Spring has Sprung

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While we are afraid to truly believe it, I think spring is here in St. Louis. We had highs in the 70s all weekend and aren’t supposed to dip below freezing all week. I know we will still have a frost or two, probably, but we are in the home stretch. Spring weather is only a week or two later than usual, but compared to last year when we had 80s in March, we are lagging. I am ecstatic that the trees are blooming and budding and a few are even putting out leaves. I love leaves on the trees. Every year I yearn for the leaves more, I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s my redheaded complexion that just wants there to be more shade in the world.

We spent most of Saturday working in the yard – raking up a multitude of sweet gum balls from our neighbor’s tree, picking up a winter’s worth of sticks and seeding a few bare patches in the lawn. After all that we had time to turn over the garden and plant the garlic plants we dug from my parents’ garlic bed on Easter. I so love a busy day of yard work. Really I do. That is not sarcasm. I won’t be so joyous come the heat of summer, but now it is still a novelty after what seems like a really long, cold winter.

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Saturday is my day to bake, at least when it is too cold to be outside. I bake less when the weather is nice, but I usually manage to at least make something to have for dessert Saturday night. This week I experimented with cheesecake bars. While the picture is pretty, they are still a work in progress. You can cover a multitude of mistakes with homemade caramel sauce. Stay tuned for the bar recipe when I get it perfected.

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We took advantage of the beautiful weather and grilled hamburgers for dinner. I didn’t want to take the time to make buns for them, and we had cleaned out our freezer stash. We had (gasp!) store buns with our hamburgers. Rich offered to buy them so I didn’t have to be seen buying buns. Not really, but it did give me time to make the cream cheese bars while he was gone.

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Calvin got in on the action to make dinner and I must say our oven fries were some of the best we have ever made. The burgers weren’t bad either.  I love days when it all comes together – family time, chores and even dessert. Even without the homemade buns.

Frozen Treats in January – Cinnamon Gelato

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Gelato is the hot ice cream lately. Or at least it seems to show up in articles in food magazines and on restaurant menus that we have seen lately. We have been thinking about making our own for quite awhile now, but have never managed to find the time. This weekend all the stars aligned and we made our first gelato.

Gelato, according to various sources, is Italian ice cream that is heavy on egg yolks and often uses whole milk as the base instead of cream. I found recipes online that ranged from a dozen egg yolks to none. I settled on one that had a modest amount of egg yolks and both cream and milk that I found on the blog Italian Food Forever. The original recipe was for vanilla, and called for a vanilla bean. We didn’t have any on hand, so I used vanilla extract and then decided to make cinnamon gelato, so we added two teaspoons of cinnamon.

We beat the egg yolks with sugar, heated the milk and cream, tempered the eggs with a little hot milk and then cooked the whole shebang until it thickened. Then we strained the mixture into a bowl to chill in an ice bath until it was cold. Then we churned it in the ice cream maker and put it in the freezer until it was firm enough to serve. After all that we expected perfection.

It was good, but nothing special. And I thought it tasted more like eggy custard than gelato. I prefer my own cinnamon ice cream, which is much less work and doesn’t make a mountain of dirty dishes. I think I am going to leave the gelato making to the professionals, which is not to say I won’t enjoy the rest of our batch. Maybe it just needs some caramel sauce

Happy Birthday to Me!

I know it is pretty self-centered to write a post about my own birthday, but it is my blog – I’ll write a birthday post if I want! All kidding aside, I love having a birthday in early September. A lot of years it falls on Labor Day weekend and I get a long weekend in the bargain.

Rich and Calvin have been working to pamper me all weekend. Some of the pampering involves letting me choose what we have for meals. The pressure! I can’t say I chose anything really out of the ordinary. We had buttermilk cornbread with honey and butter for breakfast on Saturday, with a side of cantaloupe. Lunch was at Stir Crazy since I had a coupon for a free birthday meal. Dinner was (gasp!) leftovers since we were still stuffed from lunch. Sunday I rebelled and made everybody else help with meal planning.

The actual day is today and my parents had us over for lunch and the afternoon. I got to pick the menu for lunch (I sense a theme here). I love roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, so that is what we had. Thanks, Mom and Dad!

We made the birthday cake that we took with us to my parents’– all of us working together. I know it sounds pitiful to make your own birthday cake, but I enjoyed it. Calvin and I shared the mixing and measuring. Rich beat the egg whites, and washed ALL of the dishes, dried them and put them away. I never take a willing dishwasher for granted. Thank you, Rich!

I had a really hard time deciding what kind of cake I wanted. I chose brown sugar spice cake baked in a bundt pan, with homemade caramel sauce. I’m not sure which I like better – nice moist cake with lots of icing, or cake with a sauce. This year the sauce won out. We dusted the cake with powdered sugar, and served the sauce on the side. Everybody added sauce to his own portion – not only customizing the amount, but pouring it over the cut side of the slice so the sauce could permeate every inch of the cake.

In the spirit of full disclosure I must confess – the cake in the picture is totally staged – when I ate it I added enough sauce to entirely cover the slice and puddle on the plate. I also had more than one piece of cake this afternoon and I am going to have another piece tonight. If you can’t have all the cake you want on your birthday, and exactly how you want it, when can you?

Cake, my favorite meal, time with family and a long weekend – a girl can’t ask for much more!

Brown Sugar Spice Cake
From “Joy of Cooking” by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker Adapted by The Cook’s Life
Makes a 10-inch bundt cake

¾ cup butter (1 ½ sticks), room temperature
3 eggs
2 1/3 cups cake flour*
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon powdered ginger
¼ teaspoon cloves
1 ½ cups packed dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk
Caramel Sauce

*If you don’t have cake flour, you can substitute all-purpose flour, though the cake won’t be quite as light and delicate.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 10-inch bundt pan and set aside. Separate three eggs, putting yolks in one bowl and whites in another and set aside.

Lightly spoon flour into measuring cups and level tops with the back of a knife. Mix flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices in a medium bowl and set aside.

Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form when you lift the beaters out of the bowl. Set aside.

Beat butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg yolks and vanilla and beat until well combined.

Add flour mixture to butter mixture in three parts, alternating with buttermilk. Be sure to keep mixer on low speed when mixing.

Add beaten egg whites to batter and fold in by hand until no streaks of egg whites remain. Batter will be light and fluffy.

Pour batter into prepared pan and level top. Run a knife gently through the batter to pop any large air bubbles.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes, or until top springs back when pressed lightly.

Cool in pan on rack for 15 minutes before removing from pan. Cool completely on rack before icing or serving.

Serve with caramel sauce.

Download the recipe here.

Homemade Caramel Sauce – Yes You Can

I promised in my post on vanilla ice cream that I would cover homemade caramel sauce – and what better time than right before the weekend? You probably already have sugar, you just need butter, cream and vanilla extract, and a little confidence, and you are set.

I watched umpteen cooking shows about caramelizing sugar before I tried it. The first time I did it, I had no idea of the science behind it, stirred too much and ended up with recrystallized sugar. I gave up on it as too hard for probably ten years. Then I found a recipe for caramel sauce from King Arthur flour. This followed closely on the heels of watching Alton Brown make caramel sauce on “Good Eats,” explaining how heat breaks apart the sugar molecules, and what happens if you reintroduce a grain of sugar when you are making caramel. Hint: you recrystallize the whole thing and end up with a pan of sugar like I did. That information, combined with ten more years of experience in the kitchen added up to a resolution to try making caramel sauce again.

I followed the directions in the recipe and ended up with the most luscious, beautiful caramel sauce, good enough to rival any you have ever had, whether from a restaurant or store. And good enough to make you swear off Smucker’s caramel syrup forever.

I have since made this sauce several more times, with only one fail. That was the last time I made it, and I didn’t re-familiarize myself with the directions. I forgot to lower the heat when specified and ended up with a pan of burned black caramel – absolutely black and smoking. Remember when you are working with sugar that hot water and a little soaking take care of even the stickiest, smelliest mess. Fifteen minutes after my mistake, I was back at it with the same pan (and new sugar), after re-reading the directions. Lesson here is not that making caramel is hard, but that we all make mistakes, and you can always start over. You can do this – trust me. And, with pictures and clear directions, you will do it right the first time.

I am not posting the recipe, as I used it almost verbatim from King Arthur Flour. Here is the link to their Pair of Sundae Sauces. We love the caramel sauce, and that is what we were making in the pictures below. We didn’t like the chocolate sauce as much as one that we make out of “Joy of Cooking.” Guess I’ll have to make that this weekend so I can have pictures and post about it next week.

Start with the sugar and water, over medium-high heat. Stir occasionally, until it starts to bubble.

Use this time to measure out your cream and melt your butter. My butter isn’t fully melted here, but it was by the time I needed it.

Lower the heat to medium (this is the step I forgot last time) and watch carefully. The syrup will start to turn golden after a few minutes. It might take longer than you think, but be patient and it will happen.

Only stir if the top starts to look dry like this. And do not try to scrape the crystalized sugar off the sides or you might end up with a pan of granular sugar.

After about 7 minutes, depending on your stove, you should start to see the syrup turning golden. Stir (carefully) or swirl the pan to help the syrup to darken all over.

It took 10 minutes on our stove from the first bubbles to a medium amber color.

 

When syrup is a medium amber, the color of caramel ice cream syrup (of course), remove from the heat and add the butter. The mixture will bubble furiously – keep stirring.

After the butter is incorporated, add the cream. The sauce will bubble again – again, keep stirring.

Once the mixture is smooth, add the vanilla, or flavoring of your choice from the recipe. We stuck with vanilla, but upped it to 3 teaspoons from 2.

Make sure your container is heatproof. We use a wide-mouth pint canning jar, or a Pyrex bowl. It’s best to make this early in the day, or at least several hours ahead of time so it has time to cool and not melt your ice cream into a puddle. It is also heavenly on spice cake, carrot cake or a spoon.