custom cakes/cookies

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Happy Birthday, Gingered Rhubarb Puddin'

I'm all for traditional methods of baking, doing things purely from scratch, challenging my notions of what's fit for consumption, and sampling culinary dishes from various cultures. A recent introduction to Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management certainly has satisfied all four of these tenets at one fell swoop.

Mrs. Isabella Beeton was a famous British cookery writer of the late 19th century. Married to a publisher of books and popular magazines, she contributed articles on cooking and household management for her husband's publications. Eventually, all 2751 entries were published as a single volume, comprising information in all realms of Victorian British domesticity including tips on how to manage servants and rear children, medical and legal advice, as well as multi-course menu planning and detailed cooking instructions including seasonability and estimated cost of ingredients. Meant as a guide for an aspiring middle class, this compendium is said to be the first cookbook to show recipes in the format to which we are accustomed today. Flipping through the pages of her book, almost immediately, I was enthralled!

So when challenged this month to make a traditional, boiled British pudding, I chose to try a historical recipe from Mrs. Beeton. Rhubarb is in season, so I went with that as a basis for the filling. For never having seen or tasted a steamed pudding, the technique was quite surprising; you make a pastry dough that appears like pie crust, yet when steamed yields a moist cake crumb-like texture. In essence, I made gingered rhubarb-filled muffins.

By far though, the most adventurous aspect of this recipe was the required source of fat: suet. This was an anatomy and species lesson unto its own. Suet is the hard fat located around the loins and kidneys of a cow or sheep or deer. Not just a hardy consumable energy source for winter bird feeders or Arctic explorers, when rendered, it becomes tallow, an ingredient found in Twinkies and McDonald's french fries (before 1990) and candles and soap. Because of it's relatively low melting point, it makes an excellent source of fat for steamed British pastries. The pig and chicken equivalents of tallow are lard and schmaltz, respectively. Good information to file away...

At 80¢/lb (a sure bargain!), I purchased fresh suet from a local grocer and proceeded to rendered it in my kitchen (see bottom of post for instructions). It was an educationally fulfilling yet somewhat disgusting task that emitted a fragrance reminiscent of french fries. Though economical, I'm not sure I could adopt this source of fat in my regular baking repertoire. Sorry Mrs. Beeton, I think I prefer the flavor of butter instead. I've got a bit more tallow left over though in which I'm tempted to fry potatoes, but after that, I'm done.

By the way, today is the first birthday of my blog. Last year on this day, my inaugural post was Lavender-Infused Cheesecake with Crystalized Lilacs. Interesting to see how far this has come and to imagine where next it will go...

The April 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Esther of The Lilac Kitchen. She challenged everyone to make a traditional British pudding using, if possible, a very traditional British ingredient: suet.

Gingered Rhubarb Pudding
6-8 servings

Sweet Suet Crust
350 g self-rising flour
175 g rendered suet (see below for directions), or suet substitute (i.e., Vegetable Suet, Crisco, Lard)
1 tsp lemon sugar
a pinch of sea salt
210 milliliters

4-5 stalks rhubarb, ½-in dice
2 TBS crystallized ginger, finely chopped
110 g (4 oz) Lyle's Golden Syrup

Sift the flour, sugar and salt into a large mixing bowl. Coarsely grate the rendered suet on the large holes of a box grater into the bowl. Lightly mix the flour and suet together with fork or pastry blender, forming small pebble-sized pieces.

Mix in the water, a tablespoonful at a time, tossing lightly around the bowl until the pastry just comes together as a sticky and elastic dough. Use your hands to gather the dough into a smooth ball that when swiped around leaves the bowl clean. You may not use the full amount of water, so it is important to add it in small increments. Don’t over handle the pastry or it will become tough and glutiness.

Place the dough on a lightly floured surface. Cut away a quarter of it and put aside to make the lid. Using a flour-dusted rolling pin, roll the larger portion of dough to a fairly thick circle about 13 inches in diameter.

Line a generously buttered, 4 cup capacity pudding basin with the pastry. If making single-sized servings, cut the pastry into individual rounds to fit smaller ramekins. Squeeze and tuck the pastry to fit snugly in the bowl, pressing it evenly all around.

