Thursday, November 22, 2012

Birthday Noodles


We had noodles for birthdays when we were little. (There were also crab legs. Different story.) I never thought about it until I was school age, and then it seemed kinda weird. Noodles fell out of favor for a number of years. Eventually nostalgia takes over, and I begin hankering after noodles again. This is a very Chinese-y thing to eat.

Chinese spaghetti sauce:

2 bunches finely chopped green onions
3 large cloves garlic, minced or crushed
1 T minced fresh ginger
2 T sesame oil
1/2 cup Master Brand black bean sauce
1/2 cup hoisin sauce
1/3 cup light soy sauce
1 T dark soy sauce

Put the oil, onions, garlic and ginger in a saucepan and saute on medium until the onions are translucent & wilty. Add everything else and stir for about 5 minutes, or until it is pretty thick and the oil starts to break out of the rest of the sauce.

Serve over noodles. Remember to put a fair amount of the noodle boiling water in the bowl. Greens are not traditional, but they taste good and look fancy.

A couple things:

1. I'm usually not particular about what brand  of something I use, but so far, Master Brand bean sauce (sometimes labeled Comrade Brand) is the only brand of bean sauce I've found that tastes like it should. Accept no substitutes.
2. Aren't all those ingredients just different versions of fermented soybeans? Couldn't you use fewer packaged ingredients or something? Probably...but this is easiest. Actually they all do something different. Master sauce is for texture and pungency. Hoisin adds sweetness. Light soy sauce adjusts the thickness of the sauce without diluting it, and dark soy sauce is a little smoky tasting. All of them have loads of fermented amine precursors or whatever it is that umami tastes like.
3. This really ought to have little bits of diced ham in it too, but I'm stingy and I didn't have any of that on hand. You can add 1/2 cup tiny ham cubes to the pan and brown them in a dab of oil before putting in the onions & garlic if you want. Then it will be pretty much exactly like we used to have it when I was a kid.
4. These are buckwheat soba. If you want to be traditional, you can get plain white chinese noodles in most grocery stores. Spaghetti is fine too. Dad used to make the birthday noodles, of course, but that's a whole 'nother thing.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Potato Candy


If your Mom is an old lady from the southeastern states, you have probably eaten this stuff around christmas. It is mouthwringingly sweet, and has a very peculiar texture which is at once chalky and creamy, kind of like fondant. It has peanut butter in it.Yes, it is made with a potato. There are lots of recipes online for it, but I still have no idea what the origin of the recipe could be. It's one of those things where you think about it and go 'Seriously? Who does that?'

1 baked russet potato
2 lbs powdered sugar, more or less
1 tsp vanilla
peanut butter

Peel and mash the potato. Add the vanilla and half the sugar. Mix until smooth, then gradually add more sugar until you have a stiff, rather sticky dough.

Roll the dough out between sheets of waxed paper until it is 1/8" thick, then spread a thin layer of peanut butter on it. Roll the dough up into a rope, then cut it into slices.

That's really it, but there is some stuff that is useful to know:

1. You can microwave the potato, but I think it would be better to actually bake it.
2. That's because you want to have the mashed potato be fairly dry, and also the baking will make a more pronounced potato flavor. It is Potato Candy, after all.
3. Even so, the first few cups of sugar will melt into a soup right away. That's normal. Just keep adding more.
4. Making a drier dough will make it less sticky, but it will be harder to roll out that way.
5. As you roll it out, peel the paper off the dough and rotate it frequently. It will come out smoother that way.
6. Roll slowly and gently. Violent treatment will cause the dough to resist handling.

One of the most interesting characteristics of this stuff is the handling property of the dough whereby it behaves like a solid and breaks into chunks if you cut or twist it, but it will ooze slowly through your fingers if you squeeze it gently. If you've ever played with cornstarch and water, or sand on a beach, the principle is the same. There is some cornstarch in powdered sugar, but that isn't what's making it behave that way.

When you first put the sugar in the mashed potato, the tiny sugar particles rapidly dissolve in the moisture from the potato. Eventually, the small amount of water present will no longer be able to dissolve any more sugar, and the sugar particles will remain intact, suspended in liquid, just like raw cornstarch (which is insoluble) in water. There is some kind of fancy physics explanation for why particles suspended in liquid behave that way, but I don't know what it is. I think it has to do with surface tension, but I could be totally wrong, so don't rely on me about that.

I only make this stuff about once every 4 or 5 years because I have to have forgotten that my sweet tooth is not powerful enough for me to want to eat more than 3 pieces of it. I did have one more incentive this time though: I bought a vintage potato press. It's totally neato. You fill the removable can with cooked potato, crank the handle down, and it instantly extrudes a whole recipe worth of perfectly mashed potato. I doubt it will see much use for potato candy in the future, but I do want to try making lefse. If I get up the nerve, I'll tell you about it.


Monday, November 5, 2012

Spiced Pear Cobbler


This is based on the curried pears that Cynthia's mom makes. The curried pears alone are a great side dish to go with ham or turkey at Thanksgiving, but I don't cook either of those things at my house. Pigs and turkeys are not grown in one-or-2- person sizes. I have cooked game hens like lilliputian turkeys, but that's a whole 'nother thing. Curried pears. Delicious no matter what.


2 or 3 pounds firm ripe pears, mixed varieties if possible
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 lemon
about 1 teaspoon curry powder of your choice
1" cinnamon stick
2 or 3 whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon turmeric if you want them more brightly colored
tiny pinch salt

Peel and core the pears. Put them in a saucepan with enough water to cover them, add all the rest of the ingredients. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cover and cook until the pears are tender.

Now decide if you are going to make a cobbler today, or several days from now. If the latter, take the lemons, cinnamon, and cloves out of the pan and refrigerate the pears until you want them. Otherwise, use the following:

1 1/2 cups flour
1 stick butter
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup oatmeal
pinch of salt
2 teaspoons baking powder

Use a pastry cutter to bash these things together until the mix is well combined and there aren't any lumps of butter bigger than small peas.

Preheat the oven to 350. Put the pears and the cooking liquid in a casserole dish. Remove the cinnamon and cloves, and the lemons if you haven't already. Dump the dry ingredients on top and poke it down around the pears until it has an unevenly batter-like appearance with a few dry spots on top. Bake until brown and crusty on top.


1. If your pears are cold because you have left your pears in the fridge for 4 or 5 days due to disorganized behavior, like I have, it will take over an hour to bake. If your pears are still warm, it will take rather less time.
2. Leaving the pears in the fridge for days will also make a more homogeneously flavored pear. If you want the pears to have more of a fresh-fruit taste, bake your cobbler immediately.
3. You can use canned pears. I did, the first time I made this, and it was just as tasty. The pears were a little softer maybe, but that was it. Just skip the sugar if you used canned.
4. You will need ice cream.
5. I'm not sure asian pears would be a good idea for this. But that could just be because I don't really like them much. I think they're boring.

For this and the apple pie recipe, I suggest using multiple varieties of apple or pear, because different kinds of fruits have different cooking characteristics. Some varieties will dissolve into mush very quickly, and others hold their shape well. Pears also have those crunchy bits in them, known as stone cells. Some kinds have fewer of these stone cells, or more or less acid in the fruit. Using several types of pears makes a more interesting flavor.

Another thing that's important is that you don't over mix the dry topping with  the pears. If you leave it somewhat uneven, the flour will absorb the liquid as it bakes, creating buttery, poundcakey regions around the chunks of pear and little pockets of sweet curry sauce. Man I wish I had some ice cream right now.