Thursday, January 26, 2017

A Whole Lot of Blarney!

It's time to tackle the dinner plate of my collection of Old Britain Castles china! This beauty features the Blarney Castle circa 1792.

To be honest, I've had this plate on my table so often that I don't give it much of a second thought. But on closer examination, I realize it does not look a lot like a castle.

It looks like a lovely British home, but not a castle. In fact, it looks very little like Blarney Castle as it stands today.

It turns out that Blarney Castle had a hunting lodge attached to the castle, which has since burned down, so I don't have that many details to compare against my china pattern. But I did come across some interesting facts about the Blarney Castle. There is, of course, the Blarney Stone there. As far as I can tell, in order to kiss the stone and gain the gift of gab, you have to lie on your back, hold onto a pair of metal bars and bend backwards to actually get to the stone. I have a creeping suspicion that this sacred rock may be a seething nest of bacteria from the number of people who have puckered up to it. 

But there are extensive grounds to keep you occupied, should the Blarney Stone or the Castle not appeal. They have a bog and a Fairy Glen, and most intriguingly, a Poison Garden. 

This garden features wolfbane, opium, and mandrake plants, and has the added thrill of skulls put on all of the plant signs. Don't say the Irish don't have a knack for theatrical flourish. Maybe they've been kissing the Blarney Stone a little too often!

Lemonade from Lemons

When I hear "lemon tea cookies" I am thinking of something delicate with a jeweled dab of clear yellow jelly on top. Something like this: 

My coworker gifted me some lemons last week, and so I proposed to my baking buddy that we try Pillsbury's recipe for Lemon Tea cookies. She was elated, as she'd just come into a windfall of Meyer lemons. So, a plan was made. Lemon bars. Lemon cookies. Lemonade with ginger. Lemon everything. 

The 1987 Pillsbury Best Cookies Cookbook has a lot of comfort cookies in it. Things like Fudgy Butterscotch Bars and Cherry Winks. The kind of cookbook that has margarine as an allowable substitute for butter in practically every recipe. 

It's a simple shortbread-ish cookie base of flour, sugar, butter, and vanilla. But I found that it was a little short on practical information. Most pressingly, although it advises to cook the lemon filling "until smooth and thickened," it doesn't actually say for how long. My baking buddy looked at it after twenty minutes of stirring and advised stopping there. But it wasn't actually thick yet. Just kinda thick. So I kept stirring. That is how I ended up with lemon caramel instead of lemon curd. Because if you cook the egg, sugar, and lemon too long, it turns into something chewy and dense. Pellets of lemon caramel. This caused me to shake my hand in the air and say unladylike things about Pillsbury. I won't repeat. Okay, I will. "Fudge you, Pillsbury, fudge you!"

It also belatedly occurred to me that although I should've had 72 cookies from a double batch...I had about thirty. That would explain why they took double the time to cook. Toward the end, I abandoned ship and just added jam instead of lemon pellets. 

Now that they've had a day to cool in the fridge, I have to say, they are very tasty. If I make these again, I will just buy some lemon curd or lemon jelly from the store and use that. As for my baking buddy's lemon bars...well, they are glorious!

Even though zesting 20 lemons was a challenge, and I may or may not have zested part of my knuckle, it was quite worth the effort. Making cookies, even if you mess up, is good for the soul.

The Doyenne of Doilies

My resolutions for 2017 are very ambitious. And deadly serious. I have resolved to try as many new cookie recipes as I can. I know, hard work. What can I say, I'm a cookie warrior! And this project begins, as so many, by me staring at the refrigerator and wondering how I'm going to use up left-overs. In particular, two bags of dried cranberries and a jar of homemade cranberry sauce, abandoned in the aftermath of Christmas. A little online research, and I settled on Soft and Chewy Vanilla-Orange Cranberry Cookies, courtesy of Arthur Flour. 

Unlike most of my kitchen adventures, this went very smoothly. I used pistachios instead of walnuts, and I have to say, these would make fantastic Christmas cookies, with red ornaments of cranberry and little flecks of green pistachio. I also tripled the vanilla extract...because I am incapable of restraining myself when it comes to vanilla. The recipe says that you should cook a scant 6 to 7 minutes, and they aren't kidding. These cook up quickly, and if you go over by a minute, you have scorched bricks. 

