Monday, September 24, 2007

Don't call them pancakes ... celebrating buckwheat

Sixty-five years ago, a volunteer fire department in the county where I live in West Virginia started holding a fundraising festival celebrating the area's agriculture -- a large part of which was the buckwheat that was harvested and milled into flour. Buckwheat is no longer the "insurance crop" farmers planted back then; a handful of farmers plant it now and a lot of the flour that is milled every fall for the festival starts out as buckwheat that's trucked in from a neighboring state. But a staple of the Preston County Buckwheat Festival remains: buckwheat cakes and fresh-ground whole-hog sausage dinners.

Buckwheat cakes are pancakes (but don't call them that here -- the most my fellow Prestonians have ever let me get away with is "griddle cakes"). Buckwheat flour is flour but it's not from a grain; it's actually a fruit, from the rhubarb family. Doesn't taste like it though.

At festival time there are lots of fund-raising dinners (plus people make them in their homes) serving all-you-can-eat stacks of buckwheat cakes with patties of pork sausage. Most people top them with butter and maple syrup but some use apple butter, applesauce, sausage gravy and even cranberry sauce. Growing up, my mother-in-law put elderberry jelly on them because she liked how it turned them blue. My sister-in-law put peanut butter on hers as a kid but now she just uses butter (margarine) and syrup.

The way I grew up the cakes were thin, like crepes, but last year I had heavier ones at the neighbors' house. There are two mills in the county and my mom always got her flour from the Hazelton mill and it's grittier than the flour from Eglon. I broke with tradition and got the Eglon flour last year because it was the only kind the store had and I think I like it better because it has a finer texture. Aunt Jemima and Hodgson Mill, and I think even Bob's Red Mill, sell buckwheat flour in boxes or plastic pouches but I've never tried it. The boxes at the grocery store always has an inch of dust on them so apparently no one else buys it either. Better to get the locally milled flour in the white paper sack tied with string.

Soon after moving into our house, we started a tradition of having family and friends over on the Sunday before festival begins for a buckwheat cake brunch. I fire up two griddles and just keep baking cakes till everyone's full.

To make them, dissolve yeast in warm water and add salt. Then you stir in enough buckwheat flour to make a stiff batter. It looks like wallpaper paste or putty or something, kinda gray or beige. (Appetizing, no?) You let it sit overnight, covered but not refrigerated. In the morning (or the next night for dinner) you stir in sugar (always more than the recipe on the bag calls for so they'll brown right) and baking soda and more water -- enough till you get the consistency you want. That's the basic recipe but some people use buttermilk and cold coffee and I-don't-want-to-know-what. Then you save a cup of the batter (or whatever's left after you've baked all the cakes you want) as starter for the next batch and just add flour to it, let it sit and repeat everything. That's what makes them sourdough. Ever made friendship bread where you get starter from somebody and add stuff and it sits and ferments? Same idea. (The health department won't let the public dinners make them this way though.)

A word about baking them: The first one poured never turns out right -- something to do with the temperature and "seasoning" of the griddle -- so prepare to throw it away. Usually my second, third and fourth pours either brown unevenly or tear or smear when I flip them so I get huffy, throw down my spatula and my husband takes over the griddle.

Tonight, on my first try, I baked a perfectly browned and formed buckwheat cake. The elements must've been in correct proportion: amount of sugar, consistency of batter, level of outdoor humidity, alignment of planets and stars, because every pour was perfect. Too bad just the husband and daughter were here to see it. But thanks to technology, I can share my buckwheat cakes with you -- yes I'm that big of a dork to take photos.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

I like them best the first day. And I can eat them the second day. And last year I ate them the third. But by the end of the week they're pretty potent. The owner of the newspaper I work for takes everybody to a local buckwheat cake dinner during the festival and treats us. My boss who passed away used to call them "gut bombs" because you're eating and eating and doing fine and all at once you're full. Too full. Uncomfortably full. I can eat maybe two so I avoid the all-you-can-eat places; they make money off of me. Some people store the flour in their freezers to make them year-round. They're an acquired taste. I don't make them more than once a year. The flour is pretty nutritious and you can substitute some of it (like 1/4 cup) for an equal measure of regular flour when you're baking quick breads or cookies or cakes. But don't replace all of the all-purpose flour with buckwheat flour because the end result will be too dry. The buckwheat flour absorbs more water.

This is my daughter eating her first buckwheat cake in 2004.

