MADELEINES AND PROUST

Every week I meet with my writing group to read some interesting poems, write some poetry, and read our work to one another. Sometimes we read bits of really classic writing. Seems like a good platform for reading a little of Swann’s Way from Remembrances of Things Past and thinking about madeleines. Also a good excuse for baking some madeleines. Years ago, I tried making them from one of Julia Child’s recipes, and they were a total flop, so I have never been brave enough to try them again until now. My recipe is a tweek of the version in Marion Cunningham’s Fannie Farmer Baking Book. If you follow the directions carefully, it is an easy effort. You should also have all of the ingredients assembled and equipment at the ready before you start. (remember, mis en place.)

Also, I’ve never read Remembrance of Things Past, so I was anxious to find out what the fuss was all about. Here’s a quote from Proust:

 Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray… had any existence for me when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea…She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell.. I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shivver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me.  An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with not suggestion of its origin… I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature.

No wonder everyone wants to  be transformed by a madeleine with tea.

None of the group writes as well as Proust, but I thought we might get some inspiration with a fresh madeleine.

RECIPE

Madeleines

Ingredients

  • 2 eggs at room temperature
  • ½ cup sugar
  • zest of one lemon
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour placed in a flour sifter
  • 1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter. melted
  • 4 tablespoons soft butter to coat lining of baking forms
  • confectioner’s sugar (optional)

Method

  1. In a large mixing bowl, combine the eggs, sugar, and lemon zest. Set the bowl in a pan of simmering water. Be sure the level of the water is above the level of the egg mixture. (See my post on seven-minute frosting.) Using an instant-read thermometer, beat on low speed with an electric mixer until the temperature is 130 – 140° F. If it is too cool, the batter will not come together. If it is too hot, the eggs may scramble and you will have to start again.
  2. Remove the bowl from the water bath. Beat with an electric mixer on high speed until the mixture is tripled in volume and is light and fluffy – about 3 minutes.
  3. Stir in the vanilla and salt.
  4. Sift half of the flour over the egg mixture and fold in with a spoon or spatula. Pour in the melted butter, and sift in the remaining flour, folding in gently until the batter is smooth.
  5. Spoon the batter by generous tablespoons into madeleine molds that have been greased generously with the remaining butter. There should be enough batter for 24 regular-sized molds.
  6. Bake for 12 minutes in the middle of an oven that has been pre-heated to 400°F. The edges of the cookies should be golden and lift easily from the molds. Transfer the cookies to a rack to cool. The cookies should be served within a few hours or wrapped and frozen. Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar if desired.

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CHANGE OF SEASONS – CHANGE OF MENU

There is no doubt that summer is over, and fall is here. The nights have become cooler, and I need a jacket when I go out for the morning paper. Things have changed at the farmers market, too. Apples are beginning to appear. Tomatoes are at their abundant peak, but you can tell that the vendors are anticipating their crops to diminish.

Or landscape and garden are sending the same message. Robins have come back from wherever they were hiding out this summer. Other birds have begun to show up, and some of the humming birds have left, although there is still a lone rufous at the feeder. We have seen all sorts of spiders weaving their webs for the last time. A huge orb spider is hanging out near the front door. A hive of honey bees has swarmed on our roof. We are excited about that because their numbers have been in decline, although I read in the paper that bee colony decline appears to be receding.  An enormous bumble bee is a constant visitor to a hollyhock in the back yard. A praying mantis was lurking at the front door yesterday evening.

There is no snow yet on the mountains, but you can see the first color of the aspens, and the aspens in our yard have taken on the golden edge that they always get before they become a blazing gold. Asters, crown beard, and rabbit brush have turned the arroyos a spectacular mix of purple and gold.

Time to start thinking about stews, soups, gumbo, and the rich dishes of winter. They can’t be far away.

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TOMATO GRAVY

This time of year, tomatoes are sort of like zucchini except that you can do so many more things with them. Besides, you never get tired of eating the ones from your garden out of hand with a little salt and pepper. On top of that, the season is almost over – at least around here, with color already showing up on the mountains – so you need to take full advantage.

If you are looking for something else to do with your tomatoes, this old-timey, simple recipe is excellent. It is one of my wife’s favorites. She remembers tomato gravy from her childhood. Her mother would often make it for lunch or a light supper, especially when Dad was out of town on a business trip.

