Favorite Tool #19 – Scoops

Stacks of cake pans

There are things in my basement no normal cook has. Graduated sets of round, oval, square, and hexagonal cake tins; four hundred and seventy-three cookie cutters; a brain-shaped Jell-O mold; and fourteen trigger release ice cream scoops in various sizes to name but a few. Tools of the trade from my food styling days, when one job might require a six-inch cake tin for a dense flourless chocolate torte, while another job would call for an eight-inch pan to bake a classic buttery Scottish shortbread in, and a month later I’d have to haul out a fourteen-inch cake pan to use for a party-size spanakopita featured in a brunch spread. For the most part these uniquely sized tools and cookware sit forlornly on the shelves waiting to be used again, gathering dust or serving as spots for spiders to weave their webs. Too special to donate to the church tag sale, yet not ordinary enough to live in the kitchen and be used for everyday cooking, these tools tell the story of a well-prepared food stylist. Ready for any recipe a food editor or art director might present me with. Occasionally I will go down into the basement and grab one of these oddball kitchen tools because it is just what I need to get the job done.

If you’re a reader of this blog you know in general I am not a fan of kitchen tools which are only able to perform one task. However sometimes it is all about having the right size gadget or pan. Just as you would not want to warm milk for a cup of hot chocolate in a pasta pot nor would you want to try and cook a pound of pasta in a two-cup saucepan. So yes, there are some sets of kitchen items I keep around because they are the right size. My ice cream scoops are one such set.

Molten chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream for Disney magazine

I originally invested in a multiple sized set because you never knew exactly what size scoop of ice cream (real or fake) would be required at any given photo shoot. The scoop size was determined by the dish, bowl or cone the ice cream was to go on or in. An art director wouldn’t be able to tell you in advance what size scoop was needed, but it wasn’t the sort of tool you could send someone out to buy if you didn’t bring the appropriate size with you. Better to have everything from key lime to softball size in your bag of tricks.

Ice cream scoops

Having a bevy (a gaggle? a whole heck of a lot?) of scoops proved useful for assembling the ice cream cookies we served at my sister and brother-in-law’s wedding since all their kids, as well as the nephews and nieces wanted to get in on the scooping and squishing action. So in addition to food styling jobs having multiples is also good for assembly line dessert production too.

Ice cream scoops for measuring cookie dough

The other thing ice cream scoops are good for are perfectly portioned cookies. One of those tricks you pick up working for a caterer or in a commercial kitchen is scooping rather than spooning the dough. Today I made a batch of chocolate chip cookies and it was incredibly fast to scoop, scrape, then release the dough onto a cookie sheet, before popping the trays into the oven to bake.

While I think it would be pretty silly for most people to have as many ice cream scoops as I have, having one or two isn’t a bad idea. Not a bad idea at all.

Chocolate chip cookies

Photos:

Molten chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream Disney Magazine
All others Cynthia Allen

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Pita Bread – Puffy and Flat

Not winter; not spring

Last fall when I got my hands on two new cookbooks Soframiz and Molly on the Range, I was cooking out of both non-stop. Unfortunately the family (myself included) was eating the various recipes faster than I could whip out my iPhone. Everything was just too good. As winter is playing her pre-spring dance with us – where one day it is 16° and you need to dig through the mitten box to find scarves, hats and gloves, but the next day can be 50°, followed by an ice storm where you don’t want to leave the house at all – it’s an excellent time of year to cook and camera. I’m planning on remaking some of our favorites and taking pictures this time.

Molly on the Range and Soframiz cookbooks

I acquired both cookbooks within a week of each other, which of course lead to comparing them. Interesting to note all the recipes they had in common – homemade hummus, meat to top off aforementioned hummus, pita bread, za’atar bread, and pistachio cake. Flipping through the pages, reading the recipes and looking at the pictures was a pavlovian exercise at best. Flip, flip, drool. Then repeat.

