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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Cake #4: Key Lime Cake

On Wednesday, January 27th, I attempted the dreaded key lime cake. It just didn't sound good, but my husband was excited about it, so I went for it.
I decided to start with the frosting, since it looked simple enough and I needed to let the butter & eggs warm up to room temperature anyway.
The recipe calls for 1/2 cup of fresh key lime juice (about 4 limes) and 1 cup of confectioner's sugar.
The key limes I found at my local Hy-Vee store were in a bag, they were pretty small, half brown, and cost $3.99. After squeezing out 4 limes' worth of juice, I had less than 1/8 cup and I realized this wasn't going to work out to be "easy".
In the end, I squeezed 16 limes (with some help from hubby) and ended up with between 1/3-1/2 cups of juice and some really sore hands.
Then I added the juice to 1 cup of sugar and it was still really liquidy- you could drink it (If you wanted to gag). That didn't seem right, so I poured out a little liquid and added another cup of sugar, and another- and in the end, I had 3 cups of sugar to about 1/3 cup of juice. It wasn't the consistency of frosting, it was more of a glazed icing consistency, but it looked like it would work.
The cake, however- was pretty easy to make. I mixed butter, sugar, eggs (one had some mucusy stuff in it, so I dumped it and used another, running it under hot water for a quick warm-up), flour, baking powder, salt, heavy cream and the lime juice/sugar I had poured out of the 1st attempt of the frosting- and some rind from a few of the key limes.
I found that zesting the limes was easier on these little suckers if I used the cut & squeezed section- I could lay it flat on the coutner and drag my zester across it, rather than try to work my way around the little ping-pong ball sized limes, which seemed like an accident waiting to happen. When everything is mixing, the batter starts to look like mashed potatoes, and in the end it has the consistency of frosting.

Action shot!

The directions say to bake the cake for 20 minutes, then cover with aluminum foil and bake for another 20 minutes.
I'm pretty much a conservative nazi when it comes to aluminum foil. The stuff needs a lot of energy and water to create, and it gets shipped across the world... long story short, it's not very earth-friendly. I could look up some facts & stats for you, but this blog is supposed to be about a cake. Hey, you can recycle aluminum a whole bunch of times and that's great! Our local recycling center does NOT recycle aluminum foil, though, so I buy the stuff made from recycled aluminum and I reuse the hell out of it before I throw it away.
After the 1st 20 minutes, the cake was starting turn just a little brown in a few spots, and I can see why you would want to cover it.
So I used a pan lid we had, and the top of the cake stuck to the lid a little, but it would have stuck to the tin foil too. Ideally, some kind of lid that wasn't flat on the cake, like a bowl-shaped lid, would work well.
Since I've already declared myself to be on the earth-friendly side of things, I'd like to take a moment to mention composting. I've been composting at home and at work for about ten years. The amount of waste I have diverted from the landfill is mind-boggling. For this one recipe, check out how much food waste I put in the compost bin! (Over there, on the right)-->
When the cake was done, I took it out and set it on a wire rack with the pan lid under it, and poked a bunch of holes on top, then poured the frosting on top, while the cake was still hot. The cake really soaked the frosting up! And a bunch of frosting dripped off the sides of the cake to the pan lid below.
After letting it cool for about 15 minutes, I scraped the extra frosting off the lid and put it back on top of the cake and spread it around. It had started to harden up a bit.
The recipe said to dust with a little confectioners' sugar at the end. I totally forgot that step. Oops.
It wasn't as sweet and lime-y as I thought it would be, and my husband liked it because it didn't have a really heavy cake flavor.
Conclusion: Cake was great! Frosting totally sucked (to make).

Friday, January 22, 2010

Minute Steak Experiment

When it comes to meat, we like ours to be natural, local and happy before being slaughtered and slapped on our dinner plates. We also like the grass fed variety. Bison naturally eat grass, so I don't really see the point in growing corn to feed to them. So, we found a farm nearby that has bison, and last year we purchased a quarter side. I don't really know what that means as far as the animal goes, and I don't like to think of which side the quarter was cut from, but it came out to a lot of bison meat. Half of it is ground, and we enjoy bison burgers. The other half is made up of a variety of steaks, and not having eaten much beef (in our adult lives), we are learning what all these terms (sirloin, t-bone, minute, chuck, etc.) mean. About half the steaks came in the minute variety, and now we are experimenting on how to use them.

