posts tagged with 'cooking'

part butter, part milk

pancakes on a plate

the pancakes of 2019

Eight years ago when I last wrote up a pancake recipe on these pages, I was still using canola oil rather than butter. Just laziness. Besides that it's a good recipe—as you can see by the fact that I'm still making pancakes almost the same way every Friday morning. Recently, though, we saw the biggest change in the recipe in years: we've switched to buttermilk.

A potential problem with making buttermilk pancakes regularly is that it can be hard to keep buttermilk around. I mean, what else are you ever going to be doing with it?! In our case, though, it went the other way: I wanted to have buttermilk for making cakes—not just for birthdays anymore!—but even with an accelerated cake-baking schedule it proved impossible to use up a carton before it went bad. So I thought I would try it in pancakes.

It turns out to be dramatically better than making them with milk. Who knew?! Actually, I guess lots of people knew. But not me. Thankfully, I'm now enlightened. In case you were also among the buttermilk innocents, the main difference is that buttermilk and baking soda make for a much better rise than baking powder alone (that's why buttermilk is in the cakes, too). Then the higher rise makes for a more tender crumb, which is good for its own sake, and also lets the pancakes soak up lots of syrup. Which of course is the real reason we're doing this breakfast!

Here's the (new and improved) recipe.

In a large bowl whisk together:

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup wheat germ
3 Tbsp sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp cinnamon

Beat well:

2 large eggs

Add to the dry ingredients, along with:

1 1/2 cup buttermilk
3 Tbsp melted butter

Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix gently with a whisk until they're well-combined and smooth.

Put your skillet over medium-low heat and butter as required. Pour the batter (I use a quarter cup measure, not quite filled for each pancake) and cook until most of the bubbles on top have popped, then flip and cook the other side for about 30 seconds.

Serve with butter and slightly-warmed maple syrup or preserves.

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new frontiers in cooking

Yesterday a friend brought over some veggies to contribute to lunch, including a big bunch of scallions—which inspired us to try making scallion pancakes! We used this recipe, roughly, and they came out great. The only issue was we started cooking at 11:30, so while we got the rest of the lunch ready by noon we did not have scallion pancakes til much later. Which was bad only because at that point everyone was stuffed with the other delicious food we had made, so for my part at least eating many pieces of scallion pancake on top of that made me feel rather unwell. They're pretty much just flour and water fried in lots of oil, so kind of heavy.

I tend to get in kind of a rut with my cooking, both because I don't want to put a lot of effort into new recipes when there's a good chance the kids won't like the results, and because I tend not to plan very far ahead (like with the pancakes, see). It's not the end of the world—we have more than seven recipes we know we like, so we're not getting the same thing more than once a week unless we do it on purpose—but on the other hand I don't want to miss all the other good things the world might have to offer in the culinary line.

Not quite at the same level, but this evening I made a potato-and-cheese omelet for supper. That was a new one too. Me and Harvey enjoyed it; Lijah liked the bread and the roasted cauliflower, and Zion liked the bread. In his defense, it was just about right out of the oven, so while in no way ground-breaking it was certainly good. Not everything has to be new and exciting.

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gingerbread houses

An important part of our Christmas that I left out of yesterday's report was the gingerbread baking. Besides the cookies the boys made for Grandma and Grandpa, we also did our annual construction and decoration of gingerbread houses. We invited friends over to make the whole affair as festive and exciting as possible.

busy around the table with candy, frosting, and gingerbread

it's gingerbread chaos!

It was a pretty intense day. The boys and I started first thing in the morning making the dough: two batches, with a total of seven cups of flour. That might not sound like a lot but for scale, it's almost all of a five-pound bag. Or maybe it's not, and the bag was only empty because of how much we spilled. Which was a lot. But the dough got made, and we rolled it into balls and left it to chill.

the boys rolling the dough into big balls

the end of phase 1

A little later our friends arrived. Together we designed a house template, then each of the five kids worked (with an age-appropriate amount of help) to roll out their portion of dough and cut pieces for their walls, roofs, and auxiliary accessories. The adults were also making lunch at this time, so there was a lot going on. The house pieces were big enough that each house took up two baking sheets, and each one needed to be in the oven for 15 minutes. There was some confusion over which parts went to which house, but we got it all sorted out in the end. The frosting to glue the houses together took a pound of sugar, and then we needed another batch—another pound—for the decorating.

Which of course is what the kids were waiting for! (Some of them had such a hard time waiting they started decorating before their roofs were quite attached; it was only a little sad, because everything that fell apart was repairable.) We had a tremendous array of candy available, which was good because they expected to taste more-than-representative portions of each type. Decorating techniques varied: the 9-year-olds were guided largely by aesthetic concerns, whereas 7-year-olds and younger were more concerned with attaching the maximum volume of the types of candy they wanted to eat later. Never mind; all five houses came out beautifully.

five finished gingerbread houses lined up on the table

finished!

