Saturday, June 30, 2012

White Chocolate Mousse Torte with Fresh Berries

Houston is HOT.  If you are familiar with the proverbial hinges of the gates of hell, we’ve got ‘em here.  Do not touch.  The only upside is the plethora of fresh berries and cherries that are in the grocery stores and markets right now.  We are eating raspberries straight out of the pint boxes like candy.  The other day, we bought 10 half pints for one dollar a piece and I wondered what to make with them.  That first group got eaten in what seemed like a blink, and we’ve gone back for more!  This time, I decided to make a frozen dessert.  Because, who can think about turning the oven on?  (Unless you have to for #MuffinMonday – the sacrifices I make! – another tasty muffin recipe coming to a blog near you soon.)

But on to the sane dessert which requires no oven, save the microwave.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Gram’s Fig Preserves

When figs are in season, make this simple recipe for fresh fig preserves, and enjoy sweet figs all year long! Gram's fig preserves are great spread on a piece of buttered toast, spooned over pound cake or even baked into her special fig spice cake

This is a hard post to write without getting maudlin but I will try.  As my handful of Twitter followers and Facebook friends know, we spent last weekend in New Iberia, Louisiana with my aged grandmother. She is 98 1/2 years old which means (thanks to my friend, Jacky’s Gran, who started counting the year she was in at 93, rather than birthdays) she is in her 99th year. Pretty impressive, I think!

My father and aunt have organized a lovely nurse/caretaker to come in Monday through Friday to care for her while my uncle, who lives with her, is off at work. On the evenings and weekends, he is in charge and is doing a good job. As we said to him, upon questions about the medications, he hasn’t killed her yet, so we figure he knows what he is doing. (Why he didn’t throw us out, I do not know.) Goodness knows, she has two different sets of pills, morning and evening, and if he can keep those straight, more power to him! We are grateful!

We arrived around 3:45 in the afternoon on Friday and her lovely nurse/caretaker, Tina, was still there to greet us. Bless her, then she stayed late just to make conversation and get to know us because her normal hours are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.  She calls my grandmother Ms. Margaret.

Her real name is Marguerite but throughout my childhood, her friends called her Mag or Maggie. On official records, her name is Margaret because when she started school back in 1919, French was forbidden and Marguerite would have been part of that prohibition. Her name was changed to Margaret to conform to the no-French rule. Imagine!

Both my maternal grandfather and my paternal grandmother did not learn English till they started school at six years old and the system - and the teachers - tried to stamp it out of them. The shame of that was that the next two generations of Acadiana French children were not allowed to speak their mother tongue at school and gradually it died out. (My grandparents’ generation still spoke it amongst themselves because it is hard to smother a child’s mother tongue.) I think my grandparents’ generation was the last to speak it fluently in Louisiana. I’ve been told that the public schools are teaching French again, but it is not the same. More's the pity.

Anyhoo, Tina got us talking about the character that my grandmother must have been when she was younger and telling stories on her. Oh, my goodness, the stories we could tell. Gram was the best grandmother ever. No was not in her vocabulary. “Gram, can we have some baby aspirin? (They tasted like orange Tic Tacs and we loved them.) The answer was “Sure. Help yourself.”

“Gram, can we borrow your steak knives? We want to have a knife throwing contest in the yard.”  - “You know where they are.”  I don’t even remember her saying, “just be careful.”  But, in fairness, possibly she did. And we lit bonfires, with permission – we mostly did ask, to our credit - and took group bubble baths and climbed trees, higher than was ever safe. And once we even took off walking to my other grandmother’s house a few miles away. Why? Who the heck remembers? Unsupervised much? Blissfully so. 

While cooking in my grandmother’s kitchen this past weekend, I discovered a drawer full of her old cookbooks and asked if I might take them home to look through them more carefully. (Cousins reading this, please know that I WILL RETURN THEM.) You know that the woman who let us take her steak knives in the yard for a knife-throwing contest (which, by the way, ended up with a knife up in my foot and a tetanus shot for yours truly) did not tell me no.  So I have a whole box of mostly cr*p cookbooks with the occasional gem in her handwriting, which is what I am looking for.

