Of Pastry Blenders and Biscuits

My house is all topsy-turvy at the moment because I’m doing work on the kitchen. (On the kitchen, as well as in, since I seem to work in the kitchen pretty much every day.) I managed to obtain some additional, second-hand cupboards, which means I’ll soon have new cupboard and counter space eventually. In the short term, this means that half of the contents of my kitchen are currently in the dining room, so we have to eat in the family room, and the day-to-day mess of the family room is pushed into other rooms… I can’t wait to have this mini-reno completed, not just so I can use the expanded kitchen space, but so order is once again returned to my house!

I’ve been trying not to cook anything super-involved, since prep space is currently at a bare minimum, and to me that means making Dad’s Biscuits. My mom picked me up what I think is a Perfect Pie Blender, although it’s branded with the President’s Choice logo, so it may be a knock-off. Or maybe PC has a deal with Kitchen Innovations, I don’t know. I can guarantee you that my mother didn’t pay $40 for it, though. Knowing Mom, she probably found it on clearance for $5 or less.

At any rate, the Perfect Pie Blender is far cry in shape and style from the traditional style of pastry blender that I grew up using. The company claims that it will make perfect pastry in sixty seconds, which is an exaggeration if you ask me, but it is definitely faster than my old method. One reason for this is that the blades are sturdier and the updated shape means that I’m not constantly cleaning food out from between the wires. It’s generally a more ergonomic design, too. Given that I’d been making pie using the old style blender since I was a kid, I thought I’d have a harder time getting used to a new tool, but I’m surprisingly quite happy with the new blender. I’d recommend it — although I definitely wouldn’t recommend spending $40.00 CAD on it like Amazon.ca suggests, especially when you can get it for $12.60 USD on Amazon.com.

The other day I nuked up some IKEA KÖTTBULLAR meatballs while my husband stirred up the ALLEMANSRÄTTEN cream sauce. We’re very sophisticated people, don’t you know. The original plan was to throw on some oven-baked french fries, but I miscalculated the amount we had left in the freezer, so only the kids got fries. My husband and I ate our meatballs with biscuits instead. I added an apple to our meals because there has to be some kind of fruit or veg with every meal, doesn’t there?

Yesterday the kitchen mini-reno had continued apace and we couldn’t even see the dining room table any more, let alone eat at it, so we dined on TV trays in the family room. I made Guinness beef stew based very, very loosely on this recipe, but it was more improvised than not to help me use up what was in the fridge. I still have a surplus of parsnips and celery, which remain fresh and crisp in my fridge, as well as potatoes from my garden, so they had to go in there. To my kids’ delight, I served the stew with biscuits for a nice, hearty dinner. I didn’t even have to argue with the girls to eat their vegetables even though the stew was more veggies than anything else. That’s always a nice change.

Meemaw’s Cookie Recipe

I have a number of friends and family who are huge fans of the television show The Big Bang Theory, and I don’t mind the show myself. I thought that, since Christmas is coming up, I might try to make a show-based recipe that has been floating around the Internet for a while. It’s for a type of cookie purportedly baked by Meemaw (Sheldon Cooper’s grandmother). My Google-fu has failed me and I haven’t been able to find the original source, else I would link back to it to give proper credit.


Sheldon Cooper (played by Jim Parsons) holding a cookie baked using his Meemaw’s recipe, as baked by Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik) in The Big Bang Theory, season 8, episode 11.

The recipe I’ve found is a cookie press or spritz cookie, although from the reference photos I’ve found that the final product looks more like something made with a cookie cutter. Or possibly they started with a flat cookie and created the tree design on top using a pastry bag filled with dough? Granted, you don’t see the cookies in the show for very long, and I could totally be wrong. I thought I’d try the spritz version anyway.


Thing 1 and Thing 2 being very serious about getting the cookie dough just right.

Thing 1 and Thing 2 did most of the work this time (okay, mostly Thing 1), so it’s definitely a simple recipe to follow. The kids really like working with the caulking-gun-like cookie press, and they also love to add the sprinkles. Of course, this meant that the final product looked far from perfect, but who cares so long as they had fun and it tastes great?

In the end, I was really happy with this recipe, even though it may not be a hundred percent screen accurate. Here’s what I did:

Meemaw’s Christmas Cookies
Makes about 8 dozen small cookies

Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C).
Beat together until creamy:
1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp almond extract*
Beat in, about a third at a time:
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Insert any shape of disk into cookie press (the ones in the show are tree-shaped, but any shape will do). Press dough onto an ungreased cookie sheet one inch apart. Alternately, use a pastry bag with a wide tip to create designs.
Decorate with:
coloured sugar or sprinkles
Bake for 10 to 13 minutes, or until firm and very slightly browned.
Remove from cookie sheet onto a cooling rack. Serve immediately, or place into a container once they are cooled, where they can last up to a week.

*If nuts are a problem, vanilla extract may be substituted (although the flavour will change a little bit).

First Bake of the Christmas Season

I wanted to spend today working on my last-minute costume, but the weather has started to change for the colder, and that meant that I had to make some changes to my house. The Weather Network is calling for rain, freezing rain, and snow over the weekend, so I had to be prepared. First, I had to put up the Christmas lights, since climbing on a ladder in the ice and snow is not a good idea.

Second, I had to clean the garage. I know it may not look like much, but it took me the rest of the day to get my garage this tidy. I really prefer to park under a roof in the winter; the car starts easier, it takes less time to get out the door because I don’t have brush/scrape off snow/ice, and it’s just generally better for the longevity of the vehicle. In warmer weather, however, my garage becomes my workshop-slash-storage-space, and it becomes cluttered and messy, and there’s no way you can get a car in there for about six months. So every fall I have to give it a good clean, and this year I’d let it get bad enough that it took me most of the day.

We still had to eat, of course, so I kept in the same mind-set as yesterday’s Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day — this having nothing to do with the fact that I still hadn’t gone to the grocery store, of course. I made grilled cheese for the family using yesterday’s Light Rye and Caraway Bread (page 75, Bread Machine: How to Prepare and Bake the Perfect Loaf (Jennie Shapter (2002)) and leftover cheese from the cheese-and-crackers tray from the Halloween party, which I think was mostly cheddar and Havarti, possibly Gouda. Sadly, there was just toast for me, since I have yet to find a non-dairy cheese that I actually like. Alongside the sandwiches I served cream of carrot soup that I had made up around Easter and frozen.

This weekend there is an annual fundraiser to send the area Pathfinders on an excursion, for which the younger girls (Sparks, Brownies and Guides) help out. The fundraiser is a holiday tea held at a local church. Parents supply beverages and baked goods, the Pathfinders organize and run the kitchen, the Guides serve the hot drinks, the Brownies serve cold drinks and treats, and the little Sparks just serve treats. The younger girls only work in one-hour shifts and are always given the chance to sit down and have tea and treats afterwards, so they love participating in this fundraiser. Plus, it makes them feel really grown up.

Thing 1 helped me choose and bake the treats we’ll be providing, which after a perusal of my cookbooks Thing 1 proclaimed had to be brownies-without-the-capital-B. She picked the recipe from Cookies: Recipes for Gifting & Sharing (Publications International Ltd., 2016), the classic brownies on page 35. Other than taking longer to bake than the directions specified, they went off without a hitch! Of course, I had to try one of the brownies before I packaged them to drop off tonight, and they’re rich and chocolatey soft, firm on the outside with a soft, moist (but not under-cooked) center. I am definitely pleased with this recipe, and not only because it’s so easy! My only qualm is that it has a bit of dairy inside, so maybe in the future I’ll be able to come up with a non-dairy version.

Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day

I’m still working away on that last-minute costume. I got so caught up in the process that I stayed up until almost 2:00am without even realizing it! I had absolutely no intention of staying up too late. When I get into problem-solving mode, I hate to stop when I’m on a roll. If I’d been super-frustrated, I would probably have stopped earlier (although there was a large seam that I “sewed” without realizing that the bobbin had run out).

I couldn’t find my meter stick, so I did end up using a wooden prop sword in order to trace a long, straight line on my fabric. My father pointed out afterward that I could have just called and borrowed his, but the sword was only a few feet away from where I was sewing, and it worked out fine!

November 15th is Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day, so I made a dinner entirely out of what I had around the house. This had nothing to do with the fact that I’ve been so engrossed in costume construction that I haven’t gone out to do groceries, I swear. I went with one of the simplest clean-out-the-fridge dishes: stir fry. I cooked up the veggies I had on hand (celery, zucchini, and frozen peas), scrambled in some egg, threw in some cooked rice and shrimp, and gave it all a good drizzle of sesame oil and soy sauce while I cooked it all together for a few minutes. My husband asked for seconds, which I figure means it wasn’t half bad.

After the kids went to bed, I wanted to treat myself to some banana bread, which is pretty much my favourite quick bread. I even had some bananas I’d frozen before they went bad that I needed to use up, so the timing was perfect. I’d seen a Tasty video for 6 Desserts To Make In Your Microwave, so I thought I’d give their individual microwave banana bread a shot. Sadly, as with the microwave oatmeal bread I made a while back, I was disappointed. The more I try it, the less I think that microwaves can be used for half-decent baking.

First of all, there was a recipe in the YouTube transcription of the recipe. If you watch the video, the ingredients include 3 Tbsp brown sugar and 1/2 tsp baking powder, but the recipe under the video calls for 3 Tbsp brown sugar and then another 1/2 tsp brown sugar, with no baking powder. Luckily I noticed that there was no rising agent before I started cooking, but by then I’d already added the extra 1/2 tsp brown sugar, too.

Once the banana bread was cooked, I found it to be largely tasteless. I found that interesting, because it contains basically the same ingredients as the more traditional banana bread in the Joy of Cooking; what really differentiates the two, other than size, is the cooking method. I think that because the Tasty version is made so quickly in the microwave, instead of cooking for an hour or more in the oven, it doesn’t have a chance to develop its flavour, which probably mostly comes from the crust. Microwave cooking, in general, doesn’t create proper crusts. Also, I found the consistency of the microwave banana bread to be less like a quick bread and more like a sponge or a pudding. I cooked it for an extra 30 seconds over the recommended time and tested it with a cake tester for doneness, so I know it was definitely cooked all the way through. Even so, the consistency was more like microwave scrambled eggs than like bread.

Of course, opinions may vary, and you may like banana bread made this way. I think that I will stick to baking in the oven from now on, except perhaps for the occasional experiment.

Halloween Bread Trials

A friend who knows me really, really well recently sent me a link to the Necro Nom Nom Nomicon — more specifically, to the instructions for how to make Brimstone Bread. This is totally up my alley, especially this time of year. The photos are spectacular, and the instructions seemed pretty clear, so I knew I had to at least try this recipe for my upcoming Halloween party. That being said, I also thought it would be the better part of valour to give the recipe a try before I depended on it on the day of the party. That’s never a good time to experiment with new dishes.

I was really happy with how the finished rolls looked! I didn’t have any instant bread mix, so I whipped up some of the dough for Nan’s Pan Rolls, which I have baked so many times now that I find them extremely simple. I only made up half of the recipe, since this was just a test, and then I divided the dough in half again to try the Brimstone Bread alongside a second recipe. I found the bread tasted pretty good (not surprising since I rather like Nan’s Pan Rolls), but I wasn’t terribly fond of the taste of the blackened crust. I’m wondering if it would taste better as a sweet roll, like an apple cinnamon roll with a sweeter, spiced topping. I think I need to experiment more on this one for the flavour, but the technique is sound.

The kids loved this roll, and were thrilled to see that the colour was part of the bread and not just an icing or some such. I will probably be making this bread again for the party if only for this reason.

My husband pointed out to me that the dough, when thoroughly saturated with food colouring, strongly resembles PlayDoh. I have to say that I agree. However, PlayDoh doesn’t rise, and it’s a lot easier to shape than a well-kneaded bread. The latter likes to snap back to its original shape.

Another thing to keep in mind when working with high concentrations of food colouring is that it will stain your hands and nails. Most of the colouring wore off within a day or so, but if you have to make a first impression after making these breads, wear gloves. The black dye is especially potent — this photo was taken after thoroughly scrubbing my hands. To protect your clothes, I’d suggest wearing an apron as well, or just wearing clothes that you don’t care if they get stained.

On the other hand, once the dye is worked into the dough and baked, it doesn’t rub off onto everything and stain. This is the complete opposite of coloured icing. It’s a great argument for serving dyed bread at a party when it can be pretty much guaranteed that one of the guests will spill something somewhere, usually on the one surface that you can’t easily clean and yet will show every stain.

The second half of Nan’s Pan Rolls dough went into making a miniature loaf of Voodoo Bread. I was a little worried that the crust might end up being too tough after changing the formula a bit with the dye, but it just ended up being a tiny bit more crispy.

I think I really should have made a full-sized loaf of this one, actually, to show off the internal swirls. There just wasn’t enough dough to do a proper roll. Even so, I am very satisfied with this recipe and I plan to make it for the party. My youngest is even more enthused with the Voodoo Bread than the Brimstone Bread, partly, I think, because she calls it Rainbow Bread. I think that I might try making this bread in different colours for special occasions once I have mastered the swirl technique. Also, I think I’ll use a lighter purple dye for the Halloween party loaf.

Last of the Zucchini

One of the biggest challenges about this time of year, at least to me, is to either eat or preserve all of the fresh produce that comes my way before it goes bad. It seems to me like the utmost example of taking what you have for granted to let food — especially fresh, homegrown, delicious food — go bad. Practically speaking, this does mean freezing, drying, or canning a lot of it to eat over the coming winter. But it also means a lot of meals made with just-picked ingredients.

Over the last few days I’ve finally managed to cook my way through all of the zucchini from my friends’ gardens (although I may end up with more in the next little while, not that I’m complaining). Last night for dinner we dug into another loaf of Harvest Garden Bread (which contains zucchini), Baked Panko Zucchini Sticks, and haddock baked under a generous coating of Blender Salsa (page 92 of Preserving by the Pint: Quick Seasonal Canning for Small Spaces (Marisa McClellan, 2014)), which was made almost entirely from produce grown in my garden.

Then it was Double Chocolate Zucchini Muffins for dessert. I had never tried this recipe before, but it was highly recommended to me by a friend, and now I realize why. These muffins are moist, dark, rich, and chocolatey. They also aren’t as unhealthy as other muffins with similar flavour. I mean, it would be a stretch to actually call them health, what with the chocolate chips and the oil in there, but there is more zucchini in the recipe by volume than flour, and that has to count for something, right? 10/10, will definitely bake this one again.

Harvest Garden Bread Recipe

Last week Thing 1 and I tried our hands at making Confetti Bread (page 67 of The Complete Guide to Bread Machine Baking from Better Homes and Gardens (1999)). While in general I really like this book and I have found its recipes to be quite reliable, this loaf did not turn out as planned. It looked like this:


Failed Confetti Bread

The poor, sad thing just didn’t rise. The loaf was much too dense and wasn’t even baked the whole way through. The cookbook even warns that you might have to add additional flour to the dough after the first knead (which I did), and it still fell flat. I think that this is because a bread machine recipe just can’t predict the moisture content of the vegetables, and bread machines need very precise measurements because they just can’t compensate for change on the fly.

However, the loaf smelled absolutely delicious when it was baking, and the flavour of the bread backed up that smell. Well, except for the red pepper part, but that’s probably just my preference (I’m not a real fan of sweet peppers). I was inspired to try to create a similar loaf by hand to get all of those flavours that I liked, but I wanted it to be a nice fluffy loaf with a crisp crust. As a bonus, this recipe includes both zucchini and carrots, which many gardeners have an overabundance of this time of year. (If you don’t garden, these veggies are also cheap in stores in the fall.) I was very happy with the result.


Successful Harvest Garden Bread

So here’s the recipe:

Harvest Garden Bread
Yields one loaf

Line two small bowls with paper towel or clean dish towels.
Grate separately:
3/4 cups carrots
2/3 cups zucchini
Place the carrots into one bowl and the zucchini into the other. Leave them in the bowls so that the towels absorb excess moisture while you perform the next steps.
In a large bowl, mix together:
1 cup warm water
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 egg yolk
1/4 cup finely sliced green onions OR chives
In another large bowl, mix together:
4 cups all-purpose white flour
1 1/2 tsp white sugar
1 tsp salt
3/4 tsp dried thyme OR 2 1/4 tsp minced fresh thyme
2 tsp quick-rise instant yeast
Squeeze the zucchini and the carrots in their towels to remove excess moisture. Add the vegetables to the bowl containing the liquids and stir.
Gradually mix the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. When mixture becomes too difficult to stir with a spoon, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and continue to incorporate the ingredients by kneading.

Once all ingredients have been kneaded in, the dough may be too moist, sticking to both your hands and the kneading surface. If so, you may need to gradually add:
up to 1/2 cup all-purpose white flour
This additional flour will compensate for the moisture of your vegetables. If the dough is still too sticky once the additional flour has been kneaded in, continue to add flour one tablespoonful at a time until the desired consistency is reached.

Oil a large mixing bowl. Form the dough into a ball and place it in the bowl. Cover the bowl with a clean, damp tea towel. Place the bowl in a warm, dry area with no drafts. Allow the dough to rise until double, about 2 hours.

Punch down the dough. Grease a 9.5″ X 5.5″ loaf pan. (A slightly smaller loaf pan may be used, but you will end up with a more mushroom-shaped loaf.) Shape the dough into a loaf to fit the bottom of the pan. Cover the pan with a clean, damp tea towel and allow to rise again until double, about 1 hour.

Preheat your oven to 400ºF (204ºC).
While oven is preheating, mix together:
1 egg white
1 Tbsp cold water
Brush the top of the dough evenly with the egg & water mixture to create a glaze.
Bake loaf for 30 to 40 minutes, until top of loaf is lightly browned and the loaf sounds hollow when removed from the pan and tapped on the bottom.

If you try out this recipe, I’d love it if you’d leave a comment and let me know what you think! And if you make any changes or if you find any errors, I’d love to know that too.