Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Sam's Favorite Red Velvet Cupcakes

Sam's favorite color is red, so he's naturally (or is that unnaturally?) predisposed to liking red velvet cupcakes.  So when he asked for red velvet cupcakes for his third birthday, I wasn't surprised.  But I wanted to make them good!  Even if I had to use red food coloring...

To find a good recipe, I did some research online.  Luckily, Crumbly Cookie helpfully did a taste test of a whole bunch of recipes.  They settled on this one from Apple a Day (adapted from Saveur).  It looked like a solid place to start.  But I wanted something with a bit more chocolate punch.  (And while Becky may like cream cheese frosting, I don't.)  So I added the Cook's Illustrated chocolate ganache from their incredible "Ultimate Chocolate Cupcakes" (adapted here.)  (If you want chocolate cupcakes, these are the best.)  And some quick "foolproof" chocolate frosting from the Cook's Illustrated yellow-cake recipe.

Some time before his fourth birthday, Sam discovered rainbow sprinkles.  The perfect topping!  Putting it all together, I think I have the Ultimate Red Velvet Cupcakes with Chocolate Inside and Out.



Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Best Whole-Wheat Bread-Machine Sandwich Bread

Our son is just like I was at his age: the only thing he will eat for lunch is a PB&J sandwich.  We use natural crunchy peanut butter (Trader Joe's is the best), and good quality strawberry jam.  But the bread is the most important part.

While the No-Kneed Bread makes delicious bread, it's not good sandwich bread.  For that, I turned to the Bread Lover's Bread Machine Cookbook.  Ages ago, my friend recommended this cookbook to me and it is awesome.  Trying a few of the recipes, the "Light Whole-Wheat Bread" was almost there...but it was a bit too light, and I found the volume measurements to be a bit inconsistent.  When baking, having a scale is essential.  So I boosted the amount of whole-wheat flour, tweaked a few of the ingredients, and converted the volumes to weights, and voila!





Monday, December 9, 2013

The Complete Guide to Building a Gingerbread House



When I was a young lad, my mom made a gingerbread house every December, and I loved helping to decorate it.  A few years ago, right after Sam was born, I revived the tradition.  (I wanted to have a track record of building them so the first one when Sam was aware of what was going on wouldn't be a disaster.)  These days my mom buys the kits ... and she offers me one every year.  NEVER.

Over the years, I've amassed a list of bookmarks for the combination of recipes that I use.  And every year I have to sift through them and figure out what works and what doesn't.  Why?  Because I've been too lazy to write it up.  But not this year!  It's a Chrismathanksgivikah miracle!

I've split the directions up into multiple posts.  This post has the overview and assembly instructions.  The next post has the gingerbread recipe..  Following is the optional stained glass window recipe.  Finally, the royal icing recipe.

Note that this must be done over a couple of days: the dough should chill in the fridge overnight; then the walls need a couple of hours to fully set before the house should be assembled and decorated.


Gingerbread with Fresh Ginger


I've tried many gingerbread recipes.  I've settled on a slight variation on this one. It's the perfect amount to make two 9"x13" baking sheets, suitable for the 5"x7"x8" house in my Complete Guide.  For best results, you should make the gingerbread dough on one day, refrigerate it overnight, and roll and bake it the next day.  You'll want to bake the gingerbread for a bit before cutting out the pieces.  Otherwise, they'll expand while baking and they won't fit together as expected.

Gingerbread House Stained Glass Windows

This was the first year that I tried to make stained glass windows for the gingerbread house.  And it was a lot easier than I had feared ... and they look great!  I used a variation on this stained glass recipe.  They've gone through all the trouble over many years perfecting the method.  Fantastic!


Gingerbread House Royal Icing

The final component to a gingerbread house is the royal icing.  This is literally the glue that holds everything together.  My favorite royal icing recipe is adapted from here.  It uses cream of tartar, which apparently has some magical property to help stabilize the egg whites (along with being the other half of baking powder).  It really does make a difference!

