Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Its a cake walk

I promise, this blog is mostly about sustainable, self sufficient living.  I swear.  But until i get some dirt in those beds, my farm life is limited to daily chicken feeding, which doesn't make for interesting reading. Although the ladies ARE huge now.  you'll freak when you see them.

Anywho, in the meantime i was given the go-ahead from no less than two of my facebook friends to write a cake entry.

I wanted to shy away from too much non-daily living baking because there are plenty of cake blogs out there. I've always thought that for the most part, baking is just a mater of following directions.  But over the years, i've realized there might be more to it than that.  Don't get me wrong, i'm sure most anyone could make a cake and make it taste just fine.  In fact, probably would be very tasty!  The things i've learned are more subtle than that i guess.  So here is a recipe for basic chocolate cake.

First of all, I didnt write this recipe.  Ina Garten did.  She's one of those chefs where you can know nothing else about the dish except that she wrote the recipe and you can be sure its probably good. if its messed up, its probably your fault.

Butter, for greasing the pans
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pans
2 cups sugar
3/4 cups good cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup buttermilk, shaken
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup freshly brewed hot coffee
Chocolate Buttercream, recipe follows

So, preheat your oven to 350.  You NEED 2 8x2" rounds for this.  Im serious.  I tried it with 2 9x1's and it nearly over flowed. it was weirdly flat too.  I dont recommend it.  I'd say you could PROBABLY do it with 3 9x1's but then youd need more frosting.  This is another example of the recipe doesnt match the pan you can buy.  I swear this has to do with some sort of evil box cake conspiracy.  So do what i did, order them online.  Moving on, first step is buttering pans

Cake always sticks to pans. Always.  i dont care how well you buttered it.  you really have to trace the bottom of your pan on parchment paper, cut out the round, then butter the pan, put down the paper in the bottom and re-butter the top of the parchment.  Then flour the whole pan.  that round of parchment on the bottom will let your cake release from the pan.  its easy to pull a cake off of parchment, its not easy to take cake out of a plain pan.

Next sift your dry ingredients together.  I use a wire sieve to do this.  Also, always remember to fluff your flour before you measure or your food will taste like flour. That's important.

In a separate container mix all of your wet ingredients except for the coffee.  Turn your mixer on low and gradually add your wet to your dry.  Mix until barely combined.  maybe even not all the way combined.  Then add the coffee slowly until just barely mixed.

Why do i keep saying barely?

Because cake is the polar opposite of bread.  Cake flour is low gluten, bread flour is high gluten.  So, gluten is not just some evil thing (on par to high fructose corn syrup if you ask some people) that suddenly every 8th person you meet can't eat.  Its a protein that results from wheat and other types of grains.  In baked goods, its a binding thing.  it holds your stuff together.  So in bread you want more gluten.  You form the gluten by kneading.  the more you knead the more gluten binds together and the more stable your bread is.  cake however, you want as little gluten bond as possible.  So you BARELY mix it.  as soon as you dont see flour anymore, youre done.  Or in this case (cause you lost most of the flour before you added the coffee) as soon as the mixture has a good consistency. you are done.

Pour this batter into the prepared pans and put them into the oven.  It will bake for 30-40 minutes and when its done you can stab a tooth pick through the center and it will come out with moist crumbs, not goo. (whoever said it should come out clean probably makes some really dry cake).

When it comes out, if you didnt over mix it, it will look like this:

Ok this is where i geek out for a few minutes.  Just like with bread i LOVE to look at the bonds in baked things.  See those bubbles in there? see how loosely it holds together? I dont mean to be a jerk who is like "look how awesome my cake is" but the science of the whole thing just blows my mind.  That cake is moist and fluffy.  The fluffy comes from the understanding of gluten.  respect for gluten will really make or break your baking.  AHHH look at it!! is so crazy! when you look really close it almost looks like fabric, how it knits together.  In bread its really tight and almost looks like its melted together. In cake though its this fragile light fluffy bond.  Come over, i'll bake you a cake just to break apart and stare at.  I just love that.

Moving on!!!  Make sure your cake is COMPLETELY cool before you try to frost it.  Your frosting will slide clean off if you dont.  In this case, cool in the pans for about 30 min then turn it out onto a cooling rack.  I like to turn it out then flip it so the parchment is on the bottom and the weird rounded side is up. makes leveling it out later easier.

6 ounces semisweet chocolate
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 extra-large egg yolk, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups sifted confectioners' sugar
1 tablespoon instant coffee powder

Two things i've learned about frosting: Powdered sugar is SWEET. seriously. really really sweet.  Fluff it!  you don't want to compact it an essentially have 1.5 x the amount of sugar you wanted. Second, unsalted butter is pretty essential.  Many frostings call for salt so if you have salted butter you'll have salty frosting.  Now sometimes this is tasty (to me, frostings with nut tastes or caramel are good salty) but most of the time you want to control the salt content in your baked goods.

So first you need to put a pot of water on to simmer and put your chocolate in a bowl over it.  This is how you melt chocolate without burning it and having it get all chalky.  after its melted set it aside to cool.

Next, put your butter in your mixer bowl and beat on med speed until its fluffy (2ish minutes).  then put in your egg yolk and vanilla and beat for about another 3 minutes.  Put your mixer on low and add in your powdered sugar 1/4 c at a time.

Dissolve your instant coffee powder in 2 tbs of hot water.  Let that hang out for a few minutes while you mix your chocolate into your butter.  Then go get your instant coffee and mix that in too.

There! Frosting! Done! Now time to frost your cake.  Use a serrated knife to even out the top of your cake so its flat.  This is easier to do if your cake is frozen, so if you have some spare time, freeze your cake first.  but that will also make your cake less tasty.  So weigh your options.  Personally i'll just be really careful when i cut it rather than risk weird freezer taste.  Put your first layer on the bottom of a cake stand (or carrier case base) and put about 1/3 of your frosting on top.  Spread it out to even it.

Quick commercial break: you might think you dont need an offset spatula and that you are fine with a rubber spatula or a regular flat knife but you are wrong.  you really really are.  its SO much easier to spread with an offset spatula.  I got mine from my husband for mother's day (along with my kitchenaid *swoon*) and he got it from my sister in law.  If you dont have one and you really wanna start making more cake, follow the link up there and get one.  its important.

ok so after you have that layer down you put the next layer on top of it.  Make sure you trimmed that one too.

 Now, i'm a HORRIBLE cake decorator.  Seriously, very bad.  But i know one thing about frosting cakes, and that is that you need a crumb layer.  This is a thin first layer of frosting to catch all your crumbs form the sides in. then you let it sit for a second to firm up and you frost the pretty outside layer on top of that.  That way the part that is visible to the public is not full of crumbs.

Ok so once you have the whole thing frosted you are done.  But it will be a very boring looking cake.  For this reason i usually put some weird ring of something around the outside top edge.  Just because i think it hides how bad i am at cake presentation.
I dont know which is worse, the presentation or my photography...

That's just shaved white chocolate on the edge there.  Incidentally, if you ever wondered if your white chocolate is "good" (which literally gets specified in recipes now) you will know by its color. if its white, its good. if its yellow its mostly wax.  look:

Those white discs are "good" white chocolate (so is that little block in the corner there. thats what i shaved my shavings off of.) those white chocolate chips=bad.  Those wont work well when you try to bake with them.  Fun fact.

And just to head off the questions in advance: Yep, i did this tonight.  yes i did feed my kids dinner (see below).  How do i find time?  Well what did you do between 7:30 and 10:30 tonight?  Just take whatever you said and replace it with "baked a cake" and that's how i find time.  Its not like you have to baby sit the thing while its in the oven.  there are big long stretches of time where you can just go do something else.  it bakes for like 40 minutes, thats when the kids took baths, read bedtime stories and went to sleep.

Maggie eats salad

Happy baking.  I swear more farming in the future.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Bountiful backlog

Lots of you have probably heard of Bountiful Baskets by now.  For the uninitiated, Bountiful Baskets is a food co-op where you pay $16.50 to get about $40-50 worth of produce.  Everyone gets the same stuff and you dont get to pick what is in the basket but its all seasonal and usually in really good shape. You order about 5 days in advance and pick up your basket Saturday morning.  In our case, we pick it up at Udall Park at 6:30 in the morning.  We just recently switched to that location after some drama (scroll to the bottom, in italics) went down at our usual pick up of Lincoln Park.

So if you are a person who already gets a basket every week, you know how it can be.  As my friend Leia put it: "What am i going to do with 10 lbs of mangos?!" followed by "oh no, more mangos" the next week.  

For the last few weeks there has been no shortage of stone fruits and berries in the baskets.  and after a while, you can only eat so many raw peaches.  So whats a girl to do?  Well, in part one of an [as yet undetermined number] part series, I will given you something to do with your basket backlog! this week: fruit.

So, as you can see i have 7 peaches, 7 plums *one is behind the blackberries, a thing of black berries, a thing of strawberries and two mangos (we ate two of them raw).

i felt the most expeditious way to eat them all was, you guessed it, a fruit tart.  So here we go:

-3/4 c butter
-2/3 c sugar
-2 c flour
-1 tsp almond extract (pretty much optional...)

Mix all that together into a course meal.  This is best done in a food processor or standing mixer.  In case you arent much of a baker and "course meal" doesnt sound like anything to you, it should look like this:

So then in theory, if you grabbed a bunch it you could shape it (at least vaguely) but then if threw it back into a bowl it would break apart again.   That's what you want.  If you find yourself with big huge chunks of butter, you need to mix more. 

Ok so you dump all of that into your tart pan.  If you dont know what a tart pan is, its a short 1 inch tall pan with fluted edges where the bottom can be popped away from the sides.  unlike a spring form pan, it doesnt lock in.  This is important to know when you are working with a non-cooked tart shell and you try to hold it like a waiter holds a tray.  thats a good way to have a tart ring around your elbow and a broken pile of uncooked shell on your floor.  If you've never done this, that last sentence will mean nothing to you.  If you have, you probably chuckled to yourself.  ten points to you and me for getting the joke.

This makes an 11" tart which is pretty big.  Tart pans are like loaf pans where the recipes dont usually match the standard sizes available at Target.  Most tart recipes are for a 9" tart and most available pans are 11".  Likewise, most bread recipes assume a loaf of 8"x4" but the most common size in a regular store is 9"x5".  Its ridiculous.  

So this is what it looks like when you first dump it.  You will think to yourself: "where will i put fruit? or custard?"  

I'm sure youre smart enough to work out that you need to press this stuff down to make a shell.  Most recipes will tell you to do this with a measuring cup.  That's all well and good, unless your sister in law sells Pampered Chef and so all of you measuring cups look like this:  Super great for measuring out of a canister of flour, not so great for pushing down sides of a tart. (If you dont get why, its cause of the angled side there.)  Hopefully, like me, you have an old crappy measuring cup relic laying around that looks more like this:

This one will work perfectly for the sides.  However, i find that it takes a bit of force to get the bottom of your shell to flatten evenly.  So i use the measuring cup only for the sides.  For the bottom, i use a meat tenderizer.  The way God intended it to be used: on Pastries.

See? look with their powers combined, they are the perfect tart shell making pair!  

Its hard to tell here, but use your thumb to hold down the part of the edge that you are pressing with your measuring cup.  when you press it into the side this whole "physics" thing happens where it pushes up also.  push back against it and you'll get a nice compacted crust rather than a mess on your counter. Or both, as you can see here.

Now prick the bottom with a fork.  Bake the thing at 375 for about 15 min.  Keep an eye on it.  This is one of those times where golden brown means "over done" not "delicious".

When its done, i like to melt chocolate chips and spread a thin layer of chocolate along the inside bottom and sides of the tart.  This is not because chocolate is delicious (it is, but thats not why) This seals the tart, so the custard wont make your shell go all soggy if you keep it overnight.  If you wanna eat it right away do whatever.  Heck do whatever anyway, its your party.  Either way set it aside to cool.

-2 C half and half (or one cup milk, one cup heavy cream.  Unless you are my friend Nikki, who is freaked out by that idea)
-1 vanilla bean (or 1 tsp vanilla extract if you dont have a bean handy)
-3/4 c sugar
-1/4 c flour
- pinch salt
-6 egg yolks
-1 tbs butter

Pour the half and half into a sauce pan and heat over med high heat.  Split the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into the milk, then throw the pod in after it.   you'll take the pod out later, dont panic. 

You might be surprised by how many people dont know what i mean when i say "vanilla bean" so there is a photo for ya,just to be safe. I use a butter knife to scrape out the seeds because too often i accidentally shave my pod and end up with weird woody bits floating in my custard.  They dont bother anyone but me, but really i'm the one who matters here, its my tart.

While the milk comes to a simmer, mix the yolks with the sugar flour and salt

Once the milk is simmering (bubbles along the outside of the pan) remove it from the heat, take out the pod and poor it into the yolk mixture in a very very thin stream, while continuing to whisk furiously.  You are looking to gradually raise the temperature of the eggs, or else you will get scrambled egg custard.  Which is gross.  so steady as she goes there mates.

Fun science fact: the flour is what thickens it in this recipe.  Some custards call for corn starch which can be substituted for your gluten free friends.  but then they'd not be able to eat the tart shell so.... you'd need to come up with something else there...

If you've never seen my kitchen, its tiny and cluttered. Sorry. And my computer cooks with me.
Ok after you have about half of the hot milk into the yolks you can switch and dump the eggs into the milk in the pot.  Then put the whole thing back on the stove over medium heat and whisk until it thickens.  It will be obvious when it has thickened.

If you are like me, you will think this thickening takes FOREVER. you will find yourself thinking "well this is thicker but not OBVIOUSLY thicker like shes saying... soooo do i keep going?" yes you do.  You keep whisking (which means you keep standing next to that hot burner) until you fear that the Rapture will happen before this thing thickens up.  You keep whisking even when you swear you hear the four horsemen.  And just before you nearly stop stirring to let Kirk Cameron in to give you some "how to survive the next seven years" religious tracts, it will thicken.  Very suddenly.  Remove it from heat, throw in a tablespoon of butter whisk it til it melts.

Put the custard into a bowl and cover it with plastic wrap touching the custard.  This prevents the weird skin from forming.  If you happened to have brought your plastic wrap to work and never remembered to bring it home (Who does that?), i've learned wax paper works just fine also.  Put the custard in the fridge until its cool-cold.

Once the custard is cool its really easy.  Dump your custard into your chocolate lined tart (or non-chocolate lined. whatever, im not here to judge).  Then you just slice up your weird fruits and throw them on top.  There is really no way to screw that up.  You could put pretty much any fruit on here and it would be fine*.

As you can see, i added some blueberries that i had laying around** and i sprinkled sweet basil from my garden since i didnt have any kiwi in there to break up the colors a bit.  You might think that is weird but seriously it was delicious.  It will be a permanent fixture in all future tarts.  

*Bananas would not be fine.
**"laying around" is a relative term.  I made Luis go grab them at Trader Joe's.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Wanted: Dirt.

So any of you who have talked to me about my garden beds might know that they arent going to be planted until August.  Originally, i thought i'd plant indoors in July and move them out to the beds in August, but i'm told thats unnecessary and might shock the plants.  So straight into the bed it is!!

What's the next step then? Dirt.  I need about 205 cubic feet of dirt to fill my beds! preferably dirt mixed with compost/manure/whatever.  I also need a pick-up to haul it with.  So today I will post my need on Craigslist, and hopefully have some dirt by the weekend.  Which is good because my mom will be here this weekend to help me haul it!

Also this weekend is the Peach Festival.  It should be a good time all around!

So have you ever thought about how much dirt that is? or how one would go about getting it? or how horrible the dirt is here in arizona?  I am pretty concerned i'm going to have to buy 100 of those little bags at home depot which will cost upwards of $400 in order to be able to fill the whole thing with the type of dirt that might actually grow something.

"What about your compost?" you might ask me. Good question.

The compost is a bit of a touchy subject around here right now.  I suppose i put too much chicken manure in it, because it started to smell like battery acid.  It stung your nose to smell it. That smell (the internet tells me) is indicitive of too much nitrogen and not enough carbon.  So in lay terms: too much poop, not enough food scraps.  This is amazing because my mother in law, who is a caterer, was giving us 3 five gallon buckets of food scraps a day for about a week there! and then on top of all of that, the compost is soaking wet.  Remember i told you before it should be like a rung out spounge? well it doesnt have that happening right now.  So basically if we put in more kitchen scraps to offset the poop it will wet down the compost even more, so we need a LOT of dry material to make up for it.  Right now we are throwing in all of our newspapers to try to even it out.  Needless to say, its not ready to be used for planting purposes yet!

 So this is last weekend's news paper shredding adventure.
In a state perpetually on fire, citizen's sue over not being allow to
 use fireworks.  Sigh.

See? people say there is no use for news paper any more!  Surely i cant dry out my compost with the internet! thanks Arizona Daily Star!

And even after all of that, this week it is still soppy.  So we put the same amount of newspaper in again yesterday.  We'll see how it goes.

So i am in the market for some dirt.  You know anyone?

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Investment Observations: Farming is up!

So i apologize for the lull in blogging lately, Farm Family had a bit of a family emergency that lead to a blog hiatus, but that being over and done with we can move on to the observations we had during said hiatus.

The other day, Luis and i were at Borders just sorta browsing.  You know how when you walk up that main center aisle in Borders, they have clearly abandoned anything even remotely resembling a library system and instead are just bombarding you with whats new and cool?  Like when you first walked through the door three summers ago it was Twilight non-stop?  Well this year, walk up that aisle and take a look around.  What do you see?

If you are in the Borders in the Park Place Mall, you'll see books on cooking, gardening, canning, couponing, DIY, BYOB (brew your own beer!) and all manner of other "Farm Life" (as i have defined them) activities.

Luis and i have been speculating about this for weeks now.  We don't know too many people who seek to grow a lot of their own food and I only know one other person with chickens, but it seems to be a wave that is catching on and moving into the realm of popularity.

 First of all, its pretty obvious that the movement itself was born out of the economic disaster of 2008.  But for our complete lack of restraint and common sense (as a collective) during the years that proceeded the collapse, we might not have ever gotten to this point.  Some could argue its really not a good thing.  I say anything that caused us to reevaluate our priorities and get back onto a track of knowing how to do things our mothers probably didnt teach us but great-grandmothers new how to do 60 years ago cant be all that bad.

That was not a dig at my mother by the way.  Cause goodness knows she reads this and is currently saying (probably out loud mind you) "It was the 80's! No one knew how to cook! and for the record my mom couldnt cook either!!"  That is actually my point completely.  My mom's generation and to some extent the generation before hers lost the value in these activities.  I blame that on a general rise in economic prosperity and the invention of new and cool things that made it unnecessary to know those things.  Microwave dinners came around and so no one need learn to cook.  Super markets opened up so a little backyard garden didnt really seem worth all the effort.  the stores canned the tomatoes FOR you so why sweat in a hot kitchen at the end of august if you didn't have to?  Its all reasonable thinking for the time period it was happening in.  I doubt when it was going down that anyone thought that the tomatoes would become mass produced and not so fresh.  I certainly dont think it occurred to them that their daughters' daughters would only be able to cook what was on the back of a Campbell's soup can.

But now that the economy, or lack their of, has forced us as a whole to slow down and reevaluate our way of living, we are going back to the things our great grandmothers did.  And what's funny about it is that its all new and eco-friendly now, but when it happened 60 years ago, it was just how you did things.  The plastic grocery bag didnt appear widely in stores until the 80s and before that there were paper bags which i can't find a date on but my old friends till me that a disposable bag wasnt really a thing until the late 60's.  Before that it was canvas bags. So we are returning to some of our preVietnam ways of life. its not so bad.

But once a thing has started, i doubt it can ever be fully undone.  Which is why Luis and i, standing in Borders, began to think of the current economic repercussions related to this new/old way of doing things.  What sort of companies are on the cutting edge of these ideas that would make for good investments?  Ball canning supplies who is now marketing itself as a "sustainable" option rather than "look your great aunt used to do this!"?  Might be a good idea, but we worry that without gardens, people arent going to can. Canning grocery store stuff just isnt as fun. What about the makers of Composters? Schwinn? Seed companies? Alternative Energy?

Warren Buffet always says to invest in something you understand.  I understand chickens.  I understand clotheslines... i understand cooking and i understand that a good bike ride at night with my kids makes me feel better.  But i dont know how to parlay that knowledge into sound investment strategy.  Certainly i havent gone so far off the grid as to think i should invest in gold only which i will bury beneath my hen house never to be found by robbers.  I doubt i'll make my millions selling eggs on craigslist. An investment in a small energy company could one day turn out to be the smartest thing i ever did, but frankly i dont understand alternative fuel sources all that much so i'm not sure Warren would be proud.

What I think is that i get the opportunity to live in one of the coolest times in history.  Yes our politics are laughable and we are fighting three wars that no one fully understands and our president smokes for goodness sake, but we get the best of both worlds in our private lives.  Because when you are worried about your own chickens, your own family and your own life those large global things arent your focus.  My generation has the free access to investment options provided by the generations before us, but has also had the chance to observe the mistakes of our fathers that led to the collapse of the world as we knew it.  On top of that we have a chance to relearn the wisdom of our grandmothers and reclaim what was great about before while still being able to invest in tomorrow.  Its really all pretty sweet.

So while this whole Urban Farm lifestyle might seem like a fad at the moment, at least our family is hopeful it becomes a movement that changes the way our children look at life and food and responsibility while still keeping our cool gadgets and internet radio.