Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Bread Crumbs

Caramelized Bread Crumbs with Rhubarb and Ice Cream

Is it too much to ask that the people in my family know when I want them to eat bread (so it doesn't get stale) and when I want them to leave it (so I can make breadcrumbs)? Okay, I suppose it is too much to ask. Not to mention completely unreasonable. But it would be nice.

I came to breadcrumbs late. I have no idea where old bread went when I was a child. Later, when I needed crumbs for something, I used them; otherwise, I'm ashamed to admit, unless I was making French toast or bread pudding, I threw away old bread.

Then one day I was eating lunch at a friend's house. After she cut the bread, she carefully brushed the crumbs off the board and back into the bread bag. These crumbs eventually made their way into a bag in the freezer. It's a trick she learned from her Italian grandmother.

Sweet and Savory Bread Crumbs, side by side

Now I'm doing the same. And I can't imagine not having breadcrumbs on hand. I like to toast them in a little olive oil to top pasta. I especially like them on pasta with anchovies and parsley, or on pasta with warmed cherry tomatoes.

But this summer I've remembered Danish Apple Cake. I fell in love with a lot of desserts when I lived in Denmark (check out buttermilk soup)--most involved both whipped cream and heavy cream (probably part of the reason I gained 20 pounds that year). But a favorite was the apple cake. It's kind of a cross between a Brown Betty and a trifle: applesauce is layered with cream and breadcrumbs. Simple and delicious.

The secret is in the crumbs. Recently I made it with an apple compote (finally using up last year's frozen Gravensteins) and rhubarb compote. Alternating layers (sorry, no photo) of the fruits and crumbs made a pretty trifle. Serve with a little whipped cream.

Or use the bread crumbs to dress up a dish of ice cream, as in the photo above.

Caramelized Crumb Recipe
Adapted from The Scandinavian Cookbook by Trina Hahnemann (a very interesting book)

1/2 pound stale bread, diced
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup sugar

Toast the bread (crumbs or tiny croutons) in a dry skillet, until they start to color. You'll need to watch them, and stir often so you don't burn them. Add the butter and sugar, and continue to cook and stir. The crumbs will slowly caramelize. When they reach the color you want, set aside.

Note: the crumbs will often continue cooking a bit in the hot pan--be sure to keep stirring a bit at first.

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Sunday, July 26, 2009

I'm a Glutton

Grace a bit older than one

Pavel has long insisted his name--our name--means 'Eats too much'. Zivny is Czech, and zivot means life. But in old Czech (and other Slavic languages) it means stomach. Or so he says. When pressed, it turns out this is pop-etymology. Or should I call it Pavel-etymology? Because no one else seems to think this is what our name means.

Though it's not a stretch. In our family, we have all been known to eat too much. Today, however, I'm a glutton for punishment. Yesterday I sent Grace, my 22 year old, off again--for a year this time. And today I'm reading 'One' on Gluten-Free Girl, about their beloved turning one. I should be used to this sadness, as Grace has gone to college in the Netherlands for the past three years. Before that, she also spent six months in the Dominican Republic and six months in France. Now she's heading off to Leiden, for a one year masters program in Book and Digital Media Studies.

It's mainly our fault. Pavel and I did everything we could to encourage this--I was an exchange student myself, as was my sister. Pavel speaks in an accent so thick some people probably think he's kidding (he's not). We've felt that learning a second language, and, maybe even more importantly, learning another culture, was a basic part of an education. Or should be. And so Simon spent a year in Ecuador (and is now bumming around Europe) and our youngest is leaving in September for a yearlong exchange outside Napoli. I'm still in denial about her departure.

But back to Gluten-Free Girl's piece. It was so nice to be taken back to our own delicious first year of parenting. Spending hours listening to Grace laugh, watching her make funny faces, and emptying--one-by-one--our bookshelves (apparently she found her calling early!). And especially this: "I love seeing the world again, anew, present and alive, through her eyes." I know just how she feels. The wonderful thing is that this lasts--hearing our kids talk about their lives and travels, or reading what they write on blogs and facebook, is the greatest joy I know.

Last week the Oregonian ran an interview with the people who wrote The New Global Student. I haven't seen the book yet, but I hope many people take a look. I was especially struck by Maya Frost's final comment about dealing with sending kids off: "You're so excited by this person they've become that it overpowers the wistfulness and sadness".

She's right, but that payoff seems long away when you're waving good-bye at the airport.

The glutton in me is wondering what comfort food this week demands. A favorite food of Grace's (that would be hard to pinpoint--she's as good an eater as they come), or perhaps something from my own exchange year in Denmark? Unfortunately, the weather in Portland this week is promising to be unforgivingly hot. I think it calls for ice cream. From the grocery store. Lots of it.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Red Currant Glut

I have one red currant bush, but it produces. Boy does it produce. Unfortunately, I can be a bit lazy about doing anything more than freezing my currants--my freezer has at least 12 gallon bags of them!

I know this because I just went and checked. And it was hard to pull myself away from the open freezer. Shamefully, I must admit they're not all from this year. This is the year I'll finally make a huge batch of red currant jelly. I swear.

In the meantime, I'm using them for desserts--they make a delicious pie, their tartness lending themselves especially nicely to a meringue pie.

Red Currant Meringue Pie
Filling Adapted from the Joy of Cooking

4 cups red currants
2/3 cup sugar
3 tablespoons flour

Combine the currants and sugar in a saucepan, and cook over a low fire until they are softened. Add the flour, and stir until the currants boil and the juices thicken. Cool.

Put filling into a pre-baked pie shell

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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?

That is the question. I brought some sour cherries home from the market and announced my intention to bake a pie. My daughter, who's home from college for a month, asked if she could help. "I need to learn how to make pies."

Funny. Because just a few months ago my mother was visiting. And when she came, I told her I wanted to make pies with her--so I could learn, for once and for all, how to make a decent pie. Fact is, it makes a lot more sense for me to have faith in my mother's pie-baking acumen than it does for my daughter to hope to learn at my knee!

For starters, my mother wrote the book. Well, one of them--and it's the one I use (you can see how much). How could you not, when you have the author on auto dial for advice?

If you're going to make a pie, it makes no sense not to make the crust. That's really the main point. Otherwise, make a cobbler or a crisp. Or eat a bowl of iced cherries (though probably not sour ones). I basically follow my mother's recipe, though these days I use lard and butter instead of shortening and butter. Her ratio, from Chez Panisse Desserts (makes enough for one double crust pie):
  • 2 cups flour
  • 3/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon sugar
  • 5 tablespoons cold salted butter
  • 6-1/2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons lard
  • 3 tablespoons plus (if needed) 1 teaspoon ice water
If I don't have salted butter, I add a bit more salt; if I'm short on butter I use more lard. Nice thing about lard--like shortening, it ensures a flakier crust. Unlike shortening, it tastes good, so you're not sacrificing flavor for flakiness.

I tend to be shy about pressing together the dough, fearing a tough crust. That means my dough often falls apart. I've long since come to terms with the fact that any perfectionist pastry chef genes that run in my family skipped me. Just because I can't make a pretty pie to save my soul is no reason to go through life pieless. So I persevere. Because while I can't make a perfect looking pie, if you're going to err with pie dough, err on the side of flaky, falling apart crust rather than perfect looking-tough eating crust.

For my filling I combined one quart pitted sour cherries and 5 large apricots, sliced. To that I added 3 tablespoons flour, and 2/3 cup sugar. And a capful of kirsch. (Incidentally, David Lebovitz just wrote about using kirsch with summer fruits)

I piled the fruit into the chilled pie crust,

Topped it with a chilled pie crust lid, and waited for it to soften enough to crimp the edges together.

Here's where I put my non-perfectionist genes to work, crimping the edges together as best as I can, knowing that however it comes together, in the end, I'll have a cherry pie. The top gets brushed with an egg yolk/milk wash.

I don't think Grace will learn much from me about baking pies. If pressed, I'd co-op a local motto into pie-baking advice: Just do it! Don't wait for a special occasion. Make that crust. Don't worry if it's not pretty.

I'd rather advise her in an area closer to my heart: eating pie. If there's a pie in your midst, with a flaky crust, and plenty of fruit, drop everything. Except for a fork.

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Sunday, July 5, 2009

Eat As Fast As I Can Jam

My husband is close to perfect. Or so he assures me whenever I find fault. I have to admit, he's not far from right--he is easy-going, generous, amusing and amused, interesting and interested. He has a good sense of humor, and thinks I'm funny. So I really can't complain.

But I do. It just takes more creativity on my part; I have to really look for faults, and once found, concentrate on them, nurture them, and watch them develop. It's actually a lot of work.

My biggest pet peeve? The way Pavel eats jam. As a child, I was taught that you took a little jam and returned the jar to the center of the table. Pavel edges the jar up to his plate and leaves it there. He then puts a big lump of jam on the edge of his piece of toast, and takes a bite. "Pavel, pass the jam" I try. But as usual, he's reading the paper, and doesn't hear me (okay, pet peeve #2--another time). Instead of sending the jam my way, he dips the knife in again, puts another mound on the next half-inch of toast, and chews away.

Pavel could eat a half jar of jam on 2 or 3 pieces of toast. I suppose it's not the worst fault in a husband, but I have to say, it drives me a bit crazy. Because I like jam once in a while, and if I want to have some from one jar more than one morning, there's nothing to do but hide the jam.

A few years back I came up with an alternate plan. If you can't beat him, join him. For his birthday I made a huge batch of blackberry jam. I mean gallons, canned in quart jars. For some reason, that year I had gone through an uncharacteristic Martha Stewart phase, and had bought a fancy labeler.

Everything got labeled. File drawers, file folders, kids' rooms' doors, dry good containers, and, yes, Pavel's jam.

I called it 'Pavel's Eat As Fast As You Can Jam'. And he did.

We had a few months of domestic peace, but then the jam was gone, and the irritation returned.

This year at Christmas I gave him a coupon for a 'Jam of the Month Club' membership. I don't expect it to solve anything, as it's just one small jar a month. That's barely enough for one weekend! Some months (okay, most) I've picked up a nice jar at a shop. There's lots of tempting jams at my neighborhood shop, Foster and Dobbs (Ayers Creek Farm and June Taylor jams). And when I was grocery shopping in Vancouver, I picked up a jar of whiskey orange marmalade.

But yesterdayI noticed some apricots I'd bought were starting to get brown spots. That was because no one was eating them, and they had no flavor. So I cut them up (all 7 of them) into a small saucepan, added a little water, and cooked them down a bit. Then I put some sugar in (no idea how much--maybe 1/2 cup?) and cooked it down to jam. Oh--I also put in an apricot pit. I suppose that's for flavor, but mainly it's because my mother always did it.

Instead of 7 mealy apricots heading to the compost we have one dish of jam. Technically, it should be Pavel's. But I'm not reminding him. It made for a lovely Sunday morning toast topping (on Ken's Country Brown, natch)!

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