Archive | March, 2011

Scones and Sensibility

23 Mar

I’ve never broken a bone, gotten stitches, suffered a black eye, or caught a bad case of chicken pox.  But when it comes to awkward injuries, I’m pretty well versed.  The first few weeks of fifth grade, I marched around school brimming with the confidence my fellow fifth-graders and I shared over being the graduating class and rulers of the playground.  In the midst of my arrogance, I decided to apply for class president.  Two weeks later, I got lice.  After a few failed attempts with store-bought lice medication, my mom moved on to more radical measures of bug termination.  First, mayonnaise.  But all that dousing of my hair in a tub of Heinz mayo accomplished was a head of gleaming locks, and though I looked like the women in shampoo commercials, I smelled unmistakably of macaroni salad.  When we checked my cole-slawed hair, the lice were still there.  So then we tried Vaseline.  Well, that did the trick—no living creature could withstand the suffocating effects of Vaseline (didn’t predict you’d get a little lice-advice in the midst of a baking blog, huh?).  And so, the lice were gone, but I was left with hair that resembled a plastic Kewpie doll for the next several months.  There’s something strangely Twilight Zone-esque about a pasta-salad plastic-headed pre-adolescent.  Needless to say, I pulled out of the running for class president, choosing instead to hide myself in the back of the classroom, close to the open window and away from any hungry fourth graders who may have been attracted by the smell of my well-seasoned hair, but turned off by its unnerving sheen.

Then there was my severe allergy to poison oak.  No one seems to quite comprehend the gravity of this situation, insisting that “everybody is allergic to poison oak.”  I know… everybody gets lice and everybody is allergic to poison oak, but what you obviously don’t quite realize is what accident-prone, awkward seven-year-old Eloise is capable of.

My allergy was first detected around the time we got our family pet.  Forget man’s best friend: Frizbee, the family cat, and I were inseparable.  I would drape him around my neck like a shawl, carrying him with me from room to room as I went about my business.  I have a picture in which I set up a card game, propping a fan of cards in his paws, and seated myself across from him as a worthy rival.  He would sleep in the crook of my arm every night, until I woke up one morning with a mysterious rash. Frizbee would run around the hill in our backyard, rubbing his long fur on bushes, branches, and yes, poison oak.

Like that lice on the playground, the poison oak spread like wildfire, and I woke up with a ghastly rash in the crook of my arm that proceeded to swell to the size of a football.  I didn’t let this stop me from keeping Frizbee perpetually strapped to my side, but it did make me wary of more obvious outdoorsy adventures—being sure to always suit up in knee-high socks, long sleeves, and leggings before setting off on family hikes.

But on one ill-fated trip to Sea Ranch, the ten-hour drive north up California’s coast to the secluded spot we picked as our annual family summer vacation, I got it bad.  My mother knew something was amiss when I slept through breakfast and lunch the day after a hike in Mendocino.  I never slept past nine, but there I was, curled in my bed at one o’clock in the afternoon.  Rolling me over, my mother gasped in horror as she saw that my entire face had swelled to three times its normal size.  I looked like the Bobble-Head, Cabbage Patch version of Eloise, which might have been humorous on my tiny eight-year-old frame, if I could have seen through my swollen eyeballs.  The pain was excruciating and even my intestines were itchy.  Needless to say, for the next two weeks I lived on Benadryl, cortisone, oatmeal baths, and aloe vera.  I refused to show my puffy face to the outside world, and so, for the rest of the vacation, while my parents and sister took bike rides and played tennis, I occupied myself reading hours upon hours of Harry Potter and enjoying our local café’s hand made scones, toasted, with a pat of butter and a touch of strawberry jam.  So it wasn’t all bad.  Sitting on the deck of our rented house, which overlooked the rocky California coastline, I contented myself with what my parents dubbed “Extreme Reading” and my newfound love of scones.  Some plain or filled with raisins, others dotted with ginger, the special few with chocolate chips, and others still containing the occasional cranberry—I couldn’t get enough.  As long as I was properly drugged to dull the terrible itch emanating from my face, I could enter into a fictitious world in which I pretended I was living in some Jane Austen novel, enjoying teatime in the brisk but sunny weather.

And so, if you are at all hungry after this slightly unpleasant tale, please do try to forget the balloon-face, and take the time to make yourself a batch of fresh scones, grab a book and a cup of tea, and enjoy.