I discovered this one before we even left her kitchen.  Written on the front of a Steen Syrup giveaway pamphlet in my grandmother's handwriting. 

“Gram,” I said.  “Is this your recipe for the fig preserves you always made?”  “Yes,” she said.  It couldn’t be more simple.

Gram’s Fig Preserves

It doesn't get any easier than this - just two ingredients - figs and sugar - in a two to one ratio, for a whole lot of wonderful.

Ingredients - to make two pint jars
2.2 pounds or 1 kg or 5 1/2 generous cups of fresh figs
2 3/4 cups or 620g sugar

Rinse the fresh figs well and discard the rinsing water. If your figs have hard stems, cut them off and discard.

Pour the sugar over the drained figs in a heavy-bottomed pot.

Put it on a medium flame, covered. You don't need to add water as this gets really juicy fairly quickly but that is a good thing. Cook for a while, perhaps half an hour, stirring very gently occasionally. You do not want the figs to break up. Gram always had whole figs in her preserve jars and so should you.

After about the first half hour, when all the sugar has dissolved, you can turn the heat up to medium high and take the lid off.  Cook until the syrup reduces by at least half.

Meanwhile, sterilize your jars/lids by pouring boiling water in them.  Then put one metal teaspoon in each jar.  This will keep the jars from breaking when you pour the boiling hot preserves in them.

2 half pint jars and 1 pint jar

When I cooked this down, I got 2 whole pints of preserved figs out of 5 1/2 cups or 1 kilo of figs and 2 3/4 cups or 620g of sugar.

Using a jam jar funnel, divide the figs and boiling syrup evenly between the jars.  Screw the lids on very tightly, with a dry towel and set them upside down.  As they cool, a vacuum seal will form and the preserves will be safe to eat for several weeks.

We bought the fresh figs at the Farmers’ Market on Main Street in New Iberia because Gram’s tree was hit by lightening a number of years ago and her replacement trees (planted with cuttings from my other grandmother’s tree!) are not producing yet. I’ve decided that the best thing I could do was to pack them up nicely and mail them on to her to enjoy. When you are 98 and 1/2, people should be making fig preserves for you. Don’t you agree?


Sunday, June 24, 2012

One Year of Blogging and the Best Gift I Could Have Received

This blog is primarily about food.  Buying it, cooking it, eating it and sharing it with friends and family.  It is also secondarily about living an expat life.  Because being an expat is my life and colors everything I buy and cook and eat, and also with whom I share that food.   I started this blog at the instigation of my daughters who probably thought Mommy needed something to do in her empty nest but the truth is that I have always cooked and I have always written, just not necessarily about cooking.  For years I have ghost-written persuasive letters for friends, news articles for more than one PTA president, edited campaign speeches for one potential School Board candidate and once I even helped with a talk a dear friend gave in aid of the Malaysian Cancer Society about her triumphant battle with ovarian cancer.  If I can wring a few tears (and possibly a donation) out of you, my work is done. :)  For several years I wrote a monthly “letter from the editor” in my role at the American Association of Malaysia’s magazine, the KL American. This gave me an opportunity to share a bit of myself and also direct members’ attention to the parts of the magazine I really wanted them to notice.  Even as part of the ISKL PTA executive committee for several years, and being in charge of SAS Booster Club publicity, I now realize that persuasive writing was at the heart of most projects because that is the way you get people to step up and help or respond to a need.  And, of course, all this time, I was in the kitchen having the best time preparing meals and decorating fancy cakes (with the help of my friend, Gillian) or traveling the world and scoping out the markets and grocery stores. 

But my most important job – the only job that really matters - has been right here at home, as an expat, wherever that may be, encouraging my daughters to live their lives to the fullest and to grow from (and despite) the moves we make and the friends we leave behind and the challenges of new places.

