Possibly the only reason I’d want to live in Atlanta

Nothing against the city, or its people. It’s just the traffic. Enough to make you want to drive your car over the side of a bridge, just to end the misery of sitting in a sea of automobiles moving at the pace of a stoned turtle.

Anyway — this bit of news I found this morning — this is not unlike a silo of salt being dumped on the gaping wound I suffered when we left Athens and moved to Indianapolis. We still haven’t found a great place to eat. To be fair, our time and budget don’t allow for lots of looking; but still, we kind of think we’d have landed on something by now. Some place, with promise.

Oh, well. Score one point for Atlanta:
Hugh Acheson’s New Restaurant Endeavor

I should point out that it doesn’t help matters that he named it “Empire State South.”  I have long nursed a minor obsession with the Empire State Building, working on studies of its history, proportions, and unmatched beauty while completing my MFA. I have to wonder about the comparison inherent in the restaurant’s name; will it be the food that is NewYork-esque, or is it a brazen reference to Atlanta being the NYC of the southeast? If the latter, that’s a stretch, but then again, I’m not Atlanta’s biggest fan.

Sigh. Don’t leave me hanging here in the Midwest, Indianapolis. Come on, you can do it.

Homemade cashew (or almond) butter

cashew_butter

Like so many things I make from scratch, I started doing this out of pure necessity, after I somehow managed to produce two children with peanut allergy. My 6-year old has thankfully now grown out of it, and eats peanut butter fairly regularly. But my son has not (yet… here’s hoping). I began making cashew butter for him when he was about 2 1/2.  We knew he could eat cashews, but unfortunately many of the commercial varieties have — believe it or not — peanut oil (I mean, come ON, food manufacturers — throw food-allergic people a bone, here). They are also unbelievably pricey. I figured out it had to be cheaper, making it at home.

And, of course, it is. I spend about $5 on a pound of raw cashews (more like $8-$10 if you buy organic ones, which I don’t right now), and then you just need some oil, salt, and a food processor. Buying raw nuts and roasting them yourself makes it cheaper and probably better for you; packaged roasted nuts are usually cooked at very high temperatures, destroying some of the nutrients. I use a mixture of two oils: mild-flavored olive oil and palm oil (Spectrum organic shortening).  Really, any mild-tasting oil, just enough to give the butter some spread-ability. A pound of nuts will get you about a pint jar (16 oz) of nut butter. This stuff is so good — I eat it all the time, much more than peanut butter. I’ve even sent a jar a few hundred miles via the US Postal Service, as a gift.

Almonds could be used interchangeably in this recipe; but the nuts have different oil content, so you probably won’t use the same amount of oil for both kinds. I really never measure my oil — I just pour it in until the texture seems right.

So, my somewhat vague instructions, with very imprecise measurements:

Homemade Nut Butter (using almonds or cashews*)

  • one pound raw cashews or almonds
  • about 1/2 tsp table salt, or to taste
  • 3-4 Tbsp Spectrum Organic Shortening**
  • 3-4 Tbsp mild-flavored vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 300º.  Place nuts in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Roast in the oven for about 15 minutes, checking often to make sure they don’t brown too much (ovens vary, and nuts burn quickly). Once lightly golden and fragrant, remove from the oven and let cool completely.

Put roasted nuts in a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse a few times to begin chopping, then let the machine run for about 30 seconds, or until the nuts are very finely ground, almost to a powder. Stop the machine, and add the salt and shortening. Process a few more seconds, until the mixture starts to come together. Turn on the machine, and while running, pour the vegetable through the feed in a slow, steady stream, until the mixture looks like… well, like peanut butter (thicker or thinner, as you like it). Taste for seasoning and texture, adding more salt or oil as needed.

Scrape into a jar, seal tightly, and store in the refrigerator. The mixture spreads best when closer to room temp, but should be kept in the refrigerator when not in use.

*peanuts shouldn’t be used in this recipe; they have much higher oil content, and therefore need almost no additional oil when making into peanut butter.

