Friday, September 30, 2011

1940s & ‘50s Baking Ads--Was Baking EVER This Fun, Fuss-free & Fulfilling?

I’ve been looking (and smiling) at lots of American baking ephemera this week—old advertisements, product brochures, package wrappers, mini-cookbooks, even antique cookware—in preparation for a talk I’ll be giving at the Home Baking Association on Monday in Vermont. The totally over-the-top vintage flour sifter is one of my own most spectacular 1950s culinary props, by the way!

Researching has been a blast, partly because these presumed inconsequential items instantly reveal a lot about what and how people baked in the past in this country. I was pleased to see that the ladies in the top pic were using a cookbook!  The homemaker on the sifter is holding up a pie.

As an avid culinary history buff and long-time writer on baking topics, I’ve loved learning the minutiae about earlier baking methods, ingredients, equipment, and recipes.  But I’ve come away even more struck by what some of the various ephemera  reveal about American 20th century social life. It's actually hard not to snicker at the Brer Rabbit ad at left! (Interestingly, a number of their old ads hit this same "man-pleasing" theme.)  For another post along these same lines, check out the vintage valentine cards featuring little girls baking up sweets for their sweetie pies.

 After looking at literally dozens of images similar to those posted here, I couldn’t help thinking about Betty Freidan’s 1963 bombshell book, The Feminine Mystique. In it, she contended  (among other things) that in the 1940s and 1950s, the editorial decisions on what went into women’s publications were mostly made by men, who perpetuated the notion that the sole proper and rewarding roles for women were as housewives  and mothes.

Underscoring her point, many of the baking-themed visuals from that era are ridiculous and  saccharine,  presenting  a homemaker who simultaneously: maintains both a spotless house and her looks, keeps the children well groomed and deliriously happy;  pampers her man; and is relentlessly cheerful all at times. (Notice the pretty mother's  great delight and near-maniacal look of joy on the face of the little girl at left.)

Many of the oh-so-perfect Norman Rockwell moms wear high heels, frilly aprons, stylish frocks, and, invariably, big, bright smiles. There are no curls out of place, spills on their countertops; or dishes piled in their sinks.  There are no scattered toys, grimy, grumpy children, or less than ecstatic husbands in their carefully-maintained worlds. Plus, they are diligently teaching their daughters how to follow in their footsteps. No wonder Friedan’s book immediately struck a loud chord and eventually spawned a whole, angry feminist movement.

While I’m gratified that it helped free women from having to stay home, bake cookies, and be thrilled with their lot, I’m afraid it did give home baking a bad rap that still lingers today. Now, perhaps we should spend some time telling the next generation of both young women and men that it’s okay to bake? That it doesn’t make you fuddy-duddy, or demeaned, or gender bendy, and it’s a huge amount of fun.

Frankly, it’s a wonderful, relaxing activity to enjoy with friends and family members, and it offers the bonus of fresh-from-the-oven treats. I loved the times my mother, grandmother, and aunts and I baked together, and I know my grandchildren are thrilled with the hours they spend baking with me.  (Here's a post about a fun cookie baking session in my kitchen with my granddaughter and great niece and here's another featuring my grandkids making chocolate dipped marshmallows with me.) So, yes, it is as fun and rewarding as the 1940s ephemera suggests. But do skip the Sunday-best garb and don’t expect the counters to stay spotless or the utensils to wash themselves.  

 Does home baking carry any of the negative connotations mentioned above for you? Or do you feel we've moved on and no underlying issues are at work?  If you don't bake is it because nobody ever taught you? I'd love to hear your thoughts.
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Monday, September 26, 2011

Oven-Dried Tomatoes: Preserving the Taste of Summer Garden Tomatoes for Fall and Winter Feasting

All summer I told myself I'd buy some extra vine-ripened tomatoes at the farmers' market so I could oven dry them. Now, Septemeber is almost over, and once the first frost zaps the local tomato crop (in the next few weeks), we'll be without local tomatoes in central Maryland until next July. So,  I've finally stopped procrastinating before it's too late.

In case you're unfamiliar with the oven-drying technique, it's one of the simplest ways to capture, intensify, and preserve the goodness of summer garden tomatoes for enjoying after they are out of season. Homemade oven-dried tomatoes are reminiscent of commercially bottled sun-dried tomatoes, but they are much more succulent and tender, and also taste fresher. This is because they are actually not dried all the way through, just very gently slow-roasted for a number of hours until their surfaces slightly caramelize and their juices and flavor concentrate. They will  keep, airtight, in the refrigerator for up to two or three weeks, or, in the freezer for up to a year.

