May 31, 2011

Chocolate Chip Bundt Cake

This one time my mom convinced me it wasn't lame for her adult daughter to tag along to her office party full of old friends, beef tenderloin, and those wonderful butter-and-cracker-topped casseroles I only eat on rare occasions. But then she mentioned that the dessert count on the potluck list was low. She assured me that someone would "pick something up." Pick something up? Do you know what that says to me? Someone would run by the grocery store bakery (God bless the grocery store bakery) and get one of those so-so pies or, worse yet, a fruity thing covered in that fake whipped cream. 

For the sake of the party, I had to intervene. I recalled a chocolate chip-laden bundt I had been eying, printed the recipe, ran to the store, and lo and behold, by bedtime there was a homemade cake ready to be toted across town the next night.

Bundt cakes always make me think of the poor plain, conservative mother in My Big Fat Greek Wedding who brings one to the ever-lively Greek family party. Her bundt was lame next to all that wonderful Greek meat. But this bundt would not have more acceptable, for it is topped with a buttery, sugary pecan coating. And nuts are in baklava. And baklava is Greek. The word for nut probably even comes from Greek. Thus, this nutty bundt might have caused less awkward interaction between the soon-to-be in-laws. It might or might have still been served with a flower in the middle or have required a spray of Windex.

May 24, 2011

Insta-Cookie Cake

May is always crazy, finish-school-take-exams-go-to-parties-do-a-million-things, celebration time of year. Graduations and showers and birthdays and festivals and general springtime merriment. So there's lots of excuses for cookie cake.
Plus, cookie cake is easy peasy. As in, you don't have to drop dough by spoonfuls, bake in multiple batches, and lift each cookie off to cool. Simply spread (trickiest part- I usually use my hands), bake, slice, bang, done.

You cheaters out there can buy cookie dough, but I always whip up the best cookie dough ever, the Tollhouse recipe on the chocolate chip bag. At this point in the game, I can beat-butter-sugars-add-eggs-vanilla-then-flour-mixture-then-chips in my sleep. Tollhouse cookies are just so good that you have to shut down the devilish temptation of break-and-bake-are-easy and get out some ingredients and dirty a few dishes for the real deal.
My cake was for a college graduation celebration for my brother (Way to go, Patrick!). I squeezed some store-bought sugar cookie icing in a bag with a writing tip into a very basic design. It didn't last long. You can also skip the decoration part and slice 'em into bars.
So, ready, set, go find an excuse to bake one yourself.

May 17, 2011

Grilled Cheese with Onions and Mushrooms

When it's pretending to be cool and dreary fall instead of spring like we're in England or something, I want comfort food.  I want my new favorite grilled cheese. (I am realizing I talk way too much about the weather when I blog; sorry, guys.)

My dad and brother came back from skiing in Utah this year raving about this grilled cheese with mushrooms and onions. When these two talk about a meatless lunch with that much enthusiasm and it fills them up for their millions of runs on the slopes a day, it's not to be taken lightly.
I picked their brains as to what made the sandwich so worthy of praise and made a go at it for Sunday lunch (also a theme on the blog lately). It's not complicated. Sauteed mushrooms and onions between gooey hot white cheese. But if you're taste buds are anything like mine, those two key ingredients make anything ordinary way tasty: pasta, a burger, a sandwich. Yummo. Also, serve it with sweet potato fries. Even more yummo.

May 10, 2011

Strawberry Jam

Ah, strawberry picking Saturday. My Pie Lab foodie field trip buddies Hannah, Natalie, and I left behind our our city commutes and computer screens to crouch down in a field to pick uber-juicy bright red strawberries. We ate some, threw some in a basket, and covered our hands in strawberry "blood." How pastoral we like to be…for an hour or so.

Very cute little girls in the field inspired my picking team to chat about how our children would pick berries and enjoy it and not just ask to go get some from the grocery store.
Our bounty was four gynormous baskets of berries. Natalie tried to convince me one basket was more than enough to make jam and tarts and everything. I assured her I could easily share the wealth of two baskets in the few days they were ripe. Between jam and feeding people for my brother's graduation festivities, they were gone in three days flat, and the joy of berries untainted by any food process was spread to many.
Then again, one whole basket went into this pot with some sugar to become the kind of jam whose sweetness is so fresh it transports you back to that Alabama field (ok, maybe I'm getting overly dramatic); homemade jam is a class of its own though. The other basket I couldn't bring myself to cook or cover up in a baked good at all; I served them fresh. They didn't even need whipped cream.
What I learned about jam making:
1. The actual jam creation isn't that hard. You just stir together berries and sugar and let it cook down into a sticky, delicious mess for a good while.

