Monday, December 28, 2015

Corn Pudding

When I was growing up, I was not a fan of corn. Part of the problem was that my mother knew only two ways to prepare it. It was either served on the cob after being boiled forever and then served slathered in butter and doused in salt or slopped onto a plate out of a can. To my best recollection, it was never used as a component in a more elaborate dish. In fact, it was very rare for my mother to ever make anything resembling an elaborate dish. She grew up in a region in which food was largely served without embellishment and unseasoned beyond sprinkles of finely ground black pepper (pre-ground, of course) and fine salt.

While I am still not a fan of corn by itself, I love it as a component part and wanted to try the corn pudding recipe on the Times as a variation on the usual savory options. With sugar, butter, milk, corn, and nutmeg, what could go wrong? Well, it seems that what went wrong was the proportions. This just was not all that great.

I did not vary the recipe at all except for one inconsequential point. Instead of making a huge portion all at once, I made individual muffin-sized portions so I could freeze leftovers more easily. I kept an eye on the cooking time and, given that some of the comments said that they had trouble with the pudding "setting", I was probably better off with the small portions. Mine set fine, as can be seen by the spoonful of pudding.

There were two main issues and one was that there seemed to be too much corn for the amount of pudding. There also seemed to be a little bit of a liquid and solid separation issue with the pudding where the corn floated to the top, the pudding sat somewhere near the middle to bottom, and a thin layer of liquid ran across the bottom of the muffin cup.

Additionally, the corn didn't seem to have cooked enough and felt too firm. I know corn does not need to be cooked for a long time, but the soft pudding with the overly firm kernels didn't work for me as a textural contrast, and I am not a person who is averse to good contrast in food. To be honest, I think it came too close for me to memories of gnawing on canned corn or corn fresh off the cob. I need a bigger buffer zone between myself and each kernel.

Some of the commenters for this recipe mentioned making a variation with creamed corn (presumably from a can). I had a sense that I'd like this better if half to 2/3 of the corn were pureed so that the clumping of the kernels would be less. At any rate, I was insufficiently pleased with this that I threw out the remainder after eating two portions and I don't think I'd bother to try even a variation on this recipe. I think I'll stick with things which have a lower corn to other ingredient ratio.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Cranberry-Orange-Maple Sauce

I will admit that my results for this will not be ones that can be generalized to other attempts at this recipe because I substantially modified the ingredients list on the Times Cranberry-Orange-Maple sauce in order to remove a lot of the sugar. Using sugar substitutes cut the calories in the sauce dramatically, but I'm sure it also stripped it of some of its essential qualities. That being said, the recipe did form a flavor backbone for my result.

The Times recipe uses fairly classic ingredients including whole cranberries, an orange, and sugar. The twists are added with maple syrup and candied ginger. I had to start this process by making my own ginger because I didn't have any on hand. It's not hard, but takes a bit of effort and time. I made a reduced sugar version of that as well, but that almost certainly had no impact on the result with only a tablespoon of candied ginger going into it and the sweetness mattering less than the spiciness of the ginger.

As the recipe instructed, I started with 12 oz. of whole, fresh cranberries and added a cup of water. Instead of sugar, I used the equivalent sweetness of a half cup of sugar in heat-stable sweetener (in this case, 12 packets of Splenda).

 Instead of using an orange and juice though, I saved the rinds from two clementines and pureed a whole clementine in a 1/2 cup of water in a Magic Bullet. This thick puree was added to the cooking cranberries and sweetener. I also added a pinch of salt. The reason I opted for this choice over the orange juice and rind was that I was concerned that the lack of sugar would mean the sauce would not thicken as there could be no sugar syrup formed. The pectin in the rind would act as a thickener while the sweetener gave it sweetness.

