Wednesday, December 21, 2005, 08:43 PM - holiday
We celebrated christmas* yesterday (pronounced christmas star). We were going to celebrate christmas' (pronounced christmas prime), but we thought christmas* sounded more festive. Why christmas* instead of plain ordinary christmas? Well, christmas was just at a damned inconvenient time. We thought about celebrating solstice instead, but we had to do laundry that day. What's my point? We made a festive christmas* dinner. Christmas is one of the few days in the year when I really feel the need for a big hunk of meat. Actually, the meat isn't so important, but the soup you make from the bone is, so you have to make the meat at some point, and usually this happens on Thanksgiving and Christmas. When they release a tofurkey with a real turkey carcass underneath, that will be the day. We want split pea soup, so we had a ham dinner for christmas*. We made Ham, carnival squash, cauliflour, and apple chutney.


Buy a ham. Don't just buy any ham, buy a ham with a bone in it. If it doesn't have a bone, you can't make split pea soup by boiling the bone with some veggies and split peas. WTF would be the point of that? Don't let Tha Man deprive you of the bone. Ours turned out to be a partially cooked city pork butt.

What does this mean? I didn't see city on our label, but I've discovered that there are 2 kinds of ham: dry/country and wet/city. There was a web site I came across that explained that dry/country ham was a pain in the ass. They didn't quite put it that way, but gosh, there were all these steps to make it properly moist and there were bags and oil and all sorts of paraphenalia. Lots of steps, too. I don't know if you can even buy dry ham in a grocery store anyway. In any case, our ham was a wet ham. It had a little bit of small print on the label explaining that a sizable percentage of its weight was water, just in case you were planning on suing them over paying for the moisture in the ham instead of just the meat. I think that's how you can tell you're getting the right thing.

Ours was partially cooked instead of completely cooked. It didn't look like we could get a bone and have it completely cooked. Ours wasn't a high falutin' spiral cut either. In any case, if it's completely cooked, you only have to cook it to be 140 degrees F. If it's partially cooked, you need to cook it so its internal temperature reaches 160 degrees F if you don't want to risk severe stomach badness, pain, parasites, or death. There will be a label on your ham explaining what the ham company thinks is an appropriate internal temperature for your ham. You should trust them more than you trust me. I could have made a typo. Ours said it would take 20 minutes a pound. Our elite math skills suggested that this would be about 2 and a half hours. It took more like 3-3 and a half hours. Make sure you have snacks.

We stuck our ham cut side down in a giahugeous pot on a little plate that was turned upside down. The plate was ovensafe stoneware. If you have some sort of roasting rack, that's probably what normal people would use, but a person can only have so much kitchen gear. We put about a cup of water into the bottom of the pan. We put it in a 325 degree oven for a really long time. We used a meat thermometer to tell when the ham got hot enough. While it was cooking, we stuck other stuff we needed to cook into the oven so everything would ideally get done at the same time.

Carnival Squash

Carnival Squash is some variety of winter squash. The label on the squash said it was festive, so we thought it would be appropriate for christmas*. None of the other winter squashes said they were festive on their labels. Why use a unfestive acorn squash or a drab butternut squash when carnival squashes are festive? There are nuances of difference that I'm sure the squash conneseur can tell you about. But this doesn't affect cooking; you can treat all winter squashes roughly the same way.

Cut the squash in half. Scoop out the seeds and clean them. Stick them on a cookie sheet. Smoosh them around in some olive oil, salt, and pepper. Stick them in the oven (On the rack that doesn't have a ham on it, obviously) for 5 minutes. Pull them out and snack on them while you wait for the ham to take an hour longer than it was supposed to. I should note that not all winter squashes have the same seeds. We tried this with a butternut and its seeds were too tough and fibrous. But with every other variety I've tried, they've been really good.

