Friday, March 30, 2012

Old-Time Popcorn Balls


Once I read in Monday's New York Daily News that popcorn is the new health food, I immediately made some -- and then doused the whole batch in sugar syrup.  Was that wrong?

Health benefits aside, I wanted to recreate the old-fashioned popcorn balls of my youth. Making popcorn balls is easy; the only challenge is working forming the popcorn into balls without burning one's hands, as the sugar syrup can be quite hot.  Run your hands under cold water for a minute before beginning.

This is a wonderful project to do with children; when my daughter turned nine, we made popcorn balls at her birthday party -- a fun and delicious activity.

First, make a big pot of popcorn.  And try not to eat it all while....


...the sugar syrup heats to 250 degrees, a painfully slow process until the very end when the temperature rises so quickly, you're hardly ready for it.  You don't need a candy thermometer (you can test the syrup by dropping a bit in a glass of cold water; it's ready when it forms a hard ball) but it does make things easier.


When the syrup reaches 250 degrees, take it from the fire and drizzle it on the popped corn.  I spread mine in a hotel pan -- next time I'll use a bowl and stir with a wooden spoon to better distribute the liquid sugar.

The recipe is from the c. 1960s Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook.



Sunday, March 25, 2012

Nut Snacks: Perfect for the Mad Men Season Premier


Somewhere along the way, perhaps about the time Don and Betty Draper divorced, meringue fell out of favor in American home kitchens.  Judging by the sheer volume of meringue recipes in my vintage recipe collection, it seemed that housewives whipped up meringues on a whim, covering a lemon pie with the confection here or folding it into a custard for a chiffon pie there.  They recognized that meringue brings classic style and panache, elevating baked goods to something a bit more ethereal.  


While meringue is no longer in the repertoire of most home cooks, it is truly easy to prepare -- after all, it's simply whipped egg whites and sugar.  And sometimes, it plays the starring role, as it does in these two-layer nut snacks, a retro dessert and the perfect, period-appropriate treat to enjoy while glued to the much anticipated fifth season of Mad Men.

First, a simple butter crust is pressed into the pan.  Next the meringue -- made with brown sugar, a very unusual addition, and nuts -- is placed on top.


Spread the layer of meringue to cover the entire crust.  Pop it into a 350 degree the oven.


When cool, cut into squares. Serve and enjoy.  And be glad you're not Don or Betty Draper.



Production note: I used an 8 x 8 square pan, though you can use one a bit larger.  Set the oven to 350 degrees, and the whites will whip up with more volume if they're at room temperature.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Chocolate Brownies with Mocha Frosting

These are really mini-cupcakes, though the original recipe in the c. 1930 Settlement Cook Book, calls them brownies. I call them delicious.

They are easy to make, and even easier to eat.  I made these last year to serve at a commemorative event for the Triangle shirtwaist fire centennial held at Henry Street Settlement.  And I made them last week to serve to colleagues at Henry Street.  In my book, having chocolate on the agenda enhances all Friday afternoon meetings.


The mocha frosting was wonderful, but I can't share the recipe.  Not because it's some guarded secret but because, flummoxed and frustrated with the math required to increase the volume of the original recipe, I just did it by instinct.  However, you can use the Magnolia Bakery vanilla buttercream recipe, replacing some of the powdered sugar with cocoa powder, and some of the milk with strong brewed coffee, both to taste.  This is a very forgiving recipe if you follow the simple technique, so don't be intimidated.   You can use a large star tip on the pastry bag if you want to create a pretty design (and have the frosting task go very quickly) but you can also just dollop the frosting atop the brownies with a small butter knife.



Production notes: Here's the original recipe from the Settlement Cook Book.  I love that it uses brown sugar, which gives the cakes a richer flavor.   Make sure the butter is at room temperature and I used buttermilk for the sour milk.
This made 48 mini-cupcakes, not the 60 promised in the recipe.

BROWNIES
1 cup brown sugar
1 square melted chocolate
½ cup butter
½ cup sour milk
1 egg
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon soda
Mix flour and soda. Cream butter and sugar; add egg, chocolate and the milk alternately with the flour mixture. Grease small timbale moulds; place one teaspoon full of the mixture in each and bake in a moderate oven 10 to 15 minutes. Makes 60 little cakes. Frost with Coffee Filling page 327.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Cinnamon Raisin Bread

I made a big pot of cabbage soup on Sunday, much to the dismay of those who share my home. They do not care for cabbage soup, and they especially do not care for its perfume in the kitchen.

To chase the odor, I made cinnamon raisin bread.  Plus, I had promised some to DH who has given up cakes, candy and cookies for Lent, but not ice cream, hence creating what I refer to as the Lent loophole. Apparently dessert-type bread also falls into that category.


I found a recipe written on a scrap of paper labeled simply "bread."  It looked promising, as it called for an egg and sorghum or honey, making it richer and sweeter than a traditional white loaf -- a perfect base for cinnamon and raisins.

Baking bread is pretty easy and the sense of accomplishment is far greater than the effort. It does take time to rise, but your attention is not required while it does, and punching down the inflated dough can be quite satisfying.  It's perfect to make on a rainy day (yeast performs especially well in low pressure) and you almost can't screw it up -- bread is very forgiving.

