Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Need Time to Process This?

It's been a while since I had a really good ponder on this page (perhaps not long enough ago for some of you!), but over the past week or so I've been mulling some recent tidbits from the world of food news.

First, the recent news about the potential in meat and dairy products from cloned animals set off a firestorm as well as a campaign to stop this technology from reaching grocery shelves. While the USDA has determined that food products from cloned animals cannot be considered "organic" under current guidelines, the FDA is still studying the safety of "cloned" food, and the question of labeling remains. Senator Barbara Mikulski has introduced a bill to require specific labeling on such products, and Kate over at The Accidental Hedonist has a good update on the topic.

For my own part, I find this as troubling as genetically modified organisms, and I've talked with friends with varying views. So first I would say that, no matter what your opinion on "cloned" food (or GMOs, for that matter), labeling is the key element to both consumer choice and corporate responsibility. Not that labeling laws are perfect -- items such as "natural flavors" need not be explained further to reveal what synthetic chemicals were used to create or derive such "natural" flavors in the lab, for example -- but without any attempt at labeling, the public cannot be reasonably informed as to what they choose to ingest. (Some people may choose not to know. I prefer knowing to not knowing. To each his/her own, but at least offer us the choice.)

But to be honest, I personally do not want to see these technologies in our food supply. I see no pressing need for animals to be cloned to augment what food is produced. When's the last time you saw shortages of meat or milk in the supermarket? As far as I can see (and I readily admit I probably don't have all the facts, though I have more than you might think), this is another example of scientists and corporations pursuing technological dreams because we can, without thinking of the long-term consequences.

Like with GMOs, there is an altruistic element to the PR for cloning: "this will help feed the hungry here and across the world!" And, by implication, if you question that, what kind of a cruel, unfeeling person are you? I have a few problems with that tack:

1. If we truly want to help feed the poor in our own country, why don't we provide them with access to better food at a reasonable cost? Why is it that people in inner cities and other economically depressed areas so often have more access to fast food chains and high-priced convenience stores full of processed, nutrient-deprived food products than to decent groceries or farmers' markets where they can purchase fresh fruit and vegetables without going broke? (Do I have statistics on that? No, just my own firsthand observations from nearby cities.)

2. If we truly want to help feed starving people around the world, why aren't we helping them to develop crops and food production techniques better suited to their own bioregions? What good does it do to flood a country with imports of American wheat and corn if it drives the local farmers out of business and into poverty, where they can't afford the food we sell? Why aren't we addressing the question of poverty and the need for self-sufficiency instead? For five or six decades now, we have sent subsidized food relief to a large number of countries and, in many cases, made those people dependent on our largesse -- and yet we grip about other countries "always having their hands out" for more? How much damage has our food policy done over time to cause the starvation we seek to "remedy"?

3. If the corporations' motives are truly pure and altruistic, why patent life? (I'm guessing that since agribusinesses patent GM seeds, they'll probably want to patent cloned animals used for food.) If you want to save lives, wouldn't you want to make the technology as widely available as possible?

Altruism doesn't ring true in regard to these businesses, in my opinion. I can only see one reason for agribusinesses and other corporations to hop on this life-tech bandwagon: the hope of cornering a big market share in order to make a big profit. And while that may be standard operating procedure in capitalism, it doesn't reassure me one bit that these businesses have my -- or your -- health and welfare at heart.

Which brings me to another topic running rampant in recent food news: the number of recalled processed foods due to bacterial contamination. Once again, The Accidental Hedonist, the Ethicurean, and other food bloggers have covered this in more depth than I have or can. In brief, the two most recent recalls involve Peter Pan peanut butter and Oscar Mayer cooked chicken breast strips, but Kate details a longer list of food safety problems with ConAgra (the corporation that holds the Peter Pan brand), and I'm sure she could do the same with the other food processing giants.

