Category Archives: Cooking

Making Preserved Lemons

I like to make homemade Christmas presents. This year, the only one I managed was a couple of jars of preserved lemons for my brother-in-law the chef and our friend John, who is a serious cook.

Making the lemons is surprisingly easy. You put a couple of tablespoons of sea salt in the bottom of a clean quart canning jar, then quarter the lemons lengthwise so the sections are just barely held together at one end. Open up the lemon and salt the sections liberally, then pack them into the jar, squishing them down as you go, then cover them with fresh lemon juice and a couple more teaspoons of salt. I added some peppercorns and coriander seeds to make the jar look interesting and (I hope) the lemons taste better. Next time, I might also add some garlic cloves. The lemons ferment on the counter for three days, then in the refrigerator for three weeks. You can use them to cook Moroccan chicken and I don’t know what other dishes.

As for how they taste, I’ll have to wait for a report from my victims gift recipients.

The Christmas Cake

Maybe we went a little overboard on the sprinkles. This was the crunchiest angel food cake I’ve ever eaten. Tasted good, though.

The frosting was chocolate whipped cream, one of my favorites because it’s so easy, but seems like it was a lot of work. You can make it in about five minutes: whip together a pint of whipping cream, 6 tablespoons cocoa, and 6 tablespoons of sugar.

Technical Difficulties

I’m not quite sure how this happened, but I just made a batch of the worst-looking shape cookies ever. (See below for proof.) The shapes kept kept crumpling into featureless blobs when I tried to get them on the cookie sheet to bake them, even after I chilled them in the refrigerator. They tasted good, though, in keeping with the “tastes great, looks like slop” theme of my cooking. One of these days I’m going to achieve a better-looking presentation, and then watch out!

In other Christmas news, my daughters are planning to watch the worst holiday TV double-feature ever tonight: an episode of “The Vampire Diaries,” followed by the Christmas episode of “My Little Pony.” Bonus points for guessing which girl wanted to watch which show.

Harvest Time

There is an ancient apple tree growing in the semi-wilderness behind our kitchen. You couldn’t call this tree beautiful; it had been neglected for many years by previous owners and had large sections that had died off. What wasn’t dead was overgrown and ratty looking. Every year, though, it valiantly produced a crop of apples. Here’s a picture of Old Faithful:

When I wouldn’t let my husband cut down the tree completely, he hacked off most of the dead limbs, fertilized, and watered it to see what would happen. This seemed to confuse the apple tree, which flowered in December and produced a mini-crop of tiny apples in late February.  We worried that those little apples of confusion were all we would see this year, but we were dead wrong.

This year’s apples were the best ever, and there have been so many of them that we keep filling up a five-gallon bucket in the kitchen with new ones.

I use the lazy person’s harvesting method of waiting until the apples fall on the ground and then going out every few days while I let the dog out and picking them up in my apron. Luckily, the ground under the tree is soft and there isn’t much bruising at all.

Here are some of the latest apples, cut up and waiting to go in an apple crisp:

I think they are Gravensteins, the apple that used to be the dominant crop of the north San Francisco Bay until the vineyards started eating up the apple orchards.

Easter Traditions: Dyeing the Eggs, Etc.

Our Easter this year was a hurried, last-minute affair. Saturday night came and we hadn’t dyed any eggs. There was something sad about the prospect of Easter baskets full of stark white, undecorated eggs. So we dyed these while eating our Easter Vigil dinner at my father and stepmother’s apartment. Whenever someone went out in the kitchen, we’d move the eggs around to try to get some more exciting colors. But gone were the interesting drip effects we’d get by dripping candle wax on the eggs. Our wax-crayon drawings were pitiful rushed affairs. And most of the eggs came out pink, no matter what their official color was.

Then we attended the world’s dullest Easter Vigil mass in this beautiful church in San Francisco:

This photo was taken at dusk and doesn’t do justice to the rich blues and reds in the stained glass.

When the Easter Bunny finally hid the Easter baskets at ten-thirty this morning, he (all right, she) forgot to put them out of dog range, so our dog found them and ate most of Basketball Girl’s chocolate eggs, foil and all. He tried out a few of her jelly beans too, but didn’t like them as well and spat out a bunch of gummy green wads on the rug in our spare bedroom. Happy Easter to you too, Marcus!



