Monday, January 18, 2016

Slouching Into the New Year

Wow, it's been a year since we posted here.  So much for good intentions.  Actually it was one of those years where I didn't have much interest in anything.  I did a lot of writing and that's about it.  I even pretty much blew off Christmas, though I expected that on the 26th, I'd finally feel like putting up my tree, but that didn't happen.  I'd hoped to do a cookbook again this year, and had started making a list of recipes I wanted to include, but by the middle of December I knew that wasn't going to happen either.

So now we're in the throes of actual winter weather and it's startling because December was relatively warm.  It's about three degrees out right now.  Thank goodness the wind has died down a little because the living room is just frigid in spite of the plastic I put up over the west window.  A night like tonight wanted something comforting and warm for dinner, and since we'd just finished the last of the Beef Stroganoff (I froze the leftovers after Christmas.) and had recently had some leftover Havana Moon Chili, it was time to put on my chef's hat and make something fresh.

I had a package of potato leek soup I got from King Arthur Flour, and I threw it in my slow cooker with half a head of cauliflower instead of the little red potatoes they call for (we're trying to eat a little better) and some vegetable broth, and cooked it all afternoon.  When I pureed it, I added some half and half, shredded Italian cheese, and Sriracha.  It was a peculiar color -- kind of baby poop green -- but boy was it good.  I froze two portions and left a third, smaller one in the fridge.  I'm trying to get into the habit of freezing leftovers and labeling them so I don't find myself looking at a storage container six months later and thinking, "Buh?"

I'm also rearranging my kitchen.  This is partly avoidance and partly the result of me being tired of the clutter.  I have a brand new blender that I was sent for review  (About which, more when I write the review.) and I wanted that on the counter, but needed more prep space, so out went the knife block, along with a bunch of knives, the food processor is being stored, and the toaster oven and stand mixer swapped places.  An unlooked-for advantage of the moves is that I put the water filter pitcher on the window sill behind the sink, and the water is as cold as if it had been refrigerated.  If life hands you a house with bad windows, let them work for you.

I replaced my microwave in December and am  really happy with the new one.  It's another GE.  I figured the one I replaced was 23 years old and still worked, though little things had been failing for a couple of years now.  If I get half that out of the new oven, I'll feel it was money well spent.  Glinda and I also admitted defeat and bought an electric coffee grinder.  Our hands can't take the manual grinder anymore.  We're getting old and arthritic.  I even replaced my beloved water boiler.  My thinking was this:  It still works.  Why not sell it at our garage sale, and make a bit off of it?  The electric kettle I got to replace it takes up a fraction of the electricity the boiler did, much less counter space, and is new.  While I hate having to wait even a few minutes for boiling water, it makes much more sense.

Been sorting spices today.  Yesterday it was sorting storage containers.  I girded my loins and tossed a bunch of jars and bottles I'd been saving.  It hurt me, but I did it, and now things look much nicer.

I know Glinda isn't happy with the way her kitchen is arranged, and I'm sorry to hear that.  I thought we'd done a good job a few years ago, but our needs do change, and the way we think about our work spaces change as well.  I've been rearranging things a lot in the last few years.  I hope I'm coming closer to what I want.  Part of this process is getting rid of things.  I'm through with the clutter.

More about the garage sale and the blender later.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

This 'n' That

I've been a demon for cleaning lately.  My goal is to actually have a working dining room sometime this year, and so I've been wading in and sorting, trashing and generally moving stuff out of my dining room which is still filled with computer stuff and packing boxes from the move nearly seven years ago.  I can't work in there without saying "OMG, I forgot I had this!" or "So that's where this has been." at least once each session.  It's a satisfying, frustrating, and really dusty experience.

This was what my dining room looked like at my old place.  When I moved, I sold all the furniture except for a beautiful corner cabinet where I now keep all the hand-painted china.  I loved the color I chose, but for this place I want something in a deep red-violet.  I keep finding colors I think are right, and then changing my mind.  Glinda just rolls her eyes every time I pick up a paint chip and say, "Definitely this one."

I think a lot about what I'd like the room too look like, and honestly, I don't even have a table yet.  But I have chairs.  I have a bunch of mis-matched chairs that I plan to refurbish.  Some I'll paint, some will just get new seats, some are fine the way they are.   I keep a Pinterest board called "Eat, Drink, Talk, Laugh" with a lot of beautiful photos of rooms and tablescapes.  I hope I manage to pull something together before I'm too old to enjoy it.

In other, similar news, I did a new riff on the Breakfast Cookie.  I was going to bake up a batch of Nikolajs, but realized I was missing a bunch of stuff, so I improvised.  I cut the recipe down to a half batch and still ended up with three dozen cookies.  They're triple chocolate-oatmeal-peanut butter and they're really good.