We made fajitas (we got a cast iron fajita pan a few years ago- so we can eat it sizzlin'!) and the minute steak worked great for that, but they are in 1 lb. packages, and we only used 1/2 pound for the meal (plenty of meat for the 2 of us!) So, we had another 1/2 lb. in the fridge to use up, and I googled "minute steak recipe" and came up with this link which took me to "Keifer Sutherland's Minute Steak with Mushroom". I thought I'd give it a try, except of course, change a few things along the way....
So, I didn't have any fresh mushrooms, but last time I was at Trader Joe's I picked up a pack of dried mushrooms that included shittake, porcini, black, oyster, etc. I usually get dried shittakes from the local asian market, and I just rehydrate them in some water on the stove while I'm cooking. Well, since I had a package in English, I decided to read the directions and I learned that you are supposed to rinse the mushrooms before rehydrating them.... and I tried really hard not to think about all the shittakes I've eaten over the years shipped from Korea or Japan, and what I might have not been rinsing off of them.... I digress.

While the rinsed mushroom blend was plumping up, I fried the minute steaks in some butter on the cast iron fajita pan. The recipe says 2-3 minutes per side or until well browned. After 4-5 minutes blood was still oozing out of them (it's as gross as it sounds) but when I was satisfied, I set them aside and sauteed some onions on the pan. At this point, the kitchen was really smoky so I had to turn the vent fan on and my eyes were starting to burn (I always forget to do this until it's too late.)
The recipe calls for garlic, and-this is really rare- we were out! I put a bunch of garlic powder on it instead. Also, the recipe says "stir fry for one minute" after adding the onions. That's just ridiculous. I sauteed them proper. Then I added the shrooms and some flour and stirred it well. The shrooms were in some hot water, I took them out with a slotted spoon when I added them to the onions and I put 1/2 a vegetable bouillon cube in the shroom water and stirred it up well. (The recipe calls for 1/2 c beef stock and 1/2 red wine, so I improvised with shroom water and a bouillon cube, because I didn't want to open up a quart container of broth for 1/2 of a stupid cup and because we were drinking beer. Take that, Keifer.)

I dumped the onion/shroom mixture into the "stock" and added apricot jam. (The recipe calls for red currant or grape jelly, so I used what I had). Then you are supposed to bring it to a boil and stir it constantly until the gravy thickens. It wasn't really thickening for me, so I added some corn starch (So there, Iowa- despite our grass-fed bison, we ended up with corn in our meal after all!) It still didn't thicken too much, it was more of a watery gravy, but I added the steaks back, stirred it well, and let it sit for a few minutes off the heat.
About this point, I noticed that the recipe calls for TWO CUPS of mushrooms. Yeah, I probably put in about 1/2 cup, if that... and I have made mushroom gravy before, so that's where I think I went wrong.
My husband thinks this is what Salisbury steak is like. Neither of us really knew, but he was pretty sure it was similar. Anyway, it wasn't too bad! Thanks, Keifer!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Cake #3: Missy G's Sweet Potato Pound Cake

I love yams. I don't know exactly what the difference between a sweet potato and a yam is, except maybe that a yam is a kind of a sweet potato. As far as taste goes, what is the difference? As far as names go, I prefer "yam". It's easier, and I think "Yam Pound Cake" is a better (and shorter) title.
When I think of yams or sweet potatoes, I think of baking them, adding butter, soy sauce and garlic and other spices. Yum! You mash it all together and have a bright orange side dish. The thought of adding brown sugar and marshmallows makes me gag. So, when I first saw this recipe- which calls for sweet potatoes and brown sugar with spices like cinnamon and nutmeg- I hesitated. But, in the end, no marshmallows were added and it wasn't anything like that nasty Thanksgiving sweet treat.

