Monday, March 28, 2011

Hummingbird Cupcakes

Do you ever notice that once you set your mind to do something you start noticing things related to it everywhere? It's kind of like buying a new car, then all of a sudden it seems like every third person in the town you live has that same car. I know that part of it is just that you have a heightened awareness, but ever since I signed up for Blogher Food in Atlanta this May it seems as though all things Southern keep coming my way. Imbibe magazine did a feature on southern bars, and then I stumbled across an article in Bon Appetit about Cakes and Ale. Most recently I started reading Kim Severson's book Spoon Fed. I took an interest because she got her start at the Anchorage Daily news. She has since worked her way up the ranks and most recently took a position heading up the New York Times Atlanta office. In the book she talks about the late, great Edna Lewis as one of the eight cooks that saved her life.
Then it came time to figure out what kind of cake I wanted to make for the Alaska Bird Observatory Annual Meeting and Cake Auction tonight. As soon as I stumbled across a Hummingbird Cake by Edna Lewis I knew it was the cake I was going to make. The Hummingbird and this cake are more often found in Southern Climates, but every once in a while they make a rare appearance here in Fairbanks (a hummingbird was spotted here once about six years ago). This cake is filled with Bananas, Pineapple, and Pecans and topped with a Cream Cheese and Pecan Frosting. Some speculate the name originated from it’s sweetness, but the actual origin of the name is unknown.
The cake I made for the auction is a bundt cake, I'm hoping to fill in the hole in the middle with a small vase of hummingbird type flowers. While I was at it I decided to use a little of the batter to make a few cupcakes for a  snack at home, after all I wanted to make sure it tasted good, right? Well, they do taste very good although I think I might add a little toasted coconut to the frosting next time.
Oh, and if you are in Fairbanks and not too busy on this Monday night. Stop by The Alaska Bird Observatory for the Annual Meeting. There is a big sale going on in the gift shop, and there will be food, door prizes, and a bird themed cake auction. Hope to see you there. More info is available on their web page.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Oatmeal Souffle

Is it just me or is oatmeal becoming trendy? It seems like everyone is talking about oatmeal. Even Mark Bittman made his case for Oatmeal a few weeks ago. His article made me feel a little guilty about the Creme Brulee Oatmeal I posted here last year. I have to agree that it is terrible to take something as healthy as oatmeal and completely screw it up to the point that it is basically junk food.  I will make my case, I love Oatmeal so much that sometimes I want to eat it on the weekend. I eat my fair share of straight up oatmeal during the week.
I try to reserve weekends for special, more involved breakfast treats. I also don't eat quesadilla's or sesame noodles on the weekend. It just doesn't feel right. When I came across this recipe in The Breakfast Book, I knew I this would be the way to eat oatmeal on the weekend. No, it's not the healthiest way to eat oatmeal. I'm pretty sure this is just a giant Oatmeal Raisin Cookie in a bowl. It sure is tasty however, and isn't that what weekends are for?



Monday, March 21, 2011

Meyer Lemon Pudding

This is my favorite time of year in Fairbanks. Most people don't associate the first day of spring with a long walk on a hard, snow packed mushing trail. That is how I spent my first day of spring. Since moving to Fairbanks I have created a few simple traditions that celebrate the seasons. Each year on the first day of spring I have walked down the road to a little area that gets the full effect of the sun and I search the trees to find the one or two pussy willows that tell me spring is indeed on its way. Each year the first day of spring has been the first time I have seen them for the season. I don't know if I never looked sooner, but this year they were a whole week early. I'm hoping this means that spring is indeed on its way and that David won't be snow blowing the driveway in April this year. That might be too much to ask for though.
This is our fourth spring in Fairbanks. Each one has been marked with some spectacular walks. The sun goes from non-existent to blistering hot in what feels like a couple of days. All of a sudden it's 8:00 p.m. and I haven't started dinner yet because it is still light out. I start realizing how important it is to get outside each night and look at the moon and stars and maybe if I'm lucky catch a glimpse of the northern lights. Very soon they will be gone for months. Very soon our beautiful hard packed trails will be spongy, swampy, mosquito infested tundra. March is the month to do it all.
This is also the time of year when the Meyer Lemon season starts wrapping up. I always try and order an extra box of lemons to juice, zest, and then freeze. It is so hard to freeze them as each box that comes in makes me want something fresh and lemony right away. Scones and Lemon Bars are always the first items on my list to make. Recently, I have been on a pudding kick. Am I the only person who likes to eat pudding warm from the pan? I also have a little problem with eating lemon curd with a spoon. If you are one of those people, then this is the perfect thing. This lemon pudding has all the flavor of lemon curd, but it's pudding, so no guilt eating it straight out of the jar.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Irish Coffee

