The Caucasian from the former Soviet Union

Had a book club meeting at my house last night, and we gathered to discuss one of our more weighty picks, Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky (while I’d like to leave it at that, and therefore suggest that we are a group of highly polished intellectuals who gather and wax philosophical, fulfilling our longing for mental stimulation outside of professional and maternal lives, I feel somehow obligated to mention that last month’s book was Just Do It — we like to think of ourselves as a book club with variety).

So, have you ever read NfromU? Right. Let’s just say it’s not the feel-good comedy of the year (though I must interject that, joking aside, I love me some Dostoevsky, dark depravity and all). We like to organize the refreshments around the book we’ve read, and since this month’s meeting was at my place, I made some calls on what was served. There is usually some sort of beverage available at our meetings, though not everyone partakes, it being a weeknight and all. It only seemed appropriate that a discussion that might include delving into questions concerning our own personal Underground characteristics (it didn’t) should include that shining star of Eastern European distilleries: vodka. And while I doubt our friend Fyodor would’ve stirred coffee-flavored liqueur and cream into his cocktail, we did. Although only two of us actually finished the book (intentional stab of guilt to my fellow clubbies), everyone enjoyed a white russian (except Stacy, who took hers dairy-free).

The most intoxicated I’ve been as an adult (keep in mind that I don’t get out much, and on top of that don’t enjoy being drunk, so tend to avoid over-consumption) was a direct result of drinking a white russian. Tim and I were dating, and had been invited to our friends Tim and Rosie’s place for dinner. As a pre-dinner drink, Rosie had made a pitcher of white russians (the pitcher part always amuses me, in retrospect; a pitcher of margaritas, yes — but a pitcher of white russians?). I took my glass and enjoyed every last drop — what’s not to like? We then sat down to dinner, and about 15 minutes in, I realized that I needed to visit the restroom. I also realized that I didn’t think I could make it there. I had no choice but to confess both of these facts to everyone at the table, between uncontrollable giggles. We were all a bit confused as to why I was such an unbelievable lightweight, when Rosie revisited her “recipe” for the “pitcher” and realized she had inadvertently doubled all the alcohol, and had served me a drink not in a highball glass, but in a pint glass. I had drunk the equivalent of about 4 cocktails in a matter of 20 minutes. Being a somewhat smallish person who doesn’t tend toward keg stands, this perfect storm had its consequences.

But last night, I’m happy to say, everyone could find their own way to the restroom. We are a book club, after all; and while we like to get crazy with the variety of our picks, we’re not meeting for jello shots. I so enjoyed my drink last night that I had another tonight (we have a new bottle of Kaluah, after all). If you’ve never had one of these delightful dessert-cocktails, or haven’t in a while, dust off that old bottle of coffee liqueur and re-investigate. The IBA (International Bartenders Association — I only know this from wikipedia) specifies a vodka-heavy drink; but I prefer mine with more Kaluah, and that’s how we made them last night (call me a girl, if you wish):

  • 1 oz Kaluah
  • 1/2 oz vodka
  • half-n-half

Pour your Kaluah and vodka into a highball (not a pint) glass filled with ice cubes. Top off with cream (or combination of cream and milk), and gently stir.

News flash

I am almost embarrassed to admit this, but I’m now following the twitter feed of 5&10. (Just so you know… I am currently only following 3 people, and I use the term “follow” loosely… I’ve only actually looked at feeds twice since I joined, oh, 2 months ago.) Not that there’s anything wrong with twitter; it’s just, in my humble opinion, yet another something to distract me from everything I should be doing on a given day. Plus, I sort of agree with what this guy says about it (see reason #9). My small mind can’t handle many of those things.

BUT — I did glean some very useful information from above said feed of twitter. Namely:

twitter.com/fiveandten

This is a reason to celebrate. And do so by going there, and partaking. Which we will be happily doing this Saturday night, as we host Tim’s brother and family for the weekend. My mouth is already watering.

Who knew?

I believe I’ve mentioned before how much I love a certain chocolate cake from a certain eatery (the name starts with “Gr” and ends with “it” — although I’ve not eaten there a single time since the Unfortunate Portion Incident). The most unbelievable characteristic of this most wonderful cake is the fact that it contains no dairy and no eggs. It is full-blown vegan. I don’t remember the first time I ate a piece, but I must have run my mouth about its charms; my friend Kathryn surprised me with an entire cake, all to myself, when I had to go dairy-free for a few months before weaning my little allergy-prone baby (now an adorable 3-year old, pictured above).