This worked very, very well as my sauce became very thick and came together well. The main drawback is that the large quantity of orange puree made the sauce look rather pinkish rather than the vibrant red that it should be. It was not the least bit photogenic. It looks like an alien creature burbling in it's vaguely fluorescent primordial soup:

When the sauce had reached the right thickness, I added 1/4 cup of maple-flavored sugar-free syrup. I'm sure that, quality-wise, this was the biggest sacrifice in flavor. Finally, I chopped up some ginger and added it then tasted for sweetness. Despite the fact that I used a 1/2 cup less equivalent of sugar in sweetener, this seemed very sweet to me. It was more than enough to counterbalance the tart cranberries. It's possible that the sweetener just seems sweeter than sugar, or maybe the original recipe needed a lot of sugar to form a thickened syrup. It's hard to say, but I'm guessing that it could do with less sugar.

This is one of those recipes that is better when it rests and the flavors have time to merge together. I was not displeased with the taste and was happy with the texture, but the orange seemed to be too potent and the cranberries came through as very tart without enough sweetness to off-set it despite the fact that the sauce seemed to be sweet enough overall.

My cranberry sauce weighed in at 25 calories per 1/4 cup serving. I didn't calculate the Times numbers, but a canned sauce brings you 110 calories per quarter cup. One of the reasons that I wanted to make my own was to save a few calories on a day that desperately can use such a reduction. I'm not sure that it was worth it, but I do believe this would work better with a lot less orange. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

English Scones

I taught English in Japan at a chain language school for two years. Part of the cultural enrichment that I received was the experience of working with native English speakers from a variety of places including England, Wales, New Zealand, Ireland, Australia, and Canada. Nearly every one of them spent time at one point or another lecturing me on what was "wrong" with American language, food, ideas, etc. They did this because Japanese people generally viewed everything related to foreign culture as it pertained to the West through the prism of American culture.

The fact that the textbooks tended to do things like spell color without a "u" vexed no small number of them. Some would write their "corrections" into the books during their lessons. A smaller number would write snide remarks in the books in response to what was perceived as an American cultural reference. I recall one book had a sentence about a fictional character taking a "psych course" at college and someone had written "Is this some awful American thing?" next to it.

This competitiveness was tiresome. Personally, I was interested in teaching all variations of English to the students and did not feel any version was "wrong," but rather that each was different. With the folks who invented the language, this attitude absolutely was not shared. They were "right" and we were "wrong." To their credit, these angry, adversarial people helped me remember language and culture differences far better than if they had been offered in a civil and convivial atmosphere.

One day while I was having lunch in a communal eating area, one of the Australian teachers was raving about the food at the local KFC. In those days, it was still called "Kentucky Fried Chicken," and it wasn't a greatly widespread chain in Japan, but we had one near the school I had worked at. I don't eat fried food so I didn't pay much attention to the joy taken at the lip-smacking deliciousness of the food there until he started talking about the "scones" that were offered. Even the Japanese called these little bready nuggets "biscuits" and that is what they are called in America. You can't go into a KFC anywhere and order a "scone" without dumbfounding the server.

I mentioned to the Australian fellow that they weren't scones, but they were biscuits. He insisted that they were scones even though they were called biscuits. After some pointless quibbling about the name of a blob of baked carbs, I let it go. I had already had more than my fill of this arguing over what was "correct" and, if he wanted to call the KFC biscuits "scones," then it was no skin off of my back.

The attentive reader may see where this is going. I tried The New York Times recipe for scones. I have a pretty amazing recipe of my own already for scones, but these are supposed to be an "authentic" English version. What they are is essentially a version of a KFC biscuit. The main difference is that the top and bottom are crispier, or at least they are straight out of the oven.

I usually make a scone recipe that is very soft and tender with a gentle crumb and a top brushed with milk and egg and sprinkled with sugar. It is undeniably a treat. It's also really not very dissimilar to this recipe. It uses a bit more butter and sugar, and has egg in the dough itself, but it's not substantially different. The results, however, are worlds apart in texture. Instead of tender crumbles like my usual scones, this is more like somewhat bread-like layers. It breaks apart along a line in the center.

