Friday, March 19, 2010

Item #4: Make Cake for Dinner

Note: My kid brother turned 40 earlier this month. To celebrate, I drove the two hours to his place of business and he did my taxes for me. (You have got to love birthdays where you get the gift!) In my defense, I did take him out for some shopping and a movie. Although my brother isn't really a sweets person, I thought the occasion was special enough to warrant baking a birthday cake and taking it along for the ride. Unfortunately, I came to this conclusion late in the week, which didn't give me much time for creativity. So I went with a recipe I've been making since I was 2 years old.

When I was a teenager, my mother worked. In the summertime, my brother and I held down part-time jobs but very often did not wake up until long after my mother had gone for the day. We'd stumble into the kitchen, grab some orange juice and cereal, and sit down at the kitchen table to begin the slow process of waking up. After a few bites of Wheat Chex, I'd open my eyes a little wider and tackle "the list".

My Mom did not want to raise lazy children.
In order to be sure my brother and I would not spend our entire day watching TV or in some other teenage pursuits that would lead to a lifetime of sloth, she wrote out a "to do" list for each of us. The agreement was that the tasks had to be accomplished before she got home. Most of the time, the list read like this:
#1: Vacuum living room
#2: Empty trashcans
#3: Call dentist and make appointment for yourself

Sometimes, the list would include this:

#4: Make cake for dinner

Perhaps in your house, that instruction might be seen as a little vague. But there was never any question what cake Mom meant. It was Quick Mix Cake, baked in a bundt style pan. One of the simplest cakes ever created, it was the "go to" recipe when cake was the desired dessert, but the pantry was short on exotic ingredients.

Quick Mix Cake is ridiculously easy to make. I suggest it as a great way to introduce small children for baking. Most cake recipes divide ingredients into wet (like butter and milk) and dry (like flour and baking powder). Different mixing methods are used for wets and drys and the whole thing has to come together in the end. Not Quick Mix Cake. As the recipe below says, all you do is dump all the ingredients in a bowl and mix.

And mix.

And mix.

I'm sure whomever named Quick Mix Cake wrote for those self-published Midwestern Church Cookbooks. You know the kind you buy at the Ladies Luncheon for $10 and the proceeds go to feed children in some other country? And you can find all the recipes for every dish brought to the potluck last year? That one. The people that put these recipes together have a quirky sense of humor. The recipe titles are often cutesy or, in the case of this particular cake, ironic.

"Quick Mix Cake" is easy, but it is most definitely not "quick". In order to make everything work, the batter must be infused with air. And the only way to do that is to mix it with an electric mixer. For 20 minutes.

That last sentence is not a typo.

(For those unschooled in cake making let me pause here with some comparison data. A typical cake made with creaming method might involve 5 or maybe 10 minutes of mixing with an electric mixer. A cake mix, horrible though they are, only requires two minutes of mixing.)

My mother owned a hand mixer, which meant babysitting that bowl of batter for 20 minutes. 20 minutes is a long time to stand and do nothing more than hold a mixer for a woman as industrious as my mother. So she delegated that responsibility to her children. As far back as I could remember, my brother and I would each take 10 minute shifts, holding the mixer and occasionally scraping down the sides of the bowl. Even when we were too short to reach the counter top, my Mom would put us on a chair or let us sit on the counter top and hold the mixer. The boredom can be hand-numbing, to say the least. But the reward of the cake made it all worthwhile. Getting to lick one of the beaters wasn't a bad reward, either.

Special note: many years later, I bought myself a Kitchenaid stand mixer (and no, I'm not getting any kickbacks for using the maker's name). Quick Mix Cake is much more enjoyable to make when the mixer is doing all the work without any assistance from you, let me tell you! But you still have to have patience and wait for the entire 20 minutes.

