Saturday, July 9, 2011

Oxford, England

My brother was finishing up his MBA at Oxford (aka "Harry Potter Land") this summer so I took advantage of the opportunity to sleep on his floor for free and went to go visit him.

Oxford students seem mostly to subsist on a combination of kabob trucks, Indian/Pakistani takeaway, pub fare, excellent UK dairy products, and Nando's. No pictures, as I was too jet-lagged, but Nando's is a decent, likeable spot when what you want is real food that isn't too processed or too challenging. Piri-piri chicken and a green salad for takeaway (the joint was packed), which I carried as my brother gallantly rolled my suitcase for me over the bumpy cobbles for 2.5 miles to his place and there ended a very long day of travel.

As a huge Tolkien-Lewis-Inklings fan, I had to go to the Eagle and Child (the original Bird and Baby for those who play LOTRO). Food-wise it's hard to give a review because they were pretty much out of food! It became a bit of a joke as each and every item my mother was interested in ordering was unavailable, and if you've ever met my mother, you will know that she's ever so delightful...when she's been properly fed. Otherwise, YMMV. Fortunately they were not out of Pims, Guiness, or G&T. History, Inklings, G&T, a sip of my mom's Pims, and I think I wound up eating a salad and a bit of calamari (it's what they had left). When you go, it's for the atmosphere and a pint, not so much the food.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Blueberry Pie in July

Did anyone besides me watch My Blueberry Nights and wonder how the writers thought it could be plausible to consume entire pies while looking fetchingly thin?  It's the magic of Hollywood. That said, the attention drawn to blueberry pie is most welcome, as indeed it is a most neglected and yet delicious fruit pie.

My theory is that people have negative experiences of fake blueberry pies (Marie Callender et al.). Fake peach and fake apple are bearable, but fake blueberry is really awful. For my purposes, canned filling + artificial flavor counts as "fake". Did you know there are these things called "blueberry chips"? They don't actually involve much in the way of blueberries, but are frequently used in commercial bagels, muffins, and the like.

If you like real blueberry muffins, you may want to give real blueberry pie a try. Unlike peaches and apples, there is no tedious peeling or pitting or slicing for the cook. It's a great choice for the 4th of July when there are other things to be working on and you want something that goes with the color scheme. 

To make this you need fresh blueberries. Either you're the kind of person who gives berries a magic pass in the "need to wash" department, or you need to wash them and then spread them out on paper towels and give them awhile to really dry. Really, really dry...because the weakness of blueberry pies is that they like to go soupy, and if you have any extra water at all, this tendency only gets worse.

I usually make Martha Stewart's, which of course actually comes from someone else. It leans towards soupy, perhaps because west coast blueberries (the big plump ones) are juicier than the tiny Maine berries, but it's very good. Cooks Illustrated, as usual, claims to have solved the soupy problem but their solution involves grated apple. Having to grate an apple goes against the whole "no bothersome fruit prep" principle. If that doesn't bother you, by all means give it a try.

...after some draining
Intrigued by the combination of lime and brown sugar, I made the blueberry pie from the Macrina Bakery Cookbook. Macrina is a much loved bakery in Seattle and the cookbook is lots of fun if you are a fan of bread and pastry. I am supposed to not be eating either bread or pastry with any regularity, alas, so I haven't gotten very far in testing it. It's one of those cookbooks that is a good read in any case, and I commend it to you for that reason alone.
The Macrina blueberry pie recipe with lime and brown sugar is amazingly delicious. Like Cooks Illustrated, some of the berries are cooked on the stove top, then the rest are added in and then both are added to the pie shell. Alas however, it was only thickened with flour, and that always means it's soupy. I don't know what the bakery does to solve this problem--perhaps they source wild organic tiny blueberries that don't exude as much juice? Because of the sloshy factor, I can't 100% recommend the recipe. On the other hand, soupy pie is excellent over vanilla ice cream, so perhaps you shouldn't let that stop you. I will probably try again next year with a bit of corn starch and tapioca.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

March of the Wobble Squares Quilt No. 7

 Having (ahem, finally) taken care of the unfinished business from days of yore, I was able to get to what I actually wanted to do. Meet Wobble Squares, my first small effort at a more improvisational quilt. It is also my first effort at applique since I was 10 years old and playing around with hand-sewing fabrics on pillows.