While I have nothing against folks who decide to avoid all animal products, I often feel sorry for them. I’ve read enough vegan food blogs to know that these conscientious folks feel like they’re not missing much — and I’m so glad they are thrilled with their fully-plant-produced fare. I also believe that they probably eat better-tasting food than most Americans, simply by the thought, planning, and requisite lack of processing that informs their diets. But… half-n-half. And… shortbread. Not to mention ice cream, good cheese, smoked meats, and fish. I just couldn’t do it. I know my limits.

Most times, eating a vegan dish, I can appreciate its charms, but am aware of what it’s missing. With the exception of the Chocolate Vegan Death layer cake from The Grit. It is one of my all-time-favorite chocolate cake recipes. I like it so much, I make it even when dairy-and-egg-free is not required. It’s icing on the cake (can you forgive me for that one?) that I can make it for my son’s birthday, to be enjoyed by all, including him. It stays moist for days after it’s made, and boasts a deep chocolate flavor that is boosted by the strong coffee used as most of the batter’s liquid. The icing (secret ingredient revealed later, to prevent your premature scoffing) has a wonderful texture and flavor not unlike a ganache, my favorite cake icing. It also freezes well (un-iced), making it ideal for a make-ahead birthday layer cake, or for thawing one cupcake at a time for a little late-night grownup treat (my personal favorite over the past week or so).

I’m giving you the cupcake recipe today; it is adapted from a layer cake recipe in The Grit cookbook. Don’t knock it ’till you try it, my butter-loving friends.

Vegan Chocolate Cupcakes (makes about 18 cupcakes)

CAKES:

  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 Tbsp vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups strong coffee, at room temperature
  • 2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar

ICING:

  • 6 oz (1/2 package) firm silken tofu
  • 1 1/2 cups vegan chocolate chips (check the label for dairy, or just use your favorite brand if the vegan part isn’t important; I used Ghirardelli semisweet chips)

Preheat the oven to 350º. Line 18 muffin cups with cupcake liners.

For the cupcakes:
Sift together the dry ingredients in the bowl of a standing mixer (or a large bowl if using a handheld mixer). Add the oil and vanilla extract, and blend on medium speed until well-mixed. With mixer still running, very slowly blend in the coffee (adding it too fast will cause a major mess). Once the batter is smooth, add the vinegar and mix on low speed just until combined.

Fill muffin cups about 5/6 full. Bake for about 20 to 25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of several cupcakes comes out clean. Remove from the oven and cool about 20 minutes on a wire rack, then remove the cupcakes from the tins and cool completely.

For the icing:
Drain any excess fluid from the tofu, and scoop into a medium saucepan. Mash the tofu with a fork or spoon, and add the chocolate chips. Stir over medium heat until the chocolate is melted. Transfer to a food processor and puree until smooth. Let cool until it thickens up a bit, and spread on the cupcakes in generous portions. (The icing can be made ahead and refrigerated; let it warm to room temperature before spreading.)

Them’s good grits.

We take our grits pretty seriously in the south. Everybody has a way they like ’em. Some people like them yellow, some like them white. Some want them in a casserole, some want them plain with a little butter and salt. Runny? Perhaps. Cheesy? Oftentimes. Oh, the myriad ways.

I didn’t realize that I had preferences, until I made them once, from a bag of grits given to me by a friend. And then I knew. I like my grits ground from white corn, and done so by a stone. I like them to be on the thick side, so please don’t let the stone grind them into a fine powder. I like to cook them with milk and water, and then add a good bit of butter and some salt. And really, for me, that’s all they need. Outside of being served with bacon, biscuits, and eggs at brunch; or smothered with spicy shrimp and the appropriate sauce for dinner.

The bag of grits that started this awakening, if you will, was from Chapel Hill, North Carolina — of the famous label Crook’s Corner. I’ve had the pleasure of brunching, on many occasions, at the Inman house in Asheville, where as far as I know they only serve grits of the Crook’s variety. I don’t make grits that often, so the couple of bags I was given as a gift lasted us for a while. When we moved to Athens, I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to get my hands on some decent milled corn.

The grocers here only carry yellow grits; and once, on a trip northward, I stopped in Helen (Georgia’s own little Alpine village) and got a bag, but it cost a relative limb or two. How hard could it be to get decent grits without having to forego a week’s bottle of wine?