Quick Mix Cake is a workhorse cake recipe. You can make cupcakes with it, or layer cake, or pour it into one of those shaped pans that are popular to get as gifts but kind of annoying to work with. Cooking time will need to be adjusted for smaller pans. The cake comes out as a lighter version of butter or pound cake. You can color the batter, or pour sprinkles into it before baking for a confetti look. And you can ice it with anything: chocolate, powdered sugar glaze, cinnamon streusel, or even mashed fresh strawberries. Seriously - you can do anything to this cake as long as you spend those 20 minutes.

So go ahead - give it a try on some weekday when you've got an extra 20 minutes to stand in the kitchen. Or you've got kids with arms long enough to reach the counter top.

Quick Mix Cake

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In mixing bowl, put:

2 sticks butter or margarine, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar

2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
4 eggs
1/2 cup milk
pinch salt

Beat on medium to medium/high speed for 20 minutes, scraping bowl often. Pour into ungreased bundt pan. Bake for 1 hour. Cool 10 minutes in the pan before inverting onto cooling rack.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Kitchen Pyrotechnics

Note: I've been making peanut brittle using this recipe since I was 13 years old. I first learned at Wesley United Methodist Church in Charleston, (see earlier blogs for more stories there). Peanut brittle was a big moneymaker for the United Methodist Women during their holiday craft bazaar. The ladies of the church would make the stuff for several days prior to the bazaar. This story is the year that I had to say goodbye to peanut brittle.

As has been previously recorded, my family was heavily involved in many volunteer opportunities at Wesley UMC. Specifically, my mother was a member of the United Methodist Women's group and the UMW's big fundraiser every year was the UMW Bazaar. Women made crafts, sold baked goods, and collected money for various missions and activities.

The big moneymaker for the organization was homemade peanut brittle. For several nights, the ladies of the UMW would gather in groups in the church kitchen to make pounds and pounds of peanut brittle. Of course, I tagged along.

I had two jobs: "buttering" the aluminum foil and measuring the candy into 1 pound bags. I hated the former, but loved the latter.

"Buttering" - and by the way, I use this word very loosely -- meant laying out aluminum foil on a bed of newspaper so the countertops would be protected. Then, on top of the foil, I'd smear a chunk of Crisco, usually with a paper towel. Needless to say, after several minutes of this, I'd be covered in greasy Crisco from my elbow to my fingertips. Ick. Although come to think of it, my skin was remarkably soft after these evening sessions.

My second job was terrific. The finished peanut brittle would be placed in large containers. Using gloved hands (since they were covered in Crisco), I'd use a scale and measure the large container down to 1 pound bags. The bags were then stored in a box and sold at the Bazaar. I'm not exaggerating when I say literally hundreds of pounds of peanut brittle was made and sold each year.

As an adult, like many, I struggle with being overweight. But as a 'tween', (although that term was not part of the language), I could eat anything and everything and never gain a pound. I was well on my way to being the tall person I am today so I was too busy growing up to worry about growing out.

Being a beanpole teenager, one evening I ate nearly as much as I measured. Without going into detail, I was sick for an entire night and for many years later I couldn't even look at peanut brittle without feeling nauseous. Even the smell would have me running from the room. This is the first and last time I've ever had such a bad experience with food.

But fast forward a couple of decades, the memory of a bad stomachache had faded sufficiently, and I brought out the recipe again. Mostly, I wanted to make it to give away, and I figured since I couldn't stomach the taste any longer, it was a good dessert to have around at the holidays. Happy memories of nights with those UMW women came rushing back as I sat over the pot and stirred. And, as you might guess, when I finished that first batch and it had cooled sufficiently, I had to taste it. Much to the delight of my taste buds, if not my waistline, it was terrific. Exactly as I had remembered it.

Now, I make it every year for the holidays and I share the recipe with you. Warning: it's not for the 'Fraidy Cats in the Kitchen. Enjoy.

Peanut Brittle
Making peanut brittle isn't that difficult to do. All you really need is an accurate candy thermometer, a good sized pot with a handle on it, and the ability to move fast -- really fast -- when it's all done.

