Tag Archives: Recipe

Baking Bread and Breaking Rules

2 Mar


The first loaves of bread I've baked in almost a decade.

Something about being a parent brought out a fine appreciation for The Rules in me.  Even the most carefree eccentric artistic types will turn into whip-cracking fascist tyrants when they find another towel on the bedroom floor, only minutes after telling a child to hang up the towel when he’s done.  Seriously, if I catch my kids eating on the couch one more time or if I find one more cookie buried in the cushions, I’m going to lose it.  I’m going to turn in my card for the Rule Benders Club of America and become the poster girl for a New Fascist Regime. Mubarak will move to Alaska because it will feel more like home.

Long ago, someone told me I would never be a good cook, specifically a baker, because I don’t follow directions well.  The latter half of that statement is true.  Directions bore me.  Recipes seem to say “Listen, you don’t really know how to do this yourself, so just pay attention and do it the way I say to do it,” and like any adolescent I say (stomping my foot and crossing my arms in defiance) “I don’t want to do it that way!”  A dish isn’t mine until I’ve put my stamp on it, shaped it according to my own vision, refined it according to my own tastes.  I suppose I get this from my mother.  She used to make spaghetti with, get this, raisins in it.  That’s right. Raisins.  She would make straight up, plain old spaghetti and then throw a handful of raisins in the pot.  It never struck me as odd until my best friend in the 4th grade told me that this was totally weird.  Suddenly, I realized that my mother was breaking a rule that mothers are not supposed to break: Thou shalt not put before your child any food that their friends will find weird lest you bring total embarrassment down upon your child’s head. My mom insisted that it was an old family tradition from her German side.  Even a fourth grader knows that spaghetti is not German and so her myth was therefore busted.

Clearly, this apple didn’t fall far from her mother’s rebellious tree.  I don’t put raisins in my spaghetti (that would be following her rules) but I do think of recipes as “guidelines” rather than blueprints.  As a young woman, specifically as a young wife trying to please her traditional Midwestern husband, using guidelines to prepare a meal rather than recipes often ended in disaster.  I baked cookies that oozed off the cookie sheet, I made fettuccine with enough garlic to cure cancer (also enough garlic that my little sister refused to eat garlic for years), and loaves of bread that tasted as though I’d substituted sand for all purpose flour.  Baking was the most disastrous of undertakings because when cookies or cakes or breads failed, they failed spectacularly.  There is no fixing a deflated souffle or a dry cake.  These failures eventually took a toll.  I began to see myself as an incompetent cook and even worse, as an incompetent wife and mother.  I began to try to follow the recipes and it sucked all the fun out of cooking.  Dinner became a chore.  At the end of my marriage, a poorly executed meal had become symbolic of the things I’d failed at, which at that point seemed like just about everything I’d ever tried to do.

In the aftermath of my divorce, living in an apartment above a tire store that belongs to my family, I had to learn how to cook again for just myself.  I only had my kids every other week, so I was cooking for one for the first time in years.  There was no one to care whether my soup had too much salt but me.  No one cared whether my chicken was dry. There was no one to scold me for not following directions.  No one was keeping tally of my successes versus failures so I stopped worrying about the Successful Meal and remembered how much fun cooking can be.  I began to throw the proverbial raisins into the spaghetti again. I remembered how to be creative. I remembered how to have fun.  Interestingly enough, my failures grew even more spectacular. I set off smoke alarms and threw away whole meals because they were simply inedible.

But I also invented a red pepper sauce that made friends’ eyes roll in pleasure, I cooked paella for the first time and friends begged for more.  My daughter told me I was “better than a restaurant.” My son threw his arms around me one night and said he likes my food because I “cook it with love”.  Seriously? Where did he get that from? Was I finally doing something right? I was following my own sense of fun and taste and adventure and that was OK? I realized that true creativity requires a high tolerance for failure.  And more than that, a life well lived is one with spectacular failures along the way. Hopefully these failures are interspersed with shining moments of real success: the dinner with friends with a killer marinated pork and too many margaritas and a game of Mexican Train in the midnight sun; the Thanksgiving dinner in Pennsylvania when everyone has the flu or strep throat and still one of you manages to put on her good shoes and an apron and prepares a feast that reminds your of childhood; and that Southern Feast to end all Feasts that reveals to 20 grad students from around the country why Southern food is what the South is all about. Those meals are worth every failure, every mistake.

