Wednesday, March 30, 2011

You'll-Never-Buy-A-Mix-Again Brownies

Never is a very bold statement. In general, I don't like the word never. In my head, never sounds like the premature death of possibility--or an easy excuse. As in: "I will never lose weight." Or "I will never be able to travel outside of the continental United States."

Clearly, it's easier for some people to realize certain dreams than it is for others.  It's easier for an ectomorphic teenage cross-country runner to get in shape and lose weight than it is for a sedentary, middle-aged office worker. Easier for someone with a trust fund to jump on a plane to Santorini. But often when people say, 'I never,' what they really mean is 'I am personally scared that this goal will take a great deal of hard work that I'm not willing to invest in this objective.'

However, I am willing to acknowledge that there are some 'nevers' in my life:

1. I will never become an Olympic-level figure skater or gymnast (even a rhythmic gymnast, much as I loved 
twirling those little streamers in third grade).
2. I will never buy eight-tracks for my 2XL again.
3. I will never make a 'mix tape' for a friend again.
4. I will never buy Aqua Net again.
5. I will never go to the Soviet Union again, because the country doesn't exist anymore.

When I was fifteen, I was chosen to be a 'Friendship Ambassador' to the Soviet Union. This was during the waning days of glasnot and perestroika. The idea of 'never' was being challenged daily--as in the Berlin Wall was never supposed to come down. I traveled through the Soviet Union for three weeks--Russia and Belorus--and had the surreal experience of hearing, just after leaving 'White Russia' that the nation had declared itself independent.

Some memories of my journey mark me as a foreigner traveling in Russia. I saw the waxy corpse in Lenin's tomb, preserved with a kind of a saintly reverence. I recall being asked to say a few words at a memorial for some of the dead Soviet soldiers of World War II. I remember smoking unfiltered cigarettes and drinking vodka on a homestay with a Russian family over cheap caviar served on crisps and sour cream.  (Bless my sturdier teenager constitution!) I remember hearing a lecture from a man who had survived the Great Patriotic War, and navigating the complicated procedures of shopping in Russia (which involved waiting in several lines simply to buy a box of shortbread).

I also remember, however, feeling incredibly isolated from the other American kids on the trip. I had some stupid dreams, having watched Doctor Zhivago way too many times and read way too much Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, that this was a Great Experience. Clearly the real point of it all was to have something cool to put on the college resume, and to have unsupervised sex. Which most of the kids were doing, given that they spent quite a bit of time trying to skip out of required day trips and events to either canoodle with their bf or gf of the day, or cry on the shoulder of a friend because bf or gf was cheating. I wasn't above the college resume or the sex thing, of course. But the only guy interested in touching me at the time was a gypsy boy who tried to pickpocket me and steal my cassette player.

I was quite snotty about how little my fellow 'ambassadors' seemed to care about the world around them. But really, we had all caught the same, obsessive disease so common amongst teenagers. They were obsessed with themselves, and so was I--obsessed with how much I was 'not like' other people.

I returned, part of me exhausted and feeling as if I had experienced something monumental, the other part of me feeling lonely and estranged from people my age. However, after waiting nine hours in a Moscow airport, mercifully not held up in customs when one girl in the delegation tried to smuggle several Russian soldier's uniforms (traded for Levis), I suppose I should have been grateful for small favors...

Speaking of which, given the stringency with which I apply the word 'never'--you should make these brownies. They are made with typical 'pantry staple' ingredients, and they don't even require two different kinds of chocolate to put together. I know some people have a fondness for the box taste but these are so easy it's almost not worth going to the store to pick up the Duncan Heinz. They're also pretty much close to 'idiot proof'--I've made them with white whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, even brown rather than the specified granulated sugar, and they disappear instantaneously whenever I bring them over someone's house or to a party. The following recipe is how I usually make them.
Easy Cocoa Brownies

Ingredients

1 2/3 cup organic white sugar (I used Florida's Crystals)
3/4 cup melted butter
2 tablespoons room temperature water
2 large eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons real vanilla extract
1 1/3 cup white whole wheat flour
3/4 cup Hershey's Special Dark cocoa powder (unsweetened)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
(Optional) 1/4 sea salt to sprinkle on top of the brownies


Procedure

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Line an 8X8 pan with foil, allowing some to hang over both sides for easy removal.
2. Mix sugar,  butter, water, eggs, and vanilla extract in one bowl. Sift flour, coca, baking powder, and 1/4 teaspoon sea salt in another bowl and fold into the wet ingredients.
3. Pour into the pan (batter will be fairly thick). Sprinkle sea salt on top of the brownies and run a butter knife through the mixture to incorporate the extra salt slightly into the batter.
4. Bake for 20-25 minutes.
5. Cool for an hour and refrigerate for at least another hour--preferably overnight--to make brownies easier to cut.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Cashew Butter Cookies


Cooking is a competitive activity. Yes, there is a veneer of niceness that pervades the foodie blog-o-sphere. But it's fairly obvious that every foodie is in some sort of competition, even if it's a competition that only exists within the cook's own mind.

