Friday, December 31, 2010

The Orange Blossom Special

It's New Year's Eve. Having had my fill of both 2010 and drunken New Year's celebrations, I am staying home tonight. A dear old friend is in town and will be stopping over for a visit with his new wife and I am looking forward to a calm and relaxing evening!

When Grant first mentioned that he was coming to town, I (half-jokingly at the time) said "Since I know that you're coming I can bake a cake!" As he and Nicole are newlyweds, a cake seems appropriate for their visit. As fate would have it, there just happens to be a cake I've been just dying to make ever since the first time I experimented with the recipe. It's a very simple Mandarin orange cake. The thing that makes it special is the orange blossom frosting!

The first time I made this cake, I was in someone else's kitchen. One ingredient they happened to have on hand was Orange Blossom Water, an item usually found in Middle Eastern Halal markets. It's got a very strong and wonderful flavor and just a little goes a long way. I added a teaspoon or so to the cream cheese frosting I was making and discovered one of the most amazing flavored things I'd ever tasted! It wasn't exactly orange tasting though it had that quality. It was kind of flowery and was just different enough to make your taste buds really sit up and take notice!

I also recommend using a real vanilla bean, if you can. I actually got mine on the internet. There are several places to get them and remember, they're cheaper if you have friends to split the order with!

Note: the following recipes are the high-fat, high-calorie versions of the recipe. If you would like the low-fat version, go look on another blog. That ain't how I roll.

Mandarin Orange Cake
Preheat your oven to 350°. Grease and lightly flour a 9"x13" pan and set it aside. Take out two large mixing bowls. In one, combine:
2-1/2 c all purpose flour
1-1/2 t baking soda
1-1/2 t baking powder
1/4 t salt
Whisk everything together and set aside. In the second bowl, mix:
1-3/4 c sugar
1/2 c softened butter
1/2 c vegetable oil
4 eggs
2 t vanilla extract
Beat together on medium speed until combined. Add:
1 15 oz. can Mandarin oranges, drained, liquid reserved
1/2 c reserved orange liquid
Mix on medium to combine and, in 2 or 3 increments, add the flour mixture. Beat at medium speed until well combined. Pour into pan and bake for 35-40 minutes. I find it is always best to spin the pan 180° about halfway through the cooking process to insure even baking. The cake will be done when it is golden brown and spongy, and pulls away from the sides of the pan. You may also test it by inserting a clean toothpick into the middle. If it comes out clean, it's done! Remove the cake from the oven and cool completely before frosting.

So far, so good. Make sure you don't throw out the reserved orange liquid yet - you're going to need it for the frosting! Usually, about the time you put the cake into the oven it's a good idea to set out the cream sheese and butter for the frosting, giving them ample time to soften. The last thing you want to deal with is cold butter and cheese! Once the cake has completely cooled, you're ready for the next step.

Orange Blossom Frosting
In a large mixing bowl, combine:
8 oz cream cheese, softened
6 T butter, softened
Beat at high speed until light and fluffy. Add in:
3 c powdered sugar (one cup at a time)
2 T reserved liquid from oranges
Beat until the desired consistency is obtained, adding a little more orange liquid if needed. Add:
1 t orange blossom water
the seed paste from 1 vanilla bean (or 1 t vanilla extract)
a dash of salt
Mix well. Spread on the cake and merrily consume!

Remember, when dealing with orange blossom water - it is very strong stuff! Don't use too much or it will overpower the other flavors! You may of course substitute vanilla extract for a bean if you can't get one but if you can, it's well worth the effort. In addition to a cleaner vanilla taste, the visual effect of the specks of vanilla throughout the frosting is very appealing!

Happy New Year everyone!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Apple Cranberry Pie

Winter Solstice is officially taking place on Tuesday the 21st but, seeing as how it is the weekend, the party at Sekhet-Ma'at Lodge will be held tonight. We will all be gathering for a ritual celebration followed by a pot luck feast. This means I'm going to have to cook something and, after waking with a slight hangover from last nights birthday festivities, food was not exactly high on my list.

By this afternoon, however, I was feeling much better and that's when I got the inspiration to bake a pie for the party. Reviewing what I had on hand, I decided to make an apple pie. I remembered that I had some cranberries stored in the freezer and opted to throw them in as well.

I started by making my favorite pie crust, a recipe I got from America's Test Kitchen for all butter crust. It always comes out wonderfully flaky and delicious so I've never felt the need to make a different crust. Here is the double crust recipe.

In a small mixing bowl, whisk together:
1/3 c ice water
3 T sour cream (I always use plain yogurt)
Set this mixture aside. In a food processor combine:
2-1/2 c flour
1 T sugar
1 t salt
Pulse to mix and then add:
2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into small pieces and frozen for 10-15 minutes
Pulse several times until texture looks crumbly. Add the water/yogurt mixture and continue to pulse. You may have to add a tablespoon of ice water though I usually don't. The crust should not be over-mixed or over-handled. It is done when you pinch a small amount and it sticks together. When it is done, pour it out of the processor bowl onto a large piece of plastic wrap. Gently press the dough together into a flat disc, wrap and refrigerate for 10 minutes.
Once the dough has cooled down a bit, remove it from the fridge and split it into 2 batches. Roll out one half into a disc about 10 inches across and carefully place it into the pie dish. Roll the other half out into a 9 inch disc and place it on a parchment lined baking sheet. Cover both halves with plastic and return them to the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

As I mentioned, this crust is incredibly flaky and tender. If you were using it for a prebaked pie crust, you would bake it at this point. Since I'm not doing that, I put it back in the fridge so the butter could harden back up.

Making the pie filling is simple enough. Once the crusts are back in the fridge, peel, core and slice:
8-10 medium apples
Granny Smith are always best for pie but I did not have any. Instead I used Fujis and a couple of Cameos. Place the apples in a large bowl. Add in:
1 c fresh or frozen whole cranberries
1 T orange juice
Combine and set aside. This is a good time to get your oven warming. Place the oven rack on the lowest setting, put an insulated cookie sheet on the rack and set the temperature to 500°. (Be careful using non-insulated cookie sheets as they may cause the bottom of the pie to burn.) In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together:
1 c sugar
2 T flour
1 t cinnamon
1/4 t allspice
1/4 t ground clove
1/4 t nutmeg
1/4 t salt
Add the above ingredients to the apples and combine until the fruit is well coated. Remove the pie crusts from the refrigerator. Carefully transfer the fruit into the bottom crust, mounding the fruit to get all of it into the dish. After the apples cook and cool, they will shrink a bit. Cover the apples with the top crust, rolling it out a little more if needed. Pinch the edges of the crust together and, if you like, make a decorative edge by either scalloping the dough with your fingers or pressing down on the dough with a fork around the edge of the dish. Brush the top of the crust with:
1 egg white, lightly whipped
Make a few slits in the top of the crust to allow for venting. Place the pie on the hot cookie sheet and reduce the temperature to 425°. Bake the pie for 25 minutes. Rotate the cookie sheet, reduce the temperature to 375° and bake for another 30-35 minutes. Allow the pie to completely cool before cutting.