Other quilters seem to have these nice photogenic situations for their quilts--a sunlit corner of a reasonably uncluttered room, a clothesline hanging outside against a shingled house, etc.  For now, I lack these things so we all get to admire my bland apartment carpet.

The top picture is of the front, the bottom picture is of the back...and as is frequently the case with modern quilts, I find myself drawn to the back. It's made to work either way, so no problem.

When I'm playing with ideas that are new (or at least, new to me) I like to do it with quilts of this size, as they are much easier to handle in a standard home machine and they finish up faster too. More contemporary qualities include a pieced back, deliberate imprecision on the "squares" (they're really rectangles) so you get the "wobble," and ... a 100% machine stitched binding!

machine sewing a's really not so bad
 If you aren't quilty yourself, you may be wondering: what's the big deal with machine sewing a binding? Finishing the binding by hand is similar to hand-sewing a hem on a skirt. It provides a nicer, flatter, less visible finish. It's also more precise.Machine sewing the binding however is not a bad alternative and it is much, much faster.

We are used to what a machine-stitched hem on a pair of pants looks like: a machine stitched binding is basically similar. Some people reading this may even be thinking "what does a hand-stitched hem look like?" because they've never seen one. Exactly.
attempt #3 at the dreaded binding closure

...and over here to our right, is the other reason why quilters go ABB--the geometry to finish it off. There is a simpler way to do it but it's not quite as nice. I suppose it's funny that I'm machine stitching a binding and then worrying about bulk on the seam when it's closed, but for this quilt at least, that's how I felt about it. I still have to look up how to do it each and every time.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Getting Things Done: The evolving saga

I finally finished this quilt. I think I must have started it back in, oh, 2002 or thereabouts. In all fairness, I made a large stack of blocks in this pattern with these fabrics, and finished two other small quilts with them in a more, ahem, timely fashion. This one though just sat, all done except for the binding, for about 5-8 years (I really can't recall, that's how bad it is).

For those of you who don't quilt, all you have to know is that ABB, "All But Binding," is the quilty version of ABD, "All But Dissertation."

For years I didn't have a sewing machine in California. I would just wait until I went home for a break and sew up a storm on my mother's Bernina. During grad school, when I didn't have enough student loan money after paying tuition to pay rent, sewing machines were the least of my worries. Mom has now bequeathed me the Bernina and so hopefully this will be the end of the ABB.

The sad-funny part of all this is that I let it sit so long my tastes have actually changed. It's looking in retrospect like a bridge piece between my more traditional quilts in the 90s and the more modern quilts I have in mind for my next projects.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Pancake Tuesday: The higher protein version

It's Shrove Tuesday and do you know where your pancakes are? Shrove Tuesday is the English form of Mardi Gras Tuesday, the last day of festivities before Lent. Instead of a King's Cake, the English celebrate with stacks of pancakes. The English version of a pancake is closer to what we would call a crepe, but this has not deterred good American Episcopalians and some Methodists and Lutherans from making stacks of fluffy American-style flapjacks to commemorate the day.

Since I seem to  attend the one Episcopal church in existence that doesn't make pancakes today (we throw a Mari Gras party instead, go figure) I decided to make them at home. A single pancake of significant size has 60 grams of non-fiber carbohydrate. That's actually quite a bit before adding (real) maple syrup. There is something unutterably sad about eating only one pancake so I decided to look for ways to increase the protein ratio.

