Thursday, July 18, 2019

Beef Curry from the perfect cookbook for my relationship history

Let's hear it for single-person cookbooks! It's hard to write one that doesn't come off as a joke. Any cookbook about cooking for one tends to come with merciless cracks about how lonely the purchaser's life must be. They often end up as gag gifts for anyone whose friends or "loving" family wish to remind them that they remain unmarried. Most of them even take a slightly defensive tone, arguing that creative cooking shouldn't be the exclusive territory of people with someone else to feed. Indeed, the most famous cook-for-yourself book (well, as famous as a cookbook can get without a television endorsement) was gleefully re-shared by people calling it "the saddest cookbook EVER!". To be fair, when you write a book called Microwave Cooking for One, it's hard to imagine any other reception.
Which brings us to the cookbook from which we pull today's recipe, which is called...

We would like to give a Hat Tip of Cookrye to the wonderful site Awful Library Books, who featured this book quite some time ago. No, this is not a paid endorsement. The people behind that site have never heard of us, and certainly have never contacted us to advertise them.
If you are amused at seeing the long-buried craft trends of yore, sex manuals of the 1930s, creepy self-published books (like how to meditate your breasts bigger), and other things that either should never have been on library shelves or should have been removed a long time ago (no one's child today is going to need picture books about the USSR), this is the site for you.
Anyway, they posted this book and we thought "Actually, this doesn't look so bad!" And so, repairing in haste to every cut-rate book website we thought might have it, we ordered a copy. So, today we are making....

Beef Curry

¼ pound ground beef chuck
¼ tsp each salt and pepper
¼ tsp crushed red pepper
1 tbsp curry powder
½ bay leaf
1 tsp vinegar
½ garlic clove, crushed*
2 tsp butter
⅓ c chopped onion
¼ c chopped green pepper
¼ c milk
¼ tsp lemon juice

Mix the meat and spices. Let stand at least 2 hours.
Melt the butter and saute the vegetables for several minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the meat, cover, and cook very slowly for 45 minutes. Add the milk and cook 10-15 minutes more.
Sprinkle with lemon juice when serving.

*Seriously, just use the whole thing.

Source: Cooking for One is Fun, Henry Lewis Creel, 1976

For anyone who wants to rush in and point out that this is ABSOLUTELY NOT  a True Authentic Recipe from India, let's look at the first word in the recipe name and the first ingredient on the list. Of course this recipe's American. It has beef. So, having acknowledged that sampling this will not transport you back to that one lunch cart on the sidewalk when you backpacked through New Delhi, let's bust out the curry powder!
We had... a lot of ground beef.

This is the first recipe I've seen where you marinate ground beef. Is this really that rare a technique, or is this because I tend to flip right past the meat chapters of most cookbooks because steak is expensive? Anyway, this was a perfect time to use up the last of this packet of curry powder that has incrementally gone into various pots of stuff for a while.

A lot of people criticize cookbooks from the 1930s to the 1980s as being hopelessly bland. Like, people suddenly were afraid to use any more seasoning than a tiny pinch of pepper (and maybe a half-drop of Tabasco if you were really daring). However... well, look at how much stuff we've shaken all over this tiny dose of meat!

It turns out this recipe uses about enough beef to make one of those oversized burgers you find at nearly any burger seller that uses the phrase "all-American" in their advertising. And so we left it to sit for the requisite time. Sharp-eyed readers will notice that we actually bought a kitchen scale. It turns out most of the recipes in cooking school go by weight, and so to practice at home we had to make the investment. It still feels weird having one stashed in the cabinets.

Now, this recipe calls for a fair amount of chopped vegetables. We at A Book of Cookrye were far too lazy to bring out the knife.

An interesting shift in recipes: for the longest time, butter was the fat of choice when pushing things around in a frying pan. It wasn't until surprisingly recently that oil became the default choice. In case it makes a flavor difference, who are we to argue?

