Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Joy of Random Cookbooks

I mentioned in my post on homemade pizza that I've started a collection of rather random and kitschy cookbooks. I think they fit in perfectly with some of the ideas within this research project that is Americana Kitchen. Think about it: sociologists and historians love every sort of written record of a person or group of people because it speaks to the culture of that time and place. The same is true for cookbooks. They say something about the person who owns them and the time in which they were published or were popular.

Take, for example, a shelf full of cookbooks like Rachel Ray's 30-Minute Meals and Sandra Lee's Semi-Homemade. What do those books say about the cook? Probably that he or she wants to put full, tasty meals on the table without a ton of prep work and kitchen time. What do they say about the times? Well, for one, it shows just how popular food media has become. And two, if these cookbooks are popular (and the cookbook section at my local Borders suggests they are), that means people are probably steering away from ready-made meals and fast food and instead are trying some recommended shortcuts to apply the whole DIY thing in the kitchen. That's quite a bit of information from a few cookbooks on a shelf.

I've always been a bit more attracted to the idiosyncratic, and that's why my little collection is more random than perhaps your everyday cook's resource shelf. These books include:

Alcatraz Women's Club Cook Book
Dewey or Don't We? Librarians Cook
How to Gorge George Without Fattening Fanny

From the Alcatraz women's enjoyment of using molds (to present rice in a ring around cooked meat) to the diet-type recipes from a 1970s model, these cookbooks (and the others I procure over time) will probably say some interesting things about the nature of food culture in America and how it's changed over time.

And then we can ask... what does the fact that they're all on my cookbook shelf say about me?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

I Scream, You Scream...

It's no secret that I love ice cream. Coming from the family I do, not loving ice cream was pretty much a genetic impossibility. Every family vacation I remember involved ice cream, and the best were vacations with a variety of local ice cream shops. Not only could I try a new flavor every night, but I could try a new flavor at a new shop. In my book, such a great ice cream set-up equals a fantastic vacation, no questions asked.

My mixture wasn't entirely well-blended when it went into the ice cream maker. But that didn't affect the taste in the least.

Even though I happily eat (and crave) ice cream throughout the year, summer is the nostalgic season for the creamy, frozen treat. We all remember the ice cream man; he seemed like the purveyor of deliciousness when I was little. Over time I've refined my ice cream palate, so to speak, although I still prefer classic flavors to the new, candy-filled concoctions the major ice cream companies seem to have been inventing lately.

Watching the ice cream thicken is basically the physical manifestation of anticipation.

When I decided to try cooking lots of new foods this summer, I added something of an ice cream clause to my personal goals. I remember ice cream as being a real treat, terrificly tasty and comforting, and I wanted that feeling again. Thus, for this entire summer, I'm not buying ice cream at the grocery. Instead, I'm making it. Because nothing recalls the childish joyousness of ice cream like a batch fresh from the ice cream maker.

Mmm, so chocolaty! Mike and I decided it would taste great with some marshmallows mixed in.

I received an ice cream maker for my birthday a few years back, and thus far I've stuck to the flavors detailed in the instruction and recipe booklet that came included. So far this summer I've made three great flavors: orange sherbet; fresh strawberry ice cream; and tonight's dessert, chocolate fudgesicle ice cream. It was thick, fudge-y, and oh-so-simple. Mike (the cupcake guy, who's always up for a culinary experiment) said it was great. I hope you like it as much as he did.

All gone!

Chocolate Fudgesicle Ice Cream
from the Cuisinart Automatic Frozen Yogurt-Ice Cream & Sorbet Maker instruction and recipe booklet

2 packages (3.4 - 3.9 ounce) instant chocolate pudding
3 cups reduced fat or lowfat milk, chilled

Mix ingredients until well blended. Pour the mixture into the ice cream maker and let it thicken for 20-25 minutes. Serve immediately, or freeze in an airtight container.
Note: I haven't tried it yet, but theoretically you could use any flavor/s of instant pudding in this recipe. Chocolate banana? White chocolate pistachio? Get creative, and do let me know if you stumble on anything genius.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Pizza, Wiseguy Style

I don't start working for the summer until tomorrow, so I've had quite a bit of free time these last few days. That translates into lots of cooking for me, and it has been a rather productive week in that department: homemade hamburger rolls to go with my brother's homemade burgers, a pot of chili of my mom's own recipe, and homemade marshmallows (from the most recent issue of Bon Appetit) made into wonderful backyard s'mores. I also ventured into a new cookbook to change up my family's weekly pizza routine. More on that tradition later.

