Sunday, September 14, 2008

Fear no cookie!

It wasn’t until I moved from New York to Virginia that I began to show an interest in cooking food myself. The main reason, of course, was that I had stopped working and we could no longer afford to order in every single night. The other, just as important motivator was this: I no longer had access to the foods I knew and loved! Buffalo wings? The Southern version was just plain foul – no pun intended. Pierogi’s, made lovingly by the Ukrainian Nuns and picked up from the Church every Friday in little white boxes? Non-existent (Mrs. T.’s frozen version just didn’t cut it). The list went on and on – the spiedies I fell in love with while living in Binghamton, the Pennsylvania Dutch foods that are a staple of the Northeast, the bursting at the seams deli sandwiches and of course the other staple of the New York deli, the Black and White cookie.

The loss of my beloved Black and White hit me hardest of all – I searched Richmond in vain. Every time a new bakery would open near me I would race there – certain a new, more progressive establishment would carry them, but no luck. It seemed that no one living below the Mason-Dixon Line had ever even heard of them. I realized, with fear in my heart, that if I ever wanted to see them again, I would have to make them myself.

The reason this frightened me so was because of the rumors I had heard about how hard they were to make. I had been told that a Black and White cookie was not a cookie at all but rather a cake-like version of a cookie. People (or maybe just one person – who knows?) told me they were tricky, they often fell or dried out inexplicably and were just about impossible to recreate successfully without considerable baking experience. So, I didn’t even try. Over the next several years I became a fairly competent cook and had recreated with success many of the foods of home – spiedies, Buffalo wings, even pierogi’s – not as good as the Nuns made, but passable none the less. Then, one day, after my mom casually mentioned over the phone that she was going to make some half-moons (that’s what she always called them), I decided that it was time to throw caution to the wind and go for it. I got the surprisingly simple looking recipe from my mother and dove in. Guess what I found out? Black and Whites are a snap! As I was biting into the billowy softness of one of my favorite cookies, one front tooth in white frosting and the other in chocolate, I realized something – my lack of cooking confidence had deprived me of something totally within my reach for much too long. I’ll never make that mistake again, and neither should you!

1. Don’t believe everything you hear about a recipe. It may not be true at all! Had I only taken the time to actually look at that cookie recipe, instead of just thinking it was too hard, I would have given it a shot a long time ago

2. Cooking is a science, but it’s not rocket science. Just remember this – some person, somewhere, has cooked your favorite food with their own two hands – there is no reason on earth why you can’t do it too.

Black and White Cookies

Prep: 10 Minutes
Cook: 15 Minutes
Makes 18 large cookies

1 ½ Cups Sugar
¾ Cup Shortening (Crisco)
2 eggs
1 Cup curdled milk (1 TBSP. cider vinegar plus milk to measure to 1 cup and let sit for 15 minutes)
1 Tsp. Vanilla extract
1 Tsp. Baking Soda
1 Tsp. Baking Powder
½ Tsp. Salt
3 Cups Flour

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
1.) Cream together sugar and shortening.
2.) Beat in eggs, 1 at a time until well combined, then stir in curdled milk and vanilla.
3.) In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt; gradually stir into wet ingredients until all is well combined.
4.) On a parchment paper lined baking sheet, drop large tablespoons of dough at least 2 inches apart – only 6 cookies to a baking sheet.
5.) Bake for 15 minutes – checking on them after 12 to ensure they are not browning too quickly. The ideal Black and White cookie is not golden brown. Remove them from the oven when they bounce back a bit when touched and are just beginning to take on the slightest bit of color.
6.) Let them rest on the cookie sheet for a couple of minutes then remove them to a rack to cool completely.
7.) Frost them w/ your favorite frosting (store bought or homemade) – 1 half white, the other half chocolate and enjoy!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Gaining Confidence in the Kitchen

Once I made up my mind to start cooking at home, I decided that the best approach for me was a scholarly one. I studied cooking like I was cramming for an algebra test. I started with cookbooks – I would read them like novels. I read everything I could find about the origins of foods – I read about how to make mayonnaise and cheese. Of course, I never had any intention of attempting either of these – that’s why God made Kroger’s. I just figured the more I knew, the better I’d be. From how wine is made to the science behind leavening agents, I read everything I could get my hands on. Through all of this, I was still holding off on the most important part of my self-tutorial – the actual cooking. I had a serious confidence problem. My grandmother had set the bar very high and a couple of burned dinners in early adulthood and the inevitable smart aleck comments that accompanied them had convinced me that I was a bad cook.

I’ve talked to many women friends over the years and have heard similar stories from them. Someone once laughed at a dinner they made or worse, were downright rude about their attempts and poof – they were convinced they were just not born with the cooking gene. Well, I have news for everyone who feels the same way – great cooks are made as well as born! There are some chefs out there who are extremely talented and their ability to pair foods and envision culinary creations is probably coded in their DNA but there are many more that learned the old fashioned way – through trial and error. If you were born with the ability of Wolfgang Puck, you can probably stop reading – for the rest of you, here’s some tips that will help you overcome your own self-doubt …

1. Try, try and then try again! My husband loved the crab rangoons from our favorite Chinese restaurant so I decided to try and make them at home. It took me 9 times before I got it right. The first 8 tries were not a waste of my time though. Every attempt got me that much closer to perfection. I stuck with it until I had all the kinks worked out – just the right amount of garlic, the correct level of ginger, the perfect temperature to fry them. By the time I handed my husband the final version, he was seriously afraid but good sport that he was, he tried my creation one more time and was finally able to declare them a success.

2. Study up. Although I went to extremes on this one, I was on the right track by reading cookbooks. It really did help me to understand the whys of cooking. Get a good cookbook – Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book is a great one – and read it cover to cover. Pay special attention to the section called “Cooking Basics”. You will learn so much and it will make you a much more confident cook. The tips I learned there have helped me many times while attempting a new recipe. The difference between all-purpose and self-rising flour and how measuring brown sugar is different than measuring white sugar is important knowledge to have! Learning the chemical formula that causes wine to ferment however, was probably a waste of my brain cells.

Rangoons to Shut Up the Critics

Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 5 minutes
Makes about 40 crab rangoons
8 oz cream cheese – softened and beaten smooth with a fork
2/3 cup of finely chopped imitation crab meat
2-3 cloves minced garlic
1 Tablespoon of chopped dried chives
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
1 package wonton wrappers (found in the produce section)
1/2 inch cooking oil in large skillet

Mix together filling and put a small bit (about ½ Tablespoon) of mixture in the middle of each wrapper. Moisten edges of wrapper and fold into triangles, sealing edges together - try to remove all air bubbles. Freeze in a single layer (wax paper on a cookie sheet works well) and put into freezer bags when frozen. To cook, heat cooking oil to a medium heat (this is important – don’t get your oil too hot). Fry rangoons a few at a time until golden brown, turning over once (If they’re getting too brown too quickly, turn down your heat slightly). Serve warm with store bought duck sauce if desired.

Crawling Before you Walk

Prior to the last 5 years, my way of making dinner was more like making dinner happen, rather than actually cooking it. And make it happen I could, by using one of two of my favorite methods – calling for delivery or calling for reservations. Voila – dinner is served! It wasn’t until the last few years that I discovered that the phone is not traditionally considered a cooking utensil. A culmination of things gradually changed my point of view. For one, I started having children. The idea of eating out with three small children would make me lose my appetite before I’d even looked at a menu. Then of course, there was the expense of two adult dinners (eaten cold, as any parent can tell you) plus three barely touched kids’ meals. I knew I needed to start cooking at home but I also knew I’d have to dig deep to figure out how to do that, and more importantly, how to stick with it -The Garden Wok was on speed-dial after all!

As a child, I was my grandmother’s junior souse chef and she would show me all her little tricks of the trade. I could remember some of them, like never using a baking rack to cool cookies hot from the oven but to use a paper grocery bag instead (absorbs the grease while cooling), and to always drop a pan full of cake batter a few times onto the counter before placing it in the oven (removes the air bubbles so you don’t get a holey cake). But there was much I was clueless about – like how do you pan cook meatballs without them collapsing into meat triangles? That one I still haven’t figured out but thanks to the Food Channel, the many cookbooks I’ve collected, and good old fashioned giving it a try, I have become a confident (mostly) and competent (again, mostly) cook. While my enthusiasm will probably always outweigh my skills, I can now hold my own in the kitchen and you can too!

Here are some tips to help you get started:

1.) Start simple. The first dish you attempt to perfect should be something like scrambled eggs, not hollandaise sauce. If you lack confidence in the kitchen, don’t set yourself up for failure! Most cookbooks don’t just contain instructions on how to make the perfect soufflĂ©, they also have recipes for stuff like grilled cheese sandwiches and mashed potatoes – seriously! You’ve got to crawl before you walk.

2.) Follow the recipe to a “T”. This one was hard for me. I wouldn’t always have what the recipe called for so I would offer my own little substitutions. The result? - my food didn’t turn out the way it should have. It’s not until you have followed many, many recipes exactly as written that you start to comprehend what works, what doesn’t and most importantly, why it works or doesn’t. In my amateur cook’s mind, if the recipe called for margarine, I saw no problem using whatever stick of lard I had in my fridge. I didn’t know it mattered (it really does, by the way – see below). If the recipe called for half and half, I discovered that 2% milk didn’t work. Eventually, you will begin to notice how the separate ingredients complete the whole. If you don’t add eggs, your cake won’t rise – a ha! – egg’s are a leavening agent. If you use table sugar instead of confectioners in your frosting, it will be gritty – a ha! – confectioners sugar is finer and thus dissolves better. Vegetable oil sticks contain less fat than margarine. Less fat means more water in the product which can affect the texture and the quality of many baked foods. One more cooking mystery solved!

If you start by following the two tips above, it won’t be long before you gain enough confidence in your abilities to branch out and attempt some more complex dishes. Just remember that every cook is a work in progress – even the best of them burn the toast from time to time. So roll up your sleeves, give yourself a break and learn to have fun in the kitchen!

Scrambled Eggs
Prep: 5 minutes
Cook: 10 minutes
Makes 4 servings

6 eggs (room temperature)
1/3 cup of milk (whole is best but any kind is OK)
¼ teaspoon salt
A pinch of black pepper
1 tablespoon margarine or butter

-Beat eggs, milk, salt and pepper with a fork or whisk until mostly all yellow with just a few streaks of white.
-Heat margarine in a 10-inch skillet over medium-low heat until melted. Pour egg mixture into pan.
-Let the mixture begin to ‘set up’ (turn from liquid to solid) in the skillet then gently lift the set portions with a spatula so that the uncooked eggs can flow to the bottom. Do not continuously stir the eggs – just lift the set eggs and rotate the pan until all the eggs are thickened. Remove eggs from the skillet when they’ve all thickened but still appear moist – the eggs will continue to cook slightly when placed on a plate.