Place the squash cut side down on something that can go in the oven. We used a dinner plate of the same pattern as the little plate underneath the ham. Stick the plate of squash in the oven. Come back in about an hour. Stick it with a fork. If it squashes, it's done. If it feels like a brick, stick it back in and check back in 10-15 minutes. Since squash always takes longer than its supposed to and ham always takes longer than its supposed to, they make a great pairing at any meal.

Remove the squash from its skin and stick it in a bowl. Your partner might find the skin so festive, and the ham so dilatory, that he will think the skin is a tasty treat. Yum. (I didn't try it, but he said it was good.) Add a tbs of butter, a bunch of cinnamon, nutmeg, corriander, and allspice to the squash. Squash it.


Remove the green cabbagey bits. Cut the stem off so nothing sticks down off of the head. Rinse the cauliflour. Put the cauliflour in an oven-save dish with a lid. Add some whiskey, water, salt, and pepper. Stick it in the oven for 20 minutes or so. If it doesn't fit on the shelf next to the squash, you've mismanaged the size of your cooking apparatus. When you think it's done, open the lid and stick it with a fork. If it's the softness prefer for cauliflour, it's done. If it's not, stick it back in for another 5 minutes. It is good if it's soft enough that people can cut off serving-sized clumps at the table with the serving spoon.

Apple Chutney

This is something you want to make the day before, or at least the morning before, the rest of the meal.

Dice up a bunch of granny smith apples. I used 5 apples. They have to be granny smith or it will be too sweet. It was already on the sweet side using granny smith. If you used red delicious or something, it would be yucko-sweet instead of slightly sweet with a nice zing to it. Chop 2 cups of walnuts.

Put 1 cup of white vinegar in a pot. Add 2 cups of brown sugar. You could use white sugar, but that would require having some around. Our resultant chutney was pretty brown, so if you're obsessed with aesthetics and prefer a lighter color, you might use white sugar here. Add a couple of tablespoons each of fennel, corriander, mustard seed, and cinnamon. You could add a teaspoon or so of nutmeg as well. Boil these and stir until the sugar disolves.

Add the apples and walnuts. Let them boil for a few minutes then squoosh them well with a potato masher. Serve chilled or at room temperature. This goes really well with ham. It also goes really well with gingerbread.

carrot soup
Sunday, December 18, 2005, 10:07 AM - soups

Carrot Soup


some onions. whatever you have lying around. probably one large onion's worth of onion. I used what was left in a bag of cut frozen onions (not much--about a quarter cup), what was left in a bag of frozen pearl onions (about half a cup; still not enough), and threw in some dried onion flakes for good measure. If you have an actual whole onion lying around, dice it.

6 carrots, chopped coarsely.

sundry spices, to taste. I used about 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp fennel, 1/2 tsp nutmeg, 1 tsp corriander, 1 tsp powdered ginger, 1.5 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp ground black pepper, 1 dried thai chili.

~2 cups of water

1 glug spiced rum

1 glug sesame oil

The rest of a can of evaporated milk. What does this mean? I'm not sure. Maybe half a cup? Maybe 2 generous glugs? Maybe even 3 generous glugs? Who knows. You'll have to add milk to taste.

Three leftover pancake-mix crepes (or any other variety of leftover flatbread. I really think pancake mix crepes are superior for this application; I just don't think proper crepes would be as good here, but some other fluffy flatbread might be.)

Two dollops of goat cheese

fake meatballs or hardboiled egg


Add the onion, oil, and spices to a pot. Cook them on medium heat for a while. This gets the spiciness and onionness into the oil. Since oil is what's best at holding flavor, that's where you want it. Add the carrots and just enough water to cover everything. Allow to ook for a long time. We started hard-boiling some eggs at this point, and decided it had ooked long enough when the eggs were done, more or less. Microwave a serving of fake meatballs.

