Tuesday, November 27, 2007

wrangler in rose

{Note: Fatherhood is the most rewarding task I have undertaken in my life, and equally stressful, quite often at the same time. This post is a recollection of some events that produced such a state. But most importantly, my kids are well and I have survived to tell the tale..........and as with each tale of wandering near the brink, whether of sanity, health or reality, this tale portends of future occurences and long lasting consequences.}

Where am I?

Has it really been a fortnight of wranglin' around in a pastel ruled girlie land; a season of pinks, purples and myriad other shades, where rosie pink has infiltrated everything......

Two weekends ago it all started innocently enough with my desire to feed some farmers. The Ecology Center had their annual Feed the Farmers party and with purple sweet potatoes in the market it was time for that lavender beauty again. This is my favorite way to make cheesecake and the results are fantastic. The color of the finished product has folks wondering what's in it from across the room. When they find out it has sweet potato they usually raise an eyebrow in doubt. Then they try it, smile, and ask you once agin what's in it, because they simply can't fathom how your last statement of ingredient can yield such a tasty and royal colored treat. Or you get the "there's sweet potato in here?" questioning face, followed by the "but it's delicious!?" look of bewilderment. Try it sometime. You'll see what I'm talking about and then you can let me know what you had as experience for reactions to it.

Between making the cheesecake twice, eating some baked sweet potato for lunch twice myself, and feeding it to the wee one a few times as well, I spent each day involved with a lavendar hue at some point. Topped off with the elder monkey's hair having pink highlights, then coupled with her wearing pink and/or a princess dress for a few days on end while prancing and bopping, hopping and stomping around constantly, I was beginning to wonder if my eyesight had been "pink shifted." Like astronomy and universal expansion being seen in the red shift of things and stuff like that. Only closer to home, super girlie, and way pink. Before I realized it fully, my life in rose colored sight and taste had already lasted a week.

After the day of grotesque turkey consumption came the real days of pink though. Big girl turned four. It was birthday season. I thought to myself, Holy crap. I've got a four year old and a 6 month old!! Couple this with our orchids showing signs of blooming again this year and I'm startin' to feel like a real adult!

Plans for the momentous occasion began the previous weeks with late night store runs and the first rumblings of craft work. These were followed by actual progress on requested birthday items as the hours counted down. Last year we had a piñata, so this year we were being held to furnishing another. Only this time, with a preconceived notion of what the realm of possibility was, she requested a spiderbatflamingo. You've heard of one right? The great mythical creature of long ago. The part spider, part bat, part flamingo beast that was feared by some but loved and now revered by my kid. I hadn't heard of one before and was having trouble envisioning such a thing, but it didn't stop me from trying to accommodate her desires. Now the problem was how to find one. "Sure honey, we could have a piñata like that, no problem!" What the hell was I thinking? No one is going to have such a thing. I'll have to make it myself! I can do it!?

Well it only took about four hours of actual work on it, with maybe another ten of thinking about it real hard. It had a black widow body, and bat wings mounted near the intersection of the cephalothorax and abdomen, since I wasn't sure where a spiders wings would go, being that they haven't any. A flamingo neck and head complete with monkey chosen "poisonous fangs" mounted near the base completed the creature. We hung it from our dining room fixture for maximum effect. It was greeted on party morning with a "that's a flamingo spider!" Then after a wing-type question, "with bat wings!"

It was a hit, so to say. The underside of the spider didn't prove too difficult to whack through and the red violin shape was recognized by monkey and most others as belonging to a black widow. It made me think that maybe we have a future entymologist on our hands. Wait, or is that etymologist? Anyway, the treats seemed to trickle out in small handfulls with each turn of abuse. Perfect for the crowd. I was proud of my design, and the stress of the piñata making and the related worry over its ability to function, resulting in a bizarre sense of "performance anxiety," was over. The creature ended thoroughly mangled and empty of candy. My daughter's face was lit up and happy, beaming with the destruction and success. I patted myself on the back and gave my big girl a huge squeeze, feeling myself getting all choked up.......

