Thursday, August 30, 2012

To make ice cream

It's been a busy summer, one full of transitions: family milestones, a move ten minutes down the road, exotic travel, a new school. This week I've been focusing on that last one, a new school, as we get ready for classes to start next week. There's a new commute to learn, a new curriculum to design, new/old books to dig out of storage in the school's makeshift building. I'm excited, but as you well know, I also have a hard time dealing with transitions. Especially when these transitions come with challenges.

Luckily the big challenges seem to be reserved to the new home so far (like major water pipes bursting at 7 at night because the city of Providence is doing construction work on our street). Normally this would be a minor annoyance. But when the past three months have felt like one massive bundle of changes, it turns into a big frustration. Like, crying-worthy (don't worry, I didn't cry over the loss of water pressure....but I thought about it).

Even cooking, my old standby, has been hit with the new house challenge bug. A few days ago I decided to try out an ice cream maker given to us by Josh's grandmother. I'd recently gotten a copy of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home and was dying to try out at least half of the recipes straight away. What better time to try out the ice cream maker?

Jeni's t-shirt, Jeni's cookbook, Jeni's ice cream

Hah. Well. A better time may have been once things settled down and I didn't feel like crying at the drop of a hat. As it turns out, ice cream making is a little trickier than the manual makes it sound.

First, some background: Jeni Britton Bauer founded Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams in Columbus, OH, after years of experimenting with homemade ice cream. Her business has grown to 9 shops in Ohio and 2 in Tennessee, and just last summer I discovered that one of those shops happened to be in my hometown. With flavors like Salty Caramel, Queen City Cayenne (spicy chocolate), and Lemon and Blueberries, it was like a revelation. I went basically every day I was home that summer.

And now there's a cookbook! I ambitiously decided to make her Sweet Corn and Black Raspberry ice cream instead of continuing to unpack in the new apartment (YOU tell me which one sounds like more fun). And I quickly discovered that when you haven't used an ice cream maker with a frozen canister before, that canister has to be frozen for a full 24 hours before you use it. Otherwise your beautiful, creamy mixture scented with corn will refuse to freeze. It will instead be slightly thicker than when you started, and you'll have to stick it in the back of the freezer to force it to harden, and it will turn icy after a few days.

Again, I thought about crying.

However, the ice cream was delicious. And this setback mostly made me want to try again (with a different flavor, of course). And because I'm me, it also sent me on a hunt to discover how the Victorians made ice cream.

No one is surprised by this turn of events.

According to The "Settlement" Cook Book, making ice cream was rather more of an endeavor in the days before freezers and electricity. While references to ice cream go back to the days of ancient China and Persia, it wasn't until the late19th century that regular Americans were introduced to ice cream sodas. Ice cream sodas and sundaes continued to be rare treats until refrigeration became much more common in the early 20th century. So while there's a whole chapter on ice cream and frozen desserts in The "Settlement" Cook Book, these recipes would probably be reserved for special occasions.

1843 vintage
And with good reason. First you had to make your own freezing mixture (Kander recommends three parts ice to one part rock salt), then place a can with the cream mixture inside the bucket that held the freezing mixture (so the cold surrounded the ice cream). After adjusting the amount of ice (it's a very careful procedure), you turned the crank steadily, letting the mixture rest periodically, until it was frozen. After that you had to make a different freezing mixture (four parts ice to one part rock salt), replace the old with the new, and let the whole thing sit for a few hours until ready to serve. Oh, and the ice cream maker should be covered "with carpet or newspaper." (For insulation?)

The whole thing sounded even riper for disaster than my own electric maker. Imagine churning ice cream by hand for half an hour! And chipping ice to pack the ice cream in! And not having a freezer!