On Wednesday, January 13th, I decided to cut this recipe in half and make 2 versions- one with butter, one with applesauce. The book suggested baking (NOT BOILING) the sweet-ahem-yams 2 hours ahead of time. Instead, I baked them the night before while watching a movie. The recipe called for 4 medium yams, so I baked 2, thinking I would only make a half-recipe of one cake. I guess my yams were larger than "medium" because they yielded enough for a whole cake (2 cups), so that's why I went with 2 half-cakes. I let the cooked yams cool a bit, then stuck them in the fridge overnight.
On Wednesday, I first peeled and mashed the yams up a little (not too much, just enough to measure- I figured the kitchen aid would mash them up plenty.

The cake recipe says to combine the yams with butter, sugar, brown sugar, eggs, flour, nutmeg, cinnamon, etc. and then add a combo of milk, vanilla extract and maple flavoring. I didn't have any maple flavoring, so I added some pure maple syrup. I just figured that Melissa doesn't want you adding "Hungry Jack" or something cheap. The real stuff is stronger than cheaper syrups, so that's what I went with. I didn't have anything to compare it with so who knows if it worked or not?
Then I added diced Granny Smith apples. The recipe (in half) calls for 1/4 cup, my 1/4 measuring cup was heaping with diced apples. And I think I probably cut them too large.
Once all that was mixed well, I added the "topping" which involved chopped pecans, "cold" butter, and brown sugar. The cold butter was cut up but still stayed in chunks. I started using my fingers to mash it up a little better, but the overall experience was not satisfying. I think next time I will use margarine or softened butter. Also, I didn't have enough chopped pecans due to the fact that I wasn't originally planning on making 2 cakes, so next time I would use about twice as many pecans. I added extra brown sugar just to make the topping go further.

The photo on the right is the batter for the butter version.
The cookbook says "Bake in the oven for 1 hour before testing for doneness." It doesn't say "If you are cutting the recipe in half, here's how long to bake it..." so I had to guess, and I checked them after 1 hour. The cakes looked done but there were some crumbs on the knife I was testing with, so I put them back in, checked them, put them back in, checked them.... until I finally gave up and took them out after they had been in the oven for 1 hour and 25 minutes. The edges were looking really brown and starting to pull away from the pans so I thought they must be done! But the knife test still had gooey crumbs on it. I wrote a note in the book that says "Even for a 1/2 batch, do not check until 1 hour, 15 min."
The photo on the right is the batter for the applesauce version- much more liquidy.

At this point, it was almost 11 pm, on a Wednesday, and I'm saying that maybe- just maybe- this cake is good enough to make you get out of bed naked and stand in the kitchen eating 3 pieces before returning to bed.

Above: The butter version of the cake.
The butter version was better. I'm thinking that applesauce maybe isn't good in pound cakes. The butter cake had a custardy flavor, with not too much nutmeg- it was just right. The flavor was really unique, and really good warm (let it cool for at least 15 minutes, especially so that you can flip it out of the pan, and again onto a plate to make the topping end up on the top).
Above: the applesauce version.
The applesauce version wasn't bad, but it really tasted like apple pie when cold, and I'm trying to figure out why. The combination of yams, 1/2 cup of applesauce and 1/4 cup of diced green apples=apple pie filling? It's a strange discovery to make.

In the future, I will definitely make this cake again, the butter version, with more pecans, and earlier so that we can enjoy more if it while it's still warm.
Right: Should the inside look like that???

Champa prefers the butter version.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

In Between Cakes...

After starting this blog, I've been asked if I saw the movie "Julie and Julia" and/or read "A Homemade Life". The answer to both is yes. Although I have not read either Julie Powell or Molly Wizenberg's blogs, I was inspired by them to write my experiences down as I went along.

Like Julie, I'm working my way through a cookbook. I don't know yet if I will bake ALL the cakes in the book (I've got a Key Lime cake coming up that I'm not looking forward to, but my husband is excited about it) and I'm not setting a time limit like Julie did, but it is fun to take photos of the cakes and allow others a glimpse into my kitchen! Also, after watching the movie "Julie & Julia", I had absolutely NO desire to work my way through Julia Child's cookbook. That looked a little too complex for me.

As far as Molly's book goes: I loved it, I have made several awesome recipes from it, and I have a lot more to say about it, so that will be a future blog. (Do you like all my links?)