For some bloggers, the competitive aspect of cooking and writing about food is very formal: it entails real world bake-offs and online cooking competitions. For others, the competition is more subtle, and involves their personal struggles to create the most decadent ("deep fried cheesecake")/kid-friendly ("dinosaur-shaped mini-meatloaves" /fastest ("thirty minutes or less")/sustainable ("all bought at my farmer's market")/most vegan ("yummy egg replacer brownies")/ most vegan-unfriendly (I'm thinking of you, David Chang) meal they can possibly create.

Speaking as someone who is pretty terrible at every formal competitive activity she enters, I'd have to say that I think noncompetitive hobbies don't exist. I spent the last yoga class mostly in 'child's pose' --for non-yogis, that is the 'I suck because I can't possibly do what the other people in class are doing pose'-- reflecting on how much yoga is a competitive noncompetitive activity. True, yogis tend to use rhetoric  like 'we're all on the same journey' versus cursing and calling people wussies for not going out and murdering the other team. (Although perhaps there is a Vince Lombardi of yoga, somewhere). But it's pretty obvious when someone is popping a scorpion handstand and you're not, and all of the 'good people' are getting 'adjusted' that there is a competitive nature to what is actually a very acrobatic art, even if there is a greater emphasis on breathing than say, trapeze work.

But competition isn't necessarily bad. The hope that I can someday, be good at something, keeps me disciplined--and sitting at the computer--trying to better myself as a writer and to challenge my fears and yes, 'improve' even at things like horseback riding, at which I have no talent. If it wasn't for the fact that I want to compete, if only with myself, I'd still be in bed right now.

So, that being said, I'm pretty damn proud that I made these cookies in ten minutes or less. The actual 'wait time' is a bit longer, since the dough needs to be chilled.  But the spoon-in-the dough mixing and fixing time is shorter in duration than the meal-to-table turnaround of a certain famous food celebrity.  Yeah, Rachel, I'm lookin' at you. Plus, these simple cookies are made with cashew butter, which gives them an oh-so-much more elegant appeal. Because you know there's a difference between the guests you offer peanuts and the guests you try to impress with cashews.

Fast Cashew Butter Cookies

This makes a small batch of 12 medium-sized cookies--perfect for snacking or afterschool


Ingredients

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
1 cup of turbinado  OR 1/2 cup white granulated sugar and 1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 beaten, room temperature egg
1 1/4 cup white whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 pinch of sea salt
 
Procedure

1. Preheat the oven to 375F.  Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
2 Make sure the butter is room temperature. Either leave it out for at least an hour, or soften in the microwave, heating the stick for 10 seconds at a time until it's soft, but not liquid.  Of course, if you're European and never refrigerate your butter or eggs, you're reading this and wondering what is she talking about.  Or trying to convert all of the standard measurements into the metric system.
3. Cream the butter, cashew butter, and sugar. Stir in the beaten egg.
4. Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together in a bowl.  Add slowly to the creamed mixture. Chill dough for an hour.
4. Roll the chilled dough into golf-ball sized spheres.  Make a crisscross pattern on the top, much like you would with a peanut butter cookie. Sprinkle lightly with more sea salt if desired.  Bake for 12-15 minutes, until slightly brown at the crisscrosses but not at the edges.  Remove from oven and cool.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Lemon ginger British flapjacks

The very first day I spent in England, I threw my suitcase onto the stained mattress of the YMCA bed  where I would lay my head for the next few months and looked around for a place to eat. 

At a local pub, I ordered a ‘vegetarian fry up’ and was served a very tasty buttery egg, beans, and a strange, wrinkled stewed tomato. I opened up the Sunday edition of the Independent, which I had bought to entertain myself while I read. 


On the front of the newspaper's magazine section there was a picture of a scantily-clad redhead in a pale white undershirt and boy shorts. I thought little of it until I skimmed the article within: it was about Charlie Dimmock, a British woman who had a gardening show and had a huge following because of the fact she knew so much about plants and wore no bra while stomping about  mulching roses.


The idea that the British could find soil fertilization and composting ‘hawt’ was a rude awakening about how much I needed to learn to culturally acclimate to the nation.

Although I still find the naughty garden show idea too foreign to fully comprehend, I did develop a fondness for many other British institutions, including good curry, cheap classical theater and flapjacks. 

Another British passion that continued to elude me, however, was tea. Even as a child, I would have play tea parties with cocoa and Ovaltine, rather than the nasty stuff that came in Lipton bags. I began drinking real coffee at fourteen.  I couldn’t fathom how, despite the penetration of Starbucks into the English Midlands, my British friends would have cupboards full of different sorts of tea and a tiny little container of Nescafe for friends who wanted ‘coffee.’