Oven-dried tomatoes substitute nicely for commercial oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes in dishes. Try simply chopping two or three and adding them, along with chopped onion and some good black olives, to a simple chicken saute. Or toss them along with some chopped basil and perhaps shredded cheese with a bowl of warm or room-temperature olive-oil-dressed pasta. Their flavor will bowl you over!
Although recipes often call for plum tomatoes for oven drying, I usually use the regular 3- to 4-inch roundish garden tomatoes that are more readily available in markets where I live.  Other than being thicker and taking longer to dry, they are handled just the same way. The method will work for various quantities, but try to start with a minimum of 6 to 8 tomatoes, as they shrink considerably during drying. Also, a double batch makes more efficient use of the oven during the 5 to 7 hours of roasting time required.  

Oven-Dried Tomatoes

Tip: Use a light hand when adding the salt. As the tomatoes dehydrate, the salt concentrates and can easily become overpowering. 

Tip: Double the recipe if desired.

6 to 8 3- to 4-inch diameter vine-ripened summer tomatoes 
Sea salt for seasoning 
Olive oil or corn oil for drizzling and packing 
Preheat the oven to 275-degrees F. Wash the tomatoes well; pat dry. Core and slice in half lengthwise. Scrape out and discard seeds from the interior of each half. Lay the tomatoes, cut side up and slightly separated, on a wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet. Lightly sprinkle the tomato halves with salt. Drizzle them lightly with oil. 

Place in the middle of the oven. Dry for 5 to 7 hours, or until the tomatoes look shrunken and are the consistency of soft, very moist dried apricots. If the tomatoes appear to be burning at the edges at any point, reduce the oven temperature 25 to 50 degrees F and continue. Larger tomatoes will take longer than the small ones to dry out. Set aside to cool.

Lightly pack the tomatoes in very clean glass jars. If you wish, drizzle a bit of oil over the tomatoes to prevent them from drying out. Keep in mind that olive oil will solidify but corn oil will remain fluid during refrigeration. Close the jars with non-reactive lids. Refrigerate for up to 3 weeks or freeze up to one year. 

6 to 8 tomatoes will yield 2 4 to 6-ounce jars. 

My delish "freezer" (no-canning needed) tomato chutney, shown below, is here.
For another good, but quick tomato recipe, check out my sliced tomatoes with oregano salad. 

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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Easiest Ever "Baked" Apples--Two Ingredients/10 Minutes!

You say you’ve been hankering for some old-fashioned baked apples, but can't wait 45 minutes for them to get done?  And that you think maybe they’re too much trouble when you’re rushing to get a meal on the table?

I have a great solution: these Microwave “Baked” Apples. Don’t be skeptical; they are every bit as good as the regular oven-baked ones but can be on the table in less than 10 minutes if you're baking two at once; or in less that 20 minutes if you bake four at once.

Besides the apples, only one ingredient   is needed for this recipe—brown sugar.  (You do need to add water, but everybody has that on hand.)  Cinnamon is entirely optional—sometimes I add it, but with really fresh, full-flavored varieties like the Braeburn shown above and Honeycrisp sitting in the bowl below right, I prefer to just let the pure, sweet apple taste stand alone.

I’ve streamlined the prep time, too. Just wash the apples; core them; and set them in a deep-sided, microwave-safe dish. Or put them in individual shallow dishes (like those shown) set in a larger microwave dish that can catch any juices that boil up and over.

 If you have a corer similar to the sturdy and effecient OXO model here, simultaneously plunging and twisting down through an apple and neatly pulling out its core will literally take less than 15 seconds. (I've found that because it makes coring so quick, I actually ready baked apples more often. I hated to give up the pointy, toothed one with a wooden handle that my grandmother always used, but, in truth, the new-fangled style does a much better job.)

I’ve been micro-baking apples to go with our suppers three or four times a week ever since I bought some in a Maryland farmers’ market. I always think baked apples when I see the Honeycrisp variety, because I once did a side-by-side apple bake-off comparing of over 30 kinds (really!) to find the best ones for baking whole and they were among the winners.

If you check out the results of my test, you’ll see that I gave Macintosh apples a low grade because they collapsed and looked drab, and the flesh had an applesaucey taste and texture. Some huffy Macintosh fans from New England actually e-mailed me to vigorously object, saying that this was the way baked apples were supposed to be. But I think they’d just never been served the better alternatives and am sticking with my original judgment.