Two days after the party, and finally a sense of normalcy is beginning to return to the house, after the holiday/birthday/special-nessy of it all. For me, it was time to start paying closer attention to our latest cider. I had managed to procure yet more apple juice for yet more apple hooch, making it three batches so far this year. And I'm proud to report that this time I went and bought the juice without squeezing it myself, thus saving an inordinate amount of time during a season that was lacking already. The juice was fresh pressed, unpasteurized and kept cold for a day. Not to mention, from one hell of a delicious fuji apple. Well, it was from more than one apple obviously, but not more than one variety. I can't wait to compare it in a few months with the rest of the ciders, side by side.

Just when I thought the season of pink might come to an end, I get roped into "let's put some of the foamy stickers on the cider daddy!" Willingly that is. You see, I'm a sucker for my monkey. She's trained me how to be a dad, and she deserves all I can give. I'm proud. And stressed. And comfortable in my masculinity amongst all the girlie-ee. Stickered in pink, even wearing a skirt or ribbons in my hair, I've never been happier in my whole life.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

butternut pomegranate pistachio muffins (of Persian influence)

I've been thinking a lot lately, about the role of food in culture, but mainly how it is more important than religion. You can go ahead and argue the point, but the simple fact remains that you need to eat in order to worship. No food means no religion. Given this, and coupled with thinking of myself in the past at times as a zen buddhist with taoist inklings who was baptized as a catholic, I've been considering scrapping any sort of fondness or affiliation with organized philosophies and religions and just start declaring myself a worshipper of food. Who needs a deity when you have pomegranates? Of course, I realize that you can say, "hey, no deity no pomegranates dude," but the point I'm trying to make is that our love of food goes back to a time before our concepts of religion took any formal shape. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that we listened for the breath of God in our daily meal before we ever did in a church. With this in mind, I'll be listening for the divine in some Persian produce.

I've been pawing through a Persian cookbook that my SIL loaned me and I've been struck with how many of the produce items involved are ones that are currently available at market. Nearly every other recipe has pomegranates or pistachios in it somewhere. Butternuts rule the squashes involved in most of the dishes. Reading this and realizing I have this produce and a fair quantity of the spices needed in my cabinet I suddenly felt inspired. A butternut deity from the fridge whispered: "my roasted honey self, on the lower shelf would lend a great undertone to some muffins." A voice from the dried goods drawer rasped: "come to the salted pistachios." As I thought about the voices, another far off in the garage screamed: "HEY! Please pull it together and do something with us!" I guess a few pomegranates were getting some moldy edges, and afflicting others no doubt. It was time to worship.

Out came the Cuisinart. That's always worship. I blended up some pom arils and sieved the pulp. I removed the skins from my roasted butternut wedges that were slathered in honey from a few nights before. To get a nice consistency I blended the pom juice with the squash, then added pistachios at the end and pulsed it a few times to leave some chunky deity in there. I consulted my Persian spice fairy and came up with a blend of cinnamon, cardamon, coriander and black pepper. This was pulverized by my lovely assistant while she chanted "POUND THEM, SQUASH THEM, POUND THEM!" several times and then stopped to begin circumnambulating her brother while he flailed about in the Johnny jump up.

I used the blended mash as the fruit portion in a recipe for banana bread. I pitched in the warm spices we ground and while mixing the batter before pouring into the cups, made sure to include some variance in aril usage for learning purposes. I decided to put some on a couple, some in a couple and then leave the remaining as a control group. Fresh from the oven they looked and smelled very promising, but what would the insides and the final flavor be like? Would the voices be pleased with my treatment of their ingredients?

Although this crappy picture doesn't document it well, I'll tell you here that the texture was fluffy and moist, the spicing nice and the chunks of pistachio right on. The muffin pictured was one with pomegranate arils in it. I found that they worked well, but then again I don't mind eating them whole, without spitting out the seed as many folks do. Cooking them made the seed softer, but probably not enough for everyone. They were very pretty though, and would be even more striking if they were from darker pomegranates. The Persian produce deities smiled and concluded the worship a success.

