Category Archives: Tastes of Home

Queso Flavored Coffee

After graduating from college, I found myself cowering in the face of responsibility. For four years, I’d complained about 8 AM seminars and whined every hour through an all-nighter. I could not wait to graduate. That is, until I caught wind of exactly what came next.

Faced with an ultimatum: work or die, I tapped into my creative problem solving. I came up with a clever scheme to travel, and still make some use of my degree. Under the pretense of “field work,” I booked a flight to Central America and summoned a friend to take it on with me.

We arrived in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and headed right to the small town of Suyapa on the outskirts of town. The taxi stopped, and we found ourselves looking out-of-place and bleary-eyed in a quiet plaza central. According to our “formal instructions” we would be greeted by a friend of a friend. Just as we were beginning to grow concerned, a friendly voice hollered across the square. The gringas had landed and word traveled fast.

Our street

We were immediately swept up into a growing entourage and led through town and up the hillside. On our way, we passed women vending tortillas and children playing in the streets. The welcome we received was warm, and we were happy to have arrived.

Winding past modest houses, the scent of chorizo drifted to the street. Before we knew it, we were home. We walked into our quaint little compound and were given swift instructions not to exit without an escort after dark. The presence of gangs was strong up the hill and it just wasn’t safe.

A view of the puebla

Exhausted from the transit, we assessed our open-air apartment, clambered under a mosquito net, and drifted off to sleep. That is, until we were awoken by our neighborhood roosters. Right on schedule, at about 3 AM, and promptly every few minutes thereafter.

Over the next few weeks, the cock-a-doodle-doos morphed into lullabies and we grew accustomed to the new digs. In the evenings, when not out visiting with friends, we were face-to-face with confinement. Wanting to make the best of the situation, we got creative. We tried yoga, and successfully freaked out a repairman when surprised mid-om. Other times we visited with our neighbor to practice our Spanish. More often than not, however, we got creative with the local ingredients.

Attempt #65 to amuse ourselves

Working with not much more than rice, beans, and tortillas, we looked forward to the days when we’d find a truck in the main square. Its bed would be filled with fresh produce, and the pineapple really mixed up our salsa-of-the-day. Other days, we’d find the cheese man.

Prepping for salsa

Usually just across from the pupusa stands, he would wheel up his cart filled with blocks of soft, white cheese. Initially taking it to be some kind of farmer’s cheese, we arrived shortly at its variety. Endearingly dubbed “essence of vaca [cow]” due to the musty overtones, when sandwiched between tortillas it was the next best thing to delectable.

Gradually, we developed a taste for the funky cheese (or the boredom left us exercising hand-to-mouth technique). The kilos began to multiply. After leaving, I didn’t think I’d miss the bovine delight, but turns out I much prefer pasture to plastic. Korea’s endless supply of processed cheese is anything but enthralling.

A divine selection

With springtime taking hold in Korea, it’s bittersweet. I find myself inhaling the penetrating scent of manure, and trying hard not to pass out. I feel I am not alone in this quest. As I pass students in my rural school’s halls, their hands cover their noses, and their eyes show signs of an Armageddon. They move swiftly, and scramble into their next weather-sealed classroom. The situation being what it is, I’ve channeled the disgust and shifted my thoughts to nostalgia. An ode to the vaca, I decided to take on homemade cheese.

The modernity of Korea’s pasteurization methods seem to have eradicated the udder cowiness from locally sourced milk. This means a vaca-free cheese, but it doesn’t account for the cross-contamination of machinery. Cheesecloth seems to be a specialty item, and in my neck it just couldn’t be found. Coffee came into play with my endeavor, and I’m hoping “essence of java” isn’t all that awful.

The next best thing

I set up shop with the best I could find: a hand-drip coffee percolator and a utility-sized filter. This certainly wasn’t ideal, but it was all I could do. Due to the lack of drainage, I ditched the filter part-way through. This is good news to one disgruntled barista. It proved exhausting to coax just one filter from her industrial stash, and I wasn’t looking forward to a follow-up visit.

The contraption didn’t drain the cheese as efficiently as I had hoped. In crisis mode, I also involved a tea sieve. This allowed for some extra whey to escape, and should also round out the flavor with a nice herbal quality.

More a coffee or a tea drinker?

Rather than admit defeat, I’m going to make it work. I was planning to use my queso for enchiladas, so the liquidy goodness should mix fine with chicken and green chiles as a filling. I’ll report back post-consumption, but all in all not a complete lost cause. I could keep tweaking until the cows come home, but I’m hungry. “It’ll do, pig, it’ll do.”

Queso Blanco

Makes about 4 ounces

1 quart (1,000 mL) whole milk
2 T lemon juice
coarse salt, to taste

1. In a non-aluminim pot on the stove, heat the milk until just about to boil (85 degrees Celsius/185 degrees Fahrenheit). Mix in the lemon juice, and turn off the heat. Allow the mixture to stand for about 10 minutes. You should see curds starting to form along the surface as they separate from the whey.

Curds and whey

2. Pour the mixture into a straining device of your choice. If cheesecloth is available, take this route. Next best, use a fine sieve. Last resort, try the coffee dripper. Allow the whey to drain off of the curds for a couple of minutes, then sprinkle curds liberally with salt.

3. Continue to drain the cheese overnight. The next day, squeeze or press the heap of goodness to wring out any excess moisture(I’m still figuring out how to do this). Enjoy.

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Finding the Curry-age

I’ve always been super intimidated by Indian cooking.  Before visiting the country, it was hard to get a real grasp on kormas versus koftas, and dosas and dal. Something about the foreign charm of ghee and cardamom kept my kitchen rather bland and the Indian restaurant well patronized.

Hello, gorgeous.

In attempts to discover something outside of my standard tikka masala,  I’d time my visits to the lunch hour so as to sample the buffet.  The real deal clincher was the continual output of fresh naan bread, washed down with pitchers of mango lassi.  Needless to say, my lack of self-discipline quickly confirmed a ticket on the fast train to uncomfortably full. Not to mention the fast train to porcelain heaven.

Subsequently, with my mother at my side, we staged a personal intervention and put a ban on ever again going all-you-can-eat.  It was just toooo delicious.  When we found ourselves in the restaurant alongside buffet buccaneers, we simply had to breathe deeply and look the other way.  Our fate was sealed, and we calmly ordered controlled portions from the menu.

This seemed to perplex the curious Indian servers, as whatever we ordered often times was included on the buffet.  Before putting in our order, the slew of waiters standing at attention would one-by-one try their hand at defying the laws of surface tension.  They’d miraculously fit one extra drop in our water glasses and reiterate, “Madam, the buffet?” Yes sir, we’re crazy (as well as pathetic).  Can I have a “100-calorie pack” for dessert?

Since returning from my trip to India, I’ve been trying to muster up the courage to recreate the deliciousness that was each meal.  The other day, I caught a whiff of the spice blend I smuggled home while cleaning the cupboards. Okay, I lie.  While cramming things in, it fell on my head.  Either way, things were set in motion.

On our next to last eve in India, we were lucky enough to share a kitchen with Shivani. I was a little reluctant after realizing she was the wife of one particular shop owner.  This guy had sent me on a mission for small bills, then upped his price and refused to bargain as soon as I was cash in hand.  Regardless, she was the only cooking class in town and had many rave reviews. 

Cooking with Shivani

We were greeted at her home where she had a table set up and layered with ingredients.  First on the agenda was chai while we discussed our menu for the day. We learned to make many things, but most importantly, Shivani made Indian food approachable.  I took what I learned, added a subtle twist, and finally achieved masala enlightenment.  Here’s a run-down of the basics. 

Tofu Paneer/Chicken and Lentil Masala

Serves 4

Every Indian “gravy” starts with a base of browned butter and caramelized onions.

3 Tbsp butter

hot spices: 7 black peppercorns, 5 whole cloves, 1 black cardamom pod (lightly crushed), 1 tsp whole black cumin seeds

1 large onion, diced

I had always been under the impression that most Indian foods began with ghee.  This isn’t necessarily the case.  Shivani started her gravies (referring to the saucy base of any “wet” curry) with plain ol’ butter.  Basically, you just start out by melting the butter in a medium-hot pan.  Pay close attention, and when the butter begins to get the golden tone, toss in your “hot” spices.  Wait just a minute until they pop.  Next, add your onion.  Shivani liked to start with red onion, but for my dish I used yellow and it worked just fine.  Once the onion is in the pan, turn down the heat a bit and allow to gradually brown.

Golden goodness

To avoid a case of Dehli Belly, simmer until the butter separates from the curry. 

3 Tbsp ginger/garlic paste (I was at a loss for equipment to make a proper paste and just used finely minced)

2 Tbsp garam masala (Indian spice blend)

1/2 tsp salt (unless included in your garam masala blend)

1 can diced tomatoes

3/4 C water

When the onions have come to a nice even brown, turn the heat back up to medium-high and toss in the ginger/garlic paste.  Saute quickly.  Next, add garam masala, salt, tomatoes, water and bring to a simmer.  Allow the mixture to simmer until you can see little bubbles start to form across the surface.  Around the ring of the bubbles and at the edge of the curry, you should see a clear liquid starting to separate from the gravy base.  This is the butter.  Once this happens, your bowels are safe and you’re ready to move on.

Starting to separate

It’s gravy, baby. 

1/4 C plain yogurt

2 tsp lemon juice

1 C green lentils, cooked

1 lb. tofu or chicken (I seasoned with tandoori spices and seared)

When you’ve made it this far, pat yourself on the back and crank up the sitar.  You’re almost there.  All that remains is just stirring in the final ingredients and heating the dish through.  I promised to veer away from chicken, so I’m going to recommend adding in tofu as a stand-in for paneer.  While I’m not exactly sure what it is that separates the two, it worked just fine.  If your sauce seems a bit dry, feel free to add more water at this point and just allow to simmer to thicken.

Voila!

Congratulations!  You’ve just made your first Indian curry.  Truly just a matter of getting your hands on the spices, once you’ve done that, you’re good to go.  Now on to perfecting the naan

Special thank you to Tak Shivani for sharing her culinary secrets.  If you’ll be in the Pushkar vicinity, I highly recommend her course.

Shivani’s Sanjha Chula Flavours

www.pushkarcookingart.com

takshivani@yahoo.com

+91-9414656185

Pushkar, Rajasthan

India

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The Green Bean Chronicles

Phases. They come and go.  The “Save the Shrews” phase.  The Jazzercise phase.  And then there was the phase when wearing parachutes on our legs really seemed like a good idea.  Whatever it is, we all go through them.

Check out those jazz hands!

When reflecting on myself, I’ve had quite a number. There was a phase when all I really wanted when I got home from school was bacon.  And chocolate milk.  Obviously this was before Weight Watchers graced us with their presence and cholesterol content was really of  no matter.  

As far as appearance, I totally rocked out with L.A. Lights.  Yes, I owned a scrunchie (or two) and I also went through one summer when I only wore white t-shirts. Let’s count our lucky stars I never encountered a sprinkler with a mind of its own in that stage. By far the most prominent phase as far as wardrobe is concerned, however, is what my family likes to dub the “green bean” stage.

In the heyday of Gap Kids, that chain manufactured one wicked sweat suit.  A nice heavy weight, cozy to the touch, they just couldn’t be beat.  Far too young to be affected by the stigma of donning a sweat suit in the middle of the day, I was taking full advantage.

At the time, the majority of my class was wearing suits of a more windproof  nature (warm-up suits, if you will). On the playground, I watched as they got picked off one by one for going the wrong way up the slide or playing too rough on the monkey bars.  Warm-up suits seemed only to be produced in a variety of intensely neon patterns, and this quality gave them quite the inability to go unnoticed. I was forging my own path, and chose to keep a low profile in earth tones.

Additionally, I had developed an intense fear of the color red.  Still coming into my own with the pale skin/fire-haired combo, all I knew was that red, and anything sitting close on the color wheel, just didn’t work.  Playing it safe, I nestled my wardrobe safely into the confines of red’s complement.  Green was the color of choice, and I lived dangerously through variations like sea-foam and teal.  I kept it comfortable for the year. I wore sweats exclusively, and in only the finest emerald tones.

Note the camouflage effect

All of this brings me to my latest creation.  Around Thanksgiving, I was set loose on a quest for green beans. It was difficult, but I managed to come up with four of the most ancient looking cans from only the most obscure location. Three were consumed in the feast, and one I stashed safely in my cupboard. Finding myself inside on a rainy evening, not wanting to make a trip to the store, I decided the time had come. I was ready to make use of the treasure.  After assessing the stocks, I also took notice of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom. An idea occurred to me.

The essentials

By this time, you’ve probably noticed that, when left to my own devices, I frequently cook with chicken, and I usually prefer one pot.  We’ll attribute this last tendency to a deep-seeded hatred for dish washing, sowed carefully over the last 20 years.  I promise next time to mix it up.  In the meantime, a recipe was stewing, and I went for it.  Now, I know some of you may turn up your nose.  For a variety of reasons.  Most prominent being the likeness of my creation to a bowl of slop.  Well, I happen to like slop, and what oh-so-tasty slop it is!!

Slop-o-licious!

I’m going to take a moment to also recognize my inability to do this up properly.  I’ll reiterate…it was RAINING, and I didn’t have cheddar cheese  in the house, nor anything useful for breading and frying onions.  This all could lead to a greater gain (quite literally AND figuratively!) and I was working with what I had.  The suggestions are included with the recipe.

Here’s the deal.  If you came of age anywhere in the vicinity of the U.S. of A., or happen to have ever visited an American holiday gathering, you’ve probably come into contact with green bean casserole.  An old stand-by, you either love it or you hate it.  After living in close vicinity to a friend who joined Costco solely for the purchasing power of flats of Campbell’s soup and jumbo-sized tins of french fried onions, I developed a yearning for it.  The recipe that follows turns the casserole into somewhat of a sorry excuse for a balanced meal.  It met my criteria!

Chicken Green Bean Casserole

Serves 4

2 Tbsp oil

2 chicken breasts, diced

4 Tbsp flour

1/2 tsp paprika

salt and pepper, to taste

———————-

1 onion, diced

6 button mushrooms, sliced

2 cans green beans

1 can Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup

4 Tbsp worcestershire sauce (Ottogi pulls through with this one)

8 shakes Tabasco

cheddar cheese, shredded (optional)

fried onions, to garnish (optional)

1. Season chicken with salt, pepper, and paprika.  Dredge in a dish or put flour in a paper bag to toss with chicken until lightly coated.

2.  Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add chicken to pan and cook just until browned.  Remove from pan and set aside.

3.  Add onions to hot skillet and saute about 4 minutes until starting to brown.  Add mushrooms, and saute another 2 minutes.  When mushrooms are softened, add green beans and mix just to heat.

4. Pour all remaining ingredients into the pan and stir to mix evenly.  Heat for 2-3 minutes over medium, then lower heat and cook uncovered, stirring frequently, for another 3-5 minutes or until chicken is cooked through.

5. (Optional) Top each serving with shredded cheddar and garnish with fried onions.

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: South by Far East(SXFE) Lineup Announced

Music.  It makes the world go round.  It’s the voice of a culture that echoes for generations.  It can encapsulate a moment in a way we could only dream of articulating.  Subtle riffs to make our worries go away, and heavy timpani to get us fired up.  For me, music is as primal as food and water.  

Like cooking, music draws from a myriad of sources for inspiration.  It is an avenue for the voices of suppression, and it is a lion rejoicing in a victory.  Anything can inspire, be it a python satchel or the writing on the wall. For me, more often than not, I find my inspiration in a bass line.  Whether the music guides me to the dish, or the dish dictates the music, the two are symbiotic.

Currently suffering through a dry spell as far as live music is concerned, I’ve had to get creative to fill the void. Whether I’m crooning to the Stones between bites of Shepard’s pie or it’s meatballs with a side of Sinatra, it helps alleviate the pain.  Nothing quite beats a session at Red Rocks under the stars, but it proves distracting.

My day gig entails hours of mandated presence in front of a dimly lit computer screen.  At times this leads to an existential crisis, and at others it leaves me to sift through the lineup of yet another musical event from which I’ll be excluded.  In recent times, this means I’ve been perusing the endless list of performers at Austin, Texas’ annual South by South West(SXSW) Festival. 

I’ve never been to Austin and I’ve never been to Texas.  For a while, I only knew Texans as a breed that would descend upon the slopes of Colorado in springtime like locusts.  Donning ten gallon hats, ski poles tucked towards the sky, and emitting a broken record of “Yips” and “Yee-haws” while careening at high speeds down the mountain, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of them.  

I’ve come to learn a good bit about the city of Austin, and my curiosity has been sparked.  It’s the birthplace of my one true love, Whole Foods (an amazing gourmet/organic food market), and a city slogan is “Keep Austin Weird.” It supposedly has a thriving music scene, and a laid-back ambiance to rival that of Boulder.   Also lying in close proximity to our neighbors to the South, I can only assume the city has a healthy presence of Tex-Mex culinary delights. 

The lineup

With all this, I was left inspired, still in Korea, and with cans of black beans and sweet corn at my disposal.  What I came up with is a taco/fajita filling of sorts.  It struck all the right chords when paired with a flour tortilla and some streaming Grace Potter. 

The dish is given a Korean flair by the addition of Korean chiles, fire roasted over a tiny apartment hot-plate.  Not to worry, the propane essence dissipates in the finished dish and they add just the right amount of kick.  If you can stand it, I think this dish was even better the next day, but either way it’s an easy one-pot meal. 

"Fire" roasted

South by Far East(SXFE) Chicken

Serves 4-6

Tex-Mex vibes

5 large green chiles, sliced lengthwise and deveined

1 Tbsp olive oil

3 chicken breasts, sliced in half lengthwise

1 large onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 bell pepper, diced

1 tsp paprika

1 tsp cumin

1 tsp chile powder

1 can diced tomatoes

3/4 can black beans

1/2 can sweet corn

1 chicken bouillon cube, dissolved in 1 C. water

salt and pepper, to taste

tortillas or nacho chips, to serve

1.  To roast the chiles, I like to first cut off the stem and slice down the center to devein.  I find this method easier than leaving all the cleaning to the end.  Next, over a medium-high flame on a gas range, roast the chiles skin-side down until the skins have become almost entirely black.  Remove the chile from the flame and transfer immediately to a paper or plastic bag.  Twist the bag closed to allow the steam to loosen the skins.  When the chiles have cooled, easily scrape off the charred skins with your fingers.  Dice the chiles and set aside.

Flavor bass

2. Heat oil in a large pan over medium-high heat.  Season chicken liberally with salt and pepper, then transfer to the hot pan.  Brown the chicken and set aside. 

3.  Lower the heat and saute onion and garlic until beginning to turn golden, about 4-5 minutes. Add bell pepper and diced chiles, saute another 2-3 minutes.   

A nice golden color

4.  Add spices to onion mixture, and stir to mix.  Next, return the chicken to the pan and add all remaining ingredients.  Allow the mixture to come to a boil, then cover and simmer about 30 minutes or until chicken is cooked through.  Remove the chicken, shred, and return to mixture.  Simmer uncovered another 5 minutes to allow to thicken. 

5.  Serve with flour tortillas or nacho chips.  Tip: Instead of heating my tortillas in the microwave, I like to throw them on the stove over the open flame for a more authentic flavor.  Heat for a few seconds, and when the tortilla begins to bubble, flip and repeat.  Serve immediately. 

Buen provecho

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Underage Cake-ing

It was a day that would forever change the course of history.

A few years back, I arrived home for my yearly visit.   The Mountain Standard to Eastern Standard time change kindly put my flight in around midnight. My parents’ smiles gleamed as I exited the airport tram, and I was quickly escorted home to devour the contents of a fully stocked fridge.  After eating cold pizza and finishing off the mashed potatoes, I put my fork down to rest.  I’d about had enough when my Dad perked up with excitement.  He could have just as soon suggested we go down to the barnyard and feed the pigs before I would have seen this one coming.

In my youth, my mother had spearheaded a movement which isolated my grandmother and I.  Cast off to a corner with our double chocolate cupcakes and our triple fudge sundaes, she would incessantly state the need to maintain a balanced diet. So what if chocolate was the axis of our diets?

My father on the other hand was a different story.  Always watching his cholesterol, he seemed to stick to his guns when it came to by-passing dessert.  All the way through his third helping of frozen yogurt, he would stick to his guns. His idea of a balanced diet was doubling the quantity to even out the losses of fat-free.

With one parent touting everything in moderation and the other sneaking sugar-free snack cakes, you may understand why I had resigned myself to lonely late-night sessions with a tube of uncooked cookie dough.  Just me, the moonlight, and a peaceful lack of judgement.

With this is mind, you can imagine my surprise when my father looked towards my mother and she unveiled the next course.  It was then that I first laid eyes on it.  The seductive bundt-cake curves, the rich and glistening texture.  There it stood.  The Kahlua Cake. 

Before this moment, cakes had been reserved for birthdays and extra-special celebrations. This baby was a game changer. All of a sudden, every occasion was an excuse!  Daughter home from college? Kahlua cake.  Housewarming for the neighbors? Kahlua cake.  Lawn mower started on the first try?  Kahlua cake. This cake throws all morals out the window. 

Last week we were all graced with the addition of one extra day in the month of February.  Besides the opportunity this provides to procrastinate your taxes a little bit longer, a leap year also means an actual birthday for one of my closest friends.  Seeing as her official day only comes around once every 4 years, we thought she deserved the best.  I decided to recreate the Kahlua cake for the occasion, Korean style. 

The original recipe starts with German chocolate cake mix and instant chocolate pudding, so this was going to be a bit of a challenge.  Match the lack of ingredients with the rarity of a bundt pan, and I was shaking in my boots.  What had I done?  How could I make anything to hold a candle to the one and only?  I talked myself off the ledge, tightened my apron and reached for my whisk. This was going to happen.

GMB: Genetically Modified Batter

Everything starts with a chocolate cake.  I did some research and found a promising recipe.  The one I chose relies on beating margarine with the sugar to begin rather than the more traditional butter.  Knowing the amount of additives that go into the gooey yellow stuff,  I was a little reluctant.  On second thought,  it might work.  Nobody likes to gamble on a dry finished product.  Surely in this day and age scientists have perfected the compounds necessary to ensure a moist outcome.  A little creepy, but I decided to embrace it.

I also knew that a pecan topping was indispensable.  I sought some out at Home Plus and sprinkled them in the bottom of the 8-inch pan before filling it with batter.  We were looking good. 

An ample sprinkling

The final piece of the puzzle was the finishing glaze.  Butter, sugar and Kahlua [soju] are simmered together and poured right over top of that sucker.  As I’ve always said, butter makes it better.  Match that butter with a bit of Kahlua and I’ll just  let your imagination run wild. 

Oozing appeal

Normally, 7th birthdays are reserved for Barbie dolls and princess-themed parties.  While tiaras are age-appropriate across the board, this cake might only be warmly received by one with their 7th birthday falling on a leap-year.  Since I know you’re toying with the idea,  you might as well just go ahead and black list this cake from your niece’s party.  Showing up with a booze soaked masterpiece might not fly with Auntie Miranda (even though Uncle Lenny would be singing your praises).  Just sayin, because if your impression’s anything like mine, you’ll be digging for excuses.

Happy 7th!

The Next Best Kahlua Cake

Recipe adapted from Best Moist Chocolate Cake from allrecipes.com

1/2 cup pecans, coarsely chopped

1/2 cup margarine

3/4 cup and 2 tablespoons white sugar

1 egg

3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

3/4 cup milk

1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

—————-

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 stick butter

1/8 cup water

1/4 cup Kahlua [soju]

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease and flour an 8- inch cake pan. Sprinkle pecans on bottom of pan. Sift together the flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt. Set aside.
  2. In a large bowl, cream together the margarine and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then stir in the vanilla. Beat in the flour mixture alternately with the milk, mixing just until incorporated. Pour batter into prepared pan.
  3. Bake in the preheated oven for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
  4. While the cake bakes, prepare the topping.  Boil butter, sugar and water in a sauce pan for about 2 minutes.  Remove from heat and stir in Kahlua.  While cake is still hot, pour mixture over the top and allow to absorb.  Try to resist about 20 minutes, then enjoy.

Note: I have found that this cake freezes extremely well.  It works great to freeze the whole cake, or if you’re a chocoholic like me, divide it up into sections, wrap in waxed paper and foil, then freeze.  Each time your craving strikes just zap a piece (or two) in the microwave for about 30 seconds.

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(Cue creeper) “Are you Russian..?”

The first step to healing is admitting you have a problem.  I think we might have a situation. 

Somewhere between the attempts of Marlboro to capitalize on the inner cowboy of teenage boys and Abercrombie’s convincing “If you buy our clothes, you WILL end up with a sexy hunk” campaigns, I fell for Starbucks.  They’re pretty much equivalent to Big Brother in their grasp of our society, and their [corporate] sins rival those of Charlie Sheen. I don’t even recognize myself anymore! What am I doing amongst their converts? 

We’re in trouble.

Everyone has their vices, right?  It could be SO much worse.  I could be ducking into the clothing racks of Neiman Marcus  to dodge the debt collectors.  I could be living in an apartment filled with cats! Or even worse, filled with a lot of nothing in particular! I could be a hoarder. No no, I’ve chosen my poison.  I prefer a nice deep roast finished with a bit of soy milk. Starbucks’ just happens to be fresher (on this side of the world).  And bolder. Crap.

Regardless, the guilty culprit in all this, and thus the one who shall endure the fury, is our friend caffeine.  The track of life just doesn’t play the same without a mild case of the shakes and a cupful at hand. I find myself today between a rock and a hard place.  And so it is. 

I’m not quite sure at what point the addiction began.  Maybe it was when I first acknowledged the cool factor of  “Don’t talk to me until after I’ve had my coffee (sneer).” How very emo.  Perhaps it was in attempts to get the attention of that dark-haired guy from Philosophy? (Aside: HE most certainly wouldn’t have chosen Starbucks! What is WRONG with me!!??)  How have I ended up here!?  

In all honesty, I think most likely my 6am job in the river rafting industry is to blame.  I mean, really I was just being safety cautious.  Nobody’s aware enough to heed all stop signs and mind the yellow line at that hour unless caffeine snaps them into action.  And the drive to work was AT LEAST 10 minutes.   It’s not my fault.

While I’m coming to terms with my existing situation, let’s shift the blame a little and start pointing the finger.  Shall we start with sexual predators?  Or maybe you’d rather look first to alcoholics? Let’s start with alcohol and save the best for last!

As I’ve mentioned before, this country has quite the drinking habit.  There’s nothing  like watching your superiors belt out their rendition of “Material Girl” then hang their heads in a drunken stupor.  As a friend warned me before embarking on this journey, if you choose to drink with them, be prepared.  And after you do, be ready to acknowledge the badge of honor you’ve earned in everyone’s hearts when you stumble into the office the next morning. 

Bottles of the spirit of choice, soju, are available on every corner for about $1.  With a flavor profile similar to jet fuel, it’s a steal of a good deal.  At this point, you may be beginning to understand  why I’ve pretty much sworn off the stuff.  Seeing as I’ve just signed another year of my life away, however, I’m feeling like I need to give it another chance. 

With coffee and addiction drifting through my head, an idea occured to me. A genius idea. I have an old roommate whose mother once sent her a batch of homemade Kahlua.  At the time, my roommates and I were battling the post-college blues, and this bottle was something of a savior.  It added little drops of happiness to our Sunday cups of coffee  and was even better in White Russians.  Who knew you could make Kahlua on your own? Reflecting fondly, I thought of it. Kahlua SOJU. 

Here’s what I came up with.  This recipe is incredibly easy, most ingredients are either on hand or may be grabbed from the corner shop, and it WILL change your life.  Nothing like pooling your resources and making lemonade out of lemons. Don’t be shy, you’re welcome to kiss my feet.

Pantry staples

Kahlua Soju

 3 Cups Freshly Brewed [Starbucks] Coffee

3 Cups Light Brown Sugar

3 Cups Soju (About 1.5 small green bottles.  If you’re feeling frisky, go ahead, pour in that extra  half-bottle!)

3 Teaspoons Vanilla Extract or 3/4 Teaspoon Vanilla Powder (I had extract at my disposal, but you can find the powder at pretty much any Korean grocery store)

Brew coffee, then pour into a pan on the stove top.  Add sugar and heat over low-medium heat just until dissolved.  Allow to cool, then stir in soju and vanilla.  Enjoy. 

Next, I was faced with the task of determining just how best to enjoy my creation.  I could drink it straight (I did.).  But that’s kind of boring.  I could put it in my coffee. That just sets me up for a double dose of dependency, so let’s evade that one.  At this point, my mind drifted to Russians.

As with any country (except for perhaps Thailand, which harbors HOARDS), you can find a few bad eggs here. That’s right, it’s time to discuss sexual predators!  Usually they’re found, or rather they find you, at only the most inopportune times.  Thanks to a weekly boat from Vladivostok and a shaky economy, Korea has been graced with the presence of a few economic migrants who don’t have English as a native tongue.  These migrants count on their curves for job security and apparently are in high demand.  It takes only a few days before any light-haired girl receives her first proposition from aforementioned predators.  And what a cautious, delicate proposition it is. “Are you Russian..?” Yes, and I’ve been waiting all day to go home with you.  Bug off.

Either way, I decided I was onto something with the Russian thing.  I stirred  in some milk and enjoyed.  It was dangerously delicious.  It needed a name.  As obvious as it might be, what with WHITE Russians and BLACK Russians, I decided to side-step the racial slur.  It took a minute, and then I had it.  The Russian Hunter.

They “creep” up on you.

 

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Pretty Pretty Pancakes

As part of the acculturation process with my English friends, I have fully embraced the holiday Pancake Day.  Known more prominently as Fat Tuesday in the States, this is the last day before Ash Wednesday – signifying the start of Lenten.  According to my tea-guzzling, history buff source, the holiday came about with Brits needing to use up leftovers in their pantry before the start of fasting.  Before I go any further, let me point out a few things that I have learned in my compulsory cake revision (from English revise, meaning “to study”).

1.  All pancakes are not created equal.

American pancakes tend to be light and fluffy and English pancakes are denser, flatter,  and more similar to a crepe.  Both have a  “doughy” quality, but the English version is much more chewy and dense.  

2. Pancakes aren’t just for breakfast (and midnight runs to Denny’s) anymore.

Smothered in butter and syrup, American pancakes bridge the gap between savory and sweet.  Generally, their presence  is reserved for morning time, with the exceptions of “breakfast for dinner” concept  meals and liquor-fogged trips to the diner.   English pancakes are generally thought of as a dessert item, or an extra-special sweet start to your day.

3.  Pancakes are best paired with a cuppa. 

Americans: forget Joe and befriend Elizabeth.  Cuppa – English for a cup of tea.  Preferably unflavored, black tea, served with a bit of COLD milk and sugar if so desired.

4.  There’s not just one way to flip a pancake.

In my experience, pancakes were always accompanied by the flicking of wrists and the swift movements of a spatula.  On my first Pancake Day, however, I was introduced to the idea of pancake accountability.  In order to enjoy the calorie dense delight, each person must in fact flip their own pancake.  The spatula plays only a supporting role – – it’s in the wrists and a carefully orchestrated  airborne technique.   Like, the one I thought only profession chefs could master. 

In my case, this brought back  flashbacks of that time on a friend’s  boat in Missouri when I was forced to abide by the Bagby Family  “You’re not coming back on this boat until you stand up on those water skis!” Policy.  It ended about 3 hours later in disgust with a  lot of water up my nose.  With this springing to mind, I was immediately overcome with anxiousness.  I think Jeanette’s face about sums up the sentiment. It’s not as easy as it looks!

A little bit frustrated

5.  When living in Korea, disregard everything you thought you knew.

One of the peaks of my schedule last year came Thursday afternoons at one of my elementary schools.  As part of their after school program, the mothers of a couple  students would come in to teach grades 3-6 cooking lessons.  After lurking around, I managed to wriggle my way into one of the assigned cooking groups.  I enjoyed learning the Korean recipes as much as my 8-year-old counterparts, but let me tell you, this was not smooth sailing.  5th graders are much more critical of  technique than any Le Cordon Bleu trained chef.  They made me prove my worth on more than one occasion to avoid dishwashing duty.

In class, we learned to make an assortment of items, ranging from sweet and sour pork to kimchi.  For our last class, I was told excitedly by my students that we would be making “American hot cakes.”  I thought this was a little bizarre but didn’t really think much of it until class time.  Until now, I hadn’t really been aware of a Korean familiarity with “hot cakes” but who knew?  

To begin, we mixed up our packaged batter and slowly drizzled it into a greased up frying pan. Innocent enough.  With the first pancake hot off the griddle, my group moved along to start frying up another.  One from our group scurried off to fetch an allotment of jam and various fresh fruits. This wasn’t really standard, but I figured it all still fit loosely into the category of “breakfast foods.”  It was when the Cool Whip became involved that I grew suspicious.  

Nervously spreading among hawking group members

I watched my group evenly spread the jam between layers of stacked pancakes.  When all the pancakes were layered, I observed (a bit horrified) as they slopped on the Cool Whip.  Suddenly,  it clicked.  We were  making a pan-CAKE.  DUH! Why hadn’t we thought of this!?  It just seemed so OBVIOUS! So THIS is how they make cakes in the land without ovens!!

It's Cool Whip time!

When fully frosted, my group took their time delicately arranging each wedge of fruit in careful symmetry.  Upon completion, they summoned over the teacher. Our creation was unlike any hot cake I had ever encountered.  I was silently praising my ability to take it all in stride and commend my group members on their grasp of an American stand-by. When the garnish came along, however,  it all fell to pieces.  With pride, the teacher scurried over with the finishing touch.  Digging in her apron pocket, she pulled out a  sprig of fresh rosemary and stuck it right in the middle.  Glory be! 

Our glorious panCAKE

When it came time to devour our creation, my reluctance quickly turned a bit ravenous.  It worked.  It was truly delicious.  In the land of sugar sprinkled garlic bread and sweet potato lattes, there is a lesson to be learned.  While it generally is not in your best interest to disregard all rules of food pairing, when done correctly,  it works. I’m still a bit skeptical of chocolate-covered bacon, but I guess now I must give it a try.  We’ll save that for next time. 

This Pancake Day, our celebration converged with the birthdays of two friends.  In the spirit of things, we broke out the chocolate hot cake mix, jam, and added a special twist with Nutella and candles.  It was spectacular. Here’s to a new tradition.

PanCAKE heaven

I think he liked it.

English Style Pancakes

8 Heaping Tbsp Flour

1 Pint Milk

2 Eggs

1 Tbsp Oil

Combine first three ingredients in mixer until blended.  Melt oil in pan on medium to high heat.  When pan is hot, pour in only enough batter to thinly coat the bottom of pan.  Cook about 1-2 minutes or until browned, then flip (to each his own!) and repeat.  To serve, place chocolate squares, jam, fresh lemon juice and sugar, or filling of your choice in center and roll.

English style-large and flat

Special thanks to Sally for this recipe, my first cup of proper tea,  the addition of twat to my everyday vocabulary, and for her patience and encouragement throughout the learning process.

Sally

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A Shameful Confession

A travesty has occured, and I’m scorned to admit I’ve played a role. 

I forgot to get Ranch dressing.  As in, I consumed my share (my arteries will concur)…but….the cupboard…stock…

Words cannot express my sorrow.  

…volunteers? Assignment, anyone?

Debriefing Before the Final Hour

Alas, I write again.  Responding to the urge to explain my long absence, I’ll just give it to you straight. Duty rang. Spice duty.  After a trip to India, the arsenals are stocked and I’m ready to season.  The report is pending and will become available subsequently.

I write to you only in a short lull before the most serious assignment of them all.  One part reconnaissance and one part active duty, I am plotting my plan of  attack.  I’m venturing into the motherland.  Indeed, the home of buffalo sauce, potato skins, “bottomless” mimosas, and BIG GULPS.  Not to mention the brave.

An opportunity has presented itself and I’ll be jet-setting to Hawaii for a quick trip.  I’m taking it by storm. Anticipating a greedy frenzy, my moves may not be calculated, but, a heavy looting WILL take place.  Scoff and call me Gaddafi, but this tyrant’s making it out alive.  And with gummy worms.

As I sit here, the adrenaline surges at the thought of the bountiful supermarkets, and my tongue sweats at what I’ll soon devour. I make a vow to you, readers, and with you as my witnesses, I hold myself responsible to:

-Savor the statewide delights at every presentable opportunity

-Embrace the addition of a fourth  “flex meal” to my daily consumption regimen

-Moan and groan only in earnest appreciation of the joy my mouth is experiencing rather than in detest of my stomach’s discomfort

Upon my return, the tactics will be analyzed, the gains will be archived, and I will be ready to file a synopsis.  Commander of curry here, over and out.

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Put Your Nog Into It

Ahhh, Christmas.  The time of year when you brush up on your white lies to ensure that Grandma is satisfied with the praise for each pair of  underpants.  Likewise for that throw pillow you ended up with after the gift exchange.  “I loooove it….!”

(Note: If you’re confused by now, I am of the “Cashew” faith.  That is, one part Catholic and one part Jew.)

A couple of years ago, when I tasted the first sip of my uncle’s eggnog, I did not have to draw upon this arsenal.  It was delicious.  “How had I gone this long in life without it?” I asked myself.  Thankfully someone had welcomed this chap into our family! On one occasion around the age of 13, I remember picking up a carton of the mass-produced stuff  from the local supermarket.  After years of reference in Christmas movies, I was wondering what all the fuss was about.   One sip, and I wrote it off.  Its flavor profile channeled cough syrup.  I’ll just take hot cocoa… Today,  thanks to my uncle, I have learned a valuable life lesson.  Having an open mind is priceless.  Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.  Oh, baby. 

Amidst a plethora of non-Americans harboring a curiosity similar to my own, I decided to take it on this year.   Because this decision was made Christmas Eve in the midst of a craving fueled frenzy, I did not have time to request my uncle’s standard recipe.  But, let’s get real people, like he would have passed it along anyway.  I’m sure that baby has been passed down for centuries under lock and key.  After perusing allrecipes.com, I found one that seemed to suffice.  Most ingredients were on hand, and a fellow ring leader lent me her imported whole nutmeg.

 

Whisk away

 

With a hand mixer being MIA, I once again called upon my leadership skills. I lined up the recruits and chose the finest biceps for whipping duty.  After some negotiation, we agreed to rotate the responsibility.  We couldn’t have those muscles cramping before we’d even opened presents.  A number of frustrated sighs later, the egg whites reached “peak” quality (ha-ha).  It took stern voices and a fly swatter to keep salivating friends at bay, but with promises of tasty bliss in just a short while, we were able to set the batch outside to rest.

When we tapped into it, I wish we would have had a string quartet.  Bells should have rung up from the valley to the hilltops above.  Next year I’ll just have to work on finding a larger bowl to double the recipe.  Happy Holidays!

Finishing touches

 

Eggnog

Serves 10
 
Ingredients
  • 1 quart milk
  • 1 pint heavy cream
  • 12 egg yolks
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 pint whiskey
  • 12 egg whites
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 pinch ground nutmeg

Directions

In a large bowl, blend the milk, cream, egg yolks, vanilla and whiskey using a hand mixer until smooth and creamy. In a separate bowl, whip egg whites until soft peaks form. Gradually sprinkle in the sugar while continuing to whip until stiff. Fold the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture, and pour into a punch bowl or large pitcher. Serve in mugs or cups garnished with a sprinkle of nutmeg.

View full recipe on allrecipes.com

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