Last week, while making an Amazon purchase, my brother suggested I order The Wiseguy Cookbook in order to get free shipping on the order (does your family, too, band together in order to reach the $25 minimum to qualify for super saver shipping?). He's been talking about Goodfellas since before I left for college, so I was a little skeptical at first. He assured me, however, that based on all the delicious-looking food in the movie, the cookbook would be a hit. I reasoned it would fit in with my odd assortment of society and kitsch cookbooks (a post on this growing collection will follow in the near future). Turns out we were both right.

One of the pizzas before going into the oven, plus some of the components: yummy, sweet-garlicky sauce and packages of shredded cheese.

This week on pizza night I made homemade dough based on Fat Larry's Pizza Dough recipe. I say "based on" because I neglected to read the instructions carefully, but luckily my impatience resulted in a tasty crust anyway. The sauce was based on the Basic Tomato Sauce recipe, taking author Henry Hill's advice as to what type of tomatoes to use. Toppings were to suit my, my brother's, and my parents' tastes. Here's what I did:

Pizza Dough
based on Fat Larry's Pizza Dough from The Wiseguy Cookbook

2 1/2 tsp yeast
1 1/3 cups lukewarm water
3 cups unbleached flour
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried parsley

Put water and olive oil in the bottom of a breadmaker. Add flour, salt, and herbs on top. Make a shallow well in the center of the dry ingredients and carefully spoon in the yeast, making sure it does not get wet (you don't want to activate it too soon if you're setting the timer for later). Set the breadmaker to make a white dough. Once the dough is finished, punch down a bit and roll out on a floured surface. Makes two approximately 12-inch round doughs. Work quickly, because the dough wants to shrink once it's shaped. Once you've assembled the pizzas, you'll want to cook them in an oven preheated to 500 degrees Fahrenheit (hotter if you can; Hill says the hotter the better when it comes to baking pizza). Watch for your preferred state of crispiness, 10-20 minutes.

The cheese pizza upon coming out of the oven. Look at the cheese on the edges starting to brown...

Pizza Sauce
based on Basic Tomato Sauce from The Wiseguy Cookbook

7 cloves of garlic, minced or sliced to your liking
1/4 cup olive oil
2 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes
1 tbsp dried basil
1 tbsp dried parsley
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/4 cup sugar

In a saucepan, briefly cook the garlic over medium heat. Before the garlic browns, add the canned tomatoes, basil, parsley, salt, pepper, and sugar. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat. Cook at a simmer, uncovered, for an hour (sauce will thicken during this time). Let the sauce cool a little before you spread it on the pizza dough.

Pizza Toppings

For two 12-inch pizzas, I used a total of 3/4 lb. shredded mozzarella and 1/2 lb. shredded Italian cheeses mix. Part of one pizza also had sliced red peppers, sliced onions, and sliced mushrooms cooked in a pan just before being added to the pizza. But you should use whatever ingredients you want. Otherwise, where's the pleasure in the pizza?

The second pizza, 1/4 cheese and 3/4 red pepper, onion, and mushroom. The cheese on the veggie side is less brown because the mushrooms let out a bit of liquid as they continued cooking in the oven. Probably should have pre-cooked them longer to avoid making the toppings soggy.

Before I go, here are the details on the weekly pizza tradition in my family. My dad has been refereeing high school football since before he and my mom got married. Once my brother and I were old enough to be picky eaters, my mom figured it would be easier to just take us out for pizza on Friday football nights since my dad wasn't eating at home. Thus a tradition was born. We started out at Pizza Hut every week, then progressed to the terrific Italian family restaurants that Chicagoland is blessed with. My dad loves pizza, too, so we just kept up the weekly routine once his ball season was over. We've been eating pizza, either out or in, pretty much once a week year-round ever since, usually on Fridays. I don't even want to think about what that means for my lifetime pizza consumption. Although it has been rather tasty.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Asiago Potatoes - The Easy Tasty "Fancy" Potato Side Dish

While I've always enjoyed sharing and swapping recipes with people, I didn't make the jump to sharing my favorites with a wider public until last fall. I'd been a writer and editor for my college newspaper for two semesters when I decided to add a food column to my list of writing commitments. The original intent of the column was to provide recipes students could make using only ingredients from the convenience store on campus. Choice was limited, however, and so I decided to leave that idea behind and instead just focus on the "ease factor," always so important for college students. One of my later columns included these potatoes (with the student-friendly name "Easy Cheesy Potatoes"), a personal and family favorite.

Shaking a bag full of potatoes and seasonings is almost as fun as crushing ice in a bag with a mallet.

We've been eating these potatoes at my house for about as long as I can remember, although until recently my mom only made them for special occasions. Last year, though, as I shadowed the cooking process, I saw just how easy they are to make. The most labor-intensive task is cubing the potatoes, everything else is either shaking or flipping. Now this dish has become almost a weekly staple side starch at my house. They're that easy, and they're that good.

