Monday, November 21, 2011

"Drop ‘em!” Cook's Illustrated Drop Biscuits



More years ago than I care to remember, when I was in my late teens, I was obsessed with Law & Order for about a year.  At the time, my life was a chaotic blur, and when I was depressed, one of the few things I enjoyed was propping myself up in front of the TV and watching L&O's neat sequence of scenes every night on the Arts & Entertainment network. Each act in the crime tragedy would be perfectly punctuated with the infamous 'da-dum' sound that mimics a cell door slamming shut.


I don't watch TV now, to be honest.  I haven't even seen a single episode of Glee, or CSI, or anything like that, not because I'm a snob, but because I'm trying to pack my life with activities that take me out into the world (riding, yoga, even baking) and I spend most of my work day staring at a screen, so 'ooh, more passive screen time!' is not my idea of leisure.

But I did love Law & Order. I loved its infinite predictability.  I loved how it would always open with two  hard-bitten cops who would make cynical jests about the dead victim, followed by the search (which always involved more brainwork than car chases), followed by the trial. The possible conviction of the defendant would always hinge upon a legal issue that was complicated enough to seem realistic but not so complicated a layperson couldn't understand it.  Usually, the case would revolve around a notorious crime ripped from the headlines, but the ending would be sufficiently different from real life that it would take the viewer by surprise--and presumably so Dick Wolf, the show's producer, couldn't get sued.

When I say I loved Law & Order, though, I mean only one particular incarnation of the show--when Chris Noth and Jerry Orbach played the detectives Mike Logan and Lennie Briscoe.  Is it possible for men to have chemistry in a completely non-sexual way?  Because they did. Mike was an emotional yet fiercely intelligent Irish cop who always wore a sexy leather jacket when it was cold.  Lennie was a recovered alcoholic with a grown daughter and a ethically flexible, worldly attitude.  There would be choice references to their personal life--an emotional expression on Noth's face during a crime, a meeting with Lenny and his daughter at the racetrack--just enough to tantalize the imagination, without revealing too much. Emotional striptease in the style of Gypsy Rose Lee.

Of course, because of Law & Order, I briefly thought I wanted to BE a lawyer.  But really, what I wanted was to PLAY a detective beside Chris Noth as an ACTOR.  I would be this kind of over-educated type who had become a detective after graduating from college.  He would rob me of my idealism, show me the ropes, but gradually come to respect my intelligence.  Then we would have hot sex together after a particularly trying night of investigating.

The first cooking show I ever watched with any regularity was a natural extension of my love of Law & Order.  It was called America's Test Kitchen, the television incarnation of the famously anal cooking magazine Cook's Illustrated.

Like Law & Order, America's Test Kitchen begins with a crime--the host, Christopher Kimball will show some sort of monstrous version of a popular dish, like a hideously heavy cake or a gooey lasagna.  Then, there are the investigatory sequences where he, and his trusted partner (usually an impish blonde woman who expresses great enthusiasm for butter) deconstruct the crime, and find the best ingredients for the dish.  Often, they explain the laborious process in the test kitchen of trying 9, 756 different recipes to arrive at the perfect consistency of frosting on the cake or getting crispy skin on fried chicken.  Expert witnesses are called in like their 'equipment guru' to give further insight (kind of like the culinary version of the forensic psychologists on Law & Order). Then, there is the trial, or the making of the dish, followed by the verdict when Kimball and Co. declare the recipe to be 'correct.'

There is much that is annoying about ATK--the idea that there is one 'best' way to make a recipe, the focus on national supermarket brand products, the fussiness of the techniques combined with a fear of 'fancy' food, spices and astringent flavors--however, for simple foods, like cookies and biscuits, their recipes are reliable.  They work.

This drop biscuit recipe, which, unlike many of the ATK recipes is available on the web for free (I avoid paying for their recipes by simply taking their books out of my local library). It is a good example of a recipe so easy you can't believe it comes out as well as it does.  With no rolling at all, it makes a flaky, tasty biscuit.  And I am assuming many of you right now are too stressed out about cooking a turkey to even think of rolling out biscuits and keeping the dough at the perfect temperature.

I am not going to reprint the recipe, out of food blogger etiquette, since I made it EXACTLY as written, for fear of being assassinated by Chris Kimball in my sleep. (Other than 'making' buttermilk by curdling skim milk with a tablespoon of white vinegar per cup of milk). After all, Logan and Briscoe are no longer on the job to find out the source of my early demise.   Just read it here. And make it.  And don't stress.


And have some butter.  Butter always makes you feel better.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

So big on chocolate: Three Musketeers Cupcakes

 "I love French food."

"You've never really had French food," said my mother.  She explained that the French liked to use odd and cheap cuts of meat with special sauces and marinades to make them flavorful.  She also told me about snails, frog's legs ("which supposedly taste like chicken") and sweetbreads ("which aren't what they sound like.")

