Monday, March 26, 2012

The pie's the limit

Sometimes I worry my blog looks like it's written by some ultra-fickle bipolar person. My last post discusses my interest in eating less sugar and experimenting with healthier baking options, but this one is all about making pies. Sugar, butter, and egg filled pies. A friend, who is clearly a bad influence, came over the other day to do some experimental baking. I'm always up for experimental baking (see last post), and I had a spare pound of butter in my fridge, so I thought, why not? A couple of hours and four full-sized pies later we'd created two creations of varying worth taste-wise.

The first came of my desire to do something with grapefruit curd. I'm a big fan of lime and lemon curds in baking and was curious about experimenting with other citrus. Also, grapefruit seems to be the new 'it' curd on the food blog block, and I do so desperately want to stay current. The grapefruit curd on it's own would have been fine, but I wanted to add a few more elements. I've enjoyed cocktails that combined grapefruit and mint, so I decided that mint and grapefruit would be a fine combination. I paired the grapefruit curd with a mint whipped cream and a ginger snap crust. Somewhere along the way it became too complicated and the final result was more befuddling than tasty. Also, I didn't get a picture of this one as it was difficult to serve and ultimately not much to look at.

The second experimental pie was the result of googling grapefruit curd a few too many times and coming upon mango curd. Turns out curds aren't restricted to citrus as I'd always imagined! If you mix enough egg yolks and sugar with anything, it turns out a curd will be born. I made a standard pie crust for this one and filled it with the mango curd. I layered some strawberries on top for good measure. This pie came out much better than the first, and I believe if mangos were actually in season, it would be better still.

Not a great picture of not a bad pie.

I think after the bacchanal of pie making (and pie eating) that occured this weekend (luckily we had some friends over to watch the season premiere of Mad Men, so we had some help), I'll lay off baking full stop for a while. Sticking to fruits and vegetables not in pie shells for a while might be in my best interests. At least until my manic pie-happy side returns to post yet again.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Baking in the raw

As a blogger of integrity (or BoI), I feel it's important to record my failures alongside my successes. This is an account of one of those failures. I've recently, and I blame working from home for this, decided to make raw 'baked' goods. It started innocently enough. I like to bake, but am trying to eat less sugar, so I've been getting away from my usual food blogs and looking at ones with healthier baking options. I'm not particularly interested in raw 'baking' or vegan treats, but it seems most of the low-sugar options lead back to these sorts of sites. I found a raw brownie recipe that was composed entirely of ground walnuts, dates, cocoa powder, and dried cherries. They were decent, although crumblier and not holding a candle to the egg, butter, and sugar rich brownies of last post.

After the brownie experiment, I was left with some expensive dates. Since dates seem to be the sweetener of choice for most of the raw baking sites I'd found, I thought I owed it to myself to try something a little more ambitious. Enter: the raw vegan cheesecake. Now I'd made a dairy free cheesecake before for my lactose intolerant sister using that fake tofu-based cream cheese, but as she isn't vegan, I loaded that sucker with eggs. Thus this experiment was a horse of a different color. I chose a simple lemon cheesecake adapted from a number of different recipes. For the crust, I mixed:
  • 1 1/2 cups of nuts
  • 1/2 dates
in the food processor until I had a gooey, crumbly mixture. I used a mixture of walnuts, almonds, and pecans because I tend to have dribs and drabs of all nuts floating around. I suspect any nut would do. I then pressed this mixture into a springform pan.

The crust part of this experiment went along swimmingly.

The filling was composed of:
  • 3 cups soaked cashews
  • Juice and zest from 2 lemons
  • 1/2 honey
  • 1/2 coconut oil (melted)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp vanilla
The filling is where things started to go awry. I think the first issue was that I under-soaked my cashews. Being a non-vegan, and having never soaked nuts before, I took them out when they seemed plenty water logged. I think it had been about 3 hours, but in hindsight it might have been closer to 2. The second issue is that you really need a good food processor for this. I have only a tiny one, so I had to do it in batches. It didn't seem to be working well, so I transferred to a blender, and when that failed, back to the food processor. Despite my many efforts, the concoction never did quite take on the consistency of cheesecake filling. I've had delicious raw cheesecakes before, so I know cashews are capable of amazing things. Mine however, whether from poorly soaked nuts or improper kitchen appliances, tasted good but still maintained a rough texture, not unlike finely ground nuts.

My kitchen post "cheesecake" filling making. Much like my attempts to replicate mall pretzels, I have come to the conclusion that just paying for a piece of cheesecake on those rare occasions that I do go to raw restaurants is probably worth it. $10 no longer seems unrealistic.