After ookage, remove the soup from the element and blend with an immersion blender. Or mash it with a potato masher if you don't have an immersion blender. Add milk. Stir up and cook a bit more. Cut the crepes into strips and split them into two bowls. Put the fake meatballs into one bowl. Cut two hardboiled eggs into the other bowl. Fill the two bowls with soup. Put a dollop of goat cheese into each bowl. Serve. The person who is completely sensible gets the bowl with the fake meatballs. (In fact, if we were both completely sensible, the meatballs would have gone straight into the soup right after blending and cooked there instead of in the microwave.) The person who thinks that hardboiled eggs in soup are heavenly gets the bowl with the eggs in it.

Other Carrot Soups:

October 6, 2005

Blintz Onion Soup
Thursday, December 15, 2005, 08:18 PM - soups, flatbread

Blintz Onion Soup

Blintz onion soup is what you make when you have goat cheese and lots of green onions lying around. Initially, it was going to be onion soup and blintz. But the onion soup was quite strong, so we cut up the blintz and put them in the soup. The cheese melted into the soup and the blintzes acted like noodle/dumping things. It was quite yummy.

Crepe from pancake mix

Now, if you actually have ingredients, you should just go get yourself a real crepe recipe. Or you can just use a pancake recipe and leave out most of the levening and add extra water.

Mix pancakes as directed, only add half again as much liquid. For me, this meant 2 cups pancake mix, 1 1/3 cup water, and another 2/3 cup water. Let it sit until the bubbles dissipate a bit. Pancake mix has more levening than crepes ought to have, so waiting a bit will make them crepe-like instead of pancake like. Of course, if you were actually making pancakes you'd want to cook them right away to make them fluffy. But we're making crepes, not pancakes.

Heat a pan to medium heat. How can you tell if it's medium heat? Your crepes won't be screwed up. You can splash the pan with water and it should bubble and fizzle instead of just drying up quickly. Unless you're lucky, you should just expect your first crepe to be screwed up. Today my first crepe wasn't screwed up, but that's pretty abnormal.

Pour batter into the center of the pan and shift the pan around so the batter spreads to thinly cover the bottom of the pan. I sort of pour it slowly into a widening spiral as I turn the pan to get it to cover evenly. Cook it until the surface dries up and the edges shrink back a lot and start to peel up from the edge of the pan. Then flip it and cook it a bit more. It should be brown on the first side and white with brown spots on the second side.


Set out the cheese before you start making the crepes; it's best at room temperature. Smoosh together a whole bunch of coarsley ground black pepper, some dried onion flakes, some basil, and some goat cheese. Spoon it in a line on a crepe. Roll the crepe like a burrito. Stuff as many crepes as you'd like to eat, then put them all back in the frying pan for a few minutes. It will soften the cheese a bit and brown the crepes a little.

Onion Soup

Get some stock out of your fridge. You should have some leftover from thanksgiving. Or just make some broth. Since our stock was condensed, we added some water and vermouth. After it heats up, add a ton of sliced green onion. Let it wilt a bit, then you're done.

Blintz Onion Soup

Spoon the onion soup into bowls. Cut the blintzes into 1.5 cm wide slices and drop the slices into the soup. Eat.

Chocolate Fudge
Friday, December 9, 2005, 01:48 PM - dessert


It's the time of year when everyone realizes that hanging out in a hot kitchen, although sometimes unpleasant in the summer, is a great winter activity. I've been itching to make fudge for a while now---ever since someone told me that he actually liked fudge, even though he's been against all my previous fudge-making proposals.