2. Canning is more complicated. I followed instructions but failed to seal and process them correctly. Oh, well, six lucky people got a half pint of jam that had to be eaten in a month. What a hardship.

I chose this particular jam recipe for its simplicity. No pectin, no chance of fake junk. Just cooking strawberries and their natural pectin with sugar and lemon juice. The lemon added a slight flavor twist (I added more than called for) and acidity, which you've got to have for jam.

Even if you don't pick you own, you can buy an afforable pint of strawberries ($1.99 at my grocery store last I saw) while they're still at the peak of their season and cook them down into a jar of jam to treat someone or even just yourself.

May 5, 2011

Triple Caramel Cupcakes

Scrumptious as they are, I feel kind of ridiculous talking about cupcakes at the moment. It's been a week since tornadoes ravaged all over Alabama and the Southeast. I've seen trees down and heard countless stories of people who have lost friends and family and homes and communities. My life returned to normal while everywhere I look people are people are donating supplies and money and going to help out. So in the scheme of life and loss, what are cupcakes? Silly as they are, sweets do always bring smiles. So why haven't I done my part? I lose.

Anyway, the original cupcake story: My little brother all of a sudden grew up and is graduating from college. And he finally decided to host his friends for a lake weekend. Responsible as he is, the extent of Patrick's cooking skills are turkey sandwiches and microwaved nachos. Read: college boys stuck in the woods far from any restaurant armed with only a kitchen and a grill. My mother and I couldn't let these poor boys not experience the full culinary wonder of the lake house.  We made a menu.We shopped for them. We wrote down how to grill steaks and bake potatoes. And I made cookies and cupcakes—caramel because caramel cake is his favorite.
Did I mention they are triple caramel cupcakes? Dense brown sugar-filled cake. Syrupy caramel surprise filling the middle. Sweeter-than-sweet caramel icing on top.
Luckily, I found a way not to waste the leftover caramel icing. The freshly baked Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies sitting on the other side of the kitchen begged to be filled with it. The double doozy combination might have tasted even better than the cupcakes, and the cupcakes were fabulous. Chocolate always wins.

May 2, 2011

Southern Food: A Brief History

Once upon a time I devoted hours to reading and writing about Southern food culture and Southern Living magazine. Exactly four professors read my giant final report and let me have a degree (woohoo). Now the report lives at a nice j-library in Missouri. Other important things in life, like cooking and friends and family, distracted me from getting it published for the past year, but now I am resurrecting the best parts of said giant report in a more digestible blog version. I promise Southerners and their food are interesting.

It was an agrarian way of life in the Old South. There were fields and plantations and slaves. So people ate what came from the fields (revolutionary, right?)—after frying it up or boiling it with good ole fat-cured pork. They ate lots ‘o corn, but it didn’t make the “great triumvirate” of veggies: turnips, cowpeas (today’s blackeyed or crowder peas), and sweet potatoes.

Pork was long the staple from swine herds, but eventually, farmers in the region began to raise poultry, which gave rise to the delicacy of fried chicken.
Photo by
Cornbread served as the primary bread when Southern mills could not handle glutinous wheat and the wheat crop was small. In the second half of the nineteenth century, increased wheat production and new milling methods made wheat available to all classes, and hence wheat flour biscuits joined the ranks of cornbread in the Southern diet.

But then days of plantations came to an end. Northerners infiltrated the region. People moved to cities. What was to become of Southerners? What of the traditional culture would remain? Food! Sunday dinner. Biscuits and collards. Peach pie and pimiento cheese. Gravy and hushpuppies. Food provided definition, security, and stability to family and community life and to regional culture.

“The spiritual meaning of food in the South is perhaps best seen on Sundays. Dinner on the grounds brings together a church community in a symbol of wholeness. Sunday dinner at home has been a shared ritual of different Southerners for generations, reinforcing family ties over chicken and gravy. Breaking cornbread together and drinking sweet tea have been Southern sacraments, outward signs of deeper communion. Food in the South, and the shared importance of it to family and community among many kinds of Southerners, represents a peculiar resource for fellowship among the people of the South.”
-Charles Reagan Wilson, Foodways: The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Vol. 7, XVI-XVII