I know we're making Indian(ish) food, but all these vegetables frying in a pan of spattering butter make this recipe look and smell like it came out of a Junior League cookbook from some place like Puskahossee, Alabama.

At this point I'm reminded of one of my Indian friends who always made food from home instead of American things. She was chopping a lot of onions while muttering how she hates them and why does all Indian food have onions in it? Someone else asked her why she didn't just leave them out, and based on her reaction we may as well have shown her this.
Speaking of food for one... source

Right, let's get back to the fragrant frying pan! The vegetables have gone from
frozen to quite dead.

Speaking of things you can't do in India, let's add a lot of beef to the pan. If you think I'm joking about what you think are outdated food laws in other countries, a quick online search will show you that beef is still illegal in most of India.

I will say that however inauthentic this recipe may (probably) be in most ways, they definitely nailed one part. The smell coming from the pan, while absolutely tantalizing (if you like curry), was so powerful that the exhaust fan could not keep up. Coming from a college with a large south Asian population, it was very common to see box fans propped up in many campus apartment windows while the smell of curry gently wafted to the sidewalk below. Indeed, the smell coming off of this one tiny pan (we're cooking for one, remember?) took over the house very quickly despite the kitchen fan doing its damnedest to sent the vapors up the duct.

Note also how all the vegetables have by this point shrunk and shrivelled to be near-imperceptible. Anyway, I found this next line of instruction odd. At this point we're supposed to cook it slowly for 45 minutes. Granted, maybe we weren't supposed to thoroughly cook the beef and then give it the 45 minutes the recipe tells us to. But to us, putting the raw beef in the pan and leaving it untouched to cook for that long made no sense. You'd end up with a big beef slab just sort of sitting in the pan. Well, part of exploring new recipes following instructions that make no sense. And so, this happened for 45 minutes. Note our absolutely excellent choice of lid.

One nice thing about a recipe that has so many hours of downtime: you won't have a pile of dirty dishes and spills on the floor waiting for you. Between the 2 hours of marinating and the 45 minutes of more or less abandoning this on the stove, the kitchen was spotless. Dinner's always nicer when you don't have to stare at the impending cleanup while you eat.
Anyway, now that we've scoured the kitchen, let's get back to the pan! As we thought, our once-perfectly-good meat had become dried out and sad. Have you ever just let a pan of leftover meat sit out overnight instead of packing it away? You know how it always turns into meat husks? Well, that's what I was looking at.

This is an odd recipe. First you make your dinner look like you left it on the back of the stove and forgot about it (which you kinda did), and then you reconstitute it- with milk.
Everything in this pan looks wrong.

If you stirred it, it looked like a pan of beef Stroganoff. This was a slight improvement, but offered no reassurance.

You will be glad to know that after its second long simmering, the pan of stuff looked normal. You'd never guess that we'd dried the beef out and then re-watered it with milk. Did that extra step change the flavor at all? I don't know, but feast your eyes upon the glory!

Actually, I shouldn't kvetch about the cooking time. Yes, it was like 3 hours from start to finish, but most of that time was just leaving it alone, whether marinating or on the burner. So it's not like you need to stop absolutely all other things and confine yourself to the kitchen while you embark on this hours-long project. You can prune the flowers, practice your harpsichord, get groceries, buy a box fan to put in the kitchen window if your vent hood is no match for curry... the possibilities roll out tantalizingly before you.
However, when you eat the resulting mound of meat, you'll notice that nowhere in the recipe do you drain off the fat. Behold the grease plate!

I couldn't finish this at once, the grease was too much. I'd suspected that the portions in a cooking-for-one book would be puny. I did not expect leftovers. But speaking of grease, check out how much congealed in the bottom of the container.

The solution to this: Well, what appears on every Indian friend of mine's dinner plates next to the main dish? Rice! In theory, if we just cooked it plain (no butter or salt), the fat from the meat would coat the rice and all the seasonings would flavor everything.