Hummus with meat, morrocan carrots, greens and pita

The hummuses (is that the plural of hummus?) were the first dish I made since I’d never before bothered to make my own. With so many choices at the grocery store why bother I said to myself? The answer is simple – warm hummus. Honestly it is dreamy, something you should definitely try at least once in your lifetime.  As an accompaniment for the hummus, though not an afterthought, there is fresh pita bread.

Pillow pita

Moist dough

Pita bread cut into 2 ounce pieces ready to roll

Second rising

Pita bread you say? Yes, pita bread. I’d eaten the Soframiz pita when I visited Sofra, and so was familiar with their non-traditional, slightly golden puff balls, which Sortun and Kilpatrick describe as “puffy pillows”. Yeh makes a more traditional pita which she describes as,

“A thick, fluffy disk of warm bread that would make the ultimate sleeping bag if ever we entered real-life Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves.

Puffy pillows or the ultimate sleeping bag – the truth is you probably want to make both. And if you can’t stop eating the pita bread, like I couldn’t,  you may also want need to take a nap. You’re probably thinking I’m nuts to want to bake something so readily available in every grocery store across the country, but trust me it’s worth making a batch or two of pita yourself. It’s not at all difficult and the results are delightful.

Pita pocket bread

Both recipes are pretty close to one another. Here are the very minor tweaks/choices I made:

  • I kneaded the dough by hand instead of using a stand mixer.
  • As a former beekeeper I chose honey as the sweetener to help proof the yeast.
  • I liked the suggestion of substituting some whole wheat flour in place of the white flour.
  • My hubby preferred all-purpose pita to bread flour pita. I couldn’t really tell the difference, but know they’re both good.
  • Perhaps because it is more or less still winter, and thus rather chilly most days, my rising times were much longer.
  • Oven temperatures were listed at 400° or 500°, choose according to how clean your oven is.

Pita Two Ways

1 1/2 cups warm water

1 package active dry yeast

1-2 Tablespoons honey

1 cup whole wheat flour

2 – 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

2-3 Tablespoons olive oil, divided

In a large bowl mix together the water, honey and yeast. Give it a stir then let sit until the yeast starts foaming up to the top, around five minutes.

Add two cups of flour, stirring to make a loose, wet dough. Add the salt and then most, but not all, of the olive oil. It’s important to add the salt after you’ve added some of the flour so the salt doesn’t kill the newly activated yeast.

Sprinkle 1/2 cup of the remaining flour on your counter and dump out the wet dough and start kneading. Sprinkle the rest of the flour out and continue kneading till it has all been absorbed into the dough and the dough is soft and perhaps a wee bit sticky, about 5-7 minutes. Try not to be tempted to add more flour, since you want a slightly sticky, moist dough. Pour the remaining Tablespoon of olive oil in the bowl you started with,  and roll the dough ball around so it’s lightly covered with oil. Cover the bowl with a clean cloth and let dough rise until double, 2-3 hours.

Punch down the dough, then on a lightly floured work surface knead once or twice. Cut into 12 pieces. I ended up using a kitchen scale and the chunks weighed just a smidge over 2 ounces each. Then using your cupped hand-roll roll each chunk of dough so it forms a small ball. I think of my hand as a five-legged daddy-longlegs spider dancing around the dough. Once the dough has been formed into balls set them on a piece of lightly floured parchment paper, sprinkle them with a whisper of flour and cover with another piece of parchment, and set aside to rest – about an hour.

Preheat oven to 500°F if it is clean and won’t smoke, or 400°F it it isn’t spotless. For the pillowy version gently transfer the balls of dough to a parchment covered baking sheet and bake 7-12 minutes until slightly browned on the bottom. For the traditional pita version (where there is a pocket)* gently flatten the balls with a rolling pin or pat down with your hands and let rest another 10-20 minutes, then bake on parchment covered baking sheets 7-10 minutes or until you see them pop-up like a balloon, then settle down as they cool, which forms the traditional space you can stuff things into. Serve straight away, or cool on a rack then store in a plastic bag.

