Monday, September 28, 2009

Gluten-Free Baking with Flour Arrangements

For this month's round of Adopt A Gluten Free Blogger I went for some baking instruction from Sophie of Flour Arrangements. She's a real adventuress in the kitchen and knows how to bake, which is something that particularly flummoxes me. I end up getting distracted in the assemblage of the myriad flours and leavening agents need for baking up GF things and usually end up missing a step or putting in a tablespoon of something when a teaspoon is called for. Clearly, I need more guidance in the kitchen to hone my less than "mad" GF baking skills.

So Sophie was my Baking Guide last weekend when I attempted two of her wonderful recipes. Both came out as luscious as advertised on her beautifully-designed and photographed blog and my GF husband was delighted to have two new treats to devour.

First on my agenda was Sophie's Cracker Recipe. I had some success in making some crispy Sesame-Rosemary Crackers and Chickpea Hearts in the past, but these looked thicker and had a nice combination of flavors, so dug out my rolling pin, bought a fresh roll of parchment paper and popped out a batch of Sophie's Crackers.

They reminded me of Wheat Thins in texture and had a nice hearty flavor. I made up a batch of Vegetable Cream Cheese to spread on them (I whizzed up 1 pkg. softened cream cheese with a few radishes, celery stalks, carrots, chives, dill, and part of a red bell pepper) and Dan tucked into the cracker stash with gusto. They are also not so fragile as to buckle under the heft of a slice of cheese.

Bursting with self-esteem over the success of this first Flour Arrangement project, I decided to tackle a yeast bread. I was enamored of her photo of her Gluten-Free Honey and Flax Yeast Rolls and liked incorporating the fiber-rich powers of the flax seed, so I devoted an afternoon to the coddling of these yeasty babies. Man, they were good! Once again, with Sophie's detailed instructions, I produced a winning recipe. The rolls were great warm out of the oven and nuked up the next day in the microwave (I froze the immediately uneaten rolls in a bag in the freezer so they wouldn't dry out). Next time, it will be a double batch!

The rolls are soft, yet chewy, with a nice crunch from the flax seeds and a honey-tinged, nutty flavor. It's a time consuming recipe, as most yeasty breads are, and one does need a full gluten-free pantry supply as you need 1/4 of this and a 1/4 cup of that, but the end result is really lovely. A lot of gluten-free baked goods are somewhat on the white and fluffy side, and this was a hearty and substantial roll that my husband particularly enjoyed. He misses the "chew" of glutenous breads and these rolls gave his choppers the right amount of workout.

Sophie's blog is a visual delight to peruse. It has a clean layout, appealing graphics, and widgets that pop up and allow you to easily print out recipes. Her writing style is funny and engaging, and it is easy to lose track of time while browsing her posts, like standing in front of a great big GF bakery showcase.

Sea at the Book of Yum is the founder and current host of this edition of the Adopt a Gluten-Free Blogger Event. Check back during the first week of October to see the roundup of all the other GF blogger adoptions and to see how we took our test drives with their recipes.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Juggling Apples, Maple Syrup and Canine Pepper

A Royal Foodie Joust is on over at the Foodie Blogroll and in this monthly event, participants must come up with a dish that uses three ingredients selected by the previous month's winning Jouster. Natasha the Four-Star Foodie won the last Joust and selected apples, maple syrup and cayenne pepper as the featured ingredient trio. That set my blogger heart aglow as I love all three equally.

Years ago I had a friend who took some cooking classes from an instructor who would refer to cayenne pepper as canine pepper, and the substitute name has stuck in my mind ever since. A special pepper just for dogs! Or maybe that's what postal carriers should carry on their belts. I have since seen cayenne pepper spelled as cheyenne pepper on some cooking websites and that cracks me up too.