Tomato gravy was also a favorite this time of year on our farm in East Texas. I suspect the dish had its origins in the Great Depression. There are several traditional Southern versions using bacon drippings and served over freshly baked biscuits. This is a “Yankee version.”

You can use store-bought tomatoes or even canned tomatoes, but the results will be a pale imitation of tomato gravy made with tomatoes just picked from the garden.

Serves 4 for lunch

RECIPE

Tomato Gravy

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 large, ripe tomatoes, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 slices toasted bread

Method

  1. Melt the butter in a cast iron skillet over medium heat.
  2. Arrange the tomato slices in the melted butter and sauté over medium heat until soft. Turn once to sauté both sides of the tomatoes.
  3. Stir in the flour and cook for a few minutes to remove the raw flour taste.
  4. Stir thoroughly to make sure the milk and flour are completely mixed. Raise the heat slightly to a gentle boil. Simmer until the sauce is thickened.
  5. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper
  6. Serve immediately over slices of toast.

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MINI-ME “POPCORN”: POPPED SORGHUM

Our family loves popcorn as a snack. When I was a child, our family made a big batch every Friday evening. When we had our own family, we often made a huge bowl to snack on while we watched a movie on TV. Now all of our children frequently make a batch of popcorn regularly. Our daughter-in-law adds some nutrition to the mix by sprinkling it with yeast powder.

So I was intrigued when Sarah and Evan introduced me to popped sorghum. I had never seen it before.  Sorghum  is a grass that first came from Africa, but is now cultivated world-wide and used as a grain or forage. It is used for flat breads, syrup/molasses, and the production of ethanol. It comes as pepper-corn-sized grains that pop up into little puffs that look just like miniature popped popcorn kernels but have a nuttier taste than regular popcorn. Otherwise, you prepare the two just the same – in hot oil, in a paper bag in the microwave, or with an air popper. Then you can eat plain, salt, add butter, or flavor to your preference.

Sarah and Evan use popped sorghum in creative ways with fresh tomatoes, roasted pecans, pasta, etc., etc. I am not that creative. Besides, I fall back on my childhood ways and just like to eat it with melted butter out of a big bowl.

If you want to give popped sorghum a try, you can order it on the internet from Mini Pops, Inc., Stoughton, Mass.. (Three pounds for $8.49 plus shipping)

RECIPE

Popped Sorghum

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup sorghum grain
  • (3 tablespoons vegetable oil if popping in a saucepan)
  • salt and oil or melted butter to taste

Method

  1. Place sorghum grains in a brown paper lunch bag. Fold the top of the bag and fasten with two staples three inches apart to prevent arcing.
  2. Place the paper bag in a microwave oven (preferably with turntable) set on high for 3 minutes.(It will probably take 2 minutes or less to complete the popping)
  3. Start the microwave and listen carefully to the sound of popping. As soon as it slows down, remove the bag from the microwave. Don’t hesitate or you will wind up with burned kernels.
  4. Transfer to a serving bowl and season with salt and oil or melted butter as desired.
  5. Alternatively, heat 3 tablespoons vegetable oil over high heat in a heavy bottomed 4-quart saucepan with tight-fitting lid. Add 5 grains of sorghum.
  6. When the sorghum grains pop, add the remaining sorghum and cover the pan with the lid.
  7. Shake the pan gently over high heat. Listen for popping. When it slows, remove the pan from the burner, and transfer the popped sorghum to a serving bowl and season as desired.

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THE MYSTIQUE OF COMPETITION CHILI

My friend, Reggie, has invited me to cook with him at the upcoming California State Championship Chili Cook-Off. I have accepted the offer. He is fun to be around, and the competition is in California wine country.

Reggie is an excellent chili cook, and he has won many contests over the years. I have previously written about his exploits at the Terlingua International Chili Championship. I, on the other hand, have only entered one other contest, and that was over ten years ago.

Clearly, I don’t know what I am doing (There is nothing new about that!) so I have been reading about chili and practicing my chili cooking. Reggie was very generous in giving me his recipe for competition chili, but I wanted to know a little more about the ingredients and why things got added when they did.  I made a practice run with his recipe, but I still needed more information. This is my report.

