Most people talk about Austin and its hip ways and amazing music scene, but the Austin of my childhood was an affluent suburban utopia of spanking new stucco houses with azure swimming pools perched on arid mesas. I’m back visiting again and rediscovering Tres Amigos, the best suburban Tex-Mex anywhere. So if you need a break from Austin’s terminal hipness, take a comfortable walk on the bland suburban side and indulge yourself at Tres Amigos. Cheever-esque pool party to follow. Discover Tres Amigos here …
Perfect Applesauce November 2, 2008
By Julia Pantoga
I’m taking a break from my holiday preparation series to write to you about apples because we are at the end of the apple season, and if you GO RIGHT NOW, you may be able to get some great orchard apples. I know I did just a few days ago.
Here’s the thing about apples: If you have great apples, anything you do with them will be great. If you have mediocre apples, anything you do with them will be mediocre. The sad truth is that if you bake a great apple crisp with mediocre apples, your desert will be so-so at best. However, you can just cut up a couple apples, squeeze some lime juice over them and serve them with slices of cheese, and if you have great apples, you will have a stunning and delicious desert.
In my experience, great apples are not to be found in supermarkets; I find them at fruit farms and orchards. The variety I bought this year is “Melrose,” but the variety that will work best for you is entirely dependent on the region you live in, the time of year you are going to the orchard and what you plan to do with the apples. Talk to the clerk in the orchard store. He or she will make a great recommendation. I’ve found that even listless teenagers working in orchard stores know apples. There is something magical about great apples!
If you are going to be peeling your apples to bake them, you will want to buy big apples. That way, you will get the best fruit-to-peeling effort ratio. If you are going to be packing your apples in your lunch, you’ll want a smaller size. Stored in a cool place, apples will taste fresh for weeks. If you will be using your apples for baking or applesauce, they will last longer.
Here’s a domestic goddess tip: Homemade applesauce is really, really impressive, and it is really, really easy to make. In the past couple of years, I’ve started to leave the skins in my applesauce, which:
• Makes it a gorgeous pink color
• Clearly communicates to your guests that this is homemade applesauce
• Adds delicious and interesting texture to the applesauce and
• Makes it even easier
Here’s how to make homemade applesauce:
1. Cut up five huge apples and put the pieces in a pot.
2. Add ½ cup water, 1/3 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon and a pinch of salt to the pot.
3. Simmer the pot (covered) on medium low heat for 30 minutes.
4. Turn the heat off and mash everything together.
Giving away baked goods October 11, 2008
By Julia Pantoga
I always give baked goods as gifts. The hardest (and usually most expensive) part of giving away baking goods is packaging them. You can come up with something more festive than baggies.
Suppose you know that you are going to give away cookies. Start thinking now about how you are going to present those precious treasures. You need containers that are big enough to hold at least one dozen cookies, but not so big that you have to bake a double batch for each gift. Containers will probably be cheaper if you stay away from holiday merchandise. To wit: one year I was at the hardware store and ammunition boxes were on sale for some crazy-low price, like 50 cents each. I bought ten of them and fake pebble spray-paint, laid them out on my garage floor, painted them, then filled each with bags of cookies. I hope that these ammunition boxes were useful to my friends and family after the cookies are eaten—for storing sand paper, for example.
Some things that you will give away (like spiced nuts or homemade candy) need smaller containers. My favorite small container is a coffee mug. I begin shopping in October for inexpensive coffee mugs (my local Goodwill sells brand new coffee mugs for $1 each. Department stores donate them when they don’t sell at $6-10 each.)
You will find small gift bags in the candy-making section of a craft store. I must warn you though that going into a craft store is risky business—financially, at least. These stores have so many adorable gift containers that you may forget that one of the reasons you are giving away baked goods is to save money on holiday gifts and spend way more than you ever thought you would on containers.
Another tip for buying containers is to shop for them all year around. I often find great plain red, silver and gold containers on sale right after Valentine’s Day.
Finally, you will need is ribbon. I find that if I combine a red or green ribbon with a gold or silver ribbon, I can tie a simple bow and the result is quite elegant. If you are trying to save money, buy your ribbon at the craft store and don’t tempt yourself to do more spending in the fabric store.
Here’s how it all works together:
1. Throw a handful of nuts (or homemade candy) into a small plastic bag
2. Secure the bag with two ribbons that you hold together
3. Put one little bag in each coffee mug.
I make a dozen of these early in December and keep a paper grocery bag of them in the back seat of my car, so I always have little gifts ready for people who help me all the time, like the clerk at the post office.