After leaving the cake in the fridge for 4 hours to firm up, I tried a piece. Only it didn't look as appetizing as I had hoped, so, in the spirit of true failure, I turned to refined sugar. I'd originally planned to decorate the surface with fresh raspberries because I consider fresh raspberries to be a panacea for all baking ills. However, fresh raspberries are currently not available at any price in the two fruit markets by my house, so I settled on blackberries. But blackberries seemed too tart to just drop on top I ended up cooking them into a sauce with a couple of tablespoons of sugar and some water. The result:

Not the prettiest dessert I've ever made, and the texture left something to be desired, but the taste was actually pretty good!

I'm not entirely ready to give up on raw "baking." Mostly because I still have half a package of dates and the only other thing I know to do with them is stuff them with almonds and wrap them in bacon (although now that I've written it out...I might just do that...). Hopefully, my next project will be another one for the success column.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Luck of the Irish

I'm not really that big a St. Patrick's Day person mostly because in New York it just means people in mass getting drunk before noon and acting like fools. That said, given my confusing and at time obsessive love of Irish culture, I would be remiss in not wishing everyone a happy holiday tomorrow! I decided, partially because my laptop makes it so easy, and partially becauseI work from home now and it was raining on my lunch break, to record a little tin whistle playing for the occasion.

Believe it or not, this was the best of three takes. I clearly still need to work on my A-roll a little, but at any rate, here is my flawed, but spirited, rendition of the jig "Hole in the Hedge." Also, as one more note, this tune is usually played in sessions on a C whistle whereas here I'm playing it on a D. So, you know, if you've heard it before and it sounded different, it's not wholly because I f-ed it up. As a more spirited way to celebrate, here is someone who really knows their way around a whistle playing a couple of jigs. Just give me a few more decades, and I hope to be at that level.

As another way to celebrate, and also to embrace my love of baking, I brought some Irish Car Bomb brownies to the office yesterday when I went in on a visit. Like the somewhat offensively named cocktail of the same name, these treats incorporate Guiness, Baileys, and Jameson into the ingredients (specifically: Guiness in the brownie, a Baileys cream cheese swirl, and topped with a Jameson chocolate ganache). They were a hit at the office, although I couldn't really taste any of the alcohol. If anything it just brought out the chocolate taste all the more.

If you too are bored with making soda bread and want to give a try, I got the recipe from here and made no changes. Highly recommended.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Working the Astorian Dream

This week I've been busily setting up my home office. I even got a new desk from IKEA because the old desk from IKEA wasn't really conducive to actually working. When we moved in a year ago, we chose a sort of 18th century inspired desk because it was from IKEA but not "of IKEA" in appearance. It had cute curving legs, and most importantly it was tiny--pretty much holding a computer and nothing else. It was ideal for having a computer in the living room, without feeling like the living room was a home office, since all we really used it for was checking email and watching episodes of Law & Order. However, times they are a-changing and we had no choice but to purchase something a little more utilitarian. Enter: the plainest desk in the entire IKEA work station department.

This is my new home office. Although I'll be moving the sunflower painting (the work of a wonderful Texas artist who happens to be my mother) to another wall and putting a bulletin board there. With the arrival of this desk, it brings the birch count (or in the case of the IKEA furniture: particle board with a birch veneer) to pretty much everything in the apartment except the coffee table.

Incidentally, my new coworker Dinah was instrumental in the building of the new desk.

So far, I'm enjoying the freedom of working from home. I've started up p90x or running in the hour I used to spend commuting (really only a half hour on the train, but I used to get to work a half hour early to beat the rush on the train and to have a moment of zen before other people arrived). I'm also enjoying the fact that I can buy groceries during the week on lunch breaks so as to avoid that particular chore on Sunday afternoons when everyone else goes. It's also nice to be able to make a hot lunch that doesn't come from a microwave. Omelet for lunch? Don't mind if I do. Another plus, is that I finally get to belong to one of the "cool" offices that has a ping pong table in it for those lighter moments when I need a break.

My formidable ping pong adversary.

Overall, I'm enjoying the new job and the new office space. I'm even making it through my usual Monday-after-Spring-Forward without my usual grouchiness (for the most part).