Building a Better Gingerbread House

I don’t know what’s in my friend Mary’s gingerbread dough, but it created a much more structurally sound gingerbread house than anything we’ve tried before. Sunny and Basketball girl decorated this house (after some emergency repairs by their father):

Mary’s two kids made this little cottage, which reminds me of the witch’s cottage in Hansel and Gretel:

Easter Cinnamon Bread Recipe

Another Easter and Christmas tradition in my family was making my great-grandmother’s cinnamon bread while listening to The Messiah. Making the bread is a five-hour marathon, but oh, so worth it for the yeasty smells of baking and the wonderful cinnamon taste on Easter morning. My sister called me from the grocery store in Boston this morning, having gotten insanely ambitious, wanting to know the ingredients list.  So here’s the recipe (with apologies for the vague instructions — that’s how it came down to me):

Great Grandmother’s Cinnamon Bread

Makes two loaves, more or less.  Bake in 350 oven.

1 cup of milk

1/3 cup sugar

1/3 cup butter

3/4 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

1 envelope dry yeast

1/4 cup warm water

4-5 cups of white flour

Lots of cinnamon and sugar, mixed together until it’s fairly dark with cinnamon

Scald the milk in a saucepan, then add the butter, sugar, and salt while the milk cools. When milk is warm, but no longer hot, beat in the eggs.  Dissolve the yeast in the water and add to the milk mixture. When milk mixture starts to bubble, add flour. Keep adding until the batter thickens and starts to crawl up the beater, like this:

It should still be a sticky batter, not a thick dough.Cover the mixing bowl with a damp towel and let rise until the dough has doubled in size, like this:

Punch down the dough. It should look like this:

Let the dough rise again until doubled, then punch down again.

Put the cinnamon and sugar mixture into a pie pan or bowl. Scoop up a handful of batter and use your fingertips to flatten the batter into a little pancake in the cinnamon mixture, getting it well coated with cinnamon sugar on both sides:

Twist the dough into a rope:

then put into a well buttered or no-stick bread pan.

Here’s what the loaves look like when they’re ready for their final rise:

Cover with a damp cloth and let rise one more time, then bake in 350 degree oven for 30 minutes. The tops should be browned and the bottom of the pan should give a slightly hollow sound when tapped.

Remove loaves from bread pan immediately and cool before wrapping in aluminum foil. But don’t forget to eat some while it’s hot!

I’ve made myself hungry writing down this recipe, so it’s off to the kitchen to bake some cinnamon bread.

The Chocolate Cakes of Easters Gone By

I grew up in a Catholic family that really observed the austere season of Lent. We fasted and didn’t eat meat and gave things up and especially didn’t eat sweets for the 40 days starting on Ash Wednesday. On the night before Easter, we would go to the Easter vigil Mass, then come home to have a piece of this cake, baked by my mother earlier in the day, with vanilla ice cream.  That combination of warm cake and cold ice cream gave real meaning to the idea of the resurrection. It’s best as a six-layer cake with a double recipe of chocolate butter cream frosting, but it’s delicious and tender as a sheet cake too.

Kay Downs’ Devil’s Food Cake

  • 1 c. softened butter
  • 2 c. sugar
  • 3 squares unsweetened baker’s chocolate
  • 5 eggs, separated
  • 1 c. buttermilk
  • 2-1/2 c. cake flour (not regular flour)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda dissolved in 1 tablespoon boiling water

Preheat oven to 325. Dissolve soda in boiling water and set aside. Melt chocolate. Cream butter, add sugar gradually. Add melted chocolate, mix well. Add egg yolks. Beat. Sift four and salt together, then add them alternately with the buttermilk. Add vanilla, then soda/water mixture. Beat egg whites until stiff, but not dry. Fold in gently until just incorporated. Bake in three 9-inch greased and floured tins for 20 minutes. Cool before frosting. To make a six-layer cake, cut each layer in half horizontally with a serrated knife after it cools. Frost with my grandmother Kay Watson’s chocolate buttercream frosting:

Chocolate Buttercream Frosting

Melt together:

  • 6 generous tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
  • 1 stick (1/2 cup) butter
  • 6 tablespoons milk

Beat in one pound powdered sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Add nuts if desired. I like it with a dash of salt added.

This chocolate cake with chocolate frosting (with vanilla ice cream again, of course) was also the cake of our childhood birthday parties. There are so many old photos of a table surrounded by people with puffed out cheeks, helping the birthday child to blow out the candles on this cake.

One of the (few) sad things for me about being a parent is that my own girls don’t want me to make this cake for their birthdays. They prefer angel food cake out of a box, with chocolate whipped cream frosting. It makes me realize that the chocolate cakes of my childhood, like other memories, existed in a certain time and place, and can’t be fully shared with anyone who wasn’t there.

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