And indeed, once all of this got stirred together, it was perfect! I mean, you had to mentally reconcile yourself with the fact that you were flavoring your rice with a mixture of butter and beef drippings, but once you got over it, this was really good.

Actually, you know what this tastes like? Well, a great-uncle worked in construction when he was younger and often came home late. His mom (my great-grandmother) would leave a big portion of whatever they'd had for dinner in a skillet on the stove. That's what this tastes like. This is not dinner, this is something left on the back burner to wait for you no matter how late you get home. Like, there's not even a note saying "Supper's on the stove" because you already know it'll be there.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Hump-Day Quickie: Frying-pan pizza

This recipe comes to us from Our Uncle of Cookrye. Is it a recipe or a technique? At any rate, he swears the best way to reheat a pizza is in a frying pan. And as it happens, we have a lot of pizza to test this on.

Reheating Pizza in a Frying Pan

Select a frying pan with a lid. Heat your frying pan over medium heat or a smidge below. Sprinkle about a teaspoon of water in it, put in your pizza slice, immediately cover, and allow to heat up.

I don't eat that much pizza, but after a family gathering everyone sent me home with all their leftovers-- whether I wanted it or not. Nothing makes you feel good about your food like seeing solidified grease in a color that never turns up in nature.

As aforesaid, my uncle swears this is the best way to reheat a pizza. In theory, the hot pan gets the crust good and crisp on the bottom, and the steam from the tiny amount of water carries heat to the cheese and melts it. Does it work? Our first test will be on a slice of pepperoni and pineapple. Which, incidentally, I never ordered before the internet controversy about whether pineapple belongs on pizza.

And so, with the pan merrily sizzling away, we clap on a lid that almost fits, and hope for the best!

The first attempt at this was... not good. Even though we only put a spoonful of water, apparently that was too much. It came out as gummy as pizza from the microwave. Also, we may have turned the burner too high.
If seeing pineapple on pizza makes your eyes go bloodshot, perhaps seeing it excessively carbonized will make your day.

Since we had a whole box worth of leftover pizza to try this on, attempt #2 involved reducing the heat and also the amount of water to barely a teaspoon. We also decided that doing this one slice at a time was too trying on the patience.

Success! Now, there's no way you won't end up darkening the crust a lot, but if you time it right, you'll have it just enticingly toasty on the bottom instead of burnt. And indeed, if you add barely enough water to make steam (it'll probably be near-completely dry by the time the pizza's ready), you can have pizza that's crispy on the bottom, melty and hot on top, and thoroughly perfect! I won't say you'd never guess it spent a night or two in the refrigerator, but it's pretty good.
It may take a few attempts to find just the right time and stovetop setting, but it's worth it. As illustration, here's both the perfectly-melted top and the almost-but-not-quite-burnt bottom.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Chocolate Cake that apparently the FBI wanted

Today, we at A Book of Cookrye are cracking open our favorite chocolate recipe book!
You know how we like our book of all chocolate recipes so much we asked a friend who does duct tape art to make a custom cover for it? Well, for Mother's Day we were commissioned to make an elaborately decorated cake for an extended-family gathering. For this we consulted...
Every time I follow the instructions and insights in this book I feel joy within.

A lot of the time, when we purchase an elaborately decorated cake, it tastes... well, not bad, but meh. Like, they think that once people look at the cake and see that the top looks pretty, they won't actually notice whether the cake is any good or not. Well, we at A Book of Cookrye wanted better than mediocre cake! If the cake is not delicious, it's not worth eating. And so, we used a recipe that (based on a headnote in which the author's mother was threatened with an FBI investigation if she didn't surrender the recipe) seemed very promising.