The pie, as you can see from the picture, came out wonderfully! The crust was crispy (as the butter crusts always are) and the cranberries added a delightful dimension to a classic favorite. The comments from the party-goers seemed to agree. This is quite definitely a pie I will make again. And again.

A Happy Solstice to you, one and all!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Easy Sunday Night Marinara Sauce

The holidays are nearly upon us again and things are beginning to get hectic. It's been tough to find the time to cook, much less write about it afterwards! Today, I am baking more holiday cookies and snacks to be given as gifts. I'm starting the day with Orange Spice Oatmeal Cookies (see last week's post) and am following that with Ginger Snaps (see A Perfect Day for Gingersnaps) and Candied Pecans (see Thursday's Spread - The Aftermath). As it turns out, we have some friends that will be dropping by this evening and I'll be adding dinner to that list. What to do?

With all the mess I had going in the kitchen I wanted something I could put together easily and quickly, preferably something I could cook on the stove since the oven would be in use. I figured a marinara sauce would be best and easiest.

For this recipe, I am not getting all fancy with fresh tomatoes or anything, I'm pretty much sticking to the pantry staples. I sometimes add olives and/or bell peppers to this recipe but today I'm keeping it to what I have on hand.

Start by taking a large pot and sautéing:
1/4 c olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
When onion begins to sweat, add:
1-1/2 c sliced crimini mushrooms
Cook over medium heat until the mushrooms begin to brown. Add:
4 cloves garlic, minced
Stir together for about 1 minute and add:
2 c water
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes
2 6 oz. cans tomato paste
Stir well until tomato paste is well incorporated. Add in:
2 bay leaves
1 T sugar
2 t salt
2 t oregano leaves (2 T if fresh)
1 t basil (1 T if fresh)
1 t thyme (1 T if fresh)
1 t parsley (1 T if fresh)
1 t fresh ground black pepper
Bring sauce to a simmer and reduce heat to low. Cook for at least one hour. If you choose to take the sauce away from Marinara and toward a Bolognese, you can add meat at this point. At about the time you're going to start the water for the pasta, add in:
1/2 c dry red wine
1/4 c grated Parmesan cheese (if needed to thicken)
Continue to simmer until pasta is done. Serve with Parmesan and garlic bread.

Sunday night dinner made easy. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a plate of spaghetti to eat!


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Krampus' Orange Spice Oatmeal Cookies

Today is December 5th and in some parts of Europe this evening holds a special meaning. Celebrations are held with fur-covered goat-men parading through the streets, frightening children. Sound like no holiday celebration you've ever heard of? Welcome to Krampus Nacht!

For those of you who are still wondering what this is all about, let me give a brief explanation. Krampus is a mythical devilish creature originating in the folklore of Austria and Hungary. Krampus is said to be a counterpart to Saint Nicholas and would accompany the latter on Yule. Good little boys and girls would get gifts from Santa while all the brats would be whipped with birch branches and carted off in a large sack. To this day festivals are held around the world to celebrate this darker aspect of the Christmas season, including here in Portland, Oregon - a city that is always more than willing to embrace the bizarre and unconventional.

In light of it being Krampus' special day, I decided it was high time to get started on some of my holiday baking. The first recipe I always reach for at this time of year is my favorite holiday cookie - in fact, one of my favorite cookies ever - Orange Spice Oatmeal Cookies with Cranberries!

I came up with this recipe a few years ago when I was considering a batch of Oatmeal Raisin Cookies. It was around the holidays and I had recently made my Orange Spiced Cranberry Sauce (see post for November 11, 2010) and still had oranges and cloves on my mind, as well as a large amount of dried cranberries. The rest is history and now I pass the recipe on to you, my foodie friends, so you may enjoy them as well!

The one thing I did a little different this time is that I used vanilla bean instead of vanilla extract, just because I had some and...well, why not? In the recipe below, I left it as 1 t vanilla extract. I used 2 vanilla beans, sliced lengthwise and scraped out with the edge of the knife. The leftover pods I cut up and toss in with coffee grounds when I'm making a pot - YUM!

To begin, preheat oven to 350°. In a medium mixing bowl, sift together the dry ingredients:
1-1/2 c all purpose flour
1 t baking soda          
1-1/2 t cinnamon
1 t ground clove
1/2 t nutmeg
1/2 t salt
In a large mixing bowl, beat together: 
1/2 lb (2 sticks) butter, softened
1 c firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 c granulated sugar
When creamy, add:
2 eggs
1 t vanilla extract
2 T grated orange peel
Beat well, until smooth and creamy. In 2 batches, add in the dry ingredients above and mix well. Stir in: 
3 c uncooked oats
1 c dried cranberries
Drop by rounded tablespoonfuls onto an ungreased insulated cookie sheet and press lightly to flatten. Bake 10 -12 minutes or until golden brown. Cool for 1 minute on the cookie sheet, then remove the cookies and cool them completely on a wire rack.
Makes about 3-4 dozen cookies.

I have dreams about the orange flavor of these cookies! In my dreams, when Krampus comes to take me away, I entice him with my cookies and he forgets all about me for another year. I feel confident in saying that you will no doubt be able to ward him off as well if you offer him a plate of these delicious cookies. Try it and see! You have absolutely nothing to lose! In the meantime...

Friday, December 3, 2010

My Favorite 1970's Casserole!

Today's post is dedicated to my good friend Paul Weir, a true aficionado of classic American cuisine.

If you are in your late 30's or older, I'm willing to bet you have a favorite - even if you won't admit it! I'm talking 1970's casserole dishes, that monstrosity of cuisine that came close to scarring an entire generation. Looking at some of these old recipes, with all their processed food ingredients like Velveeta "cheese" and hot dogs, it's no wonder that the following generation embraced fast food the way they did!

Still, for those of us who grew up in that period, there is almost always one favorite, that one dish that you still make even if your spouse thinks you're completely nuts. For many it's Green Bean Casserole, with condensed cream of mushroom soup and those crispy onions that come in a can. For me, it was always what in my family was called "Tater Tot Casserole". 

The beauty of Tater Tot Casserole is its absolute simplicity. There are 4 ingredients. A 12 year old can make this casserole and, as I can vouch, has on many an occasion! It's hamburger and tater tots and there is not a kid anywhere that will not think this is the most incredible thing they've ever had! Which is why this recipe has stuck with me for all these years and is still one of my most favoritest comfort foods!

