Friday, January 1, 2021

Letting 2020 Go

I haven't been here for quite a while. 

Frankly, I just haven't felt like putting up a new blog post for most of the past six months. And, while I don't really know that anyone who reads my blog on a regular basis really wants an explanation (or needs one at this point), I feel like I need to write one out for myself. 

In July, my dad died. He'd had a lot of medical issues over the years, but - honestly - his death was still sudden and unexpected. From the time he went into the hospital to the time he was gone was just barely long enough for my sisters and me to make the trip to my hometown to say good-bye. Oddly enough, that was one blessing of the pandemic - the fact that no one was flying in July, so that my sisters could book last-minute direct flights without breaking the bank. 

It wasn't related to COVID-19. (I guess that, for deaths in 2020 and 2021, that will always be a question.)

The funeral home wanted to know when we would want to have a service, and the decision was "sometime after everyone can travel safely" - we're still not sure when that will be. 

I've been told by people who would know that the first year is the worst, because you're having all of your "first XX without..." situations. And we've definitely had those. I've had my first visit back to my hometown without him there in the house with my mom. We've had our first Thanksgiving and our first Christmas. 

But we've also had our first random Wednesday. Our first "I've got a sore throat, what do I take?" (Dad was a pharmacist so he was always our first call in medical situations.) Our first trip to Trader Joe's without buying those ginger cookies he liked to take home to him. 

For me, it's exactly like when the Narrator in "Our Town" explained to Emily that she should choose to revisit an ordinary day, because even that holds too much emotion for the heart to bear. 

And, as of today, we have the first calendar year that he won't be in. As of midnight, his death is now "last year" - a marker in the past. 

I know that a lot of other things happened in 2020. A lot of things people wish hadn't happened, and a lot of things that we, as a society, should never forget. And I know that we're not the only family that dealt with losing a loved one. It was 12 months of the world going on. And there were probably just as many good things as bad - weddings and births and beautiful sunrises and dances in the kitchen. 

But, for me, the beginning of July changed everything. And I have been dreading the change of the calendar and having to say that it happened last year. Because the memories will always be immediate and I will always want to make one more phonecall, one more visit, one more drive down that road because we haven't gone down it in a while. 

A new year is just a date on a calendar. Life goes on. It's persistent. And so does memory. And there will always be new firsts. They just won't ever be quite the same. 


Because it kind of seems appropriate, here is a link to Dad's obituary

Friday, July 17, 2020

Margo's Eggs (sorta)

A couple of weeks ago - the PopTarts week - my post was almost entirely video. So I'm balancing that out with this old-school post, which has no video. But it's a REALLY good recipe, so I'd recommend reading it, anyway. 

Crispy edges, chunks of bacon, cheese, and a creamy top layer. Yum!

Here's a catch, though: I also don't have any of the prep photos, because I was doing some emotional cooking and only remembered to take photos when it was done. So you'll also have to trust me that it's one of the easiest things you'll ever make for brunch (or whenever you decide to eat it). 

Basically what you're making is a savory bread pudding crossed with a Midwestern casserole (I grew up in South Dakota, so at the point this entered my life I still talked of "casseroles" instead of the Minnesotan "hot dish"). It has an incredibly basic custard (milk and eggs), stale bread, some kind of meat and cheese, and a can of cream of something soup. 

Seriously - what's not to love? 

Because there's no video, I'm jumping straight into the recipe. For my usual ramblings, please see the Q&A section below the recipe. 

Margo's Eggs

The ingredient list is pretty straightforward: 

8 slices of bread (something sturdy and/or stale works best)
2 1/2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese
1 pound of bacon, browned and drained
7 eggs
2 3/4 cups milk (dual usage)
1 tsp dry mustard (or 1 tbsp brown mustard)
1 can Cream of Mushroom soup (in the original, but Cream of Chicken is great - any "Cream of..." that you think goes with cheese and bacon would work)

Butter/Margarine/Cooking spray to grease the pan

**This is, technically, for a 9"x13" pan. But it kind of depends on the size of your slices of bread. The pan in the photo (below) is, I believe, 10"x10". My mom has always made it in a shallow lasagna pan - about 10"x15" (maybe) - and if you do it in that, you'd want to use 1.5x the recipe. 