I was overly crafty and tried one batch with a thumbprint impression and dollop of cranberry sauce. And they were quite tasty. But they look like they've suffered gunshot wounds. Perhaps something for Halloween!

All told, a fine cookie. Refined pistachio, bright orange, and tart cranberry. We had quite a nice tea with them!

Please do note the dual-spouted teapot (a Christmas gift) and also the crochet doilies underneath. I have gone on a crochet jag this week, and experimented with making tea doilies and tea cozies and such things.

In fact, I have doilies beginning to stack up all around my room, looking like brightly colored stacks of pancakes. I've resisted the urge to pour on maple syrup! My friend asked what I'd been up to, and I said, "I've been doilying." She said, "Don't dally doilying." I said, "I'm the Doyenne of Doilies!"
And that, I think, is that.

Belvoir Castle & Old Britain Castles: Serious time with my salad plates!

As I collect Old Britain Castles, a pattern introduced in the 1900s in Britain by Johnson Brothers, I thought it would be fun to begin looking at the castles that are featured on these beautiful dishes. Today, in the mail came a haul of three salad plates, featuring Belvoir Castle.

All of the engravings on this pattern were done circa 1792, and here is how Belvoir Castle looked then.

I was so pleased to find that Belvoir Castle is not only still with us, but it is magnificently well kept, and currently under the care of the 11th Duke of Rutland. You can visit their website here.

Here is what their website says about Belvoir:

Belvoir Castle is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Rutland. The family have lived at Belvoir in an unbroken line for almost a thousand years.  Crowning a hill in Leicestershire, its turrets and towers rise over the Vale of Belvoir like an illustration in a romantic fairytale.

The land was a gift from William the Conqueror to one of his Norman barons – Robert de Todeni who fought for him as his Standard Bearer at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.  The first castle which was begun in 1067, was constructed primarily to defend its Norman owners from attack, and so took full advantage of its defensive position high up on the ridge.  By 1464 the Wars of the Roses had taken their toll on the building and it was more or less in ruins.  Some 60 years later it rose again, but as a nobler structure with a central courtyard, parts of which can still be recognised today.  But in 1649 that too was destroyed, by Parliamentarians after Royalists had seized it during the Civil War.  Its third incarnation, began in 1654 was designed as a large family home with no connotations of defence or war.

The castle you see today finally emerged in the early 1800s and was built for the 5th Duke and Duchess of Rutland between 1801 and 1832 by architect James Wyatt.

The castle was given the French name Belvoir – meaning beautiful view – now pronounced ‘beaver’ remains as one of the most magnificent and beautiful Regency houses in England.

Here is an engraving from wikipedia, which says "A plate from Jones's Views (1819), showing Belvoir Castle's dominant position overlooking the Vale of Belvoir."

Where is Leicesterhire? It is North of London by a fair ways, with the nearest city being Nottingham.

How does the castle look today and does it still compare to the engraving featured on my salad plates?

The front part of the castle appears to have been painted yellow, and it was possibly rebuilt after the engraving was done, but it is a very handsome castle!

And the inside appears to be stunning!

Put this on my list of places to visit, one day, on my Old Britain Castles tour of England!

Pavlova: Hysteria and Despair in the Kitchen

The Pavlova is a dessert named after the ballerina Anna Pavlova, for the ethereal beauty of meringue topped with whipped cream and berries. It should look something like this: 

In my youth, I made a Pavlova and found it to be the easiest thing possible to create. So when I set out to make a Pavlova last week, I expected an easy confection, whipped up in an hour or two, delivered to ooh’s and ahhh’s at my writer’s group. Alas, it was not to be.

Here, then, is a quick list of instructions for how to completely and utterly botch a Pavlova:

1. Ignore directions for super fine sugar and use granulated sugar instead.
2. Let droplets of water splash into the egg whites as you’re trying to beat them.
3. Decide that you do not want to purchase a hand mixer, because how hard could it be to beat egg whites by hand?
4. After you collapse with the exhaustion of beating said eggs, and find that they will *never* reach the point of stiff peaks, run out to the store to buy an electric beater, racing back to find that the electric beater cannot save your swamp of marshmallowy egg whites.