1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup peanut butter
3/4 cups white sugar
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
2 eggs
2 T vanilla extract 
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 C cocoa
4 oz semisweet chocolate chips
2 T cocoa nibs
A splash of almond extract
Bake @ 350 for 13-15 minutes.

What I would do differently next time:  One of the reasons why I didn't make the Nikolajs was because I didn't have almond butter.  And while these are super tasty, the peanut butter is way more assertive in this than I would like which was something I was afraid would happen.  It's why I didn't add any spices or dried fruit or chopped nuts.  I figured that the chocolate and PB would overpower everything else, or turn this into a crazy cookie with so many competing flavors that none of them come off well.

Next time I'm going to have almond butter, or just use all dairy butter instead.  When I do, I'll probably add dried cherries and coconut and more almond extract.  And that's why I love this recipe, it's so flexible and allows for so much customization.

While I'm on the subject of home and food and other things that make life good, I'm going to put in a plug for saving the Monarch butterfly.  They may end up on the endangered list soon.  Pesticides, loss of habitat... you name it, we've done it to these icons of summer.  But you can help.  Plant milkweed.  Seriously, plant milkweed plants in your garden.  You can get heirloom milkweed seeds at Baker Creek.  For more information go to the Xerces Society website and check out their information on Monarch butterflies and milkweed.  They also have a lot of information about helping to save the honeybee.

And finally, a couple of kitty pics to close.  Just because.

It's winter; we're all hibernating.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The shop is looking kinda purty today

I'm really happy with the way these things are turning out.

More to come...

Sunday, December 7, 2014

For some reason...

I went kind of nuts this evening and opened a Cafe Press store.  I've been sorting my photos and images, and I thought I'd like to share some of them.  Many of them are designy, so I chose an outlet that would give me more scope for the way they're presented.  You can find the store, named for this blog, here:  Those 2 Nice Girls Next Door

There's not much there yet, but I hope to add a bunch of things during my down time this month.  So far there's a journal, some notecards, and a birthday card all using a digital watercolor of a rose from my garden.  I'm working on a lot of ideas.

I'm hoping Glinda will want to join in eventually.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Domesticity, Take Two

So today I decided to test the moon cake molds on sugar cookie dough.  The results were less than felicitous.  In fact, they were just sad.  The few that I managed to stamp without having the dough stick to the (oiled) press completely flattened out.  To put this in some sort of perspective:

This is a moon cake:

Mooncake (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is what my cookies looked like:  

English: This is an image of one of the cookie...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Am I going to try again?  You betcha.  But I'm going to do two things.  First I'm going to try actually making moon cakes.  They seem like fun.  I just have to get the ingredients first.  I don't normally keep lotus seed paste in my pantry.  Second, I'm going to find a cookie that doesn't spread when it  bakes, and try the stamps on them.  

Stubborn?  Why yes I am,  Why do you ask?

In the end I had a roll and three quarters of sugar cookie dough left, and I wasn't about to toss it, so I made one batch of sugar cookies with crumbled peppermints on top.  They ended up looking like this:

The bag in the back is holding some Nikolajs.

And finally, after having spent much of the day at a loss about what to do with the last bit of dough which was already rolled out, I sprinkled it heavily with garam masala, rolled it up, rolled it back out again and cut it into balls which flattened out nicely.  Just before they were going to come out of the oven, I pressed one of Glinda's glazed, spiced pecans into the top of each one.  This is what they look like:

And this is what they taste like:

Tonight's dinner is chili that's been cooking all day.  Our evening's entertainment will be "The Return of the King."  

A Danish Cookie

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Domesticity, thy name is Those 2 Nice Girls Next Door

The view from my bath
Glinda, Jim and I went out to dinner last night at Afghan Kabob one of our favorite restaruants.  Glinda and Jim had been to the David Bowie exhibition at the MCA yesterday afternoon, and Jim decided to stay for dinner and take us to do some grocery shopping afterwards.  All of which meant that today and tomorrow are pretty much free for domestic pursuits.

Glinda and I started the day by sitting over coffee and cinnamon rolls for several hours.  You might think we lack ambition, but trust me, we were marshaling our energy and resources for the all-out effort that began when Glinda's cats pooped on her floor rather than use their litter boxes, and Leo sent my last cup of coffee flying, smashing the mug and spraying coffee all over my wall.  

Glinda went up and changed her litter boxes while I vacuumed and washed the bathroom and kitchen floors.  Here's a shot of the point where they meet.  (That black spot is paint; I'm a messy painter.)  I kind of like my pink tiles but whoever decided that white tile was good for the kitchen and hallway really needs a talking to.  The whole house smells of Method lavender all-surface cleaner now, and I'm thinking about going over the whole thing once more with the steam mop.  I never get my floors clean enough to make me happy.  I've actually gotten down with a toothbrush to scrub the grout.  I can be a little compulsive about cleaning.  When I can be arsed to do any at all that is.