Divide the diced rhubarb, crystallized ginger and golden syrup among each pastry-lined dish, then roll out the remaining pastry to form circular lid(s) large enough to cover the top of the basin or ramekins. Dampen the edges of each pastry lid with a bit of water and position it on top of the pudding. Seal well by crimping its edges. Cover with a sheet of parchment, pleated in the center to allow room for expansion while cooking and folded and tucked firmly around the edges of the basin. A video of this pleating technique can be seen here. The parchment cover can be secured with cooking twine, making a useful handle for lifting in and out of the hot steamer.

Place the pudding basin in a stove top steamer set over boiling water. Be sure the water comes no higher than a third of the way up the pudding basin, so as not to boil over into the pudding, which would create a soggy disappointment. Secure the lid of the pot and steam for 2-2½ hours for a large pudding or 1-1½ hours for individual ramekins. You may need to add more boiling water halfway through or possibly more often if it runs low. There is a lot of leeway in this steaming time. One way to determine that the pudding is sufficiently cooked is when the pastry changes color to a light golden brown. It is hard to over steam a pudding, though, so it can be left steaming for quite some time until you are ready to serve it.

When ready to serve, turn the pudding out of the basin and eat while still warm.

Rendering Suet into Tallow:

Obtain about a half a pound of suet from your local butcher, keep refrigerated until ready to use. With your fingers remove and discard as much of the muscle and membranous casing stuck to the suet. Once picked over, grate the suet on the largest holes of a box grater into a wide skillet. The smaller the bits of suet, the faster it will melt. Slowly heat the skillet over medium-low heat, allowing the fat to melt into a clear liquid and separate from any remaining extraneous bits. This could take up to 20 minutes or more. A fragrance reminiscent of french fries might waft in the air. Like clarifying butter, heating not only separates the proteins from the fat, but also allows any water to evaporate making it shelf stable. Once completely melted, pour the hot liquid through a fine mesh sieve lined with several layers of cheesecloth into a shallow heatproof container. Using the back of a spoon, press on the bits caught up in the cheesecloth to extract as much of the liquid tallow as possible. Allow the tallow to cool completely at room temperature. In its liquid state, tallow appears yellowish. It turns an opaque white at room temperature. Store at room temperature for near immediate use or freeze for long term projects.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Brunswick Stew, a southern classic

The day before Easter I cooked a rabbit. What might be considered slightly more offensive is that I fed it to the neighbor kids... in a stew. Before then, I'd never cooked rabbit nor tasted one for that matter. Honestly, I was a little squeamish at the notion of either. I think the timing of the holiday was the exact, cheeky impetus I needed to execute (the traditional approach to) this recipe. Besides, my Easter basket arrived via the US Postal Service a few days early. Really, there was very little to lose.

Recipes for Brunswick Stew vary greatly but it is usually a tomato-based stew containing lima beans or butter beans, corn, okra, other miscellaneous vegetables, and one or more types of meat. Most recipes claiming authenticity call for squirrel or rabbit meat, but for the less adventurous, chicken, pork, and beef are also commonly acceptable. The stew resembles a vegetable soup with meat. What distinguishes Brunswick Stew from vegetable soup, though, is the consistency. Most variations are quite thick, having more meat and vegetables than broth. In fact, it's been said that Brunswick stew is not finished simmering “until the paddle [used to stir it] stands up in the middle” of the pot on its own.

This version of the stew has a distinctly smokey taste imparted by simmering with good quality bacon. The slight gaminess of the rabbit also adds an interesting spiced nuance. Rabbit is actually a fairly lean white meat, so the healthfulness factor is quite favorable. A third element integral to building the flavor of this stew is using a homemade chicken stock. It makes a world of difference, so is worth the little extra effort it entails. My new favorite stock recipe is thoroughly detailed in The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, and a good explanation of Judy Rodgers' tips are given here. A key difference from most other stock recipes is her preference to use a whole, fresh chicken (head and feet included, yet minus the breast meat). I'm quite proud to say I (a person with raw meat squeamishness) made this meat-laden meal, entirely on my own! ...though gratefully the chicken I purchased from my local butcher did not still have its head or feet intact.

