Thursday, April 29, 2010

What, No Cookies?

Oh, there will be cookies. Many, many cookies. Right now? Locked up my mind they are! Hmmmff!

My goal when I started this blog was to only post when it was all worked out, as a complete package with cookies, stories, recipes, everything in its place. No journal entries about what I did this morning, or profuse apologies about not posting, and promises to write soon. So..... oops?

I love getting these blogs together. It is a lot of work, and I do have an idea of what I want it to be like that I strive to meet. There is a certain flow that I'm holding myself to. I've learned a bit about this process, though, that is a bit humbling. For instance, publishing promises about the NEXT blog just might put the kaibosh on the spontaneity of the creative process. "Hey I know I promised 'X', but here's something else instead!" Can we say "Flaky"? (And not in a buttery pastry sense.)

Maybe I'm too hard on myself. I am going to make good on the Iron Chef story, with the secret ingredient: oh, no, I'm not going to tell you.

And wait, did I say No Cookies? I lied. Oops again! Say it with me: "Flaky"!

My boyfriend Ken told me a story about when he and his brother Chris would watch TV as kids. When the commercial for Peek Frean cookies came on, with the tagline "Who ate all the Peek Freans?", they would ask "Who ate all the Freak Peens?". This apparently horrified their mother for some reason and she would tell them "Stop saying that!" in great disgust. Of course you know how such a scenario plays itself out. They were delighted, and she continued to be disgusted by them.

I haven't seen Peek Freans around, and a little research turned up 2 important things:

1. They're still made in Canada, but have ceased production in the U.S. (I believe diehard fans can order them online.)

2. There is an ad campaign from a few years ago that features Peek Frean cookies in an internet soap opera. Wanna watch it?

Thanks for your patience, and thanks to those who have signed up as followers. By the way, I have made the cookie dough. Also, comments are open to anyone, feel free to leave them!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

New Digs and a Bountiful Harvest

Wow, the summer is gone! It's been a long time since the last post here at Strange Cookie Central Headquarters. Actually there are a number of reasons why that happened, but number one is that our Headquarters has moved! Not in the World of the Web, but here in the nonvirtual plane. My computer was in a box for a couple of months, actually. Well, it will still be awhile before we've really settled into the new house, but we have a small living area pretty well set up while the rest of the house undergoes some further changes, and I have happily made some cookies to present to tell a little more of my story.

I have had the joyful opportunity this year to have a GARDEN. Oh, finally, dirt, and license to dig in it! As you can see from the top of the page, I have made some cookie representations of a few of the products from our small but bountiful back yard. But first, one more story that I've had on the back burner.

Moving really put things into an uproar, and face it, summer is not cookie season. Now as September winds down, the winds are changing, and ovens all over the city are lighting up, including my own.

What a wonderful tool we have in our convenient home oven! How easy to use: twist the knobs, and open the door! Seldom these days do we need to kneel with our ear on the floor to light the pesky pilot light, thanks to the brilliant invention of the electronic ignition. Hey, I grew up using a wood stove for heat and cooking in the wintertime, which took a bit of experience, and maintenance. (Not without its reward, I must add. Cooking with wood is wonderful.) I've learned to not take for granted the luxury of a reliable, WORKING oven, having lived without one in a previous (affordable but rough) apartment. It was the prospect of having a beautiful and functional stove/oven that made the sticker shock of moving from that apartment to the next (pricier) one an easier prospect to bear. Imagine my dismay when last winter, just before Christmas, as I closed the oven door on our prospective pizza dinner, it disengaged itself from its hinges, and refused to go back on!

Well, more accurately, one side of the oven came off the hinges. What a bitch. (I've made an effort to keep the language clean here at Strange Cookies, but there is no better description of the moment than that.) Eventually, it came off on its own, but in order to eat our dinner that night, I attended the baking of the ill-fated pizza dinner holding the door onto the oven with my backside.

Oh, yeah, you know the little light inside? Well, no amount of duct tape would hold that little button in place to keep it from shining. Nothing less than an oven door would do, and I couldn't seem to get the cover off to remove the bulb.

