A look at cooking freely within constraints –be they environmental or culinary or other.

Having major food allergies (all things cow related, shellfish, mushrooms and beer), I have had to adapt how and what I cook in order to eat “normally” – this in turn cultivated a love of cooking and feeding people.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Summer Cake - AKA the Amazing Disappearing Cake....

Where I am right now, Southern Hemisphere, we are at the entrance of summer, so I have access to wonderful peaches, plums, apricots and all sorts of sweet summer fruit.  I had bought in gluttony greed 2 kilos of peaches and a kilo of plums.  Which was wonderful, until I tried to stuff it all in my crisper in the fridge... oops... some were going to have to be sacrificed for all the others to fit in the fridge.

What to do?
Make a cake!!

But I did not want to make just any cake, I wanted something light, not too sweet, and something that would not get soggy from the ripe fruit.  After some messing around... and messes.... I came up with the following cake.  It has been nicknamed The Amazing Disappearing Cake in my house because the first good one that I made disappeared in less than 24 hours, and I only had 2 slices.  Sorin, bless him, tried to blame house gnomes for the cake's disappearance, but the trail of crumbs to his computer sort of clued me in as to where it went to.

There would be pictures of this wonderful cake, but the last one I made (which was only last night) is more than half way gone already  - damn house gnomes!!  Will have to make another one and hire guards to help me photograph it!

For those of you in the northern hemisphere who do not have access to summer fruit right now, apples would be a lovely substitution, especially honeycrisp, gala, or pink lady apples....  something that will stay firm and be slightly tart would be ideal.

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees and grease a 9" square pan.

1 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
2/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup margarine
1 egg
1/2 cup coconut milk or almond milk (I prefer coconut milk, but both are good)
2 large peaches sliced, 5 plums sliced, or one large apple sliced. 
(you can also mix it up, I made one cake that was half peaches and half plums and it was lovely)
In a separate bowl make some cinnamon sugar - proportion of cinnamon and sugar I leave to your taste, I prefer more cinnamon taste that sugar ;-)

Mix all your dry and set aside.
Cream your sugar and margarine.
Add the egg.
Alternate adding dry and coconut milk, starting and ending with dry.

Pour half the batter in the pan so that the entire bottom is covered. 
Layer in the sliced fruit.
Pour the remaining batter over the fruit and use a spatula to spread and cover fruit.  it is going to seem as though there is not enough batter, don't worry, just make sure the fruit is covered, the batter will rise as it cooks.

Sprinkle the top with the cinnamon sugar.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until the cake is puffed up, golden brown and a toothpick stuck in the middle comes out clean.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Alfajores.... no! Beta-jores! Or maybe Omega-jores..... but not your mother's Alfajores!!!

Here is Argentina, the cookie of choice is the Alfajore.  A sweet shortbread style cookie with dulce de leche filling.  They are sweeeeeeeeet.

And I can't eat them.  Each cookie itself has something like a stick of butter in it, and the dulce de leche is milk based caramel.  Hence.  No Alfajores for me.  And that is not fair, at all.  So after watching Sorin eat his 10,000th alfajore, something in me snapped.  I wanted one.  So the only thing to do was to make them.

Maybe I'll share them with him.  Maybe I won't.  :-)

So I did some research on this typical Argentine dulce, and there was not a lot of variety out there for either the cookie or the filling.  It is a simple cookie and most of the variety seems to be additions to the cookie, such as a sugar glaze, dipping in chocolate or rolling the cookie in coconut.

It amuses me, before I even posted this, before the experimentation began, I have been reprimanded by Argentine friends that what I am making is not alfajores - they can not be - alfajores MUST have butter and dulce de leche or they are NOT alfajores.  Never have I come across a people so passionate about their traditional foods.  :o)  So I will NOT be calling these Alfajores - I have yet to come up with the right name, so suggestions are welcome.  One suggestion already received was Debbijore - but the phonetic pronunciation "Debbi Hore" is, well.......  not such a good idea I think.......

So here is what my research produced.  I have to say, I am a fan of this cookie.  Although preliminary results (aka Sorin's 2 cents) are that the dulce de Non-Leche is very tasty, but not Dulce de Leche-like.  It is more chocolatey - which I attribute to the coconut milk.

Cookie Recipe - so easy it kills me.....

2 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup margarine, room temp and cut into cubes
1/2 cup almond milk
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp vanilla

Put everything but the almond milk in a bowl, use a pastry blender, mix all ingredients until dry and crumbly.  Now, if you have a food processor - awesome - pulse it for a few seconds until crumbly. For those of us without modern equipment, it will take a few minutes.  :o)
Once crumbly, slowly add the almond milk and blend.  I broke it down into three separate additions of almond milk.  On the third addition, really watch your dough, it needs to be incorporated into a ball, but not sticky.  If you get sticky, add a little flour.
Wrap in plastic wrap and put it in the fridge for at least 30 minutes while you make the filling.

Dulce De Non-Leche - slightly difficult to make, but sooooo worth it!

1 cup coconut milk
1 cup margarine
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup muscovado sugar
1/2 cup honey (non pasturized)
1 tsp vanilla

Mix the sugars, honey and vanilla in a large sauce pan and caramalize.  In a separate pan, warm the coconut milk and margarine until the margarine is melted and incorporated into the coconut milk.

once the sugars are caramelized, add the warmed coconut milk mixture.  STIR constantly!  Bring to a boil and then reduce and cook over very low heat. 
How do you know when it is done??  Well, when the caramel is thickened and slightly viscous and smells like butter and sugar and chocolate.
isn't this just gorgeous?!?!?

Do you know that feeling when you are making scrambled eggs over very low heat, and they just start to turn from thick liquid to soft eggs?  That is the feel you want in this caramel.  Easy?  No.  I screwed up twice.  If you over cook the caramel, it instantly turns to a burnt sugary mess.  So here are some pictures from my failure.  If you over boil it, it will look like marshmellow, and then seize into a solid lump of granular nasty.
Houston, we have a problem....

NOT Caramel!! - FAIL!!!
Once the caramel is done, take it off the heat and set aside to thicken.  It will thicken as it cools, so don't worry that it is still liquid-y.
Take the cookie dough out of the fridge, roll it out if you have a rolling pin and the much desired counter space.  If you don't, break off 2" sized balls, knead in your hands for about a minute, then roll into a ball and flatten in your palm.  Place on a greased baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes.  Cool completely.

Now the cookie itself if flakey and almost pastry crust like.  I ate one alone and was rather disappointed.  It was nothing.  But then I added the caramel to it and I realized that the flakiness was the perfect vehicle for the sweet sticky caramel.  Perfect!

So once the cookies are completely cooled, and the caramel is also cooled to room temp, spoon the caramel onto a cookie, then sandwich it with another.  Mine are a little ghetto looking as I did not have a rolling pin, pastry board, oh yeah - or counter space, so they are a little chunky and not super elegant.  But that's ok.  I love them anyway.  :o)

Once you have the cookies filled and sandwiched, there are some traditional treatments to the cookies.  I rolled mine in coconut, which did an admirable job of keeping the caramel inside the cookie.

as you can see, some of the caramel tried to get away, but the coconut is keeping it sort of contained....

Other treatments you can use are dipping the cookie in chocolate, or making a sugar glaze and dipping it in that.  Both are too sweet for my taste, so I am sticking with the coconut.

Friday, October 8, 2010

mmmmm.... coooookies...... Part 1

So, after making almond milk, there is leftover almond pulp that is simply too good to throw away.  So I have been experimenting with different ways to use it.  One of my favorite ways, as of right now, is cookies.  Which I thought was an easy solution, until we discovered cookie wars in my kitchen.  I thought I had a really good cookie using the almond pulp, and in fact, I do.  It is simple, not too sweet, and in my eyes - perfect.  Then I had Sorin taste it.   He thought they were fine, overly simple, not sweet enough, and more of "A base for something brilliant".


I thought they were brilliant.

And so experimentation began.  I knew that I had a good cookie for those who don't like a cookie so sweet your teeth will itch, like me.  But I also had to recognize that there are a lot of folks out there who are like Sorin and like their sweets to be SWEET.  But what he said struck a cord - a good base.  What else could this cookie carry off?  Could this cookie be the "strong silent woman" behind the "successful man"?  And what would that successful man be made of?

The usual suspects came to mind, chocolate, caramel, preserves, coconut.... but what else could be added that would be unusual and "brilliant"?  My mind started ticking away on a marriage of subtle almond to boisterous X.  What is X?  Suddenly I feel like the culinary equivilent of EHarmony....  the pressure!

So what could be X - cardamon?  chai spice? rosemary?  rosewater?  lavender scented?  candied orange peel?  candied ginger?
And I am in Argentina right now, so some of my musings might be utterly impossible to try, but I am going to do my damnedest.
Here is a break down of the first of my attempts, along with the original recipe.

Simple Almond Cookie

1 cup margarine (you can substitute butter if you can/do eat that)
1 cup sugar
1 cup almond pulp
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups unbleached flour

Cream the margarine and sugar. Add the almond pulp, spices and vanilla.  Incorporate thoroughly.  Add in the flour until completely  incorporated.  You may need a little more flour if your almond pulp is overly wet.  You can add up to 1/2 cup flour more to make a nice, slightly sticky dough.  Chill for at least one hour - 4 hours is better.  Roll into small balls, roll in granulated sugar, then place on a greased cookie sheet and press them into thick discs.  Bake at a pre-heated oven of 350 for 15- 20 minutes.

You can stop there if you wish.  Or you can become adventerous and try one of the following:

Who does not like chocolate?  And more importantly, the marriage of dark chocolate to almond is a solid, tried and true connection.  Although, as Sorin stated, it is an expected match.  All you need to is chop a dark chocolate bar into inch sized bites, then roll the dough around the chocolate and bake as instructed above.  Simple.  I also rolled the chocolate cookies in dark, molvado sugar, which caramelized on the bottom, and it added a very satisfactory crunch to the cookie.  The dark chocolate was a nice addition, not over powering to the chocolate.  All in all, a winner.  And Sorin's favorite - despite the "expected match" statement.

Candied Ginger
I am a fan of the zing of ginger, so I chopped up some candied ginger and added it to the mixture when I added the almond pulp.  Approximately 1/4 cup of candied ginger to the dough - you can add more or less according to how zippy you want the end result.  This was my favorite.  The zip of the ginger melded with the smooth nuttiness of the almond, and a fantastic cookie was born.

Chai Spice
Where I am it is spring, but back on the Northern side of the equator, fall is coming.  And chai tea is one of my favorite fall and winter beverages.  And I thought the spices of chai would met the almond in a happy union.  I was right.  In addition to the cinnamon and ginger, add 1/2 tsp each cardamon, clove, all spice and nutmeg.  This was a spicy, deep and flavorful cookie.  I did not roll it in any sugar, which I preferred.  But I bet if you roll it in cinnamon sugar, it would add a nice sweetness to the spice.

I used my thumb to create a depression in the cookie and placed a dollop of raspberry jam.  I think I would have preferred peach or apricot, but alas, what I had was raspberry.  This was ok.  The jam sort of took over the cookie and elbowed the almond to the back corner.  Not my favorite, but I have a feeling the sweetness of the jam would be a hit with other folks.

Dulce de Leche
In Argentina - Dulce de Leche is their version of caramel and it is on EVERYTHING.  Now, caramel is not exactly friendly to non-dairy folks, so I adapted the recipe to be vegan.  1 cup of coconut milk, 1 cup of sugar, 1/2 cup of margarine, 1 tsp vanilla.  Cook over medium heat in a sauce pan until it is all incorporated, then allow to simmer for 20 minutes to a half hour until it is reduced and warm in color.  Then dollop onto the top of the cooked plain almond cookies.  Sweeeeeeeet! 
Note of warning - stay with your caramel!!  Do no - I repeat - do not ask your boyfriend to watch it while you go to the bathroom for 1 minute - you will come back to a burnt mess and your boyfriend industriously busy with his laptop, pretending everything is fine....  just sayin'.  Stay with your caramel or you will have a molten mess of yuck.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Almond Milk

In the US, I had become used to having a variety of milk options - almond milk, soy milk, hazelnut milk, rice milk, even goat's milk.....  All I had to do was walk into either Wild Harvest of Whole Foods and there was almost a half of an aisle from which to choose my milks.  I was so spoiled.

Here in Buenos Aires there is.... cow milk.  Lots of it.  And if you are lucky and go into one of the larger markets like Disco, you can find a carton of soy milk that is not bad.  Or you can trek to Barrio Chino (again, not really China Town, more like China Block) and go to Casa de Soja and buy some really wonderful, fresh soy milk.  Which is great, but if you don't use the entire liter within 5 or 6 days, it solidifies into ghetto tofu.  Not good.

Plus I have read all the details on how lots of soy in your diet is not that great for you, especially for women, so I did not want to limit my consumption to only soy milk.  Plus I missed almond milk, it was perfect for baking with and tasted really yummy with my morning granola.  So I went on A Search.  All over Buenos Aires.  Asking every health food store about almond milk.  Most of them looked at me as though I was asking for milk made from meteorites or something equally silly.  Although to their minds, maybe it is that silly....  regardless, a friend finally mentioned that I should make my own - my guess is that this was an attempt to stop my whining... which worked...


I can make it?

Yes - and it is so easy I don't know why I have never made it before!  And I am told it works with any nuts - my next try is going to be hazelnuts, but those are super expensive here, so I need to source them first.

Here's what you need
filtered water
honey or agave nectar (optional)
vanilla (optional)
a blender
and a cheesecloth strainer - like the one below*

(* - yes, this is a link to Amazon, one of my favorite go to sites for odds and ends - and yes, if you click here and buy this item, I get a few pennies. I am unemployed and living in a foreign country on a very thin budget, so monetizing my blog with items that I myself use or recommend seemed like a good idea.)


First, soak your almonds for at least 4 hours in the fridge.  I use a 4 (water) to 1 (nuts) ratio for the soaking.

Ratio for making almond milk - 1 cup almonds to 2 or 3 cups of water.  2 cups makes a thicker milk, 3 cups makes a thinner one.  I like the thicker milk, but you can play with it and find what you like best.

Then rinse the almonds thoroughly.  Place in a blender with water, 1 tsp honey or agave and splash of vanilla (if you choose to use these).  Blend thoroughly.  Then strain through your cheesecloth sieve into your container.

there will be all sorts of almond pulp goodness left over after you strain your milk - KEEP IT!!! This is amazing stuff that is a wonderful addition of cookies, pastries, pancakes, etc. I am currently testing a variety of vegan cookies using this happy leftover and will post that soon. The pulp will stay fresh in your fridge for about a week, or you can freeze it indefinitely.

Store your almond milk in the fridge and it will keep for about a week to 10 days. Also, it will separate while sitting, just give it a really good shake and all will be well. :-)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Cereal Gnomes strike in Argentina

What what what?!?!?!?

A box of cereal that is simply a box????

Yes, its true.  i thought that we had cereal, I had bought several boxes of granola (which is insanely expensive down here) and was just settling in for a post night out snack of granola with home made almond milk, and.... voila.  Naught but a box.
I turned to Sorin, empty box in hand, and he suddenly became veeeeerrrrry busy with something on his laptop.

I had to laugh though, because he threw away the plastic bag in the box containing the cereal, and put the empty box back on the shelf.

Its a damn good thing he is cute.

So, thoughts turn to the fact that we seem to go through 2 or 3 boxes of cereal a week, and at 15 to 18 pesos a pop, that adds up fast.  Soooo....  time to make granola.  I can buy the ingredients for granola for a little over half the cost of one box, I can control the sugar and make it to my taste.

So here is the recipe I ended up using, which was altered according to what nuts (almonds) and dried fruits (papaya, raisins and coconut) that I could find and afford.  I was craving pecans, but down here, pecans are difficult to find and when I did, they were $120 pesos per 100 grams....  gulp.  No pecans this time.  But almonds are just as good, and I was so excited to find papaya "en cubitos" - cut into tiny cubes - that I had to add it to the mix.  And at $13.80 pesos for 100 grams, absolutely affordable.  But you can use whatever nuts (pecans, almonds, walnut, hazelnuts, etc) and dried fruits you like.  Heck, you could even throw in some chocolate chips at the end and get really decadent!

 And yes, I needed the oven for this recipe.  So the gas needed to be lit.  But I made Sorin do it, and I hovered nervously nearby, but not too nearby......  you know, just in case one of us needed to call for help....

2 cups rolled oats
1 teaspoon cinnamon
pinch salt
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar - I prefer dark brown, but you can use light
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup  almonds- I crushed them as I find whole almonds a little much in a spoonful of cereal, but you could keep them whole if you wish
1/2 cup raisins
1/3 cup dried papaya
1/3 cup coconut - I could only find the finely ground coconut, but I bet coconut slivers or shavings would be tasty too.

Preheat your oven to 325 degree and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper, brush the parchment paper lightly with some vegetable oil for ease of removing the granola after baking.  (I guess-timated what 325 degrees meant in my oven, and hovered over it constantly, determined not to burn my first attempt in the oven.  The smell was an excellent way of "watching" my batch, it let me know the moment it started to burn so I could save it from a carbon-y death.) 

Mix the oats, cinnamon and salt in large bowl.  Here, it was a game of Try To Find The Large Bowl, which apparently was being used to hold the orange carcasses from Sorin's late night snacking, under his desk.  Once the bowl was located and held out to Sorin, who again became intensely immersed in something on his laptop screen, I could continue to....
In a separate bowl, mix the honey, brown sugar, oil and vanilla.  Whisk until completely integrated.  Add to oats along with the coconut and fold together until all the oats are completely coated.  You can use a spatula, or do as I do and use your hands.  Dump onto parchment lined baking sheet and spread evenly, but not too evenly, you want some clumps for texture.
Here, I have no cookie sheet, and the oven is too small for one, so I am using a pie plate, which works, and thankfully, Sorin has not discovered yet.... although I am guessing after he reads this, it will be stolen as a fruit carcass container soon enough...
Bake for 10 minutes.  Then flip the granola, add the almonds, and return to oven for another 10 minutes.  Remove from the oven and toss in the dried fruit and allow to cool.  Make sure to keep it in an air tight container.


Oh, and the home made almond milk will be posted soon, I'll need some more in a couple of days, and it is so easy to make and so much tastier than anything you can buy in the store.  Plus, there is almond pulp left over after wards that makes some AMAZING cookies, pastry dough and pancakes....  those recipes coming soon too!  :-)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Bienvenido a Buenos Aires! Here's your Cooking Cubicle. Now get cooking!

This is the kitchen that I have for the next three months.

Challenging, for sure. Although I know others here in Buenos Aires who have smaller, so I should not complain. Instead, I am going to take the challenge and use it beyond what it appears capable of.

Right now I am trying to focus on one-pan meals. It makes my life a lot easier to do this, and my boyfriend Sorin is happier when there are fewer dishes to wash. Of course, he would be happiest if there were no dishes to wash, but there is a rule in my kitchen - who ever does the cooking does not wash the dishes. I have offered to switch roles multiple times, but he for some reason has never taken me up on that…. Strange…. ;-) I am hoping to get brave soon and try using the oven. The stove is gas and has no pilot, so it is light a match and time it right to light the stove top and oven. So far I have mastered the stove top, the oven however, is slightly more difficult and therefore potentially more exciting that the stove top. The heat is also not regulated, making baking almost sport like, so that post is going to be very interesting, especially if I fail miserably.

Being in Argentina makes my life in the kitchen a little more challenging in ways not associated with the size of my “kitchen” – I can’t even call it that without laughing – let call it my “Cooking Cubicle” instead. So, I am in Argentina, the land of the cow. Where all things are beef and dairy. Not easy on a girl who can’t eat those things. Although I am able to find goat’s milk cheese at my local (thank god) Arabe Confiteria, they sell their version of Feta cheese. It’s not in brine, it’s not crumbly yet smooth, and it does not have that lovely lemony sense that made me fall in love with Feta. But, it is Goat’s milk cheese, it tastes good, and it works. They also sell really wonderful nuts and dried fruits, albeit slightly pricey, so I no longer have search for those.

I have also found Leche de Coco – or coconut milk – but I have to trek to Barrio Chino (Chinatown, which is more China Street that China Town, but I digress) to buy it at a reasonable price, which is about a 20 minute bus ride. If I want fresh Leche de Soya (or Soy milk), this is also where I must go. I can find pasteurized Soy milk in the large market in my area, but it is not as good as the fresh stuff. Spices are also slightly challenging to find, but again, Barrio Chino to the rescue. I have discovered that no matter where you are in the world, find China Town and you will find spice. Although on this trip, I ended up bringing my own spices from North America, which made my luggage smell marvelous! Basil, Oregano, Thyme, Cardamom, Turmeric, Whole Peppercorns, to name a few.

So, finding ingredients can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding. I buy all my veggies and fruits from a green grocer (Verdulería), and it is whatever has come in fresh from the farm, and it is FRESH. It is often not pretty, but who cares when it tastes amazing. Often when I have a specific dish in mind, they may not have all the ingredients I need. Welcome to South America. Adaptation is essential. I no longer go to the green grocer with something in mind, instead I go to be inspired by what is fresh and looks good.

Tonight I am going to make Chicken Curry over Rice. I’ll take pictures and post the recipe tomorrow for you and let you know what my boyfriend, also known as “The Grumpy Romanian” thought of the dish. :-)

Chau Chau!