5. Start over. With the same granulated sugar. Watch in despair as the egg whites, after thirty minutes of beating, still will not achieve stiff peaks. Become desperate to thicken it. Find that your housemate’s box of corn starch has recently hatched moths. Panic. Run down to the corner store and buy corn starch, flour, and even coconut flakes. Add copious amounts of these to your egg whites, and find that nothing, repeat *nothing*, can bring the egg whites to the proper texture. Spill the corn starch all over the counter.

6. Punt. Line a brownie pan with wax paper and attempt to bake the semi-soft egg whites like a cake. Behold in despair that it cooks into a hardened square that cannot be cut without a steak knife.

7. Open your first can of beer and consume. You’ve used up all dozen eggs, and there are only a few hours until your writer’s group. 

8. Realize that your nectarines and plums are still hard as a rock, despite your housemate having left them in a bag in the sun to ripen.
9. Sob. Consider purchasing a cake from the local bakery.

This is precisely what happened in my efforts to make Pavlova. But I did what all desperate bakers do…I took the ingredients I had left, and I improvised. I threw the hard-as-rock nectarines and plums into a cast iron pan with some sugar, squeeze of lemon, butter, and a splash of Armagnac, cooking until soft, then adding in some vanilla and almond extract and a pinch of salt. 

Then I popped that in a brownie pan, and improvised a crumble topping with what I had on hand, based on a recipe I found on Forty minutes later, I had a tasty crumble topping with ruby red fruit bubbling underneath. Judging by the enthusiastic consumption of it, I'd say it was a hit.

Since the crumble topping was a modest success, I will record it here for posterity:

1 cup flour
½ cup white sugar
¼ cup oats
1 cup slivered almonds
10 candied walnuts, crushed
8 tbsp butter
Pinch of salt.

I mixed it together with my hands, and once on top of the fruit, baked it at 375 for 30 minutes. Then I put some extra slices of butter on top and put it under the broiler until it was toasty and golden. For the fruit, I used 4 nectarines and two plums. I whipped heavy cream and added a dollop to each plate. I liked this well enough that I will make it again for the next social gathering.

I am not giving up on the Pavlova, however. I intend to seek out the elusive super-fine sugar, perhaps try a recipe with fewer egg whites, and try, try, try again!

The Natural Cafe, Santa Barbara: Shhh, don't tell anyone...It's healthy!

It's hard to describe the Natural in fair terms. I adore it madly. I go once a week, without fail, to have the albacore tuna salad with lemon herb vinaigrette. Lower State Street is where people go to sit on the patio of a nice restaurant, have a beer, and people watch. There are a lot of tourist traps here...places where you can sit on the patio and pay a fortune for very mediocre food. Yet many people end up at those places because they have passed by the slightly less glamorous exterior of the Natural. It has a perfectly good patio on the sidewalk where you can sit under the umbrellas and eat...but it doesn't have that "we are so cool you'd be lucky to get a seat" vibe that its neighbors do. That's because it is...a health food joint. I know, most foodies (including me) will often go out of their way to avoid falling into over-priced "skinny" hell-holes, sinking under the weight of their whole wheat buns and tofu this-and-that. But...hey girl (or guy), you're in Santa Barbara, and part of the food culture here is heavily focused on being healthy (yoga, sunny beaches, know, California!). And the thing is, health food or not, the Natural makes comforting, yummy food. It's the kind of place where you feel kind of like your mom made you a nice's not super glamorous, but she made sure you'd get some good food and nutrients in your tummy.

And the Natural is adaptable. If you're a carnivore, they'll do you a nice chicken or salmon dish. If you're vegan or vegetarian...well, you've arrived in heaven. It's the kind of place that puts Bragg's, olive oil, sesame seeds, spike, yeast flakes, and a hundred other healthy condiments out by the water bar (self serve water with lemon slices and ice). You can get a salad with grilled tofu and brown rice on top. But you can also get a super tasty pasta primavera with garlic bread that will make your mouth happy.