I tried to fix it myself, but narrowly escaped injury to my fingers and stopped. Eventually, I cornered the maintenance guy as he performed some other duties around the building and explained my problem. (Anyone who has rented knows that this is sometimes the best way to ACTUALLY get things done, rather than going through the regular channels of communication.) He was very nice, but after attempting the same things that I had, he declared that he (Paul) would have to call the Appliance Guy, Jim.

I'm a fix-it type. I eagerly awaited Jim, and what promised to be some kind of very specific (and possibly magical) tool that he had in his possession to reengage the hinges of my oven door. Jim himself was a pretty normal looking working man, very quiet. He came in, did all the same things that Paul and I had done, then disappeared to his truck. I was really curious about what he would have in his hands when he returned. As he reentered the apartment. I saw that he had fashioned a pair of crude hooks with coat hanger wire. After a few minutes of wrestling, the oven door was back on. He smiled silently as I thanked him, and left.

I've changed homes and ovens since then. The one I have now works well, and we've had no issue. As Fall begins, the squashes arrive, and Ken and I look eagerly forward to baking and eating our share. Happily, some of those will come from our own garden, as we have an impressive butternut squash plant that popped out of the compost pile in Spring and has proceeded to own the rear quadrant of the yard.
With a little bit of direction from myself, it has grown up and around our compost, making an attractive and productive screen.

It grew up along the Rose-of-Sharon bushes, over the shed in the back and headed toward the alley. Before reaching that, it took a quick left toward the parking area behind the house, where I was able to grab the tip of the vine and point it back toward the yard. On the roof of the shed is a cute weathervane shaped like a pony, and next to it is a giant butternut squash.

I'm growing another type of squash as well, a zucchetta squash, (Zucchetta Tromboncino Rampicante), which can be eaten young ala zucchini (summer type). If allowed to ripen fully, it can be served as a winter type squash (zucca).

It too has begun to rampage, and has produced some impressive specimens, two of which are suspended from another shrub on the opposite side of the yard from the butternut. The largest of the two last measured in at 4 feet and 1 inch, with the other right behind. As there are a number of others to eat now, I plan to let these develop as fully as they can before the weather turns cold.

The other vegetables that I have chosen to represent in Strange Cookie form are a lovely Red Burgundy okra, a plant I love for it's form and flower as much as the wonderful vegetable it produces, as well as the humble and delightful green bean.
No bean compares with the bean that is home grown and freshly picked. This is also one of my favorite cookies because it was so simple, and looks quite true to life. Also, the green icing represents my first attempt to use a natural food coloring-- liquid chlorophyll. I did have to modify the color with the addition of some yellow to get the green I wanted, but the icing maintained its integrity with addition of the liquid (which has a glycerin base), and it worked beautifully in a straight application with a brush for a watercolor type glaze (the stripes on the zucchetta squash.) The cookie dough itself is a modified recipe in progress, replacing a portion of the creamed butter with olive oil, and a chocolate version using the same idea, but replacing a portion of the flour with cocoa. I will give the recipe soon, I want to run it through its paces one more time to firm up the method. It works well and tastes great!

As a last note, I will be following this blog shortly with another to tell the story of the South City Iron Chef competition that I competed in over the weekend. I'm happy to announce that I won the competition, and although I will not reveal the Ultimate Secret Ingredient, I will hint that it could not be any more appropriate to this blog if I chose it myself. I look forward to sharing that experience.

Until then!!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Noo-duhl-doh (or, Get Ready To Stuff It)

I love noodles. I know that many of you will join me in this love.
I really love making homemade stuffed noodles of various styles. Gyoza (asian dumplings), ravioli, tortellini, and piroghies (polish potato dumplings) all come and go in my freezer at home. I feel rich eating a few handmade stuffed noodles with very simple accompaniment. I am not at all rich in the traditional sense, but things like a few piroghies with steamed vegetables and a lovely mashed steamed garlic and olive oil dressing, or ravioli filled with mushrooms and walnuts accompanied by a nice glass of wine makes me feel pretty fancy.

Actually, I am not particularly fancy. My style is usually pretty simple, and I love to let the natural essence of the foods I choose show through. The word "noodle" is not very fancy, but it is fun to say, and whatever you call it, noodle, pasta, whatever, it is wonderful to eat.