Making Tater Tot Casserole is easy. Simply take:
1-1/2 lbs. ground beef
and press it into the bottom of a 9x13" baking dish so that the raw hamburger completely covers the bottom. Then spread over the top of the beef:
1 can cream of mushroom soup
Over the top of this pour:
1 can French onion soup
Working in rows, arrange:
1 32oz package tater tots
over the top of the onion soup. You may wish to leave a 1/2" space around the top between the dish and the tots, as the burger will shrink a bit when it cooks. Sprinkle the tots with salt and pepper. Bake the casserole at 425° for 40-45 minutes, until top is golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow to sit for 5 minutes before cutting. Serves 4-6.

As you can see, this recipe is painfully easy. One of the best things too is that, because this recipe is so simple with minimal ingredients, you can style it to your own taste! Try adding mushrooms, peppers, garlic, bacon, and/or cheese to the recipe. Flavor it with herbs, spice it up with chili powder or curry. Or keep the kids happy and just leave it plain. Anyway you go, this casserole has a good chance of ending up on your "favorites" list and, if you're like me, will be one of your guilty pleasures for years to come!


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

Growing up, I used to eat sunflower seeds. I wasn't as addicted to them as some kids were but every now and then I would go on a binge until mouth-blisters would force me to stop. Pumpkin seeds, on the other hand, I wasn't too fond of. The kind you bought at the corner market in the little bags, hanging right next to the sunflower seeds, weren't that great. They were white as could be and had no real flavor. Because of this, we never really had any urge to roast the seeds we cleaned out of our jack-o-lanterns every Halloween. It makes me sad now to think of how many yummy pumpkin seeds were thrown out every year when, within an hour, they could be transformed into a treat tastier than potato chips or popcorn!

The great thing about roasting pumpkin seeds is that you have a world of flavor combinations at your fingertips. If you like spicy, make them spicy. If you like garlic, pour it on. You could even make them sweet, if you wanted to! I have my way of making them and pretty much stick to that particular "recipe" every time I roast them. The important thing is roasting them correctly, beyond that flavor as you will. I give measurements for the seasonings I use below but these are only guesses! When I actually make the seeds, I never measure. Each time I make them, I have a different amount of seeds so there is no hard and fast rule here. The measurements I give below are based on a pan whose bottom is completely covered in seeds.

To begin, set your oven to 325°. Take the seeds from the pumpkin(s) and rinse them off a little in a colander. You don't need to get them super clean and some folks like leave a lot of pumpkin goo on the seeds for flavor. I will also pick out most of the large pieces of membrane, leaving just seeds. The seeds will be pretty slimy at this point. Pour the seeds into a 9x13" baking dish that has been sprayed with non-stick spray or coated with vegetable oil. Now is when you season them. I am giving measurements below but, again, these are only guesses.
2 T kosher salt
2 t garlic powder
2 t cayenne powder
a sprinkle of ground dried thyme (optional)
Stir up the pumpkin seeds so the spices get evenly distributed. Place the pan in the oven for about 20 minutes. Remove and stir. Bake for another 15 minutes. Stir. Continue to do this over the course of an hour or so. Once the seeds begin to dry, you'll want to start stirring at more frequent intervals. Also remember as you stir to break apart any clumps of seeds that might try to stick together. The important thing to remember is that you want the seeds to get a deep golden color. If you take the seeds out too soon, they won't be as crispy, and that's the real secret to making a great pumpkin seed - crisp! Once the seeds have gotten a nice golden honey color, allow them to cool for a bit and eat!

That's it, really! Like I said, the secret is roasting them for long enough. Under roasted seeds tend to get soft and acquire a stale taste and texture. Don't be afraid to let them roast, just keep a constant eye on them, stirring them every 5 minutes or so. The reward is a delightfully crispy snack and a guarantee that you will never throw out another pumpkin seed!


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Turkey Desolation - The Aftermath

The sugars in the apple cider brine helped give the bird a darker color.
First off, I hope everyone reading this had an excellent Thanksgiving with an abundance of food, love and friendship! I know I did!

Our hostess, Mae.
This year we grouped at my friends Mae and Nate's house, just outside Portland. There were about a dozen of us and way too much food! We were a little late getting the turkey in - I'd really meant to get it in the oven by 11:00 but didn't actually get to Mae's with the bird until after noon, getting the turkey in the oven at 12:30. This was a 24 lb. bird, bigger than any I'd ever cooked before. I wasn't really sure just how long it would take to roast this monster, but figured we had all day so no sweat.

We had plenty of time to go outside and chase after their small flock of chickens and get things set up while we waited for everyone else to show up. I got the polenta stuffing ready to go into the oven and took some time to hang out with good friends - and a few glasses of wine!
Waiting for the turkey!
As it turned out, we had plenty of time to socialize, as the bird took well over 5 hours to roast. It was worth every minute of the wait! The color was unbelievable! The meat was dripping with juices, the apple and cinnamon flavors giving the turkey a taste unlike any other holiday bird I've ever had.

Prior to the feast, we gathered outside for a Thanksgiving ritual that included a dedication of old bones and a reading of the poetry of William  S. Burroughs.  Then it was time to eat!

Mae cooks the carrots.
While Mae finishes the carrots, Peredur works on the gravy.
We had 2 different stuffings, 2 different green bean casseroles, carrots, a cauliflower mash, mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes - not to mention the Waldorf Salad and several pies! And turkey. So much turkey! We had gotten enough to feed way more than were on hand, even eating the way we ate, meaning we had quite the haul of leftovers!

It was a fantastic Thanksgiving, replete with fun, friendship, and feasting. The very best way to celebrate Thanksgiving is, after all, to surround ourselves with the very people we are thankful for! Let every day be Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Pecan Pie vs Pumpkin Pie

Photo by Kat
 Today begins the cooking and preparation for tomorrows big turkey feast. And when I say "big turkey," I do mean it! We've got a 24 lb. free-range turkey, giving us something to be mighty thankful for this year!

I will be doing most of the cooking this year, though not all. My dear friend Mae will be playing hostess after we made a deal that if she had everyone over, I would do most of the work. I would like to have hosted myself but Kat and I only have room in our tiny house for about 3 guests. At last count, we're expecting 15 or so for Thanksgiving and that number may still rise! A few other friends will be pitching in on the cooking and bringing dishes. There will be absolutely no shortage of food!

Here is a brief rundown of this years menu:

Roasted Turkey, brined in apple cider with oranges and spices

Tofurkey (not mine, I promise!)

