Saturday, May 31, 2008

Back in Alaska

It's been a few weeks since I posted last. I had to fly back to NC two days after my last post to be with my mom. Luckily, after a few harried days, she was on the road to recovery!

It was definitely a sobering experience being 4,000+ miles away, at the mercy of the weather and the airlines. I was supposed to leave on Monday the 4th, but due to weather holding back flights, I couldn't get a re-confirmed seat until the next Saturday. Because of her condition, the hosiptal faxed information that enabled me to get priority standby on Wednesday. Twenty three emotionally and physically exhausting hours later, I arrived in Asheville. She's back home now after 8 days in ICU, 3 days in a neurological step down unit, and 2 weeks at the rehabilitation hospital, and she sounds better than she ever has on the phone :). She unfortunately broke her ankle when she initially got sick, so she's still on the mend from that.

I have been up to my elbows in work since getting back a week ago, but I still managed to do some baking. I brought back a full flat of strawberries with me (you can't imagine all the weird looks I was getting at TSA hehe). Strawberry shortcake, strawberry trifle, strawberries and cream, all of them made an appearance, only to be immediately consumed by one happy husband and a dog that liked the cakes and cream more than the strawberries! Alas, no photos were taken, so all I have of our brief interlude with strawberries in Alaska are the memories! Maybe next year!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Rosemary Pound Cake with Key Lime Glaze

My adventures in the world of focaccia didn’t quite use up all my rosemary.

I was going to use it to infuse some oil for salad dressings, but I found myself on edge and anxious on Sunday after getting news from my dad that my mom is sick. It’s hard to deal with family situations from 4,000 miles away, had my husband and I still been living in Ohio, I’d already be in North Carolina. My anxiety didn’t get any better when I found out that all flights off the island are booked solid through Friday.

So, in an attempt to do something therapeutic, I decided to make an updated version of standard pound cake. As luck would have it, I had buttermilk left over from making fried chicken earlier in the week, so I figured I'd use that up. I knew I wanted to use rosemary in the cake, but hadn’t thought about what other flavor I wanted to pair. I find that rosemary is at its best when paired with another flavor.

Looking through my refrigerator, I settled on a bottle of rum and a bottle of key lime juice – wha-la, my updated version had just come to life.

The first step was to take all ingredients and bring them to room temperature, so I pulled out the eggs, butter, rum, key lime juice, and buttermilk and allowed them to come to temperature. A few hours later, I unwrapped the butter and creamed it in my stand mixer until smooth, after which I add the sugar. Over the years I decided that I like the results of beating the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. I learned, recently, to use baker’s sugar, which is much finer than regular granular sugar, so that it reaches the right consistency much more quickly.

While this is mixing, I sift together flour and baking soda. When the butter/sugar mixture reaches the right consistency, eggs are added one at a time, mixing well after each addition. After the last egg is mixed, the bowl is scrapped down, the rum and key lime juice are added until just mixed, and then flour and buttermilk are alternately added until just combined. As a last step I add finely chopped rosemary.

To prep the pan, I sprayed a loaf pan with nonstick spray, added sugar, and dusted it until all sides are covered with sugar. The batter is poured into the pan to about 2/3 full and then is baked at 350ºF until the center is firm to touch or a toothpick comes out clean. The loaf is allowed to cool in the pan for 5 minutes and then turned out onto a baking rack to cool at least 15 minutes more before applying the glaze.

The final touch is mixing up lots of key lime-rum glaze and drizzle it over the pound cake. It certainly looks good and smells good! The taste testers at work certainly enjoyed it. I got a few puzzled looks when I answered the “Oooh, what’s that?” with “Just rosemary pound cake.”, but one taste and everyone was hooked!

I wish I had thought to take more pictures – however I was in a ‘zone’ trying to keep my mind of my mom.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Rosemary Focaccia

Cooking is one of the ways I unwind. Luckily I have plenty of friends who willingly consume the fruit of my labor so I don’t have too!

I’ve had a hankering for focaccia recently; its not something one can easily find in Alaska. I think back to last year, during this time, when I would buy the best rosemary focaccia.

The local gourmet store in Akron made many breads and pastries of its own, but ordered in a number of different artisan loaves from Mediterra Bakehouse in Pittsburgh, PA. One was a 1 ½” gorgeous focaccia, sprinkled with rosemary and sea salt. It was a soft aromatic pillow of goodness. It sold fast, especially during grilling season.

I haven’t made focaccia before, I don’t know why, as I’ve tried many styles of bread. Last night I figured I would take the plunge and use up the remaining rosemary my friend brought back from the lower 48. A luxury such as fresh rosemary isn’t something that should go to waste!

I looked at the recipe options I had, I opted for trying out the focaccia recipe from Peter Reinhart’s Crust and Crumb. I halved the recipe for my first attempt; I didn’t want to tempt any bad baking mojo. I did a few minor substitutions: adding ½ cup of white whole wheat flour; using barm in place of poolish (needed to adjust the water to get the correct consistency), and I use active dry yeast vs. Reinhart’s penchant for instant yeast – while measuring out ingredients, I ‘wake up’ the active dry yeast with a portion of the required liquid.

