Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Queen Muffins: or, Bringing the Depression to a hospital

Misfortune has struck near the house today, and we ended up having to pay someone near to us a hospital visit. You know when you find someone's really sick, you want to come up with something you can do besides sit at their bedside and utter reassurances? Well, we at A Book of Cookrye decided that one of the most welcome things at a hospital is food from the outside world. And so, we're bringing...
A Book of Selected Recipes, Mrs. George O. Thurn, 1934

Yep, nothing like bringing a taste of the Depression to someone who's already sick!

Queen Muffins
¼ c shortening
⅓ c sugar
1 egg
½ c milk
1½ c flour
½ tsp salt
1½ tsp baking powder

Heat oven to 375°. Line a muffin pan with papers. (Or, for period correctness, grease a cast-iron gem pan really well.
Use a whisk instead of a spoon in mixing these.
Blend the shortening, sugar, and egg in one brisk, thorough stirring (though you'll have fewer lumps to break up if you mix the shortening and sugar, then beat in the egg). Whisk in the baking powder and salt, beat well. Add the flour (in 3 additions) alternately with the milk (in 2 additions), starting with the flour.
Pour into the pan and bake 20 minutes, testing the centers with a toothpick. This makes a small amount, but doubles easily.

Note from the original: If any happens to be left, cut them in slices and toast. Spread generously with butter and orange marmalade and serve hot with a cup of tea. This is a good basic muffin recipe. Berries, nuts or dates may be added.

A Book of Selected Recipes, Mrs. George O. Thurn, 1934

We decided to use half whole-wheat flour to make these healthier (note: those doing so should consider adding an extra spoon or so of milk). And also to add blueberries for the same reason. After all, these are for people who might not have had anything but hospital food since they came in to offer support.
And look at how healthy these are from the very beginning!
I can feel my health reviving at the very sight of this.

The recipe says to dump the eggs, shortening, and sugar in all at once and then mix it. Usually, we add the eggs after the other two are mixed, because it prevents... this.

Turns out our mistake was doing this with a spoon. If you get out a whisk mercilessly flog what's in the bowl, you end up with a smooth batter like this.
Using brown flour automatically makes these good for you.

Incidentally, because we ran short of milk, we ended mixing it with water. Surely Mrs. George O. Thurn, aware that a Depression is on, would forgive us stretching ingredients.
Because the fresh berries always seem about as flavorful as Styrofoam with a few drops of fruit juice on it, we got frozen ones instead. As many people know, when using frozen fruits in cakes, breads, and the like, one should stir them in straight out of the freezer. Otherwise, they will ooze out juice as you mix, which always seems to turn the batter an unfortunate gray instead of a pretty fruit color.

To that advice, we at A Book of Cookrye have an addendum: Don't trust the supermarket freezer, especially if it's one of those open ones. Put the fruit in the coldest part of your freezer for a while so it gets frozen really solid. Otherwise, you may still get this:

I wouldn't care about the fruit juice oozing out and coloring the batter if it ended up looking pretty. But no, the batter now matches the hospital paint.

Hoping to make the muffins slightly less rock-colored, we spooned the last of some forgotten cake glaze over them before baking. Mrs. George Thurn would surely approve of thriftily using up the last of leftovers.

However, here our thrift backfired. While the strawberry stuff did indeed hide the rock-like hue of the muffins, it did so by making them look like they had nasty scabs.
Nothing quite like coming into a hospital with food that looks like it belongs in the biohazard bin.

However, all misgivings about their appearance proved pointless upon bringing them to the hospital. Anything looks cheerful compared to the invariably dreary-colored rooms and fluorescent lights.
Anyway, this recipe is exactly as promised: a good basic muffin recipe. Like a lot of the better recipes in Mrs. George O. Thurn's book, it tastes old-fashioned in a good way, like a recipe handed down from someone's great-grandmother. In other words, these muffins are pretty good.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Second-Stab Saturday: Attempting to speed up rhubarb pie

Guess what turned up on sale in the frozen section!

I know the bag says "a low calorie food," but does anyone eat rhubarb without first putting a lot of sugar on it?
Anyway, this past Sunday was Mother's day, and Our Grandmother of Cookrye really likes  rhubarb. So, this seemed as good a time as any to once again make... this!
A Book of Selected Recipes, Mrs. George O. Thurn, 1934

Custard Rhubarb Pie
2 c cut-up rhubarb (or 10 oz frozen)
2 eggs, separated
1 c sugar
1 tbsp flour
1 tbsp butter
1½ c (approx.) powdered sugar
1 pie shell

If using frozen rhubarb, thaw it and retain all juices. If using fresh, pour boiling water over it, soak about 5 minutes, and drain, retaining about 3 tablespoons of water on the rhubarb.

Oven method:
Heat oven to 350°.
Stir together the sugar and flour. Add the egg yolks and mix. Melt the butter and add it along with the rhubarb. Mix everything together, beating out any large lumps of sugar and egg. Put in the unbaked pie shell and bake about an hour and a half.
Make the meringue about ten minutes before the baking time is up:
Beat the egg whites until almost completely stiff. Add the powdered sugar a spoonful at a time until sweetened to taste. Scatter each spoonful over the surface rather than dumping it in a heap on the egg whites; it will mix in easier that way. Spread it over the pie (it will be thin- more like a baked-on icing). Return to the oven, reduce heat to 300°, and bake until the meringue is a nice golden color.

Stovetop method:
Bake the pie shell before beginning.
Put a the bottom of a double boiler on to boil, reduce heat to medium when it boils vigorously.
In the top of a double boiler, stir together the sugar and flour. Add the egg yolks and mix. Add the rhubarb and butter and mix everything together, beating out any large lumps of sugar and egg. You may need to add a tablespoon or two of water to help it mix.
Put over hot water and drop in the butter. Cook, stirring constantly, until the custard very thick and the rhubarb is soft and easily falls apart when pressed into the side of the pot with a spoon. Put it into the pie shell.
Just before making the meringue, heat oven to 325°. Beat the egg whites until almost completely stiff. Add the powdered sugar a spoonful at a time until sweetened to taste. Scatter each spoonful over the surface rather than dumping it in a heap on the egg whites; it will mix in easier that way. Spread it over the pie (it will be thin- more like a baked-on icing). Bake until golden.

A Book of Selected Recipes, Mrs. George O. Thurn, 1934
The pie was really good the last time we made it. For one thing, it's wonderfully simple- a plain crust, a tart filling, and just a bit of sweet meringue on top for flavor contrast.
One got the idea that the recipe looked different before the Depression forced severe cutbacks in grocery budgets. More eggs (or some milk or cream) would have made the sugar actually mix into a liquid instead of forming damp clumps in the pot.
But the cutbacks in dessert ingredients actually made this pie better than it might have been. Having less custard made the rhubarb flavor wonderfully concentrated. Even saving out the egg whites to make a thin-yet-still-there-dangit topping was a lot better (I thought) than a huge cloud of meringue or whipped cream would have been. It offset the tart rhubarb perfectly instead of having a big, puffy, and entirely separate existence on top of it. The recipe may have directed that one bake the meringue at a lower temperature (as opposed to using a really hot oven the way one normally does) so that the cook could energy by baking other things alongside it, but it also made the meringue more like a firm icing than a hyper-light foam.
That said, it spent a long time in the oven. I've baked whole chickens faster than this pie. I didn't even have a baked potato sharing oven space with the pie, nor is the weather cold enough to make heating the kitchen for so long seem reasonable. We thought it might be better to fire up a stove burner than the oven. So, today we shall find out: Is it better to cook this pie on the stove or in the oven?
As we begin, I want to note that the makers of frozen rhubarb definitely saw me coming when they printed the defrosting instructions.

And so, this pie begins with... sugar, eggs, and a stealth amount of flour! You can't see the sneaky glutens because I already stirred them together.

Once again, we had to pretty thoroughly beat the crap out of a bunch of egg-sugar lumps. Later it occurred to me: Why not drain the rhubarb juice into the bowl and mix it in at the same time as the egg yolks? That might add just enough liquid to prevent sugar clumps which you have to bash into the side of the bowl with the spoon.
I have no idea what that butter is supposed to do, but let the record show that I remembered to add it.

