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!