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.