My elder daughter was with us for this Fathers’ Day weekend and when she headed back north to her internship/job for the summer, she left behind a surprise gift for me on my bedside table.   I’d like to celebrate today with an unusual post - because today is the first anniversary of the first post on my blog, a birthday of sorts - by sharing that gift with you instead of a recipe.  For all of you out there in expat land, wondering if you are helping or harming your children with this life, I will tell you only what Victoria responded when I asked her if we had done the right thing, “You did.”  It doesn’t get simpler than that.  And here is the proof and confirmation.  The best gift ever.  

© Victoria Rushton  Click on her name to see her website.  Totally talented and I am not even biased. :)

With this blog, my cooking and writing come together and my goal is two-fold: 1. To get you in the kitchen cooking, and  2.  To connect with fellow expats and friends who share my experiences.  Thank you, to all my friends, new and old, who have graciously allowed me in your lives with my blog posts, written me great comments, tried my recipes and spread the love.  I am grateful.   It’s been a great year. 

Banana Bacon Peanut Butter Chip Muffins #MuffinMonday

The Elvis sandwich in muffin form, these banana, bacon Peanut Butter Chip muffins will delight anyone who loves their sweets with just a little hint of salt and smoke. These are so good!

Food Lust People Love: The Elvis sandwich in muffin form, these banana, bacon Peanut Butter Chip muffins will delight anyone who loves their sweets with just a little hint of salt and smoke. These are so good!

Today for the first time, I am joining a group of bloggers who make muffins every week for a celebration called Muffin Monday!  We get a specific muffin recipe, in this case, an easy to follow banana espresso chocolate chip one from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking and we are allowed to adapt it to our preferences.  At least, that’s the way I understand the rules so I hope I got it right.  I would hate to be booted out just as soon as I’ve gotten in.

I am not a big fan of coffee flavored things, except ice cream (well, and actual coffee – can’t live without that) and the chocolate banana combo didn’t do anything for me either, so I thought, what can I substitute for these two flavors, while still keeping the essential banana-ness of the muffin?

So bacon is the new espresso and peanut butter chips replace the chocolate ones. Truth be told, the bacon flavor is subtle, just four pieces in 12 muffins, but it adds a smoky, salty, sweet depth to the traditional banana-peanut butter sandwich combination.

Banana Bacon Peanut Butter Chip Muffins

If you are thinking the combination is odd, I offer you the review of my 66-year-old, relatively unadventurous-eater uncle, after eating a muffin without being told the ingredients: “That was really good!” Couldn’t have said it better myself.  To his credit (and as further proof of deliciousness) he continued to eat them with gusto despite being taken aback when I told him about the bacon. Adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking

Ingredients 4 very ripe medium-sized bananas 1/2 cup or 115g sugar
1/4 cup (firmly packed) or 50g light brown sugar (I used dark brown for a deeper flavor.)
1/2 cup or 115g unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup or 120ml whole milk
1 large egg
1 1/2 cups or 187g all-purpose flour
4 slices of streaky bacon
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
6 ounces or 170g peanut butter chips

Preheat the oven to 350°F or 180°C. Spray your 12-hole muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray or line with muffin liners. Mix together the bananas, sugars, butter, milk, and egg with your beaters.  Set aside.

Meanwhile, fry your bacon strips until very crispy.  Drain on paper towels and then chop them finely with a sharp knife.

In another medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt and three-quarters of the bacon.

Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients.  Pour the wet ingredients into the well and stir just until combined.

Fold in the peanut butter chips.

Distribute the batter between the 12 cups.

Food Lust People Love: The Elvis sandwich in muffin form, these banana, bacon Peanut Butter Chip muffins will delight anyone who loves their sweets with just a little hint of salt and smoke. These are so good!Sprinkle the remaining bacon bits on the top of each.

Food Lust People Love: The Elvis sandwich in muffin form, these banana, bacon Peanut Butter Chip muffins will delight anyone who loves their sweets with just a little hint of salt and smoke. These are so good!

Bake in the center of the oven for 20-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center of the muffin comes out clean.

Food Lust People Love: The Elvis sandwich in muffin form, these banana, bacon Peanut Butter Chip muffins will delight anyone who loves their sweets with just a little hint of salt and smoke. These are so good!

