Friday, May 30, 2008

Perplexed: Cream Peas with Pancetta

I found myself in an interestingly conflicted situation today. I, a life long, devout, card-carrying pea hater, found myself standing in front of the cart at my grocery store that held local fresh English peas in the pod, dropping handfuls of them into a brown paper sack. No doubt you ask yourself what I asked myself: "Why is a pea hater buying peas? Isn't that kind of...stupid?" It wasn’t unlike my experience with the Braised Carrots with Crisp Capers. At some point in the recent past an idea had been planted in my brain and (no pun intended) the sprout had now emerged and here I was, stuffing peas in a sack like an amateur jewel thief.

I can even pinpoint the event that triggered this: last week my friendly local produce lady Shannon (the one who gives me beautiful specimens of newly arrived heirloom tomatoes, and other treats) offered me a few peas fresh out of the shell. She remarked that one customer had told her they were amazing when sautéed with pancetta and served over pasta. That was the start.

This week when I went back, Shannon wasn’t there, but the peas were. And something about them took hold of me; their little voices whispering, “Pancetta, pancetta, pancetta.” It was just too much. I know now how Odysseus felt when trying to escape the lure of the Siren’s song. I had no crew to lash me to my mast, however. I brought them home and decided that they were lunch.

Shelling peas is a very cathartic, soothing kind of chore. After all, it’s the activity of Aunt Bea-like characters in rocking chairs on front porches, bowl on lap, calling greetings to the strolling neighbors as they wend their way down Maple Avenue. It smacks of small town middle America at the height of summer. As you’re doing it, you keep expecting to hear screen doors slam, and the tinkling of the bells as the Good Humor truck rolls up.

It’s an exercise that’s repetitive, but not mind-numbingly so. There’s enough variation in the way each pea pod opens, in the actual contents, in the ease with which the peas pop from their tether inside the pod to make it even mildly diverting in a micro kind of way. I’m not saying I’d want to make a career of it, but for fifteen minutes or half an hour now and again, it’s a nice break from the buzz.

Once I had my little pile of peas (somewhere between ¾ and one cup), I set to work with pancetta and cream. I crisped up the pancetta in a little butter (some lily gilding now and then never hurts anyone), and sautéed the peas until they were just starting to color. Then I poured a third of a cup of heavy cream over them and let it cook down, down, down into a thick ivory colored sauce.

I scattered the crisp pancetta over the top, and consumed the whole bowl in half the time it had taken me to shell the peas in the first place. Perhaps that’s the way to measure how many peas you need: for a serving for one person, shell peas for 15 minutes; for two people, shell for half an hour. Be sure you have all the accessories: bowl for the peas, paper sack for the empty pods, one rocking chair, one wide front porch, strolling neighbors, banging screen doors. If it’s not possible for you to acquire all of those things, then maybe just the bowl and sack, and a willingness to imagine, will do. As I’ve proven, you don’t even have to like peas very much. But when you finish, you'll be hooked.

Cream Peas with Pancetta
serves one and only one

¾ - 1 cup of shelled peas (from ¾ of a pound of peas in the pod)
1 teaspoon butter
3 slices pancetta
1/3 cup heavy cream

Melt butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add pancetta and cook until crisp and fat is rendered. Remove pancetta from the pan and reserve. Add shelled peas and sauté until the peas are just starting to color, about 8 minutes. Add cream, and cook until reduced down by two-thirds, another 5 or so minutes. The cream should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Then give it another minute after that. Season with a timid grind of black pepper; any more than that will overpower the delicate flavors of the peas and sauce. And mercy, don’t add any salt! Pancetta is salty enough. There’s no need to add any at all.