Below is an illustrated guide. I've also added my adaptation of the recipe, at the end.

Proof the yeast: Let it sit in warm water for a few minutes until it comes alive, i.e., begins to bubble. The water temperature should be warm, not hot.



Mix the scalded, cooled milk, the melted butter, honey and egg in a large bowl (to which you will later add the yeast and flour.

Add the flour to the bowl until the dough comes together.  You can also incorporate additional flour during the kneading phase if your dough seems to sticky, as mine did.

Knead the dough until it's smooth and elastic.  Next, roll it to form a large rectangle, as wide as your bread pan.  Brush with melted butter.


Sprinkle with cinnamon to taste.  Err on the side of too much -- the only criticism my bread received was that it needed more cinnamon.  You can also sprinkle some sugar on too.

Roll the dough into a log.  It's pretty easy to work with.  Place in bread pans and tuck the ends under.

Cover the loaves with a cloth and let them rise until the dough fills the pan.


Bake and enjoy!



Bread
1 cup milk, scalded and cooled
1/4 cup butter, melted
2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup sorghum or honey
1 egg
1/2 to 1 cup raisins

1 cup warm water
2 packages yeast
1 tsp. sugar

About 6 cups flour

Mix first five ingredients in one bowl.  Mix next three in a separate bowl and wait for yeast to bubble a bit.  Combine ingredients from both bowls into one large bowl.  Add enough flour to make dough.  Knead nine minutes.  Place in greased bowl, cover and let rise until doubled.  Knead again.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees

Divide dough in half and roll out each into a large rectangle.  Brush with melted butter and sprinkle with cinnamon.  Roll up, tucking in ends.  Place into ungreased bread pans.  Cover and let rise until doubled again.  Brush with melted butter, optional.

Bake 15 minutes at 400, then lower oven to 350 and bake 40 minutes.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Dark Side of Baking: An Opposing View

Today, I bring you a guest post from the DH, who blogs at PaulLarosa.com
As many of you know, my wife has a popular baking blog called A Cake Bakes in Brooklyn, a blog so popular she was recently featured in the Ladies Home Journal magazine. I get a lot of comments from people about how lucky I am because I get to try all these delicious treats, and that’s true but, let me tell you friends, it’s not all buttercream frosting and 7-layer cakes — there is a dark side of baking!
First off, there is the temptation. I am constantly being asked if I want to lick a spoon or a spatula to the point where I believe my wife thinks of me as a human dishwasher or perhaps a cat.
Then there are the constant taste tests. Do you realize how many calories one can consume just trying alittle bit of this cake or that cookie? I’ve spent a fortune having my Facebook photos digitally altered so they fit on the page.
Then there is the noise associated with baking. I came down to breakfast the other day and it sounded like a jet was taking off in the kitchen but, really, it was only the unbelievably noisy Kitchen Aid mixer. Do they make mufflers for those things? So I sat there with my morning coffee pretending I was aboard a 747. “Only five more minutes to wheels up,” my wife said sweetly.
And finally, ladies and gentlemen, there is the mess. I cannot tell you how often I enter the kitchen thinking the house has been ransacked. Pans, bowls, dishes everywhere, not to mention the sprinkling of white flour over every conceivable surface. I guess there’s a good reason not so many people bake from scratch anymore — they know of the dark side!
 http://www.paullarosa.com/ 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Desperate Mother Shoplifts a Jar of Yeast

Denis Hamill had a wonderful column in today's New York Daily News about Margaret Deming, a mother of six arrested for shoplifting three pounds of cold cuts and a jar of yeast so she could bake bread to feed her hungry children.

That the desperate mother stole yeast, and not a loaf of bread, made the story more powerful to me (and to newspaper editors, too, judging by how they featured this fact so prominently).  It's like she took the tool (or, in this case, the ingredient) she needed to survive. A loaf of bread would have been devoured in a day, but the yeast could be used to make many loaves. A twist on the saying: "Give a man a fish, you'll feed him for a day; teach a man to fish you'll feed him for a lifetime."  In this case, Deming knew how to fish, she just didn't have any bait.

The heartbreaking story has a happy ending: After Hamill wrote about her plight in February, a noted criminal defense attorney took her case pro bono and Daily News readers donated food and money.  In the end, her punishment was one day of community service.  More importantly, she was connected to the social services she needs to get back on her feet.  (Deming, like many poor New Yorkers, was living on the edge.  When both she and her husband lost their jobs and their apartment, she had few options and, not having a permanent address, was unable to get food stamps.)

Sometimes, it's the level of detail that makes the bread rise, and a story jump off the page.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Irish "No Soda" Bread

Tis the season for all sorts of cultural and holiday-based baked goods and, not being a fan of hamantaschen, I decided to go Irish and bake what I thought was soda bread.  (I'm actually not that fond of soda bread either, but it was the lesser, and simpler to prepare, of two evils average baked goods.  Plus, the grass is always greener, and having grown up with the Purim treats, thought I'd expand my horizons.)