After I read that, I felt both better about my predicament (it's not so hard to make ice cream nowadays, I can always try again) and worse (it's not so hard to make ice cream nowadays, so why couldn't I do it?). But my cooking spirit remains indomitable. And I will conquer the ice cream maker before school starts.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Supposedly delicious (II)

As I mentioned earlier, I love perusing the old cookbooks at the cottage to see what earlier generations enjoyed eating. People of my great-grandparents’ generation apparently cooked with quite a lot of lard in the 1930s, while those of my grandparents’ generation liked to cook entire meals in casserole dishes. (The 1950s and 1960s were apparently full of food fads like that.) These cookbooks are also entertaining for the quaint illustrations, like this one of a woman rolling out pastry dough in the 1960s Joy of Cooking:

I don’t know about you, but I can’t roll out dough using just my index fingers.

A number of the 1940s cookbooks claim American home cooking as the one thing that will win the war. The introduction to Cook It In A Casserole, 1943, argues that by forcing a wartime economy on America, Hitler is encouraging Americans to return to the good old casserole: “the oldest and the most satisfactory mode of cooking.”

And of course, there are also a few recipes that give me pause. Where I think to myself, Did readers actually eat that? And what does it taste like? (This is the moment where I contemplate making it myself. That moment is usually short.)

Of course, I know that many people still happily consume organ meat today, so I’m not trying to be critical. But as a young Western cook of the 21st century, I’m often surprised by how quickly food fads have changed.

So what do you think? Would you try any of the recipes below?

  • Baked Brains and Eggs (from The Joy of Cooking, 1967). The way the recipe title rolls off the tongue reminds me of the Monty Python Spam skit.

  • Heart Pie (from Cook It In A Casserole, 1943). Sounds quaint, right? Heart pie for Valentine’s Day? Oh wait.

  • Frizzled Beef a la King (from Cook It In A Casserole, 1943). It’s basically dried beef cooked with veggies, milk, and sherry. But why is it “frizzled”?

  • Scrambled Brains (from The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, 1930). Scrambled eggs for breakfast plus a special ingredient.

  • Frozen Cheese Salad (from Meals Tested Tasted and Approved, 1930). Cream cheese + mix-ins, which actually sounds promising. But the title doesn’t.

  • Whale (from The Joy of Cooking, 1967). The editors begin with: “Last—but vast” and go on to describe how you have to cook it like beef, “which it resembles more than it does fish.” I can’t picture a Midwestern, suburban white family of the 1960s sitting down to a meal of whale. I do want to try whale, but unless I visit a northern Native American reservation, that probably won’t happen anytime soon.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Special vacation edition: Cinnamon buns, or snails

During my mom’s senior year of high school, her family hosted a Norwegian exchange student, and they’ve stayed in touch with her ever since. Fast-forward many years later to when I was in middle school: we were lucky enough to visit this Norwegian friend and her family on their small island in Norway (there’s a theme here somewhere). While much of that trip is obscured in my memory by my own awkwardness (it was middle school, remember), I do recall the amazing food we ate there. My mom’s friend made these flaky butter biscuits with seeds on top, and before we left I asked her for the recipe. She said something along the lines of, “Make the dough and put butter on it, then roll it out and put more butter on it, and keep doing that.”

Not very specific, but all you need is that general principle: roll copious amounts of butter into dough and it will bake up light and flaky. Our favorite Providence bakery follows this idea to the letter.

And it only took me 10 years to actually try it myself!

The base for these cinnamon rolls is a Scandinavian coffee cake, which becomes light and flaky after it’s been rolled with butter and left alone to contemplate the joys of milk fat. I like to think that if I hadn’t gotten out of control and sprinkled cinnamon sugar on top, too, this dough would have turned into something very like those buttery Norwegian biscuits. But in the end, I don’t really care that much. These cinnamon buns are amazing.

However, there were just a few slight problems while baking. Remember how we have to adapt to our circumstances as we cook at the island? Well, during the making of these buns I...