That got me to thinking: who are the big food conglomerates, and what brands do they hold? In short, how much of the food market is in the hands of how few? Here's a handful of those giants and their brands, easily found in a Google search:

--Altria (Jell-O, Kraft, Maxwell House, Nabisco, Planters, Ritz, and multiple cigarette brands)
--Cargill (Smuckers, Jif, Crisco, and the patents on several synthesized ingredients)
--ConAgra (Banquet, Chef Boyardee, Healthy Choice, Hunt's, La Choy, Libby's, Peter Pan)
--General Mills (Betty Crocker, Bisquick, Cascadian Farm, Gold Medal, Green Giant, Hamburger Helper, Muir Glen, Pillsbury, Progresso, and several cereal brands)
--Unilever (Bertolli, Hellmann's, Knorr, Lipton, Slim-Fast, Wish Bone)

Despite my listing only a handful of brand names, that's still a vast quantity of food products coming from a small number of conglomerates, and that means that almost every one of us has something from at least one of these corporations in our cupboards, pantries, refrigerators, and/or freezers. Even though I try to cook from scratch as much as possible or use as little processed food as possible, I know that goods from several of these brands are in my home now or have been recently.

So when I read about more food product recalls, I start to wonder just how safe our food supply is overall. So many brands and choices are available to us that if one brand of peanut butter is recalled, we can always switch to another -- but is that one any safer? When these food processing giants are designed to make profits, can we wholly trust them with our health? And when these agribusinesses and conglomerates have such strong influence over national food policy, can we trust that even the government has our best interests in mind?

I don't mean to be an alarmist in this way-too-lengthy post. But I've read an awful lot lately that has raised a number of disturbing questions for me, and I'm not satisfied with the answers I've found thus far.

Does this mean I'll never eat processed food again? I wish not, but I don't think that's realistic given the world I live in.

Will this make me a more cautious and educated consumer? I sure hope so, and I hope it inspires you to educate yourself before you go grocery shopping, too.

Does this mean I'm even more committed to supporting those who produce sustainable, organic, local, and ethical food (SOLE food, according to the Ethicurean)?

Absolutely!

UPDATE: And if all this doesn't have you looking at the labels in the supermarket, Tom Philpott has a good piece on the Gristmill blog about Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), the so-called "supermarket to the world," and all the ingredients they provide to all these other conglomerates. Sigh.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Yes, We Have Snow, Bananas

In all my years of grown-up-hood, I've found that there are only two simple words that can apparently reduce any adult to a gleeful, child-like state of excitement: snow day!


The winter storm that swept through the Midwest and onto the Northeast yesterday and today left us with nearly a foot of snow, high winds, cold temps, and very messy roads -- in short, the sort of weather no sane person should be out and about in. Obviously, I'm not so sane, because once I discovered that my place of work was closed for the day, I bundled up and went outside to see what was open downtown. (Not much.)

I trekked back home and warmed up, delighted by the possibilities of a bonus day at home. And what else could I think about doing besides... baking?

Last weekend I picked up a big bunch of very ripe organic bananas at the grocery store, thinking that I needed to eat more bananas with all the strenuous walking I've been doing (and the resulting muscle cramps). Besides, my Dear Papa keeps telling me about making banana-nut bread, and honestly, after a while, I've just gotta have some, too.

So I sorted through my recipes and decided to make both dessert and breakfast.

I started with a recipe for banana-walnut biscotti, something I found in an issue of Veggie Life a number of years ago. The dough is vegan, using vegetable oil and non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening in place of butter, and with plenty of banana puree, there's no need for eggs. I tweaked the recipe a little (of course) and added nutmeg and cinnamon to round out that sweet banana flavor, and the biscotti turned out to have all the flavor of banana-nut bread concentrated into crisp cookies.


After that, I decided that I wanted to try something completely different for my break time treats: banana scones. But how to make them? And how to season them?

