Thursday, February 23, 2012

Home Cooking: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Cookbooks line the shelves in my kitchen, and recipes clipped from magazines form slippery, teetering piles on the dining-room table. Which is kind of funny considering that 99 percent of the time, like many a home cook in charge of feeding the family, I resort to the same tried-and-true recipes (or tired-and-true, in the case of some of them).

Add to this the fact that one family member (She Who Shall Not Be Named) is not on speaking terms with onions, peppers, celery, tomatoes (if they're not in sauce form), greens (if not food-processored into specks and blended into soup or sauce), lamb, tofu, most fish other than salmon, nuts, and...oh, anything she's not "in the mood for" on a given day, and the menu shrinks even more.

Still, one gives it the old college try now and then, with its roster of hits and misses. Hence the good, the bad, and the ugly of home cooking.

The Good:
A cake. Rarely is a cake Bad or Ugly (though, when it comes to Bad, I can remember a disastrous cheesecake baked with Sweet & Low made by my German grandmother's roommate, the mean Mrs. Schulkopf, whom my dad kept mistakenly-on-purpose referring to as Mrs. Holzkopf, or "wooden head"...and as for Ugly, look no farther than Cake Wrecks).

Good is the very essence of this simple Bundt cake, which not only tasted delicious but also obligingly slipped out of an intricate Nordic Ware pan with all its peaks and valleys intact. Anyone who has ever begged, pleaded, and wheedled a Bundt cake to come out of its pan will appreciate the simple prettiness of this baked good.

Usually half the cake comes out with a plop, leaving the rest to be pried out with a knife. I once had to blow-dry the outside of a Bundt pan to get the cake out and since it was going to attend an auction to be at the dessert table, many repairs with frosting and powdered sugar were required after it stopped sulking and crept out onto the serving plate.

After struggling with unsticking cakes stuck in nonstick pans (even resorting to thoroughly greasing the dratted things with butter and Crisco and liberal lashings of flour), I finally got in touch with Nordic Ware (which still actually employs people in the United States to answer its emails, people who are free to depart from a script and really chat with you). A lovely spokeswoman there informed me that Pam baking spray (the oil and flour one) is the only way to go. It worked a treat. Plus, she sent me a free nonstick pan to compensate for my frustration, something I certainly didn't ask for or expect. Wow! Now that's customer service.

The Bad:
The Bad was born of ultimate thrift and planning on my part.

There were a lot of heels from whole-grain loaves of bread kicking around in plastic bags in the bread drawer. In this household, these heels would remain in the bread drawer yea, verily, unto eternity if I, apparently the only one with opposable thumbs, did not pick them up and put them into the food compost bin (or resign myself to weary morning after weary morning of having toasted heels of bread for breakfast).

So I decided to be Becky Home-Eccy and dry them in the oven to make bread crumbs. I'd done it before. What could be simpler? (Though the last time I dried bread in the oven, She Who Shall Not Be Named opened the oven the next day, puzzled over the dried slabs, and then just threw them away. In this case, "throwing away" was unwanted but accomplished. Why? Why? But I digress.)

Unfortunately, I heated them the eensiest bit too long. Oh well, they're bread crumbs; who cares. I decided to use the lot when I industriously made two meat loaves a week later, using my mom's old recipe but substituting ground pork for beef, as I always do. The proportions of bread crumbs to meat weren't exactly as dictated by the recipe, but meat loaf is forgiving, right? And look! How thrifty! And I can freeze all those leftovers for future meals!

Well, meat loaf is forgiving...up to a point. The taste of over-toasted, very strong-tasting whole wheat  bread crumbs overpowered everything else, and the meat loaf was dry, to boot. Or, as my family felt, "should be booted"--into the trash. My daughter took one bite and, being of unvarnished editorial opinions, shouted, "Yuk! Ugh! Bleh!" My husband, being British, stiff-upper-lip, and understated, merely said that he preferred my "other recipe," but quietly ate his meal with lots of ketchup.

I jammed the leftovers into the freezer, distraught at the thought of wasting all that food. And--shhh, don't tell--pulled it out a week later, shoved it all into the food processor, and went through the ridiculous process of turning meat loaf back into ground pork. Then I mixed it all with two bottles of Prego traditional pasta sauce, heated it up, and served it on spaghetti. Nobody was the wiser; they thought it was Bolognese sauce and came back for seconds. Shhh.

The Ugly:
The Ugly is so Ugly I cannot share the pictures of it, and in fact I deleted the images from my computer because they were so horrific. I am happy to say, however, that the Ugly was also very Delicious.

It was a Beef Wellington made from a recipe in Jamie Oliver's book Jamie's Food Revolution, with pork substituted for beef. It was a smashing success. It even obligingly stored itself in leftover form in the freezer and tasted fine after thawing and reheating.

However, it definitely wasn't photogenic. It looked scrumptious on the plate, but the pastry had split open to reveal the filling, so when I uploaded the photos and looked at them on the computer screen, it appeared as if I'd been taking photos inside a veterinary surgeon's operating room.

I have spared you this grisly scene. Instead, feast your eyes on the cover of Jamie's book, and the adorable visage of Sir Jamie himself.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Super-Duper Cooper Scoop

This is the bird we saw. Distance, small camera, gray day--best we could do.
There are plenty of signs that hawks live in our neighborhood (the avian kind, not the war sort--this is Phinney Hill, after all). Sometimes on a walk you'll come across drifts of fluffy gray feathers encircling the base of a telephone pole, or a sudden explosion of feathers in the middle of a parking strip that indicates ground zero of an attack.

But you rarely get to see the hawks themselves.

Twice, sitting in the backyard, I've been startled by a large bird flying bullet-fast at low level, getting no more than a glimpse of sharply snapping wings before whatever-it-is disappeared behind shrubs and trees. Once, during January's snowfall, a small hawk darted above the merrymakers sledding on the hill.

And once, in Fremont, while walking to a coffee shop early on a Sunday morning in spring, I nearly tripped over an American kestrel that suddenly landed in front of me and seized a mouse that I hadn't even noticed (but it had locked in on from above the rooftops). It stared fiercely at me for a fraction of a second before flying off with its prey locked in its talons.

That was it for neighborhood hawk sightings until several days ago, when my daughter and I went for a walk with the dog. A few blocks from home, we suddenly heard a loud "Bek! Bek!" Looking up, we spied a large raptor perched atop a conifer.

"Dang," I said. "Figures I don't have a camera with me."

With that, my daughter offered to run home and fetch it. And she did. (Unexpected acts of generosity from one's adolescent offspring are something I cherish even more than the sighting of a rare bird.)
I'm pretty sure this bird is a Cooper's hawk, a species known to frequent Seattle along with the smaller, similar sharp-shinned hawk. It appears to have a cap, unlike the "sharpie," and when it finally flew away, its tail had the rounded outline of a Cooper's (though I only saw it in silhouette against a dark gray sky).

There's also local lore to draw on to back up this assumption: Just last August, a local news blog featured photos of a Cooper's dining on pigeon in an area backyard, and Cooper's hawks have been mentioned in numerous newspaper articles over the past 20 years whenever there's space for an item about wildlife in the city. An old "Washington Birds" book published by the Seattle Audubon Society in 1968 also notes that the Cooper's "is perhaps the most common, or at least the most widely seen" of the accipiters (birds of prey with short, rounded wings and long tails).

My favorite local story comes from a friend whose son had a hamster, which he set outside in the yard in a hamster ball one warm afternoon. He was supposed to stay with his pet, but he skirted the rules to run inside and get a snack. When he looked outside, he saw a Cooper's hawk standing next to the hamster ball, staring hard at it. You can just imagine what was going through that bird's mind--perhaps the same frustration we all feel when confronted with newfangled, difficult-to-remove packaging.

Cooper's hawks prey mainly on small birds and are considered an important check on their populations. They're feisty birds, however, and aren't afraid to tackle larger prey, which accounts for their unofficial name of "chicken hawk."

Disparaging names like this one, which link a wild creature solely to how its habits may vex or harm people and their possessions, are typically avoided nowadays because they unfairly portray the animal as "good" or "bad" when it's simply trying to make a living, but it hasn't always been this way, especially for predators.

In Audubon's description of the species, the naturalist--who surely knew that predators play an important role in nature and who only had good things to say about crows--described the Cooper's with terms such as "marauder" and "miscreant" and its killing of prey as a "murderous deed." (However, he does also call it "daring" and attributes it with "courage," and doesn't outright condemn it, so he was probably just employing the flourishes so typical of nature writing in his era.)

Naturalist William Dawson, writing more than 100 years after Audubon in the 1923 book Birds of California, seems to be gritting his teeth as he considers the Cooper's, which, after all, dines on the little birds he loves: "One never gets a clearer insight into the possibilities of cruel rapacity then when a Cooper Hawk comes dashing up into a thicket where you have been ogling Sparrows....It is as though an emissary of the nether world had broken from cover; and one feels all the virtue of a just cause in putting him to death."

Fortunately, Dawson wasn't in the habit of going around potting hawks (whereas Audubon, in writing about his collecting habits, always puts me in mind of Elmer Fudd blasting at everything in sight). Sadly, a century ago negative attitudes toward birds of prey were encouraged by some leading zoologists, who seemed to have a chip on their shoulders regarding certain animals that no amount of scientific evidence would ever dislodge.

No less a luminary than William Hornaday, one of the saviors of the American bison and founder of the Bronx Zoo, described the Cooper's hawk as "companion in crime to the [sharp-shinned hawk] and equally deserving an early and violent death." (Then again, Hornaday thought caging and exhibiting native African peoples in his zoo was a dandy idea.)

People still get irritated, of course, if predators make off with their chickens today, though most people (including farmers) are now aware of the beneficial services provided by raptors. Online comments about the pigeon-eating Cooper's in my area, for example, ring with pro-hawk endorsements and anti-pigeon invective (with the only complaining about nature's ways coming from one oddball vegan decrying the hawk's act as "terrible"!).

I'm thrilled to have spotted the neighborhood raptor at last. Now I don't have to go out and buy a hamster and a hamster ball to better my chances.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Chocolate chocolate chocolate chocolate chocolate...

"All I really need is love, but a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt." --Lucy van Pelt, Peanuts by Charles Schulz

I'm taking that suggestion to heart this Valentine's Day, having just consumed a Hershey's kiss before writing about the happy chocolate discovery we made very recently.

That chocolate discovery may be the answer to the question that's haunted me for nearly 30 years--to wit: Just how did my grandmother make that incredible chocolate frosting (not to mention the yellow cake it frosted)?

I've written before about my Irish grandmother, Mamo, and the wonderful baked goods she produced in a tiny, cramped basement kitchen in Elmhurst, Queens, New York. Most of her recipes, sad to say, went with her to the grave. She rarely wrote them down, and nobody thought to ask her for them while she was still healthy and baking.

I can remember her bringing a cake each time she visited us--it was always a double layer cake, always square, and always transported in a sturdy Jacob's Irish biscuits tin (which, unlike her recipes, I have on my kitchen shelf). I know that the yellow cake was pale and dense, more like a pound cake than a traditional American layer cake.

I figured I could someday reproduce a semblance of the cake if I tried out enough pound cake recipes. But the frosting? I've frosted many cakes over the years using a variety of recipes, but none came close to the chocolate confection that rippled across the top and along the sides of Mamo's cakes.

That frosting was rich, deep, chocolaty, and sweet, but it also had a sour tang that made it more complex than sugary. Its texture was special, too. It wasn't frothy like buttercream, or perpetually soft and spreadable like frosting from a can.

Once on the cake, it hardened just enough to have a crackly feel to it. It wasn't as stiff as fondant, but it was solid enough that Mamo could peck it all over with a knife to stir up tiny peaks that froze in place, solid enough that you could peel a sheet of icing off the cake and eat it like a piece of toast (I speak from sneaky childhood experience on that last point).

I'd pretty much given up on unearthing some secret treasure trove of Mamo's recipes by now; my mom had a small stash that Mamo had given her when she got married, but no pound cake or frosting recipes were among them. I assumed that Mamo, who had worked as a waitress in a cafe associated with the Dublin store Arnott's as a young woman and learned to make pastry there, was simply able to make that frosting from memory.

Over the holidays, however, I happened upon a small booklet Mom had given me many years ago. It came from the Elmhurst house, she noted. It was a promotional cookbook published by Walter Baker & Company, Inc., the producers of Baker's baking chocolate squares.

You can see where this is going, but it could've taken a long time to get there, as there are more than 20 frosting recipes in the little book. Much as I would be glad to bake 20+ cakes and frost them with chocolate and taste-test them, there isn't time--nor would I ever be able to walk off the calories. (And though my daughter would surely help with the tasting, my husband would be of no use: he is known to cut frosting off cake to eat it plain because he finds frosting too sweet.)

I knew Mamo wasn't above using printed recipes--though she cooked from scratch most of the time, she was happy to use products such as Bird's custard, so I can't imagine her sniffing disdainfully at a promotional cookbook. Flipping through the pages, I quickly discovered several that were dog-eared, one of which contained frosting recipes--and one of those had a cook's thumbprint right beside it.

Fortunately, we had a birthday to celebrate in January, so I baked a yellow cake using a recipe from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook (it wasn't just like Mamo's, but it was dense and very good) and whipped up the newly found chocolate frosting recipe. Right after it was slathered on the cake, it became brittle, and though the peaks I stirred up were nothing like the choppy ocean Mamo created, it was still a satisfying seascape.

It hit all the right notes with me, a la Proust's madeleines, so I'm pretty sure this is the recipe she used. I'm happy to conclude that it is. Now if only I knew why her lemon tea cookies were tender and crumbly and mine, using the same recipe, turn into road turtles, my baking life would be complete.

Cocoa Frosting
(a forgiving recipe; I accidentally used 1/3 cup butter instead of 3 tablespoons, but it still came out fine and not too buttery)

2 cups sifted confectioner's sugar
1/8 tsp salt
3 Tb cocoa
3 Tb butter
3 Tb hot milk
1/2 tsp vanilla

1. Sift sugar, salt, and cocoa together.
2. Cream butter until soft; add part of sugar mixture gradually, beating thoroughly.
3. Add remaining sugar mixture alternately with hot milk, beating well after each addition.
4. Add vanilla.

Makes enough frosting to cover tops of two 9-inch layers, or top and sides of 8 x 8 x 2 inch cake.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Weekend Wanderings

Dog and I went for a long, long perambulation this weekend. (She is so attuned to the word "W-A-L-K," I dare not even type it, let alone say it.) The forecast: scattered signs of spring despite heavy gray clouds, chill, and drizzle.

Daffodils (with snowdrops in background) blooming in the Rose Garden.
Jigsaw bark of a pine (possibly Ponderosa?).

Crows...always crows
The Valentine's tree on Phinney Hill wears its hearts on its leaves
Woebegone Weimeraner in window
P.S. If you're a horse fan, I have my daughter's cell-phone pictures from behind-the-scenes at "Cavalia" over on my horsy/kids' book site here.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Snowy Owl Is No-Showy Owl

Snowy owls have drifted far south of their Arctic realm this winter. It's been a virtual snowstorm of snowies, with owls showing up as far south as Oklahoma.

One owl even ended up in Hawaii, at an airport of all places, though as far as we know it arrived under its own wing power and not via Alaska Airlines. (Unfortunately, this historic appearance of an Arctic owl in tropical Hawaii ended badly for the bird: it was shot by federal employees who feared it would interfere with air traffic.)

The snowy owl wandering around Seattle has enjoyed a much better reception. It spends a lot of time in beautiful Discovery Park, hunting for voles in the meadow.

And it's even lounged around on buildings I pass by all the time, except, of course, when I've been anywhere near them--namely, the roof of a church across the street from the local library, the roof of the Australasia exhibit at the zoo, and the roof of a house just a stone's throw away from my own.

Unfortunately, circumstances right now are such that I can't make a road trip to the Pacific shores of our fair state, or even up to farmlands north of here where snowies have been sighted, so I keep hoping that the Ballard-area bird and I will bump into each other.

I had high hopes when I walked along a hillside street recently and saw a flock of crows and gulls apparently mobbing something that was moving slowly from building to building, but it turned out to be just an elderly man shuffling down the sidewalk, pausing now and then to toss handfuls of bread crumbs into the street.

Short of hanging voles from the feeders outside, I'm guessing I will miss out on the Great Snowy Owl Irruption of 2012--though on the same day the owl was spotted cuddling up to a heat vent on a nearby roof, I heard a big thump on my roof and a frantic scurry-scurry sound. Squirrels frequently cavort on our housetop, and I wondered if perhaps the owl had attempted to snatch one of them.

Later, I found these feathers on a shrub under the eaves--though I have absolutely no proof they're from a snowy owl; for all I know they could be from some neighborhood chicken. I just really, really, really want them to be snowy owl feathers.

But what birder hasn't done the same thing with a real live bird glimpsed through binoculars? It's a cinch to see a rare, out-of-range Greater Lesser Spotted Pitwot flitting through the local woodland when you know perfectly well that it is far more likely to be the common Lesser Great Speckled Wotpit indigenous to your area.

Friday, February 3, 2012

February's Spring Fling

February in Seattle often surprises with a sudden flush of springlike weather, a tease of what life could be like if only March and April would follow the same script instead of sulking and reverting to chilly gray. In many years, our red plum tree has burst into fairy-pink bloom just in time for Valentine's Day.

Today was one of those February days that flirts with May. The sky was a blue that went on forever. Everything seemed freshly created and sharply drawn. Chickadees chortled, starlings whistled, and Bewick's wrens prattled. When I went to check on my p-patch garden for the first time in months, I saw that it had been busy while out of sight, out of mind.

The vetch I'd planted as a winter cover crop had done its job, creating a miniature emerald forest that crowded out the weeds.

A few calendula were in full bloom, which made me really happy because they were volunteers, plus I'd always wanted some of these flowers and since they spread so vigorously I now have a founding crop to transplant into my own yard. What a cheerful sight, to come across these Mediterranean plants blazing on a late winter day.

Nothing much is sprouting in the back garden, but the witch hazel has thanked us for moving it into a sunnier location last summer by blooming for the first time in years.

There were also fluffy gray feathers drifted around the base of a telephone pole--evidence that the local Cooper's hawk had made a meal of a pigeon.

A nice bonus to this unseasonable dollop of spring: One doesn't feel compelled to roll up one's sleeves and get cracking on spring chores, because it's just going to get cold and sloppy again. It's totally a free pass to just turn your face up to the sun and turn your back on anything resembling work.