  • discovered that we had no white sugar (so I pounded up some raw sugar cubes)

  • learned that 1960s cookbooks still gave yeast measurements as “1 cake compressed yeast” (so I made an educated guess)

  • thought that we had no rolling pins (so I used a beer glass)

All in a day’s baking, though, right? Just think, when you try out this updated recipe in the comfort of your modern kitchen, it will seem downright easy. Or at least it will to me, when I make these again.

Because I will be making these again. These cinnamon buns are glorious. The copious amounts of butter may send the Wellness Brigade into hysterics, but hey, it’s vacation (as I justified it). They’re as flaky and light as those Norwegian biscuits, and just sweet enough to feel like a dessert or a sinful breakfast.

Lesson learned: those Norwegians (and 1960s American Joy readers) know how to live.

especially if you enjoy it with a cold brew

Cinnamon Buns (Snails)
(adapted from The Joy of Cooking, 1967 edition)

for the dough:
2 eggs
¾ cup warm water
2 ¼ tsp active dry yeast
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp sugar
2 cups butter, divided

for the filling:
1/3 – ½ cup brown sugar
1/2 – 1 tsp cinnamon

To make the dough:
Beat the eggs together in a small bowl, then add the water and the yeast. Stir to dissolve and let sit in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix the flour, salt, sugar, and ½ cup butter together until well blended. When the yeast mixture has proofed, make a ring of the flour mixture in the bowl and pour the yeast mixture into the center of the bowl. Stir to combine. With your hands, knead the dough for about 2 minutes, until most of the floury bits are incorporated. Cover the dough and let it rest in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes.

Beat the rest of the butter until it’s creamy, and prepare a floured surface. When the dough has rested, turn it out onto the floured surface and roll into an oblong shape about ½ inch thick. With a knife, smear about ¼ of the butter onto 2/3 of the oblong dough, like so:

Then fold the unbuttered third of dough onto the center third, and fold again over the last third. The dough should look like a pamphlet. Rotate it 90 degrees and roll out the dough again to 1/2 inch thickness, and repeat with the next ¼ of butter. Continue to fold the dough, rotate 90 degrees, roll out, and cover with butter until you’ve used all the butter. The dough should then have been rotated 360 degrees and rolled out and buttered four times. Put the dough back into the large bowl, cover, and refrigerate for 2 hours or until doubled in bulk.

When the dough has doubled in bulk, turn it out onto the floured surface and roll into an oblong shape about ¼ inch thick. Spread with butter (just a little will do at this point) and sprinkle evenly with brown sugar and cinnamon. Roll the dough over on itself like a jelly roll, and lightly pinch the loose ends to seal. Cut into 1-inch slices. Grease 2 muffin tins and place each slice at the bottom of each muffin container (you can squash them in if necessary). Sprinkle with brown sugar. Preheat the oven to 350 F and let rise for 30 minutes.

Once the buns have risen, bake for 30 minutes, or until golden brown.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Special vacation edition: Brown sugar blueberry pie

We’ve just returned from a relaxing week with family on Georgian Bay in Ontario, Canada. My mom’s side of the family has been spending summers up here since the 1940s, when my great-grandfather (appropriately named “Granddaddy”) built a boathouse on the island he’d just purchased. The island has since grown to include a main cabin and two smaller cottages, but the cabins themselves haven’t changed much since the 1940s. Think bare beams, no insulation, and nights where all you can hear is the overwhelming chirp of crickets and the creak of the docks. It’s in the middle of nowhere and we like it that way.

And if you haven’t guessed by now, I also like the fact that so little has changed since the 1940s. But I’m reasonable: I like having electricity and running water, and indoor plumbing. My mom grew up here with outhouses and kerosene lamps, but that’s a little too prehistoric for me.

Gasp! I actually enjoy some modern conveniences!

Anyway, my sister is determined to march our little cabin into the modern age, step by refurbished step. So this summer we’ve replaced a few ancient mattresses with brand-new pillow-top dreams, and Lissa’s put up new curtains and laid out fresh bedspreads. My dad strung up new lamps to hang in the porch so we can read at night. All these changes add some much-needed freshness to the place, and I like it. But I also love the things that stay the same. These are the little details that I grew up with every summer, and the ones I greet like old friends each time I visit.