*After much experimenting I’ve found the traditional pita with a pocket really does benefit from a hot, hot oven. So if you’re oven is going to smoke at 500°F consider making the pillowy version.

Note: this bread doesn’t last for a long time so if you’re not going to eat it all in a few days wrap and freeze.

Pita with pesto

I love both versions for scooping up hummus or topping with heaping spoonfuls of Moroccan Carrot Purée. Shawn enjoyed them slathered with pesto. Homemade pita bread is also the perfect base for a chocolate hazelnut spread sandwich. Especially when the pita is still warm. Decadent & delightful. Of course you may want to take a walk (or a nap) after munching all this deliciousness.

Chocolate hazelnut spread on homemade pita bread

Brook along Grass Hill Road

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Setters & Spotters

Our son Russell was a bit of a trend setter at his Montessori School. During the winter months he didn’t want to stop wearing his favorite short-sleeved tee shirts so he simply layered them over turtlenecks or long-sleeved tops. More than one mother came up to me came up on the playground during pick up time to moan about how their kid insisted on dressing just like Russell (which given the winters in New England seemed like a good thing so I was unclear what all the moaning was all about). Then there was a “unicorn horn” phase, which is where he made a ponytail from his bangs and give this tuft of hair the illusion of being more horn-like he gloped on copious amounts of hair gel (there were not too many copy cats for that trend). He really knew how to rock the mix and match look as you can see below, I’m sure you’ll agree the dinosaur tie is an inspired addition. My son’s personal style was unique and a perfect reflection of who he was. Sometimes I wished I was as self-assured as he was when it came to wearing clothes.Russells favorite mix and match outfitMy Mom likes to tell me I too had some trendy moments in my youth, though they were more focused on food. Thinking back it seems totally logical. Julia Child had opened culinary doors in the 1960s so that by the time I was a teenager, busily taking every home ec course offered at my high school, all sorts of foods were starting to appear in restaurants, cookbooks, some of the more upscale grocery stores, and on TV. Looking back I realize I wasn’t a trend setter like Russell, but rather a trend spotter. Which makes complete sense since my hyper focus on food and cooking allowed me to know when something new, exciting or different was happening. One of the advantages of middle age is that, much like a five-year-old, you really don’t have to give two figs for what other people think, which leaves you wide open to follow your own path – starting a trend, finding one to follow, or merrily pursuing your own non-trendy path. Your choice.Cauliflower on cutting board Though I have practically no interest in current food trends, it doesn’t mean I don’t pay attention to what they are. In case you were wondering cauliflower is the trendy vegetable of 2017 (bye-bye kale and brussel sprouts). Continue reading

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Dashing Through The Snow

It’s December 31st and I’m pretty sure I won’t be awake when 2017 rolls in.

Which is just fine.

Vintage noisemakers from Caldwell's Miscellaneous Fancy Goods

My strategy this holiday season had been to do as much ahead of time as I could manage, though this strategy backfired somewhat. I was trying to address the Christmas shopping preemptively – finding the perfect thing, then hiding it away. One of the problems with this strategy was that when I started pulling out my various stashes of goodies I found I’d gone rather overboard. I guess I should have kept a list. Plus there were a few things I just know I safely put away but have yet to be found. Apparently my efforts to be organized meant that I had turned into the human equivalent of a squirrel.

Then there were the cookies. It felt like I’d gotten a nice jump-start on making Christmas cookies and baked plenty to last through the holidays. The thing is when you bake lots, and lots, and lots of cookies the question you should be asking yourself is,

“Are there ever enough Christmas cookies?”

Because the answer is no. You may see box upon box of buttery, sugary holiday cheer and think there is a glut, but trust me there isn’t. Nineteen-year-olds, the friends you want to give “a little something” to, the cookie tithe you pay to your sister for borrowing her Kitchen Aide mixer yet another year, and to be perfectly honest your own sassy self – all those factors add up fast. The perceived hoards of cookies disappear quicker than you can say Jack Brownie.