I'm so glad I listen for the little voices in my produce. They can be inspiring.
What a great way to worship.

sssshhhhhh!................what was that? did you hear something?


based on the old standby Joy of Cooking Banana Bread recipe:

1&1/2 c all-purpose flour (I'm trying using a blend of whole wheat and oatmeal next time)
1 t salt
1/2 t baking soda
1/4 t baking powder
3/4 stick (6 T) room temperature butter
1/2 c granulated sugar (I'll try using about half brown next time)
2 large room temperature eggs
1/2 c cooked butternut squash
1/2 c pomegranate juice
1/2 c pomegranate arils (seeds)
1/4 c pistachios
1/4 t cardamon
1/4 t coriander
1/4 t black pepper
1 t ground cinnamon

combine the first four dry ingredients into a bowl and mix thoroughly. melt the butter and cream in the sugar. by hand if you like torturing yourself/enjoy the workout, or in a mixer for a few minutes until it fluffs up some. oh yeah, use about two medium white pomegranates (the ones that are lighter in flavor and color) for this recipe. you can use the darker more common variety but remember they both taste and stain stronger. take them apart underwater as to separate the membrane from the arils and to keep them from doing the inevitable and squirting all over that light colored shirt that you are no doubt wearing right now. juice most of the seeds (~2/3rds) and use for blending with the squash, keeping the rest intact for topping or adding into the batter. add the pistachios at the end of blending the squash to keep some in larger pieces, or chop by hand and add later. measure the spices into a mortar and pestle and pulverize as finely as your arms allow. if not using freshly ground spices, you might want to add a pinch more. toss the spices into the dry ingredient mixture and add to the creamed butter fluff. mix this until it is all crumbly and sugary looking. crack and mix your eggs into this. when thoroughly combined, fold, that's right I said fold the butternut/pom/pistach blend into it. if you really really like pomegranate seeds and enjoy eating them whole then add the rest of seeds to the batter. line cupcake pans with paper cups and spoon some batter in. bake at 350 for about 25 minutes or until golden brown and done.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

favorite english muffins

I talk a lot about english muffins around here. I guess it's fine and dandy and all, but really I'm just full of hot air (as my cousin Ro so delicately pointed out) if I never reveal my sources. Apparently I've never given you the recipe I'm working with. So, contained here you will find my own current favorite version, of the one that my sis sent me an email about after discussing my early sourdough attempts, that started the whole obsession with the totally addictive muffin, that, has now morphed into a thing of deliciousness and beauty. So, besides the issues of transparency and full disclosure of sources, I wanted to write this version down for myself too because no matter how simple a recipe, the "details" will get lost.

If you can get your hands on fresh corn meal, you will be wanting to make these, and soon. Provided you have a sourdough starter. If you don't and live around the bay area, maybe we can talk and I'll give you some. I'm thinking of a sometime in the future, kind of english muffin workshop thingamagig. Otherwise if you want to forge ahead without starter it's up to you, because I've never attempted these with dry yeast, nor do I have any confidence that they will taste the same, so if you do, please tell me about it. And now, for the treats from this year's trick:

My friend Chilebrown, besides being a true bacon aficionado is also a bread fiend, who gifted me some bread flour from his recent trip north. The coolness of this particular flour is that it's from the mill that was first started by Bob, before he moved across the border and took up shop in Oregon, and called it by a different name, starting with his first instead of his last. It is a lovely light and fluffy bread flour that claims to be especially good for sourdough, so I fed mine with it and then did up some muffins the next day. I used a ratio of about 1/4 corn meal that was just fantastic.

In case you have not heard, the time is now for fresh cornmeal, so do yourself a favor and go get some and go home and use it. Now. It tastes the best right now. If you love muffins and cornmeal just go do it.

For halloween this year I made a double batch and did some pumpkin shaped ones and some big rounds. The pumpkins were fun, but unless you saw the cutter with it, you might not immediately think pumpkin. I almost put something in to make them orange, but after having discussions with my friend K, decided that the brain might not be able to get over them not tasting orange colored while consuming. Folks at the market seemed to appreciate them as treats, as I gave some out to my favorite vendors, making sure to get some to the source of the cornmeal, Full Belly.

They had to be tested before giving out and as with any muffin in this house, it is subject to a sweet or savory treatment depending on the mood. This time I wanted both to see how the corn flavor stood up. Two eggs over medium, homemade plum chutney on half, butter on the other, real strong and sweetened coffee (not pictured) to complete the round. I think I had two rounds of coffee, one of egg and four of muffins. This type of muffin munching made me tally what I figure in the last week, must be about 1/4 of my sustenance, I like them that much. Like I said, if you dig muffins and cornmeal, go do yourself a favor and make some of these if you are at all inclined.

