Thursday, November 26, 2009

Autumn Treats: Pumpkin Graham Crackers

Graham crackers are a staple of childhood. I remember kindergarten snack time when we would get a little waxed container of milk with a straw and two graham crackers. Somewhere along the line we outgrow graham crackers, even though everyone seems to love them as a child. In adulthood it seems they are only good for campfire s'mores. I'm not sure why that is, but it's a shame. It's also sad that no one ever makes homemade graham crackers, as they are quick and easy and can be cut into a multitude of shapes, not to mention they are low in sugar, made with a whole grain flour, and tasty.

Graham flour is the base for the cracker dough. What starts out as whole wheat kernels is carefully ground to ensure that the bran, germ and endosperm remain in the flour. Most mills separate the endosperm from the bran and germ, grinding the endosperm finely. The bran and germ are coarsely ground and added back into the endosperm. What you get is a texture somewhere between white and whole wheat flour, but with a slightly sweet, nutty taste.

With all the pumpkin puree I have been making, I tried out this recipe, courtesy of the Cupcake Project. I made them plain, sprinkled with Demerara sugar, and with an icing drizzle. Adding the sugar or the drizzle sweetens these up a bit and makes them more festive for serving, but the plain ones will bring back fond memories.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons pumpkin puree
1 egg
6 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoons molasses
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon allspice
2 teaspoon water
3/4 t salt
1 1/2 cups graham flour
3/4 cups all-purpose flour
Demerara sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine the butter, pumpkin, egg, and sugar in a bowl and beat until smooth and creamy. Stir in the honey and molasses.

Dissolve the baking soda in the water and add to the butter mixture. Add the salt, graham flour, all-purpose flour, and spices to the mixture and blend thoroughly. The dough should hold together and be manageable. If it is too tacky, add a little more graham flour.

Liberally dust a surface with graham flour and roll the dough to a thickness of about 1/8 inch. You can cut into squares or use cookie cutters to make shapes. (If you want to sprinkle with Demerara sugar, now is the time. Pat or roll it in.) Score each cookie with the tines of a fork several times.

Using a spatula, place the pumpkin graham crackers on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for 15 minutes.

Remove from the oven and cool on racks. They won't be hard when you first take them out of the oven, but they will harden as they cool.

If you want to use an icing drizzle, mix 1 cup powdered sugar with 1 tablespoon light corn syrup and 1 1/2-2 tablespoons milk. Mix thoroughly and either put in a piping bag with a small round tip, or put in a small Ziploc bag, cutting of just a bit of the corner to allow icing to flow out in a thin stream.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fresh and Easy: Green Pea Soup

When I think of green pea soup, I think of dried split peas, a ham hock and the comfort of a thick bowl of hearty goodness. It's a dish I make with fair regularity, affordable, tasty and easy to do. Recently, in a food magazine clipping frenzy, I found a recipe for a green pea soup made with frozen peas (although fresh would work just as well) that sounded yummy and took less than a half hour with minimal ingredients. And it is beauty in a bowl.

1 teaspoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 ½ cups chicken broth
¾ teaspoon dired tarragon
½ teaspoon salt
freshly ground pepper
10-ounce bag frozen peas
4 teaspoons plain nonfat yogurt

In a large soup pot, heat the oil over medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring a few times, until very softened (about 6-8 minutes). Add the broth, tarragon, salt and a few turns of black pepper and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the peas and cook for 8 minutes.

Puree the soup until very smooth, using an immersion blender in the pot or in two batches in a regular blender.

To serve, ladle into bowls and top with a teaspoon of yogurt.

Note: This can be served hot or cold.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

What I Am NOT Making for Thanksgiving

I like to mix things up on holidays, try out new things. It's not always a hit with the kids, who like holiday meals to be traditional, but the food bug is buried so deep inside me that I feel the need to experiment. Sometimes those experiments are disasters, in more ways than one.

Recently I tried to make Bourbon Sweet Potato and Apple Casserole with a Pecan Crust. It is from the Oct/Nov issue of Fine Cooking. Sounds like a good alternative to the sweet potato/marshmallow mash that has carried over from generations past, right? Not.

The ingredients seemed simple enough, most of which I had on hand. Two problems occurred: (1) I had to pull out 8 cooking vessels (2 bowls, 1 skillet, 2 saucepans, 2 baking pans, casserole dish), a fork, 2 knives, a masher, strainer, peeler, food processor and spatula, as well as numerous measuring spoons, measuring cups and mixing spoons. So, more than 20 total items to make one dish. Okay, so I should have read through the whole recipe first to figure this out, but who uses 20+ items to make a sweet potato dish? Not me...not ever again.

I am not a happy camper when it comes to doing dishes. It is one of my least favorite things, right behind scrubbing the toilet. But it is a necessary evil when testing recipes, and on most occasions I do not mind if the result is wonderful. Which leads me to item (2). The final dish was dry, starchy and much blander than I could have ever imagined. And given the work put into it (multiple steps over the course of two hours), it was an unqualified disaster. I wouldn't even eat it past the first few bites.

The recipe calls for sweet potatoes but doesn't designate the exact type. Grocery stores in my neck of the woods call the white sweet potatoes by their proper name, sweet potatoes. Yellow or orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are called yams. So I bought sweet potatoes, the white ones. This was the basis for the dish and what ruined it. Sweet potatoes are starchier and drier than either russet-style potatoes or yams, and need a lot to amp up their flavor and take away all the starchiness. This recipe did not come close to doing so. Even with apples and pecans and ginger…and bourbon.

Sorry, Fine Cooking. Hate to slam a recipe, and given the trouble I went to I am not going to retry the recipe with yams. Especially since I cannot get that two hours back and there is no dispensation from doing dishes on the recipes that don't work out!

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Vanilla on Tap

Brilliant Daughter and I have been wracking our brains and combing magazines and websites for new ideas for holiday gift giving. Each year we try to find several homemade goodies to give as gifts to friends and family, and as a small token of appreciation to the people who venture out for our annual Christmas Eve tamale party. We've done herbed salts, barbecue rubs, truffles, limoncello, ornaments of various kinds, and homemade soaps, among other things.

We have a big project in the works, which has been two years in the making, so small items were the topic of our constant search. We finally settled on our first project: homemade vanilla. After reading various recipes and write-ups, I settled on one recipe and began the process. The recipe only requires 3 ingredients: good-quality vodka and rum and vanilla beans.

Apparently cheap vodka is distilled through charcoal, which is not such a good thing when making a vanilla extract. So I went with Svedka vodka, although Absolute, Skye, or other mid-priced vodka would do the trick. Bacardi white rum is combined with the vodka in a 5:1 ratio, or thereabouts. I used a handle of vodka, which measured out to 7.5 cups, to which I added 1.5 cups of rum.

Most recipes recommend 2-3 vanilla beans per ½ cup liquid. That would mean 36-54 beans would be required, which could get costly if you are buying them at your local grocery store in 3-5 piece jars. Fortunately, Brilliant Daughter and I have a secret source of vanilla beans, which cost a fraction of what you might find at supermarkets. We were able to get a pound of chef-grade vanilla beans for less than $25 recently, making this a much more cost-efficient project. I used 45 vanilla beans, cut in half crosswise and again lengthwise. I would estimate this to be a little less than 1/3 of a pound.

The traditional way people are making vanilla extract is to put the beans into a small jar and add liquid, sealing and curing for 1 month or more. I have chosen to make a large quantity in my infusion jar and then siphon into individual jars when it is done. I think this will make for a more even-flavored product, plus I get to watch it as it colors from clear to beige to brown to something heavenly. Not to mention I can dip in and taste it from time to time!

The total cost for this little project thus far is $19.99 for the vodka, $2.59 for the rum, and $8 for the vanilla beans, or about $1.64 per ½ cup. We still need to buy the 2 ounce jars, which should come in under $1/per. At less than $3 per bottle of pure vanilla extract, it makes me wonder if I will ever bother to buy commercially prepared vanilla extract again?

Addenda: I was completely remiss in not giving credit for this idea to Ashley Pickering. Ashley was one of my wonderful interns at Travelers' Tales and now works with Brilliant Daughter at Cengage Publishing. She has the best shoe collection of anyone I know and has gladly eaten anything I have ever put in front of her.