Thursday, December 27, 2012

Dining at Downton: How to serve plum pudding

We had a relatively quiet Christmas here in Ohio, seeing family and telling funny stories and going for long, snowy walks and eating good food. As per tradition, we served plum pudding for dessert on Christmas night, along with a lot of other treats (frosted cookies, red velvet cake, petit fours...). We don't mess around with dessert.

As I mentioned a few days ago, the serving of plum pudding is half the fun. Once you've steamed the pudding so it's nice and hot (2 hours at 350 degrees, back in the mold and the double boiler you set up to cook it the first time), you turn the pudding out into a heat-resistant dish. Heat up a little brandy on the stove, pour it evenly over the pudding, and hold a lit match close to the pudding. The fumes from the brandy should pick the flame right up and set the whole pudding alight. In a darkened room with all the family sitting around a candle-lit table, there's nothing quite like it: blue flames dancing around the dish, creating a magical feeling.

Unfortunately, our evening did not go exactly according to plan.

The brandy we ended up using was just too old, so the flames died out almost immediately. Here is the only picture we could get of bringing the pudding to the table--if you look closely, you might see the blue flames as they dwindled to nothing.

That doesn't mean the pudding wasn't delicious, though! The days it spent ripening in the cold did it good, and the pudding was light and fruity with a citrusy zing. It had a tender, spongy crumb that contrasted well with dabs of rich hard sauce.

If you celebrated the holidays this December, I hope you enjoyed equally delicious food and fun company. (I also hope that your projects went a little more according to plan than mine!)


Monday, December 24, 2012

Dining at Downton: How to steam plum pudding

On Saturday we talked about how to make your own plum pudding, the most classic of British holiday desserts. (Yes, I am still wondering where the plums are in the recipe.) Today we'll discuss the cooking process, which is a rather elaborate steaming method. It requires parchment paper, cooking twine, a water bath, and lots of patience.

My dad was fascinated by the process from start to finish. He's an engineer by trade, and he's the kind of cook who loves the science of the kitchen. He will turn out renditions of his mother's pumpkin pie recipe until he has the ingredient ratio just right (much to my mom's dismay). He will collect recipes for beef bourgignon and combine instructions from each to make the best possible stew. He will then exchange observations on the proper way to brown beef with me over the phone. (He also went to great lengths to find out why the one American manufacturer of plum pudding stopped producing it, which is how I ended up making the pudding in the first place.) Put simply, my dad likes method.

"You should take photos of that!" he said as I removed the steaming pudding from the water bath. "And how did you tie the parchment paper down again?"

As he noted, this is a delicate process. So here are your highly expert instructions, just the way my dad likes them.

Step One
Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Once your pudding is mixed and ready to cook, turn the mixture into a well-greased pudding mold or glass bowl. Remember, a pudding mold looks like a Bundt pan, with a ring in the middle to ensure proper steaming. I got mine at Stock, a lovely little cooking shop that recently opened in Providence.

Step Two
Next, cut a piece of parchment paper to cover the top of the mold. Leave about six inches of overhang on all sides of the mold. Fold the paper twice in the middle to create a slight overlay--this will allow steam to accumulate without tearing the paper.

Step Three
Cover the mold with the parchment paper and use a length of cooking twine to tie the paper to the mold, just below the rim. Trim excess paper.

Step Four
Create a handle for the mold, so you can lift it out of the steam bath. Cut a long length of cooking twine and wrap it around the mold as though wrapping a present, laying the twine flat across the top, bringing it down the sides of the mold and crossing underneath. Bring the twine up to the top again on the empty sides of the mold, and slide the twine underneath the cross line on top of the parchment paper. Tie the ends of the string together to create a looped handle.

Step Five
Pour hot tap water into a large stockpot or Dutch oven (I used the latter) that can accommodate the mold with at least an inch of space on all sides. Fill with water so the oven is about 1/3 full. Place the prepared mold in the Dutch oven and cover the whole thing with the oven lid. Put in the oven to steam for about 3 hours. It will make your house smell like citrus and deliciousness.

Step Six
Periodically check the oven to make sure the water hasn't evaporated completely. You may need to pour in more water. When the pudding pulls away from the sides of the mold (about 3 hours), it's done. Carefully remove from the water bath using the string handle, and lift up the parchment paper to make sure the pudding is ready. Cool in the mold completely before turning out onto a plate.

Step Seven
Now that the pudding has cooked, you can eat it straight away or let it ripen over time. If you choose to let it sit, cover the cooled pudding and store in a cool, dark place (we put it in our 1960s-era bomb shelter) until ready to eat. Pudding will keep for at least five weeks. Be sure to warm it before serving by replacing it in the mold or bowl, then steaming for about 2 hours at 350 F.