Here's how I make this:

Note: Start this the night before you want to eat it (because it should sit in the fridge overnight before baking)

1. Brown the bacon until fairly crisp (I typically use kitchen shears to cut the strips of bacon into 1-inch pieces before cooking, but you could also just cook the strips and then crumble them after they cool)
2. While the bacon is cooking, grease a 9x13 baking dish
3. In between checks on the bacon, tear up the bread into "large bite-size" pieces and throw them in the greased pan
4. Add the shredded cheese to the pan and mix with the bread
5. Hopefully by this time (it times out pretty well if you're also hand-shredding the cheese, etc.) the bacon will be done, and you can add the bite-size pieces of bacon to the pan and mix it all together

6. In a bowl, combine the eggs, mustard, and 2 1/4 cups of the milk
7. Pour the milk/egg/mustard mixture over the bread (etc.) in the pan
     (Honestly, at this point, I go in with my hands and moosh it all around. The idea is that you want the bread to soak up as much of the liquid as possible, so you move it around and push it down a bit into the liquid.)

8. In the (now empty) bowl, combine the can of soup with the remaining 1/2 cup of milk
9. Spread the soup mixture over the mix in the pan
10. Cover and refrigerate overnight (about 8 hours)

11. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
12. Bake (uncovered) for an hour (it should be pretty well "set" before you take it out)
13. Remove from the oven and let stand for about 5 minutes to finish setting up 
14. Serve (and realize some people will fight over the crispy bits around the edges)

If any of it doesn't get eaten right away, it refrigerates and reheats really well. 

Christopher wasn't around for this one, so we went old school with Cream of Mushroom.

And now to some of the questions I'm sure you probably have: 

Can I substitute other breakfast meats? 
Yes. This is a really forgiving recipe. Just try to keep the proportions the same and drain the meat before using it. Ham is an easy swap-out. Peppered bacon adds a nice bite. Sausage works. I'm sure Chorizo would be good - as would numerous non-meat products. 

What soups have you used?
The original recipe for this was always Cream of Mushroom, but then I met Christopher - who is allergic to mushrooms. So I stared for a while at the Campbell's soup rack in the grocery store and decided to go with Cream of Chicken (for the whole chicken/egg thing). I think Cream of Potato would be really good. I'm not a huge fan of Cream of Celery or Cream of Asparagus - but they might work if you like them. 

Why is it called "Margo's Eggs"? Who is Margo? Why was it an "emotional bake"? 
Alright... you knew there had to be a backstory. And I waited as long as I could to include it. 

When I was growing up, Margo and Curt were two of my parents' best friends in my home town. Curt was the town dentist (my dad was the pharmacist), and so when they moved to town it was a good match. And, sometime along the way, Margo made this casserole and served it and Mom got the recipe from her. 

It has been served every year at Christmas and at almost every family reunion. And I have served it at (I believe) every brunch I've ever hosted. And they are always "Margo's Eggs." People who never met Margo know that they're Margo's Eggs and ask me whether they'll be served at the next brunch. I've emailed the recipe for Margo's Eggs to people on both coasts at different times. They have always been - and will always be - Margo's Eggs. 

The funny thing is that Margo apparently never really made Margo's Eggs that often. When Margo and Curt came for brunch at Mom and Dad's a few years ago, she asked where Mom had gotten the recipe. Apparently they weren't a staple in their house - and when she did make them, she almost never used Cream of Mushroom soup (she opted for Cream of Chicken). She thought it was kind of ridiculous that we called them "Margo's Eggs." But... there we are. 

I made the batch of Margo's Eggs in these photos last April. I was home with my parents to spend some time with them because Margo had passed away earlier in the month. And in trying to be cautious about gatherings, there could be no funeral for a best friend. So I came home and we talked about Margo and ate the dish that we'll always think of as hers. 

It's not really enough information to understand how amazing she was, how infectious her laugh was, and how much she is missed - but you can learn more about her here:

The world is kind of crazy right now, and it's nearly impossible to share things in person. I can't even remember the last time Christopher and I hosted a brunch - and I really miss that kind of social interaction gathering. But I know that, as soon as we can safely gather in the house, Margo's Eggs will be on the table for brunch. 

And I doubt there will be any leftovers.

How're you doing these days? Are there any foods that are helping you to get through it all - or any plans for "after all this" that you're keeping your eye on? I hope you're well and taking care of yourself and those you love.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Parker House Rolls

One thing I've learned over the years of blogging about food (and, really, about almost anything) is that there are always variations on themes. And those variations really come out when you're talking about recipes. 

Back around Easter, I decided that it would be nice to have dinner rolls with our Easter dinner (even though Easter dinner this year was just Christopher, me, and a ham). And so I headed online to find a good dinner roll recipe and came across this recipe for Parker House rolls from Dave Lieberman (who had a short run on the Food Network). 

Having looked at a few other recipes, I thought this one seemed to look like it hit all the right notes. And since we had just come into possession of yeast, I decided it was the way to go. (Plus, they promised to look really pretty.)