In a family with various dietary needs and tastes, it is not always easy for the Crispy Cook to come up with something we all really enjoy, but everyone cleans the plate when I cook up my teriyaki roast salmon. I thought it would be a delicious twist to substitute maple syrup as the sweetener in that recipe, but it took some pondering and some experimentation to incorporate apples and canine pepper into the dish.

There are a lot of apple salsa recipes out in the blogoverse, but they are not all created equally. I think the apple and green pepper combo just tastes swampy, and it was after dicing half a bag of Macintosh apples and swapping in a variety of different edibles, I came up with a crunchy, cool and spicy salsa that is a nice counterpoint with the richness of the roasted fish. The kids scraped their salsa off their portions, but the adult diners thought it rather a nice contrast of tastes.

Salmon was a bit dear at the supermarket, so I used its fishy cousin, Steelhead Trout, for my recipe and it was terrific. The meat is the same pink color and firm texture as the salmon and roasted up nicely.

Teriyaki Trout with Snappy Apple Salsa

1 (2 lb.) fillet steelhead trout, washed and patted dry
1 Tbsp. olive oil

2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 Tbsp. soy sauce (make sure it's gluten-free)
1 Tbsp. gingerroot, peeled and finely chopped
2 Tbsp. dark maple syrup

2 apples, unpeeled, cored and diced
1 small bulb fennel, trimmed and diced (makes 1/2 cup)
2 Tbsp. lime juice
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Pinch of salt

Pour olive oil in large baking dish. Place trout fillet on top, skin side down.

Make marinade of garlic, soy sauce, ginger and maple syrup. Pour over fish in baking dish and cover and refrigerate at least one hour before serving.

When ready to roast your fish, preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Place baking dish on top rack in oven and roast 35 minutes or until trout flakes easily.

Meanwhile, mix up your apple salsa. Toss apple and fennel with lime juice to coat and prevent them from browning. Add cayenne and salt to taste, but start with just a pinch of each, as it is easy to overwhelm the delicate apple and fennel flavors.

When fish is done, top with a dollop of salsa. We enjoyed our salmon over a bed of clear sweet potato noodles dressed with homemade pesto and it was a lovely dinner all around. The sweet potato noodles were a new gluten-free find at Albany's Asian Market and they have a springy texture and cool blue-green tint.

To see what other cooks are whipping up in their kitchens with apples, maple syrup and cayenne pepper, be sure to visit the Royal Foodie Joust before October 1st. Happy Jousting!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Washington County Cheese Tour

To bookend my enjoyable sojourn last weekend to the Bennington Garlic and Herb Festival this weekend was all about the cheese. Enjoying a Sunday drive down the country roads of Washington County on a gorgeous late summer day with burnished wildflowers and spectacular mountain views was a perfect treat with my youngest. We picked out three farms to visit around Argyle, New York on this weekend's Washington County Cheese Tour. We packed up our patterned socks and a portable cooler and had a lovely several hours petting goats, cows and dogs and sampling the dairy epicurean delights.

The first stop on our cheesy tour was Sweet Spring Farm on Saunders Road. You travel down an over-canopied one-lane dirt road before entering the break in the woods that nestles this goat farm and cheese plant. My girl got a little nervous about our lack of gasoline as we were driving through this entrance tunnel, but it was a beautiful farm indeed and swarmed with Cheese Tourists.

The Farm only had samples of its soft cheeses for sampling and for sale, and most were sold out when we arrived. They also didn't take checks so we were skunked as far as buying any of their herbed and peppered chevres and lovely feta, but we did taste a microspoon of them before clambering down to lure some of their cats and goats out of the barn.

After refueling the Crispy Car and getting some cash for future cheese fun, we hit The Argyle Cheese Farmer located on Randle Farm (on the fabulously named Coot Hill Road). This was a popular stop as well, especially with a gaggle of Harley Riders, and we sampled some cow's milk cheeses, including Pumpkin Spice Quark, Cheese Curds and a tasty Caerphilly Cheese. Caerphilly is a Welsh hard cheese with a buttery taste that is often used melted in Welsh Rarebit.

My Dairy Princess enjoyed petting a newborn calf

while I was enamored of an ancient border collie, Tor, who kept bringing me wood chips in his mouth. I'd throw them and he'd just look at me in puzzlement and bring me another.

Completely worn out by our efforts, we hit the cheesemonger shed with a vengeance and got some of that luscious Caerphilly, some Chive and Dill cheese curds (my kids won't eat ANYthing laced with my homegrown dill, but loved this product), and a ball of fresh mozzarella to make a caprese salad for dinner.

We wrapped our cheese tour with a visit to Longview Farm, where we were pleased to see a couple of our friends, including my book loving young friend Orrie, who sold me on a luscious slab of High Rock Cheese, a nutty Gruyere-style cheese made from goat's milk. Alas, they were sold out of chevre when we arrived, so we will have to seek out their other cheeses at the local farmer's markets.

We had a funny and informative tour of the goat barn, milking parlor and cheesemaking operations, and then we bid adieu to various barnyard friends, including a chicken that crossed the road.

After picking up some local corn, we came home and made dinner for the rest of the family, featuring corn on the cob, caprese salad, sliced garden cukes and peppers and a big cheese-tasting plate with some GF crackers. A very satisfying meal and a fantastic day trip. The Washington County Cheese Tour is an annual event and we hope to come back and visit the other two farms on the itinerary next year. I will do so with some cash in pocket and a full tank in the car though.

I thought this post would be perfect to send over to Chez Loulou, who hosts a monthly La Fete du Fromage in which participants feature cheese and particularly droolworthy examples of the cheesemaker's art.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Mediterranean-Style Chickpea and Fennel Salad

The September theme for No Croutons Required is Mediterranean soups and salads. I had some finocchio (fennel) ready to pick in the Crispy Garden, so I perused my cupboards, cookbooks and some internet sites to come up with an entry for this fun vegetarian event started by Tinned Tomatoes and Lisa's Kitchen.

I liked this recipe that I found on Food & Wine, but lacking and not liking some of the ingredients, I played around with it and came up with an altered version that uses many ingredients commonly used by Mediterranean cooks, including chick peas, olive oil, fennel, and thyme.

The combination of cool, crunchy fennel and celery and mealy cooked chick peas was very tasty and I look forward to bringing this salad to my next warm weather gathering as it can be served chilled or at room temperature and keeps well.

Chickpea and Fennel Salad a la Mediterranee

1 (14 oz.) can cooked chickpeas, drained
3 stalks celery, diced fine
1 small bulb fennel, trimmed and diced fine (save some fennel fronds for garnish)

1 fat garlic clove, minced
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1/3 cup high quality, extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and Pepper
Handful of thyme, leaves stripped off
Handful of Italian parsley, finely chopped

Gently mix chickpeas, celery and fennel in bowl.

Make a dressing out remaining ingredients. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour over salad and let marinate at room temperature for an hour before serving.

Garnish with sprig of thyme and snipped fennel leaves.

Serves 6.

Looking forward to the No Croutons Required roundup after September 20th, when you and others get a chance to peruse the entries and vote for your favorite.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Pasta Presto Nights #130 Roundup

When I was first contacted about hosting Pasta Presto Nights and Ruth inquired as to whether I would be available for the week ending September 11th, I couldn't help but wince about the date. September 11 will be forever etched in my memory as a day of horror and sadness. I don't think one needs to be a resident of New York City, New York State, or the United States to feel touched by this date when so many families lost loved ones. One just has to have compassion.

Before I present the roundup of recipes, I would just like to ask that each of us reading this post think about how we could honor the memory of those who died on 9-11 in some small way. Perhaps it is as simple as remembering them in our thoughts and prayers; perhaps it is by rendering some small kindness to another person on this infamous day.

Turning back to the subject at hand, I was pleased to see the wonderful Pasta recipes that filled my email inbox from around the world. We have recipes from New Zealand, Canada, USA, Malaysia, Switzerland, Australia and the contributors used many subspecies of pasta, from orzo to ravioli to rigatoni, so we really covered the map with Pasta Presto Nights #130.

1) Little Inbox of the Malaysian blog, Eating Pleasure, took a classic dish and tried to make it healthier, and her version of Curry Noodles looks tempting indeed. She lightened things up with soy bean noodles and evaporated milk, and the result looks and sounds very inviting.

2) Gillian of So So Simple Food gave Delia Smith's Macaroni and Cheese recipe a test drive and pronounced it "sensational". Her New Zealand food blog has some gorgeous photography and I enjoyed her foodie tour of France from her recent travels.

3) Participating in her first ever blog event, Hannah from Melbourne, Australia, tackled Pumpkin Ravioli from scratch. Her blog, Eat it Good, has lots of photos to illustrate the ravioli-making process, which reminded her of past travels in Milan. Welcome to Pasta Presto Nights, Hannah, and with such impressive cooking skills, we look forward to more of your pasta creations!

4) Pam, at the Tennessee food blog Sidewalk Shoes, cooked up some cute little orzo pasta with a summery Orzo Cucumber Salad with Mint. She found inspiration for the dish on her cookbook shelves and a copy of "The Flavor Bible". Looks like a winning combination.

5) Your happenin' hostess also made a pasta salad using a "shopping" tour of my late summer garden in upstate New York. Some gorgeous fennel bulbs that managed to hide from ravaging bunnies and a head of roasted homegrown garlic got mixed into a salad with gluten-free corn noodles, sliced grape tomatoes and mozzarella balls for a Late Summer Pasta Salad with Roasted Fennel and Garlic over at The Crispy Cook.

6) Our wonderful Pasta Presto founder, Ruth of Nova Scotia, Canada, squeaked in under the deadline with a fab-looking Last Minute Pasta with Pancetta, Olives, and Roasted Tomatoes. Ruth's blog, Once Upon a Feast, also had a recent post with an interesting video link about a Brit cooking up pasta on the fly in a hotel room (though the gluten-free traveler in me did not approve of cooking tortellini in the hotel coffee pot and the mom in me hoped he didn't leave a big mess for the hotel maid to clean up).

7) Those cute little pasta bow-ties, or farfalle, are featured in a tangy Eggplant Marinara Sauce in an entry from Parita's World, in Basel, Switzerland. Parita roasted the eggplants first and then added their smoky flesh to her spicy marinara sauce. (Don't tell my kids, but I often sneak in roasted eggplant and other veggies, whirred up in the food processor to disguise them, into my spaghetti sauces).

8) Rigatoni with Spinach and Spicy Chicken Sauce is a quick and hearty dish whipped up by Sara over at the Washington DC-based, Imafoodblog. The one-pot dinner recipe sounds divine, with nice glass of red wine on the side!

9) Daphne is a new bride who cooked up a simple but sophisticated Smoked Salmon Ricotta Pasta on her Perth, Australia-based blog More than Words. Talk about being Pretty in Pink!

10) Hailing from Indiana, Heather the Girlichef thought pasta for breakfast was a great idea, and I would have to say that I concur with her astute assessment. Heather made use of a half-full box of fusilli and sauced it up with eggs, olive oil, Parmesan and spices for a luscious Egg and Pasta Scramble.

11) Deb from Kahakai Kitchen in Hawaii sent us over a plate of Shrimp Scampi with Corn and Orzo, inspired by a recipe in Clean Eating Magazine. Deb is one of my cohosts over at Cook the Books, a bimonthly foodie book club, where we have just begun reading Peter Mayle's book "French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork and Corkscrew". Feel free to join us.

12) Pasta with Grilled Tomatoes and Grilled Vegetables is the tempting entry submitted by Hillary at Chew on That. Hillary was tempted by the gorgeous Zebra Tomatoes and Chocolate Peppers (who doesn't like Chocolate?) she found at her local Chicago market and made them into a citrusy, smoky tomato sauce for her pasta.

13) Bits of Taste is a Malaysian blogger who offers up her version of Spaghetti Carbonara. Prowl around her well-designed blog for other recipes, particularly her Chinese favorites.

14) Pairing a late summer favorite, basil pesto, with tortellini, was the inspired idea of my fellow New Yorker, Joanne of Eats Well With Others. Her dish, Tortellini Pesto Pasta Salad, made use of her dad's carefully nurtured basil plants and sounds perfect for a quick evening's meal. Pesto Presto Pasta!

15) Anna at the Australian food blog Morsels and Musings made a Tamarind and Kaffir Broth. Anna used kaffir leaves from her own kaffir tree on her balcony and states that this soup "really hits her sour spot".
16) Sarah over at the Ontario, Canada blog What Smells So Good? was afflicted with the same garden woes as I and others in northeastern North America faced this season. Unusually damp weather blighted our beloved tomato plants and so instead of having window sills full of green tomatoes and armloads of ripe red tomatoes to cook down we have leafless, brown plants with only a few fruit left on the withered vines. Sarah made good use of some of these precious remaining cherry tomatoes in her Summer's Candy Pasta.

17) Cherry tomatoes are also the star in Chaya's Pasta with Lite Sauce over at her blog Sweet and Savory Says it All. Chaya also has another blog, Comfy Cook, which features Gluten-Free recipes, so I had a lot of fun exploring and bookmarking recipes over there.

Thank you to everyone who submitted a pasta recipe from their kitchens and thank you to Ruth for allowing me this opportunity to host Pasta Presto Nights. I was honored to serve as your host for this round and look forward to sharing even more recipes with you all in the future.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Sights and Scents at the Bennington Garlic Festival

My mom and I had a great little jaunt over in Bennington, Vermont at the Garlic and Herb Festival. The weather was great, there was good people watching and the blues band was foot-tappingly good. Mom was on the hunt for garden ornaments and edibles and I was looking for more garlic varieties to plant in October since this year's exploratory garlic harvest was so successful.

We saw lots of garlic vendors and chatted them up about different varieties, while sampling many a spicy clove. There were garlic pickle slivers to eat, pickled garlic and lots of vinegars, pestos, sauces and garlic-spiked barbecue seasonings to sample. We had a completely enjoyable day.

There were a couple of fellow Saratoga residents vending their wares at the Garlic Festival, including the very cute young couple that own Rutkowski Farms in Ballston Spa. I bought some Ukrainian Red Garlic from them, some of which we'll munch now and some of which we will plant. The Rutkowskis note that Ukrainian Red is a mild garlic that is especially nice minced into a bread dipping oil and you can see other cooking advice, recipes, and information about different garlic varieties on their lovely, clean website.

The good folks at Saratoga Garlic were also on hand to offer tastes of their luscious aiolis. My favorite was the Saffron Aioli, as documented in this Crispy Cook Action photo.

Mom bought a bottle of Sapling Maple Liqueur for us to toast with later that evening and it was a smooth and tasty product. It is 70 proof, so since I was the designated driver, I had only a dropperful for my snoot at the Fair, but later that night we all enjoyed a proper shot. It would be even more appropriate to sip before a fire in the woodstove, so I will be looking forward to buying my own bottle when I am back in Vermont.

We were full of garlicky ideas after the Festival and so Mom decided to prepare us some Creamy Mushroom Soup, spiked with a lot of garlic and some fresh herbs from her kitchen garden. It was really rich and full of flavor and full of maternal goodness.

Here's my Mom's recipe for:

Creamy Mushroom Soup with Garlic and Fresh Herbs

4-5 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped fine
2 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. olive oil

1 (8 oz.) pkg. baby Portabella mushrooms, washed and sliced
Salt and Pepper

4 Tbsp. chopped fresh herbs (Mom used lemon balm, thyme, oregano, basil, and sage)

2 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. cornstarch

1 cup warm milk
1/4 cup heavy cream

Melt 2 Tbsp. butter and olive oil in small frying pan. Add garlic, and cook on low heat, stirring often, until softened, about 10 minutes. Mom warns: "Don't let the garlic burn!"

Add slice mushrooms to pan and saute another 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Take off heat and add chopped herbs. Mom says: "Let the mushrooms have a little rest".

In a small soup pot melt 2 Tbsp. butter. Add cornstarch and stir. Take off heat and whisk in warm milk. If lumps remain after whisking, press sauce through a colander. Heat soup through and then add heavy cream. Just heat until cream is hot and serve immediately.

Makes four small servings. Lovely as a first course for dinner or paired with salad and bread for a light lunch.

I haven't had a soup recipe to send over to my Cook the Books buddy Deb of Kahakai Kitchen for her weekly Souper Sunday event, but this Creamy Mushroom soup will be shipped over there post haste. Look for Deb's roundup on Sunday, September 13.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Happy to be Hosting Pasta Presto Nights #130

I am delighted to be hosting Pasta Presto Nights this week. This weekly foodie event is the brainchild of Ruth of Once Upon a Feast, and is all about the noodle in its infinite and glorious varieties. Each week bloggers post their recipes for macaroni, pierogies, rice noodles, gnocchi and pasta of all kinds and I am looking forward to noodling around with all of you this week for Pasta Presto Nights#130.

To submit a pasta dish, here are the rules:

1) Make a pasta dish and blog about it by Thursday, September 10th.

2) In your blog post, make sure to include a mention and link to Pasta Presto Nights and to this post on The Crispy Cook so we can spread the Pasta Love around.

3) Email your entry to me (oldsaratogabooks AT gmail DoT coM) with the link to your post no later than Thursday, September 10, 2009 (midnight Eastern Standard Time) so I can post the tasty roundup the following day. Attach a .jpg or other image file with your email.

For my contribution to this week's Pasta Presto Nights, I sought inspiration from my garden. It's late summer and the weather has been unusually wet and with temperature variations all over the map, so the tomatoes were totally stressed out and afflicted with blight early in the season. My only remaining tomato babies are some yellow Brandywines (though they are watery and mushy this year from all that rain excess) and some grape tomatoes. I gathered about 1 pint of these grape tomatoes and a handful of basil, a fennel bulb and some of our first homegrown garlic and came up with a really luscious pasta salad to bring to a gathering of friends.

For our gluten-free noodle option, I used a bag of Sam Mills corn pasta. When they recently had some of this pasta on sale for $1 a bag at Ocean State Job Lot in Ballston Spa, we stocked up. It has a nice golden color and stands up well when cooking, so I used this brand, but you could use any shaped pasta for this dish.

Late Summer Pasta Salad with Roasted Fennel and Garlic

1 16 oz. pkg. of your favorite pasta shape
1 8 oz. container fresh mozzarella balls, drained
2 cups grape tomatoes, cut in half
3 Tbsp. fresh basil, slivered
4 cloves roasted garlic
1 large bulb fennel, trimmed, halved and roasted
Salt and pepper to taste
3 Tbsp. White wine vinegar
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

The first step is to roast up some garlic and fennel. I put a whole head of trimmed garlic (cut off the tops to open up vents to let the oven heat in) in an oven dish with my trimmed fennel bulb, drizzled them with olive oil and covered the pan with foil. They were baked at 350 degrees F for 1 hour. Let cool and squeeze roasted garlic from four of the cloves and reserve. Chop roasted fennel coarsely and reserve.

Cook pasta and rinse with cold water. Drain.

Toss pasta, tomatoes, mozzarella balls (I cut them in half to extend their goodness throughout the dish and because my youngest likes to pluck them out ahead of serving) basil and fennel. Whisk roasted garlic in with vinegar and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and pour dressing over pasta salad. Toss gently and let chill until serving.

Makes 8 servings.

Looking forward to YOUR delicious pasta entries!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Putting A Monster in a Jar: Pickled Cauliflower

During this overly damp and cooler than normal growing season in upstate New York, we've had mixed success with our garden veggies. The zucchinis, beans, greens and cucumbers grew with tropical vigor, but other vegetables, like the tomato crop, suffered from the various viruses and pests that love wetter conditions.

We had a six-pack of cauliflower transplants in our garden and only two came to a head. But head they did. They were cauliflower whoppers and grew to be 14 inches in diameter. I used one earlier this summer over the course of a week, snagging florets for raw snacking, stir-frying others, and baking the rest with some grated knobs of cheese.

Then I was faced with another gargantuan cauli-monster and I thought of Dog Hill Kitchen's Gingered Sweet Pickled Cauliflower recipe. I've never canned with cauliflower, so I was eager to try out this recipe, which Dog Hill Mistress Maggie says is similar tasting to those jars of mixed vegetable pickles you sometimes see in the pickle aisle.

My monster cauliflower was thus preserved for winter months when our garden consists of a frozen, rabbit-gnawed couple of Brussels Sprouts stumps, topped with snow. I used a couple of Bucillus frying peppers from our garden instead of the prettier red chile pepper called for in Maggie's recipe, but otherwise, I was faithful in following this great (and long-bookmarked) recipe. Thank you Maggie!

I am submitting this pickled cauliflower post to Weekend Herb Blogging #199 which is being hosted by Mele Cotte. Weekend Herb Blogging is a weekly blog event that puts the spotlight on those members of the Vegetable Kingdom that sustain us, and is headquartered at Cook (Almost) Anything At Least Once.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Confections of a Closet Master Baker: A Biblio-Culinary Review and a GF Cheescake

Confections of a Closet Master Baker: A Memoir, by Gesine Bullock-Prado (NY: Broadway Books, 2009)

This is an engaging and lively account of the author's transformation from unhappy Hollywood film producer to happy, flour-dusted baker in America's smallest and funkiest state Capitol, Montpelier, Vermont. I was delighted to receive an advance copy of this book through the good folks at A Blithe Palate and Dispensing Happiness, who are cohosting The Edible Word event, wherein participants read a book, cook up some inspirational edibles and then blog about it.

Gesine (rhymes with subpoena) had an interesting upbringing as the daughter of an Alabama dad and German opera-singer mom. During her preschool years, she and big sister Sandy were reared in Germany, looked after by a collection of maternal relatives and nannies while mom was onstage. When Gesine was five years old, they moved to the U.S. and Mom (Mutti) seems to have retired from singing to rule the family with a strict regimen of health-conscious foods. No more Continental sweets unless it was a holiday or birthday. Instead, it was "a dietary lock-down of whole-grain, tofu-laced, sucrose-free hell".

Gesine grew up and moved in with Sandy, a struggling actress, to share an apartment while she went to law school. Sandy, whom the rest of the world knows as Sandra Bullock, achieved star status during this time and after passing the bar and going to a few dispiriting legal job interviews, Gesine signed up to work in her sister's new production company.

While working with the ebullient Sandy and meeting her future artist husband, Ray, helped "dull the pervasive ick of work", Gesine was still unfulfilled by her work, filling her free time with a frenzy of recreational baking. She bakes and bakes and bakes her way through various pastry arts until finally, while helping nurse Mutti through a terminal illness, she realizes that she is happiest in the kitchen. She and Ray chuck the Southern California lifestyle, pack up their fuzzy dogs and relocate to Vermont, where Gesine plans to attend culinary school.