I followed the recipe precisely except for one trivial difference. I added a splash of vanilla to the milk. I found that after 12 minutes the centers were still a little doughy even though the tops and bottoms were golden brown, so I threw them back in for two more minutes and that seemed to finish them just barely enough. I think that rolling them out compresses the dough in a way that may make them bake more slowly through the middle than my standard scone recipe. When I make the other scone recipe, I pat it into a round or rectangle and then slice it into triangles or squares so the texture is uniform and not compressed. For comparison, I will show a picture of those scones here as well:

The reason I'm making comparisons is that the fact that these are different is the important point. Of course, if you are used to buying your scones pre-made in a market, a restaurant, or Starbucks, you're not going to be familiar with what a homemade scone is like anyway as all of those are enormous, bread-like, over-sweetened monstrosities made by mass production. Those scones are nothing like either of these recipes. However, if you want to come extremely close to the English scone without baking a thing, you can drop by your local KFC and order a biscuit.

January 27, 2016 update: I revisited this recipe to provide an appropriate accompaniment for a faux clotted cream recipe (because I can't find the real thing anywhere in America and I can't find heavy cream that isn't ultra-pasteurized and can't make a proper version). The faux clotted cream was a bust, but I learned a few things and the scones were better the second time around.

I followed the recipe exactly this time, except that I did not roll them out. I didn't like how doing so compressed them and made a denser scone so I patted the dough into a large rectangle and cut it into 15 small rectangular pieces (which is why the scones are not round - it was a 3 x 5 grid with uneven ends). This made them rise better and cook more evenly than the first time and saved some trouble. It gave them a lighter texture overall and made them easy to split for spreads. The main benefit of these scones over my usual recipe is that they have a firmer structure and are less delicate (which is why I made them to go with clotted cream). They're good, but a different experience.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Pasta with Fried Lemon and Chili Flakes

The page with this recipe for Pasta with Fried Lemon and Chili Flakes shows an incredibly artful shot of pasta with pretty curls of cheese, artfully situated bits of parsley and celery leaves, and three fried lemon rinds sitting on the side. My pasta looked like most of what ends up on your plate at home; it was a writhing mass of spaghetti coated in spices with what looks like lemon wedges trying to make an escape:

I had my eye on this recipe for quite some time, but was waiting for the right ingredients to make it. With such a short list, I wanted to make sure that I was working with good cheese in particular and used freshly grated Parmesaino-Regianno cheese. I did not obtain celery leaves because it was optional, but my guess is that they would not add that much to the dish.

I followed the recipe pretty faithfully except for using garlic salt instead of regular salt and adding a little more pasta water to the sauce as it seemed insufficient to cover it all (and there was no liquid in the pan after I mixed it up so it was nowhere near overly wet). Some of the comments seemed to say the dish was lacking in flavor and I didn't want to create an enormous mess and have a bland result. I also was very careful about how I cooked the lemons because it was clear (again from comments) that that would make or break the dish. I blanched and dried them faithfully and carmelized them until they looked on the brink of burning.

The little blurb next to the picture states that blanching them eliminates the bitterness in the pith. The little blurb is a big, fat lie. I even blanched for slightly longer than required (another 30 seconds) to make sure the temperature drop from tossing in a bunch of cool onion slices didn't harm the de-bittering impact of blanching. Since a commenter mentioned "crunchy bits of lemon", I carmelized them slowly and thoroughly only to see a lot of the brown bits washed off when I did the sauce portion. If my rinds look less fried than those in the picture, that is why. They used to browner.

My guess is that the original recipe included more fat than indicated and they were closer to deep fried than "fried". That is the only way I could see them actually getting crunchy. My rinds were chewy and bitter despite my care in how I prepared them. It's possible that the type of lemon or the age mattered a lot, but neither of these were points made in the recipe.

The basic pasta is actually pretty good. The lemon flavor, cheese, chili flakes, pepper, etc. work well. Using the pasta water to thicken and coat worked well. My husband tried this dish and said he liked it until he hit a lemon rind, but that was a deal breaker for him. It just spoils it when it's supposed to be the star of the show.

I'm guessing that it is possible for this dish to work with the fried lemons, but it's just too fussy and the pasta works so well without them. This was definite the nadir of my Time's recipe efforts so far and I wasn't sufficiently inspired by its potential to try and perfect it. I'll make the pasta with chili flakes part again, but no fried lemon.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Sweet Potato and Butternut Squash Soup with Ginger

While shopping for Thanksgiving, I ended up buying far more food than I could possibly cook. I wanted to have a huge variety of side dishes, but then I found that my stamina wasn't up to the level necessary to make a Turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, Brussels sprouts, onions, butternut squash, sweet potato, and pumpkin pie. That's a bit much for one person to undertake, especially when my husband had no interest in the sprouts, squash, or yams.