That was all a week before Christmas. I was talking a couple days ago with friends whose kids were having trouble letting go of the season—they're fellow 12-day-celebrators, but still hadn't taken down their tree two days past Epiphany. I told them my secret for helping the boys accept the end of Christmas: I didn't let them eat their gingerbread houses until the season was officially over! So there was something to look forward to on January 6th.

Harvey breaking the roof off his gingerbread house

finally!

Harvey and Zion's houses aren't entirely gone yet, but what remains can fit in a tupperware container in the bread drawer. Lijah's is still standing; that's because, as he describes it, "I don't like gingerbread, just candy." I estimate another three days till all the decorations have been stripped off, then maybe we can put the remains out for the squirrels.

If you want to make your own houses, here's our recipe as I have it:

In a large bowl whisk together:

7 cups all-purpose white flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons powdered ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon

In the stand mixer, cream:

1 cup (two sticks) butter
1 cup sugar

Add and mix until well-blended:

1 cup molasses
2 teaspoons vanilla

Add the dry ingredients to the wet about two cups at a time, mixing until combined each time. If necessary, add:

up to 1/4 cup cold water

Form the dough into three or four balls, wrap each one in plastic wrap, and store in the fridge until you’re ready to make your houses.

At that point, preheat the oven to 325° F and grease a cookie sheet or two. Roll one ball at a time on a oured surface to a thickness of about 1/4 inch. Cut out your house pieces and bake them on cookie sheets for 15-18 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces Let the pieces cool completely before assembling the houses.

For the mortar—er, frosting—combine in the stand mixer:

1 package powdered sugar
3 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon cream of tarter

Whip vigorously with the whisk attachment, adding more powdered sugar or water as necessary to achieve a thick, glue-like consistency.

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taste the smoke

One of my favorite things about cooking on the fire is the leftovers. A couple years ago when we brought some leftover chili back from a camping trip I was delighted to find that, when reheated, it had a wonderfully smoky flavor that totally complemented the other tastes in the recipe. (I hadn't noticed the day we cooked it; then, everything was smoky.) Now that we have our own backyard fire that we use all the time we get to enjoy that smoky goodness much more often, and on purpose. Like the zucchini I grilled yesterday.

Last night we cooked some chicken and a little steak, and I also through some slices of summer squash on the grill. They were delicious, but since I was the only one who ate any there was lots left over. For breakfast this morning I chopped some up and put them in an omelet that Harvey and I shared; he was suspicious ("what are these green things?!") but when he tried one he agreed that they had practically no vegetable taste at all. Just smoke. Then this evening I made my half of the pizza with mushrooms and more of the zucchini, and feta cheese. So powerful was that quarter cup of chopped squash that Lijah almost keeled over from the smell when he came into the house just after the pizza came out of the oven. He didn't like it; to me it was just perfect. Tasted good too.

Who knows what all those smoke particles are doing to our system—probably cancerous or something. But right now, I'm going to say it's worth it!

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independence from the stove

We celebrated the Fourth of July in our traditional fashion today, with a full day at the fair in Concord. More about that later. But the fun didn't end when we got home—after an hour or so indoors in front of the fan to recover, we cooked hot dogs on the fire, and then smores. It was our second smores evening just in the past week, never mind all the other times we've made them this year, which got me to wondering... how did we become a household where such things are possible?! Clearly, building the fireplace helped.. but even before that we were toasting marshmallows over a wood fire in the kettle grill. Maybe it's just that we like being outside, and there's no finer outdoor dessert than smores?

All round, outdoor cooking is the best. Obviously when it's as hot as this it's great not to have to heat up the house; in weather like this even the vacuum cleaner feels like it's pumping out an unbearable amount of hot air, to say nothing of the stove or the oven. But the food is tastier too over the fire. The other day I made beans and as leftovers their noticeably more delicious than stovetop beans—delightfully smoky. I also made steak and peppers for fajitas, which was fine, and tortillas, which I felt was pretty impressive (they didn't taste particularly smoky, but I still think rolling them and cooking them outside was pretty cool). Today Leah—who doesn't eat hot dogs—grilled tofu and zucchini, stir-fried ground turkey, and made rice all over the fire. I didn't taste any of that, but I guarantee it was all wonderful. And of course fire-cooked marshmallows are infinitely superior to those prepared any other way. I hear some people even eat them raw! Not us, not when there's a fire going!