Glinda's pecans
Anyway, the next thing I knew, Glinda was down here with a handful of spiced, sugared pecans made from a recipe that she got from Ready for Dessert by David Lebovitz.  (Her copy is autographed and everything.  David, if you're reading this, Glinda is your soulmate.  Trust me on this.)  Man these things are good.  They're crunchy and spicy with a touch of heat, and sweet but not too sweet.  They spurred me to do what I've been meaning to do all week.

I'd gotten all the stuff I needed to make my Nikolajs (which if you don't recall from a previous post, are a variation on the NTSC, or Never Twice the Same Cookie cookie, and so-named because they're Nikolaj Coster-Waldau naked good.  No, really, they are just that good.  Recipe to follow.)  The thing is I'm almost constitutionally unable to make these cookies the same way twice, hence the original name.

This time I just didn't feel like cutting up a bunch of apricots, so I only used cherries.  I didn't have cocoa nibs, so I put in about an ounce more chocolate chips.  I used a 10-grain cereal instead of rolled oats, and just pecans, no almonds.  What I got was a less refined cookie that tasted wonderful, but was heartier, though softer and less chewy.  It wasn't quite the cookie I was planning to make, but it's pretty damn good anyway.

I can't begin to tell you how good the batter was at the stage to the left.  I could have spread this on a cake as a frosting it was that spectacular.  This is the butter, almond butter, two sugars, eggs, vanilla, and lemon juice.  Yes, I know you're not supposed to eat raw batter like this, but look, I'm 62 years old and it hasn't killed me yet.  If I die from eating raw batter then I'll die happy, okay?

To the right, the batter with the cherries, chocolate chips, pecans, and coconut added.  It's so stiff it's nearly impossible to mix at this point.

I got three dozen good-size cookies out of this particular recipe.  Some are going to the neighbors, some to Glinda's office, and many of them are staying here.  (I apologize for how shitty the photos are.)  And no, these are not pretty cookies, unlike their namesake, but they more than make up for that in flavor.
No really, they taste way better than they look.

So tomorrow I am going to be making sugar cookies.  I don't normally do that, I'm not nuts about sugar cookies.  But I have to review a set of Moon Cake cookie molds.   I'd never even heard of these things before I got the review request, but they're fantastically pretty, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what they do to sugar cookie dough.  I'm not actually making up the dough.  I picked up a couple of rolls of pre-made dough yesterday.  It's just easier that way.  I hope I'll have some decent photos to share.
All this?  This is how I get out of making dinner.  We're ordering Chinese tonight, and I plan on ignoring the sink filled with cooking dishes as long as I possibly can.  I expect that several generations of fruit flies will have been born, reproduced, and died before I load the dishwasher later tonight.

And just so you know what I mean when I  talk about how good the Nikokajs are...

The Nikolaj  

1 cup butter
1/2 cup almond butter
1 1/4 cups white sugar
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
4 eggs
2 T vanilla extract 
1 teaspoon lemon juice
3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup rolled oats
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon or more
1 tsp ground cardamom or more
8 oz bag semisweet chocolate chips
4 oz chopped pecans
4 oz chopped almonds
8 oz shredded coconut
4 oz dried cherries
4 oz chopped, dried apricots
2 T cocoa nibs
2 T flax seeds

Cream butter, almond butter and sugars together until fluffy.  Add eggs and beat until they're blended.  Add vanilla and lemon juice, then the flour, baking soda, and salt.  Mix well.  Then add the cinnamon and cardamom.  You really need to flavor these to your taste.  I used a lot of both, probably more than a teaspoon of each.  Use your own good judgment here.

Then the fun really starts.  Toss in the nuts, coconut, oats, dried fruit and chocolate chips.  Then add the cocoa nibs and flax seeds.  By now your batter is getting stiff, so you may have to blend with a spoon at the end.

Bake on parchment @ 350 for the best results.  You want a mound about the size of half an apricot, maybe a little larger.  This batter doesn't lend itself to small cookies.  Just go with it.  They're usually done in about 13-15 minutes, and will be a bit golden around the edges.  They'll make about 4-5 dozen lovely, chewy cookies.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Brioche, Beautiful Brioche

Last year I attempted brioche for the first time after discovering this recipe from King Arthur Flour.  I'd honestly never believed that brioche could be this easy; I mean how could only a few ingredients and some muscle produce such a meltingly rich and tender crumb?  But I gave it a try and was thrilled with the results.  The dough was as supple and silky as a Hitchcock heroine, and the loaf was heavy and almost creamy, with a rich, complex flavor, satisfying on its own and heaven with butter or jam.

