Thursday, January 28, 2010

Baking the Bake-Off: Testing out Java Glazed Cinnamon Rolls

I had some time this morning to throw a simple breakfast together. I know the picture doesn't jump out and scream "simple" but I assure you, this was a pretty easy and highly uncomplicated dish to make. I had been looking over the list of the current Pillsbury Bake-Off contest finalists and the recipe for Java Glazed Cinnamon Rolls seemed like something I would really enjoy a lot. In fact, it was one of the recipes I had been secretly rooting for as a potential winner for the upcoming event.

The only thing I needed to buy specifically for this recipe was a tube of Pillsbury Grands biscuits with cream cheese icing. This is not an ingredient I buy very often, but since I had not made any Pillsbury Bake-Off recipes in a while, I decided to grab a can of the dough and give this recipe a try. Basically the recipe doctors up the basic cream cheese icing that comes with the dough, giving it a bit more flavor by adding coffee, nuts, and white chocolate. It sounded and looked great.

While the idea was very creative, I didn' t notice enough difference in the final product from the taste of the rolls made without the additions. It just didn't have enough coffee flavor for me. Nothing is wrong technically with the recipe - it works as directed and the rolls do taste good, just not that wow I had been hoping for.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Fluffiest, Lightest, Most Delicious Scones Ever!

When I lived in England, I was able to get my hands on freshly baked scones every day. Every grocery store carried several versions and there was always a local cafe or tea shop that baked them fresh. Since moving back to the US, I have been testing out various versions and while all of them have been pretty good, this particular recipe turned out so very tall and fluffy and light; the best I have tasted by a mile.

Oddly enough, the recipe isn't even a version from the UK, but rather is a variety made popular in Australia. The basic recipe is really quite simple - just a mix of self-rising flour, full fat cream, and some fizzy lemon-lime soda (called lemonade in the UK and Australia). I am certain that American or Canadian style ginger ale would also work out beautifully, but don't use ordinary non-fizzy lemonade. The carbonation is what gives these scones their lovely light texture and lift. However, don't expect these to taste lemony - the soda is there mainly as a raising agent, not for much flavor. I am happy to report that diet Sprite worked out just fine. You do need the real deal for the cream though - no low-fat substitutions will do, as the fat is absolutely required for the recipe to work. You will note there is otherwise no butter or oil in the recipe, so the cream is quite crucial. Sorry to all the dieters who got excited over the diet-soda-is-ok bit.

Some versions add a bit of sugar, I did not. I didn't feel it was necessary at all in the final product. This type of scone is meant to be split and served with some jam and clotted cream or some whipped cream, so there really is no need to add sugar to the dough itself. I personally like mine with a bit of butter and jam, and that is all.

Australian Style Scones (aka Lemonade Scones)
(makes about 8-10 round scones)

4-4 1/2 cups self-rising flour (I used White Lily brand)
1 cup heavy cream (or double cream or whipping cream)
1 cup lemon-lime soda (fizzy lemonade) such as Sprite, 7-Up, or ginger ale
1-2 Tbsp milk, to brush on top (optional)

to serve: jam, lemon curd, butter, clotted cream or whipped cream

Preheat your oven to 350 F.

Sift 3 1/2 cups of the self-rising flour into a large bowl, then stir in the soda and the cream until combined. The mixture will be quite wet at this point. Do not over mix the dough. If it forms a ball, then you can now dump it onto a floured surface, sprinkle with a bit more of the flour, and knead gently for just long enough for it to start to smooth out - seriously only a minute or two. If you knead too long, not only will you overwork the gluten in the flour, but the moisture will start to saturate the dough, making it too wet again.

You may need to keep adding more flour as this dough will be quite moist - but do not add more than 4 1/2 cups total to the entire recipe. Your humidity on the day you make this will affect how much or how little you actually will need. This time, I needed 4 cups total.