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I think I can feel a little satisfied with myself

There's so much to do in the summer. With our sort of camp, I find myself with a house full of kids all day Monday and Tuesday, which is lovely—but it doesn't leave much time to take care of the house and yard. Still, I don't think I did too badly yesterday. Besides showing the kids—ours and the two visitors—a good time, I managed a little weeding, baked bread, made pickles, and made a cake. It helps that all five kids are wonderful human beings and interacted peacefully for the seven or eight hours they were together. They also made some money selling candy and cycled around 10 miles round trip, to and from the Farmers Market in Lexington. So they didn't do too badly either!

two quarts of pickles on the porch railing

pickles

The cake came out good too: just the thing to end our long busy day, served on our friends' back porch as it started to get dark (you see why all three boys are still sound asleep well after the sun came up this morning!). I made up the recipe; it's based on this chocolate cake, which I've made a few times and which revealed to me that buttermilk and baking powder are magic for making home-made cakes rise almost like ones from a mix. We have lots of blueberries—four of the five kids here yesterday helped pick them last week—so I decided on a blueberry variant.

blueberry cake in the front yard

the cake, pausing on the way to the car

Here's the recipe.

Blueberry Cake

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a bundt pan with plenty of butter. In a large bowl, combine

2 3/4 c. all purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4th tsp. salt
3/4 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg

In the stand mixer, mix at medium speed

3/4 c. butter, softened
1 c. packed brown sugar
1 c. granulated sugar

Increase speed to high and beat for five minutes, until pale and fluffy. Add one at a time, beating at medium speed after each one

3 large eggs

At medium speed beat in

2 tsp. vanilla extract
zest of one lemon

Mixing at low speed, add the flour mixture in three parts alternating with two parts of

1 1/2 c. buttermilk

Fold in

1 1/2 c. blueberries

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 50-60 minutes.

For the glaze, combine in a medium bowl

1/3 c. melted butter
2 1/2 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 c. powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla

Whisk until smooth and pour slowly over the cake, letting a layer dry before adding more on top (I didn't have time to maage that last part between getting back from the farmer's market and leaving for dinner at our friends' house... my one failure in an otherwise pretty successful day!).

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dinner yesterday

We got some mangoes on sale at Whole Foods the other day, and they were so ripe and delicious I couldn't think of anything but mango salsa. So that's what I had to make for our friends when they came over for supper yesterday. Since salsa isn't really a main dish it was lucky we also had some chicken breasts (free range organic chicken from ButcherBox!). I figured maybe I could manage some sort of pulled chicken for tacos, and was disappointed when an internet search turned up lots of recipes that started with, "Take a roast chicken...". Then I got over it and did just that, except I cooked the breasts in the skillet before shredding them and mixing in some adobo sauce and garlic powder.

For the mango salsa I did two mangoes, half a cucumber, cilantro, lime juice, and a big spring onion from the garden. I also made tomato salsa for those with more traditional tastes. And coconut rice—an Indian-y recipe from the Moosewoods cookbook, but one that seemed like it would go with mango—and plain rice. And then some flour tortillas. Oh, and some sour cream mixed with cilantro and lime juice. Rhubarb crisp with whipped cream for desert.

It was actually kind of an ambitious menu, considering I was also in charge of the kids and the cleaning with Leah at work. And Harvey came down with a little fever towards the end of the afternoon so he was in bed rather than helping rally the troops to clean up their toys. So we didn't get quite magazine-clean, and I kind of ignored the boys—fine, two were playing outside and one was dozing in bed—and I still wasn't ready when folks showed up ready to eat. Good thing they're old friends and were willing to make themselves at home while I finished up. I like to think the meal was worth the wait.. I enjoyed it, anyway.

Looking back, I've come a long way from the first time I made mango salsa way back in 2004. What an innocent I was; I didn't even have a clear sense of what a mango looked like back then. And I certainly didn't know how to cook. I'm a little better now. I wonder what I'll be making in 2026?

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not-so-high tea

I made scones yesterday morning with the idea of passing them out at the bus stop and showing the other parents that I cared about them and was glad to have them as neighbors. I don't know how they feel about me as a neighbor, but none of them wanted any scones. Never mind, the boys sure wanted some—though since they'd just been treated to a big breakfast of fried eggs, toast, bacon, and oranges, I told them to hold off. Because it was scones, I told them we could have them for tea later. So we did.

Zion and Nathan sitting at the table for tea, looking serious

tea is serious business

We had friends over by then so they got to join in too. It was lovely, and the boys were totally ready to enter into the spirit of "tea" as a meal: "Take tiny nibbles," Harvey said, recalling instructions from some book or other. Then he kind of spoiled the effect by knocking over his teacup reaching for the tin of scones after the little boys didn't pass them quick enough. Luckily the cup only chipped rather than shattering—I was letting them use our finest Crate-and-Barrel wedding china—but the puddle of milky tea was mess enough. The little boys—Lijah and his friend Liam—didn't spill a drop, and so would have been within their rights to complain that I only trusted them with plastic cups, but they're more polite than that. They weren't huge fans of the tea, either, come to that, and much preferred the sliced mango to the scones.