I have not always been a fan of Irish Coffee. The problem was the method most bars employ to make Irish Coffee. Let's face it, there aren't too many bars (at least where I have lived) that always have fresh coffee on hand. The key to a really good Irish Coffee, believe it or not is really good coffee. So many places screw that part up. The second part is the sugar, in order to get that caramelized taste that is associated with Irish Coffee, they take traditional white sugar and heat it on a spoon with a lighter. This whole method reminds me of some sort of seedy back alley drug deal (not that I have any experience with such things) and it usually does not produce anything but bitter, burnt sugar. That combined with the bitter coffee that has been sitting in the pot for 8 hours doesn't produce the best result. The best way I can describe those Irish Coffee experiences was something similar to drinking hot lighter fluid (I don't have any experience with this either).
A few years ago a friend encouraged me to try the Irish Coffee she was drinking at what just happened to be a restaurant called the Irish Times with an owner who just happened to be Irish. I was instantly hooked and had to know what made this one so much better than all those nasty concoctions I had tasted in the past. It took a lot of research and careful attention to detail and at least 20 or so more Irish Coffee's to get it right, but I finally figured out the secret. Ok, it's really easy and now it has become a St. Patrick's Day tradition to make my own Irish Coffee each year. What is your St. Patrick's Day beverage of choice?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Nisu (Cardamom Bread)

I grew up in an area of Northern Michigan with a strong Finnish culture. So strong that the city of Hancock, Michigan has their street signs in both English and Finnish. They even have a Finnish University (Finlandia), which was called Suomi College when I was growing up.
When most people were busy getting ready for St. Patrick's Day, we actually had two days of celebration due to the Finnish holiday the day before (March 16). What holiday you ask? St. Urho's day of course. It is a long story, that you can read here or here, but basically the Finn's created a holiday to upstage the Irish St. Patrick. Hence, St. Urho the Patron Saint of Finnish Vineyard workers was born. This is why the day is celebrated by wearing first green to drive out the grasshoppers (or the frogs depending on the version you read) and then purple to celebrate the grape "juice".
Of course there is a huge difference between the traditions of Michigan's Upper Peninsula and those of Finland. It is evident in this cardamom bread that is a tradition in the Finnish bakeries where I grew up. Sunday mornings still find the Suomi cafe packed with old men drinking coffee, eating Nisu toast, and for lack of a better term "shooting the shit".
Nisu is a traditional yeasted coffee bread of the Scandinavian countries, each country calling it something different. Originally, the Finnish called the bread Nisu and the name carried over with the Finnish Immigrants to the United States. Sometime after that the Finn's decided to make their language more Finnish and eliminated words they felt were too Swedish including Nisu, and changed the name of this bread to Pulla. This change obviously did not take place in the Upper Peninsula and all the local bakeries still refer to this bread as Nisu. No matter what you call it, it is a soft and lightly scented cardamom bread that is perfect for a lazy Sunday morning with coffee, no matter where you live or what your heritage.
Baking Note: My version calls for the least amount of sugar, a little less flour and more cardamom than the original recipe. Form me this turns out a ever so slightly sweet, super soft loaf, with a cardamom scent that it present, but not overpowering. Feel free to stick your nose right in (your slice) it after cutting and inhale deeply. Oh, and also adjust the spices, flour, and sugar to your liking.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

Homemade Irish Cream Liquor

St. Patrick's Day is just around the corner. I have looked at this recipe several times and always wondered, "Could this possibly taste like the real thing"? Many years ago I worked in a restaurant where one of the waitresses always drank Bailey's in her coffee. The rules at the place were pretty relaxed, so I am sure she could have been drinking straight up whiskey and nobody would have cared. Being a fan of Bailey's myself I wondered if it was even possible to get a buzz from Bailey's? Soon after that I joined in on the habit and can honestly say it never had an impact on my work performance, I'm not sure I can say the same for my waistline.
Homemade Bailey's is another story. I whipped up a batch of it to see if it might be good for a St. Patrick's Day treat. I poured myself what I would consider my average size serving, maybe three or four standard shots over ice. I was amazed by the flavor and how much it really did taste like the real thing, although I did notice a distinct whiskey flavor that you don't get with the commercial stuff. It was really good though, went down smooth and probably a bit too fast. Within 30 minutes I wasn't feeling so hot and decided to put aside the rest of my baking for the evening and just call it an early night. The next morning I woke up with my first hangover in years. The verdict: very good, but very potent. Be careful with this stuff, it will knock you off your feet if you are used to regular old wimpy Bailey's and coffee.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