Pat the dough out into a large oval shape - it should be quite thick, perhaps 1/2"-1" tall. Using a floured drinking glass, punch out rounds of dough. You will hear a squooshing sound as you push the glass into the puffy dough. Do your best to not twist the glass when you remove it - just lift it.

Yes, the dough shapes will look a bit lumpy, shaggy and wet. You will be staring at them and thinking something surely must be wrong here! Everything is normal.

Place the rounds onto a lightly greased baking sheet, leaving space between each. If you like a brown looking top, then lightly brush each with some milk or cream before baking. I did not do this. Bake for about 10-15 minutes or until they are puffed up tall and the bottoms are just slightly browned. Yes, they will appear quite pale and might at first glance seem underdone, especially if you skipped the milk brushing step. If you keep baking them until they are brown, they will be tough as hard tack when you bite into them, so please do not over bake them!

If you split one open, the insides should be light, fluffy, tender and there should be no wet/raw spots. The outside should be slightly crisp. Split them open, spread with butter, cream of your choice, and jam, as desired.

NOTE: Measurements given are in volume not weight, using American measuring cups.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Cookbook Review: Baking with the Amish Cook

I am rather excited to tell you about the most recent cookbook I had the chance to review, The Amish Cook's Baking Book by Lovina Eicher with Kevin Williams. If you read my previous post on Lovina's first book, The Amish Cook at Home, you will already know that I really enjoyed her first cookbook. While The Amish Cook at Home was more of a peek into the Amish world and culture through food, The Amish Cook's Baking Book focuses a bit closer on the recipes, although there are still plenty of enjoyable stories about the Amish way of baking and Lovina's own personal stories as well.

With this next installment in the series, Lovina has truly outdone herself, bringing a huge sampling of wonderful looking Amish baking recipes. As I read through the book the first time, I kept marking off recipes that I wanted to try. When I was was done, nearly every recipe in the book had been earmarked! For someone who loves to bake, this is a treasure trove of delicious recipes.

It was very difficult for me to select just a few recipes to prepare for you, especially when it came down to bread. I already love bread in general, and there were so many tempting choices. I finally settled on Dilly Bread (page 50). This looks gorgeous when it is done baking, with tiny bits of dill and onion scattered throughout. It does not have an overly oniony taste, however. The crust came out golden and crisp, with the inside tender, soft, and moist. Lovina suggests using this as a sandwich bread and also makes this into dinner rolls. I was quite happy eating a slice on its own, with a bit of butter or dunked into some warm spaghetti sauce. Some of the other tempting bread recipes include Homemade Bread (a basic Amish style white bread loaf), Cheesy Bread, Hobo Bread, Double-Cinnamon Bread, Pineapple Bread, and Strawberry Bread, among others. There is even a recipe for Amish Style doughnuts with a sweet glaze and also one for soft pretzels.

My daughter specifically requested that I make Lovina's Lemon Squares (page 170). These were a bit tricky to photograph, as they are quite soft in the middle. These came out very chewy, sticky, and sweet. Actually, for my tastes they were a bit over the top in the sweetness factor, although I suspect many people would find it just right. They have a lovely bright yellow hue. Among the other tasty bars & brownies to choose from are Oatmeal Bars, Pecan Pie Bars, Butterscotch Brownies, Honey Bars, Toffee Nut Bars, and Delicious Peanut Butter Swirl Bars.

My favorite recipe of the three I tested by far was Monster Cookies (page 114). These cookies are bursting with chocolate and oats. Imagine a crisp oatmeal cookie with a hint of peanut butter, loaded with chocolate chips and M&Ms candies.. and you have monster cookies. These were easy and incredibly delicious. They also kept really well - it took about 10 days before they became stale. These would be a great choice for lunchbox or after school snacks. There are many recipes floating around for variations of Monster Cookies, but this particular version really stood out for me, perhaps because it contains more butter, chocolate, and M&Ms than many other versions I have seen. Rich, delicious, wonderful cookies. Other cookie recipes included are Honey Spice Cookies, Thimble Cookies, Homemade Buttermilk Cookies, Broomstick Cookies, Chocolate Marshmallow Cookies, and more.