The decor is very casual, as is the vibe. You order at the counter, grab your number and a glass of ice water, and then pick a seat at a booth, table, or the patio. It's very airy and relaxing...the kind of place where you can go solo and nobody will look at you funny for sitting by yourself. Long ago, when I was a college student, I would bring my books here and study while I ate. Now I bring my laptop and write for a leisurely hour while I enjoy a nice meal. So that's 15+ years this place has felt like home to me. If I haven't been clear enough yet, let me spell this out: LOCALS LOVE THE NATURAL. I see people I know from around town there pretty much every time I go. There are visitors to Santa Barbara too, but it is the kind of place where locals come back week after week. Perhaps for the black bean enchiladas?

Or the wild salmon salad, if they have it on special?

Not to pick favorites, but you can't lose ordering one of their salads. They come in enormous bowls, with tasty salad dressing (the lemon-herb vinaigrette is the best) and can be had from vegan to carnivorous, depending on your preferences. It's about ten dollars for a salad, and you really will be having the Santa Barbaran experience here.

Lilac Patisserie, Santa Barbara: Beauty on a Fork

 Lilac Patisserie, in my opinion, makes the best cakes in Santa Barbara. Period. And cheesecakes. And tarts. It is really one of the nicest places in town to sit and have a cappuccino and a slice of cake. But what makes it even more amazing is that it is gluten free. Everything in the shop, not just one or two items. And biting into a slice of princess cake, after you are done swooning over the marzipan and the pastry cream, you might just for a second think the cake was a bit spongier than regular cake...but you would not think there was anything missing from the gluten!

The feel is very old-school here. Marble-topped tables, bistro chairs, and glass shields behind which the bakery nymphs decorate cakes. Everything is airy and light. And, oh yeah, everything here is insanely tasty.

Personally, I recommend princess cake, summer berry cake, or the chocolate caramel. The ingredients are top notch, so it will be reflected in the prices. But trust me, you will not only pay $8 for a slice of this kind of happiness, you will take another slice home in a to-go container.

The  vegan offering, the red velvet cupcake, is a bit more of an acquired taste. It reads as salty and slightly sour on the tongue but without a lot of sweet to balance it. If you're vegan, you may find it scrumptious though

Lilac doesn't just serve pastries, it has lunch fare as well. I noticed the bread they use in their sandwiches is very thick and fact, it is a lot like the cake they serve, just minus the sugar. But if I were on a gluten-free diet, I am fairly sure that I would not care about the texture, I'd just be ecstatic to be eating real bread.

So bring your appetite and give Lilac a try. I promise that it is the best pastry going on State Street!

Vegetarian Bolognese and Rigatoni Casserole!

I get excited about pasta. I can't help myself. So I was pretty well over the moon when Botticelli sent me a box of goodies to try. And even more excited at the prospect of a vegetarian bolognese sauce made with little flecks of soy. It's hard to get the hearty flavor of a bolognese without meat, but it can be done, and it just got a little easier.

I gathered my troops...

I love to take sauce from a bottle and improvise. I quickly scanned through recipes on rigatoni casseroles, and as it is the start of September, I thought something hearty sounded right. First step, I popped a head of garlic in the toaster oven, wrapped in tinfoil. It really does not take much longer than half an hour to roast a small head of garlic, and I find that it gives instant depth of flavor in pasta dishes, without being bitter or overwhelming. While that was roasting, I went to town with the fruity, rich olive oil, onions, shallots, mushrooms, and a little extra oregano and thyme. 

As they were looking a little thirsty in the pan, I did the generous thing and poured in a cup of shiraz. When all that cooked down, I added fresh basil, black olives, and the jar of veggie bolognese, which was fragrant with basil, mellow, and rich. Just right for an autumn pasta bake!

I mixed in al dente cooked rigatoni with a little pasta water, and stirred it all together. Next step, a casserole pan...and....wait for it...the very very best entire bag of shredded mozarella! That is really the only reason it needs to go in the oven for 350 degrees for about 25 minutes, to get that cheese oozy good on the bottom and browned and blistered on the top.

You know you've done something right when every single member of the household manages to amble by the kitchen and poke their head in as dinner is cooling. And I have to say, the rigatoni was toothy without being heavy, a cross between macaroni and penne, with lots of grooves for the cheese and sauce to cling to. 

I really enjoyed this little food adventure in my own kitchen, and I hope you did too!