Here are some recipes that I have collected over the years. Many of them have won the baking-with-buckwheat contest that's part of the festival every year. Get your hands on some buckwheat flour, wherever you are, and enjoy our fall tradition.

For the cookies:
1 cup shortening
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
4 eggs, beaten
4 cups white flour
2 cups buckwheat flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon flavoring such as vanilla
4 tablespoons cold water
For the filling:
2 cups raisins
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups water
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/3 cup cold water

Cream shortening and sugars and beat. Add eggs and beat. Add other ingredients ending with enough flour to stiffen dough. Chill mixture for an hour or overnight. Roll out dough and cut with round cookie cutter. Place cookies on flat, lightly greased cookie sheet.
Cook raisins, butter and sugar in 2 cups of water until water boils.
Use cornstarch and cold water to thicken. Let this mixture cool.
Roll out top for cookies that are on sheet. Cut small center out.
Place tablespoon of raisin mixture on cookies that are on cookie
sheet. Place cover on cookies. Bake 400 degrees for 15 minutes.

1/2 cup oil
1 cup canned pumpkin
1 egg, beaten
1 cup white sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 cups sifted flour
1/2 cup buckwheat flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup chocolate chips
1/2 teaspoon chopped nuts

Combine pumpkin, sugar, oil and egg. Mix together flours, baking powder, cinnamon and salt. Add to pumpkin alternately with soda which has been dissolved in the milk. Add vanilla, nuts and chips. Drop by teaspoonful onto a greased cookie sheet. Bake 10-12 minutes at 375 degrees.

2 cups buckwheat flour
4 ounces butter, softened
6 1/2 tablespoons sugar
Pinch salt
4 teaspoons vanilla
6 egg yolks
2/3 ounce cocoa powder

Combine buckwheat flour and butter in a bowl, mixing until grainy. Rub mixture quickly through your hands, letting it sift through your
fingers, until it is damp and powdery. (This step is important to
activate buckwheat gluten). Set aside.

Mix sugar and salt in separate bowl. Add egg yolks and vanilla. Beat until white and creamy.
Combine egg mixture with flour mixture. Lightly mix until well blended. Place dough on cutting board and knead into a ball. Divide in half. Mix cocoa powder into one half, kneading until evenly brown. Roll both halves into 1 1/2 inch diameter cylinders. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for one hour.

Remove cylinders from refrigerator. Remove plastic wrap and slice dough into 1/8-inch pieces and place on greased baking pan. Bake in preheated 340 degree F oven for 7-10 minutes of until edges brown.

1 cup softened shortening
2 large eggs
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup molasses
1/4 cup hot coffee
4 cups quick oatmeal
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon ginger
3-3 1/2 cups flour
1 cup buckwheat flour
3 teaspoons soda
Optional: 1 cup raisins
1 cup walnuts

Cream together shortening, egg, honey and molassess. Add hot coffee and stir. Mix in oatmeal, sugar, salt and ginger. Sift and add in
flours and soda. After mixing stir in raisins and nuts if desired. Roll to 1/4-inch thickness; cut in desired shapes. Sprinkle with granulated sugar if desired. Place on greased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 10-12 minutes.

1 1/2 cups raisins
3 cups flour
3 cups buckwheat flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup ground peanuts (optional)
1 1/2 cups lard or shortening
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup molasses
2 cups quick oatmeal
1 cup oat bran
3 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup buttermilk
4 eggs

Soak raisins in warm water. Grind peanuts in grinder. Mix flour, baking powder, salt, nutmeg and cinnamon in pan. Blend lard, add raisins, peanuts, sugar and oatmeal. Mix all together. Dissolve soda in buttermilk. Add molasses and eggs, which are beaten together. Add to flour mixture. Drop on greased pan with vegetable serving spoon. Bake in 350-degree oven for 8-10 minutes. Makes a large batch.

1 1/2 cups buckwheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup shortening
1/2 cup dark molasses
1 egg
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1/4 cup sugar (to roll snaps in)

Cream shortening and brown sugar. Add egg and beat well. Add molasses and stir in sifted dry ingredients. Shape dough into 1/2-inch balls. Press the ball with the bottom of a greased glass that has been dipped in the 1/4 cup sugar. Bake on ungreased cookie sheet at 375 degrees for 8-10 minutes. Note: The tops will crack.

2 1/4 cups brown sugar
3/4 cup margarine
2 3/4 cups buckwheat flour
1/4 cup flour
2 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 1/2 cups buttermilk

Blend together brown sugar, margarine, flour and buckwheat flour. Reserve one cup and two tablespoons for topping. Add the remainder of the ingredients, blending well. Pour into a greased 9-by-13-inch pan. Sprinkle reserved crumbs over the top. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes.