Polenta Giblet Stuffing

Gluten-free Vegetarian Stuffing

Garlic Mashed Potatoes with gravy

Orange Spice Cranberry Sauce

Waldorf Salad

Green Bean Casserole

Ginger Carrots

Homemade Whole Wheat Rolls with butter

Gluten-free Pecan Pie

Bourbon Pecan Pie

Scratch Pumpkin Pie

I'm fairly sure no one will go hungry tomorrow. I will be preparing all but the gluten free stuff, Waldorf Salad, the carrots and green beans. At the last minute I decided to make a Pumpkin Pie. That's a desert that seems to be falling out of favor more and more as people begin exploring more non-traditional Thanksgiving ideas. Some people are pumpkin pie aficionados. Others are not and most of those seem to downright hate the stuff. Myself, I've never been the biggest fan. This may be entirely to having spent my life eating pumpkin pie from a can. Tonight, I'm going to make a pie from scratch. I'm certain someone will eat it!

Now pecan pie, well that's a whole different story! Pecan pie is, hands down my favorite and I look forward to Thanksgiving just so I can make one. Chess pie, a corn syrup based custard of which pecan pie is but one variety, is a Southern specialty and there are endless ways to make it. Add pecans, buttermilk, maple syrup., whiskey, vanilla. The flavor combinations are endless and everyone has their favorite. Make a cornmeal crust and it will take you to another world!

Today's cooking begins with the rolls. These I made completely by hand, not even using a spoon! While the dough was rising, I set to work on other things, like getting the turkey into the brine. This year I took a tip from Pure & Yummy on making apple cider brine. I did mine a little differently, using the following recipe:

3 quarts apple cider
6 cinnamon sticks, broken
about 10 whole cloves
1 t allspice (I would have used whole if I had it)
2 bay leaves
2/3 c kosher salt
2/3 c sugar

I mixed all these together in a stock pot and brought the mixture to a boil in order to dissolve the salt and sugar. Once done, I set the pot out on the front porch to cool (it's about 31° outside right now). Once it had cooled, I took our turkey and cleaned it out real good, washing it and patting it dry. I put it inside a large 5 gallon bucket, adding ice and cold water to finish filling the container. I sealed it tight and put it in the shed out back until tomorrow. It will only get down to the mid-20's tonight, not enough to freeze the brine (the salt will see to that!).

Next on the list today - making Orange Cranberry Sauce. I already outlined this process in an earlier post. The difference this time is that I did not use vanilla bean, preferring the taste without.

Next up, pie crust. The recipe I like the best is a butter crust from America's Test Kitchen. I've never gotten anything but rave reviews anytime I've ever made it. At first, I was only going to make the Bourbon Pecan Pie but, since no one had offered to bring a pumpkin and because we have 3 little pie pumpkins in the basement, I thought that it would be just as easy to make 2 pies as one. I roasted one of the pumpkins and pureed the meat to use later.

I made a 2 crust batch of pie dough and split it in two pieces. I wrapped each in plastic and put it in the fridge until later.

By this point the dough for the rolls had risen and could be rolled out into little balls about 1" to 1-1/2" in diameter. In retrospect, these were too small. I've only made rolls a couple of times and am still learning how big to make them. I placed the rolls on the parchment lined cookie sheets and let them rise until they had doubled in size. I then baked them at 350° for a half and hour or so.

Once I had finished with the rolls, it was time to start on the polenta. Since the oven was free for the time being, I decided to roast the seeds from the pumpkin. I cooked the polenta for a half an hour or so and poured it into a greased cookie sheet to cool overnight.
Photo by Kat
Now it was pie time. I started with the pecan. First, I preheated the oven to 400°. Taking one of the crusts out of the fridge, I rolled it out into a disc big enough for a 9" pie dish. I fit the crust into the dish, then covered it with foil, carefully pressing it down to cover the bottom and sides of the crust. Then I filled the foil with pie weights. You can buy these at a kitchen store if you like spending money. Or you can use rice or, as I did, pinto beans. I won't be eating these beans but I will keep them around for the next pie! I baked the crust for about 15 minutes. I set it aside while I made the filling.

Bourbon Pecan Pie Filling
Heat the oven to 275° and place the rack to the middle setting. Set up a double boiler or place a heat proof bowl over a saucepan of water. Melt:
6 T unsalted butter
Once the butter is melted, remove the bowl from the heat and stir in:
1 c dark brown sugar
3/4 c light corn syrup
3 eggs
1 shot Kentucky bourbon
1/2 t salt
Whisk everything together well and place bowl back over the heat. Continue heating, stirring regularly, until the temperature reaches 130°. Remove the bowl from the heat and stir in:
2 c chopped pecans
Pour the filling into the prebaked crust and bake for 50-60 minutes until the custard jiggles. Remove from the oven and cool completely on a wire rack It is best to let the pie sit overnight, which is why I like to bake a pecan pie at least a day in advance.

Now that pie #1 was out of the way it was time for pie #2. This time there was no crust to prebake, and pumpkin is an easier pie to make than pecan.

From Scratch Pumpkin Pie
Heat the oven to 425°. Prepare a 9" pie dish with crust and refrigerate until ready for use. In a large mixing bowl, combine:
2 c pumpkin puree
1 c evaporated milk
1/2 c brown sugar
2 eggs
1 t cinnamon
1 t allspice
1 t ginger
1 t cardamom
1/2 t ground clove
1/2 t nutmeg
1/2 t salt
Whisk everything together until smooth and creamy. Pour into chilled pie crust and bake at 425° for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350° and continue baking for another 45 minutes. If the crust starts to get too dark before the pie is finished, take a strip of foil and carefully cover the outer edge of the pie. The pie is done when a knife stuck in the center comes out clean. Cool completely on a wire rack.

All right, that's it! I'm off to bed to rest up for tomorrow. Have a Happy Turkey Day everyone!

Photo by Kat

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Word on Food Buying Clubs...

In several of my blog posts, I have mentioned that we get wonderful organic produce, free-range non-factory meat and poultry, herbs and spices, alcohol, even kitchen supplies and apparel through our neighborhood food buying club. I have had many people ask me what this club is and how it works. I thought I would take a brief moment today to write a few words on the subject.

First, let us begin with a basic definition. A food buying club is, in short, a group of neighbors who put their buying power together to purchase food wholesale. They then volunteer their time to receive, sort and distribute the items. This allows us to purchase the highest quality food at reasonable prices. 

In our club, we are fortunate enough to have a neighbor who has a shop building behind their house that we use to receive and distribute product. That gives us one main central location to pick up our orders. Still, every now and then someone will receive an order at a different location. It's no real problem as we are all pretty much in the same neighborhood.

To give you an example of how the process works, let's take a look at an average produce order. It begins by determining what is available from our supplier and making this information known to the group. My wife has worked to set up a database where people can just go online and fill in the order sheet with how much they want of each item. Sometimes, there won't be enough people ordering a particular item to fill a case and so we won't get that item. Once everyone has their order in, we figure out what we'll be ordering from the supplier, collect approximate payments, and send the order in. We get a produce shipment every other Friday. On the day of delivery, a few of us meet up at "the shop" and divide up the order. Because people usually pay ahead of time and we never know the exact cost until the order is divided, we have to 'guess-timate' the amounts. We keep careful records and everyone knows how much they owe or how much credit they might have.