A huge mail order for her specialty French almond-based macaroons that she had continued to pack off to Sandy and friends puts school on hold while she finds a commercial-scale kitchen in which to crank these out. Soon after, she and Ray buy a little building in the outer orbit of Montpelier and a bakery is born. The rest of the book details her daily adventures in catering to various customers, developing new recipes, and enjoying her new lifestyle. As a small business owner myself, I especially enjoyed the war stories about the mix of cranks and angels one gets in the shop each day. Gesine is a very descriptive and witty writer and can quickly place the reader right into each of the scenes she describes, whether it is sharing a cup of coffee and a pastry at tea-time with her Oma in Germany or performing the balletic pre-dawn bakery routines in a dark, chilly winter kitchen. Husband Ray Prado's delightful illustrations further season the book and they are humorous and affectionate portraits of scenes in Gesine's world.

Gesine offers a generous serving of recipes throughout the pages, and one can also find some recipes, further writing and even a video about how to make Golden Eggs on her blog, where you can absorb even more of her sparkling and sarcastic wit while she whisks and pours. Alas, it is at her blog, that I found out that Gesine's bakery is now shuttered while she is on hiatus working on other projects, so one cannot make a pilgrimage to Montpelier to sample some of her wonderful creations. (Montpelier is a fun town to visit, nonetheless, and I offer a little tour of bookshops and restaurants here).

Though I am more partial to the savory end of cooking, I really enjoyed this trawl through a baker's life. My only negative comment is that I found the many descriptions of Gesine's late mother disturbing. She strides about the book, clad in leather pants, stilettos and a Foxy Lady belt buckle at school functions (okay that's embarrassing but forgivable), seems to always have a critical comment for Gesine on her tongue, noting things down in her "endless ledger of unforgivable venialities" (that seems pretty harsh), and then humiliates her daughter in a school cafeteria scene that made my stomach clench (Mutti Dearest crossed the line there). I realize everyone's parenting styles are different, but reading these scenes made me uncomfortable. Gesine would always counter these maternal descriptions with a sentence about how much she missed her mom, but they added jarring notes to an otherwise interesting foodie memoir.

It was easy enough to select a recipe that I wanted to make from the book. I ran down the list to my dear husband, and without hesitation he chose the Espresso Cheesecake. Of course, Gesine's recipe would require some fiddling to make this gluten-free for our household. Thankfully, cheesecakes don't require much flour and the architectonics of gluten molecules to make them stand up. Mercifully too, my local supermarket stocks the gluten-free chocolate sandwich cookies needed for the crust so I didn't have to spend three days on this dessert project.

I got 2 cups of cookie crumbs ground up finely in my food processor and then added the 2 sticks of butter called for in Gesine's recipe. Maybe 2 cups of non-GF Oreo-style cookies absorb much more oil than my cookies did, or perhaps there is a typo in the cookie crust recipe for the Espresso Cheesecake. I think 1/2 stick of butter might have sufficed. I had an oily, liquidy bunch of chocolate crumbs that would just slither through the springform pan, so I ground up the second 8 oz. package of GF chocolate cookies to make another 2 cups of crumbs which I mixed in for the crust. Then I spooned up as much butter as I could off the top of the mixture, spooned it into the bottom of my pan and blotted up as much excess butter as I could with paper towels. In it went to bake (I put a foil lining on my cookie sheet underneath to absorb more oily excess) and then I blotted again as it cooled.

The rest of the recipe went smoothly and my family enjoyed this not-too-sweet, pleasantly caffeinated cheesecake just fine (I also subbed in white rice flour for the wheat flour called for in the filling). It is particularly nice with a cup of coffee on the side and garnished with some chocolate-covered coffee beans for extra Javanation.

I am looking forward to the roundup of book reviews and blog posts about this book on the Edible Word, which will be posted later this week. Thank you to the sweet hosts for the book and thank you to Gesine for a great read. I hope the author will continue to explore baking and will write some other books for us to enjoy about her creative adventures.