Since then brioche has become something of a treat around here.  It takes planning since the mixing and kneading and rising and resting and baking  (whew!) can take up to 18 hours, so I have to mix up a batch in the afternoon before the morning when I want to bake.  Out of the fridge it feels so good in my hands I have to fight the desire to keep playing with it.  Yes, I love this loaf.  Does it show?

So at Glinda's urging I planned to start a batch this afternoon.  I decided to try making a double batch because it goes so fast around here, and we usually give some away.  We were also talking about brioche French  toast for Sunday morning.  But I also know that doubling recipes isn't always as easy as you might think.  So I started an online chat with the KAF help folks.  Yes, I could double the recipe.  It would be best to leave the yeast at the original amount  (1.5 t) and increase the salt only by half.  Other than that everything would just be doubled.  I love KAF; they have wonderful products, great recipes and they're immensely helpful.  They really are my go-to resource for bread baking.

I had to snag half a dozen eggs from Glinda just to be sure I had enough for the brioche and the pie I want to make next week... or Sunday, I'm not sure yet.  The first step is to mix the eggs, flour, yeast and water together, so I dumped it all in the KitchenAid and began to mix.  I did actually add a touch more yeast, but I didn't double it.

The flour/egg mixture after beating.
Covered, resting, with the rest of the ingredients measured out and waiting.

After mixing, the proto dough has to rest for 45 minutes or so, so I took some time to contemplate the mint I rescued from Glinda yesterday.

 Then I went off to read email and make notes on a new story idea and the  45 minutes flew by.  When I came back, the yeast had begun to bubble the mixture as expected.  So I added the rest of the flour, the sugar and salt and began to knead the dough.  Because it was a double batch, the process was a bit terrifying with the bowl coming loose and then reattaching as the dough rolled around inside.  Once it was smooth and moving more easily I started adding the softened butter.

There's an entire pound of butter in this double batch, and I hope you appreciate what it means when I tell you that this recipe makes what's known as "middle class" brioche.  Rich man's brioche has  twice the amount of butter.  Imagine what that means if you have to knead the stuff in by hand.  I have a KitchenAid mixer with a dough hook and I found it tedious and a little unnerving.  The butter doesn't want to be part of the dough, it really doesn't, so it leaps around the side of the bowl, smearing itself all over the bowl and the surface of the dough, making a hideous mess that would cause the faint-of-heart to assume the recipe was ruined, and toss it all in the garbage.

But if you're stubborn like me, you'll just keep dropping lumps of softened butter in and scraping down the sides of the bowl until the butter and dough come to an agreement and merge forming a beautiful, loose ball of dough that is at the same time sticky and oily.  It's something of a miracle really.

At this point it's time to let everyone rest, dough, mixer, and baker alike.  Plop it into a greased container and cover.  Leave it alone for about an hour.  I got involved watching John Oliver and let it go for 90 minutes.  It more than doubled.  Oops.

It gets turned out onto a clean surface and kneaded lightly deflating it substantially, placed back in the greased bowl, and left in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours and as many as 16.  Even in the fridge this thing inflates so that by the time I rescue it the next morning, it's doubled in size again.  It's ice cold and hard to work, but my pastry cloth and a bench knife made short work of it.  I shape three mini loaves and one large brioche pan full of dough, cover them with the pastry cloth and go off to have breakfast with Glinda.

The oven is on the whole time, it helps warm the dough so it can do its final rise prior to baking.  But the loaves rises at erratic rates so after breakfast I put one small one in.  It takes only 30 of the allotted 40 minutes before my brand new instant read thermometer -- one of the freebies I got through the Vine program -- tells me that the bread is definitely above 190 degrees inside.  The next two small loves hit doneness at about 25 minutes.  Finally the brioche pan goes in.  It's not achieved any real loft this time around, so it's not the beautiful loaf I'd hoped for, but it's pretty substantial.  And it takes close to 50 minutes to bake to the right internal temperature.

The final result:

This is a loaf of bread that could make you weep with gratitude.  It's buttery, tender and fragrant.  With a touch of butter and honey, it's a fairy tale breakfast.  Just look at this texture:

All that butter means that this is also a lot shorter than most breads.  There's a fragile quality to the crust that is reminiscent of a great croissant or cookie.  The recipe I used is on the sweet side (though I didn't double the sugar on this batch) which makes it perfect as a breakfast loaf, or for tea or a snack.  But it can also be a savory bread if that's the way your tastes lie.  I'm working up a recipe idea for a saffron brioche, but I'm not entirely certain of how I want to proceed.

We ate way too much of this stuff over the weekend.  I'd planned to give part of the large loaf to our neighbors, but because I didn't see them on Sunday, I gave up on the idea.  Good as it still tastes to me, it really is a rather fragile loaf and it's beginning to seem dry.  The smaller loaves had been spoken for, alas.  Next time I'll be certain they get to share.

Long story short, brioche is a lot of work, but it's eminently worth it.