**You can omit the shortening and use all vegetable oil, if you’d like. The shortening just adds a little stability and is virtually flavorless, which is a good balance for the slight flavor of the olive oil I use.

Psychedelic Butterfly Queen Cake, and Blueberry Birthday Scones

rainbow_butterfly_cake

Or something like that. I thought it turned out pretty cool — in a slightly off-kilter sort of way. The whole idea was saved from imminent disaster when I had an early-morning epiphany of SPRINKLES! — I had until that moment been trying to figure out how long it would take me to tint, pipe, wash out piping bag, and repeat, seven or more times for each color of the rainbow (plus borders). Once I had that magical morning revelation, I knew I could just tint a couple colors, treat the cake like a stained-glass window, and make life much easier. After an emergency morning trip to Walmart for said sprinkles (you must know how desperate I was, to take all three of my children to Walmart), we came home, put the Wee One to bed, and got to work. Truth be told, the kids did a lot of watching — it was just too hard to keep the sprinkles in the appropriate places. But they did the Jelly Belly border all by themselves.

The biggest disappointment was the cake itself. I used this recipe from Cooks Illustrated online — one originally published in the magazine 10 years ago. I’m not sure what happened. I have had good success with other CI cakes and baked goods (case in point: the scones pictured below). Everything seemed fine with the batter, right up until they went in the oven. But the cakes baked lopsided, and seemed pretty thin. It wasn’t until we cut into the cake that we saw they were indeed pretty dense layers, with a line of  concentrated batter through the middle of each layer. The texture was dense and a little dry. Not the light, fluffy, tender yellow cake I was going for. It could have been a fault as simple as old baking powder — I go through a can relatively fast, but we were at the end of one, scraping the bottom, getting every last caked-up bit.  I didn’t test it beforehand (I’ve actually never tested my baking powder, though this experience might change that stat for the future), and it’s in the trash now, so there’s no way to know for sure.

The icing, however, was fantastic. The best buttercream recipe I’ve ever worked with or tasted. Also from CI online, the recipe has variations for several flavors; we used orange. It was delightful, and made the disappointing cake edible. It was whipped to a good volume, and made for very easing spreading and smoothing while icing the cake. It will be my new go-to recipe for cake icing, for sure.

The birthday girl was happy with her cake, which we enjoyed at her small party on Friday night. Since her actual birthday is today, we decided on a secondary celebration via her choice of breakfast. She chose scones (always her favorite, and unfortunately the breakfast we bake the least). I had recently viewed yet another CI recipe for blueberry scones, and upon a second sleepy look this morning realized with joy that we had all the ingredients (the blueberries were frozen). I’d never tried this recipe because it’s an odd way to go about making scones. It calls for grating frozen butter, which I decided not to do, since my butter was not frozen. So I skipped that step, opting instead for the old-fashioned method of cutting chilled butter into my dry ingredients using a pastry blender. Although I didn’t do a blind taste test comparing the two methods, I would confidently say that my scones lacked nothing by going the conventional route. Several other steps in the recipe, however, also seemed unconventional, but I stuck with them. It called for folding the dough several times after rolling, freezing it for a few minutes, and re-rolling it before adding the blueberries. This, I did. It was a little awkward and messy, though, and I wondered aloud to Tim as I put the pan in the oven whether it would be worth it in the end.

They might have been the best blueberry scones I’ve ever tasted. So delicate, so buttery, such an amazing and light texture — it totally made up for what was lacking in the birthday cake. They are indeed rich, but aren’t heavy at all. It’s definitely a special-occasion scone; I can’t do breakfast of all that white flour and sugar without crashing an hour later — but for a birthday it was a worthy treat:

blueberry_scones

A Technicolor Monarch Butterfly Cake?