I've looked at a number of recipes for pasta dough, (or as Ken often quotes me saying, "noodle dough"). Generally speaking, the consistant formula is:

3 eggs (room temp is best)
2 cups flour (all-purpose, semolina, or whole wheat)

Just like pie dough, have a little water on hand if the dough seems dry. Unlike with pie dough, the water should be room temperature, or even a little warm. Also, I have substituted a couple of tablespoons of water for one of the eggs a number of times with no difference in quality. Some recipes add salt, or even a little olive oil. I've decided neither is necessary. If I'm making dough for asian dumplings, or for pieroghies, I usually use just high gluten bread flour and enough water to make the dough.
As far as kneading the dough is concerned, I like to really work it by hand. I knead it until it is very smooth, sometimes as long as 15 minutes worth of work.

Something I've learned about fresh pasta dough-- my least successful attempts (dough too soft, for example) have been absolutely delicious. As with any dough, experience teaches what is too wet, too dry, just right. And also, as with many doughs, success does not mean that the learning process is over.

The filling that I have pictured here is a mixture of crimini mushrooms (baby portabellas), spinach (I used frozen, squeezed to a dry consistency), shallots, garlic, carrot, celery. walnuts, ricotta salata cheese (crumbled), and parmesan, with some black and ground hot red pepper.
Sautee the shallot, garlic, celery, and carrot (in that order), add the walnuts to get them toasty, then the mushrooms. Let cool some, then process until evenly chopped and fine. Transfer to a bowl, and process spinach separately. (It helps to roughly chop it before adding to food processor, then add to bowl with the mushroom- walnut mixture. Add the cheeses and spices, mix, and taste for salt. Easy! Try your own combination! If the mixture seems a bit wet then add some cracker or bread crumbs, some finely ground oatmeal, or finely ground seeds or nuts. Too dry? Add some ricotta cheese, or canned tomato product. I made a nice one recently with a jar of commercial bruschetta topping that I had in the cupboard. I've never made bruschetta in my life, but I bought it because it was a nice looking tomato and artichoke sauce that seemed pretty natural, was on sale, and seemed destined to come in handy. We all have these sorts of products around; this is a perfect way to use them!

The dough gets rolled out at some point. If you've just made it, let it rest for a while-- let's say an hour or two. I often make it the night before, to fit the process of making ravioli (as I did in this example this example) into my daily schedule. I often cut the rested dough into small rectangles before rolling them into long tongue-shaped ovals. With a machine, roll each bit out on progressively thinner settings, starting with one, and ending up on 3 or 4 (as you prefer). It's good to do a small batch at a time, letting them rest slightly between settings to let the gluten in the dough relax slightly. If you are rolling by hand, the same rings true, don't go for the desired thickness all at once, as it will start shrinking up on you. Do a few, fill them, then do a few more. Use a pan or a clean countertop sprinkled with flour as your work area. Sprinkle your pasta machine with flour before you start rolling as well.

The ravioli making process I use is a bit crude. I blob little bits along one of the strips of dough, take a small clean brush, moisten the edges and between the blobs slightly, then fold and shape the whole piece into a strip of ravioli to be cut apart. Don't use too much water, and don't forget to press out the air that gets trapped before sealing the dough around the filling. Then take a knife and cut apart, trimming them a bit if you wish. You can cook the odd little bits of pasta too, they're quite nice.

The ravioli cookies were made with the Basic Rolled Cookie dough, and iced with lemon/powdered sugar icing (see Lemon Cookie recipe). The mushrooms were tinted with cocoa in the icing. The filling for this strange cookie was walnuts chopped with semi-sweet chocolate and a touch of cinnamon.

The featured cookie assortment represents mushroom, asparagus, roasted garlic cloves, with a sprinkling of pine nuts (yeah, those are real).

Well, I have a backlog of stories to tell in Strange Cookie form, so I'll be back soon!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Valentine for.... Me?

Well, another cookie sort of holiday has sprung up. I made some heart cookies for a little coffee shop that opened up next door to the catering kitchen, using the Lemon Cookie dough. I started with some plain cookie hearts, added a dollop of raspberry jam, and topped them with another heart with its middle cut out that I'd glazed with lemon icing, and sprinkled with red and white sparkly sugar. Lovely.