I do like to read books: half fiction, half non-fiction, all books that will make me a more intelligent, cultured, educated, better person. But lately, I've been peer-pressured into reading the Harry Potter books, and they have sucked me in. (They start out small and easy, and grow to about 870 pages by the 5th one!)
I just finished book #4, and in it I was introduced (in the magical world) to a thing called a "Penseive". With this device, Dumbledore is able to pull out the thoughts from his mind, one at a time, to keep them from over-crowding his head, and put them into his Penseive, which he can then go back to access as he pleases. I'm now thinking of this blog as my penseive.

I'm about to start on recipe #3, and I'm already questioning this project. After discovering we had WAY too much cake at home, my husband and I both took some to work and got feedback from our office-mates. One suggested I stop this 1/2 recipe crap and start making whole cakes so that the office has more to eat! (I don't have pans big enough, yet). And what if they start to give up their new years resolution diets solely for my cake? Am I responsible?
But I have decided to continue on with the applesauce trials- not with every cake, but with the ones that sound like they might taste good with applesauce.

We have been stocking up on the butter and eggs at the store (cage free, hormone-free eggs, of course) and the next few cakes look like they will definitely be "occurrences"! Unfortunately, I glanced ahead in the book and I'm not seeing any chocolate for a long time!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Cake #2: Brown Sugar Pound Cake

Before making the second cake, I searched a couple of local kitchen and hardware stores for a tube pan or bundt pan without non-stick coating. I couldn't find any. Then I looked on and again, most of the pans I found had non-stick coating. Melissa suggested getting a good, long-lasting tube and bundt pan for $25-$50, but I also didn't find anything I liked that was that expensive. I ended up buying this pan for $11.

It only holds 10 cups (and the book suggested a pan that holds 16 cups) but it seems to work great for 1/2 recipes, which is what I'm doing right now.
By the way, there is no way I would have made it this far in the book (yes, all the way to recipe #2) without my Kitchen Aid Mixer. I got mine for free from my friends John & Kevin, but if you don't have awesome friends willing to give you expensive kitchen appliances, here's a link to the style I use.

I made this cake on January 9th.
To make this cake, you basically add the ingredients one at a time into the big mixer bowl while it rotates on medium speed. Melissa says to cream the butter and shortening together, but she doesn't say why. I used a stick of butter (Hy-Vee brand unsalted) with 1/4 cup of Earth Balance vegan margarine. I'm guessing that qualifies as "shortening". I just want to know why shortening is necessary, if I'm ever out of it can I just use butter? (I only have some because I take it camping- butter sticks get waterlogged in a cooler after a few days)

Then you mix brown sugar with regular sugar. My "regular" sugar comes from an Amish-run bulk food store in Kalona, Iowa- it's pretty much raw sugar. It has bigger granules than white (granulated) sugar and it is much darker.

In "All Cakes Considered", she explains that brown sugar is granulated white sugar with the molasses added back in. Molasses is a by-product from removing the sugar crystals from the sugarcane. That would explain why most of my guests doubt me when I tell them our regular sugar is not brown sugar- it must still have some of that molasses in it. Anyway, I used my raw sugar because that's what I always use and I have a ton of it. (I keep granulated sugar around because the raw sugar doesn't dissolve in cold liquid very well.)

So I slowly added the sugars, eggs, flour and other ingredients one at a time. The last ingredient was chopped pecans. My chopper sucks, but I got it done. It's a Zyliss, and I don't have a problem with the brand, it's just that my chopper not only doesn't chop well, it doesn't come apart so it's really hard to clean.

The recipe said to bake for 70 minutes, but it was done after 55 minutes since it was a half recipe.
I made the cream cheese frosting, and I cut that recipe in half, which resulted in too much frosting. Also, I completely forgot to read the instructions, which tell you what order to add all the frosting ingredients to the mixer, and how many minutes to beat each one. I just threw them all in and put the mixer on medium-high for several minutes, and it seemed to work out fine.
The frosting was good, but the cake was already sweet and probably didn't need the sweet frosting added to it. We decided this cake would be better with ice cream on the side instead of frosting.