This brings me around to bread.  Of all the foods that humanity invests with meaning, there is none more symbolic than bread.  I could (and probably will) write a piece about the symbolic import of bread, but for today I only want to explain why these two loaves are important to me.  In all the years I was married I never managed to bake a decent loaf of bread.  Eventually I stopped trying.  Things like banana bread or box cakes were OK, but anything that involved rising and kneading were, in my eyes, doomed.  But two days ago I realized that maybe I was feeling brave enough to give it another go.  I did my homework, gathered a few recipes and used my judgment (which I now trust) to bake these two beautiful loaves.  They aren’t perfect, sort of dense and the flavor could be more complex, but my daughter said it was the best bread she’d ever had.

Here is my version of a recipe based off of an old Better Homes and Gardens recipe.  My flour volumes are different as well as the cooking times.  This may have something to do with the climate here, but I’m not enough of a baking scientist yet to understand why. Had I followed the recipe this bread would have been dry and nearly burned.  Add flour slowly and increase or decrease the amounts according to how the dough feels.


Mostly Successful French Bread

  • 4-4.5 cups bread flour
  • 2 packages active dry yeast
  • 1.5 teaspoons salt
  • 2 cups warm water
  • cornmeal
  • 1 beaten egg white
  • 1 tablespoon water


  1. In a large mixing bowl, stir together 2 cups of flour and the other dry ingredients, then add the warm water and stir with a wooden spoon until your arm is sore and you smell the yeast beginning to do their work (3-5 minutes).
  2. Stir in the remaining flour.
  3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead the dough for 8-10 minutes (I YouTubed “kneading dough” to see how other people do this)
  4. Cover and let rise until double (about 1-2 hours)
  5. Punch the dough down, and turn it out onto a floured surface again, halve it and shape it into 2 loaves. Coat the loaves with a light eggwash and let them rise for another 30-45 minutes.
  6. Grease a baking sheet and dust it with cornmeal. Preheat the oven to 375.
  7. Use a knife to cut diagonal slits in the tops and put the loaves on the middle shelf of the oven. *This is important: put another pan on the bottom shelf full of water.  The steam will help make the outside of this bread crusty.
  8. Bake for 15 minutes and coat with another light egg wash. Bake for another 15-20 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. Eat with cold butter while it’s still warm.


I’m not supposed to eat bread, but I did try a small bite of this once it cooled a bit.  It was really, really good.  I made the kids egg salad sandwiches and they really liked it.  I tried some of it yesterday as well just to see how it was holding up.  It was OK, but fresh is always better when it comes to bread.


Banana Nirvana: Thai Style Banana Cake

27 Jan
A slice of Thai-style Banana Cake

Banana Nirvana: Thai-style Banana Cake

“To satisfy the human tastes and prejudices there is probably a daily expenditure of two billion woman-hours in the kitchens and dining rooms of the world… men who wax flowery and effusive about the excellence of Mother’s cooking should remember that her reputation was made while they were hungry boys” C. C. Furnas, in Man, Bread and Destiny ©1937

I go through phases where the thought of spending one more second in the kitchen is about as appealing as camel hair underwear.  I loathe loading and unloading the dishwasher for the second time, and my feet grow weary of tracing and retracing the same figure eight between the stove and sink and counter.  But I’m often forced into the kitchen by the demands of my own body, of my children’s bodies, and by my own ethical concerns.  Three beautifully rotting bananas were donated to me last week and I realized that if I didn’t do something with them soon, they would be wasted.  I know that you can freeze bananas, even black ones, and they will remain usable.  However, experience has taught me that if I hide them in the freezer, I’ll never get around to using them.