So enough with doing things ahead of time! It’s New Year’s eve and I’m going to live in the moment (or at least try to). Which means I’ll only think about what can get done today. Snow shoveling, a quick trip to the post office and transfer station, then baking up Rick’s Turkey Meatloaf.

Turkey meatloaf dinner

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Afternoon Tea

It’s fall, my favorite time of year. With the glorious blow-out of leaf colors it’s as if Mother Nature wants to give us one last hurrah before we enter the quiet time of late fall which then slides into winter.

Fall in the Pioneer Valley

I’ve loved waking up to misty mornings where you could barely see down the hill or cotton candy sunrises. Loved taking Oliver for walks as the leaves drifted down around us. Well okay, the ticks sucked, and there sure were a lot of them this year, but the leaves have been stupendous. I was even happy to watch the colors dampened down from bright reds and yellows to russets and burnt umbre.

Fall mornings

Fall walks

Fall colors starting to quiet down

The other night there was a frost advisory so I grabbed a flashlight and went out to pick the last of my mint. Bundled and tied, I hung it on a drawer pull to dry a save as a last vestige of summer. Then today it snowed. Seriously. October twenty–seventh. So when better to sip a cup of summer than during a weirdly early snowstorm.

Snow in October

Steeping a cup of home grown mint tea Continue reading

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Easy Italian Plum Cake

Sometimes things don’t have to be complicated.

Like chores. With our youngest going to college locally this semester household chores somehow got into a boondoggle. Then came the chore wheel and the quagmire of who was supposed to do what evaporated as the house settled into a clean (or as clean as we get) routine. I got a chuckle when I realized that every time MOM (i.e. me) was on dump duty or bathroom cleaning I was WOW. I love the fact that being upside down makes me wow!

Chore wheel

Another thing that isn’t too complicated is getting our dog Oliver to come back into the house after chasing bunny rabbits. Just open the back door and yell, “Steak” and he comes dashing. It works because he is a very clever Jack Russell Terrier, who has a formidable understanding of the english language. So much so that we’ve gotten into the habit of spelling, rather than saying, certain words. A friend cautioned us against making him food-centric, but I’ve found it very helpful over the years, especially owning a breed of dog who thinks about whether or not he wants to obey. Plus it costs us nothing. I simply cut up the scraps leftover from any meat dinner we have and pop those morsels into a bag we store in the freezer. Oliver knows he’ll get a frozen tidbit if he comes running at the “S” word.

Oliver coming home for steak

This week I was tickled to come across the most un-complicated cake ever. One of those oh so simple recipes that I somehow missed when Marian Burros first published it in the NYT thirty plus years ago, but which thankfully circled around and around, ultimately finding me again through a news feed. If you have the ingredients on hand you can pop it into the oven in less than ten minutes. An hour later you have the perfect Friday afternoon plum tea cake. Which can then morph into Saturday morning breakfast before you head out to the Farmer’s Market. Or turn into a late night snack as you finish your homework.

Fresh out of the oven italian plum cake Continue reading

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Baking Up Some Happy Mail

It’s blueberry season and all I want to do is bake a pie. But I can’t.

Bowl of summer blueberries

Not because it’s too hot to bake, I just don’t want to heat it up to 350º (or 375º or 400º) since a stupid mouse wiggled its way into my stove, couldn’t wiggle back out, and died! I have taken the stove as apart as I am capable of, but cannot find the darn carcass. Since a service call would probably cost more than the stove is worth I’m trying to figure out what my options are. Trust me when I say roasted mouse is not an enjoyable aroma.

So instead of baking up some of summer’s bounty I’ve been making a load of non-baked happy mail. It requires a glue gun, but no oven. The genius behind these mailable treats is Sandra Denneler over at sheknows, and so far this summer I’ve made a whole bunch of popsicle postcards, ice-cream sandwich postcards and one fabulous watermelon mailing package. Basically I’d say just follow the links to Sandra’s instructions and you should be fine. My tweaks to her “recipes” are below.

Cool Summer Happy Mail

Popsicle postcard happy mail Continue reading

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