The other sections of the book - an entire chapter on pies, one on cakes, and another on special occasion recipes specific to Amish traditions are equally drool-worthy. From the beautiful photography, the variety of tempting recipes, and the charming smattering of notes from Lovina's children on the ways they help out with some of the recipes, this cookbook is a great find. The Amish Cook's Baking Book would make an excellent gift for any home baker, especially one interested in Amish foods. Recommended.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

An Evening with Nigella: Scallops & Chorizo Dinner

Two unexpected events happened yesterday. Last night, I had originally wanted to use up some Italian sausage I had in the freezer, simmering it into a hearty meat sauce for pasta. However, I had to put that plan on hold as when I checked on my thawing sausages a few hours before meal time, they were still covered in ice crystals, despite an overnight thaw in the fridge. /Sigh. So, now I needed to figure out something else to make, and my tummy was already grumbling for dinner. I recently wrote about how I am trying very hard to avoid making extra trips to the grocery store, and to cut down on unessential food purchases. Well, last night I broke my own rule and did make a stop in the grocery store to pick up a few ingredients for my last minute change of plans meal. It made me feel a bit like a dieter sneaking a candy bar.

When I noticed that scallops were on sale, I decided that I would make some recipes I had seen presented on an episode of Nigella Express, a Spanish themed menu of tapas inspired dishes : Scallops & Chorizo, Chickpeas with Arugula & Sherry, and Shrimp with Maryam Zaira Sauce. I also served some Amish Dill Bread on the side (which you will hear more about soon). The meal was super simple and came together really fast. The Scallops came out juicy and tender, perfectly cooked, with a nice smoky flavor from the chorizo. The chickpeas dish looked lovely, with the mound of rocket wilting over the top, and the delicious aroma of cumin was very promising. Unfortunately, this dish didn't have quite the punch I expected and also tasted like it needed more simmering time. The canned chickpeas were still a bit too firm and didn't absorb enough of the flavors. It tasted ok, just not something I would make as a last minute dish again. As for the dipping sauce for the shrimp, I had to make a significant change to the recipe - I didn't have any harissa in the house and the local grocery store didn't have any, so I instead used chipotle mayo and still added the lime juice and honey. This worked out very well, if a bit spicy.

And to relieve some of my guilt over my shopping trip, the only ingredients I bought for this meal were the arugula, the seafood, the chipotle mayo, and the chorizo. I had all of the other items at home already. Just pretend I didn't also buy a few other items, ok?? ;)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Tale of the Enormous Grapefruit

Often when I am wandering in the produce department of any market, I am very often tempted by any strange or unusual fruits and veggies that catch my eye. About a week ago, I spied some enormous looking grapefruits sitting in a crowded special bin next to the other citrus fruits. A big gold label slapped on the rind announced that this was actually a Pomelo, and it was locally grown. Without hesitation, I decided to lift this behemoth of a fruit into my cart and was dead certain I would enjoy it for breakfast over the next few days. However, as is often the case with my odd fruit and veggie purchases, the pomelo sat in the fridge waiting to be eaten. At home it seemed far too large to eat as a breakfast dish, and my daughter glanced at it and wanted to know why there was a huge melon blocking her food in the fridge.

Luckily, I happened to stop by a Publix grocery store on another night when they were doing one of their free cooking demonstrations. It just so happened that the meal of the day was a chicken salad with a grapefruit based dressing. Their recipe called for 3 normal grapefruits, so I was sure I could use my one hefty pomelo instead. I already had all of the other ingredients at home, so it was absolutely added to my menu for the week.

Let me tell you that juicing a pomelo is no easy task! It was far too big for my juicer, so I had to cut it into halves, and then quarter one half in order to make the fruit pieces small enough to use in my hand juicer.

The recipe calls for an odd ingredient.. lemon curd. Lemon curd is like a thick bright yellow lemony jam. Thicker and stickier and far sweeter than say something like apple butter. It is like lemon meringue pie in jam form. It is not usually the first thing I would think to add in a dressing for a chicken salad. However, countered with the sourness of the citrus, it really did work. The salad was incredibly simple to make - just cook some chicken breasts, slice and toss them over some mixed greens with some grapefruit segments, and the citrusy lemony dressing drizzled on top. I would make this again without question, although I would make far less dressing, as I had at least a cup leftover.

Grapefruit & Chicken Salad (based on a recipe found here)
(serves 2-3)

3 pink grapefruits or 1 huge pomelo, juice some to get 1 1/3 cups juice, cut the rest into segments for the salad
1/2 cup lemon curd
1/2 tsp minced garlic
3 skinless boneless chicken breasts
sea salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tbsp canola oil
mixed salad greens

Season chicken on both sides with some salt and pepper, then cook in a hot skillet with a little bit of oil over medium-high heat for 3-4 minutes per side, or until cooked through. Slice thinly. While the chicken is cooking, whisk together the grapefruit juice, lemon curd, and garlic until smooth. Place a hearty handful of washed salad greens onto a plate, scatter some of the grapefruit segments and chicken strips on top, drizzle with some of the dressing.

Note: The original version also called for 1 Tbsp of black sesame seeds in the dressing, which makes the salad look really pretty. I did not have any and since I seldom use them, I didn't want to buy a whole bottle just for this one recipe, so I left them out.

The recipe card also suggested making some simple Cheese Crisps (essentially open faced grilled cheese sandwiches) to go alongside the salad. This was just some bakery fresh multigrain bread, buttered lightly with a slice of cheese on top, toasted in a 425 F oven for 5 minutes. I used Amish Havarti cheese, which was nice and mild and didn't overpower the flavors in the salad.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Chicken Breasts with Fennel & Olives

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am actively trying to use up all of the meats and veggies I already have hanging out in my fridge and freezer, to try to economize a bit more. I have been pretty good about resisting the temptation to run to the grocery store when I am out of an ingredient this week, and instead just working with recipes that can be a bit more flexible, allowing for substitutions from my pantry. Since I tend to keep things well stocked (read that as a bit overstocked), it isn't really that difficult to find ingredients that will work together and create a delicious meal.

A kind member of Recipezaar, SarasotaCook, suggested this dish to me, just off the top of her head. She often makes a similar version of this dish, and since it called for a lot of the ingredients I have been wanting to use up, I was definitely willing to give her suggestion a try. Basically, she marinates chicken overnight in a mix of olive oil, salt and pepper, some lemon juice, and oregano. The chicken is then browned on both sides in a bit of butter and oil, then the meat is set aside while you prepare the vegetables, a simple mix of fennel, tomatoes, garlic, and olives. The chicken is later returned to the pan to continue cooking and soaking in all the rich flavors from the veggies and pan juices. It turned out really good and was very easy. Here is my interpretation of her great idea:

SarasotaCook's Chicken with Fennel & Olives (my interpretation)

2 bone-in split chicken breasts (mine were very large, so this amount made about 3 servings)

1/2 lemon, wedged
1-2 glugs extra virgin olive oil
sea salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tbsp dried oregano, to taste

1 tsp butter
2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1 cup white wine (I used white zinfandel, 1 mini bottle)
1 small head fennel, bulb only, very thinly sliced
1/2 large red onion, very thinly sliced
1 tsp minced garlic
sea salt, to taste
black pepper, to taste
1 (15 ounce) can fire roasted diced tomatoes (I used Muir Glen organic)
1 cup chicken stock (reduced sodium), or more as needed
1-2 Tbsp capers, drained
1 cup mixed olives (good deli quality), pitted, roughly chopped or halved

Season chicken with salt & pepper, pop into a ziptop bag and add a glug or two of olive oil. Squeeze the lemon wedges over the chicken, and then drop the rinds into the bag. Mix well, seal the bag, and let marinate overnight in the fridge.