1/2 cup buckwheat flour
3/4 cup white flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 teaspoons grated orange peel
1 cup zucchini, grated
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 cup oil
1/2 cup all-bran cereal
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup chopped nuts

Combine flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, beat sugar, oil and eggs until well combined. Stir in cereal, orange peel and vanilla. Add flour mixture, zucchini and nuts. Mix well. Spread evenly in a greased 10-by-6-by-2-inch glass baking dish. Bake at 325 for 35 minutes.

1 3-ounce package cream cheese, softened
1 tablespoon margarine, softened
1/2 teaspoon grated orange peel
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
milk, if needed

In small mixing bowl, beat cream cheese, margarine and orange peel until light. Add 1-2 teaspoons milk if needed.

2 cups white flour
1 cup buckwheat flour
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 cups mashed pumpkin or 1 16-ounce can
2/3 cup oil
3 eggs
1 teaspoon salt

In large bowl, mix eggs, oil and pumpkin. Mix all spices and remaining dry ingredients. Add to above mixture and mix thoroughly. Pour in a greased and floured 9-by-13 cake pan. Bake at 350 degrees approximately 45 minutes to 1 hour.

1/2 cup chopped nuts (Black Walnuts recommended)
1 cup mashed bananas
1 1/2 cups buckwheat flour
1 teaspoon soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup soft butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup thick sour cream or 1/4 cup buttermilk

Grease three pans or cans. Chop nuts. Mash bananas. Combine flour, soda and salt and set aside. Mix butter, sugar, eggs and flavoring.
Scrape bowl. Add banana, cream, nuts and flour mixture. Fill cans about 3/4 full. Bake approximately one hour at 350 degrees. Loosen and remove from can. Cool before cutting.

NOTE: Recipe works better if cans are greased. A small amount of Pam cooking spray can be used. Cooking oil can be substituted for butter
and black walnuts give bread best flavor.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Special dinner

There are simple, inexpensive ways to make every day elegant and special. Candles are a must in my house. Sometimes just doing something different makes the house or the evening feel special. Use the good dishes on a tablecloth with real napkins. Float the blossom of a flower, even fake, in a wineglass of water. Light a couple of inexpensive candles and you've got instant ambience without spending extra money. Same goes for the food if you choose out-of-the-ordinary recipes that can be made with pantry staples.

Weather conditions on Valentine's Day this year were blizzardlike so it was good we hadn't planned to go out. Instead we ate my favorite dinner [right now anyway], spaghetti aglio-olio. And I know I mixed cultures but because I had some Manchego to use up, I made a starter of julienned Granny Smith apples and the Spanish sheep's milk cheese. Chunks of mild, nutty/salty, "crunchy" Manchego are great topped with membrillo aka quince paste, too. I've found quince paste in the fancy deli condiments near the specialty cheese case at Giant Eagle. For dessert, I made chocolate-covered strawberries. I didn't plan this. I bought some strawberries in the course of regular grocery-shopping (I know, too early in the season.) I realized I had a bag of chocolate chunks and thought "Why not?"

Chocolate-covered strawberries

Chocolate-covered strawberries look decadent and someone will think you went to a lot of trouble but they're really quite easy to make. Thoroughly wash and dry the strawberries. The tiniest bit of water left on a berry will cause your chocolate to seize [clump.] Leave the caps/stems in place. Stick a toothpick about halfway in the stem end.

In the top of a double boiler melt chocolate chips or chunks and vegetable shortening. I used half a 10-ounce bag of Nestle Chocolatier 53 percent cacao premium baking chocolate chunks and 1 tablespoon of Crisco because I had slightly less than a pound of strawberries. Don't let the double boiler scare you. If you don't have one, it's nothing more than two saucepans stacked together with some water in the bottom one. It's used [for one thing] to melt chocolate with indirect heat. Take care not to get water in the chocolate. There are also directions on the package for melting chocolate using the microwave.

Once your chocolate is melted and you've incorporated the shortening, turn off the heat. Grasp a toothpick and dip the berry in the chocolate, turning to coat. Let the chocolate drip off a little and then you can either stick the toothpick in a piece of Styrofoam [like florist foam] or put it on wax paper to set. Yes this means when you peel it off that one side will be flat. If it's a casual meal, I don't let this bother me and I drizzle all sides with white chocolate once the dark chocolate has set so that kind of camouflages it anyway. If the chocolate starts to harden while you're coating the berries -- as mine did when I had to stop to perform some toddler triage, just turn the heat back on and stir until everything is smooth again.