Now, something you may not remember is that I also spent much of Easter Sunday making Yeast Doughnuts (that blog post is here). (So there was a whole lot of rising going on on Easter.) 

Let's set the scene, since it's been a while: 
 Yes, frankly, this is how I feel about yeast. (More explanation in the video.) 

First, we get together the ingredients, as usual. 
You'll note that the water has a thermometer sticking out of it - that's because water that is too cold won't do anything with yeast and water that is too hot will kill it.
(Please ignore the bottle of chocolate extract in the photo.)

So what is a good temperature when working with Active Dry Yeast? Somewhere between 110 and 116 degrees Fahrenheit. 

With the water (1 cup) at the right temp, we put in the yeast (2 1/4 tsp - or one "packet" of Active Dry yeas) and sugar (2 tbsp) (because yeast needs something to eat) (eww). 

And, as discussed in the video, you let that get all foamy for 5 or 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, you can work with the rest of your ingredients, including 2 cups all-purpose flour and 1 tsp of salt. 
Yeah. The "flour and salt" photos are never going to get interesting. Sorry.

Add in one whole egg and one extra yolk... 
For the record, I do not know what the equivalency is if you crack open an egg to find it has two yolks.

And - you guessed it - you can start stirring.

At this point, you can go back and look at the frothy yeast to see what it's been up to. 

When we started, it basically all came to just barely above the 8-ounce mark. At this point, it was up to the 12-ounce mark. Which made me think the yeast had had enough snacking and was ready to do some work. 

And, having decided that it's time to mix everything together, you can do just that.

This was the first time I've made these rolls, and... yowsa... this was not what I expected them to look like. 

Eventually, they started to pull together and smooth out.

But even after adding all of the flour, this is how gloppy the dough looked when I flipped it out onto the board to be kneaded. 

I took the recipe at its word and added about half a cup more flour as I went along - both to keep it from sticking to the board AND to get it to eventually hold together. 

At this point, I put it into a bowl, covered it, and let it proof for about 20 minutes, at which point it came out looking like this: 
I know it's a bit hard to tell, but it did grow some during that 20-minute rest. 

While the dough was resting, I melted 2 tablespoons of butter and put it into the bottom of a 9-inch pie plate:

And now your junior high math skills come into play. (Though... really... with most baking you do have to use math, so this isn't a huge leap.) 

To quote the recipe: "Remove dough from the bowl, divide the dough in half and roll each piece into a long 1 1/2-inch wide snake shape. Cut into 20 pieces and shape each into a ball." That process looks (at least in my kitchen) like this: 

Step 1: Divide the dough in half

Step 2: Roll each half into a 1 1/2-inch wide snake

Step 3: Cut into 20 pieces. 
I fully admit that this step had me wondering a bit. Was I supposed to cut each half into 20? Or was I supposed to end up with 20 pieces total? I opted to go with 20 pieces total.

The first few dough balls were easy enough to roll in the butter. The latter ones were a bit of a challenge, though, because there wasn't much room left to move the butter around in. (If I come across something like this in a recipe in the future, I'll probably just butter the pan, then keep the melted butter in a bowl to dip the dough into.) 

Once in the pan, I tucked them in under a towel and (as usual) placed it on the top of the fridge to proof. 

After about an hour, they'd not quite doubled in size, but I figured it was close enough. 

They did look much more pleasant than they had before proofing, after all: 

A quick brush with some lightly beaten egg (honestly, I just used the leftover eggwhite, instead of a whole egg), and then a sprinkling with salt, and then into the oven. 

And about half an hour later, they looked like this. 
Be honest - that's making your mouth water just a bit, isn't it? 

So, they look good, but how did they taste? 

Overall, I'd say they lived up to the hype. And they were great for ham sandwiches after the fact. 

Was it a perfect recipe? Maybe not. The dough was probably not supposed to be quite so wet at the start, but I worked around that. We'll see if I try this recipe again in the future or try another one. 

By the way - I did find that, yep, Parker House Rolls are named after the Parker House Hotel in Boston, where they originated in the 1870s. 

Behind/Below-the-scenes photo: This is what happens when you wear black sweatpants without an apron while working with dough. (Or at least it's what happens if you're me.) 

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Froot Loops Pop-Tarts (yes, really)

You know how, sometimes, when you're feeling a little down and you go to the grocery store, and you just decide to pick up whatever just seems like an interesting idea at the time? Sometimes you get a great idea. 

Sometimes, when you've been kind of cooped up for a couple of months, you end up with a really bad idea in your cart. 

This post is about that. To whit: 

Yes. That box says "Froot Loops Pop-Tarts." 

