Monday, March 29, 2010

Post #10 - Adventures in Birthday Cake Land

Is there any more loving way to show your affection for someone special than cooking them a great meal?  And if it's their birthday, to bake them a delicious cake?  Not to my way of thinking.  And as it was once again that Someone Special's birthday, my first and most pressing question was: what kind of cake? The question was asked and immediately answered without hesitation: "coconut!".  And thus the next question for me, the party planner: would I bake it myself or rely upon the professionals and buy one?  I decided I'd try making it myself.  So what recipe to follow? My challenge was to find a cake recipe which would (a) most importantly, taste good and (b) was within reach of my skills and experience.  Not too complex, not too simple...a delicate calculus of taste, ingredients, memory and mechanics.

We have a bunch of cookbooks but nothing inspirational turned up.  The coconut cake recipes seemed to consist of two pounds of sugary frosting with coconut flakes mixed in.  This sort of thing is not to my taste even if was not my cake.  My friend Mr. Google turned up a lot of similar recipes, but at last I found two which I liked the looks of, a coconut raspberry cake and a coconut chocolate cake.  I put them to the final arbiter and the decision was made: we were going with the Gâteau Choco-Coco!

The gâteau choco-coco recipe comes from a blog by a nice young Parisian lady who runs a sophisticated web site named Chocolate and Zucchini. It's a great place to visit, thank you Clotilde!  I don't know that I would've come across it without searching for a cake recipe, bless the internets and the people who spend their time and energy to share their talents with the world.

The recipe is simple enough.  Here is the list of ingredients:
- 1 cup unsweetened coconut flakes
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 stick, minus 1 tbsp butter, softened
- 1/2 cup fromage blanc or plain yogurt
- 4 eggs
- 1 1/4 cup flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 4 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder, diluted in 4 Tbsp hot water

You also need some parchment paper.

Well, I followed the directions, mostly....I swear I did!  I chose to use 1/2 cup of sugar instead of a full cup.  I probably didn't bake the coconut flakes quite long enough because I was worried about burning them.  I also used unsalted butter, which came out of the freezer and didn't quite defrost all the way, so that it was little grainy after mixing up the ingredients.  But the batter was delicious!  I knew it would be good.

Oddly enough though the cake didn't rise much, and it had kind of an odd texture to it.  And it wasn't until I wrote this entry that I realized why:  I left out the baking powder!  Rookie mistake.  But it didn't really matter, it was still delicious even if a bit weird looking.  I served it with whipped cream made from Highlawn Farm heavy cream and black raspberries and the birthday girl loved it.  A success!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Post # 9 - Sardine Review, Group C

Let's begin our sardine reviews with the smallest and for the time being the loneliest group, our sardine tasting laggard collection, Group C. The only member of this sorry club, thus far, is Brunswick Sardines in Olive Oil. These are Atlantic herring canned in Canada.  Brunswick is owned by the Bumble Bee food group, which also distributes King Oscar sardines in the US.  Brunswick has a web site dedicated to their products with interesting information about the fishery as well as descriptions of their various products.  It's not a great web site in terms of design, but it does have a certain endearing earnestness to it.

Unlike most brands these sardines come wrapped in a plastic covering with some spiffy art work.  Your typical sardine wrapper, which is usually printed in color on cardboard stock, looks like it was designed as a junior high school art class project.  This packaging was designed by a graphic artist and looks nice.  Too bad it's plastic, the points scored for graphic aesthetics are lost for being environmentally unfriendly.

The wrapper itself has the usual dietary information.  Serving size is truthfully labeled as one serving unlike several other brands.  The contents are what they should be: sardines, olive oil and salt, nothing else.