Heat a skillet(I used cast iron) over medium-high heat. Add a small amount of butter and oil and allow to heat. Add the chicken and brown on both sides. Remove chicken to a plate to keep warm. Remove some of excess oil from the pan, leaving behind some of the pan juices and any browned bits, then splash in the wine and let it deglaze the pan. After the wine has had a chance to bubble for a couple of minutes, add the fennel, onion slivers, and the garlic, stirring to coat with the pan juices. Allow to cook, lowering the heat slightly if needed, until the veggies are softened and have absorbed most of the liquid, about 5 minutes or so.

Add the tomatoes, juice and all, the chicken broth, capers, and olives, and season to taste, if needed. Add the chicken back to the pan and allow to cook uncovered until the chicken is fully cooked (I let it cook 15 minutes, then popped it into a 350F oven for another 10 minutes to finish up). Serve over couscous.

NOTE: I deboned the cooked chicken and served it sliced with the sauce all around it.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Success! Copycat Version of Cracker Barrel Double Fudge Cola Cake

Shortly before the holidays descended upon me and my world got excessively busy, I had put up a poll asking all of you which Cracker Barrel recipe you most wanted me to recreate next. I have already shown you my copycat versions of two of their delicious chicken salads, Copycat Cracker Barrel Applefest Chicken Salad and Just Like Cracker Barrel's Chicken Salad in case you missed those. The winner of the poll was Cracker Barrel's Double Fudge Cola Cake, a deep dark chocolate fudge sheet cake topped with a moist fudgey chocolate icing and served warm, with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream on the side. In honor of their 40th anniversary, Cracker Barrel returned this famous cake to their menu for one year, starting 31 August 2009.

While trying to research this recipe, I found numerous versions of cola cake floating around the internet. Some contained nuts, others a marshmallow topping, some had both the marshmallows and the nuts on top. After recently eating this cake at an actual Cracker Barrel restaurant, it was clear that either the recipe now being served has been changed a bit or many of the so-called copycat versions, while very likely also quite good cakes, are not quite the same as what is served in the restaurant today. The version I was served was a square of warm dark chocolate cake, very moist and sweet and with a springy texture. The icing was definitely a fudgey consistency, not fluffy like a buttercream, and was glossy, although not quite a ganache either. It was more reminiscent of the sort of icing you might find topping a chocolate glazed donut, with a slight crispness on the top, although thicker and not quite so crisp. There were no nuts at all and no visible marshmallows.

I finally found a recipe here that sounded like it could be very close, so I gave it a try, and with a few slight changes, I think it is very nearly the same cake as the 2009 version served today. I actually think the cake tasted even better than the restaurant version. Here is the recipe including my changes:

Copycat Cracker Barrel 40th Anniversary Double Fudge Coca-Cola Cake (adapted from a version found on

(makes one large 9x13" sized sheet cake)

1 (12 ounce) can Coke (or other cola), divided
2 (4 ounces each) sticks unsalted butter (each stick = 1/2 cup), divided, at room temperature
1 (1 ounce) square semisweet chocolate
1 cup miniature marshmallows (measured by volume not weight)
1/2 cup shortening (I used butter flavor Crisco) (measured by volume)
1/2 cup canola oil or sunflower oil
3 tsp vanilla extract, divided
2 cups granulated white sugar or caster sugar
2 large eggs
3/4 cup milk (I used 2% fat)*
3 Tbsp powdered buttermilk*
1 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 1/3 cups White Lily all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups unsweetened dark chocolate cocoa powder, divided
1/4 cup chocolate syrup (I used Fox's U-Bet)
2 cups powdered sugar or icing sugar

Before you begin, open your oven and arrange the baking racks so that one of them is set near the top, making sure there is plenty of room on that top shelf for your pan and for the cake to rise a bit. Normally cakes are baked in the center of the oven, but not this one. Preheat your oven to 350 F. Grease and flour a 9x13" rectangular sheet cake pan. You will also need a small saucepan, a whisk, an electric mixer, and 3 mixing bowls.