It's really that simple! Sure, there's a little work involved but it's worth it! The organic produce we get is cheaper than the supermarket and honestly looks way better than the non-organic produce available through the local chain stores. Our turkeys have real dark meat because they're free-range, not kept in cages. The food is spectacular!

This is the primary benefit of food buying clubs - fresh, wholesome, high-quality food. There are other benefits as well. Like community. These days, we Americans are absolutely horrid when it comes to getting to know our neighbors. More and more, we keep to ourselves, shunning those who live closest to us, those who we encounter frequently in our communities. My wife and I have gotten to know more of our neighbors through the food buying club than through any other means. We also have the satisfaction of knowing that most of what we buy comes from local suppliers and farms. We do less business with the big chains markets and we're much happier!

Food buying co-ops like the one in our neighborhood have been operating around the country for years. There were a couple of instances where government and law enforcement raids have taken place, mostly dealing with the sale of raw dairy items. If you start a neighborhood food club in your area, it is wise to check state laws as to what is regulated and what isn't.

If you are interested in starting your own food club, here are some sources that you might consider. First, I would check with the United Buying Clubs website to see if there might already be a food buying club near you. This website has a great deal of helpful information to help get you started. The Veg Family website also has a helpful page on food co-ops. Of course, you may also contact me if you have any questions and I'd be happy to help you in any way I can!


Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Wild Hare for Stew

Bunnies. They're cuddly, fuzzy, adorable - and oh so delicious! And they are definitely on the menu tonight!

Every now and again, one of our local markets brings in some rabbit. I've been getting a strong craving for a good rabbit stew for some time now and so I jumped on the opportunity to pick up a little while I had the chance. Unfortunately, I could only get a 2 lb. rabbit. I would have preferred more like 3 lbs.

There are several methods of going about making Rabbit Stew. Having just acquired a couple of cases of 2006 Mia's Playground Pinot Noir, I thought it would be appropriate to use that as a base for the stew. I added a bit of homemade chicken stock as well, as I thought it might compliment the flavor. If you do this recipe at home, you should know that I make my chicken stock strong - a 1/2 cup of mine is the same as at least a cup of store bought stock. I also thought that using sweet potato instead of Yukon Golds. (Note that when I say sweet potato that I am not referring to yams, which are orange in color, but to white colored sweet potatoes which are a different species entirely.) With fresh herbs from the garden and double-smoked bacon from the Russian market down the street, I was ready to prepare a mean pot of rabbit stew!

To begin, take a stock pot and, over medium heat, rend the fat from:
6-8 oz. slab bacon, cut into 1/4" cubes
Once the bacon is crispy and the fat has been rendered, remove the bacon and set it aside, leaving the fat in the pan. In a large plate, whisk together:
1/2 c flour
1 t kosher salt
1/2 t black pepper
Clean, dry and then dredge in the flour:
3 lbs. rabbit
Brown the rabbit in bacon grease over medium heat. You may have to do this in 2 or 3 batches. If you need more fat, use bacon grease if you have it or vegetable oil if you don't. When rabbit is nice and brown, remove it from the pan and set aside. Add to the pot:
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 c chopped celery
Saute in stock pot, stirring up the fond from the bottom of the pot. After about 5 minutes or so, when the onion and celery begin to become tender, add:
4 large garlic cloves, minced
Stir the garlic into the onions and cook for about a minute. Add:
a bottle of good Pinot Noir
4 c water
1/2 c chicken stock
1 t dry mustard
Increase the heat until the liquid begins to simmer and add the rabbit, bacon, and an herb bundle consisting of:
2 large sprigs rosemary
2 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
Cover and simmer for about 2 hours. Open a second bottle of Pinot and drink it while you wait. It was about this time that a couple of friends dropped by, one of whom brought a bunch of chanterelle mushrooms that he had picked. They were beautiful and fresh and I couldn't resist the idea of adding them to the stew.
After 2 hours, remove the herb bundle from the pot. Make a beurre manie by mixing together:
2 T melted butter
2 T flour
Mix well and add in some of the liquid from the pot. Continue to do this until the beurre manie is runny, then whisk the mixture back into the soup. Add in:
2 medium sweet potatoes, diced
2 carrots, sliced
In a saute pan, cook over medium heat:
1 T butter
1 c chopped chanterelle mushrooms
a pinch of salt and a dash of pepper
Cook the mushrooms until they are heated through but still firm. Just before the vegetables are cooked (which should take about 20 minutes), add the mushrooms. Adjust seasonings as necessary. Remove from the heat and serve with lots of napkins!

The mushrooms were just the ingredient the stew needed. It gave the stew an even more rustic flavor and reminded me a bit of boeuf bourguinon. The unfortunate thing was that the rabbit I purchased was rather lean on meat and left us working hard for minimal return. Still, it was delicious and went well with the pumpernickel rolls I had on hand. All in all, a very tasty meal!

Friday, November 19, 2010

For the Love of Squash

I've become fascinated with squash. There was a time when, like everyone else my age, I hated squash. No squash would ever pass these lips, I declared, no matter what sweet yummy stuff might accompany it. Squash was squash and it all sucked! Period!

Then I grew up. Squash is now quickly becoming one of my favorite vegetables if for no other reason than there are so many unique varieties, each one different in flavor and texture. I also seem to be fascinated by the bowl-like shape of the squash, and find myself compelled to use them as serving dishes. This was the case again tonight after I brought one of the many heirloom squashes we have in the basement upstairs. It was shaped sort of like a flat pumpkin and was kind of blueish green in color with an orange colored meat. I thought I would cut it in half at its equator and that would give me two shallow dishes. But what was I going to put in them?

I've made stuffings for squash, I've served soup in them, what next? My answer was quick in coming - PASTA! After all, why not? I wouldn't hesitate to serve pasta topped with squash, why not squash topped with pasta and a nice cream sauce? It sounded perfect to me! I promptly popped open The Flavor Bible and looked up "winter squash." I decided not to take the sweet route with maple syrup or brown sugar, opting instead for a more savory flavor with thyme, garlic, cumin and such.