OK, let's get to it the fish now, I'm getting hungry.  The lid pulls off easily enough.  Let's take a look inside the can.  Inside are several large sardines.  The appearance quality is OK.  However, straight out of the can they lose badly on the taste test.  The label says they are packed in olive oil, but it is at best a very indifferent olive oil, there is no love left in this oil.  But worst of all they are soft, mushy and tasteless.  In a word: yecchhh!  After trying several cans the initial tasting is confirmed each time. I cannot recommend them.  There are better choices out there and we'll take a look at some of them next time.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Post #8 - The Penguin Delivers

I love reading.  And I love a nicely-made book. The actual physical book itself - a high quality cloth binding, nice creamy paper, crispy beautifully shaped fonts - a well-made book is an experience in the physical world which richly complements the abstraction of the written word.

Just this past week I was looking for a copy of Great Expectations to replace our old paperback Signet classic which has sadly deteriorated over the years and finally vanished down the wormhole.  On Amazon I found this copy of Great Expectations, in hard cover.

Published by Penguin Classics, it seemed like just the thing.  An interesting cover design, cloth-bound, good paper, and some nice quality touches about it like the built-in bookmark thingie.  The price was reasonable as well.  It appears that Penguin is republishing some classics in this new hardcover format, there are several other books under the imprint which have been released over the past year or two, with others due out this year.

This edition was published in 2008.  Based on the copyright information it appears this copy may have replaced an earlier edition.  These books remind me of the Modern Library series, nice books that feel good in the hand, built to last (although not quite as nice as the Library of America series).  This will undoubtedly be the last copy of Great Expectations I will buy. It will be good to re-read it in the future.

To meet the $25 free shipping minimum I also bought a copy of Jane Eyre.  It has an attractive cover and is a part of the same series, it was also published in 2008 and printed in the UK.  There is something nice about having a English book published in England, even if it is a far cry from the England of 1846.

A quick Google of Penguin Classics turns up some interesting posts here and here.  And here too. The entire collection can be browsed on Amazon, where they can be bought at a fair price.

I would like to borrow these words to express my excitement in finding this series of books:

"And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!
He chortled in his joy."

Substitute cheap paperback for Jabberwock and you get the drift.

Post #7 - Why Not Sardines?

Sardines are good.  Let's start with that.  My co-workers may think I'm eating some odd variant of cat food but they are missing some good stuff.  Handy to eat at any time. Low in the food chain so blessedly free of environmental toxins.  Full of heart-healthy omega-3's.  Inexpensive and infinitely renewable.

Some time ago I became food-sick of the cafeteria offerings and decided to start eating sardines for lunch.  Not every day, but a few times a week depending on my mood.  Shopping the local grocery stores scored six different brands which I will review for your pleasure, complete with pictures of the packaging as well as the stars of the show, the sardines themselves.

So let's meet our little fishies, listed in order from best to (the dreadful) worst.

Group A:
Goya Sardines in Olive Oil (Spain)
King Oscar Sardines in Extra Virgin Olive Oil -Two Layer (Poland)

Group B:
Season Sardines in Pure Olive Oil (skinless and boneless) (Morocco)
Traders Joe's Skinless and Boneless Sardines in Olive Oil (Morocco)
Roland Sardines (packed in water) (Morocco)

Group C
Brunswick Sardines in Olive Oil (Canada)

There are a few other locally available brands which I may add later.  I recently came across some Pastene sardines which like their compadres canned in Morocco are also skinless and boneless.  There is also the Beach Cliff brand, which is canned in the USA but may be very similar to Brunswick (better grab some now, looks like they are closing up shop).  Lastly, there is the Royal Crown brand, which is canned in Scotland.  I have eaten these before but can't remember the details.

Thus far the best tasting sardines have been packed in olive oil. Water packed is common and not as good but OK.  Avoid anything else.  If you need mustard on your sardines add it yourself.  Sardines packed in mustard are just plain yecch.

After I began this project I came across a reviewer on Chowhound who is up to 49 different cans now.  But the top sardine dog in the webbed world is definitely Society for the Appreciation of the Lowly Tinned Sardine. Yes, there is a world full of sardines out there, but we are exposed to little of this variety.  Maybe some day.  But for now, this is what we got to go with in the mile radius of my workplace.

I will break out the groups into separate posts over the next few days.  Until then,  enjoy!