I put all ingredients minus the oil and water into the bowl of my stand mixer, put the dough hook on and started mixing. I added the oil and water, and then supplemented with extra water until the dough achieved the consistency that Reinhart described. I kneaded with the mixer for approximately 15 minutes total.

After a three hour rise, the dough was stretched to fit a parchment lined pan brushed with oil, topped with fresh rosemary and dimpled. I placed the dough into a bag and let rise for 1 hour before putting in the fridge to retard overnight.

This morning I dragged myself out of bed to pull the dough from the fridge for the requisite 2 hours prior to baking. I preheated the oven to 525ºF and went back to bed for one and a half hours! When I finally crawled out of bed for the day I took the pan out of the bag, sprinkled some kosher salt on top and started baking.

The bake time in Reinhart’s C&C was 5 minutes at 550ºF and then 25-30 minutes at 425ºF. After about 15 minutes, I found that the focaccia had browned more than I expected. It still didn’t ‘sound’ like it was done, so I covered loosely with foil, turned the heat to 350ºF and baked an additional 5 minutes. Since it was my first attempt I would rather have slightly under baked bread than over baked bread.

The final bread ended up being darker than I expected, but it didn’t impact the flavor at all, the crumb was denser at the bottom vs. the top, but for my first attempt I was quite pleased.

The flavor was great! Salt and rosemary is one of those perfect combinations of flavors. I took the fruit of my labor to work and everyone devoured it. All in all I will definitely make this again – probably as the perfect partner to the pasta dinner I am making for my husband when he finally comes home from taking his final semester of finals at school!

Friday, May 2, 2008


I love good coffee. I am by no means an expert on the art of making coffee, but I get by with reasonable results. I do have to admit that I was a slave to good old Starbucks when I was living in the continental US. While there is a small coffee shop here where I live, I must say, the increase in price for a large triple white mocha deterrent enough to keep my cash in my pocket. This cost isn't nearly as bitter a pill to swallow ($6.25 ea) as the cost for my 'cable' internet service @ a whopping 80 bucks a month. However I digress, I was telling you about coffee.

I do believe that generally, the more you spend on a coffee machine, the better cup of coffee it will make. However, this is impacted slightly by the quality of coffee you use as well. It will take more than a 150 dollar coffee maker to make a can of Folgers taste good – no offense Folgers lovers!

First and foremost, it comes down to capacity. Back in my grad school days, I had use for a small 4 cup coffee maker, only because it match my apartments tiny appliances. I did find I was continually making coffee, because whoever decided to call the segments 'cups' must have wanted to be funny! When I came to my senses, I never again bought anything smaller than a 12 cup coffee maker.

Is brand important? Not so much as price. For the most part, you can expect better quality materials as the price increases. I like drip coffee makers, though I have owned a French press from time to time (only to discard due to my in ability to remember to clean it in a timely fashion). So long as it has a glass carafe I'm ok. Internal part materials do have impact on taste, but I have found that with regular cleaning with de-scaler, its negligible. In all reality cost at this point only really determines how long you'll probably own the machine.

Options – now HERE's where the purchase of a machine determined. Buy what you need. Don't need stop and pour, clock, timer, etc? Don't spend the money on it then. Spending money on features you'll never use really isn't money well spent. I apply that mantra to nearly everything I buy. For me – delayed brew, so I can have that extra 20 minutes in bed and stop and pour, for those times I need my java fix – are two critical requirements on a coffee machine.

Once the requirements for the machine are met, then its time to buy beans. I do prefer grinding my own. I truly believe that fresh ground coffee is one of those aromas that are near perfection, followed closely by baking bread and bacon! I use a moderately priced burr grinder, and while I may not like lack of grind options, it does do a more consistent job of grinding the beans vs a rotary grinder. The grind it provides on its largest setting is smaller than I expected, but it works well with my machine.

Beans are important. I believe in trying out several varieties until you find one you like. Remember too that coffee, like any crop, is subject, in quality, to growing and harvesting conditions. So differences in flavors from batch to batch of beans may exist. Finding a decent roaster will normalize any variations from growing. I do think from a consistency perspective that Eight O clock Coffee Co. provides a relatively good product for the money in the lower 48. Here in AK, where all coffee is expensive, I tend to try to find the best coffee for each dollar. To date, my coffee of choice is San Francisco Bay French Roast, available from Rogers Gourmet Coffee & Tea. The aroma and flavor of the coffee is strong, robust, but not overly acidic. It is, hands down the best coffee I have purchased from an enjoyment perspective. This is followed closely by Trader Joe's French Roast, and Green Mountain Coffee's Columbian.

So when it comes to a good cup of coffee – buy a larger machine, buy a machine with the features you want/need, and try keep trying different coffee vendors until you find one that meets your expectations. Finally, don't be afraid to try different things, you'll never know when you find something truly spectacular!