When I was growing up, we usually only made fudge in the summer... after we'd been to the fair and seen the fudge makers and been told that fudge at the fair was overpriced and if we behaved we could make some. We always made it with marshmallow creme. Which is easier than the conventional method, but I wanted to try the old-school way. Marshmallows contain gelatin. And, unfortunately, we don't know anything about gelatin. It might have dead cows in it, or it might have dead pigs in it, or it might have something less objectionable in it, but still dead. By now, given all the corn subsidies, I bet they've come up with a completely unobjectionable corn-based product... I mean, exactly how many products are there left that don't have a corn alternative? There's corn-based fuel, corn-based packing peanuts... I bet someone has a corn computer. But labels never tell you what the gelatin is made from. Maybe it's 100% safe, but they won't tell you. I couldn't serve it to vegetarian friends. I wouldn't want to serve it to Jewish or Muslim friends, because it might have pork in it. And I wouldn't be comfortable eating it myself, since it might have beef in it. I wouldn't mind small quantities of poultry or pork, but I still wouldn't be able to share it. So sad. Making labor intensive deserts is all about sharing. They're fun to make, and fun to eat, but you don't want to eat the whole thing. So I decided to figure out how to make vegetarian fudge.

I used Alton Brown's chocolate fudge recipe since I knew he'd be thorough but didn't really know anything about the makers of the other recipes. I substituted brown sugar for white sugar, because we didn't have enough white sugar.

How not to be angry

After much poking around the web and reading reviews of recipes, I've concluded that fudge makes people angry. If a recipe works, people are fine. But if it doesn't---and apparently it doesn't a lot---people get pissed. They complain loudly about lost ingredients... they're probably more upset about lost time, though, and the fact that they were all ready for a bite of fudge... In any case, there are a lot of extremely angry people out there, and they're either mad because their fudge didn't set, or because their fudge came out like a solid rock. I didn't want that to happen to me, so I researched it heavily, just what makes fudge come out like a solid rock as opposed to creamy, chocolatey goodness?

I've concluded (and of course I have no evidence) that the problem is that people didn't do enough research. So I did a lot of research in hopes of avoiding the major mistakes. I concluded that you should never just follow the recipe. You should follow the intent of the recipe.

What in the world is the soft ball stage?

Every fudge recipe out there says to boil the concoction until it reaches the soft ball stage. They tell you that means ~235 degrees Farenheight. This is really hard for people. Soft ball stage tells you something about the sugar concentration. This is different from temperature. Now, I've made condensed stock before, so I'm pretty confident that you can get rid of a lot of water without being at a rolling boil. It stands to reason that if you top out at 230 degrees F for a long time but never make it up to 235, you're still above boiling and will be losing plenty of liquid. This is just a guess, but I bet this is what happened to all the people who ended up with brick-like fudge despite using their thermometer properly and following the recipe slavishly. There are a surprising number of these people out there, and they're very, very angry.

The temperatures in candy recipes should be used as guidelines. They're the temperatures that usually happen to correlate with appropriate sugar concentrations if you are losing water at a certain rate. Altitude is going to affect this, humidity is going to affect this, and having "medium" on your element not be the same as "medium" on the element of the person who gave you the recipe will affect this. In short, thermometers are probably good things, but the thermometer isn't actually measuring the thing you want to know about; it's measuring something that's usually correlated with the thing you want to know about.

I actually didn't use a thermometer. My candy thermometer is 3000 miles from here, and it was supposed to snow for 12 hours today (it didn't) so I thought I'd leave the driving to the Albanians and keep my southern Californian self off the road. I used the cold water test, which actually tests the sugar concentration. I have absolutely no idea if I ever got anywhere near the target temperature. Everyone says the soft ball stage is when the chocolate syrup forms a ball when dribbled into cold water, but that isn't adequate information when you're trying it for the first time without a thermometer as backup. I found this kick-ass web page that had really thorough explanations of the various sugar stages as well as video to complement the verbal description. Check out the science of candymaking web page if you plan on trying this at home. I ended up testing it about 5 times in a ramekin with ice water in it until I got the right temperature. I rinsed out the ramakin each time to make sure I wasn't mixing the old drops with the new drops and messing up my results. I left 2-5 minutes between each test. I think my stove runs cold compared to most stoves (which is odd, given that the oven runs about 200 degrees hotter than it ought to).