The answer to cramming in more of the foods I wanted was to combine some of them in soup and The New York Times recipe for sweet potato and butternut squash soup with ginger fit the bill. The best part was that I could do it ahead and freeze the soup for later. The second best part was that it included real ginger root. I've always felt that ginger is under-used in savory cuisine in America and hoped it would bring something special to this soup.

I followed the ingredients list fairly faithfully including weighing the squash and sweet potatoes. The only thing I may have done "wrong" was use too much onion because my idea of "medium" is different perhaps than others after years of buying enormous monster onions in gargantuan bags at Costco.

Though I followed the ingredients list pretty closely, I made the soup in an electronic pressure cooker in order to save time and effort. I browned the onions and ginger first then added in the potatoes, stock, and squash. I make nearly all of my soup in the pressure cooker and have never found that the flavor suffers for it, especially when it comes to soup which is pureed with an immersion blender. My soup looked like this:

This is a time when my result looked nearly identical to the picture on the recipe. Mine looks slightly darker, but I think that is a lighting difference since I decided after tasting to add a small splash (about 1/4 cup) of half and half to mellow out the onion flavor that was lurking in the background. After doing that, all of the flavors seemed to come together and the soup, which was thick and somewhat sludgy in appearance until I added the half and half. That seemed to make it come together more smoothly. I didn't use much fat initially and my guess is the half and half emulsified the soup and made it smoother.

As soup recipes go, this one is a winner provided that you like the flavors of the components. It has a multi-layered and complex flavor that has a richness and a sweetness as well as a savory nature from the stock. I will definitely make this one again. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Meera Sodha's Chicken Curry

A big part of the purpose of this blog is to motivate myself to try new things. I'll admit that I'm not new to curry in terms of consuming it nor making it. I've been trying to perfect truly good curry and sampling various recipes for the last year or so.

I spent years making curry-like concoctions that were fine, but nothing like the sublime experiences that I had when going to a good Indian restaurant. I've perfected a really fantastic almond curry (murgh badami) recipe that I discovered online. It has become my husband's favorite and it has a good deal of depth of flavor. It's a rare recipe that has no cumin and gets richness from the almonds.

While my husband can't get enough of the murgh badami, I don't want to exclusively focus on it. I've been trying for some time to get a tomato-based recipe that reminds me of the steaming bowls of curry offered at Indian establishments, and I've largely failed. It is for this reason that I decided to try The New York Time's oft-mentioned (on Facebook) recipe for Meera Sodha's chicken curry.

The picture on the Time's recipe is very vibrantly red. I think the picture is color adjusted digitally to look that way given that I followed the recipe fairly closely and mine was brownish orange. My tomatoes were plenty red, and I used good quality tomato paste which was thick and a rich red shade, but mine looked like this:

I think that the turmeric brought out a lot of the orange shades and the yogurt lightened the overall vibrancy. This isn't an important point, but I do wish that pictures weren't manipulated to make them look less realistic than the result. That being said, my curry is definitely less photogenic than the one on the Times.

The alternations I made were based on my experience with previous curries. Instead of adding the yogurt separately near the end, I marinated the chicken in the yogurt overnight with about a half teaspoon of  salt, a teaspoon of garlic powder, and about a half teaspoon of chili powder. I do this because my husband is the main consumer of my curries and he dislikes dry white meat. Marinating the chicken in yogurt for eight hours or more makes sure that it is flavorful and tender.

Beyond marinating in the yogurt with a few extra spices, the only changes I made were to use three small serrano peppers because that was what I had instead of jalepeno or cayenne. I also didn't want the curry to be too hot because my husband can't tolerate too much heat. To that end, I also skipped adding a pinch of cayenne at the end as well. The garam masala was plenty hot enough to make up for these changes.