Buttermilk Scones

Ingredients:

1 egg
1 1/2 cup buttermilk
4 cups white flour
4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 cup cold butter, cut into cubes
1 cup raisins or currants

Preparation:

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Beat together the egg and buttermilk.  Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and sugar in a bowl.  Rub in the butter cubes into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse crumbs.

Dump the flour mixture into a large bowl, add the egg mixture, and stir lightly with a fork until a soft dough forms.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead gently. Divide the dough into quarters and pat into 1/2-inch thick circles. Cut each circle into 6 wedges.

Place scones close together on a greased baking sheet. Brush the top with an eggwash and sprinkle with sugar.

Bake for 13-15 minutes, until lightly browned.  Serve with  jam, butter, or clotted cream, and enjoy with a good book and a cup of tea.

Through Green Colored Glasses

13 Mar

When we were little bickering children, my older sister (an artist now, imagine that) claimed all the colors for herself.  Red, purple, pink, blue… the whole rainbow was off limits to me.  Except green.  Bullying, six-year-old Ava, in her infinite generosity, gave me green, and that was that. From then on, green was my favorite color.  And I believed her.  At my fifth birthday party, the balloons, paper plates, and party hats were bright green; my bedspread suddenly matched the recycling bin; and our mother dressed us in matching jumpers—Ava would be donning a bright magenta ensemble while I was always conspicuously the color of phlegm.

So it’s no wonder I felt the attraction to Ireland immediately.  The green landscape that became my backdrop for a year felt oddly like home.  It’s as if, from the moment Ava told me I loved green, Ireland became my homeland.  I’m a descendant of Russian and Hungarian Jews, so of course this isn’t really true… and I guess under this same rationale, my peculiar affinity for pickles around the same age could have placed me just as comfortably in Hungary or Germany.  But that’s beside the point, and for the purpose of this story, Ava led to green, which led to Ireland.

You’ll see it all over this blog… from Whiskey cakes to Guinness cookies to Bailey’s cupcakes—I just love all things Irish (particularly the booze and baked goods).  So, of course, I had to bake something to commemorate this St. Patrick’s Day (which I have never really celebrated, spending my past Patty’s Days in Greece, cramming for finals, or working long waitressing shifts).  I am aware of the obvious absurdity of the “holiday,” though, and can’t help but detest the way drunken American kids take this day as an excuse to swig massive amounts of bright green beers while wearing leprechaun hats and Mardi Gras beads.  So instead of making some kitschy green-frosted cupcake, I stuck with a classic—Irish soda bread.  Traditional, simple, and delicious.

Irish Soda Bread


Ingredients:

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk

Preparation:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a large bowl, stir the dry ingredients together with a whisk.  Make a well in the center and add 1 cup of the buttermilk, reserving 1/2 cup.  Stir the dry ingredients and buttermilk with a fork, gradually adding more of the remaining liquid, until a dough is formed.  The dough should be soft and sticky, but not smooth.

Knead the dough lightly on a floured surface for 1 minute.  Form into a slightly flattened circle.  And make a large 1/2-inch deep X with a sharp knife in the center.  Place on a parchment lined cookie sheet and bake soda bread for 40-45 minutes. The bread is ready when it is golden and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.

Allow it to cool slightly, and then enjoy with a pat of Irish butter and perhaps a pint of Guinness.

Bagel and the Beast

7 Mar

I am admittedly stubborn.  Although I would deny this to all ends if pointed out by my parents or accused by my sister, I am, indeed, indisputably set in my ways.  It’s no wonder where I get this charming trait from.  Look no further than dear old dad.

I was raised to expect certain things in life to always be reliable.  This was especially applicable when it came to specific foods.  My father, born a poor Jew in Baltimore, knew certain things to be unequivocal.  ‘You can’t be certain of many things in this world,’ he would say.  A self-proclaimed Communist, he didn’t trust the government, or much of anyone besides the few friends he kept close since he was thirteen, smoking cigarettes and drinking beers in the streets of Baltimore before coming home to be reprimanded by ma, who could smell the stale stench on their breath.  Balmer, which it was called by those few natives in the know, was where he learned these irrefutable truths and became the obstinate eater he is today.

First, there is the egg cream.  ‘There is no such thing as a chocolate egg cream,’ he would declare.  ‘An egg cream includes three very simple ingredients: milk, chocolate, and soda water.  There is no chocolate egg cream because, damnit, egg creams are chocolate.’  Mention a vanilla egg cream and the man goes mad.  You don’t want to see the obvious infuriation when he sees those three blasphemous words on a diner menu.