French Crullers



Happy Fat Tuesday! I was raised in a family of donut lovers. My Grandpa would take me with him to the dump every Saturday morning when I was growing up. Some of the highlights of the trip were him singing "To the dump, To the dump, To the dump, dump, dump" in the tune of the Lone Ranger. The second was the one "tickle belly bump" in the road. Finally, the best part of the day was stopping at the local bakery for donuts. Growing up I was a jelly filled girl all the way. My Grandpa was a fan of the basic raised glazed. My Mom on the other hand (she inherited the donut gene) loved the French Crullers. I always remember thinking how boring their selections were. Now, in my adult years I realize how wrong I was. These light and airy donuts made with Pate au chox are so amazing in their simple flavor and texture.
The first time I made these doughnuts I had some trouble with the edges splitting. They would look great, but then the whole side would just bust open causing the filling to ooze out. I tried taking them out of the oil before they split, but then they were doughy in the middle. I also tried making the oil hotter and cooler, but didn't have much luck. I found if I flipped them several times during the cooking it lessened the splitting, but didn't totally prevent it.
I wrote to Lara Ferroni asking for assistance. I honestly didn't expect a reply, but I figured it was worth a try. Lara wrote back almost immediately and was so kind to offer her advice. I thought I would share this with you in case you had the same problem.
Here was her reply:
Crullers are a bit trickier to fry than the other types (of donuts). It's easy to undercook because they will look done, and then they go and collapse on you a few seconds out of the oil.
The splitting you describe is caused by the interior cooking and expanding, letting out the air. It's what creates the nice airy holes. If the "crust" is already firm, it will instead of just puff as you note and that can let in too much oil. Slightly lowering the oil temp and as you mention below, flipping after about 30 seconds the first time should help. Another thing you might do is to let them sit just a few minutes after piping... I usually "accidentally" do this because the oil isn't quite hot enough. Mostly, I don't worry too much if they split on one side, but just flip it over and cook it more on that side after the other side has crisped up.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Roasted Garlic and Potato Soup

My absolute favorite thing to eat when I am home alone is roasted garlic mashed potatoes. When David is away my dinners almost always consist of one item that most people would consider a side.  No meat, no bread, that's it. For someone who loves to cook, I have to admit I don't have much appetite when it comes to eating alone.
What happens when I crave my favorite alone meal and I'm not alone? Most of the time it involves adding a salad and maybe pork chops. A couple of weeks ago I found this recipe for  Potato Soup and I thought why not roast the garlic instead? It isn't quite as easy as simple mashed potatoes, but not quite as involved as a full meal. With our temperatures still dipping into the 20 below range a good potato soup really hits the spot.
A lot of people make roasting garlic more complicated than it needs to be. All I do is wrap a whole head of garlic in foil and toss it in a 350 degree oven until your whole house smells like garlic, about an hour.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Snow Cloud Cookies

Fairbanks is not a place that gets a lot of snow. This surprises some people, snow and cold automatically go together in most of our brains. I know it did in mine until I moved here. The one thing that surprises me is how just a little bit of snow (3 inches) can stick around for months. I grew up in Northern Michigan where the snow comes and melts, and repeats the cycle 10 times over the course of the winter.
This winter has been one of our coldest yet. We have had little reprieve from 30 below and colder temperatures all winter. Which means we have had very little snow, that is until last week. The temperature slowly crept above zero. We started getting spring fever. Then it happened...winter arrived. The warm temperatures brought the snow. More snow than I have ever seen in Fairbanks. Enough snow that would equal a pretty good storm where I grew up. Not only was there snow, but wind too. We are prepared for cold, we insulate our houses and the pipes that bring our water. But snow? Fairbanks didn't know what to do with the stuff. Being used to driving in these conditions I actually went to work Monday morning to find there hadn't been a plow on the road in the last 24 hours, nor had anyone else. It was actually kind of fun. That storm brought 18 inches or more of snow to some parts of Fairbanks, then on Friday we added 8 more.
Our poor pups didn't know what to think. They aren't fans of cold snow on their bellies. They stared out the window in amazement.
Me? I took the opportunity to make some snow cloud cookies. This weekend seemed like the perfect time.
Photo by David Gibbs

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