I nabbed a couple of plain hearts for my own Strange Cookie amusement. I don't think these need much explanation-- we've all eaten those starchy little Valentine hearts with the little 2 or 3 word sayings: "Be Mine", "Hubba Hubba", and the like. I made a list, but only had 4 cookies to decorate.

There were other ideas on the list that I liked: "I Heard You", "That's Fine", "You're Kidding", "Don't Worry", and "Yeah, Sure" to name a few. Feel free to use these for strange cookies of your own.

Be back soon!

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Different Sort of Holiday Cookie

Well, this one will be short and sweet. I recently had the opportunity at a friend's birthday party, to gather a couple of suggestions for what I termed "alternative" Holiday cookies. Just a little change, variations on the usual stars and reindeer. Not many people at the party were into the idea, but the ones who were came up with some drawings that were just what I was looking for. I traced their drawings onto a thin piece of plastic sheet, and cut them out, making both a form to cut the cookie, and a template drawing from which to copy the details in icing later. This is how I do a lot of my designs.

There were four designs that made it into finished cookie form-- three are represented here, one was a little too naughty for me to feel comfortable posting on this Family Friendly blog. Not really dirty, but I don't want to give anyone the wrong idea about the tone of Strange Cookies. It was funny though, and made us giggle.

The first cookie was designed by the Birthday Girl's three year old daughter, Maggie Sage. Maggie draws excellently, and is crazy about kitties.

The next was designed by our friend Bill, who first met me way back in my bakery days. We've cooked together a few times, and I loved his idea for the Asian pear.

I did my best to represent the spots and squiggles from his Sharpie-marker-drawn cartoon. This was a strange cookie after my own heart.

The last cookie was designed by my sweetie, Ken. It is a Holiday Rocket, or, as Ken suggests, a Christmas Bomb. Either way, I like it. I've been known to hang little monsters and spaceships on a Christmas tree now and then, so again, right up my alley.

The icing on this one exhibits some bloom as a result of being transported in the car when it was 7 degrees outside. (Yes, I said 7 degrees. Yes, Fahrenheit. It was COOOOLD.)

It was fun interpreting these drawings into cookie form! I have lots of ideas of my own to explore in the New Year, but this seemed like a good way to enter into the holiday baking season. By the way, Maggie and I also cut out stars and reindeer and Christmas trees from the yummy Lemon Cookie dough (I made it with white whole wheat flour). It was a great party.

Whole Grain Ciabatta Wedges, Basic Bread Technique, Cookies To Boot

I've had a lot of exposure to bread baking in my life, and over he last year or so have worked it into my regular routine. Frankly, it is better to do the work and have the good stuff around than to be without it. Ken and I have jokingly termed store bread as "bread substitute". Our morning toast routine revolves around, and is enhanced greatly by Professional Strength whole grain ciabatta style rolls, toasted, split, and toasted again. We keep them in the freezer and pull them out as needed. I do my best to not overbake them for the most perfect toast or sandwich experience. (Twice toasting helps both to thaw for slicing and to prepare the crust for a lovely crunchiness.) I also press the dough out thinly enough to make rolls that fit in a wide slot toaster without first slicing. I have used many different methods, some more elaborate than others to prepare the dough for my House Rolls (wedges), but the same basic core of ingredients. I would like to begin with the basic formula and method. This incorporates some basic techniques which do a lot to further the skills of anyone with an interest in bread baking.