Honeycrisps, as well as Rome, Empire, Jonathan ande Braeburn apples, hold their shape and color well.

Easiest-Ever (Microwave) “Baked” Apples
Some dishes are much better cooked in the oven than the microwave, but apples are delicious prepared either way. Serve these plain or with unsweetened table cream for breakfast, snacks, or as a lunch or dinner side dish.  Or top each with a scoop of ice cream for a simple, but yummy dessert.

Tip: If you wish to ready only one apple at a time, bake for 3 to 4 minutes, checking after 3 minutes and continuing if necessary.  For each additional apple,  add 3 or 4 minutes to the total “baking” time. Be sure to check each apple for doneness by piercing the thickest part with a fork. Especially if you prepare different varieties or sizes at once, they will cook at different rates.

2 to 4 large (9 to 11-ounce) full-flavored fresh apples, washed and dried
2 or 4 tablespoons packed light or dark brown sugar
2 to 4 generous tablespoons water
4 generous pinches ground cinnamon, optional

Using an apple corer (or paring knife if necessary), remove the cores, leaving an open channel running from the top to the base of the apples.  Arrange  the apples upright in individual baking dishes or in a deep microwave-safe dish large enough to generously hold them. Don’t crowd or their juices may bubble over the dish sides. Spoon a tablespoon of sugar, and, if desired a pinch of cinnamon into the center cylinder of each apple, pushing it  into the cavity. Drizzle about 1 tablespoon of water into the cavity. Cover the dishes or dish with a microwave oven cover or lid.

Microwave the apples, covered with a microwave-safe cover, at 100% power: The baking time will vary depending on the variety and the total weight of the apples. At 3 minutes check if baking 1 apple, at 7 minutes begin checking 2 apples; check the thickest part by piercing with a fork. Baking time may range up to 12 to 15 minutes for 4 large apples. Keep checking every 2 or 3 minutes until they are tender.  Let apples stand a few minutes before serving. If apples were not readied in individual dishes, transfer them to individual bowls and spoon the cooking juices over them, dividing equally. Makes 2 to 4 servings.

Or, if you're in the mood for another apple dessert check out this fine apple crisp.

HOLIDAY CHEER: If you are looking for a fine holiday gift, take a peek at the short, fun video for my new Simply Sensational Cookies cookbook. It  has beautiful photos and 200 recipes ranging from extra-easy, no-bake and semi-homemade to streamlined classics, fancy, and even some unusual savory "cocktail" cookies and crackers. A delish sample recipe from the book, my Ultimate One-Bowl ChocolateChippers (or Chunkers) is here.
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Monday, September 12, 2011

Brightening a Rainy Week with Batch of Limoncello and Thoughts of Sunny Italy

In between watching the rain pound down  seemingly endlessly, building my ark, and checking to make sure our basement sump pump is still pumping, this week I’ve been brewing limoncello and dreaming of my recent  sunny days on vacation in southern Italy. (That's where I took the pic of the store window shown below. The pic of a limoncello-orange juice cocktail at the very end of the story was snapped aboard our ship looking out on the Mediterranean.)
Finally today, the rain ceased for a short while. And, after seven days of steeping fresh lemon peels in clear grain alcohol, I finished making my first batch of limoncello. It came out perfectly, though it's quite strong for me to drink straight as prepared above right!  That's the way the Italians prefer it-- ice cold in small liqueur or shot glasses and served as a digestif at the end of meals.  Apparently, even they find it too potent to consume on an empty stomach!

Celestina, our guide on our day trip to beautiful Sorrento and Salerno impressed upon us that, besides the tourists who flock to the region, lemons were an important money maker in Southern Italy.  Even the cliffs and smallest gardens are put to work growing lemon trees.

She also told us that many people take advantage of the lemon crop by making their own limoncello at home. She even gave us the following recipe to try ourselves.  And in both towns, we found dozens of bottles of limoncello, in all sizes, prices and shapes. The shops were also crammed with enticing lemon-scented soaps like those pictured, as well as with cheerful pottery decorated with lemons.

I succumbed and bought some of both. And a bottle of limoncello, too. (I felt I should do my share to support the local economy, of course!)

Purists say that clear grain alcohol is the best choice for making limoncello  at home because it has very little taste and yields a lemon flavor most similar to the Italian versions. I used a 190 proof  brand called “EverClear” grain alcohol, though I hear that plain, unflavored vodka will work, too. (Aside from being a little easier to find, it also yields a  gluten-free limoncello.)