I began by halving the squash as previously mentioned, along its equator. I scraped out the seeds and membrane and set aside some of this. I then applied:
4 T butter
1/2 t kosher salt
1/2 t garlic powder
1/2 t onion powder
1/2 t cumin powder
to the squash halves. I poked each several times with a fork and baked it at 350° for about 35-40 minutes, until the flesh was tender. I removed the squash from the oven and set it aside, covered in foil.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet over low heat, I melted:
1/2 c butter
Once the butter had melted, I added:
1 c squash membrane, large pieces cut up
6 sprigs fresh thyme
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 t kosher salt
fresh ground nutmeg
I sauteed these ingredients for about 20 minutes. I then drained the ingredients with a fine mesh strainer, pressing down on the squash with the back of a wooden spoon to get all the butter out.and back into the pan. You should press through a little squash through the strainer, this is okay. Add:
2 T flour
Stir well and cook for about 5 minutes. Stir in:
1/4 c chicken stock
Stir to completely combine with the roux. Slowly add:
2 c milk
1/2 t kosher salt
dash of white pepper
Stirring frequently over medium heat, warm sauce just to a gentle simmer. Adjust seasonings as necessary. Add:
1/4 c grated Parmesan cheese
2 T lemon juice
1/2 t fresh grated nutmeg
In a small pot, boil water and cook angel hair pasta. When pasta is finished serve inside cooked squash, topped with sauce and fresh ground nutmeg.

The end result was good, the squash having a very nice, almost pumpkiny taste. The sauce was thick and creamy with the taste of the thyme and cheese being dominant. The dish was delicious but had plenty of room for further experimentation. This particular recipe is vegetarian - one could certainly add meat, or even other veggies. Chili peppers would spice it up quite a bit as well.

Play! Create! It's why God made so many ingredients!

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Flavor Bible: A Review

One of the most exciting cooking books to come out in a very long time is Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg's joint effort The Flavor Bible (Hachett Books, 2008). This book is an absolute must have for the creative cook's kitchen!

The Flavor Bible is essentially an encyclopedia of ingredients and flavors; herbs, spices, meats, vegetables, grains, etc. Everything you can think of is listed alphabetically in these pages. With each entry is a list of other flavors and ingredients that pair well with that item. For example, let's say that I have almonds in my pantry and am trying to figure out what to do with them. I look up "Almonds" in The Flavor Bible and I find a lengthy list of things that work well with almonds. Some are obvious, of course, like chocolate, vanilla, and honey. Then come seasonings and flavors I hadn't thought of, like rosemary, plums, Italian sauces, and such. I also find recommended flavor combinations, like "almonds + chocolate + coconut" or "almonds + green anise + figs".

It's amazing how quickly this book became an indispensable part of my kitchen library! It's now the first book I pick up when I start planning a new recipe, or am trying to figure out something new and inventive to do with leftovers. The book has gotten me to consider flavor combinations that I might have overlooked if I were sticking to recipes tried and true.

The Flavor Bible took authors Page and Dornenburg eight years to put together. They drew upon the wisdom and experience of some of the country's most renowned palates, dozens of chefs whose knowledge gave this book the depth required to make it a truly effective tool for the modern cook. In addition to being an outstanding guide for ingredients, it contains helpful tips, dish ideas, recipes, antidotes and more. It is well worth the price and a fantastic gift for anyone you know who loves to cook!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Turkey Quesadilla Pie

Tonight's dinner was one of my favorite turkey leftover meals. I originally found it on some promotional recipe card and insisted, much against the protests of my wife, to create the recipe exactly as it was on the card. The result was not overly appealing, being bland and characterless with no real spice or flavor. Still, I felt the dish had potential and decided to play with it. Kat insisted I was wasting my time but I had hope of something better for the quesadilla pie.

The thing I like about the recipe is it's simplicity. It doesn't take long to make and it's very satisfying (when made correctly). It is comfort food, to be sure. The recipe calls for using a tortilla as a pie shell and it works well! The topping in the original recipe was just flour and egg - no seasoning whatsoever! It was bland and boring. With the addition of some fresh herbs and peppers, this dish really woke up!

I now present it to you, that perhaps you may add it to your repertoire of Things To Do With Leftover Turkey. I think you'll find it to be a nice change.

Adjust rack to center of oven and preheat to 450°. Spray a 9-inch pie plate with cooking spray. Press in:
a 10-inch flour tortilla
Spray the tortilla with cooking spray. Set aside. In a large bowl, toss together:
3 c shredded cooked chicken or turkey
1/2 c finely chopped fresh cilantro
juice from 1 lime
2 small jalapeños, finely chopped
1/4 c finely chopped onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
1-1/2 c shredded Monterey Jack cheese* (plus 1 c – see below)
1 T finely chopped fresh oregano
1 t kosher salt
1/2 t cumin
fresh ground black pepper
Spread chicken filling over tortilla. In medium mixing bowl, whisk together:
1 c all-purpose flour
1 t baking powder
1/2 t cayenne
Set aside. In small bowl, whisk:
2 large eggs
1 c milk
With wooden spoon, add egg mixture to flour and stir until well combined. Pour mixture over chicken. Top with:
1 c shredded Monterey Jack cheese
Bake for about 20 minutes until top is golden brown. Remove from oven and let stand for 5 minutes. Cut into wedges and serve with sour cream, guacamole, and pico de gallo.
Serves 6.

Quick. Easy. Satisfying. Yum!

Cheddar Cheese Pumpernickel Rolls

Today was another day spent in the kitchen getting some of the weekly cooking chores done. There was a pot of turkey stock to make, bread to bake and food for tomorrow, in addition to the meals of the day. I love days like this!

In making bread for the week, I decided to step away from the usual task of making a loaf of bread and opted instead to make rolls. One recipe I've made in the past and really enjoyed was for pumpernickel dough. I've always just made it into a loaf. Today, however, I thought I would make rolls with cheddar cheese in the middle. I've never actually tried something like this and it sounded like a good idea.

The first step is the dough. A good pumpernickel should be a nice dark brown and have a grainier texture than rye. Pumpernickel flour is nothing more than coarse ground rye flour anyway, like rye meal. The color comes from throwing literally everything black you can find in the kitchen into it. Balsamic vinegar, espresso, cocoa,  and molasses, all working together to create a unique flavor unlike any other bread.

To start the dough, begin by brewing:
2 c very strong coffee
I generally use a french press for this. Pour the coffee into a medium bowl and allow it to cool to about 115°. Stir in:
1-1/2 T dry yeast
1 t sugar
Let the mixture sit for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, in a large bowl combine:
4 T soft butter
1/4 c cocoa powder
3 T molasses
2 T balsamic vinegar
2 T gluten powder
2 t kosher salt
2 t caraway seeds
Mix well and then stir in the coffee/yeast mixture with:
1 c rye flour
1/2 c coarse ground pumpernickel flour
1/3 c corn flour
Combine well and begin adding:
3 to 3-1/2 c unbleached white flour
Knead until the dough is just a little bit tacky but not sticky. Place it in a greased container and allow to rise in a warm place for about 40-45 minutes, or until the dough has doubled in size.
While dough is rising, cut:
8 oz sharp cheddar cheese 
into 1/2" cubes and set aside.
Once the dough has finished rising, roll it out onto a lightly floured surface and form into an oblong shape. Take a sharp knife and cut the dough into two equal pieces. Then cut each half into four pieces and each of those into three. This will give you 24 rolls. You may, of course, make them bigger if you so choose. Take each piece of dough and flatten it a bit. Place a cube of cheddar in the middle of the flattened piece and wrap the dough around it. Arrange the rolls on two (or more) parchment lined cookie sheets, cover and allow to rise for another 40 minutes or so. Then the rolls are nearly finished rising, heat the oven to 375° and place the rack on the middle setting. In a small bowl, combine: 
1 egg yolk
1 T cold water
Wisk the yolk and water together until will mixed. Brush on to rolls just before placing the rolls in the oven. Bake the rolls for 35-40 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack.