Move the muffin pan to a cooling rack, and let cool for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, remove the muffins from the pan and let them finish cooling on the cooling rack.

Food Lust People Love: The Elvis sandwich in muffin form, these banana, bacon Peanut Butter Chip muffins will delight anyone who loves their sweets with just a little hint of salt and smoke. These are so good!


Food Lust People Love: The Elvis sandwich in muffin form, these banana, bacon Peanut Butter Chip muffins will delight anyone who loves their sweets with just a little hint of salt and smoke. These are so good!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Sunny Scottish Strawberry Cake

When strawberries have been in the refrigerator a while and are "past their best," I always make this strawberry cake with ground almonds. It's beautiful with a glaze or just a sprinkling of powdered sugar. 

Every summer that I am able, since the year 2000, I have visited my friend, Jacky, in Aberdeen, Scotland.  I’ve missed the occasional year and, sadly, this is my second year in a row to miss this time.  Which makes me very sad.  Despite its usually gloomy weather, even in Summer, Aberdeen is one of my favorite places because Jacky is one of those upbeat people who radiate sunshine.   We met in 1996 when we were both living in the little oilfield town Macaé, Brazil and she confessed years later that I scared her initially and she thought to herself that she could never be friends with me.  I can be a bit overwhelming at first, it’s true, but I guess I didn’t turn out to be so frightening after all.  We’ve been fast friends ever since.

Way back in the Summer of 2005, I was sitting around in Jacky’s lovely warm kitchen, reading the daily newspaper, the Aberdeen Press and Journal, or the P&J as we (almost locals) like to call it, and found this recipe.  Scottish strawberries are some of the best in the world (my other Scottish friend, Gillian, says they are THE VERY BEST and I have learned not to argue with Gillian, who can also be a little scary at first.) during their short season so we had been buying them and eating them in a frankly prodigious manner.  This recipe for strawberry cake was supposedly the answer to what to do if you have some strawberries that haven’t been eaten but were getting “past their best.”   Of course, we had to go out and buy some more to bake this cake! 

Since then, I have made it with various berries in different stages of ripeness (read: over ripeness) always with great success.  The buttery crumb of the cake, heightened by the natural richness of the almond meal is superbly and perfectly complemented by a cup of tea or coffee or a glass of cold milk.  And, if you are using berries that are slightly past their best, you can feel virtuous for not wasting them. Win-win. 

3 tablespoons plain flour (for coating baking pan)
6.35 oz or 180g ground almonds
3/4 cup or 180g soft unsalted butter
3/4 cup or 180g caster sugar
1 1/2 cups or 180g self-raising flour (or the same amount of plain flour plus a scant 2 teaspoons of baking powder and a good pinch of salt)
2 medium eggs
2 tablespoons milk
14 oz or 400g strawberries, plus a few for decoration, if you like.
(Raspberries, blueberries, blackberries or a combination can be substituted for the strawberries.)
To serve: Icing or powdered sugar

Preheat your oven to 350°F or 180°C.  Spray your baking pan of choice with non-stick spray or butter it well.  Tip in the plain flour and turn the pan all around, shaking carefully to make sure that it is well-coated with flour.  This is not as important in a regular, flat baking pan where just buttering would probably work as well, but in a Bundt pan, this is essential to get the cake to come out nicely, without leaving bits stuck to the pan.

Hull your strawberries with a sharp knife by cutting into the berry just under the green hull.  Press your thumb on the knife and the hull and pull the hull out of the strawberry.  This leaves more strawberry behind to eat that cutting the whole top off would do.  

Rinse the strawberries well and let them drain. Cut the berries into smaller pieces.   Set aside.

Place all the ingredients except the strawberries in a mixer and mix to combine.

Carefully stir the cut strawberries through the batter. 

Spoon the batter into the pan, leveling off the top.  

Place the tin in the middle of the oven for an hour, checking after 40 minutes and covering with tin foil if it is getting too brown.

Remove from the oven, cool slightly then loosen the edges with a knife and turn out onto a serving plate.  

Serve warm or cold, decorated with extra strawberries, if desired, or sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar.