Thursday, August 7, 2008

Cornmeal-Blueberry Scones

If you ask my husband why I needed to be in the USA right now, he’ll tell you in a heartbeat. Aside from the usual seeing of the friends and family, there was the small matter of ...the berries. Let me explain.

Every time I'd go to the supermarket at home in Singapore and see little punnets (are they called that because they are so puny?) of berries selling for around $8.00 it would make me feel so sad. These little tiny bits of berries had to come such a ways to get to Singapore, and it was no wonder that sometimes they didn't make it in the best shape. But I love berries! Love them in muffins, and cereal and yes, heaped and half mushed with bananas, nuts (walnuts if it's for usual and maybe macadamias if we're feeling like being really indulgent) and warm maple syrup on a pile of buttermilk pancakes. So I'd mention that I was really hoping to be in the USA during the summer, so I could pick berries to my heart's content. Well, it actually happened! My second day home, my parents and I drive off to a small organic farm in upstate New York and pick 14 POUNDS of blueberries!!! This is what that looks like.

There was something so marvelous about having a warm berry right off the branch. Like tasting a bit of the sun. I knew I would like the berry picking, but what surprised me was how much my parents loved it! I kid you not, we went out the very next day for raspberries!

And when we went to Washington DC, instead of going to museums and monuments, we went to an orchard for fresh peaches and blackberry picking. Instead of eating a peach that was picked hard and green and shipped half-way across the world, we tasted peaches that had just been picked ripe just that morning. I have a feeling they are going to be out there doing the U-Pick every year from now on. Anyway, I still have thirteen pounds or so of blueberries in the freezer, and I happened to find this recipe for cornmeal-blueberry scones in my magazine. It was a prize winning recipe by Lesley Pew, and I thought it would be just the thing to make for tea today.

These were different from your usual scone in that they had the nubbyness factor from the cornmeal. I’m a big fan of cornmeal, especially in muffins, so it really appealed to me. I added a bit of freshly grated nutmeg since it’s one of my favorite spices, and then drizzled the lime icing and chopped almonds when they were warm out of the oven. Go ahead, add two cups of blueberries if you feel like it! I sure did, as you can tell from all the berry juice oozing out all over the place. The thing about scones is you want to keep the butter really cold (in fact Cooks Illustrated suggests using frozen butter that has been shredded with a grater) in order to have maximum flakiness. The other thing is to mix it the bare minimum, to ensure tenderness. While the recipe said to make 12 small mounds of scones, I made a large circle of dough about 10 inches across and cut it into 8 wedges. They still baked to a golden finish in about 15 minutes.

So, what else to do with the leftover berries? Send me your ideas and I'll bake them up!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Culinary eye candy

Like many people who love to bake, I am happy to have any excuse to turn on the oven and stir up something new. My bookshelves are groaning with the weight of new cookbooks. My folders bursting with Must-Make-Soon recipes. My laptop which has a document folder, with a recipes sub folder and then 20 or more sub folders under that. Chocolate gets its own folder. Of course.

So am I waiting around for an excuse to fall in my lap? Hell no. I try to sniff out opportunities. Any birthdays coming up? How about brunch? Would you like to come over for tea? But who am I kidding, there doesn't need to be an occasion or reason to bake. But if I'm going to do that type of baking, it's useful to have hungry neighbors, friends and obliging colleagues to help eat up all this bounty. Otherwise it just gets wrapped up tightly in foil and then packed in a Ziploc and then squirreled away in the freezer. But, with this new blog, I have a new found purpose to my baking. I no longer have to admit I had a craving for cake, or that my fingers were inexplicably itching to bake. For now, it is enough to say I have a blog. It needs tending and updating. Thank you Blog! (Does this happen to other people, a feeling of inner restlessness that gives you no peace until you've baked)?

It occurred to me that perhaps I should have some theme to my posts and then I thought what a great time to use all the different pans and molds that I have. Most of the time, they are just lounging around my kitchen shelves like so much culinary eye candy. Ceramic shortbread molds, Madeleine molds, springerle boards, and cookie cutters of all kinds of fanciful shapes. I'm a sucker for practically any kind of decorative baking tin. It's like I've got a sign that says if you are a piece of pretty bakeware then resistance is futile.

Which brings me to today's offering. The “LCD” vanilla pound cake from Warren Brown's book CakeLove. As a lawyer turned baker, I find his story inspiring as well as encouraging. Makes me feel a little less confused as I ponder my own psychologist-baker dilemma. But I digress. I chose this recipe because it looked delightfully simple and plain, and sometimes that's just the type of cozy treat you want.

You can see the pan I used to bake this was a Kaiser 12 cup Bundform, which was a little bit small, as the batter rose up 1 1/2 inches above the rim as it baked, looking like it would topple over at any moments. This added about 20 minutes extra to the baking time. Also note all the alcohol that went into the cake. Well OK, the quantity was barely a quarter of a cup, but still, I got to use 4 different bottles. Including my Calvados which was a new one. I get excited when I bake a cake with liqueur and not necessarily in an I'm so sophisticated kind of way, as much as in a giddy adolescent Look at me! Cooking with Booze! kinda way.
Here's the booze getting cozy with the sour cream. Awaiting the butter to come to room temperature so the creaming can begin.

