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random musings of a crazy cat lady

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Homemade caramels

I've been an anemic borderline low thyroid slug AND I've been on a diet. As a result I haven't baked or made any sweets in a while, and instead devoted what little energy I had in the evenings to watching "Game of Thrones" or Big Bang Theory reruns. A few days on iron pills and Zyrtek got me back to semi-normal. I'm going to wait a few more weeks and see if my energy level completely comes back; if it doesn't I'm going to be a honey badger about the thyroid thing.
Nonetheless, I now have enough energy to tire out the grad students during the day and exercise or cook after work. Last night it was both. I finally made a recipe for homemade caramels I'd been planning on making for more than a month.
I copied it from a post over at Bloatal Recall. There are some good pictures over there as well. I followed the recipe but didn't have any fleur de sel so I used a bit of kosher salt in the caramels and didn't sprinkle any on top at the end. If you don't have a candy thermometer, cook the syrup until it gets to the "hard ball" stage when dropped into cold water.

Yield: 40-50

1 cup heavy cream
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 teaspoon fleur de sel*, plus more for sprinkling
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup brown rice syrup (or light corn syrup)
1/4 cup water

*available at finer supermarkets and specialty foods shops and online

1. Line bottom and sides of an 8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper, then lightly oil parchment.
2. Bring cream, butter, and fleur de sel to a boil in a small saucepan, then remove from heat and set aside.
3. Boil sugar, brown rice syrup, and water in a 3- to 4-quart heavy saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Boil, without stirring but gently swirling pan, until mixture is a light golden caramel, about 8-10 minutes.
4. Carefully stir in cream mixture (mixture will bubble up) and simmer, stirring frequently, until caramel registers 250° F. on thermometer, 10 to 15 minutes. Pour into baking pan, sprinkle lightly with fleur de sel and cool for 2 hours.
5. Cut into 1-inch pieces, then wrap each piece in a 4-inch square of wax paper, twisting 2 ends to close.

They cooked up just as described. I poured the syrup into a greased pan and let it cool overnight. I then cut them into small pieces and wrapped them in wax paper. They were very tasty and rich - a lot better than the store bought ones. I will definitely make them again.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Ms Slowsky/Old Biddy Syndrome

First off, I know I haven't published much in a while. This is partly because I have been watching the "Game of Thrones" first season DVD's, and partly because aliens have stolen my metabolism and replaced it with that of a garden slug on a slow day, so I have very little energy and look like shit - puffy eyes, face and throat. I look like I haven't slept in a week, which isn't the case. My brain is moving slowly and when I do make it to the gym my legs feel like lead. Hopefully this is not a permanent situation.
I went to see my doctor yesterday. She ordered some bloodwork, but I don't have the results yet. It could be allergies, or anemia, low thyroid, low vitamin D and/or just a delayed reaction to Rugrat's death. I'm supposed to take iron, adjust my vitamin D dosage if necessary (Dr. is very into Vitamin D, which is perhaps not surprising given the amount of cloud cover than Ithaca usually gets), test different over the counter allergy meds, and possibly more, depending on the results of my bloodwork. In other words, I have the middle aged woman flu, aka Old Biddy Syndrome. I'll report back once I get the bloodwork
Postscript a few days later: I started taking iron and Claritin. I didn't notice much change with the Claritin, but I noticed a huge change in my energy level once I started taking the iron. Who'da thought....

For those of you who live in CA, do you remember the Comcast ads featuring the "Slowsky's"? Anyway, I am Ms. Slowsky these days.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Wee Stinky

Cornell's corpse plant is blooming now. We're easily amused here in Ithaca, so this is a big deal. People waited in line for an hour or more to see it.
The corpse plant's Latin name is Amorphophallus Titanum, which means giant misshapen phallus. Really. Its common name is Titum Arun, which was introduced because some people thought the Latin name was too vulgar. It's related to skunk cabbage and Jack in the Pulpit. They are pretty rare in the wild, bloom once every few years or so, and only 150 or so blooms have been observed in captivity. Cornell got theirs from a seed harvested about ten years ago, when the University of Wisconsin's plant bloomed. The flower is only open for two days, during which time it emits a smell of rotting meat to attract carrion flies and beetles to pollinate it. Since they're pretty rare and need another blooming plant to pollinate it, the smell has to waft for quite a distance to attract bugs. To further enhance the odor, the inflorescence generates heat to waft the smell further. The flowers can be up to 10 feet tall. Cornell's is 66.5', the same height as me. It has grown about 30 inches in the last two weeks. Amorphophallus Titanum, indeed.
As usual, I was a bit late to the party. It bloomed yesterday. Today it was already getting rather sad and flaccid. By tomorrow it will be done. Rumor has it that it was a lot less smelly than yesterday. I waited in line for about an hour. Ever so often I'd catch a whiff of something smelly but I wasn't sure if it was the plant or the people in line. Anyway, when I got the the head of the line I could definitely smell it. It smelled like roadkill on a warm summer day. Sometimes it was just strong but bearable and sometimes I'd catch a really strong whiff and was sort of glad that I didn't visit when the smell was stronger. They were sampling the air around the flower so they asked people not to show up wearing strong perfumes. I was amused by that.
They ran a poll to name it. The winning name is "Wee Stinky," after a creek that used to flow through campus. It's rather appropriate.
Here's a picture of Wee Stinky. If you want to see one at its peak, there are a lot better pictures on the wikipedia entry.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Lazy Biddy Enchiladas

I get emails from the local grocery store, Wegmans. One recent email had a recipe for "New Mexico style enchiladas", in which the fillings and tortillas are layered instead of being rolled up. It also looked damned easy. Salsa, corn tortillas, frozen corn, canned black beans, and cheese are layered and baked. It doesn't get much easier than that.
I decided to add chicken to the recipe and cut down on the cheese, but I'm sure it would be quite tasty as is. The recipe below is my modifications. If you skip the chicken, I recommend adding an extra can of black beans. 12 oz of corn was a bit much, so don't use the whole amount if you don't feel like it. I'll probably go with 2 cans of beans and maybe 8 oz of corn next time.

