Monday, February 27, 2006

Mondays with Maida - Aspen Oatmeal Bars

Page 111 in the old book / page 151 in the new book

These cookies were candy-like (so, so sweet) and crunchy, loaded with oats, and very easy. I wasn't especially impressed with them, but they did have their fans.

Honestly, there's not much else to say about them. As Phil will tell you (though I do think he took a little dramatic license), the story this week is about cookie day, not the cookies...

Suzanne: "TOO BUTTERY! I felt like I was eating buttered oatmeal. Rating - 2.0"

Denny: "They were OK. A little too sweet, but I like the crunch. I'd give them a 3.0. Rating - 3.0"

Laura: "Crunchy & sweet. Yummy. Rating - 4.0"

Phil: "Sweeeet and buttery..... but the more interesting story from cookiedom preceded the tasting. Confronted with snow, a building power outage, no running water, and orders to evacuate the building, the cookie tasters remained resolute awaiting the arrival of their cookie maiden. As always Cathy was not to disappoint, arriving breathless, covered with snow and firmly clasping that now familiar Tupperware tub of goodies, which we all sampled prior to being ushered out of the building for the day. Rating - 3.4"

Overall rating by the panel - 3.1

Next week - Texas Cowboy Bars

Nutrition Facts

Saturday, February 25, 2006

What I've been up to...

Not much cooking happening 'round here lately...

What I have been doing is starting my first weaving project in over six years. Weaving is a hobby I took up about ten years ago after visiting New Mexico. It seemed that weaving shops and weaving demos were at every turn on that trip. I loved watching those demos, but could not imagine actually purchasing a loom. Even so, I had caught the weaving bug and returned home with a weaving book and instructions for building a simple lap loom.

I drooled over the book and an issue of Handwoven magazine that I had purchased. None of this escaped my parents' notice. Before I got around to building that lap loom, they were telling me about a weaving class at a shop just outside Baltimore and making me an offer I couldn't refuse... take the class and they would buy me a loom after I completed the class.

The class was fantastic. I have trouble remembering the details now, but I believe there were six classses over six weeks, during which time we completed four or five weaving projects. The shop loaned each student a table loom for the duration of the class, so much of the weaving was done at home.

I don't know how so much time has passed without any weaving... I've been blaming it on Leo (my cat), but my dry spell started a year or so before he came along. I've missed it, though, and I'm starting back in again. I'm finding it slow going - I've forgotten so much. Fortunately, I do remember the basics - even though it has required some effort to recollect.

So here's the thing... I'm going to break the number one rule of blogging by changing the focus of my blog somewhat. I plan to expand the scope of my little kitchen to include weaving and possibly even other needlework projects. I realize not everyone will be interested in these posts, so in the future I will always make it clear in the title what the subject of the post will be.

My current project is dish towels and I'll be telling you all about it soon. Maybe I'll find out there are one or two other weavers among you or maybe you'll catch the weaving bug too!

Monday, February 20, 2006

Mondays with Maida - Pecan Chews

Page 110 in the old book / page 149 in the new book

Typically these bar cookie recipes have each called for one or two sticks of butter. I did a double-take when I looked at the list of ingredients for these Pecan Chews - they have no butter in them. I was even more surprised when I saw how they turned out. They are soft, chewy, and (I thought) very good.

The ingredient list for these cookies is actually quite short. They're sweetened with dark brown sugar, flavored with a little vanilla and some instant coffee, and loaded with pecans. Reading through the instructions, I noticed that each step of the way Maida cautions you to "beat only to mix", or "do not overbeat". I was pretty sure that this was the key to the chewy texture - overmixing would incorporate more air and result in a cakier texture. I decided to deviate from the instructions (shocking, I know) and mix these by hand to insure that I wouldn't overmix them. I used a whisk to lightly beat the eggs and then mix in the sugar, vanilla, and coffee; and switched to a spatula to stir in the flour mixture, and finally the pecans. I found this method worked well. I had no difficulty mixing the ingredients and the resultant texture was as hoped for - chewy.

I don't think anyone picked up on the coffee flavor in these cookies, but it was quite noticeable to me. At first I thought it was too strong, but by the second bite it had grown on me. And even though I thought these cookies were very good, I would probably have to qualify that with "for a cookie with no butter". They lack the moistness and heft of a cookie made with butter.

Mixed reviews this week from the panel...