F.B.I. Chocolate Layer Cake
1¾ c flour
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
½ c cocoa powder
½ c butter
1 tsp vanilla
1¾ c sugar
4 eggs, separated
1¼ c milk

Heat oven to 325°. Grease two round cake pans and line the bottoms with paper. Spray the bare pan and press the paper down well. Then spray the top of the paper.
Sift together the flour, baking powder, soda, salt, and cocoa.
Cream the butter in a large bowl. Add the vanilla and sugar, mix well. Add the egg yolks 1 at a time, beating each in well. On low speed, add the dry ingredients in three additions, alternating with the milk in two additions (for the first addition of dry ingredients, use a small amount), scraping the bowl each time you add something new.
Beat the egg whites until almost-but-not quite stiff (but not dry). (Note: Because it was excruciatingly humid, I took out a quarter cup of sugar from what was supposed to go into the butter. Once the egg whites were very foamy, I gradually added it while the mixer was running. This kept the egg whites from drooping and losing their fluffiness.)
Gently stir one spoonful of egg whites into the chocolate batter. When it's thoroughly mixed, stir in another. This should soften and lighten the batter enough to fold in the rest. Fold in the egg whites in two or three additions- waiting until the last to thoroughly get rid of any persistent lumps or streaks. Pour into your pans and bake until the top springs back when done- about 45 minutes for ten-inch pans, a little longer for nine-inch pans.

Note: The book has you dress the cake in whipped cream. We used buttercream instead.

Source: Maida Heatter's Book of Great Chocolate Desserts, 1978

This recipe beings like nearly every cake recipe does--- with lots and lots of butter and sugar!

At some point, one is supposed to grow up and stop eating some of the fluffy, buttery, sugary wonderfulness in the bowl. Just like you're supposed to at some point exchange your snapshots tacked to the walls with those LIVE LAUGH LOVE decals. However, we at A Book of Cookrye have decided that at no point will we let adulthood mean we live by someone else's definition of being Properly Grown Up. Furthermore, people who are "too mature to eat cake batter" are probably only "too 'mature' to eat cake batter unless no one is watching." Besides, cake batter is delicious.

Something about only putting the yellow half of the egg into the cake batter always seemed so parsimonious. Like, are we economizing so hard we have to subdivide eggs?

By the way, you might be at least slightly impressed that I actually went out of my way to mix the other dry ingredients together. Furthermore, I decided to make it easier to actually pour them in the bowl without covering the entire kitchen in spilled flour.
Note that despite our attempts at culinary tidiness, there are various powdered white substances all over kitchen surfaces anyway.

Once we got the whipped-up egg whites into the batter, it looked like an absolutely delicious chocolate mousse. Like, I would have been totally fine with pouring this into a pie crust and freezing it.

When we want to make damn sure that a cake comes out of the pan, we put a paper circle in the bottom of the pan and glue it down with cooking spray. Lining the whole pan with foil can make cake removal harder than leaving the sides bare- because you'll end up trying to peel the crinkled, folded foil off the sides without taking any chunks of cake with it. When you use a paper circle, you can just cut the cake free from the sides if it has welded itself to the pan. And if it's firmly glued to the paper on the bottom, it doesn't matter. The paper itself will freely fall out of the pan, whether the cake is attached to it or not. However, this time we found out at the last second that we did not have paper.
Yes, this is my cousin's pan that I've been "borrowing" for at least five years.

Fortunately, we have one of those round pans  with those cutter things attached, so we only needed to use foil on one pan. Appropriately for Mother's Day, it belonged to my great-grandmother.

By the way, you should know that foil does not work as a paper substitute. The cake batter crept under it and burned itself onto the pan.

Fortunately, we got the cake out of the pan intact. Also, it had these really neat patterns stamped on it from the foil crinkles. If I'm making an uniced cake, I may do this on purpose.

The cutter pan released the cake as hoped. However, we ended up with a top-to-bottom fissure where the the cutter strip had baked itself into the batter.

No matter, the cracked one could go on the bottom. Now, it's customary to put a thin layer of icing on the plate under the cake to glue it in place, especially if it's going in the car and spending two hours on highways before we get to the restaurant where our family is meeting. We at A Book of Cookrye forgot to do this. Fortunately, with this cake, it didn't seem to matter. The cake was ever-so-slightly sticky anyway, and stayed firmly put wherever we set it down.

 Now, to icing! We're using the special vanilla for the top of this cake. Guess where we got it from? (Hint: What two languages are on the label?)

Yes. The extract is imported-- from Canada! Some people bring home various stickers and patches when they go abroad, we at A Book of Cookrye bring home fake vanilla and luggage tags. Now, while we think that icing made entirely with shortening tastes sad and cheap, we had to concede that the weather was getting hot enough to melt cake decorations. If we made our icing entirely with butter, it would taste wonderful but unfortunately droop unless the cake took up permanent residence in the refrigerator. And so, we had to discreetly slip some shortening in there just to make it better withstand the increasingly hot weather. Fortunately, since this wasn't going to sit outside on a picnic table all day in 100° weather (that's about 37° for our Celsius friends), we only needed to add just a little bit of the flavorless white stuff. You couldn't even taste the difference.

Now, Our Mom of Cookrye wanted this cake festooned with all manner of fanciful cake decorations because Mother's Day. We at A Book of Cookrye, having the earned the distinction of Most Improved In One Semester in the cake decorating class (note that no one said we were the best at it), summoned all our cake-decking knowledge and skills, lined up all our various cake-decorating doodads we had to purchase for the class... and handed the job over to a friend who does henna.

Our friend (previously seen learning to bake here) had misgivings. "But I've never done a cake before! I've never even held an icing bag! I just buy the henna tubes! This feels weird in my hand! You said this was for all your relatives, and I know I'll mess it up!"
I assured her that #1: cake is probably easier than people because it's completely flat and also doesn't complain if you're taking too long to finish the design, and  #2: if anyone in my family complained about inadequate decoration, they clearly didn't want cake.
We decided together that since we were using white icing, a dark color would best show the design. If it was a generic lace pattern, pastel-on-white would have been lovely and cute. But since this was an actual design and not just frilliness, we both wanted it to really show. The brown food coloring we had was unfortunately the color of dog poo, so I mixed in some red to give it a prettier tinge.

And so, after a surprisingly-short time, our friend produced... this!

Incidentally, when she was practicing on a paper plate, she did the most gorgeous freehand. We also discovered that red food coloring stains the same way actual henna does.

Now, I'd handed the job over with absolutely no intention of telling her what to do, and I didn't. Although I kinda wish I'd told her to just freehand it instead of looking up designs online.

Incidentally, when stacking the cake layers, I should have remembered that the oven is slightly tilted and tried to do it so that the bottom one sort of levelled out the top one. But I forgot to account for the slanted oven. You can really see the sloped top when it's in its little cake container.

We had a fair amount of extra icing, and decided to make icing macaroons with it. But we had no coconut in the house, so instead we used chocolate chips.

They baked into cookies only a dedicated parent could be proud of. But they didn't taste too bad.

Anyway, back to cake! One of the nicest things about the design my friend did is that it looked pretty even on a small slice. A lot of times, the cake looks lovely before you cut it, but afterwards each slice just has random squiggles and blots of color. However, each piece of this cake had its own little work of art on top.

Incidentally, the only reason I can competently cut a cake is because in one of the baking classes, we got voluntold to help at a food bank fundraiser where various restaurants from around the city served food to whoever paid the entry charge. (Don't get me started on the bitter irony of a food bank fundraiser where all the leftovers get trashed.) I ended up cutting pies for one of the diners which had taken out a booth. When you spend all day frantically sawing up pies to keep up with all the dessert-hungry people, you eventually get moderately better at it.
As far as the cake itself.... well, if I had government agents at my disposal, I too might have launched an investigation to get the recipe. It's marvelously chocolately, tender, moist, and ever-so-light when you bite into it.

There were no leftovers.