First, the winner, then the prize

Bacon-toffee semifreddo.

I entered my church’s bacon cookoff this weekend. I expected to either win in a landslide or lose big.

When a judge said to me, “this isn’t even fair” and reached for another, I knew I was OK.

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Cheater pie

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I cheat. Often. I learned it from my grandmother, who is a star at turning semiprepared foods into something to crave. Her “eclair pudding” is little more than graham crackers and chocolate syrup layered with Cool Whip and vanilla pudding mix.

It was with that in mind, I began serving guests upside-down banana and chocolate cream pies. Something a touch playful, but on a quarter-per-person dessert budget.

It’s simple enough, but are two essentials to pulling it off without guests thinking you’re being lame:
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A winter of comfort food

A big, messy brazier full of pork chili at Sacandaga Bible Conference. Obviously, I need a bigger one.

A big, messy brazier full of pork chili at Sacandaga Bible Conference. Obviously, I need a bigger one.

The snowbanks are shrinking, ice is sliding off our roofs and the frost is coming up, turning the ground spongy. But inside our kitchen, it’s still winter.

Through the season, we’ve filled our guests with two of my favorite comfort foods: Chili and stew, turning relatively inexpensive pork shoulder, sirloin and eye round into slow-cooking marvels. It’s hard to get kids excited about stew, but the reviews have been enthusiastic. Most groups have gotten at least one or the other.

A few tips from our kitchen to yours, which you can incorporate into your own recipes:

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My three-ingredient gift to you

Chocolate tortes at Sacandaga Bible Conference in September.

Chocolate tortes at Sacandaga Bible Conference in September.

Eggs. Butter. Chocolate.

A heart attack, perhaps. A heavenly recipe, definitely.

They’re three ingredients you no doubt have in your kitchen. Together with the right agitation and manipulation, they can become an incredibly delicious and relatively easy chocolate torte.

Bonus: You can call this a gluten-free chocolate cake to score points with the celiac crowd.

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Leftover chips? Make brittle

IMG_6118I can’t begin to say why I thought this would be any good. Maybe I saw it on Chopped.

But we entered December with dozens of uneaten 1-ounce bags of Ruffles potato chips in the camp kitchen and only one event — a Christmas one — left on the calendar.

And potato chip brittle was born.

This is essentially the peanut brittle recipe I normally use, but with 8 ounces of potato chips in place of 1 pound of raw peanuts. I omit the salt in the original recipe, but shake in a little cayenne, just so you know there’s a little something going on.

It’s not the best brittle you’ll ever have, but if you’re trying to use up leftovers, it’s resourceful. And cheap.

Try it on Saturday. It’ll be among the treats served after the cantata at A Sacandaga Christmas at camp.

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Good read: Pan-seared steak

Good marbling on a ribeye. Photo from Serious Eats.

Good marbling on a ribeye. Photo from Serious Eats.

I enjoyed this piece on Serious Eats today — a thoughtful look at pan-searing steak, which is how I do it when I justwantasteaknow but don’t feel like fussing or waiting for the grill to heat.

I appreciate the attention paid here to meat marbling — the fat streaked throughout the meat. Huge factor, and I like the metaphor the Serious Eats writers used:

Non-marbled meat might have plenty of fat on the exterior, but it doesn’t enhance the steak in the same way. Sort of like the difference between drinking a glass of chocolate milk or drinking the milk then shooting the chocolate syrup.

It’s true. When purchasing steaks or small roasts, look for little wisps of fat throughout the muscle. You’ll frequently be able to find choice- or even select-grade meat with prime marbling. (And the reverse is true; never buy prime meat unless you can look at it first to make sure the marbling measures up.)

Here is the story.

The magic of marshmallows

Making marshmallows and new friends at Canajoharie Middle School. Photo courtesy of Emily Cheney.

Just like with Rice Krispies or chocolate and graham crackers, marshmallows really bring things together.

I spent Wednesday morning at Canajoharie Middle School, cooking and talking about Sacandaga Bible Conference to groups of 15 sixth-graders, and I’ve never had more captive, interactive audiences. Perhaps it was the food in front of me — marshmallows — which they watched being made from start to finish before chowing down on some genuinely huge ones.

The demo was part of the school’s I Am Unique Day, which included programs from musicians, sports figures and other people with unique jobs. It was especially enjoyable to find one Sac kid in a group — he told me he loves chocolate-chip pancake day — and to be able to help an old friend, one of their teachers, Emily Cheney, who invited me and took loads of photos.

Making marshmallows and new friends at Canajoharie Middle School. Photo courtesy of Emily Cheney.

What’s so great about homemade marshmallows? They require very few ingredients. They contain few allegerns. They can be portioned to any size. And as messy as they are, everything dissolves in hot water.

This is the recipe we use, adapted from several other recipes out there: It makes a marshmallow about half as thick as the ones you see in the photos.

SAC MARSHMALLOWS

3 cups granulated sugar
1 1/4 cups light corn syrup
Pinch salt
1 1/2 cups cold water, divided
Nonstick spray
4 envelopes unflavored gelatin (like Knox)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Powdered sugar

In a medium saucepan, combine granulated sugar, corn syrup, salt and 3/4 cup water. Cook over medium-high heat until boiling. Reduce heat as needed to prevent boilovers, and cook without stirring until the syrup temperature reaches 238 degrees, about 10 minutes total.

While syrup is heating, add remaining 3/4 cup water to the bowl of a stand mixer. Sprinkle gelatin over water and let sit at least 5 minutes.

When syrup reaches 238 degrees, turn on stand mixer to low to mix gelatin and water. In a slow, steady stream, pour hot syrup into gelatin mixture, then increase speed to medium-high.

Mix 5 minutes, then add vanilla extract. Continue to mix until mixture is stiff. Total mixing time will be 10-12 minutes.

While marshmallows are mixing, lightly spray a 9-inch by 13-inch glass baking dish with nonstick spray. Sprinkle confectioners sugar onto dish and move around until the bottom and all sides are coated, gently shaking off and discarding excess.

When marshmallow mixture is stiff, pour or scoop it into the prepared pan and smooth with lightly oiled hands or a silicone spatula. Let cool, uncovered, 3-4 hours, or until firm.

To serve, sift confectioners sugar over top of marshmallows and turn pan upside down on a cutting board to release them. Dust again with confectioners sugar. Cut into desired shapes with a pizza cutter, using confectioners sugar to keep pieces from sticking. Store, covered, up to 1 week.