Small vent:
Nescafe=Coffee
INCORRECT

Anyway, although I haven’t  developed an appreciation even for good tea, despite the admitted beauty of teacups and a love of Alice in Wonderland,  I have to say that this version of the British oat cookie known as the flapjack is one of my favorites, and it uses all of the classic flavors of tea with great panache—ginger, lemon, and sugar.  It would be lovely to serve at a tea party or a garden party, now that the weather is breaking in the Northeast, and spring is on the horizon. But sorry Charlie, I’m keeping my darling buds of May (to quote the Bard) carefully fenced in.

Ingredients

2 cups of quick rolled oats
1 /4 cup diced candied ginger
1 /2 cup golden raisins
1 pinch salt
1 stick (1/ 2 cup) of Earth Balance (or butter, for a non-vegan version)
3 tablespoons of Lyle’s Golden Syrup (or a substitute)
1 /2 cup brown sugar
The juice of one lemon

Procedure
  1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Line a 8x8 or 9x9 round or square pan with parchment
  2. Sift the oats, raisins, ginger and salt in a bowl
  3. Melt the butter, syrup, sugar, and lemon juice together. Stir in the oat mixture. Remove from the heat.
  4. Pour and smooth into the prepared pan. Bake for 25 minutes until just bubbling. Remove from the oven. Cool for approximately one half hour.  When the mixture is still warm, score into 8-12 servings.  Cut when hardened.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Low calorie, vegan 'health' quick bread



Last night, I was reading As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto. The book is a collection of the letters exchanged between  Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, the latter of whom was the wife and personal ‘secretary’ of Bernard DeVoto. DeVoto was a liberal newspaper columnist and Child wrote to him in appreciation of a brief rant he'd penned on the dullness of American kitchen knives.  Avis responded, and the two women exchanged letters for many years. The book overlaps with the time frame of My Life in France, but also stretches beyond it, and includes Avis ‘beta-testing’ some of Julia’s early recipes; discussions about the poor quality of American spices and America’s strange obsession with chicken versus other fowl; and both women’s eviscerating criticism of McCarthyism.

It’s quite charming to read letters, in the Internet age.  Can it be that people once used to write on a piece of paper, put down the letter to do something else, and then had to mail the document with a stamp?  The letters are long, and contain many ‘breaks’ within them, as life intervened before the letter could be finalized—it’s hard for me to fathom such a laborious form of communication today.

I fell asleep reading the book and had the oddest dream.  Suddenly, Julia Child was in my kitchen, and I was making my usual ‘breakfast bread.’
Julia: What are you dooo-ing, Marie?
Me: Er, nothing?
Julia: It looks like you are cooking some-thing.
Me:  Well, this is sort of my embarrassingly simple breakfast  bread. It’s something I came up with on my own. The bread is surprisingly good, given how healthy the ingredients are, and how low in calories.
Julia: Are you on a diet?
Me: No, but I do feel better if I eat relatively low sugar, high fiber foods. The applesauce and the cinnamon in the bread give it a nice sweetness.
Julia: No butter? No heavy cream?
Me: Um, I like to eat the bread with a tablespoon or two of natural peanut butter!

Suddenly, Julia vanished into thin air and I woke up.

I’m sorry Julia, but I must admit I like this bread. It’s not terribly decadent I guess.  But I know from reading your own words that you admit to have felt slightly ‘bilious’ after testing a series of duck and goose recipes, and needed to detox for a bit. For those of you without the iron constitution of zee French Chef, who like not-too-sweet, bran, whole wheat bread, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.  I plugged the recipe into a calorie count website (because I hate when things are advertised as low calorie without actual ‘counts’) and the calories in the entire bread average around 750-760, if you consumed all of it in one fell, fibrous swoop.

Low-calorie vegan 'health' quick bread

1 cup unprocessed wheat bran (I used Hodgson Mill--approximately 125 calories for a cup)
1 cup white whole wheat flour or whole wheat flour (Approximately 400 calories for a cup)
1 1/2 cups unsweetened applesauce (I used a commercially-bought variety, which clocks in at around 150 calories for this serving amount but extra props of you use homemade stuff)
1/2 cup hot water (zero calories, last time I checked)
2 tablespoons flax seed + 6 tablespoons of water (or a large egg if you don't care about the 'vegan' aspect of the bread, either way 60-75 calories)
1 teaspoon baking soda (Calories? Don't worry about it)
1 tablespoon cinnamon (or other spice combination of your choice, and if you're worried about calories in spices, go have a Tic-Tac instead and stop reading this blog)
1 pinch (or more, if you're like me) of sea salt

1. Preheat the oven to 400F. Line a 8X4 inch loaf pan with parchment, or use a square or round 8x8 or 9x9 inch cake pan. 
2. Mix the ingredients together in a bowl (this is fine for a 'one-bowl, dump and stir' procedure). Pour into the prepared pan.
3.  Bake for approximately an hour for the loaf pan, or 40 minutes for the flat cake pan. Make sure the top of the bread is resistant to your touch, to test for doneness.  
4. Cool. Because the bread is so moist, cooling overnight is ideal. I'd suggest making the bread in the evening and having it for breakfast the next morning.