Archive for the ‘Baking’ Category

On Thursday last, Shauna James Ahern at Gluten-Free Girl tweeted an idea.

“What’s the first dish you ever learned to cook? How did it make you feel to cook it?”

Milestone meals started popping into my head, and in reverse chronological order I worked my way back to the first thing.  Okay…  perhaps not the first thing.  That would be Roast Beef with Pickle Gravy, lovingly prepared in Imagination Land as a very small child.  My dad made me a yellow toy stove in his basement woodshop, complete with real stovetop dials, electric burners painted on, handles leftover from their kitchen remodel, and one door which opened the same way an oven would (with a sliding rack inside too!).  I remember playing with that stove all the time.

My first proper independent cooking was breakfast.  Eggs to be precise.  I started with scrambled.  Maybe sautéing some onions in some butter before pouring in the beaten egg and chives, then mixing in some cheese or cut up salami.  My parents had a white, glass-topped, electric stove, and it was awful.  The breakfast preparation process involved putting the pan on the stovetop, turning on the burner, tossing a pat of butter in the pan, and walking away.  Only then would I bother with prep work;  cutting up onions, harvesting chives, cubing cheese, getting a plate, etc., because it seemed a full 15 minutes before that butter even started to melt.  But in any case, that routine became a rhythm and many mornings before school I got up to make my own breakfast.

It was not long before scrambled eggs became omelets.  To me, omelets feel like the first real dish I ever learned to cook.  I think I was around 12-years old, and it was utterly empowering!

Omelets were the first dish I made for someone else.  The scrambled eggs were always for me.  I cannot remember if my little sister ever ate the scrambled eggs, but the omelets were for everyone.  As if the act of sharing food with others is the last real step in preparing anything.  I remember getting praise from my parents, and being brave enough to cook breakfast in other people’s kitchens after an overnight.  I remember my mistakes in judging how much filling was too full to fold without cracking, which fillings got too runny, and how to get all the egg to cook without scorching the bottom too badly.  In point of fact, these omelets were more like a folded and stuffed frittata than a proper omelet, but they were tasty and very close to what my father made on the weekends.

Not long after, say 7th or 8th grade, my parents had me get dinner started once in a while.  I have few memories of being confident in middle school (who does?), but yet I have clear recollections of standing at the kitchen counter after school and enjoying these tasks.  I felt comfortable in my own skin.  It was never anything challenging.  These were uncomplicated assignments with clear direction.  My father is always one planned meal ahead.  He wakes up contemplating dinner, and he goes to bed thinking lunch.  But even without being complex cooking, these chores built an underlying ease with simple routines:  adding marinade to meat and getting it in the fridge, peeling potatoes, forming hamburger patties so they were ready for the grill as soon as the folks got home.  One frequent recipe in particular was simple baked chicken with a combination of garlic salt and brown sugar.  In college I asked my dad for the recipe, and he humbly sent a scrawled recipe entitled Dad’s Incredible Chicken.  It was met with acclaim by the roommates, and The Spouse and I still regularly make it, lo these many years later.

The remarkably addictive thing about learning to cook is that the learning feels good.  The process of diving into something new.  Deciding to try.  Learning how to fail.  If we succeed in passing these skills onto The Child, this already gutsy and resilient kid just might feel empowered too.  The Spouse commented last night that it is his hope The Child will find herself heading off on her own already “just knowing” how to cook.  I taught myself technique in my mid-twenties, but I already just knew how to cook.  Thanks Dad!

Dad’s Incredible Chicken

1 chicken, quartered
Garlic salt
¼ – ⅓  cup brown sugar

Arrange chicken skin side up in lightly oiled baking pan.
Season fairly heavily with garlic salt.
Sprinkle generously with brown sugar.
Bake at 375°F for one hour.
Cover with foil after 30-40 minutes if chicken appears too dry.
May be served hot or cold.
Share with friends and gloat.


Updated 6/15/2010:

I have so enjoyed reading the memories of the other contributors to the project.  Check out Shauna’s post to read more: http://glutenfreegirl.blogspot.com/2010/06/first-meal-i-ever-cooked.html

What was the first thing you ever cooked?