I make a more than decent banana bread, and banana pudding, although delicious, doesn’t work all that well with rotten bananas, so I decided to go out on a limb and try something new.  I started thinking about the nature of bananas, their tropical origins, and googled around until I saw that many Thai recipes involve bananas. Go figure. Darlene Schmidt over at About.com has a recipe for something she calls Thai-style Banana Cake.  It looked like a good place to start, but I had three bananas instead of two, so I’ve changed the recipe to my liking.  This is my version of a Thai-style banana cake, which I’ve decided to call Banana Nípphaan, or Banana Nirvana. My kids and the Hot Boyfriend said it was excellent.  The Postmodern Daughter liked it most of all and that that it was “puddingy,” which is the postmodern way to say that I finally made a cake that was moist instead of corrugated cardboard.

Banana Nirvana

Banana Nirvana

The Batter:

  • 1/2 cup salted butter (1 stick)
  • 2/3 cup baker’s sugar (fine grain)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 can of coconut milk (use the full-fat kind…if you’re going to eat cake, eat good cake)
  • 1 and 1/2 mashed bananas (the blacker the better)
  • 2 cups sweet rice flour
  • 1 and 1/2 tsp baking powder
  1. Cream the butter and sugar, mash the bananas, beat the eggs, and combine all liquid ingredients.
  2. Combine the dry ingredients and fold in the wet ingredients.
  3. Preheat oven to 350ºF
  4. Pour the batter into a 9 inch cake pan that has been greased and floured.

The Sauce:

  • 1 and 1/2 mashed bananas
  • 1/3 cup boiling water
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  1. Combine these ingredients and pour over the cake batter before baking the cake.  The sauce will form a sort of marbling in the batter.
  2. Bake for approximately one hour or until the center is no longer liquid, but more like a jello or pudding consistency.
  3. Eat the cake and thank your lucky stars that you can eat something like this, while people like me can only look at it with something that resembles violent lust.

Dessertes de la Table: a Fancy French term for “Leftovers”

27 Dec

It was SUPPOSED to look something like this. It didn't.

It’s easy enough to eat the leftovers from successful parts of Christmas dinner, but what about the spectacular failures I came up with?  What was I to do with the giant vat of Southern Style Mac & Cheese, (henceforth the “Rubber Style Mac & Cheese”)?

What is it they say about the best intentions? Something about paving the road to a rubbery culinary Hell, I think.  The dish was comprised of bypass inducing ingredients like Manchego Cheese, cream, butter, and Corn Flake crumbs. Before I put it in the oven, I couldn’t keep my spoon out of the bowl.  This dish was giving the Hot Boyfriend a run for his money—I was about to remove my clothes in front of the oven and run my hands all over this creamy, cheesy delight. But then, something happened in the oven. Something that would change all of us forever… OK. Perhaps I’m being slightly hyperbolic, but the damn thing really did go from Hot Stuff to Trailer Trash in no time flat.

Southern Style Mac & Cheese is usually comprised of some mixture of cooked macaroni, milk, cheese, and egg, breading on top and then baked in the oven for a short while.  It tends to be pretty fail-proof.  Not in this kitchen.  My best guess is that I used an extra large size macaroni and that, due to its size, it expanded even further in the oven and sucked up every last bit of liquid from my delicious sauce like some dirty, trailer park boy drinking a 40 oz.

So, how was anyone supposed to make leftovers, or Dessertes de la Table as the French would say, of such a poor dish? Was it destined for the garbage disposal? Actually, we had friends over (they brought pirojkis and they were outrageous!) and they took two bags of this rubbery stuff home (that’s right, Ziploc bags…there was NO chance of it leaking) and made an interesting breakfast dish: they chopped it up into small bits, mixed it with a bit of egg and butter and fried it like pancakes. Genius!

Looks pretty. Tasted decent. But it apparently didn't stack up to the Danish Grandmother's version.