New Mexico-Style Layered Enchiladas

Yield: 6 large servings
12 corn tortillas

Butter or light vegetable oil for sautéeing tortillas

1 ½ jars (22-24 ounces total) salsa, any flavor

1 can (14-15 ounces) cooked pinto beans or black beans, drained

1 bag (12 ounces) frozen corn (you can use it still frozen.)

8 oz grated cheese

3 - 4 cups cooked chicken, chopped or shredded*

Heat a little butter or oil in a small frying pan. Fry each tortilla on one side, then turn over and cook until it is getting limp and hot. Remove and stack on a plate. In a medium baking dish, layer the enchiladas, starting with enough salsa on the bottom to coat the dish lightly. Then add a layer of 4 corn tortillas. Sprinkle with corn and beans and half the grated cheese and chicken. Spread with a bit more salsa. Then add another layer of corn tortillas with the remaining chicken, corn, and beans. Cover with salsa. Top with the remaining 4 tortillas, a thick layer of salsa, and the remaining cheese.
Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30-40 minutes, until hot and bubbly.

It was very fast to assemble. I popped it in the oven and baked it for 40 minutes. It was very tasty and filling, and certainly a lot easier than making traditional enchiladas.

* I cooked some chicken breasts in salsa in the crockpot and shredded them, but you could use a rotisserie chicken or leftovers.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Something in the air

There's an ill wind blowing. I don't know what it is. In the last week we've had two lab fires, I had to put Rugrat to sleep, there was a murder homicide away from my mom's house, Missy's brother in law had to get emergency surgery, and I had to reroute my trip home to get around a fairly serious car accident.
Whatever it is, I hope it stops soon.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Lazy pizza crust

When I was growing up, my mom was very frugal and we didn't eat out or get tasty junk food very often. She did, however, keep the cupboard well stocked with the basics, and teach us how to make stuff from scratch. This is perhaps one reason that my brother and I ended up as foodies who cook.
Like most kids, we wanted pizza all the time, and often had friends over for dinner. Somewhere along the line the Biddy family pizza 'recipe' was created by my mom and I; I don't remember exactly but I think it happened around the time that Price Club opened up and giant blocks of mozzarella and bags of yeast could be be purchased cheaply. Anyway, the recipe is something like this. (Lest you think there's not enough detail, this is how we roll when my mom cooks.)
Mix some warm water, a spoonful of sugar and a spoonful of yeast. Let the yeast get activated, add a splash of olive oil and a dash of salt and then mix in flour until the dough is the right consistency. Knead it briefly and let rise for 45 minutes or so. While you're waiting for it to rise, grate some cheese and make tomato sauce. Flatten it out and stick it on a big cookie sheet that was dusted with a bit of flour and cornmeal, and top with tomato sauce*, lots of cheese (whatever kind you have), and whatever else you have and bake.
It wasn't the least bit gourmet. No one would pick it over a good slice of NY-style thin crust or CA style wood-fired pizza, or even Dominos. But it was better than no pizza, and, after 25 years of independent pizza testing, I would still pick it over most deep-dish pizzas, frozen pizzas, things with store bought pizza dough and anything from Pizza Hut. What can I say - I was deprived of processed food as a child and really don't like the taste of preservatives and dough conditioners...
I'm not dieting this weekend and I got an urge for pizza. I tested out the Cook's Illustrated thin crust pizza recipe and found it to be complementary to the Biddy family non-recipe recipe. The CI recipe is essentially the same recipe except with actual amounts given and has a different type of rise...and a lot more attention to detail. It is mixed in the food processor and stored in the fridge for 1-3 days (it will rise then). When you want it, bring it out, let it sit for an hour at room temperature and then shape it. If you want to kick it Mama Biddy style and not wait a day, use more yeast, skip the fridge, let it rise and then shape it. I don't have a food processor, so I used my stand mixer. I also used part whole wheat flour, doubled the recipe and divided the dough into 4 portions. I put two of the dough balls in the freezer, one in the fridge for later, and baked one. It was very easy to shape and didn't stick to the pizza board. I topped it with proscuitto and red mini bell peppers slices.

Lazy pizza dough a la Old Biddy

(makes 2 13 inch thin crust pizzas, or one large cookie sheet thicker crust pizza)

3 cups flour (I used 1 c whole wheat and 2 c white, but use what you have and like)
1 1/3 cups warm water
2 tsp sugar
1/2-1 tsp yeast (1 packet)
1 tbsp oil
1 tsp salt

Mix water, sugar and yeast and let stand for 10 minutes. Add salt and oil, and then add flour. If you're using a stand mixer, let it mix for 10 minutes while you go drink a beer. If you don't have a stand mixer, knead it for a few minutes.
Put it in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and store in fridge overnight. Divide dough in half, let it rest at room temperature for an hour, and then shape, add toppings and bake @ 500F. If you don't want to wait, skip the refrigeration step, let dough rise for an hour or so, and then shape and bake.

* biddy family style sauce - tomato sauce, dried oregano, and garlic powder.