Nigella Lawson has a recipe for "Cheesecakelets," which are basically cottage cheese pancakes lightened up with whipped egg whites and served English-style with lemon juice instead of maple syrup. Cottage cheese and lemon seemed promising. With this recipe in mind, I worked on getting as much of the refined carbohydrate out of the pancake as possible, while avoiding weird synthetic ingredients (there is no Splenda in my kitchen, thank you) and keeping good flavor.

It turns out you can make tasty little pancakelets with only 1/2 oz of flour (about 2 tablespoons). There is some sugar already in the cream cheese, cottage cheese, and vanilla so I added just a teaspoon more (instead of 2 T) to balance out the tang and provide good browning. I also found I much preferred the silken texture of cream cheese to using all cottage cheese. If you have one but not the other, you can substitute for the remainder (1 c. cream cheese or 1 c. cottage cheese). The rest of the recipe remains the same.

With less flour to provide structure, it is imperative to make very small pancakes (about 2") so that they will flip easily. Try a few and you will see how it goes. I threw in a few blueberries thinking it wouldn't work because the pancakelets were so thin, but they turned out beautifully. Blueberries, lemon, and cheese...yum!

 High Protein Cheesecakelets

3 eggs, separated
1 t. sugar
2 T flour (1/2 oz)
1/2 c. cottage cheese (generous)
1/2 c. cream cheese (generous, you may want to soften it for a few seconds in the microwave)
1 T vanilla
lemon wedges

Separate eggs. Beat egg whites until a thick layer of white foam forms, by hand for about one minute or about 10-20 seconds with a mixer. Do not underbeat. You can achieve this with a fork, but it will go considerably faster with a whisk.

Combine egg yolks with sugar and whisk until thoroughly combined. Add vanilla, both cheeses, and flour and stir until just combined. Fold in egg whites.*

Heat 10-12" pan over medium/medium-low heat with a dash of oil and a slip of butter (butter is optional but nice and the oil helps keep it from burning) for several minutes while finishing up the batter.

When you flick a bead of water on the pan and it sizzles nicely, spoon out small dollops of batter on the hot pan. You want them to be about 2" in diameter with a little room to spread out. If you are using blueberries, gently sprinkle blueberries over each pancake.

Let them cook a little longer before flipping than regular pancakes, until the batter on top loses most of its shine and is quite bubbly. The eggs in the batter need to really set to provide structure. If you try to turn one and it falls apart, let the others cook for a minute or two longer (this is why you are keeping the heat low).

Turn the pancakelets and cook until they are nicely browned on both sides and the middles are reasonably firm. Remove to a warm plate and squeeze lemon juice over the top. Try one to see how you are doing with getting the middles set (should not be gluey, but there may be some nice melty cheese). If the flavor is not to your liking, you can easily add another spoonful of sugar and flour to the batter before making the next batch.

*Folding sometimes worries people unnecessarily. This is a pancake, not a genoise; you won't go wrong. Pour the egg whites/foam into the yolk mixture. Use the whisk or a spatula to gently bring the yolk mixture over and around the whites in slow circular motions so that they gradually come together. Or, if this seems too complicated, just stir them gently together and all will be well.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Chicken Adobo

only meh
Supper Swap for March was Chicken Adobo, by way of Giada, with baby bok choy and cashews from Simply Recipes. Before you question my judgment too much, let me just say Giada's recipe was essentially identical to all the other versions out there of varying degrees of authenticity. To my mind, the addition of a bay leaf and some parsley can't be bad. The bok choy and cashews recipe sounded like a winner. I like baby bok, I like cashews, I like sesame oil, I like nearly everything with a Chinese accent of garlic and scallions. Both recipes have the virtue of being prepared in a single large pan, which is important for keeping Swap cooking under control, and required minimal prep.

All that being said, my total verdict on this one was meh. It was fine, there was nothing wrong with it, no one seemed wild about it, I probably won't be making it again. I used a good soy sauce, so that wasn't the problem--though perhaps the very best Filippino style sauce it would have had the extra something it needed. The baby bok didn't wow me either. Oh well, better luck next time.