She pointed out that the only non-desserts I consumed with any willingness were hot dogs, McNuggets, and pizza.  And the occasional slice of pepperoni, liverwurst, or provolone cheese.

"But I love chocolate mousse," I protested. It was true.  I could live on the stuff.  And eclairs.

 As a kid, pretty much my only 'healthy' preference was the fact that I liked Three Musketeers bars, which are slightly less fattening thanks to their whipped chocolate center. I also developed a fondness for Flyte bars in the UK, which has a similar texture.

Perhaps I burned some calories, running around my living room, pretending to be the men on the wrapper of Three Musketeers bars. 

I never had normal crushes on actors. Oh, how I wanted to be loved by Errol Flynn, as he fought Basil Rathbone to the death in The Adventures of Robin Hood, one of the old movies I loved to watch as  I sat on my parent's couch in the weekend.  I also kind of had a crush on Basil Rathbone too, which is even stranger.

Much later, when I was in the UK, I took a course in stage fighting and discovered that actually using those weapons, even in pretense, is far, far more difficult than eating a candy bar. In a spectacular, humiliating finale, I did pass the final exam (a staged combat) but was so inept that my partner did not pass. In other words, my lack of coordination made someone look even worse than he actually was at swordplay.

At some point, I would like to take another crack at the rapier and dagger.  Until then, I will simply have to find ways to make use of left-over Halloween Three Musketeers candy.

An interesting factoid before you bake: Three Musketeers got their name not because the creator was a great Alexander Dumas fan (although why wouldn't he be) but because the original bars came in three flavors per bar (vanilla, chocolate, strawberry). The vanilla and strawberry was phased-out during wartime rationing, although now the bars come in multiple flavors again. I wonder why Mars doesn't bring back a vintage version of the candy bar, incidentally.

Three Musketeers Cupcakes


Ingredients

1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
2 large, beaten eggs
1 1/4 cups of full fat Greek yogurt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cups unsweetened cocoa powder (I used Hershey's Dark)
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup dark chocolate chips
12-18 refrigerated mini Three Musketeers bars

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Line a muffin tin 12-18 cupcake liners.
2. Blend the oil, eggs, yogurt, and vanilla. Sift the flower, cocoa, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together.
3. Incorporate the wet mixture into the dry.  Fold in the chocolate chips.
4. Fill the muffin tins with the batter. Cut the mini candy bars in half, and put each half, cut side up, into each muffin tin.
5. Bake until a toothpick can be extracted clean, approximately 30-35 minutes.  The timing will be affected by the size muffin tin you choose to use.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Butternut squash bread contains neither butter nor nuts (discuss)



When I saw this recipe for squash tea bread from Eating Well, I immediately did a double-take.  Having lived in the UK for nearly two years, hearing the word 'squash' immediately conjured up a different association with 'tea.'





Namely, a fruity, rather overly-sweet drink.  A bit like Hi-C or Capri Sun for those of you who have never lived across the pond. Squash for tea?  That would be like drinking Hawaiian Punch from fine china!

To add to the confusion, tea  in the UK can be a drink, a light meal of cakes, sandwiches, and tea (think 'high tea') or a synonym for dinner itself, at least in the Midlands and the North of England where I lived for most of my time there, before moving to London.

So was this bread made with orange soda and hot tea?  Was this an orange soda bread for high tea? Or was it a bread designed to be eaten with the meal known as 'tea?'  Tea the meal, or tea as in 'tea and cucumber sandwiches with biscuits?'

A quick glance of the recipe discerned that it was a butternut squash quick bread recipe designed to be eaten at tea-time.  

Although there is still linguistic confusion--butternut squash contains neither butter nor nuts...just imagine how lovely it would be if you could pick off a fruit or vegetable from a vine, slice it open and find oozing, melted butter or peanut butter within...

And don't even get me started on how for many years while reading National Velvet, I was unimpressed by the heroine's fondness for Mars Bars (I never liked them), only to discover that in England, Mars Bars are a totally different and more delicious concoction--more like a Milky Way.

The distinctions between the names of UK and American candy are very perplexing.  For example, Smarties are nondescript, horrible discs of sweet nothingness in the US--the 'coal' of the trick-or-treat bag.

But in the UK, they are discs of lovely, chocolatey goodness far superior to M&Ms.

I have no more words, as words often confuse more than they illuminate when it comes to food (as any reader of local restaurant reviews can tell you).  Here is the bread I made, not the Eating Well version....an ultra-dense, almost pate-like quick bread.

Ingredients

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1 teaspoon cinnamon

2 cups butternut squash puree (I used canned)
2 large beaten eggs
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup honey

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350F.  Oil and line a 8X4 inch pan with parchment.
2. Sift the flour, baking soda, sugar, salt and spices together
3. Mix the squash, eggs, oil, and honey.  Gradually incorporate the dry mixture.
4. Bake for 60-75 minutes, until a toothpick can be extracted 'clean.'