Next up, meats.  My grandfather was a counterman at the local deli, waking up every morning to slice pounds and pounds of pastrami, corned beef, and brisket.  So my dad learned a thing or two about meat, and boy would he make sure every one knew it.  The deli drawer in our overwhelmingly lean and healthy fridge was perpetually stuffed full of salamis of every imaginable size, texture, and flavor.  Having dinner at one of our local Los Angeles delis, my mom, sister, and I would perch on the edge of our seats as Dad would take the first bite of a sandwich stacked four inches high with dark pink pastrami, always on rye bread, and always only with yellow mustard as garnish.  (There’s no such thing as pastrami on rye, pastrami only ever comes on rye).  Chewing his first bite, and washing it down with a crisp pickle and a sip of his egg cream (note, not chocolate), we would await his review.  It would have to be the perfect ratio of meat-to-fat, with just the right balance of salt.  None of the rest of us would even try our sandwiches before they received the Balmer seal of approval.  Get it wrong, and onto the next deli to try to replicate that ideal pastrami from his childhood.

Finally, and most importantly, there is the bagel.  A true bagel comes in only one variety: plain.  In fact, there is no such thing as a plain bagel, there is only a bagel.  The man is a purist, what can I say.  Just like his egg creams and his roast beef sandwiches, the truly perfect meal is simple and to the point.  A bagel, when made correctly, does not need to be toasted.  It is chewy and dense, more like a rubber tire than bread, and, when smeared with cream cheese and topped with lox, rather hard on the jaw.  He claims that this ultimate, quintessential bagel can only be found in New York City.  Something about the water.  I swear, my father claims that the city’s water, used to boil those chewy tubes of dough, lends the precise scientific makeup to produce the definitive bagel.

So you can imagine my fathers’ disgruntled response when I told him I wanted to try my hand at making bagels.  ‘Pfft,’ he scoffed.  ‘You can’t bake a damn bagel.  What do you think, they’re donuts?’  I knew not to push him too far by suggesting varieties, although my baking mind swam with visions of onion, poppy seed, and sourdough.  I assured him that the bagels would be plain, and would be boiled before I baked them, and after a few tense moments of silence, he reluctantly agreed to give them a taste.  I briefly toyed with the thought of calling my aunt to Fed-Ex some precious New York water, but dismissed the idea after considering the high cost of such a venture.

And so, with my sub par Los Angeles water and very few ingredients in tow, I set off to make as near an approximation as I could to the perfect New York bagel.

Simple Homemade Bagels


Ingredients:

1 tbsp active dry yeast
1 tbsp sugar
1 3/4 cups water, warm (100-110F)
4 cups bread flour (not all purpose)
1 tbsp salt
1 egg, for egg wash

Preparation:

In a large bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer) combine the yeast, sugar, and water. Let stand for 5 minutes, then stir in flour and salt. Mix dough thoroughly until it comes together in a large ball, pulling away from the sides of the bowl. Add an additional tablespoon of flour or water, if needed.
If kneading by hand (like me), turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until very smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. If using a stand mixer, knead the dough with the dough hook until elastic, about 8 minutes on a low speed. Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise until it doubles in size, about one hour.

Bring a large pot of water to a gentle boil and preheat the oven to 400F.

When dough has risen, turn it out onto a very lightly floured surface and divide into 12 equal pieces (first quarters, then thirds). Shape each piece into a tight ball, pinching the corners together at the bottom of the piece of dough. When all the balls are shaped, let the dough rest for 30 minutes covered with a clean dish towel.

Now shape the bagels. Using your fingers, poke a hole through the center of each dough ball and stretch out the dough into a ring with your fingers.  Make sure to make the hole a little larger than you want the finished bagel to have, and try not to flatten them too much (like I did).  The holes will shrink slightly during the baking process when the bagel expands. Let the bagels rest for about 10 minutes before boiling.

Drop four of the bagels carefully into the boiling water. Boil for 2 minutes on the first side, then flip and boil for an additional minute. Using a slotted spoon or strainer, transfer bagels to a clean towel to drain for a moment, then place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat process with remaining bagels.

Using a pastry brush, brush the boiled bagels with a lightly beaten egg and bake for 20-24 minutes, until golden brown.

Cool completely on a wire rack.
Slice and toast to serve (with cream cheese and all the fun extras).