Saturday, July 28, 2018

Spooning (for) Cowboys: or, Finding out what the heck spoon bread is

Happy Cowboy Day!

We at A Book of Cookrye didn't know it was National Cowboy Day until Greg at Recipes4Rebels announced it. We at A Book of Cookrye, while we've done recipes from ancient Greece and Rome, recipes from the late Middle Ages. and various other random time periods. But cowboy food? We have... nothing. I mean, we could take a page out of Blazing Saddles and put on a pot of black coffee and a pan of beans, but it is too hot outside to sleep with the window open.
We cracked our recipe books and found a surprising shortage of various hokey 1950s casseroles with "cowboy" in the name and canned soup in the ingredients, and also of actual historical recipes. It wasn't until the night before that we found an actual authentic Alaskan pioneer-era recipe--- which takes multiple days to make because it's sourdough.
Pan-American World Airways' Complete Around-the-World Cookbook, Myra Waldo, 1954

With National Cowboy Day starting in just a few hours, we didn't have time to do a recipe that says it will take at least two days. And so, we flipped through the Woman's Club of Fort Worth Cook Book because surely a bunch of Texans in the 1920s would have a decent cowboy recipe. Would they?

Spoon Bread
3 c milk
4 c cornmeal
4 eggs, separated
1 large piece of butter*
Salt to taste

Heat oven to 375°. Grease a large pan.
Cook milk, meal, and salt together, stirring constantly until you have a thick mush (which will not take very long). Add the butter, stirring until melted (or just melt the butter beforehand to make things easier). Stir in the egg yolks.
Beat the egg whites stiff. Thoroughly stir in two or three spoonfuls, one at a time. This softens the mush so you can fold in the remaining egg whites without deflating them. Fold in the remaining whites.
Turn into the pan and bake for 30 minutes.

*We were quartering the recipe and used 1 tablespoons of butter. Which would mean you just add a half stick if you're making the full amount.
The original recipe just says a fairly hot oven, so this is a semi-educated guess.

Mrs. Cullen Bailey, Woman's Club of Fort Worth Cook Book, 1928

We've seen a lot of recipes for spoon bread in various books dating back quite a long time. And we have no idea why it's called spoon bread. Does it bake into this mushy stuff you eat out of the pan with a spoon? We've flipped past various recipes for it many times, so why not have a crack at it? Besides, look at how short the ingredient list is!
Every required ingredient is in this picture.

I admit that I doubt anyone on a cattle drive would make this unless the cowboys also brought hens for the eggs. It is possible to keep the butter this recipe uses preserved in brine if you really want to. And if you didn't feel like brining butter, there certainly was no shortage of fresh dairy when you're driving a herd of cattle (though oddly I've never heard any cowboys so much as holding a coffee cup under a cow for a couple of quick squirts). Heck, you wouldn't even need to haul a butter churn. Various old Western novels will poetically describe people hanging bags of cream off of a saddle when starting the day so it'd be churned to butter by nightfall. But even though it's technically possible, I don't think anyone was making this recipe on the open range.To make up for not having an actual authentic-off-the-range recipe, would it make things better if I cooked this in a skillet?

Now, in the modern world I'd just coat the pan with cooking spray. But since we're going for at least some semblance of old-fashionedness and authenticity, we're borrowing from an old cookbook we had that told you to put a huge piece of lard in the pan and leave it in the oven until ready to bake, at which point the pan's gotten really hot and the grease is practically spattering in the pan. Then you sort of swirl it to coat the sides. Since I have no lard lying around the house, we're using cooking oil instead.
All right, let's get to the actual spoon bread! Anyone reading this will note that this recipe makes a lot of whatever spoon bread will turn out to be. Therefore, we're not halving this recipe but quartering it. The recipe says to cook the cornmeal to a thick mush, but it already looked like one before we even turned on the burner under it.

But within just a short few minutes, we had what looked like really gritty modeling clay. I didn't know if the cornmeal was supposed to soften as it cooked, but it stayed really gritty. We took it off the stove when it was so dry that it kept trying to burn onto the bottom of the pot.

I have to admit, I was wondering if Mrs. Cullen Bailey of Fort Worth, Texas didn't possibly miswrite the recipe amounts. Every cornbread recipe I've ever made was a lot runnier than this. Was there enough milk in here to make soften this out in the oven, or would it be like biting into sand? Well, at least adding the butter made it look... slightly better. Or at least, less desiccated.

All right, we've only got one more thing to dump in here. I have to admit that so far, this recipe was at least going very easily. It looked like it fundamentally wouldn't work, like it'd come out of the oven a gritty mess. But at least it had so far taken less than five minutes.

All right, here we get to the only fussy part of the recipe: beating and folding egg whites! (Well, only one egg white because no one was going to eat a huge pan of spoon bread in one night unless it turned out to be a lot better than the ingredient list suggested.) We briefly considered trying to give ourselves an old-fashioned cooking experience by hand-beating the egg whites to a stiff foam. But common sense prevailed after only 45 seconds. We got out the power tools.

Less than one gloriously modern minute later, the one egg white had turned into a gloriously fluffy foam!

All right, we're closing in on the end of this recipe, and it's starting to look a lot like cornbread. Is spoon bread just another name for cornbread and we never knew? All this time we've flipped past spoon bread recipes, swearing we'd someday find out what the heck spoon bread is, and it's just the same stuff you can get out of a Jiffy box?

Well, spoon bread turned out to be surprisingly normal for something we've never made before. Ineed, our exciting road of discovery seems to be ending at a rather bland stop. As a brief note, we at A Book of Cookrye grew up eating cornbread with so much sugar it was practically dessert. Also of note, it seems no one we know can agree on whether sweet cornbread is Northern or Southern. Interestingly, everyone we know insists that the sugared version comes from whichever side of the Mason-Dixon line they are not from. My northern friends make fun of southerners for turning cornbread into cake, and my Southern friends, when seeing someone put sugar into cornbread batter, will mutter "Oh, you're making it yankee style."
I know a lot of southerners will swear that the edge of the bread with the hot oil soaking into it as it bakes is the best part, but I carefully dabbed the excess away before baking.

But who knows, maybe spoon bread batter turns into something completely different from cornbread in the oven. Even if it doesn't we at A Book of Cookrye got at least one very nice discovery out of this venture: Our toaster oven can fit a skillet.

We at A Book of Cookrye, doing our minor bit to save energy, baked this in a toaster oven set up in the garage. It (obviously) uses less electricity than the big oven, and it also doesn't give the air conditioning more work to do. Though in retrospect, I should have moved the toaster oven to the yard so I could at least truthfully claimed that I actually made the Cowboy Cookalong recipe outdoors.

And so, as we at A Book of Cookrye had come to suspect about halfway through the recipe, we set out to make something exciting and new and ended up making cornbread. But that's all right because as we all know, cornbread and chili are not only both perfect for Cowboy Day, but perfect for each other. Furthermore, this is really good cornbread. It's just a little bit more dense than what we're used to, but it also holds together really well for dipping into whatever stew you're serving it with.

I could pretend that I actually did make a pot of chili (or at least open a can of it), but to be honest I had an oddly specific craving for beef in spaghetti sauce. With cornbread. I'm (not) sorry, but I even put Parmesan on top.

But for the record, not only does putting enough oil to fry the batter in a hot pan make the bottom and sides of your cornbread deliriously crispy and brown...

...but it means that absolutely nothing will stick to the skillet. This is what it looked like after I wiped it with a paper towel.

I think we can agree that anyone cooking out on the range where the deer and antelope play and where there is absolutely no running water would appreciate just wiping off a pan and calling it clean. Happy Cowboy Day everyone!

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Schmaltz Bread! Or, Czech-ing out baking ideas

Today, we at A Book of Cookrye present the culmination of the chicken hacking we have so extensively dissertated on! By now, we had the (surprisingly well-carved) meat pieces, a big pot of stock, and... this.
The Pinterest-driven fad of using Mason jars for everything from chandeliers to birdhouses has at least made them get a lot cheaper to purchase.

Indeed, we now have a lot of chicken fat. We also have too many Jewish friends to throw said chicken fat away in good conscience, but that leaves us wondering: what the heck do you do with a quart of chicken fat? We've cut up more chickens than we could ever use fat from, and as the second jar threatened to overflow from the various additions of fat, we had to do something with it (besides making an awful lot of garlic bread).

Now, a lot of Jewish cookbooks swear that chicken fat will make chopped liver into something inexplicably delicious. But we at A Book of Cookrye, try as we might to like liver (it was barely over a dollar per pound!), have officially given up on finding any recipe that makes it edible (except the Russian liver pods, but those involved hiding the liver under a crapton of butter, sour cream, and mushrooms). And so, with no chopped liver in my future, we had no use for this ever-increasing supply of schmaltz. Then we read a note in a Czech cookbook that chicken fat instead of butter/shortening/lard will make the absolute best bread ever. Well, we had a lot of chicken fat in the fridge, a packet of yeast only one week away from expiring, and a housewarming party to go to, so we decided this was the perfect time to foist bread upon friends!
Schmaltz Rolls
½ c schmaltz
1¼ c milk
½ c sugar
2 envelopes yeast
4-6 c flour
½ c sugar
2 tsp salt
2 eggs

Heat the milk and schmaltz until melted. You can do it on the stove stirring constantly, but microwaving it will be a lot easier and you won't be trying to keep the milk from burning in the pot. Cool to 120°-130°.
Mix 1½ c flour, the sugar, the salt, and the yeast. Add the milk and shortening, mix thoroughly. Add the egg and beat well. Then add the remaining flour-the dough should be sticky and barely firm enough to knead. In fact, it may just feel like you're stretching goop in your hands more than kneading dough. But keep going until it's smooth and elastic.
Knead until smooth, it should be about 3 minutes. Then let it rise until doubled in size, then punch the dough down.
Roll the dough into small balls and place on a greased baking sheet.
Let them rise, then bake at 325° until nicely browned on top.

SPJST 100th Anniversary Cookbook, 1997

This is one of my favorite yeast bread recipes, so much so that we have featured twice (see here and here). Whenever trying a weird experiment, I like to start with a recipe I've done before and liked, that way I know that whatever goes wrong (no matter how disastrous) is not the recipe's fault. So let's skip to the really fun part of today's recipe!

Looks like we've paused the recipe for an ice cream break, doesn't it? Well, would it look just as delectable if it went into the microwave?

Don't blame me for turning the cute little bowl of fluffy stuff into a bowl of melted grease. It's the recipes fault. Speaking of, isn't the chicken fat supposed to go into a big batter-y mess of flour?

Now, the recipe says the dough will be sticky. And they are not lying. Prepare to get floury yeasty chicken goop all over your hands.

Oh wait. That's the picture I'd go with if I was pretending this is the easiest thing ever and that anyone could totally whip up this recipe in five minutes or less. But since we at A Book of Cookrye value honesty in the kitchen (most of the time), here's reality.

Believe it or not, the dough is supposed to look like this.

Now we get to the surprisingly tricky part: separating off pieces of the dough to make into rolls. You'd think it was easy enough, but this dough does not want to break. It may have saved time to roll it out into a sheet and cut it.

But eventually, we had a pan of balls. I'd like to pretend that I just happened to make enough bread dough to cover one baking sheet exactly, but in reality I kept pinching off one dough ball, adding to another, and otherwise reportioning things until all the little rolls were evenly sized. Or at least nearly evenly sized.

Oddly enough, a lot of them split into layers as they baked. I have no idea what happened there, but if you like to make little sandwiches out of the stuff on your plate or to put butter in the middle of the rolls, this recipe might be for you.

Now, have you ever smelled something that whacked you hard with a memory? Not something that makes you quietly think "That smells familiar..." but something that makes your mind jolt with memories you didn't know still existed in there? Well, this smells exactly like the yeast rolls you get at the fried chicken shack by your house (at least in the US, no one is far from fried chicken). Like, when I came back into the kitchen to check on the progress in the oven, I expected to see the brightly-colored, slightly uncomfortable hard plastic seats everywhere and to get a film of airborne grease on my face.

As for the taste- well, if you like to order yeast rolls from your friendly local purveyer of fried chicken, this recipe is most definitely for you. These taste amazing. And somehow, using schmaltz instead of butter made the inside of these rolls almost impossibly soft. This is something we at A Book of Cookrye will most definitely be doing again. As a postscript, just like the rolls we get from our nearby chicken fryers, the bag we used to take these to a friend's house had little translucent spots on it.

As one of my friends said when tasting these: "Bread is not good for you, but it's good for the heart."

Monday, July 23, 2018

Schmaltz: or, The chicken fat you never knew you (maybe) needed in life

We at A Book of Cookrye present the biggest cooking change in our lives that cooking school has wrought: Chicken fat! As aforementioned, we had to learn how to cut up a raw chicken. Feeling bad about how much skin and bones we were throwing away, we dumped them in a slow cooker full of water to make stock. We then found a lot of chicken fat had floated to the top of the pot as it cooked, and we have too many Jewish friends to throw it away. And so, we at A Book of Cookrye, with more enthusiasm than we would ever have expected, present how to do your own chicken fat!
Now, a lot of people will separately render off the chicken fat, but we at A Book of Cookrye think that is more bother than it should be. After all, if you just drop your chicken scraps and skins and bones into the stockpot, the fat will float to the surface on its own anyway.

Granted, seeing the fat floating atop the bowl of cold chicken stock may not be the most enticing way to sell it. So let's have a look at it when you've separated it out!

Seeing a picture of what looks like dirty sludge may not be the best sell ever. But various Eastern European amd Jewish cookbooks will emphatically swear that chicken fat should be in every kitchen. Apparently chicken fat (or schmaltz) is everything you liked about butter only even better.
Now, a lot of the instructions online will say that it keeps a week or so at most in the refrigerator, but I would posit that it's because it still has little pieces of chicken meat and other perishables in it. Most other fats have long shelf lives. Butter can stay in the refrigerator for an astoundingly long time. Shortening can live forgotten in the back of your cabinet for about 1.25 eons.
Operating under the theory that it's various little bits of chicken meat and other detritus suspended in the fat that expire and make the whole thing taste rotten, we at A Book of Cookrye postulated that if one can thoroughly remove them, the remaining fat should last quite a long time in the refrigerator. And so, bumbling in our own I'm-too-lazy-to-look-this-up way, we have figure out how to get all the tiny little food particles out of the fat! You just wash it. Yes, really. What you do is dump a pretty good amount of boiling water on the chicken fat and stir til it's melted. All the impurities will dissolve into the water, leaving the clean fat to float to the top. Do this a few times until the water's clear, and presto! All the little food bits that would have expired and turned smelly while embedded in the fat are washed away.

See how cloudy the water is? That's all the random meat pieces and other stuff that would have otherwise stayed suspended in the schmaltz. But that's just the first time we've mixed it with water. After a night in the refrigerator, you can lift the fat out of the water and mix more boiling water with The water will be.... well, not clear, but closer to it than before. But after a few times you will find the water remains as clear as when it came out of the faucet.

Now, it is true that there seems to be some sediment that just sticks right under the fat. As you can see with this batch, right after stirring in the hot water it looks like all the sediment has been removed.

But after settling on the counter for a few minutes, a lot of stuff kinda sinks down between the fat and water to form this barrier. It kind of reminds me of centrifuged blood (I have a surprising number of friends in nursing).

But the scum is very easy to get rid of. See how we deliberately put the container is upside-down? Well, that means that the next day we can just dump out the water and wipe the crud right off. Granted, that does mean you'll have to open the jar and see... this.
Oh, yum.

But worry not, you're only a paper towel away from perfection!

Admittedly, that's not all of the stuff that could have been wiped off. Some of it got pushed down into the fat instead of getting wiped away. So let's dump yet another round of boiling water into the container and do it again.

As a brief note, if you're going to store the container upside-down for easier sediment removal, fill it with cold water, hold it upside-down, and shake it first. A lot of food storage container lids are not as watertight as you might have otherwise thought. You don't want to discover this when you flip the container upside-down and then find boiling-hot water and grease running down your hand. But if the container is not watertight, you can just lift the entire hockey-puck of fat right off the top and wipe it with paper towels. It's not as easy, and you have to do it really fast because chicken fat melts really easily, but it'll work.
The essence of good cooking starts with a wad of fat on the counter.

All of this looks like hard work, but really all you're doing is putting a little jar in the refrigerator and putting a fresh change of hot water in it every day or two. After that, it'll keep for quite a long time in the refrigerator.
Now, you may be wondering what the heck you'd do with chicken fat. Like, why bother? Well, we're going to start with one of the easiest things you can do:

It will make some fan-damn-tastic grilled cheese! Perhaps because it has a lower melting point than butter, the grilled cheese will come out deliriously crispy.

Closely related to grilled cheese, schmaltz instead of butter will make some amazing garlic bread. The slight chicken flavor, when mixed with the garlic and salt, turns into something divoon. Honestly, it adds a really nice flavor to all manner of things. Vegetables cooked in a spoonful of schmaltz instead of oil have a marvelous richness to them. Really, you can use it instead of butter in a lot of recipes and be amazed. Or at least pleasantly surprised. Lastly, borrowing a line out of a Czech cookbook, try using schmaltz in bread recipes instead of whatever fat the recipe calls for.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

As long as you've cut up your own chicken, why not make stock?

Today on A Book of Cookrye, we're going to talk about something that comes up in a lot of recipes: Chicken stock! I know, you're excited already.
Anyway, since we recently did a brief dissertation on carving your own chickens,  we figured we might do a favor to whoever read our writings and decided to try it for themselves. We're going to talk about what to do with the massive pile of skin and bones that's left over. Because there's going to be a lot.

There are a lot of recipes that make doing your own broth look like an awful lot of work, but it really isn't hard. Just add cold water to your pot of chicken parts (I usually add enough water to cover them by about an inch or so), put the pot on a low burner so it heats up slowly, and let it sit for about a full day.
This is also a great way to use up unwanted extra produce in the fridge that's looking kinda squishy but is still technically edible, and various scraps like celery roots, onion peels, pepper cores, and stems from parsley or (whatever fresh herbs you used for some recipe). Just drop them in the pot.
You'll know the stock is ready when the bones just about crumble to mush in your hands. We at A Book of Cookrye prefer to add no seasonings at all, not even any salt. That way we can put it in any recipe we like with no clashing of spices.
Anyway, you may notice I'm not putting this in a pot on the stove but in a slow cooker. That is because by the time the broth has cooked long enough, the smell will take over your house and drive you nuts. And it will stay in your house for days. And it won't even smell like good chicken- it'll smell like chicken you overboiled until quite dead. (Which, technically, you did.) If you use a slow cooker (or a hot plate and stockpot), you can just put it in the garage (or outside if you are sure it's safe from rain, sprinklers, or raccoons) and then not have to live with The Smell.
As soon as it's done, you'll want to strain out the meat (which, as many older recipes would say, "has been reduced to rags") and cool the broth off.
This stringy overcooked mess still looks better than that time I used caned chicken.

Now, I've put still-steaming bowls of broth directly in the refrigerator. While it does cool them off overnight, your entire refrigerator and freezer will smell like overcooked chicken for weeks. You really want to get it down to room temperature before you put it in the refrigerator- but if you just leave it out on the counter it will take forever to cool.
An quick way to cool the stock off is to put the bowl into an even bigger bowl (or stewpot) of ice water and stir it for a few minutes. It will come down to room temperature really quickly. But perhaps, as with me, your ice maker has broken, you don't have a lot of ice cube trays, and you don't want to pay for a bag of ice just to near-immediately melt it making chicken stock. Don't worry, we at A Book of Cookrye have you covered! After you have put the stock on to cook, just take the bowl you were planning to strain it in, put it in a much bigger bowl/pot filled with water, and put something in the inner bowl to make it sink into the water. Then pop it into the freezer until the stock is ready.

But maybe you don't have the enough  freezer space to squeeze in a big pot. Well, don't worry. You know how you needed to put some weight in the bowl so it can sink into the water? You can take whatever is occupying the freezer space intended for your ice pot and just drop them in the inner bowl to weigh it down (after all, since it's going back into the freezer immediately, you don't have to worry about thawing whatever you took out).

Anyway, by the time the stock's finished cooking, you'll have an ice nest to surround the bowl of steaming broth on all sides.

And thus, whether you had ice in the refrigerator or not, you can totally get the stock cold enough to not steam up the refrigerator! When your stock's done, just strain it into the inner bowl and stir it for a few minutes. After a surprisingly short time, your stock bowl will be bobbing up and down in a pot of freshly-melted water, and the stock will be room temperature if not a little cold.
So let's take a brief aside and talk about the grease that will inevitably have come off the various chicken pieces. There may be rather a lot of it. While it's true that few people actually want soup with a thick grease slick on top, just leave it when you put the stock in the fridge. A lot of people try to obsessively skim the fat off right away, but we find it easier to leave it in the refrigerator and pick it off the next day when it's solid. You'll save so much time and tedium. Instead of carefully trying to skim the fat off which could take forever, why not let it harden overnight and then just spend a minute or two lifting this off with a slotted spoon instead?

Now, a lot of people would just throw away the chicken fat, which is a real shame because it can make so many dishes amazing. We will discuss the many uses of chicken fat another time. But for now, you have a big bowl of cold stock with the fat taken off! Now, the standard advice in nearly every recipe book I've seen is to freeze it in ice cube trays. Supposedly it's the just so easy to just pop out broth cubes as you want them. But we at A Book of Cookrye feel that is ridiculous. You would need a medium-sized army of ice cube trays to freeze the broth from just one chicken, and said army would conquer all the space in your freezer. Instead, just use any old storage containers you like. You can freeze it in one big container if you think you'll be using it all at once in one big pot of soup. Or, if you tend to use it one cup at a time in various casseroles or rice or what have you, freeze it in containers of that size (or in baggies).

As a final note, did you know that cooking shows in the 90s used to glibly say that if you didn't have chicken scraps lying around the kitchen, you could just run out and buy a bag of wings to boil? Time and food fads do change, don't they?