Homemade Limoncello

Limoncello is easy to make. You just need a bag of good lemons and a sharp vegetable peeler to remove  the thin colored part of the peel and not the white, bitter pith underneath. The slight challenge is figuring out what to do with the left-over lemons. I suggest a big batch of fresh lemonade—it’s much better than most you can buy.
 Fresh lemonade spiked with a little limoncello is wonderfully refreshing, although my preferred way to drink it is mixed with orange juice, for a sprightly lemon-accented screwdriver cocktail. That's how we polished off the bottle of limoncello we bought in Salerno. It was delicious, no doubt partly because we enjoyed it while gazing out on the Mediterranean sea!

The pic below shows three of the five bottles my recipe made. I'd already given away two as gifts. They were very well received!

10 to 12 well-washed, then dried lemons
1 liter (about 1 quart)  clear grain alcohol (or substitute unflavored vodka)
650-700 grams (about 3 1/2 cups) granulated sugar
1 liter (about 4 cups) spring water, or a cup more for a less potent limoncello

Peel the yellow part of the peels from the lemons using a sharp peeler; be careful to remove only the thin layer of yellow and not the white pith underneath. Combine the strips of peel and the grain alcohol or vodka in a large jar or other non-reactive container. Set aside in a cool spot for at least a week and longer for an even more pronounced lemon flavor.

Combine the sugar and water in a 4-quart nonreactive pot or very large non-reactive saucepan. Stir until the sugar is just incorporated over medium high heat. Bring to a boil and let the mixture boil gently, without stirring, for 10 minutes. Let cool. Put the lemon peel mixture into the syrup, stirring just to blend the two.

Strain the limoncello through a sieve into a very large measuring cup or pitcher. Pour the limoncello into sturdy storage bottles; add corks; and store in a cool spot.

Before serving, put the bottle of limoncello in a very cold refrigerator or freezer until ice cold. Serve straight up in vodka or shot glasses, as the Italians do. Or combine 2 parts orange juice and 1 part limoncello (or half of each) with ice for a fine before or after dinner drink.

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy making ratafias, infused wine cordials, too.
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Monday, September 5, 2011

An Amazing Photo Shoot with an Amazing Photographer Team--Meet Todd Porter & Diane Cu

I’m still breathless  from my week of working with Todd Porter and Diane Cu, aka whiteonricecouple, on the photos for my next cookbook for Wiley.  Breathless  both  at how fast they work and how gorgeous their images are—wow! I wish I could share some of the photos they took, but a snapshot from over Diane’s shoulder  as she was getting ready to take a pic is all I can show you. (Publishers like to keep the photography under wraps till the book comes out.)

 If you haven’t heard of this dynamic young LA photographer team, trust me, you will soon. Their burgeoning and impressive list of credits includes work on a number of cookbooks; numerous videos for authors and organizations (see their Shauna Ahern video  here); and a wide array of images for culinary product clients and restaurants. Lately they’ve been  working for Williams-Sonoma, a major coup, since the firm normally uses only northern California photographers.

The secrets to their success?  For one thing, they are very focused and hard working. They say their goal is always to deliver clients more than they promise, and they certainly did in the case of the photos for my book. I’m sure Justin Schwartz, my editor, will be doing handsprings around the office when he sees just how many wonderful images they’ve created for him.  I couldn’t be more thrilled. (Some cookies waiting for their turn in the spotlight are at left.)
Todd with one of the trees he planted

Todd and Diane have a clean, contemporary style, and an affinity for fresh ingredients and the beauty of nature that help make all their food images sing.

The tangerine tree Todd is standing by (left) is just one of dozens of citrus vareities they’ve planted in their well-tended yard. They also grow and enjoy their heirloom tomatoes, peppers, and abundance of herbs.  We snacked on the citrus and scarfed their tomatoes and herbs every day for lunch in the studio.

Despite their care, attention to detail, and creative touches in every shot, this dynamic duo also works at blinding speed.  Their assistant during the week, Nancy Buchanan (below), and I cranked out recipes as fast as we could, and still weren’t able to keep up with their pace. (Check out Nancy's blog, here.) I asked Todd about their amazing productivity and he said it might be due to the many years Diane spent as a portrait photographer. “The shots of kids are best if you get them in an out as quickly as possible,” he explained.  Apparently, food benefits from not sitting around or being excessively fussed over either.
Nancy Buchanan

One other key to their success—they are a pleasure to be with and genuinely nice.  We’ll be teaming up on another project soon and I’ll be delighted to connect again. In the meantime,  they’ve probably already created more batches of beautiful images that I just can't wait to see.
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