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Apparently pain makes me stupid.  My back has been a mess for six weeks, and let’s just say my ability, ambition, and interest in cooking have been severely hampered.  My writing pace has not kept up either.  I can rarely focus on books or magazines, much less my RSS-feed of design-blog porn.  I can knit a short while flat on my back before my fingers go numb (curse you gravity!), and I am left ripping out many rows because I was too distracted by pain to keep count of my stitches anyway.

Basically, while my family and friends are having fun in the kitchen, I have spent a lot of time crashed out on the floor, staring at the ceiling, and worrying.  Is this a minor problem which will resolve on it’s own?  Or, am I back to where I was four years ago when a decade of crippling pain was instantly resolved by a spinal fusion surgery?  For now I have scheduled consults, rearranged obligations to reduce expectations (translation:  canceled everything), and relied on my husband to pick up the slack.  Give that man a medal!  A shot of cortisone has brought temporary relief – at least enough to start stringing sentences together again.  I cannot promise they will be cogent any more than I can stay focused enough to plan a meal or vertical long enough to prepare it.  Taking it one day at a time.

Earlier this month, The Spouse and The Child decided to make meatballs together.  They made a slightly modified version of Alton Brown’s recipe from Good Eats.

Tweaks to Alton’s recipe:

1)    Doubling the recipe makes sense, as leftovers are fabulous.
2)    They used an equal amount of Penzeys Italian Herb Mix in lieu of the dried basil and parsley.
3)    Chopped stale bread went into the meat mixture, and they used panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) for the external breadcrumbs.  More bread filler went into the meat mixture than the recipe specifies because we had extra stale bread on hand, and because measuring seemed like effort.
4)    More bread in the meat mixture compensates for the extra water from rounding up the quantity of frozen spinach to an even one pound bag.
5)    Alton’s method of baking the meatballs in mini-muffin tins did not work as well as we had hoped (so subsequent batches were done on a cooling rack in a foil-lined half-sheet pan) .  The concept is that the muffin tin props up the meatball, increases air flow, and thus they cook and brown more evenly.  The panko went a bit gooey where the meatballs rested on the pan, but they were tasty anyway.  Tasty enough to invite friends the following weekend for leftover meatball subs.

Child labor:

Stocking the kitchen with powder-free latex gloves opens up typically adult-only cooking tasks to The Child, like handling raw meat.  We are not lax on the food safety speeches, and her soon-to-be-seven-year-old self approached her task with gravitas and pride.  A rubber band around the wrist can be used to keep large gloves on little hands, but The Child managed hers without assistance.  After The Spouse prepared the mixture, an assembly line began.  Using a disher, he would form each meatball, placing it in a container of panko.  The Child would ensure it was breaded and line them up ready to bake in the oven.  Coating meatballs in breadcrumbs taps right into elementary school glitter crafts and she took her job very seriously.  Mmmm…. tasty, edible glitter.  The Child kept an even pace with her dad, and the meatballs were prepped and in the oven quickly.

Served with spaghetti squash and marinara, one to two meatballs is a perfect serving size.  That did not prevent me from having seconds however.  Throughout the week, we ate them sliced on sandwiches, cut in half with a slice of cheese microwaved over the top as a snack, and alongside eggs for breakfast.  Before the weekend arrived they were demolished, and round two of meatball preparation was in order to make good on our offer of meatball subs for all.

The second batch tasted even better, being baked on a cooling rack set atop a foil-lined, half-sheet pan.  They browned better and developed a crunchy exterior.  Round two was fabulous served to our guests as mini-sliders with marinara and cheese.

This time there were no leftovers.

Baked Meatballs

Recipe courtesy Alton Brown, 2005

Prep Time: 20 min
Cook Time: 20 min
Level: Easy
Serves: 20 meatballs, 4 to 5 servings


•    1/2 pound ground pork
•    1/2 pound ground lamb
•    1/2 pound ground round
•    5 ounces frozen spinach, thawed and drained thoroughly
•    1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan
•    1 whole egg
•    1 1/2 teaspoons dried basil
•    1 1/2 teaspoons dried parsley
•    1 teaspoon garlic powder
•    1 teaspoon kosher salt
•    1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
•    1/2 cup bread crumbs, divided


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the pork, lamb, ground round, spinach, cheese, egg, basil, parsley, garlic powder, salt, red pepper flakes, and 1/4 cup of the bread crumbs. Using your hands, mix all ingredients until well incorporated. Use immediately or place in refrigerator for up to 24 hours.