I also had to cook the onion mixture longer than the recipe said, but it has always been my experience that the amount of time it takes to get onions to the proper "golden" state is longer than recipes assert. I think they don't want to scare people off by listing the real cooking times, which can be intimidating in their length.

The end result was an excellent curry that was richly savory and slightly thick with a hint of heat. The tomato flavor merges and is mellowed by the onion and all of the spices come together with equal power to form an excellent backbone. Usually, it takes an overnight sit in the refrigerator for the flavors to fully merge in curry (at least for me), but this one seemed to pull together very rapidly and tastes great right off the burner. This is one I'd definitely make again with the hopes of repeatinf the same result. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

Creamed Spinach

Creamed spinach sounds a food that was popular in the 50's. It conjures up visions of slimy greens swimming in gray canned cream soup. I've had spinach plenty in my life; at least I have done so in my later adult years when my desire to try more health-promoting foods outvoted my wish to consume highly palatable foods from my younger days. I never even considered having it "creamed" until The New York Times Creamed Spinach recipe made an appearance on my Facebook feed.

While "creamed" made me think there would be actual, well, cream, in the dish, it is actually a white sauce (B├ęchamel sauce). For those who don't know what that is, it's essentially flour cooked in butter with milk added to it. It forms a creamy base for the pureed spinach in this dish. It's incredibly simply and comes together rapidly. Mine looked fairly similar to what was picture on the Times page, but it's less vibrantly green. I attribute this to both my using the stems (which are lighter in color) and the fact that I didn't adjust the colors in Photoshop to make mine look more verdant.

I followed the recipe fairly faithfully, though I had less spinach on hand than the recipe called for so I cut it in half. The white sauce came together beautifully, but I was careful not to get the butter too hot and that helps. I also used a pretty light hand with the nutmeg and didn't add any salt until the end.

After tasting the final result, I was quite happy, but I wanted more depth and complexity. I especially wanted more savory ("umami") notes so I added a tablespoon (keep in mind that I cut the recipe in half) of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. I think this punched up the flavor a bit and would probably include this variation again. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Sweet Potato Cornbread

Much of the food that we favor is less a choice based on personal tastes than the result of exposure to certain types of food in our youth. There are exceptions, of course. We are genetically primed to like sweet and savory foods because they tend to be the types of food that helped us survive. However, some cultures have a much better taste for bitter food or less instantly palatable fare. This is usually because of exposure to those foods during their upbringing.

I lived in Japan for a long time and many of the natives took pride in how healthy their diet was, but the truth is that they didn't choose their diet. History and types of available food chose it for them. What we choose to eat is rarely a reflection of character or individual choice. The Japanese certainly are not alone in a sense of superiority based on diet. They just tend to have more healthy food in their traditional diet so they have more to base their feelings on.

My upbringing, as I mentioned in this blog intro, was full of very conservative menus of poorly cooked food. I had to teach myself to diversify and that is part of why I'm doing this blog and trying the New York Times recipes. I will say that I love anything made with cornmeal now, but I did not grow up with food using this ingredient. My only exposure to cornbread was the rare purchase by my mother of a box of "Jiffy" corn muffin mix and the even rarer preparation of said mixes. More often than not, they languished in the cupboard until worms took up occupancy. I remember open those little blue and white boxes in expectation and then recoiling in horror from the creatures stirring in the dusty innards.

Though I still have a nostalgic desire to make Jiffy corn muffins, and I know there are no small number of folks who love that mix, I found the last time that I made them that they failed to satisfy. Since then, I've just made my own corn muffins from scratch.

When I found the New York Times recipe for sweet potato cornbread,  I figured this was going to be two great tastes that could very well taste great together. I followed the ingredients list and quantities fairly faithfully, though I cut it in half and only made six muffins and I added a 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract because I feel you can never go wrong with vanilla.

I took a shortcut on the preparation both in terms of how I made the sweet potato and mixed the wet ingredients. My usual way of making a sweet potato is to scrub it, stab it four or so times with a knife, wrap it in a paper towel, soak the paper towel with water, and then microwave it for about five minutes (flipping it halfway through). Depending on the size of the potato, it may need more time, but I just check it for tenderness and then let it sit for at least five minutes to cool and finish cooking.