I must admit that I'm curious if this is any better with fresh rhubarb than frozen. But rhubarb can't take the heat in this part of the country. The few guides I've seen to growing it in this climate say that the only way it will work is if you plant it in August or September, let it grow through what we laughingly call a winter, and accept the fact that the plant will die as soon as the summer heat returns.They also say to expect a puny harvest since the plants will not live long enough to mature. So, frozen it is!

I had only one thought as I looked on what I had wrought:
"More like rhu-barf, right?"

I won't lie, it tasted fricken amazing. If you've never had rhubarb before, you totally owe it to yourself to find it in the frozen aisle. But it looked like miserable cafeteria slop--- after someone already ate it. Putting it in the little pie crusts did not make it any prettier.
Still looks like pink puke.

Maybe that's why Mrs. George O Thurn has us save the egg whites: hiding what the pie looks like.
Hooray! The pies are pretty!

 You may have noticed that those are tiny little pies. And the reason for that is... look what was on sale!

I should have started making tiny pies before I ever tried to roll out a crust for a big one. Seriously, this was so easy compared to trying to keep a big sheet of pie dough from tearing. Incidentally, those who want to make tiny pies but don't want to get the pans can totally use cupcake pans (disposable or not) instead - see here and (more ineptly) here. You'll get adorably dainty individual-sized pies out of it.
Note the use of foil because I hate washing dishes.

While the pies were baking, I smushed the pie scraps together, found some forgotten fruit, and made myself a little present.
I don't care how ugly it looks, it was delicious.

Anyone using foil to make a pan for a fruit pie should note that the juice dripping out of the bottom is a very powerful glue. You will spend more time than you think removing stuck-on foil from your creation.

But back to the pie! Or in this case, miniature pies! They came out of the oven looking as delicious as they tasted. It's not that I fuss over presentation, but it's nice when your culinary perpetrations do not make you say "Just try it, it's better than it looks."

Oddly, there was a lot more custard in the stovetop pie than in the baked pie made from the same recipe. However, both of them tasted the same. Which brings us back to: is it better to make this pie on the stove or to just bake it?
While the pie was definitely done a lot faster this way than by leaving it in the oven for a really long time, it was also more work to separately cook the crust, the filling, and the top. But between baking the crust and later the meringue, the oven time did not get reduced as much as one might think.
It's definitely delicious either way. But I personally favor just dumping it all in the oven and coming back in an hour or so. The stovetop method might be worth it if you're making the filling ahead (obviously, you can just freeze the egg whites for the meringue alongside it), but otherwise it's not the time-saver I hoped for. The pie's still fricken delicious though.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Most delicious (yet oddly brown) strawberry cake!

Today on A Book of Cookrye, we salute our sister-in-law on her birthday! (At least, I think it's her birthday. If not, it's close enough.) Yes indeed, she was brave enough to marry into this of all families.
Her birthday being a few days after Mother's Day, we decided to celebrate it on that Sunday. A Mother's Day gathering among relatives had been planned for some time. Whenever a lot of people in the same extended family manage to free up the same day, any nearby birthdays, anniversaries, or the like get celebrated all at once.
Originally, I was going to make a lemon cake since lemony things are always popular at family gatherings. But Our Mom of Cookrye dropped some subtle hints that a strawberry cake would be really nice. By "subtle hints" I mean clipping multiple strawberry cake recipes and handing them over. It's rare that anyone puts in a specific request instead of "Oh, whatever you think would be good," and therefore, I made... this!
Favorite Recipes of America: Desserts, 1968

Well, that was the recipe I started with, anyway.
Strawberry cake recipes are surprisingly rare, and most of the ones I found start the ingredients list with "one box of white cake mix." So, I figured swapping out the applesauce in this recipe with blenderized strawberries (and removing the spices, nuts, and raisins) would result in a cake-like substance. Though the original recipe actually looks pretty good and I'd love to try it.
Strawberry Cake
20 oz frozen strawberries, thawed (retain juice)
1¼ c sugar
½ c butter
¼ tsp baking powder
1½ tsp baking soda
1½ tsp salt
2 eggs
Tiny dash of lemon extract (optional)
½ c milk
2½ c flour