The finished cake...yummy. The crust was my favorite part, all caramelized and crispy buttery bits. I love the scent of it too. The perfume of the vanilla and the rum and the butter is too good. I think it would be good with berries and ice cream. I think it would be lovely with nutmeg next time and little cubes of cinnamon apples as a variation.
And the pan? It's a good one. I just sprayed it with Pam baking spray (flour and oil combination spray) and it came out like a dream. I'll be using it again for sure.

All about the Carrot

Sometimes all you need is a lil cake for two. The occasion was my husband's birthday. He is especially fond of carrot cake. So while the rest of the year I experiment away with chocolate and citrus and spices and nuts, for his birthday I let it be all about the carrot. Truth be told, I'd never baked one before we got married, but since then, I have made a number of different versions.

There was the Cooks Illustrated version, the Cooks Illustrated Best Light Recipe version, the Bon Appetit Cookbook version (very popular with the birthday party crowd), and most recently, an (almost) single serving size version from Small Batch Baking by Debby Maugans Nakos. Instead of baking the batter in tin cans, I used two ramekins to make a small double layer cake. I added orange zest and Boyajian Orange Oil to the cream cheese frosting and did a simple walnut garnish. Hmmm....on second thought, maybe it's all about the frosting.

How about you? What is the best carrot cake you have eaten?

Monday, June 30, 2008

So where did all this start?

It may have had something to do with my mom. She grew up in India and was at ease cooking for a huge family which included six sisters and three brother since the age of 12. Now how on earth did she manage that?! Food, great spicy food, food that makes grown men groan with appreciation, that was what I grew up with. I can imagine the effortless way in which my mom made meals come together, never needing the cutting board like I like to use, and never having a single set of measuring cups or measuring spoons. There was always something simmering away for a little later.

My interests in the kitchen tended to be more on the sweet rather than the savory side. Being an Indian child growing up in the US, my memories of childhood sweets tends to be of the milk and butter and cream based desserts of India...cones of mango rich creamy kulfi frozen in the traditional tin molds...creamy puddings made out of thickened yogurt and sprinkled with pistachios, cardamom and saffron...sweet nutty pastes made of chickpea flour, pan fried with sugar till its golden toasted buttery aroma filled the air, and then then stuffed into little moon shaped crescents to be deep fried.

But when I went to my friends' homes, I encountered new wonders. Fudgy brownies, still soft and warm from the pan. Rice Krispy treats, impossibly light. Chocolate chip cookies with a rainbow of M&M candies sprinkled throughout. And the blueberry muffins from the corner bakery, nestled in it's papery baking case that I couldn't resist nibbling on to get every last crumb. Of course, at that age, I didn't like the squishiness of the berries and ate around them. In the perverse manner of childhood, I rejected the traditional sweets my mom made at home for these sparkling new American ones. I asked my mom to make brownies and muffins, but to no avail. Undeterred, I set about to create them myself.

Starting from total scratch, I had to do a bit of improvising. For measuring tablespoons and teaspoons (as well as 1/4 teaspoons, 1/2 teaspoons etc) I just grabbed a spoon from our mismatched cutlery set. I could estimate, right?! For measuring flour or milk or oil, i used the cup that my parents used for their twice daily chai habit. Need a baking tin? No Problem! There's the little tin that my mom steams idlis and rice cakes in. Not content to leave well enough alone, I also halved the recipes, and made substitutions when it suited me. Brown or white sugar, it's all sugar isn't it? Baking powder-baking soda, it does the same thing doesn't it? Bake in a 8 inch square pan? Well all I have is a 10 inch round! And I ran with it.

I had fun , and it wasn't because I was a baking prodigy. As I had not yet realized the importance of measurement and precision, there were plenty of unexpected results. Ahem... those brownies (bricks) that seemed so promising when I took them out of the oven and yet got so hard by the time we reached our friends place. The toothpaste cake, the one with the odd blue-green tinted frosting. I think the thing that motivated me to keep trying was that it seemed to me like I was playing with magic...that a few simple ingrediants like eggs, flour, and butter could transform into a cake or cookies. It was an amazing feeling to have "made it from scratch".

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Learning how to blog...

Yesterday I mentioned to my husband wistfully that I wish I knew how to blog. I'm thinking that maybe I needed to take a community center course, or invite Gavin, our friendly PC repair guy for a couple tutorials, or well...? learn HTML? Would I have to learn that??!! In my head it was this big endeavor that i thought would take weeks - if not months!

Yet, here we are. Turns out that all was not necessary. I came to Blogspot yesterday, and after a couple of painless decisions (blog title, format, colors!!) here I am 24 hours later with my baby blogspot.