The very last segment of this culinary adventure is my favorite: setting the pudding on fire at the table! Check back in a few days for photos of our own flaming pudding. (If you want to serve your own pudding before then, warm a small amount of brandy on the stove, then pour over the warm pudding. Immediately hold a lit match close to the pudding, and the brandy will catch on fire. Bring to the table in a darkened room for maximum effect and applause. Once the flames have died, serve with brandy butter or hard sauce.)

Note: It's possible to steam the pudding with a Crockpot instead of in the oven. See this page for complete instructions.

Works cited: Irish American Mom. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Dining at Downton: How to make plum pudding

This time of year, my family is all about tradition. Previously I wrote about the Brunswick stew we've kept from my mom's side of the family, though I tested out a Williamsburg variation of the recipe. That's still on the menu this year. My sister and I maintain important traditions like decorating the tree while listening to a BBC dramatization of Hercule Poirot's Christmas (because nothing says the holidays like a murder mystery), and she will read the January issue of Vogue on Christmas Eve. Our family is still adjusting to some major changes that took place this year, but we're determined to maintain the key rituals. How else will we know it's Christmas?

Vital to our Christmas Day dinner is the plum pudding. Another hold-over from my mom's side of the family, it draws on our English heritage and recalls the classic Charles Dickens Christmas. If you haven't tried plum pudding before, it's basically a soft cake filled with dried fruit, nuts, and (most importantly) booze. It's so historical that a mention of plum pudding first appeared in 14th-century England. 14th-century! That's 1300. Clearly, England has had plenty of time to perfect the recipe. The "modern" version of plum pudding, complete with dried fruit and suet (beef fat), probably came to England with Prince Albert when he married Queen Victoria in the 19th century.

So the Crawleys definitely would have served this kind of plum pudding at their Christmas feast. Mrs. Patmore would have begun the cooking process five weeks before Christmas, since it's an elaborate pudding (the British term for "dessert") that requires a lot of time and energy. Additionally, it's the kind of dessert that tastes the best when it's been around for a few weeks--that way the dried fruit can absorb the alcohol and the whole pudding gets nice and brandified. The alcohol also gives it a long shelf life, so you just need to let it sit in a cool, dark place. Traditionally, cooks made their puddings on the Sunday right before Advent, known as "Stir Up Sunday." (This is such a tradition that the Telegraph, a U.K. newspaper, published an article a few years ago about how few British citizens make their own puddings now. The horror!)

I am not nearly as well-prepared as Downton's cook, so I made mine on Saturday afternoon. It won't be quite as tasty with only a few days of ripening time, but we'll still enjoy it. You can even make yours the day of. Today you'll read about the preparation process, but I'll save the cooking process for a separate post. (I meant it when I said this was an involved recipe.)

Some notes before we begin:

  • You'll need a pudding mold to turn the batter into once it's ready. A pudding mold looks a lot like a Bundt pan, but it's ceramic or glass rather than metal. A Bundt pan, I have been assured, will not work. If you don't have a pudding mold, an oven-safe glass bowl will do the trick.

  • I adapted a recipe from a French classic that Mrs. Patmore certainly referred to (what with the Edwardians' obsession with French food). The changes are few but important.

    • First, I substituted butter for the suet. I was all set to use actual beef fat, but my mom was hesitant. Butter does just as well.

    • Second, I cut the ingredients in half, and it still produced way more batter than I was prepared for. Be sure to have a few glass bowls on hand in case your designated mold is filled too early.

my pudding mold

But don't be scared! Plum pudding just takes some careful preparation, and it's well worth the effort. Think of it as a culinary adventure!

Plum Pudding
(adapted from Escoffier: Le Guide Culinaire)

1 cup + 2 tbsp butter (or chopped beef suet)
1 cup + 2 tbsp breadcrumbs (I used leftover bread)
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup peeled, chopped apple
2/3 cup mixed raisins and sultanas
2/3 cup brown sugar, packed
2 tbsp chopped, crystallized orange peel (I used leftover orangettes)
2 tbsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves
2 eggs, beaten
2/3 cup stout (I used Guinness)
1/3 cup brandy
juice and zest of 1/4 lemon and 1/4 orange

Soak the raisins and sultanas in the brandy. You can do this overnight or an hour or two before preparing the mixture.

Prepare all the other ingredients. If using butter, melt over low heat. If using beef suet, chop it up into small pieces.

Mix the flour, breadcrumbs, brown sugar, and spices together in a large bowl. Then add the apple, crystallized orange peel, and citrus zest. Mix well. Finally, add the citrus juice, butter, eggs, and soaked raisins together with the remaining brandy. Add the stout at the very end, and mix until just incorporated.