Serve with reserve pancetta crumbled over the top. This recipe could probably be doubled, possibly even quadrupled. You might have to fiddle with the ratio of cream to peas; start out adding a little, maybe a cup or so, then add more if you need it. Otherwise the peas might turn to mush before you could reduce the cream sufficiently. You want the peas to still have a little crunch to them; better to sacrifice a little sauce than have mushy peas.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Frantic: Berried Muffins

I work with a woman who can’t spell, and isn’t much for proofreading, either. She pretty much accepts whatever option Spellcheck offers her first, resulting in some rather amusing sentence constructions. And Spellcheck doesn’t catch homonyms. Knowing my love of that kind of linguistic lunacy (it’s the dorky English major in me), my coworkers forward me the best examples. Thus it was one day that I got an email forward in which my poor-spelling, non-proofreading coworker profusely thanked another coworker for her help.

“I really appreciate it,” her email ran, “I’m berried.”

OK, well I thought it was funny.

Anyway, because I myself am “berried” today (and this week, and next week, and oh did I mention my daughter is home today with a stomach virus? The fun never stops!) here’s a fast recipe for blueberry muffins that I think has just taken its place in my canon of cookery as my go-to muffin recipe. Tasty, fast to whip up, versatile, and not even all that bad for you, relatively speaking (I did the math, and each muffin has about a teaspoon of butter in it, plus you can use low fat milk, and there’s only one egg).

I use dried blueberries, but you could stir in ¾ of a cup of any chopped dried fruit, or fresh fruit. I would think you could even use things like mini chocolate chips with great success as well, although I haven’t tried this yet.

So without further ado, here’s the recipe.

Berried Muffins
adapated from The Hood Basic Cookbook
makes 12 muffins at top speed

2 cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1/3 to ½ cup sugar
1 egg
¾ cup milk
¼ cup melted butter
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
¾ cup fruit

Preheat oven to 425.

Combine dry ingredients in a bowl. Combine wet ingredients in a separate bowl. Mix the two together gently. Stir in fruit. Batter will be lumpy; don’t over mix.

Spoon batter into 12 greased muffin cups. Bake 12-20 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean (baking time will be dependent on the size of your muffin cups—mine take about 15 minutes; your mileage may vary).

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Subtle: Chive Blossom Biscuits

Saturday we picked up our first CSA share at the farmer’s market. The farmer apologized for a slow start; it’s been a cold spring here in the Pacific Northwest. Our first batch contained a very large and impressive bok choy, a bunch of chives, a bowl planted with several varieties of basil, and a chicken.

The chives were a pretty bundle, with lots of blossoms attached. I popped all their little heads off, and chopped them up. Then I stood looking at them, wondering just what to do with these poor little fellows I’d just hacked to oblivion.

For some reason, through my mind floated an old memory of some biscuits my husband had made. I really have no idea what made me think of them. All I could remember about them was that the recipe came from a package of self rising flour, and that they were amazing. I checked my current package of self rising flour. No biscuit recipe. I dug through the clutter in my brain for the name of that brand of flour—maybe I could look at the company’s website and they’d have posted the recipe.

I weeded through 1980s song lyrics, memories of a series of tennis lessons taken at age 9, the first few stanzas of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and some old Barbie outfits. Martha Washington? No, that was cornbread batter, I think. Old Mill? No, that’s not right. Finally I gave up in despair and turned to a book that was one of the first presents my husband ever gave me: Around the Southern Table. I think it had been remaindered, but he knew my love of cookbooks with lots of chatty introductions, and this one has that in spades.

There was a biscuit recipe that had adjustment comments if you were using self-rising flour, so it seemed serendipitous. And indeed, they turned out to be serendipitous. I cut them out with an old biscuit cutter we got from Alex’s mother, which had come, at some point, from Rumford baking powder, given away as a promotion, no doubt. It’s about an inch and a half in diameter, which makes a very nice nibbly biscuit for having with drinks, or with soup or stew.

I mixed them up, cut them out, and baked them. The result was an oniony flavored biscuit, but with a slight sweetness that I didn’t expect. I hadn’t used any sugar in the recipe, but there it was: a faint, almost honey flavor. Is this because the chive blossoms were so fresh, and came from organically grown chives, or is it that chive blossoms always have this sweetly ethereal quality? I can’t say, but I can recommend chive blossom biscuits. Their onion flavor is milder than even chopped chives would give, and there’s that gentle undertone of flavor that slips in and surprises you.

Chive Blossom Biscuits
adapated from Around the Southern Table by Sarah Belk
makes approximately 20 1 ½” biscuits, which will serve four adults and one three year old as a snack

3 cups self-rising flour
½ cup + 2 tablespoons butter, chilled
¾ cup + 2 tablespoons buttermilk
¼ cup chopped chive blossoms
Preheat oven to 475.

Combine flour and butter in a bowl, rubbing together with your hands until the mixture is well-incorporated and crumbly. Add the buttermilk. Depending on the weather, you may need a little more or less. The original recipe called for ¾ of a cup, but I found I needed a tad more. Add it slowly, and let the feel of the dough be your guide—it should hold together, but there should be bits that don’t feel like participating. That’s OK—you’ll assimilate them when you roll it out.

Turn out onto a lightly floured board, and very gently pat all the bits into a whole. Roll out very quickly with a rolling pin to a thickness of about ½”. Using a cutter, stamp out the biscuits. Do NOT rotate the cutter at the end of the cut—you’ll seal off the edges and they won’t fluff up; cut straight down.

Place the biscuits on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for 8-12 minutes, or until just turning golden.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Funky: Chocolate Toffee Cake

I’ve been trying, really I have. I’ve gotten a couple of new cookbooks, looked through some old ones, and generally tried to motivate myself to get excited about cooking. But I just can’t. I’m in one of my occasional funks, and I can’t get pumped up to cook anything. I read blogs and magazines, talk to fellow food devotees about food, but nothing is working. It’s a sort of depression that comes over me now and again, but confined to the food aspect of my life. It’s a feeling that if I could just cook something, I’d feel better, but I can’t think of anything to cook.

However, this past weekend I had to make a birthday cake for my husband, with the assistance of my children. They helped with both the cakes and the frosting, and the result was fine, but honestly, it wasn’t amazing. The kids adored it, of course, and I was glad to see them enjoying what they’d produced, even if I wasn’t. The one comment I got from my older son was that he’d prefer the cake without the candy.

The cake was a chocolate cake with chocolate icing that had toffee bar bits in it. The recipe is from Bon Appétit from March of 2000, which I found in my copy of the Bon Appétit cookbook. I flipped through a number of books looking for a cake for Alex’s 40th birthday that the kids could help me make, marked a few and presented them, and he chose that one. We had a bag of toffee bits in the pantry, so it seemed like a fine idea.

My reaction: meh. It was a lot of work, and it just didn’t have that sparkle. Also, I’m starting to think there’s something wrong with me, because all of my cakes seem to be lopsided in one way or another. No, I don’t trim them, so no doubt that’s what it is. If I evened them out after they cooled by leveling them, I’d probably end up with something a bit more finished looking.

The cake was easy enough, but in the frosting, I met my Waterloo. I tried to make it with the kids on Saturday afternoon and it flopped miserably. In fact, it flopped so badly that flopped is too mild a word to use. It just utterly, disappointingly, scrape-every-bit-of-it-down-the-drain-and-go-out-for-more-ingredients failed.

The only bit of happiness I was able to salvage from it was that Matthew stood by my side the whole time, watching it not succeed with me. Time and again I stopped the mixer, scraped down the sides, and started it up again with the hopeful comment, “Maybe this time it will work.” And each time he would nod solemnly and wordlessly hold out his little hand for the spatula to lick (hey, it was a cake for the family only—we all share the same cooties; besides, that batch of frosting went down the drain).

After a half an hour (half an hour) of whipping on the highest speed of my mixer, I decided that we were done, and that if I whipped it any longer, we’d soon have a very strange chocolate butter.

Sunday morning I gave it another go, and this time I was more careful during the cooling-and-whisking portion of the recipe. My error, I realized, was that I didn’t let it cool down and thicken up enough, nor did I whisk it. It was still quite liquid—about the consistency of chocolate syrup—when I started whipping it with the mixer the first time, and I used a spatula to stir it around in the ice bath. It was much closer to solid the second time; so much closer, in fact, that it was quite hard to whisk (and indeed, I used an actual whisk). Aha.