Delish! These rolls are wonderful for those wintertime soups and are perfect comfort food. Bon appetit!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Orange Cranberry Sauce

I remember Thanksgivings when I was a kid. My mom would open up a can of cranberry sauce and my brothers and I would watch as it would wiggle its was out of the can and PLOP into the serving dish. It would be in the perfect mold of a can, including the rings around the middle. Nothing could look less appetizing and when I was young I did not like cranberry sauce. Of course, I had never actually tried it but I knew as all children know these things that if I were to put that jelly stuff on my turkey it would surely ruin it.

As a teenager, I decided to give it a try and discovered to my shock and amazement that I actually liked cranberry sauce. I tried a couple different types, including a homemade chutney that wasn't very good and decided that I liked the canned the best. 

I continued eating canned cranberry sauce for many years, I'm ashamed to admit. Fortunately, I finally had enough sense to get over the idea that fresh cranberry sauce was a bad thing and make my own. I've never opened another can of cranberry sauce and I never will.

Two of the flavors that I feel really bring out the best characteristics of fresh cranberries are clove and orange. At first I used orange marmalade but found I got a better flavor from grated orange peel. Tonight when I made some of this sauce, I decided to add a vanilla bean for no other reason than that I had one on hand. The taste was wonderful, the vanilla adding a nice tone to the sauce. I'm listing in the recipe below as an optional ingredient as it's not something I usually add though it is certainly worth trying. If you don't have vanilla bean, you can always try extract.

To start the sauce, combine in a saucepan:
1 c water
1 c sugar
Stir to dissolve the sugar and bring the water to a boil. Add:
1 12oz package of fresh cranberries
1 T grated orange peel
1/2 t ground clove
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise (optional)
When water begins to boil again, reduce heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally and crushing the berries against the side of the pan with your spoon. Remove vanilla pods (if using) from sauce when finished, scraping out vanilla paste and adding it to the sauce. Pour into a bowl and allow to completely cool. Cover and refrigerate until it is served.

That's all there is to it! The orange and clove in this sauce are enough to win over anyone who claims to not like cranberry sauce, guaranteed! I can't tell you how many times over the years I've won converts. You will too - try it and see!


Monday, November 8, 2010

The Great Sauerkraut Experiment (Part 3)

It has been 5 weeks now since I started my first batch of sauerkraut. I tried another taste today and decided it had fermented perfectly! It was tangy but not too sour and the cabbage, while soft, still had a faint crunch at the thicker parts. Now it's time to can it.

This part of the process is fairly simple. In one large pot, I brought about 6-8 quarts of water to a rolling boil and processed quart sized mason jars and lids for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, in a second large pot, I heated the sauerkraut to a simmer. To make this easier, I cooked to sauerkraut in two batches. I packed the jars and topped them off with brine before sealing them. I ended up with seven and a half quarts of sauerkraut.

Which brings us to Batch #2. You would think that seven plus quarts of sauerkraut would be enough to last for a while. I mean, I would certainly think so. My wife Kat, on the other hand, thinks differently. Kat is a cabbage convert, you see. When we met, she hated all things cabbage. I've slowly been bringing her around. One of her new enthusiasms is sauerkraut, which she has become an even bigger proponent of after the success of Batch #1. So we're going to do another bucket of kraut, this one even bigger than the last. In this batch I'm using:

2 large heads green cabbage, sliced thin
1 head purple cabbage, sliced thin
4 yellow onions, sliced thin
4 large cayenne peppers, seeded and sliced thin
5 jalapeno peppers, seeded and sliced thin
5 carrots, shredded
2 T caraway seeds
1 T yellow mustard seeds
1 T brown mustard seeds
1 T celery seeds 
sea salt

The purple cabbage will lend a ruby color to the sauerkraut. I also added a great deal more peppers than Batch #1 as spiciness was the one thing Kat and I felt was missing from that batch. The first batch made about a half of a bucket with two gigantic heads of cabbage. The cabbage I'm using for Batch #2 are almost as large, and I decided that three heads would do a better job of filling the bucket.

Once again, I put all the ingredients in the bucket, layer by layer, with liberal sea salt sprinkled on top of each layer. It is important to remember to press down each layer as hard as you can, compacting the kraut as tightly as possible into the bucket. If the salt doesn't extract enough liquid from the vegetables to completely cover the top of the cabbage after a few hours, add salted brine. I have never had to do this, at least not yet. I put a plate on top of the cabbage and sealed plastic containers of water on top of the plate to hold it down so that it continually presses on the sauerkraut, keeping it all under the brine.

And so we begin another five week wait. I may wait longer and let it get really strong, if I can keep Kat out of it that long! I'll let you know how it turns out. As always, feel free to post your comments, questions and stories below.


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Curry Cauliflower Soup

I've never really cared for cauliflower. I've turned my nose up at it for most of my life. It was only when I had real Indian food that I came to truly appreciate this vegetable. Inspired by the curry and the heat, as well as the dark and rainy weather outside in Portland, I decided tonight to turn a head of cauliflower into a pot of delicious creamed soup.

I used chicken stock in tonight's soup because I had some on hand. To keep the recipe vegetarian, simply substitute this with vegetable broth. I also went heavy on the garlic - 7 large cloves! - for no particular reason than it struck my fancy at the moment. They turned out not to overwhelm the soup, however, and supported the curry and spices quite well. I also used evaporated milk, as I usually do, instead of cream to cut back a little on the fat content.

I began by sauteing in a large stock pot over medium heat,
4 T butter
1 medium onion, chopped
I cooked the onions for about 5 minutes until they became translucent. Then I added:
7 large cloves garlic, chopped
I cooked the garlic for a minute or so and added:
3 T flour
I stirred the flour into the onions and cooked it for a few minutes until it began to brown a bit. Then I added:
1 qt chicken stock
1 qt water
1 c vermouth (or white wine)
1 bay leaf
1 T curry powder
1-1/2 t cardamom
2 t kosher salt
1 t turmeric 
1 t paprika
1/2 t black pepper
1/2 t white pepper
a pinch of saffron
I increased the heat to high to bring the liquid to a simmer. Once the broth began to simmer, I added:
1 head cauliflower, trimmed and cut into pieces
Setting the heat to low-medium, I covered the pot and allowed the cauliflower to cook through. It took about 20 minutes or so. Once the cauliflower was nice and tender, I creamed it in the blender, working in small batches and being careful to cover the top of the blender. I creamed it until it was smooth and poured the soup back into the pot. I added:
1 12oz can evaporated milk
1 T lemon juice
1 T grated parmesan
I stirred the soup well to incorporate the above ingredients real well. I adjusted the seasonings a bit and that's it! Dinner's served! I ate mine in a mug with a dash of paprika. It could also be served garnished with croutons and/or cilantro.