Measure out just 1 cup of Coke and just 1 stick of the butter and place along with the square of semisweet chocolate into a small saucepan. Set the remaining cola aside for now, and place the other stick of butter in a medium mixing bowl, setting it aside to come to room temperature.

Meanwhile, bring the mixture in your saucepan to a boil, stirring with a whisk or slotted spoon often. As soon as it boils, add the mini marshmallows, stir to coat, lowering the heat a bit to prevent a boil-over. Continue to stir until everything has fully melted and blended together, and there are no longer any white streaks remaining from the marshmallows. It should look shiny and wet, like unset fudge. Set this fudge mixture aside to cool a bit (I let mine sit for about 5 minutes, then poured it into a plastic bowl and popped it into the fridge for about another 5 minutes while I continued with the next step).

In a large mixing bowl combine the shortening, oil, and just 2 tsp of the vanilla. Add the granulated sugar and mix well. Add in both eggs and the milk and beat well, using an electric mixer, until light and fluffy. Scrape any batter that is creeping up the sides of the bowl with a spatula, as needed.

In yet another mixing bowl (last one I promise!), combine the buttermilk powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Set a mesh strainer/sieve over the top of the bowl and add the flour, shaking the strainer so that the flour sifts down into the bowl. If you happen to have a flour sifter, you can use that instead, but a mesh strainer works just fine. Measure out just 3/4 cup of the unsweetened cocoa powder and sift that through the sieve as well. Remove the sieve and give the mixture a quick stir.

Add half of the flour mixture into the shortening & egg mixture, beating until smooth.

Remember your fudge mixture you have cooling? Give that a quick stir and then add just a bit of it to the shortening mixture and beat well. Continue adding the fudge in small amounts until all of it has been beaten in and well combined. The reason you are adding it slowly is to prevent the still somewhat warm mixture from scrambling your eggs.

Add the other half of the flour mixture now, mixing until combined and then for another 4 minutes. Set a timer. You are trying to incorporate air into your batter, so no skimping on the time here. Your batter should be thick and smooth.

Pour the cake batter into your prepared pan and pop it into the preheated 350 F oven to bake on the TOP rack. Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until a toothpick poked into the center of the cake comes out with no streaks on it. Do not overbake! Set the cake onto a cooling rack to cool somewhat. You will still want it to be a bit warm when you add the fudge icing, but wait long enough for it to no longer be so very hot that your icing just melts completely upon contact. Before you walk away, take your toothpick and poke a bunch of holes all over the surface of the cake.

Remember the bowl with the stick of butter in it from way back in the beginning? By now it should be nice and soft. Go grab the rest of that can of coke and measure out about 1/3 cup. Add that to the butter, along with 1 tsp vanilla, and the remaining 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder. Add the chocolate syrup and mix well until everything is smooth. Now add in 1 cup of the powdered sugar and blend well, then add the remaining 1 cup powdered sugar. The icing should be shiny, smooth, and a bit gloopy, not stiff. It should not be watery, but more like the consistency of thick hot fudge sauce. If it is too thin, add a bit more powdered sugar, or if it seems a bit too dry, add a little more cola.

Pour this entire mixture over the warm cake and spread evenly. Allow this to sit long enough to set up a bit, about 20-30 minutes, roughly. Some of the fudgey icing will ooze into your toothpick holes and you need to give it time to do that. The surface will also take on a sheen and harden ever so slightly. Serve with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream on the side while the cake is still a little warm, if desired.

