Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Baking with Julia

One of my hobbies is reading cookbooks, I read them like others read novels.Baking with Julia is an excellent cookbook, featuring recipes from the popular PBS television series of the same name, where Julia Child hosted many talented chefs who baked beautiful, delicious recipes for our weekly viewing pleasure. (The series remains popular and is still broadcast on various PBS stations throughout the country.) While this book is filled with many scrumptious breads, cakes, and sweet desserts, it also includes several savory pastries as well.

Since my borrowed copy of the cookbook is due back at my local public library at the end of this week, today I baked with Julia. I started with a Tourte Milanese, followed by an Alsatian Onion Tart, both of which were really very good. The Tourte Milanese is a delicious layering of herbed eggs, spinach, roasted red peppers (I added peppers throughout the tourte), swiss cheese, and smoked ham. It is also a versatile dish, appropriate for casual get togethers or for a more formal dinner. The Alsatian Onion Tart is sweet and warm, and flavored with sauteed bacon (I also added some thyme to mine). It's already Wednesday and I have more recipes to make before returning this book. Perhaps I should renew my checkout and so I can domore baking with Julia.

Friday, May 26, 2006

A Cake to Celebrate!

As you finalize plans for your Memorial Day weekend celebration, consider baking this oh-so-delicious Strawberry Cream Cake for your dessert. Every forkful of this cake holds absolute bliss! In the current issue of Cook's Illustrated, the standard recipe for this cake has been revised, transforming it into a truly decadent and delicious dessert that is not at all soggy (no bowls required!). You'll find the recipe details in my latest contribution to Paper Palate and the Well Fed Network. This cake is destined to be the star of your dessert table!

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Another Coffee Break

I-heart-coffee! Always have; always will. Repeatedly, I have threatened to grow my own coffee plants, but have yet to attempt this most daunting endeavor. Simply read through the archives of this site and you'll find numerous posts devoted to my lifelong obsession. I have various machines, gadgets, and accessories, all designed to produce the perfect cup of coffee or coffee drink, depending on the occasion. And, oh, the endless possibilities to incorporate coffee into cooking and baking...

As with my previous entry posted in honor of the beloved bean, this very simple recipe for Espresso Biscuits also comes from Martha. These biscuits are so incredibly rich, they seem to melt in your mouth, as soon as you bite into them. (I added a Mocha Buttercream filling to create the ultimate chocolate-coffee sandwich cookie and generously dusted them with cocoa powder, enhancing their decadence.)

Espresso Biscuits
(recipe courtesy of

1 1/2 c. all purpose flour
1/2 c. Dutch processed cocoa powder
1 tablespoon finely ground espresso beans
1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 c. confectioners sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350° with two racks spaced evenly apart. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Sift together flour, cocoa, and espresso beans; set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine butter, confectioners’ sugar, and vanilla until creamy, 3 to 4 minutes. Gradually beat the flour mixture into the butter mixture, scraping down sides of bowl twice.

Roll 2 1/2 tablespoons of dough between the palms of your hand to form a ball. Place on prepared baking sheet; repeat with remaining batter, spacing cookies 2 inches apart. Using a dinner fork, press tines into dough, and gently press into biscuit shape. Bake biscuits just until firm to the touch, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Makes 16.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Let him eat cake!

My husband's thirtieth birthday was this past Wednesday. A milestone birthday. Unfortunately, last year, his birthday was overshadowed because it fell on the same day as my father's funeral. However, it was during my father's wake last May, that my husband discovered an old southern tradition: chocolate layer cake. These layer cakes are not simply two, three, or even four layers, on the contrary, these cakes start at seven and go high into the double digits (especially if there is contest and competition involved)!
Yes, these chocolate layer cakes, often resembling very tall stacks of chocolate covered pancakes, are tradition in the American South. Whenever there is a gathering of honor, you will find at least one, if not several, of these cakes on the table. The cake that my husband fell in love with was in honor of my father. These cakes attend wakes, weddings, family reunions, church socials, community fundraisers, baby and bridal showers, housewarmings, and parties for special anniversaries and birthdays. These multi-layered cakes often represent a celebration of life, whether it's the birth of new life, or a life lived long that has come to rest. Each layer is symbolic of so much personal history, of all that is this messy stuff of life.

For his birthday, Daniel declared that he wanted a seven layer chocolate cake, like the one he ate heartily of, during my father's wake. And so, I spent some time in the kitchen, creating layers of love for my husband's first personal chocolate layer cake. I did not stop at seven, but ended up at eleven. I like the irreverence of eleven. The oddest of numbers to reflect the personality of the baker! (An odd number with chocolate syrup drizzled over this first slice.)

As time goes on, taking us to more milestones, many additional layers will be baked to honor our personal history together.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Mighty Muffins

I recently sampled the recipe for these delicious Chocolate Chip Muffins for the Paper Palate and the Well Fed Network. These muffins are early morning comfort food at its best. The warmth of the sweet cake combined with gooey chocolate is perfect with a hot cup of coffee or tea. 

Friday, May 12, 2006

"Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come." --W. H. Auden

This Mother's Day, I'm going to see my Father. My father who died one year ago, at 11:20 AM, May 14th. This will be my first visit to his grave, since his interment. A year later, and it is going to be emotionally difficult, beyond words. This first year has been one of many painful anniversaries, reminders of times when he was still here with us. After this, there will be no more memories of what we were doing together the year before.

Grief is a physical ailment, without cure. At times, my grief seems unbearable, its pain weighing heavily on my chest. It is a perpetual nausea, which I struggle to keep down, but often, without warning, it comes to surface, again and again. Despite well intentioned, but mistaken predictions, my grief has not subsided. But prolonged mourning is modernly frowned upon. And so, concealing it becomes a learned behavior, where mourning is something done within. At least I am cautious, making sure to never tell others grieving, that it will become easier with time, as I know it does not. (This is where I could literally write thousands of words about my personal horrors of grief and mourning, but instead, I digress.)

After returning home from my father's funeral, I went to work in Funeral Service and became a student of Mortuary Science. I felt the need to be a quiet, present servant to others in their respective times of need. By becoming very close with death, I could protect my grief. And I learnedexactly what took place within my father's dying body, organ by organ, cell by cell, day by day, minutes, seconds, the end. (I needed to know what most others would not want to know, concerning all of the processes associated with death, dying, and and 'aftercare'). But by the end of the year, the work and school schedules combined with long commutes, often with little or no sleep, overwhelmed me, and my already fragile personal health became further compromised. I was spent.

I did not return to my former long time occupation within the public library system, nor did I return to funeral service. Instead, I retired to assume the role of a traditional housewife. I rediscovered myself, in the kitchen. The kitchen has since become my sanctuary, a sacred place of refuge. My father would be proud of his reinvented daughter, finally realizing what is truly important in life, and what is not. He would be proud of what I've become in my turning away from all that I had become before.

An archived newsletter from The Friends of the General Cemetery, in Sheffield, England, contains a brief discussion of the tradition of providing funeral biscuits for distribution among mourners, and includes a historical recipe. These biscuits (known by a variety of names) were sometimes served during funeral ceremonies, while other times, served during wakes and interments. I did some additional research and found limited information regarding funeral biscuits from various sources (including some validation from Janet at The Old Foodie and Hazel at Londonist).

Two of the recipes found were very similar, comprised literally of just eggs, flour, and sugar:

W. Staveley's New Whole Art of Confectionary published in Chesterfield in 1816, FUNERAL BISCUITS: Take twenty-four eggs, three pounds of flour, and three pounds of lump sugar grated, which will make forty eight finger biscuits for a funeral.

Another, from Girl's Own Paper (c.1905), FUNERAL BISCUITS: Take sixteen eggs, three pounds of flour, three pounds of lump sugar grated, mix, and form into forty-eight fingers.

However, when I baked a very small batch of these, I found them to be not bad, but not all that good, either. But when I remembered my beloved ladyfingers seem to be a close descendant of these basic recipes, I happily accepted the rather primitive results.

When I baked this recipe (c.19th century) (bottom right corner of page), provided by The Friends of the General Cemetery in Sheffield, I was very pleased with the results:
(For 50 cakes)

3 kilos of flour
2 kilos of fine sugar
2.5 kilos of butter
2 teaspoons of baking powder
1/4 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
4 teaspoons of caraway seeds

Mix these ingredients together, weigh out 5 ounces per cake on a greased sheet. Press the stamp (the stamp normally had an elaborate pattern with a heart in the middle) into each cake. Bake in moderate oven until pale brown. (I made a considerably smaller batch, baking at 350° for approximately 7-8 minutes and used a crucifix for the stamp.)

On my journey a thousand miles back to my father's ending, it will be my honor to bring these home-baked funeral biscuits to his grave.

Tuesday, May 9, 2006

In the Spirit of Friendship

Sources of strength originate ubiquitously, coming simultaneously, from everywhere and nowhere. Often our strength is drawn from the usual connections of family and friends; strength gained from ordinary places. But sometimes, we discover strength from being in the extraordinary place of the spiritual. Extraordinary strength defines those moments of clarity when you find out what you can and will do in times of crisis. Extraordinary strength represents extraordinary faith. This may seem odd, but it seems to me that extraordinary strength is easier to accept than ordinary strength. Ordinary strength requires more conscious efforts. Making it to the ends of days that are barely tolerable, without just cause or explanation; hard days that are not easily defined. Hibernation days that hinder any venture from domestic sanctuary.

I have a friend, who, at the moment, could use some ordinary strength from her friends and loved ones. Unfortunately, she is literally thousands of miles away from many who could be of personal comfort to her. She is going to need to rely on her extraordinary inner strength. Hibernation days will come often, but her resilience will see her through to better days filled with peace and productivity.

In honor of the strength found in friendship, I sincerely offer my personal, yet symbolic support with a small batch of Lemon Lavender Cookies, recipe courtesy of Red Rock Farms.

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup sugar
1 tbsp organic lavender buds
1 1/2 cups of flour
2 tsps pure vanilla extract
1 tsp pure lemon extract
sugar to sprinkle

Grind lavender and sugar together in a spare coffee grinder. Don't use your everyday coffee grinder. Mix butter and sugar mixture together until fluffy. Add vanilla and lemon extracts and mix thoroughly. Add flour and mix well. Form into a ball and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate to chill for 15 minutes. Roll out between two pieces of wax paper and cut with biscuit cutter. Sprinkle with purple sugar. Bake 375 degree F. for 7-10 minutes depending on size of cookie. Let cool for 5 mins then transfer to wire rack. Store in an airtight tin.

Saturday, May 6, 2006

A Soup to Celebrate!

With a few common pantry items and some very quick and easy preparation, you can serve a delicious, flavorful black bean soup that tastes as if it has been slow-simmering for hours! This soup is embarrassingly simple and will result in much praise for the chef! (Especially when served in tortilla bowls with various garnishes...)

Consider adding an extra side to your Cinco de Mayo party buffet, with this recipe for, "Chompy Chomp Black Bean Soup," that I sampled from this week's Chicago Tribune for the Paper Palate and the Well Fed Network.

Until we meet for coffee,

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

"Perfect Pavlova"

Pavlova is a dessert that is perfect for any occasion! I recently sampled arecipe for a very rich and delicious Chocolate Pavlova, from Gale Gand, featured in the current issue of Midwest Living, for the Paper Palate and theWell Fed Network. This recipe produces a decadent dessert that is truly impossible to resist...

Some soup in the Spring

Just as so many other food enthusiasts have already done, I am currently reading, My Life in France. Since Julia writes about so many wonderful foods in this happy book, I'm not sure exactly why reading it has stirred such a strong personal desire for soup. But while in the bistro spirit, I decided to make several small batches of homemade savory soups. I started with a Cream of Broccoli, then added French Onion and Cream of Asparagus. All three soups were made using the common familiar recipes, with only slight personal variations.

Homemade soups are great, because they allow us to rid our cupboards, freezers, and refrigerators of all sorts of leftover bits and bobs. When the weather is cold, soups provide comforting warmth. Even when it's not cold outside, a simple soup often nourishes as a one-pot meal.

Until we meet for coffee,