Before beginning, spread several layers of newspaper along the countertop, flat. Be sure you pick countertop near your stove, as you're going to be carrying hot liquid candy from the stove to this spot, and you won't want to go very far. Cover newspaper with aluminum foil. I use two strips, approximately 2 1/2 feel in length, folded together to make one large piece. The goal is to make sure all the brittle gets onto the foil.

I STRONGLY suggest you use the "non-stick" brand. I use Reynolds. Be sure you have the non-stick side facing up, flat on the counter. If you prefer, use regular aluminum foil but coat it with butter or Crisco, to prevent sticking. No one wants peanut brittle with aluminum foil stuck in it. (Admit it: your teeth are cringing at just the thought).

When you're finished prepping the countertop, measure out 1 tsp. vanilla into a small container and 2 tsp. baking soda in another small table. Set aside, near stovetop.

Then, in a large pot on the stove, mix:
3 cups white sugar
1 cup white corn syrup
1 tsp. salt
1/3 cup of water
Turn on burner at high heat, placing candy thermometer in mixture. Stir frequently to prevent burning and to help sugar dissolve.

When the candy thermometer reads 240-degrees, add 1 pound of peanuts -- roasted and salted -- to the pot. Stir constantly until mixture heats up and thermometer reads 300-degrees.

Once desired heat is reached, quickly add vanilla then baking powder to mixture. It will bubble up significantly so be brave, and hang onto the handle of the pot. Stir very quickly so all ingredients are mixed thoroughly. Then move pot from stove and dump liquid brittle onto prepared foil.

To make the same brittle as the Wesley UMW ladies, wait a minute or two and then "pull" the brittle gently by the edges to make it thin. You can use a table knife to aid in this effort. Personally, I like thick peanut brittle and I skip this step completely.

Once cool, break up the brittle in pieces by bashing it with something heavy - I use the back of a large soup ladle. Be firm but gentle. Too hard, and the brittle will fly all over the kitchen. Will keep in an airtight container in a cool dry place for a couple of weeks.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Platinum Weddings in an Aluminum Foil Town

Note: I got an e-mail from an old friend and a new Babe in the Kitchen client, Jenny C. She ordered 150 cream cheese butter mints. I asked her, "What color would you like them to be?" and she replied, "Since it's my parents' golden wedding anniversary, could I have gold?" As I read her e-mail, I groaned. Coloring cream cheese butter mints is a bit of an art, you see...

I grew up in a small Central Illinois community which you could call "rural." My family belonged to Wesley United Methodist Church, the largest Protestant church in town. Like all good families of faith who find themselves living in the Bible belt, the local church was not just a place for Sunday morning worship, but also our social hub. So all of us spent a lot of time at Wesley, volunteering for this or that.

When I was in junior high, my Mom was the "Wedding Coordinator" for the church - a job that was very different than the church wedding coordinators of today. Back then (the early 1980's), the "Wedding Coordinator" at Wesley headed up a committee of United Methodist Women who would attend every wedding and set up and put back anything the happy couple (or the bride's mother) wanted to use. Aisle runners, candelabras, punch bowls, etc. Basically, being "Wedding Coordinator" meant you showed up early, unlocked the church, and then stayed through the reception, having cleaned and locked everything back up before you went home.

Looking back, I'm sure my Mom got tired of giving up Saturdays for so many brides. But I got to come along and I LOVED being there. I got to stand in the back, listening to families bicker. I watched dozens of brides walk through the hallway on dad's arm on the way to the sanctuary. Of course, I was guaranteed a piece of wedding cake which was mostly the reason I went. These weddings were the first place I'd seen cream cheese butter mints, mostly called "buttermints".

Back in those days, one got married in a church and had a reception in the same building. There were no sit-down dinners, DJ's, clinking glasses or - worst of all - Chicken Dances. It was truly a simpler time. After the bride and groom said "I do" and walked back down the aisle, they and their guests would leave the sanctuary and head immediately into the church parlor for the reception. They didn't have a choice - the only other option was to go back to a relative's home for food and very few wanted to deal with that. There were no reception halls or party barns, so everyone stayed put in the church.