There are the kerosene lamps the family converted into electric lights. The reed pump organ supplied only with old hymnals and compilations of folk songs. The collection of baskets woven from dyed porcupine quills. The sketchbooks filled with drawings and watercolors done by my grandmother and my own mother. The old comics from the 1970s—Archie, Richie Rich, and Batman—that my sister and I used to reread every summer, because they’re just so much different from (better than) today’s comics (and Archie wears bellbottoms!). The wooden boats we sailed at the sandy beach when we were little.

And, of course, the old cookbooks.

There’s quite an interesting collection up here. It’s small but reflects the changing values of each generation: the Fannie Farmer from the 1930s, the “Cook it in a Casserole” special of the 1950s, the classic Joy of Cooking from the 1960s, and more recently, one of Mark Bittman’s tomes. Before I started this project, I used to peruse the cookbooks and delight at the copious amounts of lard the 1930s cookbooks would call for, or the occasionally bizarre recipes found even in Joy (more on that in a few days). This year I came with a mission: to use one or two of these cookbooks and to report the results back to you, my devoted readers.

The first report is on an old classic that I’ve presented here before: blueberry pie. We always make a blueberry pie at the island, often with berries we picked ourselves. Sadly, there weren’t any berries growing when we arrived, so we made do with store-bought. And since there wasn’t any white sugar at our tiny local grocery store, I turned it into a brown sugar pie. But the family, fresh from swimming, pronounced it delicious.

It’s fitting, then, to open the special vacation edition with this kind of pie. It reflects the adaptations and adjustments we make each year at the island, when we realize we’re out of this ingredient or can’t find that utensil. It also reflects the somewhat odd 1960s habit of making pie crust with flour paste. But who cares when it tastes so good?

Brown Sugar Blueberry Pie
(adapted from The Joy of Cooking, 1967 edition)
makes one 9-inch pie

for the filling:
4 cups fresh blueberries
3-4 tbsp flour
2/3 cup brown sugar
½ tsp cinnamon
1-2 tbsp butter

for the crust:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
¼ cup water
2/3 cup butter

To make the filling:
Rinse and drain the blueberries, making sure to pick them over for leaves and stems. Place the berries in a large bowl and sprinkle with the flour, brown sugar, and cinnamon, and mix gently. Let sit while you make the crust.

To make the crust:
Preheat the oven to 450 F. In a large bowl, mix the flour and salt together. Remove 1/3 cup of the flour mixture to a small bowl and add ¼ cup water, mixing to form a paste. To the remaining dry flour mixture, cut in the butter with knives or work it in with your fingertips. Once the grain is the size of peas, add the paste back into the dough and mix with your hands until the dough forms a ball. You may need to add a little more water to make sure it comes together.

Turn out the dough onto a floured board and separate into two balls. Roll out the first ball into a circular form slightly larger than the bottom of a 9-inch pie pan. Fold the dough in quarters and place in the pie pan, unfolding to cover the pan. Cover any gaps with extra dough. Pour the filling into the pie dish and dot the top of the filling with the remaining butter.

Roll out the second ball of dough as you wish. I like to make a lattice crust: roll out the dough into an oblong shape and use a knife to cut the dough into long strips about ½ inch wide. (See vintage 1960s diagram at left.)

Lay the strips over the filling in one direction, then in the other, making sure to weave them together into a loose lattice. It’s okay if the strips break; you can mush them back together with your fingertips.

Bake the pie at 450 F for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 F and bake for 35-40 more minutes.

Friday, August 3, 2012


For the next week, I'll be enjoying some time with family in Ontario, Canada. There will be lots of swimming, canoeing, picnicking, reading, and, of course, cooking. I'll be back soon with more recipes and stories. Hope you're all enjoying August so far!