Suzanne: "The name of this bar is precisely correct. The bar or brownie is chocolate**, chewy and crunchy. I didn't feel like there was anything different or unique about the taste. Rating - 3.0"

Denny: "Excellent. The best pecan recipe was last. I'd give them a 4.7 only because they'd be at least a 5.0 with a little bit of chocolate! Rating - 4.7"

Laura: "Moist, chewy, & delicious. Rating - 4.0"

Phil: "Not particularly chewy and while tasty this bar cookie was unremarkable compared to the recent wave of pecan entries. Rating - 2.7"

Overall rating by the panel - 3.6

** Suzanne is mistaken - there was no chocolate in these.

Next week - Aspen Oatmeal Bars

Nutrition Facts

Monday, February 13, 2006

Mondays with Maida - Pecan Festival Bars

Page 109 in the old book / page 148 in the new book

These Pecan Festival Bars had a firm, crunchy texture that I liked very much, but I thought the taste was a little flat. A little additional salt or maybe even some cinnamon might have perked them up. Even though I wasn't completely won over, these cookies went quickly and were generally well received.

What was unusual about these cookies was the baking time - one hour and fifty minutes at 250 F. I don't know if the purpose of cooking them this way is to develop the texture or enhance their flavor. The ingredients for Brittle Peanut Bars from a few weeks back are quite similar - they call for the same amounts of butter, flour and sugar - but the Brittle Peanut Bars bake for about 25 minutes at 375 F. I would describe the texture of the Pecan Festival Bar as crunchy, but less candy-like than the Brittle Peanut Bar.

For the second time in this book, Maida specified that the brown sugar should be strained. When I first encountered this instruction (in the recipe for ButterscotchWalnut Bars), I gave it the old college try, but was completely unsuccessful. Perhaps there is a strainer out there that is suitable for straining brown sugar, but mine isn't it. Unlike the Butterscotch Walnut Bars, these cookies are prepared with a mixer, so straining the brown sugar seems an unnecessary precaution.

Here's the panel...

Suzanne: "The cookie was a little messy to eat. It breaks into a million pieces when you bite into it. I loved the crunchy, nutty texture. It had just the right amount of sweetness. It was worth going off my diet for this cookie. Rating - 4.0"

Denny: "Good, but would be better if they were Black & Gold**. They were a little too brittle for me, but still good. 3.0 this time. Rating - 3.0"

Laura: "Crunchy, nutty, DELICIOUS! Rating - 5.0"

Phil: "These crunchy and denser bars while not brittle tended to work out those back molars. Buttery with moderate sweetness. Rating - 3.8"

Overall rating by the panel - 4.0

** Denny is still reveling in the Steelers' Super Bowl win.

Next week - Pecan Chews

Nutrition Facts

Monday, February 06, 2006

Mondays with Maida - Georgia Pecan Bars

Page 108 in the old book / page 149 in the new book

I'm a sucker for anything resembling pecan pie, and this cookie certainly qualifies on that count. I particularly liked these Georgia Pecan Bars because, like my mom's pecan pie, they're not overly sweet. The pecan flavor is what you notice first, rather than a gooey sweet filling.

Unlike similar cookies, the base for these cookies is not prebaked. As a result, it has a softer, more crumbly texture and is less distinct from the topping. The base is sweetened with dark brown sugar, which also serves to unify the base and topping flavorwise.

I have not yet replaced my 13x9 pan, but I did better this time in adjusting the temperature and timing to accomodate the dark pan I have. Rather than lining only the bottom of the pan with foil as instructed, I decided to line the whole pan. I prefer to lift the finished cake out rather than risk destruction by dumping it out. I buttered the foil all over and then tried my best to just dust the bottom with bread crumbs. After pressing the crust into the pan, I used a paper towel to wipe off most of the stray bread crumbs on the sides.

Here's the panel...

Suzanne: "Well, I don't think it was worth going off of my diet for this pecan bar. It looked like a small pecan pie (in bar shape) but did not have the sweetness of a pecan pie. It was missing the richness of pecan pie. Rating - 3.0"

Denny: "Very good and crunchy. Rating - 4.0"

Laura: "Pecan "Pie" in a bar cookie - Yummy!! Rating - 4.0"

Phil: "For joy, the march of Maida's bar cookies continues. Golden brown, moist yet firm texture, and pecan pie sweet. Makes one take a breath after a couple of bites. P.S. Disregard whatever Denny says this week. His attention has been totally diverted to his cherished home team's (Pittsburgh) participation in the upcoming super bowl game. Spotted him testing out a black cape to evaluate at what "running" speed it would start to billow... Rating - 4.8"

Overall rating by the panel - 4.0

Next week - Pecan Festival Bars

Nutrition Facts

Sunday, February 05, 2006

I'm Frying! I'm Frying!