It really helps to put this in a squeeze bottle or other icing bottle.  If you don't have one available, you can apparently use a ziploc bag and cut a hole in the corner.  But seriously?  This doesn't work.  Get a bottle.


Monday, July 8, 2013

In Memoriam: Doc "Doctor" Rykoff, 1999-2013

At the end of August 2000 I bought a house.  Labor Day weekend I went with my friend Oksana to the Huron Valley Humane Society to adopt a dog.  She pointed out this adorably cute black lab in one of the cells.  He was very quiet -- he was probably the only dog in the place not barking.  But on the "test drive" he fetched sticks and licked my face.  And I immediately went in to sign the adoption papers.

He had been dropped off at the pound a week earlier by a family who claimed to have found him on the side of the road and kept him for a few months before bringing him in.  When they brought him in he weighed less than 55 pounds.  He had gained over 5 pounds in a week, and another 5 pounds the next week.  He didn't have a name, so the kind folks at the pound named him "Doc", which seemed like a good fit.  He didn't have a birthday, but they estimated his age at "between 1 and 2", so I celebrated his half-birthday on Labor Day every year.  And he didn't have any bark, since he had clearly not been well treated.  I'll never know exactly where he was from or how he got to the pound.

The one thing he did still have was testicles.  And they don't let you take an un-neutered dog home from the pound.  And it wasn't until Tuesday that the vet was coming to snip him!  So I had to put Doc back in the cage at the end of the day.  I'll never forget the look in his eyes: "I did everything right!  I thought things were great!  Why are you leaving?"  But then he was that much happier to see me when I picked him up.

The first night was rough.  I had to sleep with my hand off the side of the bed laying on him to keep him from shaking.  But when Auntie Amanda first came to visit we bought him a proper dog bed.  When my parents first came to visit he ran outside and hid behind their car.  But soon my dad came to occupy the coveted "favorite person besides Eli" spot ... a spot that Becky was never able to overtake.

He still had a lot of puppy in him.  He ate my sunglasses.  He ate my astronomy textbook.  He ate several shoes.  He would get trapped in the closet when he tried to hide from thunderstorms.

My first summer with him we went to Los Alamos for two months.  We went for hikes almost every day.  He swam in the Rio Grande.  He scratched his face barreling through some barbed wire in the forest.  And he most assuredly had found his bark.



Back in Ann Arbor we went fetching in the park every day.  I bought a chuck-it so I could throw the ball farther.  I bought a light-up ball and a light-up collar so we could continue fetching at night.  He ran circles around the other dogs -- literally.  He ripped his ear on a branch and needed a triple dose of sedatives to get him to sleep while they stitched it up.  And he woke up full of energy 15 minutes later.  They thought he was going to be out all night.

He was a great car passenger.  He drove with me to Colorado every winter to bound in the snow with his Uncle Buddy.  He would eat the snow to keep cool, and then come inside and shiver uncontrollably as it melted in his stomach.  He hiked around McDonald Observatory in west Texas.  (But he never did like the thorns and burrs around there.)



He came with Becky and me when we moved from Ann Arbor to Santa Barbara.  He loved the drive, and the smells along the way.  He loved hiking the trails in the mountains.


But it was when we got to Santa Barbara that he really found his true love: the ocean.  He would crash through the waves to fetch his orange bumper toy. Again.  And again.  And again.  And then I would throw the tennis ball down the beach with the chuck-it.  Again.  And again.  And again.  And he maybe would be tired at that point.  I know I was.


But he was getting on in years.  He survived a snail-bait poisoning, thanks to Becky's quick reaction and his strong constitution.  He started to miss a few steps.  He couldn't go in the waves as well as he used to, but he could still fetch the ball. He had new challenges to contend with.  Ones that cry and crawl and occasionally tug at fur.  Doc had infinite patience and is super sweet with kids, but you could tell he sometimes resented the other attention-grabbing kid in the house.