First, there is the matter of spelling. If you live in New Mexico, chile is spelled with an “E”, and everybody knows that refers to the plant, the peppers that grow on the plant, and the powder that is made by grinding up the peppers (also called ground chiles or – in Spanish – chile molido). If you live in Texas, chili is spelled with an “I”. Unfortunately, not everybody knows that the word refers to a meat and gravy concoction that includes a seasoning made up of ground-up chiles along with cumin, garlic, and other ingredients that is known as chili powder. To add to the confusion, there is an abandoned railroad line in New Mexico known as the Chili Line. I think it mainly carried forest products.  In the UK, the peppers are called chillis, so there you are.

On top of all this, there are at least 200 different chiles, and new ones are being developed all the time. In the US Southwest, the most common chiles are New Mexicos, Anaheims, jalapeños, poblanos, serranos, güeros, Santa Fe grandes, habaneros, and arbols – among others. Then, if you smoke a jalapeño it becomes a chipotle. If you dry a poblano it becomes an ancho. The well-known Southwestern chef, Mark Miller, has put together a beautiful little book, complete with beautiful images, to make this understandable. The book is called, The Great Chile Book, published in 1991 by Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA.

It becomes clear that the spice master has a wide palette to choose from when he or she decides to grind up a batch of Texas chili powder. Besides, the chile can be left raw, smoked, dry roasted, etc., etc., giving a myriad of options, never mind the cumin (dry roasted or not) and the ingredients that are top secret. Getting the recipe for commercial chili powders is like asking about instructions for building an atomic bomb.

Then, there is the rivalry of various purveyors. Gebhardt’s and Mexene are two brands that may be available at your local grocery store, and they are still  used in cooking competitions. Pendery’s has been making chili powders for over a ceentury, and Mild Bill’s has a following because champion cooks have used their chili powders.  At both, the choices available to the buyer rival the choices in an upscale wine shop.

Fort Worth Light and the alternative Cow Town Light (Fort Worth is known as Cow Town, get it?), San Antonio Light, San Antonio Red,  RT-Rio Tejas, Spice Mistress, and New Mexico Light are different mixes that have their own characteristics as well as guidelines as to when you add them during the cooking process. Timing is everything, because with cooking, the various powders lose their punch, and it is essential to have just the right balance of flavors at the minute the chili competition entry is turned in to the judges.

Is it any wonder that it takes years of practice and the refinement of a recipe to become a competitive chili cook who is repeatedly among the top entrants? I am clearly in over my head, but competitions are more than winning (REALLY??) There is the chance to have a beer – or more – with old friends. There’s the travel and seeing new places. It’s easy to see why folks can become what they call chili heads. I shall keep you posted on my progress and my success or lack thereof.

 

 

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CHOCOLATE ZUCCHINI CAKE AND MOCHA SEVEN-MINUTE FROSTING

This is my last blogging effort with zucchini, having chopped, grated, boiled, sautéed. and baked our neighbor’s zucchini in virtually every way I can think of. The beauty of this recipe is that it uses up a fair amount of zucchini and produces a moist cake that doesn’t taste like zucchini.

You will see clearly from the images, that I am a rank amateur when it comes to cake baking, but the opposing view is that anyone can bake this cake. Part of my problem may be that I revised a sheet cake recipe from a useful little baking book if you live at a high altitude, High Altitude Baking edited by Patricia Kendall and published by Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, 2003. If you live at sea level, you will probably need to increase the baking powder.

This post will also have some tips on what cookbooks describe as “that easy, no-fail American classic”, seven-minute frosting. The first time I ever attempted this recipe was when I was about 12 years old. I had decided to surprise my mother with a birthday cake since everyone else in the family got their own birthday cake made by her. After everyone had gone to bed, I moved utensils and ingredients for a cake into the garage. Everything turned out ok except for the seven-minute frosting which the next morning fell off the cake in great blobs. Since then I have tried making the frosting many times without success. Finally, I have learned that my failures can be traced to inadequate instructions. That deficit has been corrected by Ethan Becker in his complete revision of his grandmother’s classic. Check out his instructions in The All New Joy of Cooking, (Scribner, New York), page 1001

Here are Ethan Becker’s tips: 1) Use a stainless steel bowl or double boiler instead of glass as glass heats too slowly, and the top of the cooking frosting (actually a meringue) cools too quickly to cook completely. 2) Immerse the bowl or double boiler pot so that the water level is at the level of the frosting mixture. 3) Make sure the eggs are at room temperature before beginning the process. 4) Do not stop beating the mixture while it is in the hot water bath or the egg whites will overcook. 5) Use an instant read thermometer and be sure the mixture reaches 140° F. 6) Don’t add the vanilla or other flavorings until you have finished beating the frosting.