My to-do list for this weekend started with "Deep-fat fry". I've been putting this off my whole life, but I decided this would be the weekend I would finally put a check-mark in that box.

First, I must apologize to Bob and Chuck - they gave me a deep-fat fryer for my birthday last summer. (They presented it to me in Vermont, so it stayed up there until it could hitch a ride south with David in November.) I had planned to use it this weekend, but when I was setting it up I realized that it required a minimum of three quarts of oil to operate. I had less than two on hand and that amount of oil seemed excessive for this small project, so I decided to use a saucepan on the stove (and a little less than a quart of oil).

A little background before we get to the frying... I was the lucky winner of Nupur's chai hamper (her offering for A Menu for Hope II) back in January. My prize hamper included not only the makings for some wonderful chai, but some sweet and savory snacks to accompany it. The cookies and bhadang are but a memory now, but they were both fantastic. I've since made more bhadang myself (so easy!) and I think I've gotten Phil hooked on it too. Nupur also included some Pakoda mix in the hamper - a mixture of chickpea flour (besan) and spices which when blended with a little water forms the perfect batter for various kinds of vegetable fritters.

My first frying project was Onion bhajiyas using the Pakoda mix and recipe that Nupur had sent (which is a little different than the recipe linked to). Since I wouldn't be using the deep-fat fryer and had no experience frying, my candy thermometer (which is also intended as a frying thermometer) was very helpful in keeping the temperature in the desired range. It was my security blanket.

I may have been a little conservative on the temperature. I was aiming for around 325 F, but while frying it varied between 300 F and 340 F (or so). Lower temperatures cause the food to absorb more oil, but higher temperatures may not allow the insides to cook before the outside is overdone. Right now these decisions leave me scratching my head. I believe (hope) that experience will make them second nature.

Happily, none of my long-held fears associated with deep-fat frying came to pass. Both I and my kitchen survived unscathed. There was no fire, no smoke, and not even much of a mess. In fact, there was less of a mess than I've had with stir-frying because there was no spitting or splattering outside the pan. It actually seemed very controlled the whole time.

My only remaining concerns with deep-fat frying are 1) the cost of the oil; and 2) how to dispose of the oil. I filtered the oil and put in the refrigerator, but haven't decided if I will reuse it. Since I was cooking just two fritters at a time, I had the oil heated for an extended period of time and it may not be suitable for reuse. The problem is, I don't have a container at the moment that I'm willing to toss out with the oil. I'll have to start saving containers with this in mind.

I've rattled on long enough about frying, now about those onion bhajiyas... they were delicious! I've put some in the refrigerator and some in the freezer and will try reheating them in the oven. Now that I have privately conquered my deep-fat frying demons, I think I'll try making these for company so leftovers won't be an issue.

Thanks again to Nupur for the Pakoda mix and the rest of the great chai hamper she put together. Thanks too to Bob, Chuck, and Nupur for giving me the little push I needed to finally get frying!

Finally, I have to show you the cutest onion bhajiya you ever saw. I found as I was making these that they were sort of like ink blots or clouds, in that the shape would sometimes look like a familiar creature. I know what this one is - do you?

Thursday, February 02, 2006

BBM3 - Kriszti's package from Karen arrives

There are still a few BBM3 packages that haven't arrived yet, but I'm happy to report that one more finally found it's way. Kriszti (in Hungary) just wrote to tell me that her package from Karen (in California) arrived, and what a lovely package it is....

Hi Cathy,

My BBM3 package has arrived safely today, just when I needed something to brighten up the otherwise gloomy day :)

Karen has put together a wonderful package !! which include the following: an interesting letter telling me how they spent the Thanksgiving, a family recipe to cook Game hens, a package of pecan pieces, cranberry sauce can, pure pumpkin can, Jiffy corn muffin mix, thoughtful gifts - measuring spoon and cup, an adorable teddy bear that plays music. Also, a print out of her lovely white kitchen, a copy of local newspaper, loads of useful magazine clips about thanksgiving !!

Thanks so much, Karen! Your package is truly an inspiration for my future participation in BBM.

Best wishes,