Instead of mashing the potato normally, I cut it into slices while still quite warm, and threw it into the blender attachment of a Magic Bullet, added milk, oil, and vanilla and then pureed that. After the milk cooled the potato, I added the egg and blended it until it was very smooth. I think this works well and is less troublesome with no negative impact on the resulting cornbread.

My muffins ended up looking like this:

The inside of the muffin was tender and fairly moist, especially for a cornmeal-based baked item. The tops and bottoms got darker than I would have liked and next time I would reduce the cooking time from 20 minutes to 15 minutes. The batter from this was very thick and I know that this was not due to any errors on my part with measuring as I used weight rather than volume for the potato and all dry ingredients. I used a measuring cup for the milk and had no control over the egg, but any variation in wet ingredients due to egg size could not have made any difference in batter thickness.

I think the batter turned out as it should, but the picture on the New York Times site of these muffins is simply a different recipe. Given the color of the pictured muffins (very yellow) in the linked recipe and the smooth tops, I think someone was lazy about getting a picture of the product of this recipe because my muffins were very orange and the batter too thick to produce smooth tops. This isn't a big deal, but it is misleading.

These are not especially sweet muffins and should be regarded more as a different type of bread rather than as a sweet. There is just enough sugar in them to make them tender, but not enough to make them sweet. They are best consumed warmed up with some butter or perhaps even some jam in a complementary flavor (e.g., apricot). I will definitely make these again, but will likely modify the cooking time and possibly even the temperature. 

Monday, November 2, 2015

Arepas With Cheese and Corn

Sometimes, you run across a food that makes you say, "Why isn't this widely available already?" These are usually dishes that are approachable on multiple levels and include familiar ingredients, but come together in a relatively different presentation as compared to the cultural norms. It is one thing to experience yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit with a complex flavor that feels like what you'd get if you mixed the essential qualities of lemon, orange, and grapefruit in the best possible way, and decide it is incredibly palatable, but so unavailable in the U.S. as to not be a mainstream flavor; it is quite another to experience arepas with their easily available ingredients list.

I am a big fan of cornbread and, when I came across the The New York Times recipe for arepas with cheese and corn, it seemed like something that would be easy to love. In the silly video that accompanies the Times recipe, Mark Bittman likens them to a cornmeal English muffin. I think that is based on how it is eaten rather than how it is prepared as it is cooked more like a pancake.

I followed the recipe faithfully except for skipping the chilis. I already had a black bean mixture that I'd made the day before which I'd made with too much chili and I didn't want more heat added to the meal. In the future, I would certainly consider using the chili in the arepas, but not this time. The black beans that I had were so messy that my result resembled a Venezuelan sloppy joe:

When I mixed them up, it came out very wet and didn't really absorb much over time. I should note that I didn't just toss everything together as Bittman did, but rather added the milk and butter to the cornmeal to see how it came together first. I don't know if the wetness of this was because my cornmeal was a little old and had picked up moisture or if I hadn't allowed the milk and butter mixture to get hot enough to partially "cook" the raw cornmeal.

I "fixed" this very well by tossing the milk, butter and cornmeal mixture into the microwave for about 30 seconds to thicken it up. This worked extremely well and I added in the cheese, scallions, corn, and cilantro. Making patties was much easier after cooking the mixture a bit.

Arepas are frankly fantastic eaten on their own. I plan to make them again and just eat them plain with butter. The exterior is pleasantly crispy and the interior moist and tender. Storing the extras overnight in the refrigerator robs the exterior of its snap, but you can restore it easily by re-heating in the toaster oven. As cheap, nutritious, and accessible flavors go, you can't beat this. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

Lancashire Cheese-and-Onion Pie

When I was growing up, the closest I came to a savory pie was the cheap little frozen pot pies that my mother picked up for about a quarter when they were on sale. That was a very different little beast from the sorts of pasty and pie offerings that are common in England or Australia. Pot pies are filled with frozen vegetables and thickened goop. My limited information about more advanced savory pie cuisine lead me to believe that the filling was more substantial and the flavors more developed.