I pulled out my trusty ginger-date scone recipe and modified it to use banana puree in place of eggs again, and instead of using the same walnuts and spices as in banana bread, I decided on something a little more tropical: chopped pistachios, candied ginger, and a dash of cardamom.


While the biscotti went through their second baking, I mixed up the scone dough and cut out the squares so that I could keep the oven on for a little longer. It wasn't long before that marvelous fragrance let me know that the scones were almost done.


With that sweet fruity banana flavor, the sweet-hot bite of ginger, and the crunch of the pistachios, these light-textured scones made a warming sort of teatime snack on a wintry day.

The sun has come out, and the snow has started to turn to slush on the now-busy streets, so I expect I'll have to go back to work tomorrow.

But there's no day like a snow day... for baking!

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Have a Heart!

After baking all those chocolate treats to share with others for Valentine’s Day, I had yet another idea for a bit of holiday baking.

I know you must be thinking, wasn’t that enough? Three kinds of chocolate desserts, and you want more?

Well, yes.

But let me explain. Aside from the samples I ate for strict quality control checking, I kept very few of those little morsels. And the additional baking I had in mind was for breakfasts and coffee breaks. So, like last year, for myself I baked heart-shaped scones.

The question that always arises when I decide to make scones is, what do I want to put into them? What flavors do I want to highlight? Will they be on the fruity side? Would spices and nuts be preferable? What about herbs? Do I want sweet or savory? And there’s always the possibility of chocolate.

This time out, I decided on a combination: dried cherries (a local gift from Mr. Nice Guy), chocolate chips, and shredded coconut, all pulled together in a maple sugar-enhanced whole wheat dough with vanilla, almond, and coconut extracts.

(Is your mouth watering yet?)

I slapped the dough together pretty quickly, adding a little extra flour to give it the body it needed, then patted it out on a floured countertop and cut the dough into large, thick hearts.

Just a few minutes in the oven, and they came out golden brown and fragrant. It’s a wonder I didn’t eat them all up! (Don’t worry, I do have a smidgen of restraint. Sometimes.)

I enjoyed two for breakfast, and I stashed the rest in a tin for my coffee breaks this week (along with a few I’ll share with the ladies at my favorite break time hangout at work).

And my heart will be very happy with this little treat this week!

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Going to Pot Pie

This year, our friend Punxsutawney Phil, the Groundhog, let us know that we were in for an early spring for once. Having already had an extraordinarily balmy holiday season and a January so warm that dandelions started blooming, I took this prognostication with a hefty grain of salt, interpreting that “early spring” as what we’d already had. And given this past week’s bitterly cold temperatures and wind chills, I think I’m justified in feeling correct.

I’m not saying that I’m happy that it’s been so cold out – as one who walks everywhere, I can assure you that it hasn’t been much of a treat – but I am definitely feeling the urge to cook hearty, warming winter fare. Comfort food, if you will.

Given a fairly wide open weekend, I decided that it was time to load the refrigerator with easy-to-reheat meals (or easy-to-pack lunches) full of good local vegetables and relatively low on fat, unlike some of the lunches I’ve picked up on the go recently. And high on the list of dishes that fit that description nicely is an old favorite, the classic pot pie.

I started off with making a pot of vegetable stock in the morning, knowing that I’d need some for the “sauce” in which the vegetables cozy up to the pie crust (and knowing that I’d probably make soup later in the week). Once I was ready to start making the pot pies, I prepped all the vegetables -- potatoes, parsnips, edamame, corn, and garlic from the farmers’ market, and a carrot thrown in for color -- and simmered them in a mixture of vegetable stock, whey, tamari, and cornstarch to thicken.


While they bubbled away in the pot, I whipped up a couple of dill-laced wheat pie crusts. The pot
pie I intended for the freezer would only have a top crust, but the one I baked for tonight’s meal had crust on top and bottom. (A bit of an indulgence, I admit, but baby, it’s cold outside!)