I love cauliflower!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Say Cheeeese!

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to head out to a farm a few miles outside Portland to attend a cheese making class. After my not quite so successful attempt to make mozzarella (see Blessed are the Cheesemakers, Oct. 10), I figured I could use a little help in this area.

The last time I tried to make cheese, I had gotten a recipe off the internet for "30-Minute Mozzarella" which, if you recall, took me a good 3-4 hours to make. This class was on how to make regular mozzarella which seems to take just about the same amount of time. The main difference between them, ingredient wise, is that the longer recipe does not call for citric acid. It's just milk and rennet. And, in the end, it came out much better!

My friend Emily decided to come with me and so, bright and early on a rainy Saturday morning with lattes in hand, we drove to the farm, located just south of Oregon City near the town of Colton. As we neared the farm, we were greeted by a couple of cows lazing under the pine trees, along with chickens, turkeys and ducks kept in pens and, somewhere behind the house, we could hear the squealing of pigs. Entering the house, we found ourselves in a large living/dining area. On one side of the room, an older woman sat at an old fashioned spinning wheel, hand spinning spools of wool. We were welcomed by our hostess, Stacie, and ushered into the large kitchen where the rest of the group waited. 

On the stove were two pots of raw cow's milk (taken from Jersey cows, it had a slightly higher fat content than average), each containing approximately two gallons. The first one already had the rennet added - veal rennet, to be exact - and was nearly done setting. The second pot was only milk and would have vegetable rennet added later. This pot was still in the first step, which is to heat the milk to 90° and let it sit for 30 minutes. 

The next step is to add rennet. We were using liquid rennet in the class, the rennet I have at home is in tablet form which requires crushing. The rennet should always be diluted at a ratio of 1 t rennet to 1 c water. (Always take care that the water you use is non-chlorinated! Chlorine will kill the bacteria that are needed to make the cheese.) In this case we had about two gallons of milk and were adding 1/2 t of rennet in a 1/2 c of water. Emily volunteered to do this step. Slowly pouring in the rennet with her left hand, she moved a wooden spoon in an up and down motion around the pot. This is one of the places where I messed up my first batch. DO NOT STIR THE MILK!  Stirring the milk is what kept my curds from setting right the first time. It is also important to use a wooden spoon. Never use stainless steel as it will also inhibit bacterial growth.

Once the rennet has been added, allow the milk to sit for an hour. By this time, the first pot had sat for an hour and finished setting. It had the appearance of yogurt and jiggled when lightly shook. There was a very thin film of whey over the top. Using a long knife, we cut the curd horizontally and vertically, making squares of about a half inch. Cutting the curd has an immediate effect and the whey begins to "bleed" out. Let the cheese sit for 20 minutes. 

After the cheese has sat for a bit, the curds will have continued to solidify as they separate from the whey. Gently stir the curds and reheat them until they are at 100°. As you stir, break apart any large chunks, the curds should be more or less uniform in size. Once heated, turn off the heat and let the cheese sit for 5 minutes, allowing the curds to sink. Pour off the whey and reserve for breadmaking or for making ricotta. Drain the curds well, using a large colander and place back in the pot. Run about 2-3" of 105° water in the sink and place the pot in the water. Cover and let sit for 20 minutes. By this time, more whey will have bled out of the curds. Drain off the whey and flip the cheese over in the pot, returning the pan to the water bath. Do this about five times, each time letting the cheese sit for 20 minutes and then draining and flipping the curds. Add hot water to the bath as necessary to keep the temperature near 105°. Eventually, the cheese should take on a shiny appearance. At this point, remove the curds from the pot and place on a cutting board. It is best to place a cookie sheet underneath to catch the whey that will continue to drip. Cut the curds into 8 wedges (or less if you are making a smaller batch) and allow the curds to rest for a few minutes.

While the curds are resting, it is time to prepare the hot and cold baths. For the hot bath, fill a pot with about 6 quarts of distilled non-chlorinated water and heat it to 170°. For the cold bath, dissolve 1/3 c of non-iodized sea salt in 2 quarts of ice water.

Take a wedge of cheese and immerse it into the hot bath for a minute or so until it softens. Gently massage and stretch the cheese, immersing it back into the hot water as necessary. It is wise to use rubber gloves for this step. Soaking the cheese in the hot water will not harm the cheese but over working it will. Be careful not to squeeze it or pull it too hard, as this will cause the cheese to become tough and rubbery. This was another step that I did incorrectly the last time I made cheese and again with the first wad of cheese that I worked with in class. Eventually I got the touch down, gently kneading the mozzarella into balls about 2" in diameter. The cheese is done when it stretches without tearing and becomes shiny. As soon as it's done, submerge the cheese into the ice water. It is important to cool the cheese as quickly as possible.

Once cooled, the cheese can be stored in the salt water for several months, though it is important to remember that the cheese will become saltier the longer it sits in the brine. When storing the cheese, you may also wish to place it in olive oil (the oil will solidify when chilled but will be fine when returned to room temperature), or use fresh herbs to flavor the cheese while it sits in the brine.

In addition to making cheese, we also had the opportunity to make butter by hand, using an old hand-cranked butter churning jar. Emily did most of the work there, being the tenacious sort that she is! It took Emily about 30-40 minutes to churn the cream into butter. Stacie told us she never uses the jar, preferring the quicker method of placing the cream in the food processor for 30 seconds or so. After taking a turn at the hand cranking for less than 10 minutes, I can't say as I blame her! The finished butter would then be salted (or not) and placed in a sealed jar and stored for a while to allow the cultures to ferment. We tasted the fresh butter and, while it was good, it was very mild and lacked the sharp tang that good aged butter has.

My thanks to Stacie for sharing her knowledge and experience with us. All in all, it was a very profitable day and I learned enough to get myself well on the way to making my own cheese on a regular basis. While it is an admittedly long process, taking several hours, most of that time is spent waiting. It's an easy task when you have other things around the house to tend to while the cheese sits. The reward is worth every minute invested!

My next cheese adventure will be to learn how to make ricotta from the leftover whey. I'm also looking to experiment with other soft cheeses like cottage cheese and Neufchatel. Rest assured, gentle reader, I will keep you informed of my pilgrimage into this culinary holy land. Praise Cheeses!