My knowledge of such things is largely confined to what I learned from documentaries. In fact, the largest source of my savory pie education comes from a documentary on Victorian farm life. As part of the recreation, one of the gentlemen manning the farm constructed a pastry case and filled it with meat and spices. The historians role playing as Victorians stated that the pastry at that time was not meant to be eaten, but merely served as a way in which to cook the filling.

I imagine that pastry was not wasted in a similar fashion at all times or in all cases in British cuisine and I hoped that the recipe that I found on the Lancashire Cheese-and-Onion Pie was going to produce an edible pastry. That being said, I did note that the recipe was different from conventional pie crust. The fat to flour ratio was lower, which would likely result in a harder, tougher crust.

I followed the recipe as described on the New York Times page, except that I had no choice but to use more ice water and I used black pepper instead of white. In fact, given the amount of flour, I'd be stunned if anyone could make it work with only three tablespoons. Even with five, my pastry was cracking and separating all over the place and it was a struggle to get each piece to roll out large enough to create a top and bottom that could come together. My final result looked a bit rough because of this problem:

Despite the difficulty with the crust, the pie turned out very well. Since I opted to use cheddar cheese, it was pretty salty and I wished I'd added less salt to the onions while cooking them. That being said, I didn't use a lot and it was still very tasty. It was immensely savory and flavorful and the onions cooked down to being quite sweet and mellow.

My main worry was this was that the sparse seasoning would result in something which was lacking in flavor depth. I desperately wanted to throw some garlic into the onions, but resisted the urge in favor of something which I suspected was more authentic. Though garlic was brought to England by the Romans, it wasn't widely used in British cuisine. It turned out that the onions and cheese were more than enough complexity to provide a homey, but interesting side dish. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Microwave Saffron Turkish Delight

One of my friends went to Istanbul earlier this year and brought me back a box of varied sweets. Each cube was a firm jelly either lightly dusted with a white powder or studded with nuts. They were dark in color for the most part, favoring deep reds and greens, and quite tasty. My favorite was the one that tasted like cherry, though I enjoyed them all. There was a cloudy white one that seemed to be coconut as well as a few that were obviously pistachio and walnut; the nuts peppering the edges were a dead giveaway. There were also some that were difficult to reach conclusions about the flavors as they clearly were not common in America, but I can say that I'm certain not one of those delights were saffron-flavored.

Saffron isn't a flavor one usually associates with sweets and my main experience with it is sparingly using those expensive threads with paella that I make for my husband. I have a tiny bottle at present that was given to me as a souvenir of his father's and sister's visit to relatives in Spain a few years ago. When it runs out, I know I'll have to reluctantly pay more per ounce for this spice than I'd pay for gold.

Because of the high price of saffron, and the intensity of the flavor, I was stunned that the New York Times recipe for microwave saffron Turkish delight included a teaspoon of it. That seemed like an enormous quantity by any standard, but then I guess the Times food editors and writers make more money than my family does. As I scanned the recipe, I decided to reduce the amount of saffron and increase the amount of lemon to suit my tastes. I also substituted vanilla extract for vanilla bean because I didn't have any on hand and they are also very expensive. This was a substitution I regretted, and that I'm pretty sure lowered the quality of flavor of the final outcome, but I was already investing enough by using my precious saffron and I didn't want to splash out for a vanilla bean on a recipe that may flop. I've tried to make candy very few times in my life and have rarely experienced success.

You can follow the link above to the Times version of the recipe with instructions (which I followed as they appear), but my ingredients list was as follows:

  • 1 1/4 cups cornstarch (plus more as needed for dusting)
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 1/4 cup corn syrup
  • 1/3 teaspoons saffron threads
  • 3 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar

Though this is a microwave recipe, it is still labor intensive. The use of a microwave over a conventional stove-top cooking method is likely meant to reduce the chances that the candy will burn, not speed up the process. You need to stop at frequent intervals and stir. I used a glass bowl much bigger than required and a silicon spatula. Heed the warning on the instructions to handle the bowl with oven mitts as it will get hot over the long cooking process. The larger bowl makes stirring the thick molten liquid much less dangerous.