The pot pie had plenty of time to bake before I was well and truly hungry, so while it sat in the oven, warming and turning a lovely golden brown, I sat down to enjoy a bit of reading while I waited. And when it finished, the sight and smell alone convinced me that I was, indeed, ready to eat!

Other things might not get done this weekend, but at least I’ve got a slice of comfort food fresh from the oven, with more to enjoy over the week ahead.

So bring on the cold, bring on the snow. I don’t care. (Well, OK, I do, but you know what I mean.)

As long as I can come inside for a hearty meal, I’m fine.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Bar None

When I'm motivated to bake, I can really crank out the goodies. So tonight I headed into the kitchen to make the third of my planned chocolate treats for Valentine's Day.

This time, the dessert in question has a more subtle touch of chocolate... well, comparatively speaking. For many years I've enjoyed making a rich, buttery three-nut bar with a shortbread base. But two years ago, it occurred to me that since nuts and chocolate tend to go so well together, perhaps this recipe could be modified to include some dark chocolate.

Behold, the dark chocolate-double nut bar, a new recipe.

The shortbread base, made with regular and black cocoas and fragrant with vanilla and almond extracts, starts everything off on the right note.


While the shortbread cooled, I mixed up the filling, adding first the chopped walnuts and almonds,


and then the shards of dark chocolate (from a 3.5-oz bar attacked with a wooden mallet... very therapeutic).


Filling and shortbread base together, thrown into the oven... well, all I can tell you is that it's a crying shame that there's no scent available on the Internet, because the fragrance of nuts, extracts, chocolate, and buttery goodness is unbeatable.


Of course, I had to wait a while to cut the bars since the filling takes a while to solidify. (It's not that it's undercooked, just that that rich butter-sugar-egg filling has to settle into an almost gel-like texture.) But once I was able to cut into it and sample a piece, I knew it was well worth the wait.

Those folks who are going to get these chocolate-laden care packages are going to be pretty happy, I can tell you.

And I think this is the best part of it... bar none.


Dark Chocolate-Double Nut Bars

I can't remember now where I first found the recipe for Three Nut Bars, but it was a keeper, and I'd still make it without the chocolate. But with the chocolate, it's beyond wonderful, beyond blissful... it's simply a dream. If you find yourself persuaded to try the recipe, be sure to share with plenty of friends. Too much of a good thing can be wonderful, but also fattening!

Shortbread Base
1 c whole wheat pastry flour
2 T unsweetened cocoa powder
2 T black cocoa
pinch of salt
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
1/4 c sugar (your choice)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp almond extract

Grease a 10" square baking pan and set aside. Preheat oven to 350 F.

Sift together flour, cocoas, and salt into a small bowl; set aside. In a larger bowl, cream butter until fluffy. Add sugar and cream until very light in color. Add in vanilla and almond extracts. Add flour mixture gradually and mix until flour is just incorporated and dough sticks together when squeezed with fingers.

Spread the cookie dough evenly on the bottom of the prepared pan. Bake the cookie layer on the middle rack in the oven for 15 minutes, or until firm to the touch. Remove from oven and set aside on a cooling rack.

Nut Filling

3/4 c packed light brown sugar
1/4 c granulated sugar
3 T flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp almond extract
2 T unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/2 c chopped walnuts
1/2 c chopped almonds
1/4 c chopped dark chocolate

For the nut topping, combine the sugars, flour, baking powder, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Beat in the eggs, vanilla and almond extracts. Blend in the melted butter. Stir in the walnuts, almonds, and chocolate. Spoon filling evenly over the cookie base. Bake on the middle rack in the oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the filling is set and firm to the touch.

Cool the cake of nut bars on a rack until it reaches room temperature, about 2 hours. Cut into bars and store in an airtight tin.

Makes 16 or so

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Spice is Right

If, as I’ve already declared, that chocolate is the key ingredient in my Valentine baking, then there’s simply no question about one item to be baked: brownies.