So we assembled the cake, scattering the toffee bits over the middle and, just for laughs, over the top (we skipped the shaved milk chocolate that the recipe calls for). The toffee bits were, I think, what actually detracted from this cake, and really put the “eh” in “meh.” They were, you see, somewhat, ah…aged. I think we actually moved them from East coast to West, which means that at a conservative estimate they were at least two and a half years old. And that estimate assumes I bought them the day we moved, which I can assure you I did not. So let’s say three years old, just for laughs.

They tasted dusty. Not something you really look for, or even expect, in a candy. And yet, that’s how they tasted, in spite of having been in a factory-sealed bag the whole time. I should have gone out and bought fresh Skor bars and used those. In fact, I was going to, but the Birthday Boy urged me to use what we had in the pantry, and so I sort of feel like he got what he deserved.

Given a little less frosting frustration, and a little more current candy bars, this cake has potential. But with my funk, I’m just grubby about everything, even chocolate cake. And when you’re grubby about chocolate cake, boy, you’re pretty darned grubby. I’ll try to snap out of it.

Chocolate-toffee Crunch Layer Cake with Milk Chocolate Frosting
from The Bon Appetit Cookbook
serves 10 to 12 people, assuming none of them is in a cooking-induced funk

4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1/2 cup hot water
1 3/4 cups cake flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 3/4 cups sugar
3 large eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2/3 cup whole milk

1 1/4 cups whipping cream
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 pound milk chocolate, chopped

4 1.4-ounce chocolate-covered English toffee bars (such as Heath Bars or Skor), cut into 1/4-inch dice
7 ounces milk chocolate (such as one Hershey's bar or two 3- to 3.5-ounce milk chocolate bars)

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F. Butter two 9-inch-diameter cake pans with 1 3/4-inch-high sides. Line bottoms of pans with waxed paper; butter paper. Dust pans with flour; tap out excess. Combine chocolate and 1/2 cup hot water in small saucepan. Stir over low heat until melted and smooth. Cool to lukewarm, stirring often.

Whisk flour, baking soda and salt in medium bowl to blend. Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until fluffy. Gradually beat in sugar. Beat in eggs 1 at a time, then vanilla extract. Beat in chocolate mixture. Add flour mixture in 3 additions alternately with milk in 2 additions, beating just to blend after each addition. Divide batter equally beween pans. Bake cakes until tester inserted into center comes out clean and cake just begins to pull away from sides of pan, about 35 minutes. Cool cakes in pans on racks 5 minutes. Cut around pan sides. Turn cakes out onto racks; peel off waxed paper. Cool cakes completely.

Combine cream, corn syrup and butter in heavy large saucepan. Whisk over medium heat until mixture begins to simmer. Add chopped chocolate. Reduce heat to low and whisk until frosting is smooth, about 1 minute; transfer to large bowl.

Fill another large bowl with ice. Set bottom of bowl with frosting atop ice. Whisk until frosting is cool and begins to thicken, about 8 minutes. Place bowl of frosting on work surface. Using electric mixer, beat until color lightens and just until frosting becomes thick enough to hold peaks when beaters are lifted, about 2 minutes (frosting will continue to thicken as it stands).

Place 1 cake layer, flat side up, on 8-inch-diameter tart pan bottom or cardboard round. If desired, place pan bottom with cake atop 8-inch-diameter cake pan to make simple decorating stand. Top layer with 1 1/2 cups frosting, spreading to edge. Sprinkle evenly with diced toffee. Top with second cake layer, flat side down; press slightly to adhere. Spread thin layer of frosting over top and sides of cake to seal and set crumbs. Spread remaining frosting over top and sides of cake (if frosting becomes stiff, stir gently with spatula to loosen).

Stand chocolate bar on 1 short end. Using vegetable peeler and starting at top edge of 1 side, run peeler down length of bar (chocolate will come away from side of chocolate bar in curls). Pile chocolate curls atop cake. Chill at least 2 hours. (Can be made 2 days ahead. Cover with cake dome and keep chilled. Let stand at room temperature 1 hour before serving.)