Heat oven to 350°. Grease and dust with flour a 9x13 or tube pan. (For this cake, you really want to dust the pan with flour after greasing it to make very sure the cake doesn't stick.) If you're making a layer cake, you might want to do three layers instead of two- there's going to be a lot of cake batter.
Put the strawberries and all their juice in a blender, and thoroughly liquefy them. Measure out 2 cups. Save the extra strawberry puree- you can add it to icing, put it on toast, or whatever you like.
Cream the butter and the sugar. Mix in the baking powder, soda, and salt thoroughly. Then beat in the eggs, one at a time. Add the lemon extract (if using) with one of the eggs- a tiny bit of it seems to bring out the strawberry flavor.  Stir in about half a cup of flour, then add the milk. Mix well.
Alternately add the flour (in three additions) and the strawberries (in two additions), starting and ending with the flour.
Pour into the pans and bake until firm (this cake needs a long baking time). It should spring back when pressed in the middle. I baked it in a bundt pan and it was done in 1 hour and 10 minutes.
I personally think this cake is best with a thin layer of icing on it rather than an extravagant coating.

Adapted from Penuche Applesauce Cake; Mrs. Gloria Shaw of Sedan, KS; Favorite Recipes of America: Desserts, 1968

You may notice that aside from replacing apples with strawberries, the only ingredient change was reducing the sugar. This is not at all because the sugar ran out while measuring it. I simply decided that the cake would be sweet enough for having strawberries instead of applesauce. I did not mutter "eh, close enough" when the sugar sack ran empty on me.
Poor planning aside, it turns out blenderized strawberries are really red.

Strawberries aside, this recipe started out like almost any other cake recipe. By that I mean could not stop taste-testing the batter. Really, you could have just baked this as it was and it would have been an unusually lovely white cake.

But we at A Book of Cookrye did not set out to make a white cake. Many birthdays have been marked with white cakes, and near everyone likes it, but this is supposed to be a strawberry cake. Therefore, let us bring forth the strawberries!

Looks like I had a fit of experimentation and dumped spaghetti sauce into a perfectly innocent cake, doesn't it? But the strawberries tasted so good. And the batter went so pretty and swirly as soon as I started stirring.
This is more exciting than it should be.

The cake batter tasted divine. And also look at how pink it is! Usually you need artificial flavor and food coloring to get something to be so tasty and also such a pretty color.

Originally, this was going to be a layer cake because, as aforementioned, it's for a birthday. But I looked at the extremely full mixing bowl of cake batter and realized that 1) We don't have that many pans and 2) I did not wish to spend half the night waiting for cake layers to cool enough to get them out of the pans for reuse. And so, from deep in the depths of the cabinets, a bundt pan was unearthed! It had accumulated a healthy layer of dust and deposits since the last time anyone baked anything in it. But it retained a stunning state of preservation after a quick wash, and also apparently bundt cakes are old-fashioned enough for people to like them.
Also, these days I always think of that scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding whenever a bundt cake lands on the table before me. 

So you know, this recipe makes a lot of cake. Behold how high the waterline in the pan is!
Looks like a big pan of cotton candy, doesn't it?

I cannot lie, this smelled divinely and intensely of strawberries while in the oven. Between how delicious the batter was and the way it perfumed the entire house while baking, I was sure this cake would be delicious. However, I had some slight doubts when I removed it from the oven and it was not pink, not red, but brown.

My initial theory that it just had a dark crust on top after spending so long baking was soundly disproven after getting it out of the pan. However, the cake smelled promisingly delicious and looked really cute.

Granted, it didn't appear to contain berries of any form, but it ended up looking adorably festive once decorated.
Charming, ain't it?

All right, I can't lie that long. The cake looks cute, but it only looks like that because I cannot decorate cakes at all. Please, if you ever see me snipping the corner off a sandwich bag loaded with icing, snatch it out of my hands. Yet, because this is a birthday cake, I stupidly tried.

The design I attempted looks nice, yes. And in competent hands, it would have been quite charming. However, it only looked good from a distance. When closely examined (as one might when it is right in front of them at a table), my piping-bag shortcomings were embarrassingly obvious.
This is too bad to pass off as homemade charm.

However, all was not lost. Every other time I've had cake decorations fail me like this, I've been able to immediately hide the damage by simply spreading the icing and pretending the design was never there. Indeed, the only thing you have after smearing the attempted art away is a cake that looks like you decided to put a coat of icing on top.

Well that didn't work. Can you imagine wishing someone a happy birthday, peeling away the foil tent, and revealing... this? It looks like someone put Play-Doh on it!
I was so unnerved. I've had many failed attempts at decorating, but this is absolutely the first that couldn't be fixed by smearing it with the back of a spoon. The lovely, probably-delicious cake was now hidden under a disastrous icing job. I yearningly thought of glaze. Why hadn't I just used glaze? Just a few seconds of pouring, and the cake would have been complete. Instead, the artful squiggles on the cakes in the supermarket bewitched me.
In desperation, I looked at the recently vacated oven. Doesn't icing melt into glaze if you get it hot enough? Didn't the cake happen to sit on a metal platter, thereby eliminating any worries about shattering glass or melting plastic? How long do you need to preheat a broiler?
Hoping for the best yet forgetting to light a candle, I put it under a broiler (set as hot as it could go) and anxiously watched. This happened.
I'd like to take this opportunity to inform you that this is the work of someone who has done a whole semester of cooking school.

The icing kind of melted. You can see how it sort of slumped onto the cake instead of sitting on top of it like a crown of modelling clay.  I briefly tried to convince myself it didn't look awful. Then I prepared everything else for the next day, but all the while, the ugly thing in the kitchen nagged at me. Eventually I wondered, how hard is it to get icing off of a cake?

Humiliatingly, the cake looked better after an inept and desperate removal job than it had looked with an intact coat of icing. All I needed to do was hide the spots with glaze. And I am very good at glazing cakes. In compensation for my pathetic failures at cake decorating, I've gotten very good at dumping glaze on baked things. Behold how lovely the cake looks after a quick treatment of glaze, my faithful and failsafe standby!

....Yeah, that's worse. At this point I was having a mild existential culinary crisis. The cake I had so lovingly baked had become spectacularly ugly at my own hands. Every time I tried to fix the cake, it got worse. Now it looked like it had these grotesque wax drippings all over it, with a puddle on the plate.
I thought to myself, perhaps a decorative dusting of powdered sugar would offset the melted-candle look and make the cake lovely.

I eyed the results and thought to myself: Perhaps it looks better from another angle.

It's true that the powdered sugar did, in its own insufficient way, make the cake look just a tetch better. However, powdered sugar did not have any magical ability to save this cake from my alleged decorating. I asked myself how hard it would be to strip the cake again. After all, I'd already done it once. A few test prods of the icing showed that it had already hardened enough to lift a small chip off.

Yes, the cake looked better with the icing pulled off than it had a few moments earlier. However, it still looked pretty awful for something you're bringing to celebrate someone's birthday.
I'd like to point out the clean platter on which the cake sits. Notice that it has absolutely no icing flakes or thin smears. That's because I kept wiping it with a wet paper towel between icing attempts. It is really depressing when you can put wet towels on cakes with no damage whatsoever, but every attempt to ice a cake makes it worse.
I considered my options. The outside of the cake did not seem like it could withstand a third stripping (I was pulling off pieces of cake with some of the larger icing pieces), so whatever I did would be final. I just couldn't risk it again. Powdered sugar had made icing attempt no. 2 look slightly better. Perhaps it was just the thing to hide the splotches of bare cake and peeling icing. I even got out a strainer to sprinkle the sugar through to prevent any lumps from landing on the cake.

You know what? It doesn't look bad! It just needed a quick fix of scraping the crusted icing deposits out of the center hole.

I stared at the cake, alternately thinking it looked cute and thinking it looked awful. Granted, there was nothing more to be done for it at this point. It threatened to fall apart when I tried to pick off any more icing. I tried to make peace with the cake in its final form, and in the end had to reach out to unsuspecting friends:

It must have looked better than I thought, because everyone said it looked lovely! Either that or they were trying to be nice.
But regardless of appearance, this cake tasted delicious. It was gloriously strawberry-flavored, moist, and surprisingly light. Seriously, this cake is amazing and delicious. There wasn't a single unfinished cake slice on the table.
However, I wish it hadn't turned brown in baking. It didn't affect the flavor at all, but I would love to know why that happened. If you want it to look more like it has a whole pint of blenderized strawberries in it, you might add a semi-generous amount of red food coloring to the batter. You would probably get what looks like a lighter-colored version of red velvet cake.

See? It's really brown. But it's also really delicious.