Monday, March 24, 2014

Butterscotch Pudding for My Dad

A couple of years ago, Penzey's spices gave away bumper stickers that said, "Love people. Cook them good food." I think most people who enjoy cooking understand that directive in a deep way. Cooking is such an act of nurturing, whether of other people or just yourself. More than providing sustenance, it can be an act of great love. Trying to please someone else by preparing food you think or know that they will enjoy is one of the best gifts you can give.

Usually this blog, and other food blogs, are about pushing boundaries, trying new things, and even (dare I say it?) showing off. American food culture has come so far in the last several decades that there's a never-ending source of things to cook and taste and write about. A lot of the food I think of as commonplace would have seemed exotic when I was in my teens and twenties, if it was even available. Like most of my peers, I typically steer away from the packaged and processed foods of my youth towards fresh ingredients, not to mention artisan this and organic that. I grew up in a household where scratch cooking was still the order of the day, but so was Cool Whip and Spaghetti-Os. It was the 70s, what can I say?

I've written quite a bit about my family recipes and culinary traditions, but today's post is special. My father has been very ill the last few months. The dreaded C word. Today he went to hospice. He's is alert and not in any pain, just needs care that we can no longer give him at home.

One of the issues we've faced is that he has no appetite, and many foods irritate his mouth. He's been living on Ensure and milk and yogurt and the like. Last weekend I picked up the ingredients for two of his favorite desserts in hopes of tempting him to eat a little more. The day after I arrived I asked him if he'd eat either one if I made it, and he chose one as being a likely candidate.

I measured out the milk into a saucepan, substituting a little half-and-half to boost the calorie content. I dumped in the package of Jell-O butterscotch pudding mix, whisked it in, and set it over the heat. Just like a million times in my childhood, I stirred the mixture as it gradually, gradually heated, making sure it didn't stick or lump up. Stirring a pot of pudding on the stove when you start with cold milk seems like a never-ending chore. I'm not the most patient person in the world, and I always thought that the person who wrote "a watched pot never boils" should have referred to pudding instead.

After what seemed like a year, though suddenly, as always, it started simmering and came to the boil that would cause it to thicken properly. Quickly, quickly, I poured the steaming mixture into four custard cups, leaving them on the counter to cool a bit before popping into the fridge. When they were sufficiently cool, Dad decided he'd try one. A little whipped cream from a can completed the dish.

He'd had some of those plastic cups with various pudding flavors, including butterscotch. But this ... this he ate with as much relish as anything these last few weeks. He even commented that it had a really good flavor, and ate nearly the whole thing -- a major accomplishment.

So yes, I'm a big fan of scratch cooking, and I don't make much from a package these days. Sometimes, though, the packaged stuff is just what the doctor ordered.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Grown-Up Roasted Tomato Balsamic Soup

Since I've been in a bread-making phase this bitter winter, it only seems natural that I also am in a soup and stew phase. This recipe is a long-time favorite. (In fact, I should probably just rename this blog SingleGrrl's Greatest Hits, since I've been blogging more about my old standards than new experiments. But anyway ....) I've been making it, or variations thereof, since it was first published in Cooking Light magazine. Its title in the magazine is Creamy Tomato Balsamic Soup. I consider the "creamy" part optional, though, and I like to emphasize the fact that the tomatoes are roasted. This soup has a deep, robust flavor, and has the added attraction of being healthy and easy to make.

Of course, you'll want to pair this with a grilled cheese sandwich made with slices of Cottage Tea House Bread or 100% Whole Wheat Bread, as you see here. What is more classic than a good homemade tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

More Yeast: 100% Whole Wheat Bread

My favorite white bread recipe was featured on the blog a few weeks ago. (Yeast Bread - Yes You Can!) I have another favorite recipe for yeast bread -- this one is whole wheat. Baking with whole wheat flour presents some special challenges. As noted in my previous post about wheat flours, a good wheat yeast bread made depends on gluten for structure. In general, the higher the protein content in the flour, the more potential for gluten development. When you are working with white flours -- flour where the germ and the bran of the wheat kernel has been removed -- this relationship is pretty straightforward. If you are working with whole wheat flour, however, a number of factors complicate matters. This recipe provides some techniques for getting the most out of a 100% whole wheat loaf.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Picking the Right Flour for the Job

In most grocery stores you'll see many types of white wheat flours: all-purpose, cake,  bread, self-rising (if you are in the South), and sometimes pastry. Less common are the whole wheat varieties -- you can usually find whole wheat all-purpose flour easily, but whole wheat pastry flour and whole wheat bread flour are harder to come by. When I was growing up, we usually had all-purpose white flour, self-rising white flour, and cake flour on hand. The cake flour was always Swans Down, and the others were nearly always White Lily. I never heard of bread flour or pastry flour until I was grown! So ... what distinguishes these types of flours, and why should you care?

Missing: The bag of unbleached all-purpose white flour I have; it was way in the back of the
flour/cornmeal/sugar cabinet. Yes, I have an entire 2-door cabinet devoted to baking supplies.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Food Blog South 2014

I'm currently taking a little break in my hotel room before going to the after party for this weekend's Food Blog South Conference. It's been a really fun experience. I've met some great people, and it's been nice to be with "my tribe" so to speak.

While this blog is obviously just an occasional hobby for me, I found that I have a lot in common with many of the people here. We all have different angles, personal stories, approaches, and even a fairly wide variety of topics that we tackle in our blogs. Some people here are professionals, either in the food world or the writing world; some are like me - just hobbyists. Many people here are accomplished photographers. As you have no doubt seen from my blog, I am NOT. But we all share an interest and saying something about food or broader lifestyle / entertaining topics. Even the topic of food itself is quite varied. From people who are concerned with cooking, with restaurants, with gardening and farming, with food politics, or even food anthropology, we're all drawn in some way to this topic of sustenance and the craft of creating it.

Although this is a small conference, I've been really impressed with the quality of the speakers and with the level of intellect and passion by my fellow bloggers. It was fun to meet some Nashville bloggers I have not had the chance to meet yet, and there have been all sorts of interesting people from elsewhere in the South and other parts of the country.

I've learned a lot about making this blog better and I hope you'll start to see those results gradually. I also plan to update my blogroll to include some of the wonderful blogs I've learned about here.

Now, time to get ready for the party!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Old-Fashioned Beef Stew

The arctic cold snap we've experienced this week, on top of the holiday season, has put most people in the mood for comfort food. When the weather is seriously cold -- with or without snow and ice -- you tend to want hearty, warm home-cooking. One-pot meals such as soups, stews, chili, and the like spring immediately to mind.

I have a few favorite dishes in this category, and today's post presents one near the top of the list. This Old-Fashioned Beef Stew is adapted from a recipe in my beloved The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. It is one of a dozen or so recipes from that book that I consider a core part of my repertoire. Naturally I've tweaked it a bit over the years, but the central idea is the same: A rich, somewhat thick broth studded with chunks of tender beef, potato, carrot, and onion. The beef is given a long, slow simmer to tenderize and develop the flavor of the broth, while the vegetables are added toward the end of cooking so that they don't get mushy.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Yeast Bread - Yes You Can!

When I was out on my own and expanding my culinary skills beyond the (very good) Southern basics I learned from my mom, I decided to tackle yeast bread for the first time. I had a number of failures, a number of mediocre loaves, but gradually with practice I got better. One day I came across this recipe for an enriched white loaf, and everything finally came together. I've been making this loaf since the mid-80s, and now I'm excited to finally share it.