Growing up, I liked brownies, but I don’t recall having them frequently or considering them my favorite dessert. That all changed a few years ago when I found a couple of excellent brownie recipes, learned that using melted chocolate in place of cocoa made for richer brownies, and decided that underbaking a recipe for that warm, gooey center was the only way to go.

Now when I want a truly satisfying chocolate dessert, loaded with dark chocolate and offering a bliss-inducing mouth-melting succulence, I’ll reach for one of my brownie recipes, a big block of unsweetened or bittersweet chocolate, and whip up a batch.

I’ve got a number of favorite variations: brownies laced with Grand Marnier, brownies speckled with homegrown mint, cappuccino brownies with a dark hint of espresso, fudge bars with a pecan-graham crust, and peanut butter brownies. But one of the simplest, and therefore one I reach for most often, is the Mexican brownie recipe containing more than a dash of sweet-spicy cinnamon.

One of the reasons why I love this recipe so much is that I can melt the chocolate and butter in a sturdy saucepan and finish mixing the batter in the same pan. But one of the other reasons for making this a favorite is its variability. Once you’ve had really good brownies with a hint of spice in them, it sets your mind free to explore other possibilities.

So that’s what I did this evening. Still enjoying my recent Indian cooking kick, I decided to enhance the intense chocolate flavor and cinnamon seasoning with other chai spices: cardamom, ginger, and cloves.

Perhaps that’s not such an outrageous combination any more, since more and more I see chocolate and spices mingled in desserts, truffles, and even tea. And it’s a combination that’s catching on for a very good reason: chocolate and spices are made for each other.

I managed to wait almost an entire half-hour after the pan emerged from the oven before I cut into it to sample a small piece. (That quality control check is critical when you intend to share your baked goods, you know.) It had the perfect texture, moist and even-crumbed with glistening specks of chocolate scattered throughout, and the quantity and variety of spices was just right.

Another time, I might try cinnamon and nutmeg and chili powder or some such exotic blend, but for now, I’ll settle for the chai spices, knowing that they’ll be a big hit with all the lucky Valentine baking recipients.

As long as I don’t eat them all first…

Chai Spice Brownies

The original recipe for “Mexican brownies” came from the August 1996 issue of Bon Appetit (found on Epicurious) and included a cream topping that I’ve never tried. Make the brownie without cinnamon, and you have the perfect blank slate brownie, ready to doll up with other flavors or to enjoy unadorned. Me, I like the spices. Hope you do, too.

4 oz unsweetened chocolate
1/2 c unsalted butter
1 c packed brown sugar
1 T ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp salt
3 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 c flour
1 c milk chocolate chips (about 6 oz)

Preheat oven to 325F. Grease 8-inch square baking pan.

Melt unsweetened chocolate and butter in heavy large saucepan over low heat, stirring until smooth. Cool 5 minutes. Whisk in sugar, spices, and salt. Blend in eggs, 1 at a time, and then vanilla until batter is smooth. Add flour and stir just until blended. Stir in chocolate chips.

Pour batter into prepared pan, smoothing surface. Bake until tester inserted into center comes out with a few moist crumbs attached, about 35 minutes. Cool completely in pan on rack. Cut into 16 squares and serve warm, if possible. (Otherwise, store in airtight container.)

Love Your Lunch Ladies!

I’m slow at reading this year – only four books so far, when in the past I’ve averaged up to 20 a month – and though my reading pile has held a number of books about food, I simply haven’t gotten around to them.

I did, however, finally grab hold of Lunch Lessons by Chef Ann Cooper and Lisa M. Holmes, and I plowed through it pretty quickly. I’m delighted that, as part of the local- and sustainable-food movement, more attention is being given to the school lunch program in America, because the more I learn about the issues, the more I realize that to get people to eat in a healthy, sustainable, joyful way, we have to make good nutritious food – local, organic, sustainable – economically available to everyone from an early age.