Pour the batter into buttered pudding molds or glass bowls, filling until about 2/3 full. Stay tuned for the next post, where we cook the pudding!

Works cited: The Telegraph.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Dining at Downton: Mulled wine

It's getting to be that time when I start glancing at the calendar to see how many days are left. Not before Christmas (though that's another kind of concern) but before the premiere.

Yes, you know. The U.S. premiere of Downton Abbey Season Three.

January 6! That's less than a month away!

Josh and my sister and I can barely contain our excitement. I will probably need to review the first two seasons before that fated day in order for the story to be completely fresh in my mind. This kind of viewing--leisurely, paced, because I already know what happens--calls for something special to spice it up.

I'm talking mulled wine.

This recipe is particularly appropriate for the Downton Christmas special. I can imagine the Crowleys sipping mugs of spiced, mulled wine by the fire while they discuss the punch-up between Matthew and Sir Richard. Perhaps Mary and Matthew warmed themselves up with a tipple after their mutual declarations of love. It's the perfect thing for a cold, blustery evening, even if your winter's night features only British TV dramas and central heating. (I really do appreciate the modern comforts of home.)

I recently brewed a batch of mulled wine for a holiday party, pulling inspiration from Escoffier: Le Guide Culinaire (a cookbook Mrs. Patmore probably used) as well as from the latest issue of Bon Appetit. The Escoffier recipe is fairly mild, calling for only "zest of 1 lemon, a small piece of cinnamon and mace and 1 clove." I suppose a light hand with the spice makes sense, given the famed Victorian aversion to flavor. Since modern tastes are more adventurous, I added a few more cloves, some tangerines, and orange peel to boot. The result, I think, was well worth the tampering.

Mulled Wine
(adapted heavily from Escoffier: Le Guide Culinaire and Bon Appetit)

2 750-ml bottles of red wine (it doesn't have to be fancy)
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups apple cider
2 cinnamon sticks
2 tangerines
16 - 20 whole cloves
1 tsp dried orange peel
pomegranate seeds for garnish

Pour the red wine over the sugar in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Heat over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved. Add the cider.

While the liquid heats, prepare the tangerines. Press the cloves (by the sharp end) into the tangerines, using about half the cloves for each tangerine. This way you don't have to strain out the cloves later on.

Place the tangerines, cinnamon sticks, and orange peel in the wine mixture. Heat until steaming, then cover and turn the heat down to low. Serve after twenty minutes, garnishing with pomegranate seeds (if using), and keep warm for second (or third!) servings.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

5 ways to reuse Mason jars

Over the weekend Nina came over and we had another canning extravaganza (Cabernet Sauvignon jelly and pear & ginger preserves, for the curious). It's much more fun, and efficient, to can with another person, especially if you both prep your mixtures in advance. That way you can just reheat the jelly/preserves/jam on the stove while the water bath heats.

(We're thinking these will make excellent holiday presents.)

While they were in town on Saturday, Josh's parents were kind enough to give me this nifty journal (left) for logging all my canning adventures. Our previous goods will certainly make the cut, and I'm looking forward to filling up the journal with notes and photos of jewel-like preserves.

But the journal's cheeky cover got me thinking: what does a thrifty person do with all those leftover jars? Back in the homesteading days, no self-respecting cook would let those jars go to waste. Thankfully, we've got an abundance of crafty supplies and inspiration these days to make Mason jars even more useful. Here are 5 ideas:

1. Make a mini-terrarium. You'll want to layer in stones, a bit of sphagnum moss (both for drainage), potting soil, and tiny plants of your choice (or green moss). Spritz with water and set in moderate light (I have a few on my kitchen windowsill).

2. Store matches, buttons, or any other odd and end. I poured liquid dish soap into some old jars when the plastic container broke, and the jars make for a much prettier sink display.

3. Create an easy candle holder: wrap ribbon around the outside of the jar with a bit of glue and place a tealight inside.

4. Make mini-snow globes. Ever since Anthropologie came out with rather pricey Mason jar snow globes, the craft blogosphere has been buzzing with DIY instructions. I made mine this way: glue a craft tree to the underside of a jar lid. Spread a thin layer of glue on the rest of the lid's underside and sprinkle with buffalo snow. When the glue has dried, pour a small amount of buffalo snow (and glitter, if you like) into the jar, and carefully screw the lid back on the jar. The snow will spill a bit, but if you lay down newspaper you'll end up with a minimal mess.

5. Reuse your jar to preserve something else! You can reuse the jar and the ring--all you need to do is replace the flat lid with a new one (the seal needs to be fresh).