The recipe, titled Irish Bread, is from an amazing collection I bought on eBay, filled with hundreds of recipes.  I didn't realize it wasn't soda bread until today while doing some research and realized  -- duh -- this bread has no baking soda, just baking powder. 

Irish soda bread (and this version) is a quick bread, i.e., it doesn't rely on yeast and hence, you don't need to wait for the dough to rise.  Just mix the ingredients (pictured above) together and pop it in the oven.

The recipe calls for the bread to be baked in an iron frying pan, but having none, I simply put it in a 10" stainless steel frying pan (a round cake pan would have been fine, too) and popped it in the oven.  It also says to "work in" the butter which I realized probably means to cut in cold butter, as one would do for pie crust.  But my realization came only after I added warm, softened butter to the mixture. It was fine.  I also didn't see the currant ingredient until the bread was well underway, so I just doubled the amount of raisins.  Again, it was fine.  (This is one case where baking, thankfully,  is not a science.)

The verdict?  It's good, but not great.  When a baked good is "saved" by caraway seeds and raisins, you know it's not  going to make it into my repertoire. But since it wasn't a total disaster, I thought I'd write about it.  Next time, though, I will pay closer attention to the recipe.  And maybe bake some hamentaschen.



Friday, March 9, 2012

Master Recipe Cake and Chocolate Butter Frosting


Oh, how I wanted to love this cake.
The idea of having a go-to recipe for a versatile white cake -- one that could be whipped up in minutes for a frosted layer cake or used as a base for, say, an upside down cake -- is the holy grail for some of us.  Yes, this had the potential to be the cake of my dreams.  But, like a lot of relationships that seem to have promise, this one suffered from bad timing.  I overbaked it not once, but twice.  So, it was a tad dry and a tad disappointing, but still the flavor was lovely. The question is: Do I give this another go in hopes that things will improve or throw in the towel and yell "next"?


I was thrilled to find this recipe, handwritten on a page of a 1920 children's cookbook, The Junior Cook Book, I bought last weekend at The Bookseller, a lovely antiquarian and used bookstore in a strip mall in Akron.  (Just when I was bemoaning the fact that these kinds of recipes cannot be found anymore, I discovered this treasure -- and the book was only $4 and is filled with the handwritten recipes of one Marie Bevenetto.)



This is a very easy "instant gratification" recipe because one melts the butter instead of waiting for it to soften to room temperature, an exercise much like watching paint dry.  The cake is sturdy; hence the suggestion by the recipe author that it can be used as the base for many desserts.


Because I was making this cake for my mother, lover of all things chocolate, I paired this with a chocolate butter frosting that I found in one of her old cookbooks, the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book, as in "new" in 1968.  The frosting saved the cake, at least according to my cousin Debbie, who stopped over for a slice and "styled" the photo above.

The frosting mixture is below and, yes, there's a raw egg in it.  It made for an extra creamy frosting and we all survived.




I tried this cake with all purpose flour and cake flour, but didn't see much difference. In Akron, I used vanilla only for the flavoring, but back in my well-stocked Brooklyn kitchen, I also added lemon extract and it lent a wonderful flavor.  You could also try grating some lemon zest into the batter.  Do not use pans larger than 8" round, as the layers will be too thin otherwise.

So will I work on the relationship, i.e., make this cake again?  I think I'll be moving on. Just as there are a lot of fish in the sea, there are a lot of cakes to be baked, a lot of recipes calling my name.  (However, if you're looking for a softer cake with a finer crumb, do try this one. I promise it will not disappoint.)




Sunday, March 4, 2012

Frosted Coffee Bars


Frosted Coffee Bars are not really bars (as in bar cookies) but rather cake (as in sheet cake). Not that there's anything wrong with that!


This unusual confection is a delicious alternative to muffins and an excellent choice for breakfast or afternoon tea.  Typical of cakes from the 1930s and 1940s, this one is laced with chopped nuts and raisins. The addition of brewed coffee lends the cake a deeper color and more complex flavor.  I suspect the originator of this recipe had a bit of warm coffee on the stove and decided to use that as the liquid rather than the more expensive milk. (Coffee is often used in chocolate desserts because it intensifies and deepens the chocolate flavor, while its own distinctive coffee flavor is hidden, but that's another story).


These are not gorgeous, but they are strangely addicting.
If you do make them, please don't skip the important step (as I did) of greasing the pan.  I thought using aluminum foil would be fine, but they would have released much easier if I had oiled (with butter, Crisco or even Pam) the foil first.
At first, the batter will appear curdled.  But forge ahead...


And voila, it will smooth out beautifully.


All those holes in the cake are from testing to see if it was done. That's one of the toughest tasks of baking -- getting it just right.  I tend to under-bake everything, a direct reaction to my grandmother's tendency to over-bake everything.  Trust me, neither is a good thing.


Mix up the frosting and spread on the whole cake before cutting into squares.



I used instant Italian espresso in place of the Nestle's instant coffee and butter for the shortening.  Also, I used a 9 x 13 inch pan, as I don't have the 10 x 15 pan called for in the recipe.  That size is no longer widely available and may not even be made any more.