on. I buy a bottle, because I need at least one more bottle of bourbon in my liquor cabinet.

Zany would have loved the Kings County Distillery. Mad Me-Shell would have signed a lease and moved right in.

Before departing for home, Ford decides he has a craving for Sicilian fried rice balls. Don’t ask me. My craving meter is set precisely on M&Ms. We park just around the corner from Arancini Bros. on Flushing Street. Their slogan is “We’ve got balls.” (I’m serious. Do you think I make this stuff up?) The guy at the counter gives us a "Frequent Baller Card" for future purchases. The fried rice balls are made with Arborio rice and contain a variety of fillings. They are the size of baseballs, and make for a substantial supper. One never goes hungry in the company of Ford McKenzie.

Night falls, and when I arrive home, a giant Super Moon is beaming over my humble abode. A celestial event? Or is it the moonshine?

No Zany? Food trucks without wheels? Urban moonshine? How will I survive this Brave New World? At least there will always be longtime friends (I didn’t say old), the comfort of grilled cheese and people with balls to help navigate any uncertainties that lie ahead.

©2011 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, April 04, 2011

Amber Waves of Grain

Late last fall as I was picking up my share of vegetables at Restoration Farm, I was pleasantly surprised to see some autumn lettuce had become available. Another member was picking up her share and offered me two heads of lettuce.

“I can’t think about salad anymore,” she told me. “I want something warm and comforting.” I gladly accepted the tender leaves of red and green lettuce.

Now, months after – and some two feet of snow later – I often wonder if that woman is longing for a green salad. The late spring lettuce is still a long way off, so I’ve been contemplating salad of the cold weather variety. At the final farm pot luck of the season, I tasted a wheat berry salad, and I’ve been considering the possibility ever since. I loved the bite and nutty flavor. But, wheat berries – also called hard red winter wheat berries – can be tough to find in your average supermarket. I finally made a trip to Whole Foods to buy it in bulk for literally pennies.

The wheat berry is a whole-wheat kernel packed with fiber and nutrients – vitamins B6 and E, magnesium, niacin, iron and zinc. The bran and the germ contain the majority of nutrients found in the kernel. The tawny grains are soaked overnight and then simmered for an hour on the stove. If anything defines the word “toothsome” it is the wheat berry. The plump, cooked grains have a hearty, chewy taste, and “pop” nicely in the mouth.

Once cooked, it’s simple to dress the wheat berry up a variety of ways and create a hearty winter main course salad. This recipe is a rainbow of color against the monochrome of winter white and combines the sparkle of orange zest, earthy red beets, crunchy orange carrot, sweet raisins, sharp scallions and plenty of those legendary amber waves of grain. One serving has 10 grams of dietary fiber. That’s plenty of nutrition, comfort – and salad – for a chilly night.

©2011 T.W. Barritt all Rights Reserved