Yes. I bought them. 

And, yes, I tried them. 

So, how were they? 

Let's find out...

Yeah... They were... sweet. But I will say that they were exactly what they advertised. They tasted like Froot Loops and they were in a Pop-Tart crust. 

Not sure whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. But there it is. 

I promise that the next blog post that I put up will involve actual kitchen activity. And possibly even a good recipe. 

In the meantime, I hope you're having a good start to July - and that you're keeping yourself (and those around you) well and happy. 

PS. I wasn't kidding about the box and the "glasses" Pop-Tart design:
I don't recommend using a Pop-Tart as glasses.
I do recommend wearing a mask when out in public. 

PPPS. Yes. I ate the rest of those two pastries. And I drank a lot of water with them. The other 6 are still in the box...

Thanks for sticking with me - and for even reading all the way to the end. I'd say "send me your ideas" - because I'm always open to them - but I can't promise you when I'll get around to writing about them. (If I'm being totally honest.)

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Raised Doughnuts! (Eventually...)

In my quest to use the yeast that we bought a couple of weeks ago - and also in an attempt to work my way through learning some bread-related techniques, I decided that it might be fun to celebrate Easter with doughnuts.

I even committed to getting up early to make them so that we could have them for breakfast (since we're planning to just have a big afternoon meal, and not three squares today). I figured I'd get up around 7, and we'd be good to go by around 9:30 or so. (Let's just call that foreshadowing by an unreliable narrator, shall we?)

Don't get me wrong. We did have doughnuts for breakfast. It was just a tad later than we'd expected. But here's what it was like when I started at about 7:25:
I kind of half apologize in advance for the Easter pun.

This is where I would usually post a photo of the recipe, but this time I'm just going to link you to Alton Brown's recipe over on the Food Network website.

I'd also like to state at the outset that I made a half batch of the dough, instead of a full batch. As much as I could probably have eaten a full batch of these in one sitting, I don't think that the two of us really needed that much temptation in the house when we're both working from home.

Not included in this photo are a few pieces of special equipment: thermometers for the water and the oil, and a doughnut cutter - or a biscuit cutter and a metal pastry tip...

Because we were doing the half batch, some measurements got a little odd. Like trying to figure out how to do half of 1/3 cup of shortening:

Can you see the puncture mark I made in the foil before cutting into the stick? 
The first real step of the recipe still confuses me a bit, even after doing it. You're supposed to warm the milk on the stove until "just warm enough to melt the shortening" and then pour the milk over the shortening in a small bowl. (Prepare yourself for exciting action shots...)

1/6c of shortening:

3/4c milk heating on the stove:

Please ignore the splatter on the stovetop. At 7am, I really didn't care enough to clean before taking that photo.
Looking at it at this point, I'm really not sure why we couldn't just put the shortening in the pan and heat it until it melted.

1/6c of water, between 95 and 105 degrees Fahrenheit:
It was beginning to feel a bit "Mr. Science" around this point.
The equivalent of one packet of yeast (2 1/4 tsp), sitting in the warm water to dissolve/bloom, and the shortening/milk, which I had to put into a bowl with cold water to try to get it cool enough that it wouldn't immediately kill the yeast:

Thankfully, we have a digital kitchen scale, because otherwise trying to figure out 11.5 ounces of flour would have been a bugger.

As someone who usually bakes things that are wet ingredients in one bowl, dry ingredients in another, it was a little strange to me to just dump the milk/shortening, yeast/water, nutmeg, sugar, salt, and half of the flour into the mixer all at once. But that's what the recipe said to do, so...

After the first half of the flour went in, it was still pretty liquidy:

But the second half of the flour gave us a sticky mess (which I knew meant we were on the right path):

I switched from the flat beater to the dough hook and let it run for a couple of minutes, then stopped it to check on it, and found this:
Definitely not "pulling away from the edges" or "smooth." 
So I turned it back on and let it run. The recipe said to go for 3 or 4 minutes, but it took about 6 minutes to get it to this point:
I wonder if, had I done a full batch, it would have come together a little better. As it is, it seemed to keep leaving some in the bottom of the bowl. 
Covered with one of the beeswax cloths, and up it went onto the top of the fridge for an hour.

If you've been following my blog for a while, you know that I'm a huge fan of recipes that don't take a lot of prep and that don't use a lot of dishes. In large part, that's because we don't have a dishwasher, and I don't like having a messy kitchen.