Doc carried on.  Made the move up from Santa Barbara to Oakland, but at that point he couldn't handle the waves any more.  He survived the attack from the pit-bull.  He survived the endless fireworks in the neighborhood for Chinese New Year and the 4th of July.  But he was getting slower.  His walks were getting shorter.  His fetches less and less often.

His last night at home he was having a dream.  With adorable twitches and, sadly, no more little barks.  And I like to think he was dreaming of chasing a ball into the ocean.


Sunday, September 23, 2012

Buttermilk Pancakes

I've been making pancakes for years.  I regularly made them in Tanzania (with whatever ingredients I could get my hands on), and have tried various recipes over the years.  For many years now I've been using the Joy of Cooking for a standard buttermilk pancake recipe.  But they weren't always as fluffy as I wanted them, and I always had trouble getting consistent proportions.  Recently, I pulled out the Cook's Illustrated recipe, but that uses sour cream instead of buttermilk -- and I'm morally opposed to sour cream.  However, there were some good tips on ratios of baking powder to baking soda, good weight and volume details, and other tips.  I then combined these two recipes and... Eureka!  Perfect, reliable buttermilk pancakes.  We usually cook these on a griddle on the grill outside on a beautiful Sunday morning.  (And in California, this can be all year long.  Depending on your location, YMMV.) I strongly recommend weighing the flour -- the consistency of the pancakes depends on getting this right, and it's hard to get a consistent amount by measuring 2 cups of flour by volume.



Buttermilk Pancakes
Makes 12 pancakes

Ingredients:

2 cups (9.5 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
1 Tbs sugar
2 cups buttermilk
2 eggs
3 Tbs unsalted butter (melted)

Preheat griddle to 350 F or until water droplets "dance".  Whisk flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl.  In a separate medium bowl, whisk eggs together.  Then whisk buttermilk, and finally whisk in butter.  Pour liquid mixture onto flour mixture, and whisk until just incorporated.  As Alton Brown says "count to ten and then just step away from the bowl."

To check if the grill is ready, drop a few droplets of water on.  If they "dance" but don't boil away immediately, the griddle is the right temperature.  (Alternatively, you can use one of those awesome laser infrared thermometer doohickies.)  Brush a small amount of butter on griddle using a paper towel to wipe up excess.  Using a 1/3 cup measuring cup, pour on 6 pancakes.  Wait until bubbles start to form on top, or bottoms are nice and golden brown.  Flip pancakes until browned on the other side.  Repeat with the second set of 6 pancakes.

Serve with butter and real maple syrup.


Sunday, March 4, 2012

Peanutty Peanut Butter Cookies with Peanuts



Who doesn't love peanut butter cookies? Other than those who are allergic, of course...

In the past year, I expanded my cookie repertoire to peanut butter cookies. Sam loves them, Becky loves them, and my sister Amanda loves them. In honor of Auntie Amanda's upcoming visit, I'm finally blogging the recipe that I use. Of course, it's basically a Cook's Illustrated recipe for "Big Super-Nutty Peanut Butter Cookies", which I grabbed from an adaptation here. They contain extra-crunchy peanut-butter as well as ground peanuts, so I call them "Peanutty Peanut Butter Cookies with Peanuts" which is even more accurate.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Curried Butternut Squash Soup with Cilantro Yogurt

A couple of years ago we were looking for a good butternut squash soup recipe to take advantage of the beautiful squash we find at the farmers' markets around fall and winter. Becky found an old Cook's Illustrated recipe that somebody else had reposted online. It purported to extract the most flavor out the squash by steaming it and sauteing the seeds. Unfortunately, we found it to be watery and bland. Though the cilantro yogurt garnish was delicious!

I got to work on it, roasting the squash instead of steaming it (similar to my pumpkin pie recipe; adding more squash and less water; and a bit more salt. I've been meaning to post this online for a long time, and here it is!