I took the pot off of the heat the minute it was clear I had a soft ball. I reasoned that I'd rather have something too soft than something too hard. There's an urban myth that someone had to throw away the pot because the chocolate solidified and there was no getting it out. Probably false, but I'd prefer storing it in the fridge (or freezer) and still having it melt in my mouth to having something rock-like, which a lot of people complained about in fudge recipe reviews. Bottom line: if you have too low a sugar concentration, it will be runny; if you have too high a sugar concentration, it will be hard.

What about sugar crystals?

No one actually complained about sugar crystals, but from what I've read, they can really screw up any sort of candy making process. I used one of those new fangled spoonula things that is supposed to be safe at candy-making temperatures instead of a wooden spoon. I wanted to be able to scrape the bits of the mixture that got up on the side of the pot back into it so that there wouldn't be undisolved sugar on the side of the pan.

What do they mean by matte?

I don't know. In one review of some recipe or other, someone said that when she stirred it until it was matte, it solidified in the bowl and she couldn't get it into the pans, but she tried it again and stopped stirring before that point and it worked perfectly. The stirring process at the end of the fudge making is supposed to encourage the development of lots of little sugar crystals. They're what make the fudge thicken up properly. I stirred mine until it had lost the really wet-looking sheen, but it still had plenty of sheen. I wouldn't call it matte, it was simply matter than it was when it started out. I payed more attention to the texture. It got really viscious towards the end. I had to stir for a long time, but without a thermometer I'm not sure I had cooled it to some ideal temperature before I started stirring. When I declared it done, it had reached the point where it was mildly tiring to pull the spoon around the bowl, and when I flipped a spoonful of fudge from the edge into the middle, it took a while for the fudge to ook back down to cover the bottom of the pot. I think I stirred it the right amount, because the stuff that was left in the pot after I'd poured the fudge off into the pan had pretty much set to an appropriate fudge consistency by the time I got myself settled in a comfy chair to lick out the pot.


Well, we tried the fudge. I used roasted walnuts in it, which I think are a little too potent. Some people say they taste like bacon. I think they taste good and nutty, but a little overpowering. The fudge itself set up pretty well. It was a little on the soft side when I tried it, but I hadn't put it in the refrigerator or anything. It was sufficiently hard that it maintained its structure for several hours at room temperature after pieces were cut out of it. All in all, I'm pretty happy with it.

Deconstructed Bangers and Mash
Tuesday, December 6, 2005, 06:38 PM - flatbread, high falutin'

Why deconstructed bangers and mash?

Today I was overcome with that seasonal, irrational desire to make old family recipes. It turns out, all of my old family recipes are norwegian deserts. But I dutifully sat down and compiled a list of things I'd like to make, both old and new. Then I realized that everything on the list was completely sensible, except for hardangar lefse, which requires, among other things 11 cups of flour plus 2 more cups of flour for rolling. Yeah right. It also requires a specialized rolling pin and grill, both of which are currently 3000 miles from here. So I decided to make potato lefse, which is a more savory sort of thing that my family, apparently being sweettooths, didn't go for.

Lefse is a Norwegian flatbread. Hardangar lefse is a very flat, crispy flatbread-- more like chapati than naan or tortillas. It is sprayed with water to make it flexible, then buttered and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, and finally folded together and cut into strips, which stay flexible because of the butter. (Sorry about that sentence; I got a little carried away.) Potato lefse, as I understand from my cultural tourism, is a more savory thing that gets rolled up and stuffed with... something. A google image search will return exactly one image (well, two; the same one shows up twice) of potato lefse as it's supposed to be served. It has something rolled up inside it. They never tell you what is rolled up inside it.

So we decided to just make something up. We settled on deconstructed bangers and mash. You get your mash in the form of a soft flatbread, and a plate with fake sausage patties and vegetables.

Lefse Recipe

I found this recipe on some web page or other, but I can't find the web page again. I modified it, anyway, because I didn't like the idea of letting it chill overnight. That just wouldn't meet my instant gratification needs.

3 cups instant mashed potatoes. I used hungry jack instant mashed potatoes because everyone and their mom says that if you use instant mashed potatos in lefse, this is the only brand to use. It could be that all good norwegians own Hungry Jack stock and they want to see a profit. Or there could be something special with their potato flake process. In any case, I don't want to get beaten up by a bunch of old norwegian ladies, so I did what they told me to. Oddly, the recipe I followed the most didn't care, so maybe it doesn't matter. It could be that instant mashed potato technology has advanced since the recipes were carved in stone.

1/4 cup butter. I used unsalted, and I really used butter. Margarine is bad for you; you're better off eating lard than margarine. And butter is solid at higher temperatures, which might be relevant here, since the dough gets really crumbly if it isn't cold enough. Any experimentation is at your own risk.

1 cup evaporated milk. Any old milk would probably do, but we had evap in the cupboard and no milk in the refrigerator.

1 cup flour for the dough, and another cup for rolling.

1 cup water.

Melt the butter. Add the water to the butter. Dump in potato flakes. Work them with a fork until it's smooth. It will take longer than you're used to, because typicall you'd be mixing the flakes with a lot more liquid. Add the milk and 1 cup of flour. Stir together until smooth. I threw it in the fridge for good measure, since everyone said it needed to be cooled overnight. I patted the dough around the edge of the bowl to maximize surface area per volume. I don't think it needed to be cooled; we just needed time to figure out what else we were doing for the meal.

Make 2" diameter balls from the dough. You can do this in advance, but you'll want to roll them and cook them as you go. I found that using a rolling pin was a fiasco. Granted, we have a psycho rolling pin here (It's not even cylindrical!), so maybe a proper rolling pin woud be ok. But I patted it out by hand. I did this by squashing the ball into a disk, flouring the counter, and patting the disc around with my hand, thinning it out. Then I flipped it and repeated the process until it was about 10-11" across. Each time I flipped it, I worked in a bit more flour. If I let it get too thin, it tore, but it wasn't a big deal to just squoosh it back together.

Cook in a frying pan on medium heat. It will get bubbles in it. When it gets bubbly, flip it and cook the other side. It will be brown wherever there were bubbles against the pan, and whiteish everywhere else. You should have worked enough flour into it that it's pretty dry; it shouldn't stick to the pan at all. If it does, for some bizarre reason, add more flour or chill it or something. You should be able to roll one while the previous one cooks.

You might, at some point, decide to break the glass flour container. This might be a good time to decide you've made enough lefse and put the rest of the balls back into the refrigerator for another meal. Avoid getting the glass-infested flour on them. Sweeping the floor would be clever.

Deconstructed Bangers and Mash Recipe

Get someone else to julienne a bunch of carrots. They might add lemon juice, olive oil, onion flakes, salt, and pepper. Let that sit while you roll & cook the lefse. Realize that you're covered with flour and tell that someone else to finish cooking everything while you go outside to brush off. It doesn't matter if it's freezing outside and snow is all over the ground; you don't want that in your house. Besides, if you're brushing it off energetically enough, you won't actually feel cold. If your timing is appropriate, you can probably show up just in time to watch the rest of the work get done.

Someone else might also make patties out of fake sausage while you make the lefse. Lefse is pretty time consuming. When you're done with the lefse and are saving your household from being overwhelmed by flour dust, they can use the pan you made the lefse in to fry up the patties. Then they can fry up the carrots. They might make you slice some tomatos to go on the side, but that's no big deal.


Whenever you deconstruct a dish, presentation is really important. We each had a plate with patties up one side, tomatoes up the other side, and carrot in the middle. The stack of lefse went on another plate in the middle of the table. We just ate the tomatoes straight-up; they were more of a garnish. To eat the rest of it, pick up a lefse, fill it with carrots and sausage pieces, and wrap it up and eat it like fajitas.
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