Since Tom Philpott has reviewed the book in detail over at Grist, I’ll just share some of the statistics found in the book. (I’m afraid the information in the book is not documented in footnotes, so I’m wary about sharing them, but I think the essence is on target.)

A full 78 percent of the schools in America do not actually meet the USDA’s nutritional guidelines, which is no surprise considering the fact that schools keep the cost of lunch between $1 and $1.50 per child. (p.xv)

Every year we spend $7 billion on school lunch, $50 billion on diet aids, $115 billion on diet-related illness and more than $200 billion on the war. (p.34)

In the United States we produce 3800 calories for every person and most of us should be eating less than two-thirds of that. (p.97)

The book contains many more such nuggets that should make you sit up and wonder what has happened to the idea of building healthy bodies through good food.

The authors describe a number of inspiring programs throughout the country that prove that with the will and support of everyone involved, the drab standard school lunch can be transformed into a positive, healthy meal. And if you’re inspired enough to wonder how you, too, can make changes in your local school district, they offer a resource guide for approaching school boards and several useful web sites, such as the Center for Ecoliteracy and the Lunch Lessons site itself.

Are you hungry for a change?

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Way the Cookie Crumbles

A few weeks ago, I got this crazy idea in my head to go on a chocolate baking spree for Valentine’s Day so that I would have plenty of baked goods to ship to friends or to share at work.

Never mind that the Christmas cookie baking wrapped up just over a month ago. Never mind that I was ready to swear off sweets by the first of the year.

I lied. I do that.

What can I say? I love to bake, and though I may take breathers once in a while, inevitably I’ll head back to the kitchen, ready to try something new. My name is the Baklava Queen, and I’m a bake-aholic.

Anyway, back to the chocolate. While I love all the things I make at Christmas, I almost never bake anything with chocolate then because for me, chocolate just doesn’t seem like an appropriate ingredient for Christmas goodies (aside from my Fabulous Aunt’s buckeyes, of course).

But with Valentine’s Day approaching, the various chocolates and cocoas in my cupboard (10 at last count) started making an infernal racket, begging and pleading to be used. It’s the time of year when I can even be tempted to host the Chocolate Potluck and pull out all the stops with a truly decadent creation.

So I reviewed my recipes and decided on three different chocolate concoctions to bake, and tonight I started with a favorite from recent years: chocolate-peanut butter-chocolate chip-peanut cookies.

That pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? My love of chocolate combined with peanut butter is well documented, and these little cookies satisfy that craving very nicely, thank you.

I found the recipe in Death by Chocolate a few years ago, and it’s really quite simple (though I’ll not reprint it here due to copyright restrictions). Start with a creamed mixture of butter, peanut butter, and brown sugar, and add melted chocolate chips, an egg, and vanilla.

Mix in the flour, baking soda, peanuts, and chocolate chips, and then shape the dough into small lumps (mine are never perfectly round, you see).

Bake, cool, and eat. Pretty straightforward, really. You end up with a chocolate-laden little cookie with a texture like a thick shortbread, easily crumbled, and punctuated by salty peanuts. I love ‘em.

They keep well, which is why they’re my first choice for Valentine packages heading across the country, and they can be frozen and thawed for later snacking (if they last that long).

By the end of the week, I should have my chocolate craving under control once more.

But until then, stay tuned for more adventures in baking.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Aloo, Wot 'Ave We 'Ere?

By now you may be wondering: so how did that Indian feast with homemade paneer turn out?

My guests showed up promptly at 5, thoroughly chilled by the Arctic air and ready to be warmed inside and out by a good meal. And yes, I was more than ready to oblige them.

The meal was simple enough: two veg dishes, rice (with spices and peas), chai, and burfee for dessert. But that hardly conveys the fragrance wafting from my kitchen or the mouth-watering flavors that had everyone clamoring for seconds.