One final stew ingredient I used that's worth mentioning is the gorgeous Christmas Lima Beans from Rancho Gordo. These chubby, heirloom beans are true limas originating from Peru. They have a distinct chestnut flavor and taste nothing like the much tinier, green ones I avoided as a kid. If you enjoy cooking with dried beans, Rancho Gordo is a fantastic resource for the more unusual varieties.

The 2010 April Daring Cooks challenge was hosted by Wolf of Wolf’s Den. She chose to challenge Daring Cooks to make Brunswick Stew. Wolf chose recipes for her challenge from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook by Matt Lee and Ted Lee, and from the Callaway, Virginia Ruritan Club.

Brunswick Stew
From Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook: Stories and Recipes for Southerners and Would-Be Southerners by Matt Lee and Ted Lee
Serves about 12

¼ lb slab applewood-smoked bacon, thickly sliced
2 Serrano, Thai or other dried red chiles, stems trimmed, sliced, seeded, flattened
1 lb rabbit, quartered, skinned
4-5 lb chicken, quartered, skinned, and most of the fat removed
1 TBS sea salt for seasoning, plus extra to taste
2-3 quarts Homemade Chicken Stock (I recommend the recipe in the Zuni Cafe Cookbook)
2 bay leaves
2 large celery stalks
2 lbs potatoes, diced
1½ cups carrots (about 5 small carrots), chopped
3½ cups onion (about 4 medium onions) chopped
2 cups corn kernels, cut from the cob (about 4 ears) or fresh frozen
3 cups Christmas Lima Beans, cooked and drained
35 oz can whole, peeled tomatoes, drained
¼ cup red wine vinegar
Juice of 2 lemons
Hot sauce to taste

In a 10-12 quart stockpot, fry the bacon over medium-high heat until it just starts to crisp. Transfer to a large bowl, and set aside. Reserve most of the bacon fat in your pan, and with the pan on the burner, add in the chiles. Toast the chiles until they just start to smell good, or make your nose tingle, about a minute. Remove to bowl with the bacon.

Season liberally both sides of the rabbit and chicken pieces with sea salt and pepper. Place the rabbit pieces in the pot and sear off all sides possible. You just want to brown them, not cook them completely. Remove to bowl with bacon and chiles, add more bacon fat if needed, or olive oil, or other oil of your choice, then add in chicken pieces, again, browning all sides nicely. Don't crowd your pieces, especially if you have a narrow bottomed pot. Put the chicken in the bowl with the bacon, chiles and rabbit. Set this aside.

Add 2 cups of chicken stock to the pan to deglaze, making sure to loosen the browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pot. The stock will become a rich dark color. Bring it up to a boil and let it boil until reduced by at least half. Add the remaining stock, bay leaves, celery, potatoes, chicken, rabbit, bacon, chiles and any liquid that may have gathered at the bottom of the bowl they were resting in. Bring the pot back up to a low boil/high simmer, over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low and cover the pot. Simmer, on low, for approximately 1½ hours, stirring every 15 minutes or so to thoroughly meld the flavors.

With a pair of tongs, remove the chicken and rabbit pieces to a colander over the bowl you used earlier. By this time, the meats will be very tender and may start falling off the bone. Remove the bay leaf, celery, chiles, bacon and discard. When cool enough to handle, carefully remove all the meat from the bones, shredding it as you go. Return the meat to the pot and discard the bones. Add the carrots to the pot, and stir gently, allowing it to come back to a slow simmer. Simmer gently, uncovered, for at least 25 minutes, or until the carrots have started to soften.

Add the onion, lima beans, corn and tomatoes. As you add the tomatoes, crush them carefully. Simmer for another 30 minutes, stirring every so often until the stew has reduced slightly, and onions, corn and lima beans are tender. Remove from heat and add in the vinegar and lemon juice. Stir to blend in well. Season to taste with sea salt, pepper, and hot sauce if desired.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Signs of Spring...

A fresh batch of painted sugar cookies from Heather and Olivia take shape as butterflies and snails to herald the arrival of Spring.

Please believe us when we say this technique is super easy. Recipes and inspiration can be found here and here and here and here. Custom orders are welcome as well...

Here's a few more photos of our favorites: