Pumpkin Muffins Take 4: Epic Fail

Apparently the great pumpkin shortage of 2009 has continued to impact this years availability. After an epic journey to acquire pumpkin, we only found pumpkin pie mix and sweet potato puree. I decided to try the pumpkin pie mix, and adjust my recipe accordingly.

Epic Fail Pumpkin Muffins (Take 4)
makes 24 muffins

1 28 oz. can of pumpkin pie mix
6 eggs
0.25c milk
2.25c whole wheat flour
2.25c white flour
5t baking powder
1t baking soda
2T cinnamon
2t nutmeg
1t ginger
0.5t cloves

1. Mix all ingredients together in a bowl
2. Bake for 25 minutes at 350°F
The muffins were chewy, instead of crumbly, like the cranberry walnut muffins. I think that was partly because I used King Arthur AP flour, which has more gluten, and therefore gives the muffins closer to a bread texture. They were lighter than the last round, and I think next time I'll switch to all whole wheat.

The pumpkin pie mix had sugar in it, so I left out the sugar. Next time, I think I would add some additional brown sugar to make these a bit sweeter.

The spices I used were a little bit old (staying at somebody else's house... should have bought fresh spices), so they ended up making the muffins taste dry. The spices kind of sucked the moisture off your tongue.. unpleasant.

The extra baking soda and baking powder definitely helped the muffins get lighter, but I think next time I'll try a little bit less of each. I may also use a little bit less flour and leave out the milk. I couldn't taste the pumpkin as much as I would have liked.
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Just tuning in? Check out the rest of the pumpkin muffin saga, including more recent recipes!


a holiday baking extravaganza

I went home for the holidays and suddenly had easy access to an oven and lots of ingredients, as well as several extra mouths. So I went a little crazy, and made two types of muffins and gluten free cookies, all in two days.
the giant (super cheap) squash
We got a giant squash from the grocery store, so I roasted it and substituted it for pumpkin in my pumpkin muffins (with various other modifications). They weren't very good, so I'll refrain from sharing the recipe. Turns out, pumpkin recipes don't get ALL of their flavor from the spices. My dad likes them, though, and snacks on them after he works out.


sugar cookies + secret santa

I did a secret santa exchange this year that had two stipulations: you must get the person a piece of clothing that reminds you of the person, and you must make something homemade. So of course, I baked cookies!

I recently saw a post over at The Curvy Carrot about decorating cookies with royal icing, and I figured this was a great opportunity to try my hand at it. Worst case, I failed, and could just make a batch of regular, yummy sugar cookies.

Well, I did fail... the first time... kind of. My first set of cookies were absolutely delicious—they were flaky, crisp, buttery, light and airy and had just a hint of vanilla. They disappeared quite quickly into my belly (sans decoration) because frankly, they were ugly.

The second round, I found a recipe intended for rolling and cutting shapes. These cookies retained their shapes almost perfectly, and kept a nice even color and sharp lines. Unfortunately, they taste pretty bland. Eaten by themselves, they crumble in your mouth with an indifferent flavor, that tastes mildly of butter, but mostly of flour.

So, I present to you both recipes. Do with them what you will! (If you use the second recipe, go to Curvy Carrot and trying your hand at decorating! It's easier than you think!)

As usual, these are both one-bowl, no electric mixer versions of the original.

[Note: I apologize for the lack of pictures. My wonderful photographer is currently inundated with architecture homework.]

Delicious Sugar Cookies
adapted from AllRecipes.com

0.75c butter, room temperature
1c white sugar
0.5t salt
2 eggs
1t vanilla extract
2.5c all purpose flour
1t baking powder

1. Cut the butter into 0.5 inch cubes and microwave until it's almost as soft as whipped cream cheese. (Microwave it 15 seconds at a time. Once you see liquid, it's soft enough.)
2. Add the sugar and salt and mix it with a fork until they're incorporated (and slightly fluffy). You might need to take a break, unless you have an arm of steel.
3. Add the eggs and vanilla extract; beat again until they're fully incorporated.
4. Add the flour and baking powder in a small heap on top of the liquid ingredients. Mix the flour and baking powder together gently on top of the wet ingredients before stirring them in.
5. Chill the dough for at least 30 minutes.
6. An hour before you want cookies, take the dough out of the fridge. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
7. Either roll the dough out into shapes (they won't work very well), or make a log and cut off slices. Bake on parchment paper, or a greased baking tray, for 6 minutes. (Once any of them show golden brown on the edges, pull them out.)


Book Review: Cooking for Geeks by Jeff Potter

This book is perhaps the polar opposite of the last book I read, Culinary Artistry. It wasn't quite as jaw dropping or awe inspiring, but I think I probably learned more from it. Cooking for Geeks is all about food science. The book explains why some dishes are cooked at 325°F, and others at 375°F; it teaches you why beef stew is better with cheap meat; and it delves into the insane world of sous vide cooking, among other scientific cooking techniques.

I'll start with the good. The main portion of the book is very well written, and to somebody with a basic or even rudimentary knowledge of the sciences, Potter makes all of the food science concepts incredibly clear. I learned a lot about cooking, baking and recipe selection (especially important with the huge range of recipes available on the internet). More importantly, I didn't forget it all once I put the book down. Potter has a way of making it so intuitive that it actually sticks. So while I've read at least 20 times before that baking soda is basic and baking powder is neutral, this is the first time I've been sure I've got those the right way around.

Still, the book isn't perfect. Personally, I found the first two chapters, basically an introduction to the kitchen and cooking, to be somewhat patronizing. Of course, Potter recommends that those of us who have some practical kitchen experience skip the first chapters—but why would you buy a book to not read a third of it?!

Also, by the time I got to the chapters on sous vide cooking and cooking with chemicals/additives, I had lost interest. Perhaps these chapters were too irrelevant to my life right now (my pantry barely has room for whole wheat flour, let alone ordering liquid nitrogen!), or perhaps it was because I read the book in about 3 days, but they just weren't that interesting.

Finally, unless you've taken some computer science, expect to miss some of the humor. In fact, I've taken computer science and I STILL missed some of the humor.

The highlights:
- a very clear presentation of basic food science
- lots of cool, easy experiments to try at home
- witty humor and funny interviews with chefs

The verdict:
This would be a perfect book to check out from your local library. It's an easy read, so you should be able to finish it in the typical two week loan period. If your library doesn't have it, it's a good enough read to buy, especially if your bookshelf is lacking in food science books. Still, it's not really a reference book, and is well enough presented that you don't need to keep it, you just need to read it.


Pecan Cinnamon Rolls

We bought Panera bagels recently and they always come with too much cream cheese. What do you do with extra cream cheese? Make cream cheese frosting of course. What goes well with cream cheese frosting? Cinnamon rolls!!!

Well, as it turns out, these cinnamon rolls are so good that they don't need any frosting. (Good thing, because we don't have any powdered sugar.)

Any suggestions on using up extra cream cheese?

One cinnamon roll didn't fit, so we baked it in its own ramekin.
Pecan Cinnamon Rolls
makes 30 small rolls
adapted from For the Love of Cooking


Book Review: Culinary Artistry by A. Dornenburg and K. Page

I picked this book up the day I got it from the library and have had trouble putting it down since. I put off school work and (yes) sleep, just so I could tuck into its pages. This book is for the food lover—for the person who wants to think about food all the time, who wants to rethink the way they cook, the way they eat, the way they order at a restaurant. This is a book about beautiful food.

Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page work systematically through the creation of food. They begin with a brief introduction to food—why cooking is an art and all the things that make it special and different. They then slowly work their way up from composing flavors to creating a cuisine, and each step is tantalizing and mouthwatering.

By the chapter on composing a menu, I was mildly overwhelmed by all of the possibilities. I had no idea how much went into the planning of a menu, let alone the development of a 'signature' cuisine. Hungry for knowledge, I literally devoured this book and all of its wonderful insights.

The highlights:
- Lots of inspirational, insightful and just plain witty quotes from world-renowned chefs
- Illustrative recipes, that have the why explained as much as the how
- A comprehensive list of flavor pals and ingredient matches
- The 'desert island lists', where numerous chefs make a list of the 10 foods they would take with them to a desert island, and why

The verdict:
Get this book! It's a little bit obvious that it was written in the 1990s, so if you're up-to-date on your food trends, it will seem behind the times. Still, it's a beautiful book about beautiful food, all about the why and the how of food as an art, not a science.


Pumpkin Muffins: Take Three

A few weeks ago, I did a comparison of my original pumpkin muffin recipe and a new, low fat version. The low fat version blew the original recipe out of the water.. so much so that even if you were trying to gain weight, I'd recommend putting butter on the low fat version instead of eating the original.

The new recipe still wasn't perfect, though. It wasn't as tender as I'd like them, and still needed a little bit more oomph. In this iteration on the recipe, I've fixed the tenderness. I still need something to make the flavor out of this world amazing, but I think I trip to get more spices will help. (Right now I've only got cinnamon and nutmeg; I think I need some ginger.)

The changes: I replaced the white sugar with brown sugar; I added back in one more whole egg, replacing two egg whites; I used milk instead of carrots; and I decreased the baking time.

What I'd do next time: Use milk and carrots, but increase the amount of flour by .25 cup to compensate; bake at a lower temp for longer; add ginger to the spices.

Just tuning in? Check out the rest of the pumpkin muffin saga, including more recent recipes!

Pumpkin Muffins
12 muffins

Emulsifiers 101

Have you ever tried to mix oil and vinegar? No matter how hard you shake or how vigorously you whisk, it doesn't really work. And if you put it on your salad, the oil will stick to the lettuce and the veggies, and you'll have a puddle of balsamic vinegar at the bottom of the bowl.

Here's what's happening:
For the purposes of emulsions, there are three kinds of molecules or substances.

- The first kind are the water-loving kind of molecules. In this category are things like vinegar and lemon juice—basically anything that water would mix into easily. For those of you that remember chemistry, these are generally polar molecules, attracted to the polarity of the water molecule. (Think of polarity kind of like a magnet--it can only stick to other things that can be magnetized.)

- The second kind are the fat-loving kind of molecules, like oil. These are things that don't mix with water. These are generally non-polar molecules, that don't have an interaction with the polar water molecule. The oils, however, generally do like to group with themselves (This is completely inaccurate, but think of these like a bunch of little velcro pieces. It'll help with the next part.)

- The third kind of molecule is one that has properties of both the water-loving and oil-loving molecules. In fact, it's got one end that's polar and one end that's non-polar. Think of it like a magnet with some velcro glued onto it. These are called emulsifiers.
[Cool side note: this is very similar to what soap is made out of--one end velcroes onto the grease on your hands or your pots, and the other end gets pulled away by the magnetic forces of the water.]

When you add an emulsifier to a mixture of oil and water, they magically combine with only mildly vigorous whisking. This is used in things like mayonnaise, in which oil and usually vinegar and/or lemon juice are combined. To make a stable emulsion (one that won't separate over time), you need all three things--water, oil, and emulsifier.

In common food applications, there are three prevalent food emulsifiers:
1. Egg yolk
2. Honey
3. Mustard
In processed foods, lecithin (often derived from soy) is added to many products (like chocolate) to help with emulsification.

Next time you make a salad dressing, try this instead, and you'll get a super creamy vinaigrette that doesn't separate on your lettuce.

Creamy Balsamic Vinaigrette

1T balsamic vinegar
2T olive oil
1t Dijon mustard (the yellow stuff doesn't taste right, and it doesn't have enough emulsifiers in it)

1. Dissolve the salt in the balsamic vinegar. (Salt will only dissolve in the water-loving liquids, so you should do this now, before you add the olive oil.)
2. Add the olive oil and the mustard. Whisk to combine. The vinegar and oil should combine together into a homogenous dressing.
3. If there's still uncombined oil and vinegar, add more mustard and whisk. If there's uncombined oil, add vinegar, whisk, and then add more mustard if necessary. If there uncombined vinegar, add oil, whisk, and then add more mustard if necessary.

How to cook like a college student

aka 6 things you never thought to cook in a microwave...