Since I rarely make candy and all of my previous attempts were pretty disastrous, I erred on the side of over-cooking rather than under-cooking. I followed the instruction to smear a bit of the mixture on the side of a cold plate, but I found that that it never quite solidified into a soft solid as I expected. I know the plate was cold enough because I kept it in the freezer between tests. After cooking for one more cycle than the maximum amount of time (24 minutes), I concluded that I'd better stop.

When I spread the gel-like mixture into my well-greased pan, it started to solidify pretty rapidly and became impossible to spread evenly. I ended up with an uneven topography of yellow goo. After cooling and freezing, cutting was an adventure as it was extremely tough to get the semi-frozen mixture to pull apart. I was very concerned that the candy was going to end up like ancient gummy bears texture-wise and would pull out my fillings when chewing.

The picture on the New York Times page for the recipe shows bright yellow candy with brilliant threads of red saffron topped by a snowy white dusting. Mine looked like this:

The instructions tell you to store the candy in a a shallow container filled with a mixture of half powdered sugar and half cornstarch. This is the wise way to store them and leaves you with the snowy-looking specimens above. They are not photogenic, but they also aren't sticky. If you attempt to package or display your candy as the Times photo does, it'll stick terribly to the sides of the plastic bag that you artfully place it into.

While the reality isn't pretty, it is extremely tasty. The textural issues that were concerning me did not come to fruition. After the candy had warmed to room temperature, it turned into a pliable, but manageable jelly candy. The texture is, for lack of a better word, delightful. The flavor, despite my reducing the saffron, had plenty of that spice present. If anything, I'd recommend reducing the saffron down to an even smaller amount (1/4 teaspoon, perhaps) and keeping the increased lemon juice amount. The lemon flavor isn't particularly potent and I think that it keeps the candy from being too sweet. The flavors definitely come together to produce something akin to honey without the cloying sweetness or stickiness.

This is a fantastic candy recipe and I would definitely make it again. I'd consider also changing it up with other flavors (such as orange or even anise). However, I wouldn't make it often because it's an enormous amount of work. I think it'd make an excellent holiday recipe or as a special treat for someone who loves jelly candies or Turkish delight. 

About this blog

I'm a 51-year-old American woman and at the age when my parents were firmly set in their ways when it came to food. To this day, they have zero flexibility when it comes to how food is cooked and spiced. My mother enjoys plain canned tomatoes on white bread. My father feels that anything that includes garlic is disgusting. Both of them believe any piece of meat with a hint of juice is dangerously under-cooked. My childhood meals was largely made up of cheap cuts of meat cooked to the consistency of shoe leather.

I've found that many people tend to have tastes set in stone. This is why no small number of American restaurants are very conservative in their menu choices. I recall a "Cathy" comic some time ago which illustrated this well. The eponymous character and her parents had gone to a restaurant and are perusing the menu and discussing their choices. In the end, they all settle on chicken, salad with ranch dressing, and potatoes. Their waitress summarizes these choices for the kitchen in a few words as it is so frequently the menu that other conservative white families order. We think we're going to be adventurous, but often just settle for what is familiar and "safe."

For much of my early adult life, I was similarly conservative in my eating habits. However, I was willing to experience processed food that included a few odd items. I remember trying "Tofutti" when it was a new product and few in the West who didn't grow up in an Asian or hippy family tended to have any experience with tofu. So, I did experience the occasional adventurous spike in my eating, particularly if I ran across something novel that didn't sound disgusting.

However, as I advanced into my 40's, I became more interested in expanding my palate and experience base with food. I also wanted to become a better cook and have spent the last 15 years trying to refine my skills. I am by no means an expert in anything, but my hit to miss ratios have improved as I've practiced more and done more reading. Access to the internet has done a great deal to facilitate that as I can get exactly the information that I need rather than relying on what a particular cookbook has decided to tell me.

Recently, I decided to "follow" the New York Times Food page on Facebook. This has inspired me to try several new recipes over the past few weeks and I decided that I'd like to track my "progress" as well as document how well the processes go for me. This blog will be my way of recording the recipes I try and the results that I get.