Place the remaining 1/4 cup of bread crumbs into a small bowl. Using a scale, weigh meatballs into 1.5-ounce portions and place on a sheet pan. Using your hands, shape the meatballs into rounds, roll in the bread crumbs and place the meatballs in individual, miniature muffin tin cups. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden and cooked through.

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So we all know at least one of them, and we all know the type:  The compulsive baker.  The kind of kitchen genius so skilled, they can freestyle baking.  I’ve gotten quite good at throwing some ingredients together and whipping up a meal.  But baking is about measuring and ratios and technique beyond mere technique.  For baking, I need a recipe.

I have a compulsive baker in my life right now, and Kay shared a recipe with me early in the fall which has been life changing.  It’s so tasty, and yet it packs some serious nutrition.  Nutritious doesn’t mean low-calorie, and it is definitely a sweetened baked good.  But when The Child asks for cake for breakfast, it’s an easy yes.  This one is 100% whole-wheat flour and roasted sweet potatoes.  It is really a quick bread instead of a cake.  But The Child wants to call it cake and eat whole-wheat anything?  Cake it is.

I love that it uses up sweet potatoes we typically have from our weekly spud! delivery.  We have made it several times this fall, and have a few observations.  Because there is variation in the estimation of the “two medium sweet potatoes” the bread has occasionally stayed dense and sunk down a bit in the middle.  No amount of extra baking seems to firm it up, but it’s still very edible in this case albeit less pretty.  Also, the first time I made it I didn’t have ground cloves, so I made due with a mix of Penzeys Apple Pie Spice and ground ginger.  It turned out so well I immediately replenished my spice drawer – knowing I’d make it again and again.

When Kay initially passed this recipe along, she apologized for the inconvenience of having to roast the sweet potatoes first and wait for them to cool.  I’ve found roasting them first thing in the morning on a foil wrapped cast iron skillet is easy at 400°F for an hour.  Then they cool on the counter while I take The Child to school.  Meanwhile, Kay has experimented with canned sweet potatoes and found the batter to be just too wet.

The recipe follows.  I hope you like it as much as we do!  Hopefully Kay will start her own cooking and baking blog to start sharing her many secrets.  A special thanks to her for allowing me to share this one here.

Kay’s Maple Sweet Potato Spice Bread

Note:  This bread works best when all ingredients are at room temperature, and when you use whole wheat flour.

2 medium sweet potatoes
3 cups (15 ounces) whole wheat flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 heaping Tbsp baking powder
2 tsp baking soda
1 Tbsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg (fresh grated if possible)
1 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground ginger
10 Tbsp butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cup (10.5 ounces) firmly packed brown sugar
1 Tbsp vanilla
4 eggs
1 cup milk
1 1/2 cups maple syrup

Heat oven to 350.  Grease and flour 2 loaf pans (9×5 inches)

1.  Bake the sweet potatoes.  Take out of oven and cool to room temperature.  Then, peel the potatoes.
2.  Meanwhile, you sift the flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger into a large bowl.
3.  Cream the butter and sugar.  Add the cooled sweet potatoes and mix to combine.  Add vanilla, eggs milk and maple syrup and mix to combine.
4.  Fold the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients.  Do not over-mix.
5.  Pour the batter into 2 medium loaf pans.
6.  Bake at 350 for about an hour.  A knife or tester placed in the middle of the bread may come out looking slightly wet, but this is probably OK.  If it’s soupy, you’ll need to put it back into the oven.
7.  Take the bread out of the oven to cool.
8.  THIS IS IMPORTANT:  let the loaves cool on a rack IN THE PAN for 15-20 minutes before turning them out.  This will let them continue to cook until the loaves are done.


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