That's me frosting the cake.
The cake wasn't as fluffy and light as the Yogurt Pound Cake, it tasted richer and sweeter. It had a good flavor and the "crust" end was crunchy and you could really taste the brown sugar in it. I liked the pecan flavor in every bite- the flavor was there without it seeming like a "nutty" cake.
My husband thinks this cake would be great with rum added to the recipe.
Two recipes down, and my cake book is already sticky.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Cake #1: Sour Cream Pound Cake

Off the bat, with the first cake, I’m cheating. I just don’t have the ability to follow a damn recipe exactly. I didn’t have sour cream. I had plain yogurt, so I used that instead. So change the title to Yogurt Pound Cake. Sounds better anyway, right?
I made this cake on January 2nd. I cut the recipe in half and made two versions, one with butter, one with applesauce. Why not? And as long as I was experimenting, I changed the all-white flour to 1/3 whole wheat flour in the applesauce version. The funny thing was, the applesauce cake’s batter poured out much more like it was described in the book, the butter cake's batter was really thick. Also, since I cut these recipes in half, they were done after about 60 minutes rather than 90.
Yogurt Pound Cake w/ butter

Yogurt Pound Cake w/ applesauce and some whole wheat

The result: the butter version was better. You could really taste the flavors and the vanilla, lemon and orange extracts. I didn’t add any frosting, so it looked plain, but the cake was so sweet, you could really overdo it with sweet frosting.
The applesauce cake wasn’t bad, it just had the consistency of banana bread. It was much denser, and the whole wheat flour overpowered the other flavors.

Cake Pans

Before I could make my first cake, I had to get a cake pan. The cake pans I’ve used before were the small round layer pans, but Melissa recommended the bundt or tube pans, so I searched the local thrift store and came up with two:
The above pan is an angel food pan, which looks very similar to a tube pan, but it has 2 separate pieces.

This style is not pictured in the “All Cakes Considered” cookbook, they use a similar pan that looks like it’s all one piece- but I could not locate such a pan. This one is the size Melissa recommends, holding at least 16 cups with room on top for the cake to rise, all the other pans I found held 6-10 cups, so they work only if you cut the recipes in half.

I don’t know what the little tabs around the cake are for. So you can flip it upside down and give it air to cool? That’s Marlo in the background. If there’s a camera around, he tries his best to get in the shot.

I found this pan at the thrift store too. It doesn’t hold as much, but I like it. It makes the finished cake look like a large doughnut.
You want the tube in the middle to allow the heat to get to the middle of the cake. I learned that from the book. I’m already learning!

Intro and Explanation

I’m a flexitarian. I didn’t learn that word until recently, but I feel it describes me. I have had a lot of vegetarian and vegan friends, but I don’t feel I could ever be either. And I definitely couldn’t be a raw foodist!
I like to mix my raw food, vegan and vegetarian food with some good local meat and call it a meal. I refuse to eat meat or milk from animals that have lived inhumanely with hormones injected into them. I like my meat to come from those happy little local farms we all picture in our minds- except I really do get meat from those farmers directly, and I’ve had to learn how to re-make recipes using meat on the bone rather than the perfectly de-skinned and de-boned meat you get at the store. The meat I buy might be more expensive, but it becomes affordable when you don’t put it in every meal.
This blog isn’t all about meat, though. Or even about all the vegetarian meals we create. It’s about cooking experiences, eating experiences, and drinking experiences. (Not drunken experiences, that would be a whole ‘nother blog…. these drinking experiences would be from drinking our homemade beer, wine, mead, kahlua, and other crazy concoctions).
I’m going to start this blog by working my way through a book my husband got me for the holidays: “All Cakes Considered” by Melissa Gray. I felt like I knew how to make cakes, but when glancing through this book (which you are supposed to tackle from beginning to end, one cake at a time, rather than skipping around like you would in a normal cookbook) I realized I had only really made one cake, many many times: My husband’s favorite carrot cake.
Almost ten years ago, I started experimenting with substituting unsweetened applesauce for butter and oil in cakes, and that carrot cake recipe was one of my success stories. I held a taste-test contest at my husband’s college graduation party in 2004, where I had one applesauce cake and one oil cake (the recipe called for 1 ½ CUPS OF OIL!) I had the guests try a little from each cake and tell me which one was better- and the result was overwhelmingly the applesauce cake! They were happy to find out that the better tasting cake was also much, much healthier. But it isn’t a health food- it still contains a shitload of sugar.
So here comes my on-going attempts to make a whole bunch of cake.