Well, hello! You’ll never guess what I’ve been up to over the past couple weeks. Okay, I’ll just tell you. That baby boy? The Inside Baby that was making me huger and more miserable by the minute? He finally decided to make his entrance into this crazy world two weeks ago and it turns out he’s been making up for giving me a massive ongoing case of heartburn for the past nine months and a myriad of other aches and pains by being an absolute Superstar Outside Baby. Nursing well, even sleeping well, he is the stuff of newborn dreams, I’m telling you. I will be sure to share more stories and photos as the weeks go on and we get into a groove around here.
But in the meantime, I wanted to take a quick minute to share some tips with you about a recipe from Pure Vanilla. Turns out, at the exact moment Sir Baby was making his entrance, the fabulous folks at USA Weekend published a lovely piece on the cookbook and the recipe for Creamy Vanilla Rice Pudding. And as a bit of press in a national publication is wont to do, it’s garnered some attention and filled my inbox with e-mails from enthusiastic home cooks: some raves about the recipe (thank you, I love you, too!), some polite questions about substitutions and technique (many thanks to you, too, for wording your thoughts so nicely), and, of course, a couple standout notes from a few people for whom the world has seemingly ended due to their pudding not setting (oh, Internet, you vex me so).
At any rate, all the correspondence left me with me with a serious case of rice pudding on the brain (related: having a newborn also gives you a serious case of Rice Pudding Brain–coincidence?). So I gave into the craving and whipped up a batch the other day (you know, for quality control), and while working through the recipe, I realized that to the inexperienced, a traditional, eggless rice pudding recipe like the one in Pure Vanilla can be tricky to master, and we all know what I stickler I am for giving you clear, concise recipes that work. So in the interest of always being Your Kitchen Pal, I thought I’d lay out a few tips to lead you to rice pudding success, and point out a couple things that are listed in the recipe, but might benefit from further emphasis or clarification.
How is it November already? HOW? This is all just bananas to me. Because in my feeble mind, it seems that just a couple months ago we were ringing in 2012, and then a few weeks after that my first cookbook was unleashed onto the world. Hours later, I discovered that we would be thrown into the newborn abyss once again. Somewhere in there my first baby turned four (four!!) and then a few blinks later I had a second cookbook come out. I’m sure it didn’t go exactly that way, but it sure feels like it. Turns out that time moving at warp speed isn’t exactly conducive to a massive case of pregnancy brain. Plus I’m, like, 23 weeks sober. Someone remind me what day it is. Eesh.
So! Here we are, inexplicably teetering on the edge of the holiday season. Do you know what you’re doing for gifts this year? Clearly, given the above paragraph, I do not. But even though we’re barreling towards a whole lotta fa-la-la-la-la!, now is the perfect time to crank out awesomely inexpensive, handmade holiday presents that seem all highfalutin, and are perfect for blowing minds and taking names. Seriously, you can crank out a dozen gifts or more in a matter of hours, suitable for giving to everyone from your mother to the mailman. And, like so many things in my life these days, it all starts with the genius of vanilla. Obvi.
To start, you’ll need to get yourself a bunch of vanilla beans, which I know can be pricey. But! I am kind of an expert at sourcing the best beans at the best prices by now, so can I just recommend Vanilla Saffron Imports (don’t let the sparse website and packaging dissuade you–this place is the real deal) and Beanilla? Some folks find good vanilla deals on Amazon as well. But the bottom line is that ordering online will save you tons of cash. No way around that. Buying vanilla beans at retail will make your wallet cry.
So now that you know how to get a bundle of well-priced, good-quality, fragrant vanilla beans in your hot little hands, let me pass on a few DIY gifty ideas from Pure Vanilla, as a little present from me to you:
You know what drives the husband nuts? “Lady coffee”–that is to say, any coffee that has a creamy look and is flavored. He fears it, this lady coffee. It’s like he thinks it will make him grow a uterus or something. Anyway, he can smell that such a coffee beverage has been created in our kitchen before he even enters the house and his disdain while walking in the door is loud and extremely negative, cursing and shouting, “Ack!! LADY COFFEE!!”, as though he’s discovered something unsavory on the sole of his shoe. It’s all quite dramatic.
Unfortunately for him, I happen to looove lady coffee. For a while, the only thing that kept me from always making lady coffee (besides the Man Whining about it) was the high price and somewhat questionable ingredients in the flavored coffee creamers from the supermarket. It’s almost kind of amusing to learn that most store-bought coffee creamers don’t actually contain any milk or cream, plus there’s lots of other stuff in there I can’t quite pronounce. But recently I learned that I could make my own fabulous flavored coffee creamer for a fraction of the cost with a much simpler ingredients list, and it is awesome.
So here we are, guys. Just days away from the most marshmallow-y holiday of all! Mallows seem to be everywhere these days, from sweet little packets of artisan treats to ahem, a certain book all about the subject, to those ubiquitous Peeps and bunnies in day-glo colors. Hooray! To me, marshmallows are the ultimate happy candy, and really, whether they’re packaged or homemade, I love them. Of course, I’ve become quite partial to from-scratch mallows myself, as I can now make them practically in my sleep, but that is neither here nor there. I want to get you mallowing right along with me, to make me feel a little less crazy. ‘Tis the season, after all! Come along, won’t you?
Welp, that’s all the fun we’re going to have for a while now, folks. The holidays have come and gone, we can’t legitimately say “Happy New Year!” to strangers anymore, and Valentine’s Day has fizzled out and left us all with killer chocolate hangovers. Now it’s just…winter. Bah.
I can’t be the only one who feels that the last two weeks of February are akin to watching a Top Chef marathon when you’ve already seen all the episodes, like, five times each. Pear-Vanilla Brown Butter bars, guys–consider them your ticket out of this crazy-making holding pattern.
Speaking of things that aren’t dreary, several months back the husband and I got all 2003 with our ourselves (read: barely married, childless) and decided on an impromptu weekend trip down to Monterey. We were giddy about getting out of the city for a couple days, and thought that Little C would just love a visit to the insanely enormous aquarium down there. Our first little family getaway–how Griswold of us! So fun! So much bonding! So much gear required OH MY GOD DO WE REALLY NEED A CASE OF GRAHAM CRACKERS.
Four duffle bags, two sacks of snacky groceries and a loaded DVD player later, we were on our way to the Central Coast. Aside from Little C soaking her entire carseat with apple juice before we even reached the freeway, we had an awesome time together. The views were literally breathtaking, the heavenly sort that make you feel so tiny in comparison to their majesty. The aquarium was indeed Little C approved. And most importantly, I convinced the team to stop in Big Sur so I could cross something off my Baking Geek Bucket List: Lunch and dessert at Big Sur Bakery. Yesssss.
The savory items we tried at the bakery were terrifically satisfying, fresh and flavorful, but the desserts–oh the desserts!–that’s what Mama really came for, people. And the Huckleberry Brown Butter Bar did not disappoint.
The recipe in the book is neither for a Pear-Vanilla bar nor the aforementioned Huckleberry Brown Butter Bar, it’s actually made with rhubarb. But like I said earlier, we are in the slog of February here and rhubarb is in very short supply. In a couple months, we can make Rhubarb Brown Butter Bars happen, but for now, all things pear are the order of the day. And happily, the pairing positively sings.
Now I’m not going to lie, darling readers–for as unassuming as this bar looks, you do have to go through a few steps here to make it all happen. But if you’re like me, you might be so intrigued by some of the elements that you won’t really mind the extra time spent doing things like, say, browning two separate batches of butter, and then freezing some of it solid to make the crust. Genius!
After you’ve got your solid brown butter ready, the crust comes together in seconds in the food processor. Then while the crust is baking and cooling, you can start preparing a pear-vanilla jam of sorts and attempt to not pass out from how beautiful it smells while cooking.
In addition to the fabulously ambrosial jam, you’re also going to whisk up a brown butter filling, which is a concoction so magical I might go into some very suggestive language to describe how delicious it is. I’ll just say this: warm browned butter, sugar, eggs, hits of vanilla and orange? Huminuh, huminuh.
My only suggestion to you beyond being prepared to do a few extra dirty dishes with this recipe is to also have something heavy to chain yourself to while these bars are baking, because, good Lord, the smell is incredible. You’ll suddenly care about those February doldrums not a bit.
Adapted from The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook
These bars are so sweet and rich, I halved the original recipe and cut them much smaller than the bars the bakery serves.To feed a bigger crowd, you can double this recipe and use a 9×13 pan. When doubling, use 3 whole eggs.
For the crust:
Do you ever get all fired up about the idea of certain food projects? Like you see a thing about pickling or bread making with a carefully nutured starter or something and out of nowhere you’re all, “Yes! Why don’t I do that?! I should be doing exactly THAT!”. And then you head directly to a kitchenware shop and drop ridiculous money on unitasking kitchen tools that you end up using exactly once?
Yeeeaaahhh. I’ve done that a time or two.
Like, say, jam making. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve boiled down fruit with sugar and canned it. And it’s sad, really. Because homemade jam is such a delightful thing to make and eat and give to other people. A true beacon of Americana, if you will.
Plus I own all the equipment I need to do some serious jam making without acquiring burns on 75 percent of my body (note: I say this because I bought said equipment after my own Macgyvered jam-making tools failed miserably and threatened to leave me with burns on 75 percent of my body). So the other day I told myself to get it together, brave the crazies at the mid-week Civic Center farmers’ market, see what was good and fresh and fruity, and make jam out of it. Plums won, big time.
Besides making you feel like you’re in a Norman Rockwell painting, jam making is one of those activities that sort of centers you. Chopping fresh fruit, measuring out sugar, dumping both in the biggest, oldest pot you’ve got, stirring, stirring, stirring with a big wooden spoon. It’s glorious. this is the stage of jam-making when I always wonder why in the world I don’t do this more often.
I get visions of making jam of every conceivable fruit combination and gifting my friends with carefully preserved jars that they can pop open months later for a taste of summer, when berries and stone fruits have long past their peak. It’s so romantic. Until–fast forward 30 minutes later–I am cursing while running my hand under cold water because of a wayward molten jam splatter. But when the jars are filled, capped and lined up, cooling on the counter, I’m glowing with acheivement, again wondering why I don’t do this more often, seared skin notwithstanding.
This batch of plum jam was nothing short of super late summer bliss. Bright, sweet-tart, hints of lemon, vanilla and a gossamer blanket of cinnamon to warm the whole thing up. And tasting exactly like a plum Jolly Rancher, if they ever made one. Can’t explain it, but it’s totally true. I’m just passing on my feelings to you here, like good friends do. Neosporin-ed hands and all.
Late Summer Plum Jam
Makes about 5 half-pint jars
Any variety of plums will work here. I found some lovely ones with a ruby-red interior that made for a stunning shade of jam, but those cute little Italian prune plums that are happening right now would be great too. Since plums are so thin-skinned, peeling isn’t necessary, so buying organic ones is an especially great idea.
If you want to can your packed jam jars, check out this great resource–Canning 101.
3 pounds plums (any variety–see note), washed, pitted and cut into 1/2 inch chunks
2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
Zest and juice of 1/2 a lemon
1/2 of a vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (Vietnamese or Saigon cinnamon, if you can find it)
In the biggest, heaviest pot you’ve got, stir together the plums and sugar. Let sit, stirring occasionally, until the fruit has given off some juice and the sugar has mostly dissolved, about 1 hour.
Set the pot over medium-high heat. Stir in the lemon zest and juice, vanilla bean and cinnamon. Bring to a hard boil, stirring often, until the jam is thickened and runs off the back of a spoon in big, heavy drops, about 25-30 minutes. While the jam is cooking, skim off any foam that comes to the surface. To test for doneness, spoon a dollop of jam onto a freezing cold plate and let it sit for a minute or two–of you can run your finger through the dollop and a track remains, the jam is done.
Ladle the hot jam into hot, sterilized jars, leaving about 1/4 inch of room at the top of each jar. Cap tightly and process the jars in boiling water for 10 minutes, or store in the refrigerator.
1. You should memorize all the songs from Free to Be You and Me, preferably by watching it over and over on an old VHS tape checked out from the library.
2. It is never okay for a professor to offer to give you a massage. Even if it’s your Theater professor.
3. Sometimes you need to embrace the crazy and just go for it–it could turn out to be really great. Like combining ice cream and flour and making cake out of it. Seriously!
Important, Oprah-esque Life Lessons aside, I am excited to share this totally kitschy recipe for Ice Cream Muffins with you guys. It’s another winner from my recipe scavenging at Gramma’s house back in June, and definitely one of the wackier ones I came across. Since finding it, I’ve discovered that there are several versions out there, some which literally are just ice cream mixed with flour and then baked. This recipe I’m sharing with you has the extra help of a bit of oil and an egg, which I imagine makes for a better flavor, texture and mouthfeel in the finished product than just ice cream and flour alone.
Another thing that will really make these crazy little muffin-cupcake hybrids the best they can possibly be is to use a really great ice cream, the more high-end, the better. I’d look for something that doesn’t have more ingredients than it needs to, not much beyond cream, milk, sugar and eggs. The cheaper the ice cream, the more air it will have incorporated into it (not to mention creepy stabilizers, gums and preservatives) and since we’re measuring by volume and not weight here, you want to make sure you have enough dairy and sugar in the mix with the flour for the best texture and taste. You’re already rocking the boat here with the amount of crazy in the recipe–set yourself up for success with the best ingredients you can get your hands on.
The finished product is a delight–lightly sweetened, great vanilla flavor, totally versatile. I understand that we’re sort of teetering on the edge of Sandra Lee territory with this one, but I was so pleasantly surprised and basically humored by the entire experience of this recipe that I think I’ll take a tablescape for the team and share it with you anyway. Enjoy!
Ice Cream Muffins
Adapted from an old strip of newsprint from an unknown Midwestern publication
The better quality ice cream you choose, the better your results here. Note that this recipe calls for self-rising flour–it will not work with any other flour. I imagine other flavors of ice cream can be substituted. These can have a crazy rise, so keep the muffin cups only about 1/2 full of batter.
2 cups premium vanilla ice cream, very soft
2 cups self-rising flour
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Position a rack to the center of the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together the ice cream and flour until smooth. Beat in the egg, oil and vanilla until well-blended. Divide the batter equally among the muffin tins, each about 1/2 full. Bake until the muffins are risen, lightly golden and a toothpick comes out clean, 18-20 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack.
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