Another category of baked goods to give away are those that need to be baked in pans. A great discovery I made last year was the Paper Gift Bakers from The Baker’s Catalogue. These, combined with the medium size Clear Gift Bags that they sell also, have made my gift-giving-life a lot easier. I bake my gift cakes right in the pan. Once frosted, I pop them in the gift bags. I secure the bags with a silver twist tie, then stick a bow on top of the package. Voila! A beautiful gift!
I make six gift cakes at a time and store them in the freezer once they are completely wrapped. One of the tricks to baking with disposable pans is to place all the pans on a pre-heated cookie sheet before you bake them. That way, there is only one thing to put into the hot oven and one thing to take to the porch to cool.
Usually, I don’t start baking for the holidays until mid-November (although this year I did some early to get photographs for you). October is really best spent starting to accumulate packaging materials. In early November I’ll give you the recipes for foods that I like best for giving as gifts.
Exciting Domestic Goddess Post Script October 7, 2008
I opened my Cook’s Illustrated magazine today (Nov./Dec. 2008 issue), and the center story is about CHOPPING! We’re all happy to know that CI and I both give the same advice.—Julia Pantoga
Cooking 101: Getting Started September 27, 2008
By Julia Pantoga
Except for grating, I love everything about preparing food: from looking for recipes in my cookbooks to setting the table. Hopefully, I’ll be a good teacher for you because I relish every step—although I do run the risk of nauseating you with my enthusiasm. And because I am so detailed about it, I also run the risk of making cooking sound much more complicated than it is.
Contrary to what you see on cooking shows, where all they do is cook, there are many steps to preparing a meal. There’s planning, researching, shopping, getting the kitchen ready, prep cooking, cleaning up after prep cooking, cooking, cleaning up after cooking, serving the meal and cleaning up after the meal. Although not always possible, cooking is at its most “magic” when you can isolate that one step from the others.
The more you serve meals, the better you will be at this. I am sure that those of you who prepare meals several times a week for a family are better at this than I am; and I am sure that I am better at this than an 18-year-old living in a college dorm. Make a puzzle game of it.
First, think about the general composition of the meal in terms of nutrition. Also, if one dish you are serving is particularly high in fat, try to have raw fruits or vegetables as a balance. Usually color is a good guide for nutrition. If you serve several different colors or foods in your meal, you will likely have a nutritionally balanced meal (isn’t that cool?).
Another thing to consider is what ingredients you have on hand. Be sure that you use those green beans that are about to go bad. One more thing to consider is preparation. Think through which pans you’ll use for each dish and try to avoid having to wash a pan in the middle of cooking. These are the things that take time. You’re buzzing along in the kitchen and you realize that you need the pan you just used to make a sauce for the vegetables to make the rice. You have to stop what you are doing, find a container to store the sauce in and wash and dry the pan, before you can start the rice.
Another component of planning is to never plan more than one dish that you’ve never made in a given meal. You really never know where the trouble of a certain dish is going to show up until you make it. Finally, plan no more than one item that has to be cooked precisely right before it is served. Cooking shows make it look easy to talk while you are cooking and do several things in the kitchen at once. It is not. The people on those shows are either professional cooks or professional actors or both. What they do is highly scripted. Don’t hold yourself to that unrealistic standard.
To many, the mark of a “good” cook is that he or she doesn’t use recipes. I’ll agree that the Italian grandmother who has been cooking for her extended family for fifty years probably doesn’t use recipes. But the truth of the matter is that, in America, at least, most of us just aren’t that good at cooking. We don’t have the same “feel” for food that the Italian grandmother does.
Also, we are used to a much wider variety than you would expect in an Italian kitchen. We expect to make an Indian feast one week and a pasta casserole the next. I use recipes for such common foods as deviled eggs, sloppy joes and chicken salad because I don’t have an instinctive feel for how to make them. The only reason I don’t use a recipe for vinaigrette salad dressing is that I memorized it a long time ago. The really good cooks in America, the ones who really have a “feel” for food, are mostly found in professional cooking jobs, like cookbook writing. By tapping into that expertise, my sloppy joes that taste the way I expect sloppy joes to taste.