Somewhere along the way, I decided it was a good idea to let my daughter choose her birthday cake. She has pretty good taste, I think, so I’ve never feared baking a bubblegum cake or something similarly horrific. Last year, sometime before her 5th birthday, she and I ate lunch one day at The Grit, and she saw in the dessert case a “Barbie’s Chocolate Dream Cake.” It was imprinted on her mind; that was her request come birthday-party time. She remembered it in vivid detail; much more so than I. When it came time to create Barbie’s/Ada’s Dream (can I mention here that this occurred a mere two weeks after delivering my third child?) I went totally on her memorized description, so I have no idea if this was anywhere near the original inspirational confection:

barbie_dream_cake

Now, look. I’ve never claimed to be good with a piping bag. It tasted good, even if my ribbons got a little wonky (and you’re looking at the good side of the cake).

This year, my almost-six-year-old has come up with a new idea. I will be making, over the next 48 hours, the following:

A yellow layer cake, with orange buttercream frosting (this much, I like; I actually gave her the choice of orange or chocolate buttercream, and she chose orange). As for the decor, the cake is to have “a rainbow butterfly, wearing a tiara.” More ribbons are to adorn the side of the cake (as in Barbie’s Dream, above). She made it very clear that the butterfly is to have rainbow-colored wings; it’s not supposed to be a butterfly with rainbows scattered ’round.

Right. Sounds a little like something we should be eating while watching The Wizard of Oz and listening to Pink Floyd, but sure, I’ll do it.

You guys.

Don’t worry — I’ll take a picture.

Seriously

kitchen_window_leaves

This is the view from the kitchen window, in our rental house. Pretty spectacular, I think. Makes ever-so-slightly easier work of washing an endless, self-multiplying inventory of dirty dishes.

Good-For-You, Delicious, Not-Dinner-Party Soup

creamOgreens

This was a recipe tried out of pure necessity. In one of my last CSA boxes — I’ve lost count as to how many more I’m supposed to get — I got nothing but greens. And a kabocha squash. But still — a box full of greens. More than I could fancy eating.

Thankfully, our CSA farm sends an email each week with suggested recipes. One of them was for Cream of Greens soup — something I’ve never even heard of. But I’ll eat just about any kind of soup, and I did have a bounty of greens. So I set to making a pot.

What can I say? If I’m writing about the experience, it had to be good. Case in point: a friend’s daughter, just turned 13, was here to help me with the kids on a crazy morning while I got tried to get caught up. It was lunchtime, and I had fixed her a grilled cheese sandwich. I didn’t even think to offer her the soup — it had been simmering on the stove — because I mean, c’mon, it’s greens, and she is less than thirty. But she, after stealing a few curious glances at the contents of my dutch oven, asked if she could try it. I gave her a small cupful; she made quick work of cleaning it out. She sat shyly, and talked about how good it was. I told her she could have as much as she wanted (still thinking she’s just being polite, surely she didn’t actually enjoy it), and before the words were out of my mouth she was back at the stove. Later, her mom told me that she had not been home for half a minute before she was telling her she simply had to get Mrs. Carter’s soup recipe.

So, there you have it. Teen-tested, mother-approved. I changed the original recipe a little; it called for way more liquid than seemed necessary or beneficial. I used vitamin greens and bok choy; but I really do think you could use any greens you have, or a mixture (save salad varieties, but who knows?). As always, I think the soup goes from good to fantastic if you use your own chicken stock (it’s easy! look here!). Don’t be afraid of the heavy cream; it adds a lot, and a little goes a long way. This soup is not terribly unlike Cream of Broccoli, if you need more of a taste reference; and while it might not make a great first course at your next social gathering, it will warm you to the core on a stay-at-home, still-warding-off-H1N1 Thursday night.

Cream of Greens Soup

  • 3 cups chopped greens (any kind)
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2 quarts chicken stock, or 1 quart low-sodium chicken broth & 1 quart water
  • 1 large potato, sliced
  • 4 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 pint heavy cream
  • pinch nutmeg
  • salt and pepper to taste

Heat olive oil over medium heat in a stock pot or dutch oven. Add onion, salt to taste, and cook until translucent but not brown. Add greens, potato, and stock. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for about 25 minutes. Purée the soup using an immersion blender or in batches in a blender. Return to heat, add cream and nutmeg, and taste for seasoning. Serve immediately (it also freezes well).

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