As for the rest of the evening, there were 2 successful dishes (my carrot and beet relish and the Danish Grandmother’s *poppyseed cake) and one dish that offered up a foodgasm to everyone at the grownup table; even the vegetarian had some… it was the Danish Grandmother’s Super Ham Balls.  Dear. God. I begged the Hot Boyfriend, I pleaded with him, I offered him favors I can’t mention in a public blog.  But, alas, I cannot give you the recipe.  He accused me of trying to ruin a sacred childhood memory.  He threatened to break up with me if I told anyone the recipe.  So the best thing I can offer is for you to google ham balls. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll try one of the 3 or 4 recipes I found that were similar, and you too will have a Holiday Foodgasm.

*A sidenote on the poppyseed cake: the Danish Grandmother’s recipe (which I can’t share either) called for sifted flour.  It was supposed to have 3 layers.  I couldn’t figure out why I only had enough batter for 2 cakes, and then I realized that perhaps there was a reason to say “sifted”.  If you don’t sift, you end up with too much flour.  The cake was good, but according to the Hot Boyfriend, not as good as Grandma used to make it.  Ouch.

And finally, I must share my favorite Christmas gift with you:

The Wusthoff. Henceforth, "Ex Calibur"

She’s everything you could ever want in a woman: she’s sharp, has a cutting wit, and she’s beautiful.  I have named her Ex Calibur.  I’m going to have a special knife block made for her that looks like a big stone. Happy Holidays.

Where My Shorties At? A Postmodern Spin on an Old Recipe

23 Dec

Shorties in the house! Holla!!!!

I now have access to a Super Secret Family Cookbook from a Danish Grandmother in the Midwest.  The Danish Grandmother came to America in 1933 when she was 16 years old.  And she came alone. Her recipe book is filled with things that a Southerner finds strange: kolaches, fastnachts kuchle, boter koekjes (guess what those are), a recipe simply titled “Danish Pastry,” and all sorts of jello-esque salads that seem to be a hallmark of Midwestern American church lady cooking.  I love these kinds of cookbooks; personally compiled by family members, not for the purpose of making a buck when it sells a few copies on Amazon, but because family members recognized that if no one wrote these things down, their own family foodways and traditions would become lost over time.  Each successive generation makes its own changes, partly out of necessity and partly out of a lack of knowledge.

I’ve been trying lately to involve my son, henceforth “Mr. McCool,” and my daughter, henceforth the “Postmodern Daughter,” in the cooking process, especially over the holidays when I tend to be making more traditional foods.  You can only imagine my foodie delight when she said last night, “Move over, mom. I need to be able to watch your technique.”  Really!?

The Postmodern Daughter has been bugging me for weeks to make shortbread.  The Danish Grandmother’s Super Secret Cookbook actually contains a recipe for Holiday Shortbread.  It seemed like a good recipe to try with 4 people in my tiny kitchen, so we piled the ingredients up on the counter and got to work.

This is a good time to make a little confession:  I’m a bit of a control freak in the kitchen:

Don't wash my cast iron pans!!!

Who used a metal fork on the egg pan?

Why is the eggnog ruined? You boiled it, that's why.

This is especially true when it comes to baking. It’s odd, because I tend to think of recipes more as “guidelines” rather than rigid instructions; but after a series of chocolate chip cookie disasters in my early twenties, I decided that when it comes to baking, I should always play by the book.  And let me tell you, that’s about the only place in my life where I voluntarily follow the rules.

But there were 4 of us in the kitchen last night trying out two varieties of shortbread: one from Betty Crocker (a Butter Pecan Shortbread) and the other from the Danish Grandmother (Holiday Shortbread).  Two kids under the age of 10, me, and the Hot Boyfriend all mixing away.  The anxiety I was feeling was probably palpable (flour on the floor, kids with freshly licked fingers in the cookie dough, nuts flying everywhere because someone was crushing them with the butt of a honing steel). People kept adding extra stuff to both the mixes and I was nearing a full-blown panic attack, sputtering “but…but… you’re supposed to…”  And then the Hot Boyfriend said, “There you go again, with your Supposed To’s.”

Well, that shut me up.  I like to think of myself as a Renegade, a Maverick, someone unafraid to play fast and loose, a girl who knows how to improvise, how to be creative.

Are you trying to tell me I can't add cocoa powder to my chili?

Orange marmalade: it's going to revolutionize my carrot and beet relish

Go ahead, tell me what temperature my oven should be at. I'm listening.

So I shut up.  I let all 3 of them add whatever they wanted.  I even stopped adding flour when it felt like the dough was dry enough, even though the recipe called for more.  I was wild.  And I was free.

Anyways, it sounds like the Danish Grandmother was a bit of a rebel herself, never cooking from recipes too religiously and frequently tweaking her own recipes when she had improved them.  So here is the recipe for her Holiday Shortbread.  Don’t follow it too closely. Even the 9 year old Postmodern Daughter knows that “you should always add as much butter as you want.”

Holiday Shortbread

  • 1 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 and 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 375ºF. Cream butter until fluffy. Add sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Gradually blend in flour and salt. Roll out on lightly floured surface to form and 11″ x 7″ rectangle, 1/2 inch thick. Cut into 1″ squares. Bake on unbuttered cookie sheets 12-15 minutes or until a pale golden color. Cool completely on wire racks. Store at room temperature in container with tight fitting lid. Makes about 1 dozen.

Cabin Curry: How to Avoid the Outhouse at -25F.

19 Dec

The outhouse at the Kitchen Vixen's cabin.

Thai Curry, Round 2: Last night I visited my friend, a well known (but paradoxically private) poet who will henceforth be known as the Kitchen Vixen.  The Vixen lives, like many people in Fairbanks, in a cabin with no running water and an outhouse.  I love cooking with her in the cabin because, although there is no water, there is a phenomenal collection of cookbooks, old issues of Gastronomica, and plenty of Le Creuset cookware.  I brought over some of my booty from the Asian Market in the hopes that I could make another Thai curry, and that, this time, it would not send my American intestinal tract to the outhouse.  Especially since it was -25°F last night.

Yellow curry in a delightful bowl from the Tanana Valley Farmer's Market.

Here’s the recipe we managed to throw together:

Yellow Thai Curry with White Shrimp and Green Beans

  • 15-20 peeled, raw white shrimp
  • 1 small, finely julienned ginger root
  • 3-4 keffir lime leaves
  • 1 clove garlic, sliced
  • 1 large handful of fresh green beans, ends removed, cut into 1 inch pieces
  • 1 large lobe of shallot, julienned
  • 1 can of coconut milk
  • 1 tbsp of yellow curry paste (I used Mae Ploy brand)
  • 1/4 cup peanut oil
  • 1 tbsp Marukan seasoned gourmet rice vinegar

1. Get the peanut oil extremely hot (peanut oil is preferred both for taste and because it has a high smoking temperature, which means you can get it super hot before it begins to smoke and subsequently catches your cabin on fire).

Slightly more than caramelized? Maybe.

2. Add vegetable ingredients except for a smidge of the ginger and 1 or 2 of the lime leaves.  Turn the heat down when the ingredients begin to caramelize.

3. Add 1/2 the coconut milk, curry paste, and the peeled shrimp.

4. Let it simmer while you throw another log on the fire.

Chop wood. Drink wine.

5. Add the rest of the coconut milk, ginger, and lime leaves.

6.  Serve over rice, or, if you forgot to bring the rice (like I did) eat it as is.





Caveats: First of all, let me say that this recipe is good, but I’m not going to claim it’s genius. I have a lot to learn about the proportions and cooking order of Thai ingredients.  Also, I’m the kind of cook who thinks cooking from recipes is The Man trying to stifle my creativity; therefore, I have to learn the hard way sometimes.  And that often means making food that can be improved upon. By all means, if you have suggestions for this recipe, fire away.

In other news: It turns out the Hot Boyfriend couldn’t get home for Christmas, which means I will have company for Christmas.  He’s hoping I will cook his grandmother’s  Ham Balls, which I will share with you so long as I don’t utterly destroy a cherished family meal because I refuse to follow directions.

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