Well. I was in — of all places — a fabric store. In North Carolina. (In the South, the scenario that follows makes perfect sense.) In Gastonia, NC, just off I-85, there is a fabric wonderland called Mary Jo’s. I try to get there about once a year or so, whenever the idea strikes my fancy to recover a chair or every cushion in my house (Tim loves it when I decide to do this). I was there last summer, with a friend, looking for upholstery to recover a craigslist loveseat. I didn’t find the upholstery, but at the front of the store I saw a huge cardboard box full of bags of grits. Right. And the sign said they were $1.25. Two pounds of stone-ground white grits, from Linney’s Mill, for a buck and a quarter.

The oddest part of this story is that I only bought 2 bags. And then gave one bag away. They sat in my pantry for at least 6 months, maybe longer, before I cooked some. I had an occasion last weekend to make a big pot of cheese grits (I used Alton Brown’s recipe, and it was delicious, even with only half the called-for amount of cheddar), and I discovered what we’d been missing out on for half a year. Because I didn’t know. How good. They are.

Crook’s fans: they are right up there. And for a fraction of the cost. My friends Emily and Rosie went to MJ’s last week, and I gave them the heads-up about the grits. Emily scored a FIVE POUND bag for $2.25.

I need more of those grits.

If you happen to like beets

My husband does not like beets. He’ll eat just about anything I put in front of him at least once, but he’s always honest about what things he prefers over others; he rarely dislikes something, but when he does, even goes through efforts to “acquire” a taste for it. I’ve watched him give it his best shot, over the past 7 years, to like beets. I first presented them to him back in Asheville, when I made the Odessa Beets from the Moosewood Cookbook (Asheville brought out the Mollie Katzen in me). He graciously ate them for the meal for which they were prepared, but then let me work solo through the leftovers. I’ve made grated beet salads, thinly sliced beet garnishes, and now roasted beet soup. The soup I thought would be the ticket. It was rich, buttery yet delicate, a delightful and rare treat. I mean, LOOK AT THAT SOUP. What’s not to like?

Apparently, the beets.

I suppose I’ll have to allow him his right to dislike a vegetable. And, well, yes; beets are distinctly… earthy; one could see how they could tip the scale from interesting to offensive. I have my own List-O-Abhorrent-Flavors, including cilantro, black licorice, root beer, and liver (though I did enjoy a fois gras at Bacchanalia — which is a testament to the magical cookery at that place). At least he doesn’t refuse to partake in an entire food group. Because some people actually do that.

But if you are not like my husband, and are interested in making a luscious roasted beet soup, I encourage you to try this one from a food stylist/blogger in Atlanta. I changed things up a little when I made it; I reduced all ingredients since I didn’t have quite enough beets, and used chicken rather than vegetable stock. I also ate it without the créme fraîche, since it’s expensive to buy and a little time-intensive to make. (In retrospect: a lovely, suitable, and quick substitute would probably be crema, which from my experience at Lula is a thinned version of sour cream: equal parts sour cream and heavy cream.) I snipped some fresh chives over the top of my bowl(s) and it was — really — such a treat. Something I would expect to eat at a good restaurant.

It doesn’t make a huge pot, but a tiny bit is all you need. Think first course, or served aside a sandwich or salad. It’s amazingly rich, so a little goes a long way. If you need to use up some beets without making the soup, you can roast the beets and combine with the stock, then purée and freeze. When you’re ready to make the soup, thaw the frozen mixture (make sure you bring it to a simmer if you’ve used chicken stock), then stir in your cream until it reaches your desired consistency.

Let me know if you try it — I’d like to find some more closet beet-eaters out there.

Hi-Protein Wheat Sandwich Bread

I get bored with making my regular wheat sandwich bread, and occasionally change things up a bit to keep life interesting (hey, it’s either that or I start watching Desperate Housewives — which would you pick?). Since Townes (my 3-year old) has an array of dietary constraints topped with a dollop of attitude, I’m always looking for sneaky ways to get complete proteins into his little body. One thing he’ll eat without question is bread — so it seemed like a good target.