*NOTE: If you don't have buttermilk powder, you may instead use 3/4 cup buttermilk instead of the milk and buttermilk powder. Or, you can make a buttermilk substitute by placing 2 tsp lemon juice into a measuring cup, then adding enough milk to fill 3/4 cup, and then allowing that to sit for 5 minutes to thicken. You will not need to make any adjustments to the dry ingredients.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Credit Crunching: Using up what's already here

Sometimes, one of the hardest things for a foodie to do is to not go to the grocery store/farmer's market/specialty market. Let foodies loose in a store that sells any sort of ingredients and we tend to drag home a bit more than we set out to buy in the first place. Ok, fine, sometimes it is a lot more. Or at least I do. I can almost never resist picking up a new spice blend or the latest new-to-me vegetable or fruit, the more unique or bizarre the better. I love to experiment and explore new foods. However, such practices are terrible when credit crunching, and alas, at the moment, I am firmly in the save money camp.

So my current goal is to use my pantry supplies as my "specialty market," rediscovering some of those oddball items I have accumulated and actually use them up. I have a freezer full of ingredients stashed away: meats, veggies, and fruits galore. Instead of running to the store for more, even if I am out of something a recipe calls for, I am trying my hardest to glue myself to the floor and not even think about heading out for more. Because you see, if I go to the grocery store for one item, it feels like a waste of the trip and gas, so I peruse the aisles for sales and anything I might need later. I have gone through my cupboards, made a list of everything in my fridge and freezer and made a battle plan.. a menu that should hopefully take me through the next week or so. A menu that ideally will keep me happily cooking and experimenting in my kitchen without digging deeper into my pockets.

For my first recipe, I didn't exactly wander too far into the land of experimentation. I simple found a recipe I hadn't tried before that seemed appealing and used up some items I had lurking in my pantry. It has been freezing cold around here lately, so I was wanting to make homemade soup. I had some frozen mixed veggies hanging out in my freezer that I really wanted to use up in one fell swoop and soup seemed the most logical choice. I found this recipe for a Vegetable Soup, which not only used up my entire bag of frozen vegetables, but also the last scraps of orzo I still had stashed away from making Orzo with Thyme & Lemon Zest as well as some canned tomatoes and broth. It was easy and satisfying.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Cookbook Review: The Amish Cook at Home

I think it is quite fitting that my first blog post of the new year is a review of a book that seems to epitomize the concept of frugal eating and home cooking with mostly home grown ingredients. In the current economy, many of us are searching for new ways to stretch our dollars and make our food budgets go a bit further. Our first lady, Michelle Obama, is on a personal mission to encourage our nation to explore the local community for our farm fresh local ingredients, often a cheaper, healthier, fresher alternative to relying solely on supermarkets.

When I lived overseas, I used to relish the weekly walks to the local farm stand (Obsthof) where I lived in Germany, where the produce was abundant, inexpensive, and freshly grown. Even in London, where I most recently lived, farm fresh produce was available in every community on nearly every corner at little vegetable stands and green grocers. Even in the bigger markets, each item was clearly labeled with the farm the food had come from. While international fare was also available, it was marked as such, and the trend was clearly to select foods that had fewer "miles" on them... local over imported was the way to go. I really enjoyed this aspect of food shopping overseas, and when I moved back to the US, it was a hard adjustment to go back to the old way of massive bulk sized packaging and foods from unknown locations on the shelves. Many foods do indicate the country of origin, but it isn't always clear or noticeable. And there certainly isn't a green grocer on practically every corner.

In the US, the Amish have been in on this secret to wholesome, frugal eating for years. It is deeply embedded in their culture. Most Amish communities still rely on home gardens, self-reared and butchered meats, home canning, sewing etc as just part of their normal, daily lives. Some modern conveniences have begun to enter their kitchens, such as refrigeration, modern plumbing, and even some commercially prepared ingredients, but overall, they still offer a good example of how to use local, seasonal foods to both an ecomonical and nutritional advantage.