Without exception, all wedding receptions held at Wesley UMC during my junior high years had exactly the same menu: Wedding cake, mixed nuts, mints, punch, and coffee.

That's it.

But within that limited menu, there was some allowance for creativity. The cake, of course, was different from bride to bride and someday I may share those stories. Mints were also a source of personal interpretation. If the bride or her family had no talent in the kitchen - and no sense to find any - she'd bring a large box of those little pastel colored mints you find at restaurants. They have a chalky texture and will survive for years without decomposing, I'm sure. But if the bride had a little more good taste, buttermints are served.

Making a buttermint is easy. It has minimal ingredients and no baking is required. Customarily, a few weeks before the wedding the bride's mother/aunt/cousin would gather friends and family into one kitchen and churn out buttermints by the dozen. I'm sure it made the task of making the mints go by much more quickly and enjoyably than doing it solo.

An uncolored mint is perfectly white, the color of cream cheese. But anyone can make a white mint. Only a truly talented person can make a mint that's the same shade as the bridesmaid's dresses. The absolute hallmark of a platinum wedding at that time was to serve buttermints that matched the dresses, flowers and tablecloths. To successfully color match meant that every last detail had been well thought out and well executed.
Hey- it may have been a small town with small town weddings, but we had standards.

Some shades were easier to match than others. Blue, light yellow, mint green and pink were all easy. Remember, the only coloring most people had access to was the stuff you buy at the grocery store. Other colors took mixing and were harder to match. The hardest color of all was peach. More often than not, the mint turned out orange or pink. I attended one wedding where the mints were in multiple shades of orange or pink - clearly, the mint makers had tried several concotions in their quest for the valued peach color but to no avail. I only remember one wedding where the mints came out the right shade of peach. EVERYONE talked about it as though a major culinary prize had been won.

As the years rolled on, I moved to the big city of Columbus where wedding receptions are generally grand affairs and you can't find a buttermint anywhere. Several years ago on a whim I dug up a recipe and bought a rose candy mold and started making them. Generally, mine are white. White is simple, elegant, and goes with any table decor (or bridesmaid's dress). That's what I tell myself. But the real story is that I'm not a master mint colorist. I get by, but you won't see me making peach buttermints anytime soon. Or gold, which is another hard color in spite of it being perfect for Jenny's parent's anniversary. Fortunately for me, Jenny is a great person and an understanding client and she's letting me deliver light yellow to her instead.

Cream Cheese Buttermints

Note: You will need a rubber mint mold for these. You can find them at most candy supply places or on-line. I have not asked the health department what they think about this recipe. I'm sure there's a problem keeping a dairy-based food out on a countertop to dry, so if you're nervous about it put the finished mints on cookie sheets and dry in the fridge. (I do this for clients, but not myself).

In mixing bowl, combine:
  • 3 oz. cream cheese
  • 1 TBS butter, softened
  • 3 Cups powdered sugar
  • 2 drops peppermint oil
  • coloring, opt.
Use electric mixer to combine - go slowly at first or the sugar will spray everywhere. When combined it should look like Play-Doh.

Put dough in container with lid and refrigerate for a couple of hours.

Before assembling, line a countertop with wax paper or parchment paper. Put nearly a cup of granulated sugar in a small bowl (I use a soup bowl). Coat the inside of the mint mold in sugar. To assemble, break off a small, marble-sized piece of dough and roll between hands to form a sphere. Place sphere in the bowl with the sugar, and roll to coat. Once granulated sugar is on sphere, push sphere into mold, filling out to edges. Turn mold over and pop out sphere, which should now be shaped like the mold design. Place finished mint on the wax/parchment paper. Repeat until you're out of dough.

Let mints sit out for at least 6 hours or overnight to dry. Mints are best stored in a sealed container in the freezer until ready to use. Simply bring to room temperature and enjoy.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

How to Not Make Spackle: A Mother's Day Story

Note: My mother was an amazing cook. She was not professionally trained, nor did she have at her disposal a host of Whole Foods and Sur La Tables to help her out. But she prepared great-tasting food for our family and even better tasting dessert. But every so often, even the best cooks have an off day.

Rare was the dinner/evening meal when my family didn't have dessert. I come from a long line of bakers and cooks who believed wholeheartedly a meal is not a meal without a dessert option (or two).

A dessert, by definition, did not have to be baked. Since our house in Southern Illinois did not have air conditioning, quite often the summer desserts were ice cream or at least based on ice cream.

On a particularly hot evening, when I was probably 12 or 13 years old, Mom and I found ourselves in the kitchen hunting up dessert. What we had was a half-gallon container of vanilla ice cream. Plain. Boring. Vanilla ice cream.

Being a teenager (or nearly), I of course went into complaint mode: "That's IT?? No strawberries, no hot fudge sauce?" My mother opened the cupboards but there wasn't much there that inspired creativity. Normally, when confronted with plain vanilla ice cream, my Mother would whip up a batch of homemade hot fudge sauce, a staple recipe in our home. But we were out of some key ingredient for that and had to keep looking. Eventually, Mom found a bag of puffed marshmallows - the kind we kept on hand to make S'mores on nights when we grilled outside.

Knowing my fondness for all things marshmallow, my Mom proposed that she and I set out to make marshmallow topping. We had no recipe and no experience. In short, we had no clue. But experimenting in the kitchen is what it's all about so we were undaunted in our desire to make what could easily be purchased at the store. Seriously, how hard could it be???

We put a small pan on the stove, lit a low flame underneath, and dumped half the bag of marshmallows into it. Then we waited, excited by our creation. Rather quickly, the marshmallows melted and it was my job to stir. Things were looking pretty good but we realized the marshmallows could not be served hot and they would in all likelihood re-solidify when cooled, so Mom threw some butter in the pot and I continued to stir.

Soon, the mixture resembled the marshmallow topping one can buy at any grocery store. We were thrilled. Turning off the stove, we set the mixture aside and got out the bowls. The other members of my family hate marshmallow, so we served them the plain ice cream first, which allowed the marshmallow/butter mixture to cool. And harden. And begin to resemble something like, well, Spackle. You know, the stuff you use to when you hang drywall?

Our enthusiasm waned, but did not disappear. My Mom grabbed a regular soup spoon and scooped some of the marshmallow mixture out of the pot. It required some effort on her part before she was able to place a tablespoon's worth of the goo into an ice cream bowl.

So I tried, and learned firsthand that moving the goo out of the pot required a CONSIDERABLE amount of effort the more it cooled. By the time we dumped a healthy scoop of ice cream on it, the mixture was hardening like newly molded plastic. The cold ice cream cemented it completely to the point where we could pick it up and hold it like an object, rather than as something to be eaten.

Needless to say, we threw the pot in a sink of very hot water (the only thing to melt the goo) and ate the ice cream plain. While we had a rather dull dessert that night, we had gained a story my Mother and I would share for years.

This recipe is for the moms out there who are willing to try to make a bowl of ice cream more interesting on a hot summer day. Happy Mother's Day.

Hot Fudge Sauce
In a pot on the stove over low heat, combine:
  • 4 oz. cooking chocolate (semi-sweet or unsweetened)
  • 2 cups confectioner's sugar
  • One 5 oz. can of evaporated milk
Stir constantly to remove lumps from sugar. When all is combined thoroughly, add 3 TBS butter or margarine. When that is fully incorporated, add 1/8 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp. vanilla. Mix and serve immediately.