I recently remembered reading a recipe in the Laurel’s Kitchen cookbook. I had been looking at bread recipes using soy flour, planning to grind my own with my new grain mill (so far I’ve only milled wheat berries). When I consulted Laurel, I found that she recommended using cooked soybeans rather than soy flour, since the flour tends to add a bitterness to the bread. I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, so I simply added cooked, ground soybeans to my regular bread recipe. What resulted were edible, but very small loaves. The addition of the beans retards the rising a bit; so I went back to the drawing board. Starting with the same amount of flour as Laurel’s recipe, I adjusted my recipe percentages accordingly (the flour being 100%), added half the soybeans she calls for, and gave it a go. What resulted was two 2-pound loaves that were beautifully shaped, nicely textured, flavorful, and doubled in protein (as compared to my regular bread). You don’t even know the soybeans are there, except for an ever-so-slightly chewier texture. The crust gets a little browner, too — I’m guessing that’s due to the slightly extended baking time.

The key to adding beans is to do so after the gluten (the stuff that makes the dough stretchy) is fully developed (this is what you’re doing when you knead dough). This way, the addition doesn’t muck up that process, and you get a lovely dough that’s quite similar to regular wheat dough, with just flecks of soybean pieces here and there.

I buy a pound or so of soybeans in bulk at the health food store. I soak them about 4 hours, then rinse them well (look for any stones at this point), and cook them in my slow-cooker for about 4 hours, until tender. Drain the cooked soybeans, let cool, and then measure out 1-cup portions into plastic sandwich bags. Place all of those bags into a larger zip-freezer bag, and stick in the freezer. You can pull out a ready-made portion of beans for your bread each time you make it (either set them out a few hours early, or thaw in the microwave in a glass bowl). I grind mine in the mini-prep attachment on my immersion blender.

It’s our new favorite bread. Until, of course, I once again tire of the same-old same-old, and feel the need for change. I’ll keep you updated; but ’till then, have at it, if you so choose:

Hi-Protein Wheat/Soybean Sandwich Bread
(makes two 2-pound loaves)

  • 2 1/2 cups warm (about 100ºF — warmer than your wrist) water
  • 2 Tbsp canola oil
  • 3 Tbsp honey
  • 2 1/2 tsp instant yeast
  • 4 cups whole wheat flour
  • 2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (I use King Arthur)
  • 1 Tbsp table salt
  • 1 cup cooked and ground soybeans, room-temperature

In the bowl of a standing mixer, combine the water, oil and honey; stir to combine or until honey dissipates. Add the flour, then sprinkle the yeast on top. With the dough hook attachment, mix on low speed until a rough dough forms, stopping once to scrape down the bowl. Cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap, and let rest for 20 minutes.

After the dough has rested, sprinkle the salt over the dough, and knead on medium speed for about 10 minutes. If the dough doesn’t come away from the bowl after about 4 minutes, add all-purpose flour, a tablespoon at a time, until the dough cleans the sides of the bowl. Stop the mixer and flip the dough about halfway through kneading, or if the dough climbs the hook. At the end of kneading, the dough should be smooth and soft, and still a little sticky.

With the mixer still running, sprinkle the soybeans over the dough a little at a time, waiting until incorporated before adding more. Once all soybeans have been added, remove to a flour-sprinkled surface and knead a bit by hand, if you desire (you can omit this step if you’re sure the dough is complete).

Place dough in a large bowl that has been lightly oiled or sprayed with cooking spray. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours, depending on the temperature of your kitchen.

Turn out the dough onto a lightly-floured surface, and divide in half. Knead each half into a ball, and let rest, covered, for 10 minutes (this is a good time to pull out your loaf pans, and grease thoroughly — get in those corners! — with shortening).

After the dough has rested, you can shape your loaves. The easiest way to do this is to roll each piece of dough into a rectangle that’s about as wide as your loaf pan is long. Roll up the dough, starting at one of the short ends, pinch the seam together, and place seam-side down in the loaf pan. Repeat this with your other piece of dough.

Cover the pans lightly with plastic wrap, and let rise another hour or so (the dough should dome up over the top of the pans; you know it’s done rising when you gently press your finger into the dough, and the impression either doesn’t fill in, or fills in very slowly). Preheat your oven to 375º after about 45 minutes, so it’ll have about 15-20 minutes to heat up before putting in the pans. I highly recommend getting a cheap oven thermometer to gauge the temperature of your oven — you can get them for about $3 at a discount store, and the dial on ovens is almost never correct.

Place the pans in the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Don’t open the oven door! Then reduce the oven temp to 350º, and continue baking an additional 15 minutes (45 minutes total baking time).

Remove the loaves from the pans onto a cooling rack, and let cool completely before slicing.

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