Kate's Multigrain Ciabatta Wedges

1 packet dry yeast (not the rapid rise kind)
1 T honey
3c. warm water (temperature should not exceed what feels comfortable on your wrist)

proof until foamy

add 3 c. high gluten bread flour (try to get an unbromated kind. I like King Arthur flour)

Beat vigorously until gluten begins to develop. I beat it about 400+ strokes with a wide wooden spoon. (Allow yourself to take breaks, if you need to. Remember: this is worth it.) Then beat in:

1 c. of rye flour, cover, and let rise at least 30 min. (The longer the better. This stage can extend from 30-40 minutes in a warm place, to overnight in a moderately warm to cool spot.) It's best to get it nice and bubbly, and doubled in size.

add to sponge:

2 c. ground oats (rolled oats ground in food processor)
2 c. buttermilk
2 eggs

If there's time, let it rise more. Otherwise proceed:

1 1/2 T salt (sea salt)
1/2 c. wheat germ
3 c. rye flour
approx. 4-5 c. whole wheat flour
mix, and then knead together. (Add the flour a little bit at a time, at first a cup at a time, then less as the dough gets stiffer.) Eventually just stick your hand in there.
It's going to be messy. You will be scrubbing the dough off later. Just get in there. This dough is a bit sticky with whole grain starchy goodness held together in a web of gluten developed in our sponge. Beating with the paddle earlier saves on kneading time later, I've found. It's important to allow a nice whole grain dough to be a bit wetter than perhaps one's instincts might dictate to allow the freshly added flour to swell slightly during the next resting period, and to give a moister freshness to the baked product.

At this point, you will be adding a little flour at a time to the dough, and folding and pushing the dough itself to knead the flour in. I find that one hand helps to keep the dough in place, while the other does the bulk of the folding and pushing. I switch off sides, and sometimes use both at the same time. Again, the dough will still be a bit sticky when done, but you will notice more and more the tendency of the dough on your hand to want to reattach itself to the rest of the ball as it reaches its finished stage. Sometimes I take a scrub break if my hand is too sticky. (Having a nail brush around the sink is really helpful!)

When the dough has received its full quantity of flour, it's time to let it rest again before shaping and baking. This time, I sprinkle flour on a tray or one of the baking pans, plop the dough on it, and cover it with plastic, either commercial plastic wrap, or a plastic shopping bag. (I use plastic shopping bags for a lot of stuff. I'll slit the side with a pair of scissors to make more of a flat sheet.) The point is to keep the outside of the dough moist. Before plastic wrap, thin moistened cotton towels were used for this purpose. Professional bakeries were (and are) equipped with a room or a small cupboard with a high humidity and warm temperature to proof (raise) the dough. The act of letting the dough rest and swell is referred to as "proofing". At this stage, we want the dough to proof in ball form until it fails to bounce back when poked with a finger. When you get a pronounced belly- button looking dimple that just sits there, your dough is ready for the next step.

When the dough has proofed to your satisfaction, divide it into 3 or 4 pieces, depending on how much you feel comfortable dealing with at once. For this size batch of dough, I usually cut it in thirds, and after flattening one of those pieces with my hands or a rolling pin to about a 1/2 inch thickness, cut that piece into 12- 15 individual pieces. (My picture may be a larger piece of dough, stretched to fill the entire tray. I've taken a lot of pictures of different batches of dough. Those are also some pretty big pieces I've cut it into!)
It really is up to you to choose how large to cut your wedges. I've cut them different sizes for various needs. Make little bitty wedges for a dinner party, or bigger ones for breakfast toast or sandwiches.

After cutting the wedges, it's time for the final proofing before baking. This time the baking pans get sprinkled generously with flour (no greasing). Also, sprinkle the tops of your dough wedges, and then transfer them to the baking pan, spaced at least an inch apart. Now you're going to cover with plastic again, and let them rise until they once again fail fail to spring back when poked with a finger. When they've risen to that point, put them in a 350 degree oven for about 30 minutes, switching the pans around about halfway through. My system is to start working the next ball of dough when the first one goes into the oven. Brown lightly on the bottom (turn one over and check.) Cool on a rack, and wrap it up in plastic ONLY after it's cooled completely. If you don't have time to cool it completely, (before, say, going to work, or to bed), put in a papr bag, and wrap it up later. Warm bread in a plastic bag tends to get soggy from residual steam and condensation.

click here for slideshow documenting above process

The part of this process that I want to highlight in Strange Cookie Form is the initial Proofing Of The Yeast.
This is where it all begins. If there's no action here, nothing will happen later, no matter how hard you try. Use live yeast, warm water, nice honey or some other sugar food to give the yeast incentive, and you're in business.

I won't sat that there is no work at all involved in making bread. There is. I've had the opportunity lately to use some commercial mixers in the process as well, which helps, but needs a little adapting to. My experience is that with a little practice, and knowledge of the science of breadmaking, as well as just having experience with the nature of the beast, making decisions about what to do at various stages of the process can be the easy part. However, just in case my Dear Readers might need it, I've included a video to illustrate what might happen if things go wrong................

I haven't forgotten the other recipes I've promised. I'm feeling a new batch of homemade pasta coming on. (Mmmmm, ravioli!)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Do You Like Monster Cookies?

Frank Zappa once asked, "Do you like monster movies? I looove monster movies." He then went on to describe a particular monster movie and its cheezy production, before cranking into the song "Cheepnis". (This is from the album "Roxy & Elsewhere", a collection of hot live performances from 1973-4. Wanna listen? Click here. Note: this is an audio-only presentation on YouTube.)

Well, I too love monster movies, and I looove Frank Zappa as well. Apparently, it was a Halloween tradition for him to play a Halloween show, which must have been the most fun a person could have at the time, if you like that kind of thing. (Apparently the tradition lives on with his son Dweezil and the band ZappaPlays Zappa.) I've chosen, with much encouragement from Ken, who is the REAL Zappa fan (scary) to commemorate Frank Zappa's contribution to, well, many things in our life. He's definitely contributed to my own madness, and continues to do so, as evidenced here. In addition to the cookie, I'm including a live performance of a great Zappa guitar number, Watermelon in Easter Hay.

If you want to see more stuff, YouTube has a number of juicy offerings, one of which is a BBC documentary from 1992, Jazz from Hell. Also, check out (You can hook up to "Zappa Radio" through this site.)

I've also chosen to pay homage to some monsters who have recently crossed my path, and with whom I'm pretty sure Frank Zappa would be glad to share company. The first of these is a classic. In 1932, Boris Karloff starred in the original version of The Mummy. This is quite a different role from that of Frankenstein, a recent success at the time this film was made. The mummy Ardeth Bey is a speaking part, and for a few minutes appears to have a chance with the girl. Alas, he is too creepy.

The next strange cookie is fashioned after the Brain from Planet Arous, a giant criminal alien brain set on taking over the world. Here is a link to a more complete synopsis of the film, and if that does it for you, here is a link to watch the movie itself. It's a real hoot to watch the brain bounce through the air on a wire. Sometimes I prefer the bad special effects to the good ones!

Speaking of bad special effects, the last movie monster I've chosen to immortalize in Strange Cookie form is a classic of cheap science fiction cinema, Robot Monster.

Considered to be second only to the great (and awful) Ed Wood classic, Plan 9 From Outer Space, this movie has it all, plus a bubble machine. Watch as Robot Monster picks his way through a field, trying desperately not to step on anything. Be amazed at his subtle manipulation of the rabbit ears antenna as he tunes in his magical space TV to get a better look at the human woman's breasts. Amazingly, the man who played Robot Monster in the film went on to make quite a career for himself in a gorilla suit. I can only speculate, as he was terrible in this movie, that he came with his own suit. The director of this movie attempted suicide after its release, not, as it was rumored, because it was so bad, but because he got screwed out of his cut of the money by the film's distributors. Oh yeah, the original release of this movie was in 3-D! (We saw the 2-D version.) For a more complete synopsis, click here. To watch the movie itself, click here. (The movie link I've included was posted in kind of a TV show format, so if you can sit through, or skip through, the little comedy sketches, the whole movie is there. I don't think it would be that hard to find this movie if that doesn't do it for you.) If all this excites you beyond belief, or if you just want to buy the T-shirt and skip the movie, check out this cool site I found.

And finally, I want to mention that a hugely important election is coming up on November 4th, and I urge EVERYONE to get out there. (There is a website devoted to a national pumpkin carving campaign in support of Barak Obama, Yes We Carve. Check it out. I've decided to contribute a strange cookie to the cause.

And a note to all my friends: you can't really vote twice. I'm just trying to be funny. Let's all hope for a smooth and fair election. Wouldn't that be nice?

COMING NEXT: a lovely whole-brain, uh, I mean whole-grain bread recipe. Mmmmm!