Friday, August 16, 2013

Sweet Corn Soup and French Food Philosophy

So, I’ll be the first one to admit that when I am stressed, I tend to freak out. I don’t pay attention to the amount of sleep I am getting (usually not enough by far), I constantly think I am un-organized so end up over-organizing (which stresses other people out), and I crave really fatty and sugary foods. The last one is the only one I have managed to learn how to control. Shocking, considering that I have the biggest sweet tooth, like ever.
I am in the midst of finishing up at my job, coordinating another move (back to Madison…back to campus…back to Babcock…the place I will call home again for 2 more years), and mentally preparing myself to begin working towards my Masters. I know, how hard can researching and writing a thesis on crystallization of sugar and fat in caramel be? Well, you’d be surprised. I am sure I’ll be writing about the whole process, and how I will slowly lose my mind (I am really trying to be optimistic, but c’mon, I know myself-I am going to freak out at first, so it is best to be honest with everyone).
Anyways, the point is that it has been difficult to coordinate normal life “things”, like grocery shopping. Thankfully, my boyfriend’s mother has been randomly surprising me with fresh produce items from Madison’s farmers market (of which I am going to religiously each once I am back in Madison): tomatoes, basil, beets, carrots, sweet corn, zucchini….real life savers. In addition, I have also been mentally saved by this book I picked up a few weeks ago. Rarely do I find books regarding food, diet, eating philosophies, etc…that really move me. I have a pretty long laundry list of “food experiences”: I grew up on a family dairy farm, my family (particularly my Grandma) is an avid gardener, my Mom has always been surrounded by plants due to her job (landscape architect) and her personal business (wholesale and residential plant selling-I grew up with a greenhouse), I am getting my masters in Food Science, I have worked for a local dairy and helped promote their products, and I have also worked for several very large fortune 500 food manufacturing companies throughout my college  and post-college years. I have seen the food chain in America (farm to fork, literally). But, with going back to school, I can finally step back and take a breath; the book found me at the right time. It has given me solid inspiration and goals for how I will manage my views on exercise, diet and living in general moving forward. The French emphasize respect for food, and utilizing the freshest ingredients possible. I firmly believe that America has (partially) accomplished the latter, but I feel that we as a culture need to learn more respect for what we ingest (and hold each other more accountable for our lifestyle choices). To sum it up: I feel that this recipe is perfect showcase for those ideals.
This simple (and simple has been the name of the game lately….) and incredibly delicious sweet corn soup with French roots is a must-try. I whipped up a quick basil pesto, chopped up some fresh garden tomatoes from my tomato plants, and drizzled some heavy whipping cream over the soup as a garnish…and voila! With a side of bread and brie, the meal was a real treat. So here it is…if you’re in a pinch, or just love the bounty of late-summer produce, I highly recommend giving this soup a try. It’s sweet (a function of the quality of your sweet corn), creamy because it is pureed, and simple. I have omitted from the original the straining of the final soup, mostly because I do not have a proper strainer at this time, but feel free to do this for a velvety-smooth texture. The un-strained soup is (obviously) just as tasty, but you’ll just want to be sure to use very fresh and tender corn.
The Finished Soup

Also, please don’t skip the butter! I very rarely cook with butter, but there is something very special about butter and fresh sweet corn together, so this is no place for olive oil!

Sweet Corn Soup (Adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Recipe)
Makes enough for 4 generous bowls
 4 ears sweet corn
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 to 4 small carrots, peeled and sliced
2 tablespoons butter
3 cups milk (I used 1%, but anything will do. Whole would be divine…)
2 cups water
2 sprigs fresh thyme, or ½ teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
Basil pesto (recipe below)
 Notable tools: blender or immersion blender, mortar and pestle or a food processor

Remove the kernels of corn from the cob. To do this, get a large bowl and hold the ear of corn lengthwise in the bowl. With a sharp knife, cut downwards and let the kernels fall into the bowl. Reserve the naked cobs.
In a medium to large pot (I used an enameled cast iron French oven), pour in the 3 cups of milk, cobs, bay leaf and thyme. Bring to a simmer, and allow infusing until you can smell the aromas (about 15 minutes). Turn off the heat.
In separate pan, melt the butter. Add the diced onion and carrots, and gently cook until onions are translucent. Add in the garlic, and cook just until fragrant (don’t brown or burn the garlic). Add the corn, and cook until slightly tender (about 10 minutes). After this, add the 2 cups of water, and simmer until corn is tender (additional 10 minutes).