The shahi paneer easily proved to be the best I’ve ever made. Imagine home-canned tomatoes pureed with fresh cilantro, simmered with an array of Indian spices, and then add creamy nonfat yogurt, whey reserved from the paneer-making, cream, and the paneer cubes. The aroma was, of course, heavenly, but the true bliss of the dish came from a lengthy simmer that allowed all the flavors to deepen and the paneer to soften into a velvety stew.

The other dish featured potatoes (aloo or alu) cooked with onion, garlic, mustard seeds, yellow split peas, coconut, and other spices. I ended up adding more water than the recipe suggested in order to cook the split peas adequately, but again, the extended cooking time softened the entire dish and enhanced the flavors beyond my wildest dreams.

All of the vegetables came from last year’s farmers’ market, and though of course the spices weren’t local, all of the dairy products (save for the yogurt) came from nearby dairies.

Everyone seemed thoroughly satisfied by the meal and dropped subtle hints that they wouldn’t mind being invited back for dinner another time. High praise, indeed!

But the leftovers are definitely mine.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

A Flash in the Paneer

In planning the menu for tomorrow evening's Indian feast, I kept coming back to shahi paneer for a main dish. I love the creamy tomato sauce and the combination of spices, and it works so well with so many things.

But I usually make this dish with pressed tofu, and I wasn't sure if any of my guests had a serious objection to tofu.

So I looked in my trusty Indian vegetarian cookbook at the recipe for paneer... and was pleasantly surprised to find that it seemed extraordinarily simple. Yes, I had planned to make burfee from scratch... did I dare make homemade paneer as well?

Well, yes, especially after doing a quick Google search and reading about a fellow blogger's experience with paneer making. I knew it would be a challenge, requiring my full attention and my intuition as to when to move on to each new step, but hey, I'm nothing if not a cook who enjoys the occasional challenge.

I stocked the refrigerator with a half gallon of the local dairy's whole milk and plenty of lime juice, but I decided to start with a test batch that used 2% milk and nonfat plain yogurt. Not only did I want to start with a smaller batch, but I was interested to see what the difference might be between the full-fat and low-fat version.

I set the milk on to boil and stirred, stirred, stirred until the milk began to thicken, foam, and, finally, seethe. (I know, that sounds ludicrously poetic for something so mundane, but watching the milk during this process does take on a mysterious, expectant quality.) Just before the milk started to rise up, threatening to boil over, I added the yogurt and stirred some more, waiting for the mixture to curdle.


After the mixture had boiled again, I poured it all into a muslin-lined strainer, separating it into curds and whey. (Little Miss Muffett would be so jealous!)

I let the whey drain off into a pan (later, a bucket) instead of directly into the sink as I've read in a couple different places that the whey can be used to enrich and thicken soups and gravies... worth a try! And once enough of the liquid had drained off, I gathered the ends of the muslin, twisted them closed, and squeezed a little more out.

Keeping the twist in the muslin, I laid the bundle on a plate, piled another plate and a couple of heavy bowls on top in order to press out the last whey, much like I would press tofu for the same dish. About a quarter of an hour later, the paneer was sufficiently pressed:


After unwrapping the bundle of paneer with care, I had a fist-sized lump of mild homemade cheese, ready to be cut into cubes (or whatever worked, given the somewhat ragged edge).


Success! I was so pleased with the results that after lunch, I immediately returned to the kitchen to make the full batch of paneer, using the whole milk and lime juice. The process went as before, and I found only slight differences between the batches. The whole milk paneer had a slight lime bite to it (very pleasing to me since I love limes) and a smoother, moister texture (which is likely due to the higher fat content in the milk but might also be due to a shorter pressing time).

(Low-fat paneer on the left, paneer made with whole milk on the right.)

On the whole, making paneer turned out to be a delightfully simple adventure, and since paneer can be frozen for later use, I can easily see myself making another big batch of paneer in the future.

But for now, this batch has gone into the fridge for Sunday dinner. Back in a flash!