Chocolate zucchini cake with mocha seven-minute frosting

Chocolate zucchini cake with mocha seven-minute frosting

A piece of cake

A piece of cake

RECIPE

Chocolate Zucchini Cake

Ingredients

  • 2½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1½ teaspoons baking powder (*NB: at sea level you may need to increase to 2 teaspoons)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ cup unsweetened cocoa
  • ½ cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1¾ cup sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • ½ cup buttermilk
  • ½ cup vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 cups grated zucchini (no need to peel)
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

Method

  1. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans. Set aside.
  2. In a medium bowl, toss together the flour, baking powder, soda, salt, and cocoa. Set aside.
  3. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar, using an electric mixer. Beat until fluffy.
  4. One at a time, beat in the eggs. Then add the buttermilk, oil, and vanilla, beating after each addition until completely mixed.
  5. By thirds, beat in the dry ingredients. Then beat in the shredded zucchini, making sure it is completely incorporated into the batter.
  6. Stir in the chopped walnuts.
  7. Divide the batter equally between the prepared cake pans. Bake in the middle of an oven pre-heated to 350° F for 40-45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  8. Remove the pans to a cooling rack for 5 minutes. Then run a thin metal spatula around the rims of the cake pans and turn out the cakes onto a rack to cool completely before frosting.
  9. When the cake is completely cooled, frost with the following seven-minute frosting.

Mocha Seven-Minute Frosting

Ingredients

  • ¾ cups sugar
  • ½ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 2 egg whites
  • ¼ cup cold water
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa
  • 1 tablespoon instant espresso coffee

Method

  1. In a large stainless steel bowl or in the top of a stainless steel double boiler, whisk together the sugar, cream of tartar, salt, egg whites, and cold water.
  2. Place the bowl in a large pan or the bottom of the double boiler with simmering water adjusted so that the level of the water is at or above the level of the frosting mixture.
  3. With a hand-held electric mixer, beat for 5 to 7 minutes or until the temperature of the mixture reaches 140° F or the frosting stands in peaks.
  4. Remove from the water bath and continue to beat for 2 minutes more until the frosting stands in smooth peaks.
  5. Beat in the vanilla, cocoa, and coffee powder.
  6. Cool slightly and then frost the cake. There should be plenty for two 9-inch layers.
  7. If this “no-fail” does fail, you can “rescue” it by beating in ¼ -½ cup of confectioner’s sugar.

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ZUCCHINI BREAD

Probably everyone who reads this has a favorite zucchini bread recipe. And probably everyone who reads this has worn out that recipe in the last few weeks. “Abundance” is not the right word for our current supply of zucchini. They are in the fridge. They are packed away in the freezer. They are on the kitchen counter. And they just keep coming even though we don’t have a single plant in our garden.

Summer squashes make a light side dish for a summer supper on a hot day. But they shine in sweet breads and cakes. Like carrots, they make a moist tender cake or bread. You don’t need to peel them, just grate them in the big holes of a box grater, and pack them lightly in a two-cup measure without squeezing out any moisture.  Here is a good all-purpose zucchini bread recipe that I found in The Fannie Farmer Baking Book by Marion Cunningham (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1984, p. 553) I have substituted buttermilk for milk.

RECIPE

Zucchini Bread

Ingredients

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon ground cloves
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • ½ cup buttermilk
  • ½ cup vegetable shortening, melted
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 cups grated raw zucchini
  • 2 cups walnuts, very coarsely chopped

Method

  1. In a large bowl, toss together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Set aside.
  2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the eggs lightly and then add the buttermilk, shortening, and sugar. Beat until well combined.
  3. Then, by thirds, beat in the flour mixture until completely combined.
  4. Beat in the zucchini and walnuts.
  5. Divide equally between two 8½ x 4½ inch bread pans that have been greased and floured. Bake in the middle of an oven that has been pre-heated to 350° F. Bake for 50 minutes or until a broom straw or skewer inserted straight down in the middle of the loaf comes out clean
  6. Remove from the oven and cool on a baking rack for 5 minutes before turning the loaves out to cool completely.

 

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