If you have any crafty ideas for reusing Mason jars, I'd love to hear.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

How I blog (plus potato pancakes)

I'd like to pretend all my blog posts and series spill out onto the computer fully-formed. But like most of my writing, creating blog content is a slow, careful process. There's a lot of planning, rewriting, deleting, and then some more rewriting. Sometimes it's painful. Sometimes I'd rather take pretty pictures or read other people's effortless-looking blogs or go for a walk.

So, inspired by Joy the Baker's admirable honesty, today I'm going to give you a glimpse behind the curtain. This is how I made potato pancakes yesterday...and all the thinking and research that went into it.

Two Days Prior (Inspiration Time)

I start thinking about what I could make for the blog. I glance longingly at my pile of cooking magazines and the exciting East-West blend of Simply Ming that I got from the library. If only I could count Thai green curry sauce as historical. I suppose I could...if I knew more about Thai history and cooking.

Note to self: new blog series!

Then I talk myself down from starting yet another massive research project. I flip idly through The "Settlement" Cook Book and mark some cookie recipes. But Josh and I made Christmas cookies over the weekend, and we definitely can't eat them all plus more cookies. (Here Josh would say: "But, delicious!") So I read Bon Appetit instead.


One Day Prior (Research Time)

Adam Rapaport's article on the perfect latke makes my mouth water. I love potatoes. When a friend hosted a supper club several months ago, she and her sister waxed poetic about how potatoes would definitely be included in their last meals. I firmly agree. There is nothing like the potato.

Perhaps there's a similar recipe I could make for the blog. I flip through The "Settlement" Cook Book again, and lo and behold, there's a recipe for potato pancakes! And I could probably think of a good angle for the post...

But today we have leftovers, and I am fighting a cold that makes me feel like death warmed over. So I'll wait. I eat my pasta and imagine it tastes like potatoes.

(Can you tell I have an issue with leftovers? And that I was raised in a good Midwestern family with lots and lots of a certain root vegetable?)

Day Of (Cooking/Photo Time)

potato pancakes, posing with applesauce

My cold has significantly improved, and I leave school bounding with energy. When I get home I set up my equipment: ingredients, box grater, kitchen towel, fry pan, and of course, CD player. I'm going through a phase where I listen to dramatized Agatha Christie mysteries while I lends the whole enterprise an air of drama.

The Settlement recipe doesn't provide much in the way of guidance, so I open up Bon Appetit and skim the latke article. Rapaport recommends squeezing the grated potatoes to rid them of excess water--this sounds like a good idea. Then I make assumptions about the other instructions, based on what I know about frying up regular pancakes. I cut the ingredients from the Settlement recipe in half (it's only Josh and me, not our turn-of-the-century family of six) and get to work. The light's dying, so I do it quickly, hoping to get some decent natural-light photos in before the day ends.

But that's not to be, so I set up my kitchen table with seasonal linens and turn on the lamp for additional lighting. I spend the next ten minutes or so taking glamour shots of fried potato cakes.

One Day After (History Time)
New York settlement cooking class

Before school starts, I glance at the Wisconsin Historical Society's website for a reminder about the Milwaukee Settlement. I did the majority of my research for this project when I first started using the book, so most of this is familiar. But I want to confirm my suspicions that this recipe is for German Jewish potato pancakes, rather than for those of another culture. And indeed, I find that Lizzie Kander, the writer of The "Settlement" Cook Book, taught Jewish women how to cook at the Settlement, so I'm fairly certain that these potato pancakes could have been used in a turn-of-the-century Hannukah celebration.

So I gather my historical photos from more or less reputable sources, upload my own photos, and type up my thoughts. Plus the recipe, which is adapted heavily from the original (i.e. with actual measurements).

As you can see, it's a messy, time-consuming process. I'm sure many of you have developed much simpler ways of creating blog content, or perhaps you have your own elaborate methods. I'd love to hear!

Potato Pancakes
(adapted from The "Settlement" Cook Book and Bon Appetit's December 2012 issue)

4 russet potatoes, peeled
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking powder
2 tsp flour
1 tbsp milk
2 eggs, beaten
vegetable oil, for cooking

Using the larger holes on a box grater, grate the potatoes. Dump the potato mixture onto a clean kitchen towel, wrap up the mixture, and carefully wring out the liquid over the sink. You may want to do this twice. Mix the dried potato gratings with the salt, baking powder, flour, and milk, and add the eggs at the end.

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat, and pour in enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan. When the oil shimmers, drop the potato mixture in by spoonfuls and flatten with the back of the spoon. Cook about 4 minutes, or until brown and crispy, then carefully flip over the pancakes to brown on the other side, about 3-4 minutes. Remove cooked pancakes to a plate lined with paper towels.

Serve with applesauce.

Works cited: 1. Bon Appetit Magazine. 2. Elizabethian Tea.