Monday, August 31, 2009

Sweet family

Every Christmas Eve – and most special events in our family – we have Krumkake, a Norwegian cookie, served on the dessert buffet. Krumkake translates to “crumble cake.” Krumkake is made with a whipped batter, flavored with butter and cardamom. The cookies are cooked on a specially made iron and rolled over a wooden mold to set (traditionally a broom handle). Similar to waffles, they have an imprinted design, but the krumkake iron has a very shallow indented floral design. Store-bought waffle cones don’t compare. Krumkake is very delicate, thus the crumb reference in the name. Our family serves them plain, though many people carefully fill them with whipped cream and fruit or chocolate.

I had the honor of making them with my Aunt Barbara recently, our family’s Christmas Eve host and the most common krumkake baker. She was making krumkake for my cousin’s bridal shower. The night before the shower, we burned our fingers to great results. This reminded me of the ladies in a San Francisco Chinatown fortune cookie factory. The cookies came down the line and they quickly folded them while hot. One lady smiled and handed me a cookie, still too hot to eat. That was the beginning of my affinity for fortunes.

It turns out that Norwegian baking is featured in the Iowa State Fair 4-H tent. They had a number of Kransekake cakes, which are addictive towers of chewy almond cake. The rings are baked in special molds, then assembled after cooling. White frosting is used to add decoration, sometimes candied fruit or small Norwegian flags. Kransekake cake is the traditional wedding cake in Norway, but can be served at a graduation, birthday, or holiday. Our family serves this cake at Christmas, as well as at weddings. Should you be inclined to try Norwegian sweets, I recommend these two baked goods. The iron for the cookies and the molds for the cake tower are sometimes hard to come by, but you can make the cake by rolling out rings by hand. In this manner, the tower cake can also be made in its dismantled form – in single serving sized rings.

Almond Tower Cake - Kransekake

1 lb ground almonds
1 lb confectioners' sugar
3 egg whites

I adjusted this recipe for greater ease. Trader Joe's sells ground almonds in 1 lb bags, ready to go. If you have a food processor, pulse the ground almonds with the confectioners' sugar. If you don't have a food processor, sift the ground almonds and confectioners' sugar together into a bowl. Add the slightly beaten egg whites in two parts and mix well. If the mixture is too moist, add a little flour. Let the dough sit for 10 minutes.

Without using Kransekake rings, take the dough and roll it out into thin strips, then attach the ends to form a ring. I like to make mine uniform 2 - 2 1/2" in diameter and serve like cookies. Place rings on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake at 300°F. Check after 20 minutes to see if they are finished. The rings should be very lightly browned.

If you are using Kransekake rings, grease them well with unsalted butter or vegetable oil. Roll out dough into thin strips and press into rings. Follow the same baking instructions above. When nearly cool, carefully remove the rings from the pans.

Standard icing:

1 cup confectioners' sugar
1 egg white, slightly beaten
1/2 tsp. white vinegar or lemon juice

Stir egg white and vinegar into confectioners' sugar until a thick paste. Using a tube cake decorator (or a plastic bag with a tip cut off), decorate the rings with a zigzag pattern.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A home away from home

I just got back from visiting relatives in Iowa. I like how everything slows down when I'm there, that I can wander through my family's history, walk down the streets where my Dad grew up, eat the food he ate, hear the crickets, see the fields far into the horizon.
My first night's dinner was a hard act to follow. My Aunt made a pork roast, cheesy potato casserole, and sweet corn. I had arrived.
The days that followed included ribs, pulled pork sandwiches, cakes, steak with Iowa's own Maytag blue cheese, Dutch letter pastries... I figure I ate more ice cream in the last week than I have had in six months combined. It was delicious.

At the state fair, we tried a Hot Beef Sundae. I was dubious, but it turned out to be perfect comfort food. Mashed potatoes topped with a shredded beef gravy, cheese, and a cherry tomato on top.

A butter cow sculpture:

My aunt and I made a pasta salad for my cousin Sara's dinner party. She left us specific instructions to follow. We did our best.

My birthday cake: "Pea Pickin' Cake" with mandarin oranges in the butter/yellow cake and crushed pineapple in the frosting.

A lovely luncheon dessert with raspberry sorbet layered over a creamy cheesecake ice cream. A sweet end to a special visit.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The last pickle

I made too many pickles last year, had to start pushing them on people this spring. (That was a good survey of palate. Some were thrilled, others shunned the acidic treat.) I decided to exercise restraint this year. I pickled a modest amount of beans, beets/carrots, dill pickles, and one jar of fennel. I finished, put them away, felt satisfied.

Then I tried pickled watermelon at a restaurant. Slightly sweet. Slightly tart. Was that cinnamon? I wanted more. When discussing melon pickling with my friend Drew, he suggested I try pickling Crenshaw melon. And so I did.

At the market, there was a lovely selection. Never having tasted it myself, I asked one of the employees if it tasted like honeydew. He replied, “It tastes like cantaloupe, but better.” At checkout, the clerk said, “Crenshaws are my favorite.” So much support for one melon.

Indeed it is tasty fruit. An almost vanilla aftertaste. After cutting out and eating the orange fruit, I sliced the paler part of the melon, near the rind, to make pickles. With a sweetened vinegar mix, I added a bit of cinnamon stick, a few cloves, and a couple peppercorns. I can’t promise I won’t be tempted to pickle the next ravely reviewed fruit or vegetable, but I am hoping this will be the last this summer. Especially since I am out of vinegar.

Monday, August 3, 2009

A case for the frozen dinner

Say it with me now: "Lazy dinner." I am not a big fan of frozen dinners, but I am fond of frozen tamales. Steaming them is so effortless after a long day. Having never made them by hand, this seemed the only at-home option for a tamale dinner.

Last weekend, in my summer heat-induced daze, I decided to make tamales for lunch. As a first timer, I did a bit of research. To my dismay, every website had a different recipe. Some were for a freezer-full of tamales, some for a dozen. Some listed steam time as short as 15 minutes, some as long as two hours. How to choose...

I finally came across a recipe that said it plain and clear:
Soak the corn husks in warm water for at least 30 minutes (or overnight in room temp water).
Start with your Masa flour (an enriched corn flour). For every 2 cups masa, add your preferred spices, 1/2 cup fat (i.e. lard, shortening, or oil), 1/2 tsp salt, and enough broth to reach your desired consistency. (I used around 1 1/2 cups chicken broth.) From what I read, this means the dough is spreadable - like peanut butter. Typically the spices included are chili, cumin, sometimes garlic powder or paprika. This initial batch was enough for me to make 8 tamales.

I was getting very hungry.

I did a vegetarian filling, mostly because it was too time consuming and hot to roast chicken/pork/beef. I used cheddar and sautéed onions, garlic, and peppers (green bell and jalapeno).
Spread the masa dough thinly over 2/3 of the husk, leaving a few inches at the narrow end. Put a couple tablespoons of your filling/s in the middle of the masa dough. Roll the filled husk so your masa forms a sealed tube with the remaining husk overlapping. Fold the narrow end up to seal the bottom. Repeat until you have used all your masa and fillings. With the folded end down, place the tamales in a steamer and steam until they separate from the husk when peeled back. For me, this was 20 minutes.

At this point, my kitchen was getting warm. The fans were blowing. I ate quickly. The tamales turned out well, though they needed a bit more broth and a milder cheese. I will try again, on a cooler day. I will roast a chicken the night before and use the reserved broth. I will set aside more time. And if I don't feel like it, that's okay. The frozen ones taste almost as good.