Like any good college student, I have a microwave, a slow cooker, and no stove or oven in my dorm room. I resort to making a lot of things in the microwave. Over the past two years, here are a few of the things I've learned to make:

1. Rice - I always use this post as my guiding recipe.
2. Yogurt - see my earlier post about this.
3. Cupcakes - I like this recipe because you can do it all in the mug, which makes for easy cleanup. You don't get the nice chewy crust, but it's as close to a cupcake as I've seen without an oven! Delicious.
4. Polenta - see below for a simple 'recipe'
5. Spinach - see below
6. Eggs - see below

How to make dinner in the microwave:
1. Place 0.5 cup of polenta into a 4 cup microwave safe dish. Add 1.25 cups of water and two pinches of salt. Stir and microwave covered for 2.5 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, rinse two cups of spinach. When the polenta has finished, uncover it, place the spinach on top, and microwave for an additional 3 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, crack two eggs into a flat bottomed microwave safe dish. Add salt, pepper and seasonings. You can also add a tablespoon of milk. (I like to add some pecorino romano, too)
4. When the spinach/polenta is done, take it out of the microwave, stir the spinach into the polenta and put the cover back on.
5. Place the egg in the microwave for 1.5 minutes. Check for liquid. If there's still liquid, microwave it for an additional 30 seconds.
6. Grate some good cheese (parmesan, romano...) onto the polenta/spinach, add pepper and any seasoning you want, slide the egg on top.
7. Wait a minute or two for it to cool down before eating.. it's hot!

Warning: this is quite a bit of food. If you're not super hungry, I'd scale down the amount of polenta. Microwave for less time in step one, but keep the same amount of time in step 2.


Playing with Food

In honor of our new props, D and I had a photo shoot. The subject: a banana. The new gear: a rectangular plate and a square plate.

This was our original shot. It was ok, but it was a little bit lackluster. It didn't really pop.

The original shot.

So we tried something new. We played with our light, bringing it more to the side to make the shot a bit more dramatic. We also rotated the shot, zoomed in, and left more of the banana trailing out of focus. There was still something missing, though. It needed an accent of some sort.

We tried adding a cookie and then a pear to the shot. The pear was simply too big. The cookie was close, but just not quite right... or relevant.

Food Photography Props!

D and I have been taking pictures of our food ever since he got a DSLR last Christmas. In fact, one of the walls in our room is dedicated to food pictures. Up until now, we've been making do with the backs of baking sheets and plastic plates and bowls for our photographs.

For my birthday this year, we invested in some good props for food photography! Whoohoo! Our mini studio now includes:
- several ceramic bowls and mugs
- glass glasses (I know, classy!)
- several ceramic plates of various sizes
- lots of little ceramic and wooden bowls
- six flour sack towels in various colors
- a piece of foam board to hold up backdrops
- two lamps (pilfered from elsewhere in the room)
- a large white sheet (for extra light)
- various types of silverware ($0.50 each at a Black Friday sale)
- other fabric and scarves I had lying around at home (and brought back from Thanksgiving)

Some of our new props
I'm looking forwarding to staging and having D take some shots just for fun!! I think our mini-studio is going to be pretty magnificent.

A delicious sandwich

I went to the dining hall and was supremely uninspired by seafood salad and french fries, so I reverted to my old standby: the sandwich.

My normal whole grain bread was, sadly, missing, so I opted for two dense slices of rye bread, toasted until warm and just crispy.

While the bread was toasting, I altered the dining hall's egg salad, adding kidney beans, cubes of turkey, and some lemon juice (about equal volumes egg salad and beans+turkey).

After the bread came out of the toaster, I put spring mix on one slice, drizzled in olive oil and lemon juice, and sliced carrots on the other slice. The egg salad went into the middle of the bed of spring mix. I cracked some fresh pepper on top, too.

Delicious! (and really pretty!) The eggs and bright spring mix popped off of the dark rye bread, the carrots added some crunch, the eggs/mayo/beans/turkey/olive oil added richness, the lemon and spring mix added acidity and freshness, and the pepper added some zing. I wish I'd taken a picture, but unfortunately it was in the middle of a crowded dining hall.

Try it next time you need an interesting sandwich.
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