While you are cooking the corn mixture, drain and/or remove the corn cobs and thyme from the milk. If you used dried thyme, you may leave it in, you’ll just have some thyme-specks in your pureed soup. Once the corn is tender, add the entire mixture to the milk. Simmer until the vegetables are thoroughly cooked, then puree either with an immersion blender or in batches with a blender. If desired, strain the soup in a mesh strainer at this point. Return to the pot, and bring back to desired temperature. Serve with a drizzle of heavy cream, basil pesto and finely chopped tomatoes.

Basil Pesto: in a blender, mortar and pestle or food processor, combine any amount of fresh basil leaves. Add a clove or two of garlic (if desired), a dash of salt, lemon juice (to taste and to preserve color) and a small amount of parmesan cheese (optional!). Blend with an amount of olive oil to allow the pesto to move freely while blending. Can be stored in an air-tight container in the fridge for up to 2 days. The pesto will turn brown; to help mitigate this, you can add more lemon juice over time, directly press on plastic-wrap on the surface of the pesto, or add an additional layer of olive oil over the top to prevent oxygen from entering.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Bella Cake (aka: the strawberry cake, version 2.0)

So, this past weekend included an adventure to the north woods of Wisconsin in efforts to savor the last few weekends of summer. This was welcomed in my mind, since last week I was reminded of what I signed up for when I accepted my offer to go back to school to study crystallization in caramel for two years,  to TA a confectionary science course, coordinate an industry professional’s confectionary science course, and potentially coordinate a pharmaceutical confection course. Deep breath! It will be loads of work, but work that I am looking forward to doing. If you are going to put your heart into something, you better love it!
Anyways, I thought making a cake of sorts would be a lovely treat for our host and hostess. I had been eyeing this recipe for some time; actually, ever since I picked strawberries back in June. I still had a stash of berries in my freezer, and also needed an excuse to use my vanilla infused Johnny Walker that has been brewin’ since May. So I decided to pull the trigger, and went for it. The recipe came together in a pinch: you simply mix up the batter, pour into a pan, top with strawberries, bake, and enjoy. 

Now, I bet you are wondering, “this must be why she named this the ‘Bella’ cake”. Was it because it was incredibly easy to make, beautifully studded with summer strawberries, and filled the kitchen with sweet summery aromas? Not exactly, but close!
After arriving to our weekend destination, we were relaxing after a lovely dinner of grilled pizza (if you ever need dough in a pinch, try this place. At $2.50 for a ball of dough made from local organic flour, you can’t beat it!), until we discovered that our host and hostesses vivacious viszla, Bella, had devoured the cake! So needless to say, I have no information on how the first cake turned out-but Bella definitely enjoyed it-so I think it is more than appropriate to dedicate this one to her!
In addition, I have to thank Bella, because she finally motivated me to buy a proper cake storing and transporting container. And it just so happens that I found this beauty below: this baby holds a pie in the top compartment, a cake in the bottom, is securely (and I mean secure to the point that it took me almost 5 minutes to get the contraption apart) held together by a metal contraption, and also matches my vintage bread box. Hot damn!

Two compartments...oh my!
Another plus: the cake transported very well, even without a proper storing/transporting container since there was no frosting or fillings or towering layers to be balanced on the journey.  A nice dollop of whipped cream would suit each piece nicely upon serving-simple, yet tasty-just like this cake.
I found that the cake is great a few hours out of the oven, but is even better after sitting for a day. The moisture from the strawberries seeps into the cake, the sugar sprinkled on the berries gives them a soft, jammy texture, and the nutmeg compliments the nutty whole wheat flour, the spicy whiskey, and the tangy berries. The whole thing just gets groovy.
 However, next time I make this, I will add some citrus zest, maybe some lemon, and also reduce the sugar in the cake to 1/3-ish cup. In doing so, I would highly recommed using the melted fat method, not creaming, as the reduced sugar content will encourage more gluten development. Coating the gluten with fat, much easier with liquid fats, will help prevent this. In additon, I wouldn't recommend letting this sit for more than 2 days, as the texture becomes gooey (potentially from the honey's heft fructose contribution, which noms more water than sucrose, granulated sugar).