I was recently given the opportunity to review The Amish Cook at Home, by Lovina Eicher, with Kevin Williams. Expecting this to be a typical cookbook, I was in for a bit of a surprise. This book is really one woman's account of her life as part of an Amish community, her daily activities and chores with her family and church, her seasonal gardening, and her family history. This is a peek into her unique life, something to be read and enjoyed, with recipes included along the way to highlight each season. The book is studded with breathtakingly beautiful photographs by Betsy Blanton, depicting not only some of the lovely recipes included in the book, but also charming images of the Amish community.

Now onto the recipes themselves... the book is broken down into the four seasons, describing the types of foods Lovina would typically harvest and prepare when they are most appropriate seaonally. In the Spring chapter, there are recipes using dandelions, peas, radishes, strawberries, rhubarb and asparagus from Lovina's garden, morel mushrooms plucked from the woods.

I prepared the Pancakes with Fresh Strawberries (page 50), as winter here in Florida is more like spring. I was able to use locally grown Plant City strawberries. The pancakes were quite easy to make and were very light and puffy. They are tiny silver dollar sized cakes, with no sugar in the batter. A hefty tablespoonful of vanilla gives them a lovely aroma and flavor. I did sprinkle a bit of sweetener onto my berries, which was plenty sweet enough for me.

Moving onto the Summer chapter, Lovina describes her schedule and methods for planting and harvesting onions, zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, corn, and surprisingly, jalapeno peppers. As she details in her book, the Amish have a foothold in Mexico as well, and thus recipes for Mexican influenced foods have begun to appear on the tables of the modern American Amish family. Lovina provides recipes for home-canned salsa, relish, pickles, and vegetable juice, hot pepper butter, stuffed tomatoes, carrot cake, vegetable casseroles, and dessert bars made from carrots and zucchini.

As I have mentioned previously, I have a particular love for zucchini, so naturally I had to try out the Zucchini Bars (page 67). These were so easy to prepare that I had the entire batter ready to pop into the oven before my preheating timer had gone off. I did skip one step, peeling the zucchini, since I like the pretty green flecks from the skin. Just look at that gorgeous raw batter! These tasted like blonde brownies, with loads of chocolate and butterscotch chips in each bite. These were really delicious and moist and I think would go over well with otherwise finicky vegetable-hating children.

In the Fall chapter, the emphasis shifts more towards hearty casseroles and pies with recipes for Pumpkin Pie, Pumpkin Bread, Apple Crisp, Chicken Chowder, Chicken Potpies, Sourdough Bread and Sourdough Cinnamon Rolls, to name a few. In the Winter section, several holiday treats such as Noel Cookies, Cinnamon Pudding, and Sour Cream Cookie Cut-Outs are included, as well as a selection of beef, sausage and ham recipes. Although I had originally planned to make a selection of holiday goodies from the fall and winter chapters, my little trip to the hospital and then the subsequent trip to my mom's for the holidays meant I did almost no holiday baking. I did give Farmer's Breakfast (page193) a try however, which was a nice simple medley of vegetables, leftover ham, and eggs. This was a nice, tasty breakfast, although a bit heavy on the butter for my tastes.

In reading The Amish Cook at Home, I first had to overcome some incorrect preconceptions I had about the way the modern Amish family eats. Several recipes call for some commercially prepared items (canned soups and Velveeta cheese, for example) that struck me as not quite fitting my apparently false image of a people who never touch anything that isn't 100% homemade. While it is indeed true that the Amish culture promotes a heavy reliance on home grown and home-made ingredients, it is no longer unheard of or unusual to include some modern prepared ingredients. The recipes I tried were very tasty and I very much enjoyed reading about life in the modern Amish world. It was quite eye-opening and an interesting read. Leave this book out on your coffee table, it is one your guests will be able to savor even if they are not interested in cooking, for the photographs and story alone.