Make sure to turn the potatoes twice while cooking to allow them to cook evenly.

I've heard some people say that no matter how large a closet they have, they will always fill it with clothes; content somehow manages to always meet capacity. In my family, these potatoes follow the same line of logic: no matter how much we make, we'll eat the entire dish. The formula has held up over time as we've served the potatoes to all manner of guests, family members and camp friends alike. Everyone finds them yummy.

The finished product should have golden, crispy edges.

They look quite tasty and impressive when you set them out on the dinner table in a nice casserole dish, and my mom says that makes them an ideal first dinner party potato.

Ease, taste, and a pretty finish. What more can you ask of a side dish?

Asiago Potatoes

6 potatoes peeled and cubed
1/4 cup flour
1/3 cup grated Asiago cheese
3/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
2 tbsp oil
2 tbsp butter

Preheat the oven to 375° F. Combine the flour, cheese, salt and pepper in a plastic bag. Shake the cubed potatoes in the bagged mixture. In an oven-safe casserole dish, melt the oil and butter, then pour the seasoned potatoes into the dish. Bake for 60 minutes, turning the potatoes every 20 minutes for even cooking. Makes 4 large servings.
Notes: Depending on how thin-skinned your potatoes are, you may not want to peel them. It all depends on the consistency and fiber-content you're looking for. Also, you can substitute pretty much any cheese you like, although harder cheeses like Asiago and Parmigiano-Reggiano work best. If you really want to give your taste buds a treat, mix a few together.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Hershey's "Perfectly Chocolate" Chocolate Cake

My mom has always asked my brother, my dad, and me what type of cake we want for our birthdays. My brother always requests a banana cake, and my dad tends to vary his answer year to year. For as long as I can remember, my cake of choice has been a delicious chocolate cake, a Hershey's classic.
Mix the batter until smooth.

It's still a few months until my birthday, but luckily an opportunity for making and savoring this cake has presented itself today. I just returned from a semester in Scotland, and this afternoon my family is going to visit with my grandparents. My grandpa mentioned in passing to my mom that he's had a taste for chocolate cake, and tonight we'll all benefit.
More batter in the pan = More yummy cake!

This cake really is fantastic, and the beauty is that you can make it simple or fancy to fit your taste or schedule. For birthdays and other special occasions, it's pretty easy to make an impressive two-layer cake. For impromptu occasions like today, or picnics where you'll want to serve more people, you can bake the cake in a 9-by-13 inch pan and frost in situ. The recipe is barely any more work than a boxed chocolate cake mix, if that's the way you tend to go, and the results taste infinitely better. And while the homemade frosting really is, well, the icing on the cake, a canned frosting tastes pretty darn good, too.
Frosting should have a creamy, spreadable consistency.

No matter what you do, it seems, this cake tastes wonderful. And, if your family is anything like mine, you'll be able to rationalize eating a piece for breakfast. What a way to start the day.
The finished product. Decorate to your heart's content!

These recipes are also available on the package for Hershey's Cocoa.
Hershey's "Perfectly Chocolate" Chocolate Cake
from Hershey's Kitchens

2 cup sugar
1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup Hershey's Cocoa
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 eggs
1 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil (or other light oil)
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup boiling water

Heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Combine all dry ingredients in a large bowl and whisk together. Add eggs, milk, oil, and vanilla extract and beat for 2 minutes on medium speed. Stir in the boiling water (using the whisk works best). Pour into two greased 9-inch round pans or a greased 9-by-13 inch pan. Cook two 9-inch pans 30 to 35 minutes, or a single 9-by-13 inch pan for 35 to 40 minutes. Remove from oven when a toothpick comes out clean, then cool completely before frosting.
Note: If you use the two 9-inch pans to make a layer cake, you'll want to remove the cakes from their pans after 10 minutes and let them finish cooling on a wire rack.

Hershey's "Perfectly Chocolate" Chocolate Frosting
from Hershey's Kitchens

1/2 cup butter or margarine
2/3 cup Hershey's Cocoa
3 cups powdered sugar
1/3 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla extract

Melt the butter, then stir in the cocoa. Alternately beat in the powdered sugar and milk on medium speed. If the frosting is too thick, add more milk. Add the vanilla last. Frost the cake and enjoy.
Note: If you're making the layer cake, make sure to leave enough frosting to cover the entire cake; don't use it all on the center layer.

**Sunshine cupcakes update will follow in the next week or two. I arrived home to a plethora of cupcakes and various other planned goodies (like today's cake), so I had to temporarily put off the bake test in the interest of my friends' and family's waistlines and dental health.