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Appreciating the silence of Vermont

As a writer, I tend to use ten words where five will do, and while usually I embrace the verbosity because it's my blog, and I don't actually have to scroll through it once I press "publish post," today I'm going to try something a bit simpler. I know some bloggers subscribe to a "wordless Wednesday" post where they just post a photo and let it speak for itself. I don't think I could show that sort of restraint, but today I am going to try with "word-low Tuesday" (which, I acknowledge, is sadly less alliterative). To that end: I went on a trip to Vermont this weekend. It was a lovely getaway with friends. See photos below.

Word-low or not, I can't help but add that this particular photo will be my album cover when I finally put out my first tin whistle CD "The Wandering Whistler."

I hope you enjoyed word-low Tuesday. Your feedback is, of course appreciated. Did you find it refreshingly austere? Or smarting of laziness? Or perhaps, like me, you're starting to feel like all I do anymore is post pictures of snow.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A day or three in Reykjavik

For those who enjoyed Iceland Vacation 2012 Photo Dump Day 1, you are in luck! Today, I'm posting some photos of Reykjavik the capital city that has a population of about a third of the metro area of Little Rock, Arkansas (I can't find accurate demographics for Astoria or obviously I would use that as a better measure). For its small size though, it is a vibrant city with delicious foods and great views across the harbor. If I was a Viking in the 870s, I might have been tempted to give up marauding and settle there too.

The tallest building in Reykjavik is a church called Hallgrimskirkja. I didn't realize that Iceland had an official state religion, but apparently they do and it's called the Church of Iceland. As you can also see in this photo, it rains a lot, but (not that you can see from the photo) only for about 10 minutes at a time. I'd read that no one in Iceland really cares if it rains, and they just go about their business as usual. This is why when we attempted to shield ourselves from the rain with dollar store ponchos (like the coddled Americans we are), we overheard a confused Icelandic child asking his mom what our deal was.

As the highest point in the city, the church tower offers unparalleled views of the city. Also note that is now much sunnier than the previous picture and yet they were taken very close together. Icelandic weather is nothing if not mercurial.

Another view from the church tower, this time facing downward. I had to include this photo because I actually took it, and I think it came our rather well. You really need to see it larger to appreciate it, but note the hundreds of little footprints in the snow. Artsy, no? I might have a future in photography after all.

The city looks out on a harbor as well as some pretty awesome mountains. There is also a modernized version of a Viking long boat, as seen above.

The aforementioned awesome mountains across the harbor. One of the mountains in the area, Esjan is almost 3,000 feet. Our guide said it was a popular hiking spot, but also that people were frequently having to be rescused. Our guide was apparently part of one of 80 different rescue teams in Iceland and actually on our tour he got a call from his rescue team to see if he could come rescue someone. Obviously he didn't because he was leading the tour, but presumably someone else on his team came through. I'd hate to think someone didn't get rescued because of my touristing.

A building in the harbor where they have symphonies and concerts and what not. It was a cool looking building both inside and out, although this particular photo is from the inside.

We went to a flea market in Reykjavik which had a lot of interesting things for sale. However, my favorite part was the food. There were tons of different kinds of dried fish and links of sausages that had a picture of a horse on them that I chose to not ask too many questions about.

Not a great picture (okay, fine, I took it)--but it's hard to take photos in museums without flash. It's of a Viking door from early in the Settlement Period though, so surely that makes it worthwhile in any case.

There was a popular hot dog stand nearby that I had read about. Apparently, Bill Clinton once ate a hot dog there. Naturally, we had to as well.

The Pearl is a fancy restaurant that sits atop hot water storage tanks. Incidentally, Bill Clinton also ate there so we had to include it in keeping with our official "Bill Clinton Eats Iceland" tour. We had made reservations, but then after accidentally sleeping through our original tour (by failure to properly set hotel alarm system, as mentioned in previous post) we had to reschedule and cancel our reservations. We did have coffee and cake at the lower rent restaurant/cafeteria one level down, so we still enjoyed the view and proximity to the true Pearl.

A model of an early Icelandic settler as part of the Saga Museum in the Pearl building. This guy (or rather the cost) scared us off from actually going inside, but it's apparently a wax museum telling the history of Icelandic settlement. Definitely something for next time.

We ate a fair amount of seafood while in Iceland. I took this photo of my artfully plated mashed fish, herring, and rye ice cream. In the background, for the more adventurous Icelandic eater: smoked trout, dried fish with butter, and fermented shark. The latter is apparently a delicacy, but I'm not sure why as the women who served it to us said it was best to not smell it too much when eating it and also to not really chew it.

A parting shot of Reykjavik. Truly a lovely little city and a nice change of pace from the hustle and bustle sidewalks of Astoria!