Losing My Marbles

Last week when I felt the urge to bake bread, I was torn between two different recipes. Obviously I opted then for the black raspberry-lavender-walnut bread, but I promised myself that I would try the other very soon.

And "soon" came this morning, when I pulled out flours and such to make my first ever marbled rye bread.

Knowing that I had plenty of other cooking to do this weekend in preparation for tomorrow night's Indian feast, I hauled myself out of bed early in order to get the doughs made and shaped before my morning appointment.

This bread requires two separate doughs, identical except for the caramel coloring (which I don't have) or its replacement cocoa powder mixed with water in the darker dough. Easy enough to make, of course, but I discovered that there wasn't a significant difference in shades of brown in the two doughs, possible because I used whole wheat flour in each (in addition to rye).

Still, I carried on, making two loaves in different styles. One loaf I assembled by mashing together chunks of each dough, making a haphazard marbling. For the other loaf, I rolled out each dough, laid one on top of the other, and rolled them up for a spiral effect.

The loaves rose while I headed out for an hour and a half, and when I returned home, I slid them both into the oven to bake.


Both turned out beautifully, and I was certain that I would enjoy them for sandwiches and toast during the week. But I was still very curious to find out how that marbling effect would come through:


Okay, it's hardly the stuff of professional bakery or Seinfeld legend, but it's still pretty cool.

As for taste, I enjoyed a grilled Swiss cheese sandwich on this bread, and it was the best grilled cheese I've had in a long, long time. Granted, that's partly because I slice my cheese thick for sandwiches, but the bread itself was hearty, moist, and flavorful.

I may be crazy for trying something like this, but it's worth it!

Friday, February 02, 2007

Burfee's Law

Guess who's craving Indian food again?

I suppose that's really nothing new, seeing as how I often crave Indian food nowadays. It's not like I didn't just get my fix at an Indian vegetarian feast Sunday evening (I was invited on the spur of the moment to a fund-raising dinner, and as the cook herself invited me, it seemed like a great idea), but it did give me plenty of ideas.

For example, the dessert at this dinner included both homemade (!) gulab jamun and homemade burfee, or Indian milk fudge. The lady who brought the burfee used a recipe that called for ricotta cheese, and its taste was simple, not overly sweet, and utterly satisfying.

And so I thought, well, I have ricotta in the fridge. The recipe for burfee in my Indian vegetarian cookbook called for ricotta cheese. And I'm due for a cooking blowout to dazzle a new crowd of friends. So how could I resist?

I couldn't. (Big surprise, there.)

After dinner, I set up the portable DVD player in the kitchen so that I could watch a movie while I stood and stirred at the stove, and I pulled out all the ingredients to have ready in an instant since the recipe is one that requires fine timing.

And away I went!

After melting some butter in the pan, I added the ricotta cheese and cooked it, stirring constantly, for a long time, dodging the occasional splatters of hot cheese.


As the ricotta dried out and thickened, I added a can of reduced-fat sweetened condensed milk and a splash of vanilla. I kept on stirring and dodging for nearly half an hour more (and yes, I did see the entire movie there at the counter... this project takes time!).

Finally, judging the mixture to be sufficiently thick, I ladled it into two different square baking pans and added different flavors to each one: chai spices (cardamom, cloves, ginger, and a sprinkle of black pepper) and chocolate chips to one, and chopped pistachios and a dash of rosewater to the other.

The pans had to go into the refrigerator for a couple of hours for the burfee to firm up before it was ready to be cut, but I did get a quick taste of both simply from licking the spoons I used to mix and smooth each variation... and let me tell you, they are both very tasty, and I think they'll be a hit at Sunday evening's dinner party.

I know Murphy always said that anything that can go wrong, will. But in this case, even with the cooking taking more time than the recipe predicted and with dodging the spatters, even when things go a little wrong, they can still turn out right.

Let's hope my guests agree!