Something else that is great about using recipes from cookbooks is that, usually, the recipes have been tested and are consistently notated. One method that is popular for finding recipes these days is to search the internet. Be careful about this, as the recipe may or may not be accurately recorded. The internet is a great source for ideas, but not a reliable source for precise recipes. The major exception I make to this is when I see preparation of a dish demonstrated on a cooking show and I go to the website of that cooking show to get that recipe. I print it out; make notes on it while I cook; and if it works well, I put it in my “recipes that work” file.
Getting the Kitchen Ready
I assume that you’ve been doing your daily housework tasks, so your kitchen is reasonably clean and your counters are clear. The first thing to do is get all the recipes you intend to use in the kitchen. Read them over and over again. Think about what utensils you are going to use and make sure that they are all clean. Like many people, I have favorite knives. When I am about to cook, the first thing I check is that I know where those knives are and that they are clean.
The next step I learned from Rachel Ray. (By the way, what she (supposedly) can do in 30 minutes, takes me at least an hour—she never has to wash vegetables!) Put a bowl for garbage on the counter where you will be working. If you go to stores that stock Rachel Ray cookware, there will be large plastic bowls for sale called, “garbage bowls.” That’s crazy. You don’t need to buy a special bowl for your garbage! Any large lightweight bowl will do. In my kitchen, the garbage pail is less than two steps away from the counter where I do most of my food prep work. You would not think it would make much of a difference for me to have a garbage bowl on my counter, but I was shocked at what a HUGE difference it made. I use my garbage bowl for all of my garbage, including packaging. If you compost, you will probably want two bowls: one for compostables and one for other garbage.
Next week we will talk about prep cooking, which includes chopping and preparing ingredients. But there is one last step to getting your kitchen ready, and that is getting out the containers where you will store the things you chop until you are ready to use them. That way you can really get a rhythm going when you start to chop. Chop, chop, chop. Throw the ends in the garbage bowl. Put the chopped celery in the plastic container to use later.
The Domestic Goddess Has Entered the Building September 3, 2008
By Julia Pantoga
I can’t take credit for the terrific title of this new “Domestic Goddess” column. Rosanne Barr originally used the term in one of her comedy routines, but I first heard it when Nigella Lawson, cooking celebrity and cookbook author extraordinaire, named one of her baking cookbooks, How to be a Domestic Goddess. When I saw that title, I had to have that book, regardless of whether or not any of the recipes were any good. As it turns out, many of the recipes are quite scrumptious, but the secret to being a domestic goddess, as Nigella obviously knows, and as the exquisite photographs in the cookbook illustrate, is to make everything look easy and fabulous.
There are tricks to making everything look easy and fabulous, and I intend to use this column to share tricks that I know with you. Not just baking, but lots of things around the house.
But I’ll start with baking. As Ruth Reichl, food writer and editor of Gourmet magazine, says, baking is a cheap trick. It doesn’t matter how simple or complex the recipe, baking impresses people (The message here is to make the simplest recipes you can find.). I am not really a very talented baker, but people think I am because I like to bake, and I do it a lot. Here are some pointers to make baking work for you every time:
1. Use your oven timer, so you NEVER burn baked goods.
2. Whenever you take baked goods out of your house, make sure they look nice. Pick the broken cookies out, turn all of them right side up and put them on a good looking plate (I keep cheery and tasteful paper plates on hand for this sole purpose.)
3. Don’t take baked goods that need a fork to an event where people will be moving around while they are eating. It is sooooo discouraging to watch your homemade key lime pie go uneaten!
4. Unless you love to do it, and you are good at it, avoid complex decorations. A spice cake dusted with powdered sugar (which is easy), looks far more elegant than a sloppily frosted cake.
5. Write in your cookbooks. When a recipe works, write it right on that page. When something goes wrong, write it down.
6. Stick with the tried and true. Whenever you find a recipe that works for you and other people love it, make it over and over again. If you must bake something for the first time, packages are the best source of recipes. The brownie recipe that I used for over twenty years was from the back of the Baker’s Chocolate box. My oatmeal cookie recipe is from the lid of Quaker Oats. I just found a fabulous cake recipe on the back of a raisin box. These recipes have been tested and tested and tested.
Last spring I broke my ankle, and I needed a friend to come to my house everyday and take care of everyday things like making my meals, doing my dishes and sweeping my kitchen. (Needless to say, I was quite unhappy with this turn of events. Taking away my ability to take care of my house is severe punishment indeed.) Anyhow, after a few days of taking care of my house, my friend said to me, “Julia, I had no idea you were so domestic.” Now that’s a real domestic goddess compliment!