Delicious local raw, un-filtered honey alongside a nutmeg and my madagascar vanilla bean infused Johnny Walker. Aren't I a classy baking lady?

*Preliminary notes and thoughts: the original recipe called for 6 tablespoons softened butter to be whipped with the sugars and the egg. I opted for 3 tablespoons melted butter along with 3 tablespoons olive oil. You could easily use any other oil, or use the full amount of butter. I prefer to melt my fats when possible, as it coats and prevents gluten from forming, which makes for a more tender cake. But feel free to use all butter, and cream with your sugars and egg as in tradition with a basic cake mixing method. I also used King Arthur Whole Wheat All Purpose flour. There are great variations between whole wheat flours, and I find this one to be smooth in texture (small particle sizes), and has a mild whole wheat flavor. Feel free to use any type of flour you’d like-the original called for barley flour-experimentation is welcome!
So here’s to Bella!


The Bella Cake (adapted from one of my favorite food blogs)

Makes 1 9” cake (enough for 8 generous slices, or one hungry viszla)

3/4 cup all-purpose whole wheat flour*
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 vanilla bean, or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract/infused bourbon
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons honey
1 egg
½ cup milk
3 tablespoons butter, melted or softened*
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups fresh or frozen strawberries, hulled (and halved if large)
Optional Whipped Cream for Topping (aka cream chantilly to the French): whisk any amount heavy whipping cream in a cold bowl, adding sugar or honey to taste as the cream is whipped to soft peaks. Be sure to not over-whip, fat globules are sensitive to shear (we don’t want butter here!). Consistency should be loose, and still flow like the blob when lifted from the bowl with a wire whisk
Preheat oven to 350F. Grease and flour cake pan (a tart pan with fluted edges worked nicely for me; you could also use a springform pan). Sift your dry ingredient together into a large bowl. Melt the butter (or soften, see note above….), and to this add the olive oil, sugar, honey, milk and egg. Whisk to combine, and then add the vanilla.
Who doesn't love antique sifters??
Add wet mixture to the sifted dry ingredients, and mix just until everything comes together.Pour into your prepared pan, and top with strawberries with cut side down into the batter.
Before baking.....
Bake at 350F for 10 minutes. Reduce your oven temperature to 325F, and bake for 45-60 minutes longer until cake feels set, or when a toothpick comes out free of crumbs. 
...after baking!


Saturday, August 3, 2013

We Be Jammin'

This is the last post about my fresh-picked, sun-kissed, delicious strawberries. I think that it is fitting, since this is a recipe for preserving! What better way to preserve memories of summer than with a delicious jar (or multiple-but certainly nothing hardcore like my Grandma, like 20 pints of peaches....) of strawberry jam? I am transported back to summer when I crack open a jar later in the year, and schmear the fruity goodness on toast, Grandma buns, pancakes, French toast, cookies, cheeses…you get the idea. Strawberry jam is good for your mood, mind and soul, kind of like Bob Marley…hence my blog title for this one. Funny? I thought so.
Once again, strawberry jam reminds me of home and my grandma. My grandma is known for her strawberry jam, and is also known to crank out a pretty mean tomato jam, elderberry jam, raspberry jam, grape jam (on occasion!). She is also proficient in the world of mincemeat, which I know is not jam, but let me toot my Grandma’s horn: her mincemeat will be featured in a pie made by a family friend at Wisconsin's State Fair this week! Kudos to my Grandma and Mom who prepared and canned the mincemeat. I should really go and nab a jar...and to clarify, this mincemeat is NOT the midieval kind full of, well, meat. It is rather a combination of green tomatoes, raisins, love, and...well, I don't know the rest. Yet. But I DO know that it is delicious.
Back on track: we're talking jam here. For me, jam should be of the perfect sweetness, be slightly firm to the touch, be of homogenous texture (not separate into a clear jelly portion and fruit chunk portion), and be full of soft fruit pieces that break apart slightly when spread. This was my goal when creating this jam, which is different from my Grandma's (which I still adore more than any jam under the sun).
As we all know, pectin is the hydrocolloid of choice when making preserves. Being a complete food geek, I knew what I needed in order to make a jam that didn't require a year's worth of sugar in order to "set-up", and luckily, it was available at my local grovery cooperative. I was pleasantly surprised, and happy to see that consumers and home-preserve-ers are exploring beyond the conventional boundaries of preserving. The renewed focus on eating whole foods with minimal preservatives (like sugar!) has brought many new products to local markets for foodies around, with this low methoxyl pectin being one.
Without getting too food science-y, low methoxly pectin* utilizes a cation with a double charge to interact primarily by electrostatic interactions with methoxy groups on pectin molecules (which carry a negative charge). This cation is typically calcium (Ca++). These "connections" between two chains of pectin molecules form structures similar to an egg-carton. The copartments formed that would hold an egg now hold water, which thickens whatever medium it is used in (hence the name: hydro=water, colloid=suspension). 
*Pectins are classified by how many carboxyl groups are present as methyl esters within a pectin molecule. The quantitiy of methyl esters, or methoxyl groups, determines how the pectin will behave and what sugar/acid concentration is required to form a structure that captures water, and forms a gel. High methoxyl pectins have greater than 50% of carboxyl groups present as methyl esters, while low methoxly pectins have less than 50%.
Get it? Good. Now the recipe.

