Category Archives: Recipes

A PRESENT

Here’s a present for the new year, or to celebrate arrival of fall, whichever has more meaning to you. I post my grandmother’s savory noodle kugel recipe – from the same grandmother whose latke and blintz recipes I’ve shared before (but not on String – I’ll have to fix that). I see lots of how-tos on the web for sweet noodle kugels, with cottage cheese, sugar and even cinnamon and raisins, but very few for non-dairy savory ones to serve as a meat meal side dish. As a kid, this noodle kugel with onions was one of my favorites, especially alongside roast chicken.

One quick note about noodles. The curlier the ribbon style noodle, the looser texture your finished kugel will be. Many brands of bagged egg noodles have a very slight spiral to their shape, to make them look fluffier when cooked. You can see the spiral in these:

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If you can find them, choose a flatter rather than a more curly noodle, preferably of medium width. This will make a denser, moister kugel. If you can’t find flatter noodles, use the others, but be prepared for a final product that’s drier, crunchier throughout, and that falls apart when cut. Manischewitz, Streits and Goodman all make the “old fashioned” flatter type noodles.

You can use either yesterday’s leftover noodles (which is what I do when I make a little kugel), or cook up noodles just for this dish. If you cook up noodles to make this, you’ll get the best results if they are room temperature or cool from the fridge rather than just-drained and steamy hot.

On what to cook this in – I strongly suggest a Pyrex dish or pan. A clear or tinted glass pan will let you see when the bottom is brown and done. A glass pie plate will work in a pinch, but I prefer something deeper, and depending on the size of my kugel will use either a clear glass loaf pan, 8″ square baking dish, or a slightly larger oval glass casserole dish. Whatever pan you use, make sure that it is both VERY well oiled, and pre-heated before putting the noodles in it. Doing both will eliminate sticking.

Apologies for not having pix of the finished product, but we ate every bit of it before I thought to write up this entry.

Minnie Leibowitz’ Noodle Kugel (in three sizes)

Small – (Fills one loaf pan, about 4 servings)

About 2 cups of leftover cooked egg noodles (measured after cooking)
1/2 medium onion, sliced very thin
2 Tbs vegetable oil
2 eggs
Salt and pepper to taste

Large – (Fills one 8″ baking dish, about 8 servings)

1 whole 12-oz box or bag of egg noodles, previously cooked.
1 medium onion, sliced very thin
2-3 Tbs vegetable oil
3 eggs
Salt and pepper to taste

Giant – (Fills one large oval glass casserole dish, about 10-12 servings)

1 whole 16-oz box or bag of egg noodles, previously cooked.
1 and a half medium onions, sliced very thin
3 Tbs vegetable oil
4 eggs
Salt and pepper to taste

Method (all)

Preheat oven to 350, pour oil into Pyrex pan and oil the bottom and sides very generously. Pour remaining oil out of Pyrex pan and into a saute or small frying pan. Saute onions in oil until they are golden. While sauteing, put the Pyrex dish in the oven to heat it up.

When onions are done (takes about 15 min or so), beat the eggs in a large mixing bowl and dump in the noodles. Scrape the onions into the mixing bowl. Toss noodles, egg and onions together to separate the noodles and combine the ingredients, adding salt and pepper. When well mixed, remove the Pyrex pan from the oven and turn the noodle/egg/onion mass into it. Return Pyrex pan to oven, turn the heat down to 325 and cook until noodles are brown and bubbly on the bottom and crunchy on the top, about 45 min to an hour, depending on the size of your kugel.

When done, it’s best to let rest a few minutes before cutting into portions, especially if you used a curlier noodle. Can be served hot, warm or cold.

Enjoy!


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YEASTY DOINGS

A quiet weekend here at String. Work made some inroads into it, but I had enough time to catch up on some much-needed household maintenance, and even to shovel out a little bit of family-spoiling. To that end, I baked homemade bread, and made flour/salt dough for Younger Daughter to play with. Older Daughter wasn’t interested, but appreciated that Younger Daughter was otherwise occupied for most of the weekend. And both ate the bread.

The immediate inspiration for the bread adventure was Rose Levy Birnbaum’s Real Baking blog. In particular – her recipe for Baby Hot Pot Bread. I’ve made bread before, but I’ve always been very disappointed in the result. To date my breads have been cakey and crumbly, with none of the crunchy crust or stretchy, chewy goodness/hole-filled interior that I like. I got the closest with various Challah recipes. Although good they weren’t what I was looking for.

Rosie’s bread looked too good and too easy not to try. I admit I mercilessly slaughtered her recipe. I did all sorts of things that should have totally sabotaged it. I doubled the recipe because my in-house bread vultures would scarf down one tiny loaf in one meal. Not a good thing to do because in baking ingredient proportions don’t always scale. I substituted a half a cup of whole wheat flour for some of the flour in the recipe because I had it in the house and wanted to use it up. Again not an ideal practice as different flours have different properties. And for that matter, I didn’t use the flour specified. I used King Arthur all purpose, which again is what I had in the house. I didn’t have a Silpat baker’s mat, but I did have a flexible plastic cutting board that served the same purpose, and I only had one cast-iron Dutch oven, so I used a Le Creuset 5.5 quart lidded pot for the second loaf.

But none of these were my biggest challenge. That was the ambient temperature of my house. It’s far too cool here for optimal rising. The usual solution for this is to put the rising dough in the oven with just the oven light turned on. My oven light doesn’t heat the oven enough. I investigated all sorts of alternatives – even writing to Rose for advice. Since I didn’t have the time or resources to build a proofing box, I ended up doing a combo of things, depending on the time of day and what heat resources were available. I turned the oven on very low and put the bowl on top of the stove, covered with a towel. Later I moved it next one of our hot water radiators, again tented with towels. My last resort would have been putting it (well wrapped against dust) on top of our furnace in the basement. To make up for the borderline temperatures, I ended up letting the thing sit for longer than suggested. My first rise lasted more like 24 hours than 18. The second rise was also temperature-challenged. It went very slowly. I don’t think my loaves ever achieved their potential full volume.

My warmth seeking machinations, the wrong combo of flours, messing with the rise times and other aberrations did not leave me with a high level of confidence when I dumped my two misshapen mini-loaves into their respective pots for final baking. But the recipe is a robust one, able to survive even me. My loaves were perhaps a bit more dense than optimal, but lovely. A very firm, crisp crust; a stretchy, strongly flavored interior, full of holes; no scorching (I was afraid of this given the heat of the pots). And no baking stone full of corn meal, flour, or other burnt crumbs to clean up.

I present the less photogenic of my two efforts. We ate the prettier loaf last night. The sliver of the heel off the narrowest part of my poorly formed bread is just enough to barely make out the airy holes.

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The play dough we made was of the uncooked flour and salt variety: About 2 cups of flour, 1 cup of salt, .25 cup of cooking oil, and about 1 cup of water (we started with 3/4 of a cup but found we needed more). We didn’t bother to color it, knowing that the final product would be baked along with the bread and painted when cool. Here are some of the results. Smaller Daughter saw this entry in the Craft magazine blog, and went on to make her much larger Ninja Valentine statue:

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Knitting? I did some of that, too. My Sarah James Ribbed Leaf Sweater back is long complete, and the front is finished to about three inches above the bottom of the armholes.

Rather than give you yet another poorly photographed misshapen object to contemplate, I mark my progress using a visual of the sweater pattern’s own illustration, with a convenient line of demarcation.

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Now it’s back to work. The forecast this week is “heavy deadlines, with the possibility of a mid-week blizzard.” February is such a joy.


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MORE HOLIDAY COOKING – PECAN SANDIES

As promised, here is the Pecan Sandies recipe I use. It’s a legacy from my Buffalo family – from hand-written notes shared by my mother-in-law Gail, originally attributed to her cousin. I’ve redacted the recipe a bit to add instructions (the original groups the ingredients in two units and says little more than mix the groups together, roll into balls and bake). This makes a boatload of cookies, with a yield about twice that of most typical cookie recipes. But then again, considering the large families common in Buffalo in the 1960s, I’m not surprised. I have to admit I’ve never counted exactly how many I get beyond “two boxes full” – probably something in the neighborhood of 6-8 dozen depending on cookie size.

A note on ingredients. I buy a bag of raw, unsalted pecan halves for this at Trader Joes. Then I set one of the kids to sorting the pecans. All the unbroken pretty halves go in one bowl. All the broken ones and pieces go in the second. I usually have enough bits and less attractive pieces to furnish the ground pecans needed in the recipe. The pretty halves are reserved as decoration. I usually have enough of those too. If need be, some cookies go bare. Finishing the cookies with pecan halves is another tinker I’ve done to the recipe. They were naked in the original.

Other notes: There is no need to sift the flour for this recipe. I use shortening for these rather than butter. Butter makes the cookies richer but much softer. I get a good baking rhythm going on these using two insulated baking sheets, two cooling racks, and four pieces of parchment. If you don’t want to use baking parchment, you can lightly grease the cookie sheets. But the parchment is worth the investment in ease in batch manipulation and clean-up, plus speed of production (no washing baking pans between batches). You can substitute store-bought ground pecan meal for the finely chopped pecans. Although I haven’t tried it, I suspect you can also make this cookie with almond meal and top with whole almonds, but then you’d have almond sandies…

Sue, I don’t know if we’ve ever met, but thank you for the cookies!

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Sue Ralicki’s Pecan Sandies
Makes roughly 6-8 dozen depending on cookie size

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup confectioner’s sugar
  • 1 cup shortening
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 extra large eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 4.5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp cream of tartar
  • 1 cup finely chopped pecans, ground fine in a food processor
  • More granulated sugar to roll cookies in prior to baking
  • Pecan halves for garnish

Equipment needed:

  • Two mixing bowls, one for the wet and one for the dry ingredients
  • Flexible stirring spatula or mixing spoon
  • Hand held mixer (or stand mixer if you’re lucky enough to have one)
  • Food processor to grind nuts (alternate method – put them in a ziplock plastic bag and beat them into submission with a meat tenderizer mallet, rolling pin or other heavy object)
  • A small bowl or plastic bag to hold the granulated sugar for coating the cookies
  • At least one and preferably two flat baking sheets (not lipped jelly roll pans)
  • At least one and preferably two racks on which to cool the cookies
  • A tin, ziplock bag, or airtight box to store the finished cookies

In a large mixing bowl, using a hand mixer, beat together confectioners sugar, granulated sugar, shortening, and vegetable oil until completely blended. Add eggs and vanilla and beat to incorporate.

In a second bowl, mix together flour, salt, baking soda and cream of tartar. Pour these dry ingredients into sugar/shortening mixture, stir well to incorporate. Add finely chopped pecans and stir again to ensure everything is mixed together. Chill the dough for about an hour.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375-degrees. Form the dough into balls slightly smaller than a walnut. Roll the balls in granulated sugar to cover. Place them about two inches apart on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment (the cookies will puff up and spread a bit). If you are garnishing each cookie with pecan halves, dip the nut halves in water and press firmly on top of the sugared dough balls on the cookie sheet to make them stick. The balls may crack a bit around the edge. That’s expected.

Bake cookies at 375-degrees for 10-12 minutes until lightly browned. Slide the cookie-laden parchment sheet onto a rack to cool. Cookies can be stacked in an open box once partially cool, and the parchment sheet can be re-used for a subsequent batch. Once fully cool, store in an airtight box or cookie tin.


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YES, THERE REALLY ARE TEN KINDS OF COOKIES

In fact, this year, there are eleven plus fudge. I offer up ocular proof, plus a round-up of baking notes:

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Starting from the top left and reading each row across

Row 1:

Row 2:

Row 3:

  • Green (and minty) tree-shaped spritz
  • Pecan sandies
  • Lime cookies with lemon sugar dusting (new this year)

Row 4:

I’ve linked to or highlighted the source of most recipes. Here are some notes:

Fudge – Absolutely the easiest thing to make if you’ve got a microwave and a microwave safe bowl. We make it last to use up any leftover nuts (and because more than half this household is made up of chocolate fiends). Have a significant other who is mad for chocolate? Impress her/him with this even if your cooking skill so far is limited to opening a jar of peanut butter.

Lemon cutouts with ginger glaze – I start with the basic sugar cut out recipe in Joy, but add lemon zest. I usually frost these with confectioners sugar to which I add lemon juice until it’s paint consistency plus colors. This year since I had another cookie that ended up being more lemon than lime, so I went looking for a flavor we hadn’t done yet in this year’s cookie crop. I thinned the confectioners sugar with ginger juice (grate a thumb-sized piece of ginger onto a paper towel, then squeeze tightly to extract the juice). Wow. A do-again to be sure!

Biscotti – This piece looks good, and they taste wonderful. But I added whole toasted almonds plus the cherries, and the dough proved too crumbly to make many pretty pieces. But we’ll enjoy eating the crumbles! I’ll keep hunting for a better biscotti-with-stuff-in-it recipe.

Rum balls – This year we did the classic cocoa/vanilla wafers/pecans one. I’ve tried other combos but I like it the best. This is another no-bake cookie that’s difficult to mess up, provided you make it at least a week before you serve it so that the flavors mellow.

Classic peanut butter cookies – In this house we use chunky peanut butter. Heresy, but heresy with more texture.

Oysters – I’ve gone on about these before. They’re one of the three “must haves” along with peanut butter, and chocolate chip.

Green mint trees – I got a last minute call from one of my third-grader’s “room moms” alerting me to a party this week and requesting cookies with no nuts in them. While anything produced in my kitchen won’t pass muster for a nut allergic kid, there are no allergies in the class. So I made plain spritz trees, starting with the recipe in Joy of Cooking, adding a touch of mint flavoring and the lurid color. It’s not as forgiving a spritz recipe as my own Oyster one, and the tree shape isn’t one of the more reliable dies, but we got a batch done that will (in its entirety) go to school on Monday, leaving no memories behind other than a lingering ghoulishly green shadow on my fingernails.

Pecan Sandies – A family recipe. I’ll share this one in its entirety later this week. My variation on the thing is to add the half-pecan to the top before baking. An easy and tasty cookie from a recipe with a huge yield.

Lime cookies – I started with the King Arthur recipe, but could not find sour salt (citric acid) locally – my favorite baking supply source having closed forever last month. Horrors. Instead I improvised. Lemonheads candy is mostly sugar and citric acid. So I ground up a bag into a powder, and used it to dust the cookies. It worked extremely well – nice and lemony tart. But it did overwhelm the lime-nature of the cookie itself, and I find that the lemonheads dust is more of a humectant than is plain powdered sugar. The cookies need to be stored with air circulation, otherwise they get sticky and lump together. (I’ll probably roll them one last time in plain powered sugar before sending them on their way).

Classic chocolate chips – the recipe on the back of the Tollhouse bag, although (another heresy) – I use Ghiardelli semisweet chips instead because I like them better.

Earthquakes – I was introduced to these the year before last by a good pal (Hi, Kathryn!) I’m not using the recipe she sent to me, mostly because I know it’s filed here on my desk and saved securely (it was VERY important that I do so). Unfortunately, it’s saved so securely that I can’t find it and am too ashamed to admit it. So I went looking for something equivalent to the one she sent me. This one is pretty good, but hers was better.

Linzer cookies – Nope, you don’t need a fancy set to make these. The set makes it easier and the cookies prettier, but it’s not necessary. I happened to have a fluted circle cutter on hand, and a mini leaf cutter. But you could use a water glass to cut the big circle and a top from a screw bottle of water or soda to make the smaller window. This dough is pretty easy to handle for a roll-out. And the taste is fabulous. More work than most, but according to the Resident Male – worth the effort.

Later this week – ultimate holiday luck, the sandies recipe, plus some actual knitting content.


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HALF BAKED HOLIDAYS REDUX

If you’ve been reading along here for a while, you might remember I’ve mentioned this family’s holiday cookie fixation before. Ten kinds. Every year. (I do give most away to co-workers and friends rather than let us eat them all ourselves). This year’s list is a mix of first time experiments and family favorites. It includes:

  • Chocolate chip cookies – the classic, but made with mini chips and pecans instead of walnuts, slightly smaller than their non-holiday brothers. Mostly from the official Toll House recipe printed each year on the bag of chips (although I do cheat and use non-official chocolate).
  • Peanut butter cookies – my kids would shudder in horror if I left these off the list. Done with crunchy peanut butter, just for fun. Otherwise it’s the standard from Joy of Cooking
  • Buffalo rum balls – a version of the classic crushed cookie bourbon ball, but done with rum and cocoa, rolled in cocoa. Our variation comes from a recipe published in the Buffalo, NY evening newspaper some time in the 1960s
  • Sugar cut-outs – the iconic holiday cookie. This year we get to use the Hannukah cookie cutters. Also I put lemon zest in the batter, and mix the icing with lemon juice instead of milk or water
  • Oystersa family invention. A hazelnut spritz sandwich cookie, filled with dark chocolate ganache
  • Linzer cookies – New this year, from the King Arthur website recipe collection. Mine have little leaf shaped holes, that being the smallest cookie cutter I had on hand to do the center hole.
  • Chocolate crinkles – Also from the King Arthur website. Killer chocolate flavor, fantastic texture. We use extra cocoa instead of espresso powder. My kids call these “Earthquakes” because the white sugar outside flaws and cracks in baking to reveal chocolate fault lines. I made these the first time two years ago from a very similar recipe sent by a friend and they’ve become favorites. (Hi, Kathryn!)
  • Almond/cherry biscotti – Another new one. I’m cribbing this recipe together from several sources, including a basic biscotti recipe in the always wonderful Baking with Julia book. This is instead of the Panforte which although excellent deserves a break after a two years running appearance
  • Lime cookies – Again a new experiment. This one depends on my finding sour salt (citric acid) locally. My grandmother used it to make her stuffed cabbage and to restore the shine to aluminum pots and pans (boiling them in a bath of water and sour salt). Another King Arthur website find.
  • Pecan sandies – A family recipe, basically a nut-rich shortbread, rolled in granulated sugar and topped with a pecan half. These tend to alternate appearances with Mexican Wedding Cakes in our roster, as both are pecan shortbread type cookies.

I made a lot of progress this weekend past. I’ve got two cookies left to bake – the biscotti and the lime cookies. Plus I have to fill the oysters and Linzer cookies, and the kids get to ice the cut outs.

In other news, knitting did get done. Here you see the second of my two emergency baby shower gifts blocking on a balloon. The Regia 6-ply Crazy Colors has a relatively long repeat, so it makes wide stripes on both booties and hat. The white sections and broad yellow welting (including the tips of the I-cord bootie laces and hat bow) however are done in another well-aged leftover.

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I also managed to get another couple of inches done on my ribbed leaf pullover, and complete about half a sock of other holiday gift knitting. But more on those tomorrow.


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DAY OF THE TAMALE – A DIGRESSION FROM KNITTING

Well, three days of the tamale, to be exact.

A good friend of ours hosts a themed Christmas dinner every year. It started out as a “cats and dogs” gathering decades ago, when those who weren’t migrating home elsewhere for the holiday pooled resources and cheer. Over the years it has become a second-family type event, deeply enjoyed by all.

This year’s theme (announced last year) is Mexican food. And in a moment of ebullience and generosity some time after my third egg nog last year, I promised to make tamales for the 2006 crowd. Since tamales freeze well, I decided to do them this weekend. That way should the batch prove unsuccessful, I’d have plenty of time to recover.

Living here in Massachusetts, finding the ingredients can be a challenge. I’ve been collecting corn husks for a couple of years now, buying a bag when I can find them. Fresh peppers, or at least a small selection thereof, can be found here now. Dried peppers are tougher although in some neighborhoods they can be found, too. My own stock is hand-imported from New Mexico and Arizona, either by me during business trips, or through the kindness of another good friend in Albuquerque. And masa flour I can get locally in the local natural/organic food supermarket, or in the same neighborhoods where decent peppers can be found.

So this weekend I spent pretty much in the kitchen. Saturday was cooking the meat filling – in my case pork. Sunday was making the flour, stuffing the tamales and steaming them. And Monday after dinner was assembling and steaming the last few that I ran out of time to complete on Sunday.

I don’t claim to be an expert in making these (I am after all, a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn, and Mexican only by marriage). My experience is largely a matter of reverse engineering, trying to make tamales that look, feel, and most of all – taste – as close as possible to the ones my father-in-law’s family sends to him. I’m narrowing in on the optimal product now, but I still have a few tricks to learn. Still, these do come out better than any I have had in any Mexican restaurant this side of the Mississippi. So as a mutant multicultural Hannukah/Christmas/Solstice/New Year’s present I share the recipe here.

Please note that these tamales are one of the 365 things you should only eat once per year. Luckily the amount of labor involved limits their appearance to special occasions. This recipe makes enough for a large party or family gathering (recommended), or at 4-5 per serving, enough to freeze for several months of tamale-accompanied meals (see caution on those 365 things).

One Gringa’s Tamales
Makes about 150-165

Special equipment: A huge mixing bowl. A large steamer pot (big aluminum Chinese steamers, large spaghetti pots with steamer inserts, lobster or crab pots with a colander inside all work). Optional: An electric mixer, an immersion blender. One or more helpers for husk-washing and tamale assembly (this is A LOT of hand work for one person)

Meat filling

  • 6 pounds of pork shoulder or another fatty, stringy cut, hacked into roughly inch thick slices and gobbets. Plus any bones and skin.

  • About a dozen assorted fresh hot peppers of various types (Fresnos, Serranos, Tepins, yellows, Mirabels, Jalapenos, Mirasols, Cayennes, I use a mix of anything I can find – except habaneros which can overwhelm the dish)

  • About 10 dried New Mexico dried chile pepper pods (use dried California Anaheim peppers if you can’t find the slightly more flavorful and hotter New Mexican ones)

  • About 15-25 other hotter dried peppers (tiny pequins, cascabels, or arbols, again whatever I can find)

  • 2 medium or one large onion, finely chopped

  • 6 cloves of garlic

  • 1 Tbs salt

  • 1 can of beer (or equivalent in water)

  • More water to cover

  • 1.5-2 tsp dried cumin (comino)

  • 2 tsp dried oregano

Day 1: Clean and de-seed dried peppers, soak in beer to rehydrate for at least a half hour. Char and peel fresh peppers. The delicate might want to wear gloves for both of these operations. Finely chop fresh peppers. Crush or mince garlic. Mince or chop rehydrated peppers, saving juice (I cheat by sticking an immersion blender into my beer or water plus peppers and turning the whole thing into a slurry). Toss meat and bones in large stew pot along with all other ingredients, add water just to cover. Simmer for at least two hours, preferably until mean is falling apart, and all the vegetables have denatured into the broth. Taste if you’re brave. The meat should be quite hot because it’s the primary flavoring in the tamale, but is used quite sparingly. Set aside to cool, preferably overnight in the fridge. If you’ve used skin-on shoulder, the broth will set up as gelatin in the fridge. That’s good.

Day 2: The fastidious might want to skim the fat off the top of the cooked meat. I will say as shocking as it sounds – don’t bother. The biggest enemy of tamales is dryness. This is a recipe that I’d rather have full fat once a year, than as a reduced fat shadow of its true self. While the meat is still cool, remove it from the pan (keep the jelled juice and fat – don’t wash the pot yet). Using two forks, shred the meat into strings. Use this opportunity to remove bones and any tough bits. Return meat to the pot and heat it just enough to melt the thickened juice. Pour off as much as is convenient. You’ll probably have between 2 and 4 cups of liquid inclusive of both broth and fat. The meat should be moist, but not dripping. Reserve the liquid and set the meat aside. Fridge both until you assemble the tamales.

Dough and Assembly

  • One 5-lb bag of Masa Harina instant corn flour (to be accurate, the bags are actually 4.4 pounds, I make up the difference from the cupboard)

  • 1 pound of lard. Yes lard. This actually makes a tastier and less greasy tamale than the equivalent in vegetable shortening.

  • 1 cup of Crisco shortening (reduce this by half if you are only using one 4.5 pound bag of masa). I use this only because I rarely use lard, and I don’t want to buy a second pound and have the remainder sit around forever.

  • 2 Tbs salt

  • The reserved liquid from the meat

  • Water or broth. You’ll probably need between 4 and 6 additional cups of liquid, depending on how much you got from your meat and how dry your masa mix is.

  • 2 bags dried corn husks

Start by immersing the corn husks in a pot of warm water to cover (you’ll need to weight them down with another pot on top to keep them submerged). Soak for at least two hours. They will almost certainly be a bit dirty, with clumps of dried corn silk in the centers of each bundle. Separate the husk leaves gently, taking care not to split them. Rinse well under running water. Stack them between dishtowels as you clean them. They need to be moist and pliable but not dripping wet when the tamales are assembled.

In a huge bowl (and I mean huge) using an electric mixer, beat the lard and shortening until soft and uniformly creamy. Add all masa and salt and mix by hand until all the fat is incorporated. The dough will look crumbly at this point. Add the liquid from meat – broth, fat and all. Knead to incorporate. Continue adding water (or broth) and kneading by hand until the mixture is just a bit softer than PlayDoh in consistency, sort of like a very stiff peanut butter.

By now your meat should be cool (it’s easier to handle cold). Your corn husks should be softened and clean. Your dough should be ready. It’s time to assemble. Assembly is where my lack of skill really shows. The tamales I’ve had made by my Mexican inlaws’ families are not fat and floppy masa cakes with an open end, like the packaged ones found at Trader Joes supermarkets. Instead they are stogie-thin, with both ends of the husk neatly tucked away to completely encase the filling. I’ve never managed to figure out that second end tuck, so I use a small tie to secure each tamale.

Start by taking roughly a cigar-sized lump of masa and squishing or spreading it onto one of the larger corn husks. Aim for an area slightly right of the center line. You want to make a patch about the width of a pack of playing cards that extends from about an inch from the pointy end of the husk to within about an inch of the wide end, and that is about a quarter inch thick.

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Using a fork lay a thin stripe of meat mix down the center of the masa – depending on the size of the corn husk, this can be about a teaspoon or two. Remember – most of the hotness in this recipe is in the meat. The more meat, the hotter the tamale is. Even the hottest meat can be tamed by upping the masa:meat ratio.

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Begin rolling the husk and masa tightly to encase the meat.

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When you’ve got it mostly enclosed, stop rolling and fold the pointy end of the husk in over the growing roll.

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Continue rolling to make a little log with one end tucked neatly away. Now take one of the substandard corn husks (there will be some too shredded or narrow to be useful). Rip off a thin strip and use it to tie the open end securely closed.

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Put all your tamales into a the upper part of a steamer pot with the folded side down. They should be packed tightly enough to stay upright, but not so tightly that they don’t wobble a bit (otherwise they will take longer to steam).

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Set the tamales to steam for about two hours. At the end of two hours pull a sacrificial tamale from the center of the batch. Unwrap it. If it’s done the filling will be moist but not sticky, and will separate cleanly from the husk. For the record, my large spaghetti pot/steamer basket can hold about 40 tamales at a time. I steam them as I complete them, and did three batches on Sunday and one Monday night. Unsteamed tamales should be returned to the fridge if they have to wait their turn to be steamed. Cooked tamales should be packed into zip-lock plastic bags or plastic containers and frozen as soon as they are cool enough to handle. It’s worth the time to freeze them in meal-sized units rather than all together.

To serve tamales, I thaw them quickly in the microwave or using a steamer. You can serve them just like that. But best of all once they have been thawed is to finish them by baking them in the oven until the husks are dry, or tossing them into a dry skillet or on a griddle to the same ends. Serve as an accompaniment with any Mexican meal, or as a snack or appetizer. Salsa Verde or any other condiment you wish can round out tamales to make a meal.

Enjoy!


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FOR THE COOKIE CHALLENGED

Heading out to a friend’s house and need a hostess gift? Is that friend someone who makes you feel like your own cooking skills are limited to opening a jar of peanut butter? You CAN make something edible that they’ll love, and you CAN do it with minimal skill. (Purists may object to using frozen puff pastry. They can make their own. I do it when it really matters, but for this the frozen kind is a useful stand-in.)

Cinnamon Nut Ears

Here’s what you need to make about four to five dozen cookies. Enough for a generous looking pile on a plate. If you need fewer, use only half the box of pastry, half the sugar and cinnamon, and half the nuts. Although you’ll end up using only a bit for brushing, you’ll still need to crack one whole egg, as at last report chickens have not yet learned to lay halves. (Note that precision on the ingredients here doesn’t matter much, so don’t worry if you’re not spot on.)

One box of frozen puff pastry from the supermarket’s frozen desserts aisle.
1/2 cup of sugar, plus a bit more set aside for sprinkling
About 1 cup of shelled nuts (pecans, walnuts, almonds – it doesn’t matter), chopped up fine.
One egg, cracked in a little bowl and beaten
About 3 teaspoons of ground cinnamon

At least one cookie sheet or flat pan. Two if you’ve got them.
A spoon
Baking parchment (looks like waxed paper, but is meant to go in the oven. Supermarkets carry it.) If you can’t find any DON’T use waxed paper, instead smear the cookie sheet with butter or shortening.
A rolling pin, large dowel stick, or cylindrical glass.
Medium size mixing bowl
A knife, preferably serated.
A flipper or spatula to turn the cookies over
A rack or heat-proof surface on which to cool the cookies

1. Take the box of pastry out of the freezer about a half-hour before you begin.
2. Turn on your oven to 400-deg F.
3. Make a spotlessly clean, large clear spot on a countertop or very large cutting board.
4. Sprinkle some sugar on your clean spot.
5. Take the first puff pastry sheet out of the box (there will be two, packaged together). Gently ease it open and flat. Try to keep it from cracking along the folds. Sprinkle some more sugar on top.
6. Roll it out until it’s about 1/8 inch thick. Try to keep it roughly rectangular and untorn.
7. Take a bowl and mix together the nuts, a half cup of sugar, and the cinnamon.
8. Paint the dough rectangle with the egg.
9. The bowl of cinnamon/sugar/nut stuff is enough for both puff pastry sheets, so figure on using only half of it in total for this first sheet. Keeping this in mind, liberally sprinkle your dough with about half of the amount you’re contemplating using on sheet #1.

10. Fold the bottom edge of the dough up to the center line. Fold the top edge of the dough down to the center line.
11. Sprinkle about 2/3 of the nut/sugar mix you’re reserving for this dough sheet on the resulting long thin folded dough blob.

12. Repeat step #10 to make an even narrower log.
13. Sprinkle the remainder of the nut/sugar mix across the top of the log.
14. Fold the log in half and pat it a bit so it stays in a log shape.
15. Using sawing motions instead of squishing motions, cut the log into slices roughly 1/4 inch thick.

16. Put a some parchment paper on the cookie sheet and place the slices on it. (If you don’t have parchment, grease your baking sheet by rubbing butter or shortening on it, then put the cookies directly on the pan.
17. Bake the first sheet of cookies in the 400 degree oven for about 4 minutes. At the end of 4 minutes flip the cookies over and bake them for another 4 to 5 minutes. At the end of that they should be lightly golden and stiff. They may still look a little bit soggy, but they’ll crisp up provided they’ve lost that translucent, doughy look.
18. Slide the whole sheet of parchment to a rack or heat-proof surface to cool. (This is one reason to use the parchment, otherwise you need to pick up the cookies one by one to put them on the rack to cool, plus the baking sheet will need to be washed before you put batch #2 on it).

19. After the cookies are cool, you can sprinkle them with confectioners sugar (highly optional) then put them in a box or tin, or cover them with plastic wrap.

See where one’s missing from the photo?? That’s the odd shaped one from the very end of the roll. That’s the taste test portion reserved for the cook. (It served its function.)

Variation:
A savory as opposed to sweet cousin of this is to do pretty much the same thing, but dust the board with flour, but instead of stuffing the dough log with cinnamon and nuts to use lots of grated Parmesan or Asiago cheese (or a mix). A sprinkling of some type of herb or garlic is good, too (but optional). I like to serve this unsweet cheesy type of toast with soup and a salad.

LAST OF THE HOLIDAY KNITTING; GENETICS

One last scarf to go. Since (at this point) I’m brain dead and desperate for something quick and easy, it’s a great thing that Knitty’s latest came with a fast-knitting piece that offers great bang for the time unit investment. Add me to the legion of folks doing up a Wavy Scarf.

I’m using that same sport-weight alpaca I used for the Kombu I finished last week. Because it’s of finer gauge than the standard-issue worsted written up in the pattern, I’ve added an additional six-stitch pattern repeat to make up the width. Mine is done on 48 stitches instead of 42. I’m also visually lazy, so I graphed out the pattern so I don’t have to rely on the prose write-up. Note that if you want to use a different weight yarn, modifying the thing is quick and easy – either add or remove multiples of six stitches.

In other knitting-related news, most of my knit presents are winging their way cross country right now, or are about to be distributed to those nearby. Once this scarf is done I’ll be done, done, done. (Huzzah!)

Cookie Liberation Front

Today’s cookie was an experiment – a coconut/oatmeal drop, based on a standard brown sugar drop cookie recipe, with toasted oatmeal and unsweetened coconut tossed in. Since I had some whole blanched almonds left over, each was topped with a nut. Younger Daughter said the rough-shaped cookies with almonds atop them looked like birds nests, so that is now their name.

Tomorrow’s cookies – Chocolate rounds stuffed with marzipan. I haven’t decided to do them flat or folded in half like little chocolate/almond gyoza yet. Also another experiment, but this one will be a shortcut cheat. I’ll be taking a sheet of frozen puff pastry, painting it with a beaten egg, then spreading it with sugar, cinnamon, and chopped pecans, folding it a bit and cutting it into elephant ears. Pix for sure, as this is something impressive looking even the Cookie Challenged could do.

Genetic Component of Crafting?

Marilyn the Knitting Curmudgeon posted an interesting thought the other day (one of many for her, I might add). She mused about whether or not the urge to do something like knit or make other crafts might have a genetic component to it. That got me thinking…

I’d guess that there would be a large inborn aspect to the desire to do these things. But I think there’s more than one influence at work here. To simplify, I’d guess that there are at least two:

  • Some set of things governing the process that generates original ideas
  • Some set of things that governs the "gotta-do-it" urge

I know people who have a strong concept-generation bent. They fairly sweat ideas, finding new viewpoints or perspectives, synthesizing disparate influences, or distilling previous exposures in innovative ways. The most affected of them sometimes have a hard time sticking to one idea long enough to bring it to full fruition, and may not have even mastered all of the skills necessary for optimal completion, but neither limitation strikes them as a problem. A person like that is off and running, captive to the next idea before the earlier one is completed.

I also know people who have the "gotta-do-it" urge, but the idea generation set in them is less strongly manifested. They are in constant motion, producing endless streams of items verbatim from directions or patterns. They often have extremely accomplished sets of technical skills, but can be stymied by roadblock problems. I have a friend who would seize upon an idea and explore it in hundreds of minute variations. She’d make wonderful little toys or identical baby sweaters by the dozens (in the case of toys – by the hundreds). All were beautifully crafted, yet it often seemed that once she started, "retooling" to make something else was difficult for her. She’d hum along happy to make even more of the item under current exploration rather than switching to a new thing. For her I think that fulfilling the "gotta-do-it" urge to keep busy was the true reward.

And then there are the folks who have both influences working on them in various proportions. Some feel particularly pressured or depressed because they have an inexhaustible source of new ideas and the urge to see each through to completion, but rarely have the time available to accomplish them all. Others are at constant war with themselves, reining in their urge to start something new before the item at hand is completed, and (sometimes) growing to hate the almost-finished item for blocking the beginning of the next.

Why do I think this might be genetic? Because I’ve seen these urges run through families. Not every person in the family need have the exact same hobby, but the mindsets do replicate through the generations. I know my father was a very compulsive "gotta-do-it" guy. Detail oriented in the extreme, he was a classic definition engineer. He never just sat still, he was always reading something, tinkering with something, or meticulously graphing something (he would have adored PCs and spreadsheets but died before they were sold). I know families where the parents or grandparents are method makers or idea shedders. Their households are sometimes chaotic places, but their kids also scatter innovation behind them and flit from project to project.

Why do I think these things are inborn rather than learned? Because in some cases I see these traits skipping generations; manifested in a household where the older influence was physically absent while the younger example was growing; or emerging later in life. Plus I know from experience it’s very hard to teach either creativity or perseverance. These are bents that people are born with. You can encourage these characteristics, but you can’t transplant them into someone who doesn’t lean that way to begin with.

I’ve got a very strong "gotta-do-it" bent. Perhaps it’s related to the milder forms of ADD, but I find HAVE to be making something, and I’ve been this way as long as I can remember. Even as a little kid I had all sorts projects underway (and heaven help the adult who put them away before I was done). I even fell into needlework at a very early age, and completed my first clumsy cross-stitch sampler before Kindergarten.

Just sitting has always been extremely difficult for me. Even just sitting and listening/watching something is hard. My hands have to be occupied. When my fingers are distracted, my mind is free and I concentrate better. Conversely, if my fingers are free, my mind is bound by the minutiae around me and zeroing in on some one thing in specific is harder. That fly buzzing around the lecturer’s podium; the interesting detail on the curtains behind her; the texture of the cracked wood at the edge of my seat; the air currents around my ankles; an amusing joke the guy sitting across the room told me last week; where I might be meeting with friends after the lecture; the faint sound of sirens outside the lecture hall; what color combo would be best for the thing I’m planning to make the day after tomorrow – all of these at once descend upon me and compete with the content being delivered in the lecture itself. Mindless autopilot knitting has always been my best defense against them.

I have to believe that I was born this way because I certainly didn’t learn this behavior from anyone. I can’t help this, it’s just the way I am and I’m glad to have found the coping mechanism of knitting. So I guess I agree with KC’s basic thought. There’s an enormous genetic component to many people’s affinity for crafts of all types. Why fight it?

Panforte, Piping, Presents, and Paeans

Panforte

I promised a post-tasting report. Yesterday I spread melted bittersweet chocolate over the tops of my two cakes, dusted them with cocoa, and stuck some left-over almonds on top as a decoration. Did I mention that for the past week, I’ve been drizzling rum over one of them – a little bit each day? No? The secret’s out now.

Wow.

This is an adult chocolate dessert. It’s not soft, gooey, and sweet. To be truthful, it’s hard and chewy from all the fruit and nuts. The taste however is out of this world. It’s spicy, more bitter than sweet, yet with just enough sweetness from the fruit to round out the flavor. The faint hint of rum was a good addition, and seemed to bring out more of the toasty notes from the nuts. We served our cakes with a selection of white wines. It would also be great with hot coffee or tea.

This one is a make-again keeper, but unless you’ve got a huge crowd coming or want to freeze or give away cake #2, I’d suggest halving the recipe. I’d also suggest sticking with the hazelnuts and almonds. You can use any dried fruit you wish (I used prunes, dried cherries and apricots because I don’t like citron and figs were too expensive), but I think that substituting walnuts or pecans would overwhelm the cocoa’s flavor and change the character of the cake.

Socks!

More holiday gift socks.

I knit these Saturday night from Lion Brand Magic Socks, while watching Present #1 below. These socks are worked at 7spi/10rpi on 2.5 mm needles (in between a US #2 and #3). The yarn is serviceable enough – a standard wool/nylon blend sport weight as opposed to fingering weight sock yarn. The color patterning is pretty uninspired compared to most. I get two speckled fake “Fair Isle” sections in this repeat, one in gray and white, the other in red and black. The entire repeat cycles in about 1 inch. Not terribly exciting, but at $7.00 US per 100g ball (enough to make up to about a man’s US size 11 shoe) – a very good value.

This pair is for a new neighbor who showed me how our 100-year old hot water heating system works, and helped me figure out the Rube Goldberg device that’s our boiler:

Presents and Paeans

The Resident Male and I buy gifts for the two of us together, but don’t wrap them or bother to save them for holiday debut. This year’s presents were the extended DVD edition of Return of the King (better than the theatrical version, but unsatisfying if you yearn for much of the books lesser themes and characters); the long awaited Lurulu by Jack Vance; and the Vance Integral Edition. The latter most was a major splurge that will count on the present roster for years to come.

Vance is writer whose works are easy to satirize because of his unique style, and who is dismissed all to lightly for it. At the same time, he has a devoted following of readers who appreciate them for what’s deeper underneath. His following in is bigger the UK and Europe than in the US.Vance appears to be especially popular in the Netherlands, Germany, and France – all in translation. That surprises me as so much of the texture of his prose is in his precisely worded detail and structured phrasing – things I wouldn’t think would move well from English to other languages. Even his old fashioned space opera style stories have a depth of character and sardonic insight into the ironies of human nature that push them beyond the genre.

If you’ve never read anything whatsoever by Vance, I’d suggest you start with the widely collected short story “The Moon Moth.” You can find a list of books containing “The Moon Moth” on this page. If you can’t find a copy, you can listen to a dramatization here. After that, pick up anything. His better known works include The Dragon Masters, the Demon Princes series, the Planet of Adventure series, Lyonesse and its sequels; the Alastor cycle; and the Dying Earth books. I’d start with his earlier, shorter works. They’re each masterpieces of tightly crafted plot construction, and fit an amazing amount highly evocative storytelling into some truly slim volumes. Enjoy!

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