To get the white chocolate drizzle, I put maybe a quarter cup of white chocolate chips and a half tablespoon of shortening [just eyeball it] in a zipper-seal bag. Don't seal it. Microwave for 15 seconds at a time until the chocolate melts. Mush the bag up to mix the shortening and chocolate. Snip a tiny piece off one bottom corner and, holding the bag several inches above the berries, gently squeeze while moving your hand back and forth. The farther from the berries the bag is, the thinner the drizzle of chocolate will be. Let dry completely, then carefully turn to do the other side.

Spaghetti con Aglio e Olio
[Slightly modified from Rachael Ray's "365: No Repeats"]
Coarse salt
1 pound spaghetti [I use wholegrain -- it's good!]
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) (about 5 times around the pan)
8 garlic cloves, chopped [give or take :-)]
1/2-1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
8-10 flat anchovy fillets or one big gob of anchovy paste
2 fistfuls of fresh flat-leaf parsley

Heat a large pot of water to boil for the pasta. Salt the water and cook the pasta until al dente, 6-7 minutes or so.

While the pasta cooks, place a large, deep, nonstick heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-low heat. When the pan is warm, add the 1/3 cup EVOO, the garlic, red pepper flakes and anchovies.

A word about this: Stir the garlic around. Watch it. You'll want to remove the pan from the heat when the garlic is just soft. It will continue to cook in the hot oil. If you wait till it's browned to take it off the heat, then it will overcook and be bitter. You'll get better at this with practice; listen to your intuition, which I'm still learning to trust. I have had my garlic end up "crispy" and it wasn't bad and after it sits overnight, it's soft again. Still it's better if you don't overcook it.

Finely chop the parsley and set aside.

Drain the spaghetti really well but do not rinse it; rinsing will wash off the starch, and the starch helps the oil stick to the pasta. Pour the hot spaghetti into the skillet. Add the parsley and toss the pasta together with the anchovies, garlic and oil to coat evenly. Season the completed dish liberally with salt and pepper.

4 servings. [Even better the next day as leftovers for lunch at work.]

Apples & Manchego
[From Chef Joe Resick, Harrigan's Cafe & Wine Deck, Johnstown, Pa.]
3 Granny Smith apples
6 ounces Manchego cheese [now available in the specialty cheese case at Kroger and Giant Eagle]
3-4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup sherry vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Julienne apples and cheese, matchstick size. [Here's where it's handy to have a mandoline, a slicing tool with interchangeable blades to help you smoothly and safely and quickly grate, julienne, slice, etc. cheese and vegetables. No need to spend $80 on the one from Pampered Chef. The chef who gave me this recipe said the $30 models from Bed Bath & Beyond -- like I got last Christmas -- will work just fine. When the blades dull, it's cheap enough to replace the whole thing. Hey, if it's good enough for a professional chef, it's good enough for me.]

Toss the apples and cheese in a bowl with the oil, vinegar and seasonings. Marinate 2 hours in the refrigerator. Serve chilled.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Enjoying every bite

I haven't been feeling well lately. I'm not sure what's wrong exactly -- could be the heat or could be I've just been pushing myself too hard. I find few foods appealing and stick with bland, starchy, "safe" foods and peppermint or ginger tea. I feel up to cooking about every three days.

On Friday I went to Panera Bread to get a bagel for lunch. I chose Asiago, Cinnamon Crunch and Blueberry to take home and got myself an Everything. I knew it was risky, dried onion and poppy seeds, but after not wanting anything to eat for so long, I gave into this craving. I suffered no adverse effects, but that's not my point.

I slowly bit into the bagel and chewed the small bites well before swallowing, not daring to eat fast and shock my system. I noticed something for the first time. There are flakes of kosher salt on Panera's Everything bagels. Sometimes I was conscious of my tooth crunching down on one but more often I felt a salty "pop" on my tongue. It was very enjoyable. I've been reflecting on how fast I eat and how well I do or do not taste foods. I "know" what an Everything bagel tastes like, right, so my brain overrode, until now, my tastebuds as I gulped down the meal I "thought" I wanted and I "thought" I was having.

To really enjoy food and life, don't eat on autopilot. Don't work from memory. Taste every bite, and for goodness' sake, if it doesn't taste "good" -- if it doesn't bring you pleasure or satisfaction beyond satiating your hunger, then stop eating it.

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