This recipe is not one of those "self-tidying" recipes. At this point in the process, my counter looked like this:
I would be yelled at by any of the "chef mentors" on most cooking shows because it was so messy. But, honestly, I was working the full time on doing things, and didn't have much time to clean until I got to this point.
An hour (and some kitchen tidying later), the dough had risen to this:
Definitely a good doubling in size. Although you can't tell in this photo, it actually puffed up enough to stick to the wrap on top. 
If you look closely in the top section of the photo you can see where it got stretched when I took off the cover.
Rolling it out was really easy. I honestly had thought that the dough might put up more of a fuss. But it was done before I had really started - and, frankly, I might have rolled it thinner than the recipe wanted.

Next up was the cutting of the donuts. The recipe says to use a 2 1/2-inch doughnut cutter. We don't have one of those. What we do have are biscuit cutters. So I started with just making the outer circles, and then had to figure out what to use for the inner cutter.

The first thing that I found that was round, small - and relatively sharp - was metal pastry/frosting tips.
Honestly, the size was about perfect. The only trouble was getting the "hole" out after you punched it.
The whole batch, according to the recipe, is supposed to make 20 to 25 of the 2 1/2-inch doughnuts. But I made 10 of that size PLUS 3 larger donuts out of my first rolling of the dough:

By the time I was done, I had about a dozen of the "small" ones and another half dozen of the large ones, plus all of the doughnut holes and some leftover bits.
In other words, a half batch was definitely the right way to go.
At this point, it was time for another 20-minute rest under a tea towel.

Finally, with the cover off, they were all kind of pillowy and ready to fry.

My oil was up to about 365F - perfect.
As you can see, Christopher had already gone through over half of his coffee by this point. This is when it started to feel like these had taken forever. 
The first doughnut went in on its own - just in case I had done anything horribly wrong. About a minute on the first side, with its bubbles propelling it around the pan.
I use a deep sauté pan for frying, typically (as I did this morning), though the recipe recommends a Dutch oven if you don't have a deep fryer. Because the temp kept fluctuating as I fried, I think that a cast iron Dutch oven might have been a good idea - it would hold the temperature a bit better than an open pan like this.
 After the first minute, doughnut number one got flipped. And... oh... it smelled so good!

In the meantime, I had poured some sugar into one bowl, and made a quick glaze (powdered sugar and milk - just slightly thicker than you might think it should be).

I used a long spatula for the flipping and the removing from the pan. You do want to try to let the oil drip off before moving on with them. 

The first doughnut went into the sugar, which you want to do while they're still warm so that the sugar sticks to the doughnut. 

Then I started going for larger batches (and turning the heat on the pan up and down to try to stay close to the magical 365 marker on the thermometer).

Something I learned today: doughnut holes don't like to be flipped over once they've started to cook. The browned sides tend to want to stay down, and the light side (presumably airier and lighter) stay up. I did find, eventually, that if you allowed them to stay along the sides, they were more prone to stay flipped when you maneuvered them.

I don't have any action shots of me dipping the doughnuts into the glaze. Here's the thing, though: unlike the sugar ones, you need to let the ones you're going to glaze cool just ever so slightly before dipping them into the glaze. Why? Well, for one thing, I was using my hand and I didn't want to burn myself. But the glaze will also melt and completely run off if the dough is too hot.
The monstrosity at the bottom of the photo was made of all of the last cuttings from the doughnuts, when I didn't feel like re-rolling. Honestly, due to all of the nooks and crannies, it got a really good, crispy outer shell - and it held a LOT of sugar!
So, they look like they're supposed to look, but how were they?
For once, a thumbnail that actually explains the video!

Apparently my phone was frustrated with having to do so much early morning work on a Sunday, though, so here's my wrap-up wrap-up:

The verdict from Christopher was that the crispy outer edge was great, and the inside of the doughnut was actually a very good texture. His one callout was that the dough wasn't as sweet as he might have expected - but had we glazed the all around (instead of just on the top) that might not have been a problem.

And, to answer my own question from the video, above: Yes, the larger ones were a slightly better texture than the smaller ones.

As for the snow I was mentioning, here's what it looked like outside at about 12:30 this afternoon:
Yesterday, the grass was all greening up for spring. As I'm finishing this write up at about 2pm, the sidewalk and street are no longer melting - it's all white out there.
OH - And part of why I was frustrated by the timing on these doughnuts was that I had initially planned to do a chocolate glaze. But to do that, the main recipe says you should let the doughnuts cool for 20+ minutes, and then once you put the glaze on them, the glaze is supposed to set for half an hour. So, although I got out all of the ingredients (below), I just didn't want to add another hour to the time.

So... Who wants to make bets on what my next yeasty adventure will be? Any guesses? I have a pretty good idea, but you'll have to wait to find out. (And I might change course, depending on what you all vote for...)