Which I don't understand, because they were some tasty scones. I brought the rest of them to work this morning, where they were again properly appreciated. This batch was with orange zest and chocolate chips; the original recipe is from Joy of Cooking and is for raisin scones with cinnamon, like this:

raisin scones cooling on a rack

cinnamon raisin version

In a large bowl, whisk together:

2 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

Cut in:

6 Tbsp butter

Stir in:

1/2 cup raisins (or orange zest and 3/4 cup chocolate chips, or lemon zest and 1/4 cup chopped candied ginger, or...)

Add and mix until combined (you'll have to knead it against the side of the bowl with your hands to get all the flour up):

1/2 cup cream
1 egg, beaten

Shape the dough into a disk maybe 3/4 inch thick, cut it into 12 wedges, and put them on a baking sheet. Brush them with cream or milk and sprinkle them with cinnamon sugar (for the raisin ones; or plain sprinkling sugar for the others).

Bake at 425°F for 12-15 minutes or until they're golden brown.

And if you want to replicate our experience, serve with decaf Earl Gray tea with cream and sugar, milk, and mango slices.

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squash soup

close-up of roasted squash on a baking sheet

squash glamor shot

In the middle of the winter when the green of our garden is just a memory, looking at the pile of winter squashes on the counter makes it real again. Butternut squash is one of just two storage crops I've managed to grow in any worthwhile quantities—the other being the garlic—and we've started the past three winters with a significant number of them taking up space in the dining room. At this point in the season the pile is smaller, but there are still squashes! It feels like a success. It also feels like a success to turn one of them into delicious food.

squash slices on a baking sheet

uncooked squash

One of my favorite ways to do that is by making roasted squash soup. It's pretty easy. Peel a squash, split it in half, and take out the seeds. Then slice it up, splash some olive oil and salt on the slices, and bake them on a cookie sheet until they're soft and browned on the edges. You can do that ahead of time. (You can also eat the delicious squash morsels right off the sheet when they come out, but not too many—or else you'll have to do another one to have enough for your soup.)

roasted squash

roasted

Then it's time to make the soup part. Chop a big onion, a couple carrots, and two-three stalks of celery. Melt a lump of butter in a stock pot and when it's hot toss in the vegetables. Cook them for a while, over not-too-high heat, stirring every once and a while. When they seem ready, toss in the roasted squash and enough chicken or turkey to cover it all up. If you have some delicious roasted-vegetable turkey stock made from the carcass of a pasture-raised bird you're all set for ingredients; if your stock is milder you'll probably want to add some salt, at least. Simmer it all together for a while.

diced onion, carrots, and celery

somewhat diced

If you have a stick blender, now's the time to put it to use. Blend everything up into a beautiful puree. If you don't, all the ingredients should be soft enough to mash with a potato masher. Don't bother with a blender—what a pain. Lumps are fine too. If it's too thick—not everybody wants to be able to stand a spoon up in their soup—add some more stock or water. Taste it. If it isn't wonderfully delicious, you can add a little maple syrup and a little cayenne pepper... but if you started with well-roasted squash and good stock you won't want to.

And that's our squash soup, beloved of adults and small children alike (the bigger children aren't quite so appreciative). There really should be a photo of the finished product, but it didn't last long enough.

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tomato soup

I made tomato soup this afternoon. I never did before. I was intimidated by the concept—like I had no idea how to even begin to turn tomatoes into soup. As it happens, it's not that hard: it's basically just regular soup without carrots or celery and with tomatoes. If it weren't for the existence of Campbells I would have figured it out years ago.

I'm not saying my tomato soup was the best ever—the kids didn't like it (in my defense, they pretty much categorically don't like soup, especially when there's also grilled cheese sandwiches available). I used some of the barbecued turkey stock Leah made from the Bernstein Thanksgiving bird, so there was a distinct smoky flavor to the end product which may be a good thing or bad depending on your tastes. And it ended up kind of thin; Katie tells me I could have thickened it with bread crumbs, which would be fine because we have lots of bread crumbs around here.

Anyway, all that is to say if you've never made tomato soup before and feel like having some, go for it. It's a great way to eat up some of those canned tomatoes you put up in the summer that you don't have any other way to eat. Wait, I'm the only person in the US who cans tomatoes and doesn't know how to make tomato soup? (or tomato sauce, for that matter)? Oh well, never mind. For reference, I based my soup loosely off this recipe, the first non-spammy result for a search for "tomato soup recipe". I might even try it again some day. But not soon; there's still plenty of this batch left.

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