The very best brownies … ever August 29, 2008
I’ve made brownies over a hundred times in the past thirty years, so you would think that I have mastered them. I have not. Believe it or not, I am still learning things about brownies—I just learned that using a plastic knife is best for cutting.
I’m anti-mix in general, but I’m really anti-mix when it comes to brownies. For some reason though, brownie mixes are ubiquitous. For that reason, as a policy, I won’t eat brownies unless I’ve watched them being made. A mix might save you some unwrapping of butter and the clean-up of the pan you use to melt chocolate and, in a really insidious mix, there may be no eggs to crack, but it doesn’t save you from preparing the baking pan or clean-up, which is the true work of making brownies.
That said, brownies are trickier than they appear to be. The recipe I like best has only six ingredients. It’s a rookie mistake (which I’ve made many, many times) to think that the fewer ingredients a recipe has, the easier it is. In general, the opposite is true in baking—fewer ingredients means that you have to handle each one precisely.
Brownies are almost entirely butter and sugar—and what do butter and sugar make? Caramel! Just like caramel, if you try to cut brownies too soon after baking it makes a big mess, but if you wait too long, the brownies are impossibly hard to cut or remove from the pan. I’ve ruined entire pans of brownies by not cutting them at the right time and having to soak the whole thing in water in order to salvage the pan. A good brownie recipe will tell you, not only exactly how long to cook the brownies but, how long to let them cool before cutting them. Follow this part of the recipe as closely as you follow the cooking time.
Speaking of cooking time, most recipes say this but I’ll repeat it, DON’T OVERBAKE YOUR BROWNIES. If you bake the brownies for the length of time specified in the recipe, they will appear slightly raw when you remove them from the oven. They are supposed to be that way.
Whenever you are baking, bring the eggs to room temperature. Room temperature eggs absorb flavor better than cold eggs. If you know you will be baking later, take the eggs you need out of the fridge and let them come to room temperature naturally. If you are in more of a hurry though, put your cold eggs in a bowl and fill the bowl with hot water from the tap.
I used to look for recipes that did not tell me to “prepare the pan” in the first step, figuring that if the recipe didn’t say it, I didn’t have to do it. For brownies, in fact for most baked goods, this is just not the case. You always need to prepare your pan. No matter what the recipe says in that first step, this is how I prepare my pan for brownies:
First of all, I use a large shallow pan—a jelly roll pan or a cookie sheet. I like the edge and corner pieces of brownies best, so I figured out a long time ago that I could make all my brownies have that texture if I made them extra-thin.
Next, line the pan with parchment paper. I used to just generously butter the pan, but I’ve found parchment paper to be more foolproof. Anchor the parchment paper by buttering the bottom of the pan lightly before you put the paper in. (I keep a Swiss army knife in my utensil drawer for the sole purpose of trimming parchment paper.) Once you have the bottom of the pan lined with parchment paper, butter the paper and the sides of the pan generously. This is not only to keep the brownies from sticking, but to add flavor, so use good butter for this. Put the pan aside, you have now finished the hardest part of brownie making.
The recipe I use and like best is as follows (with the steps in the order that I do them):
1 cup butter (two sticks)
4 ounces of unsweetened chocolate
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon of vanilla
½ cup flour.
Bring the eggs to room temperature.
Melt butter and chocolate in double boiler, then set aside to cool to room temperature.
Prepare the pan.
Preheat oven to 350°.
Beat eggs and sugar together.
Add chocolate mixture.
Fold in flour, mixing only until blended.
Pour mixture into prepared pan.
Bake on the middle shelf of the pre-heated oven for 25 minutes.
Cool brownies in pan for 30 minutes. (Set your timer—this step needs to be precise.)
Cut brownies into bars with a plastic knife and transfer to cooling rack.
A friend asked me this morning if there is a difference between salted and unsalted butter. There is, but it is fairly subtle. As a rule of thumb, as long as the recipe does not have salt as a separate ingredient, I like to use salted butter.
One year for Valentines Day, I made these brownies with pink strawberry frosting. What a hit! (I used a heart cookie cutter instead of a knife for step 12.) There were plenty of brownie scraps left over, which I crumbled up and put on ice cream.
Julia Pantoga is a writer, a cook and a Quaker. She’s also a collector of quirky domestic tricks and loves to share the wisdom she’s gathered over the years