The sauce will keep in a plastic container in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks, but will harden a bit. To soften, simply re-heat on stove (you may need to add a little milk) or scoop a generous helping in the bottom of an ice cream bowl, microwave on medium power until sauce is melty, and scoop ice cream on top for an inverted sundae.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

My Affair With Foodcoloring

Note: It's important to know that I'm the oldest of three children and that, for a time, my "baby" sister (12 years my junior) and I lived together while she was in high school. Being the elder of the two, and in a quasi-parent role, I was definitely uncool - at least to my sister. Every once in awhile, I did what every oldest sibling does: I set out to drive her crazy and therefore prove my uncoolness. This is one such story.

I'm a sucker for color, as the photo of the recently iced cookie I just made proves. Purple has been my favorite for awhile, but almost anything bright will catch my attention. I love bright flowers, bright clothing, bright paint on the walls of my house. But many of my favorite standard desserts are distinctly lacking in the color department.

Fortunately, there's food coloring.

Recently, I've adopted food gels from Wilton, which are available on-line and at most craft/baking stores. They come in a wide range of colors for anything I might need. I was watching "Good Eats" the other day and saw Alton Brown talk about powdered coloring and I need to check that out, but as of this posting have not.

But "back in the day" I only used the liquid kind you found in the grocery store. Red, yellow, green, blue. Occasionally, I mixed them to make something else. But mostly, I just stuck to the four basics. My goal was to hide it in unexpected places.

For example, Quick Mix Cake. This cake has been a family staple for decades. It's standard butter/yellow cake that's ridiculously easy to make and is perfect for teaching children how to bake. All you need is a "bundt" style pan and a mixer - hand or counter top - and lots of patience. I believe it's the first cake I learned how to make.

While delicious, it comes out of the oven a basic butter yellow. Nothing exciting about the color at all. Icing is definitely required to add pizzaz. But why stop with icing when you can add a little food coloring and you've got yourself an eye-catching dessert inside AND out.

When my sister was 15, she and I lived together and this cake became a regular of ours. But she liked it AS IT WAS - no color. Just plain, by-the-book butter color for her, if you please. I, of course, wasn't going for that.

So I'd make the batter and at the last second, add a few drops of food color. The batter would turn a lovely shade of light green, pale blue, or light pink. My sister would declare the finished product inedible (although I don't remember her actually NOT eating it) and refuse to let me serve it to her friends. It actually got to the point where she'd stand next to me, watching me pour the batter into the pan and put it in the oven just so I wouldn't add the food coloring.

I am not making this up.

But I am not so easily undone, especially in the kitchen. So while she wasn't really paying attention, I'd dump half the batter in the pan, smooth it even, dribble some food coloring directly onto the batter, and then put the remaining batter on top. A quick "swish" of a regular butter knife through the batter would disperse a swirl of color throughout the interior, without showing up on the exterior.

Of course, the color came through when the cake was cut. But by then it was too late and I had once again "ruined" another perfectly good dessert for my sister. And it made me laugh - every time.

So to all you elder siblings, parents and bakers out there I challenge you: Add color to your food and watch what happens.

RECIPE: Quick Mix Cake

Preheat oven to 350-degrees F
Grease bundt-style cake pan and set aside

In mixing bowl, add:
  • 2 sticks butter or margarine
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • pinch salt
  • food coloring, optional
Mix on low speed (hand-held mixer or counter top stand mixer) until all ingredients are incorporated.

Adjust mixer to medium/medium-high speed and mix for 20 minutes. Do not skimp on the time, or the cake won't work. Scrape sides of bowl occasionally.

Add optional food coloring.

Pour into prepared pan and bake in oven for 1 hour, or until toothpick inserted near middle comes out clean.

Cool for 5 minutes in pan, then turn upside down onto cooling rack. Allow to cool completely before icing/serving.

Variations: Makes for good cupcakes or layer cakes. Simply adjust the cooking time down and keep your eye on the cake.

Friday, April 24, 2009

My first test post

Don't expect much from this first post. I'm merely testing to see what it all looks like and how it all works. Stay tuned....