And now for the secrets and methods, the "meat" of the method, with some pictures from the last year of making different versions:

adapted from sourdough english muffins recipe found at Baking Bites.
Hi Nicole! Really, this muffin obsession is all your fault.....

Note: from the point of initially taking the starter out of the fridge and feeding it, until eating the end product is at least 20 hours, maybe more. Remember this is sourdough and that despite this, the actual time you spend doing something is anywhere between one or two hours. More like one once you get the hang of it.

Uhhh, (clears throat) like, the recipe......

Take one cup bread flour and one cup room temperature water and whisk together in a glass, ceramic or plastic bowl. Remove starter from fridge and stir into the flour and water mixture. Use a plastic or wooden spoon for this. Cover with a tight lid or plastic wrap and allow to sit out on the counter in ambient temperatures between the high fifties and the low seventies, wherever that may be in your home.

The next day (8-12 hours later) scoop out 1&1/2 cups of starter and add to a clean, large bowl. Add an equal portion of non-fat milk and stir. (I usually use the same measuring cup from the starter as to get it all from inside and out while pouring the milk into it.) Add 1 cup corn meal and two cups of all purpose flour and stir. The result should be a soupy dough somewhat like pancake/waffle batter. Cover this and let sit out overnight (or 8-12 hours).

The next day (did I say 20 hours?) it should look as pictured here, a white and a whole wheat version of the muffin mix at this point in the process, sitting near some waffle mix ready for cooking. To this bubbly and frothy bowl, add 1 cup all purpose flour, 3 Tablespoons of granulated sugar, 1 teaspoon of baking soda and 1 teaspoon of salt. Mix until it is time to use your hands. Then add a few more tablespoons of flour at a time until the dough is just hardly unsticky enough to turn out onto a well floured cutting board. I turn the edges of the dough inward and press flat, rotating and repeating a few times until the dough is no longer a sticky mess and is ready for a few minutes of kneading.

When the dough just begins to tighten up a bit (this will vary on your gluten content and how much whole grain product you use), roll it into a large sheet, rectangular or otherwise until it is approximately 1/4 inch thick. With the cutter of choice, cut as many shapes as possible with the first go round. Gather the remaining bits and while kneading as little as you can, roll it out again and repeat the cutting process.

Take the cut shapes from the board and arrange onto a cookie sheet that has been sprinkled generously with cornmeal. After all the muffins are transferred, sprinkle the tops with ever more cornmeal and then cover loosely with a damp towel or plastic wrap. Let these rise for anywhere between 30-60 minutes. If you are cooking the muffins on an iron griddle as I do, you will want to put it in the oven and pre-heat it at 500 degrees while the muffins do some rising.

Over medium heat, transfer the muffins one at a time onto the hot, seasoned but not buttered griddle. Cook for 3-4 minutes and then take a peak. When the muffins are beginning to brown on the bottom and show signs of bubbling through like pancakes, flip them. To compensate for differences in the griddle, I rotate my muffins during cooking and flipping to even their cooking times. If you can do pancakes, you can do muffins. Different end product, but the same basic cooking method.

Using a four inch round cutter, this recipe can yield 18 muffins, this and a smaller round makes easily twenty, using the pumpkin more like thirty, so if you're worried about disaster and don't quite want the commitment to wasting so much flour, halve the recipe and go from there. But if you do, be warned, as you'll probably wind up eating them all in a day whether they're great or not because they'll be hot and now. Then think, it will be another day (at least) from satisfying the craving for more. They are like crack. Especially served with smear of crack sauce or the like.

As for an english muffin workshop, I'll wait to see what kind of response I get to the idea. If any of my fellow bay area foodies are interested in this let me know. I'm thinking about 4-6 folks over to my home where there will be a co-created muffin batch with everyone getting some time to practice their hand at kneading dough, flipping muffins at the griddle, stuffing your face with muffins and copious quantities of jam, and then to top it all off leaving with some starter so that you can forge ahead at home and start feeding your own addiction.