Strawberry Jam (Adapted from Pomona Pectin Recipes)
Makes about 5 cups (ten ½ pint jars)
4 cups mashed strawberries (about 8 cups whole strawberries)
2 teaspoons calcium water (see below)
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
½ cup up to 1 cup honey or ¾ cup up to 2 cups sugar (I used ½ cup honey and ¾ cup organic cane sugar)
2 ½ teaspoons Pomona’s pectin powder
Calcium Water: combine ½ cup water with ½ teaspoon calcium powder in a jar with a lid. Shake until dissolved. Reserve extra in fridge for future jam and jelly adventures.

Notable Tools: large pot or canner, jar holder or tongs, clean towels, pint or desired size jars, potato masher or pastry cutter

Wash jars, lids, and bands by hand or in dishwasher. Place jars in large pot and fill 2/3 full with water and bring to a boil. Turn off heat, cover, and keep jars here until ready to fill with jam. Likewise, place lids in a small pan and cover with water. Heat to a slow boil, turn off heat, and keep in hot water until ready to top filled jars.
Boiling jars. Hooray!
Wash and remove hulls, and measure into a large sauce pan. To this, add calcium water and lemon juice. Using a potato masher, pastry cutter or a fork, lightly smash the strawberries.
In a separate bowl, measure sugar and/or honey into a bowl. Thoroughly mix pectin powder into sugar/honey. Set this aside.
 I thought my use of a pastry cutter was like, genius.

Pectin-sugar mixture; jar with calcium water.
Bring strawberries to a full boil. Add pectin-sweetener mixture, and stir vigorously for 2 minutes to dissolve the pectin. Bring this mixture to a full boil, and then remove from heat. Add in grated ginger and cinnamon. Now, taste your jam at this point for sweetness. If not sweet enough, you can add additional sweetener at this point, and bring back to a full boil for 1 minute longer.

Bring berry mixture up to a rolling boil. It should look like the slime in Ghostbusters.

Lemon + Ginger = Love
Take hot jars from water, and place on a towel. Fill the jars to ¼” to the top, wipe rims clean with a damp, clean towel. Place lids on and screw down to secure. Place the jars back in your large pot or canner, and boil for 10 minutes. Using tongs or jar holder, remove jars from the hot water, let the jam cool at room temperature.

Wiping off the rims with a damp towel. Fun and delightful.

Once cooled to room temp, check the seals by gently pressing down with your forefinger on the lid. If it doesn’t move up and down when pressure is applied, then you have created a successful seal (the lid is “sucked in”). If not, you can re-process, or be sure to store jam in the fridge and eaten within 3 months. Sealed jars will have a 1 year shelf life, which could be extended if stored in a fridge.
It is estimated that the opened jam lasts up to 3 months, but practically speaking, a jar of this will not stick around if used properly…enjoy on fresh bread, pastries, pancakes, with cheese plates, as a filling for cookies, bars, cakes, cupcakes. Also makes a lovely gift, especially for sisters who live in California!