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Monthly Archives: September 2012

I was going to write a blog post about the fancy cake I made for my birthday. I love making fancy cakes, and every year I pick my cake of choice out two to four weeks in advance and read the recipe over a few times a week to make sure I have it down. But other than “look at this awesome cake I made” —

Look…

…at…

…it!

— I don’t really have much to say about it. I love the logistics management involved in making a fancy cake to organize the production of the cake layers, the buttercreams, and the ganaches, but all I really do is follow the recipe and pay attention to details. This recipe is from a blog called Annie’s Eats, where I get 90% of the cake recipes I use. Click here for the recipe.

No, to me, the recipes that are the most interesting are the ones that I don’t have to look at. The ones I know by heart. For me, one of those is Irish Tea Scones. No matter what city, state, or country I’ve lived in, making a batch of these makes me feel like I’m at home.

The ingredients are pretty easy to come by wherever you are, although it took some figuring to try to find baking powder in Honduras. Polvo de hornear is the standard baking powder-esque ingredient there, which I finally figured out (thanks, Mom!) was a mixture of baking powder and baking soda. And that worked just fine for the purposes of making these scones.

2 cups of all purpose flour

1 tablespoon of baking powder

1 tablespoon of sugar

1/2 teaspoon of salt

4 tablespoons of butter

2 eggs

1/3 cup of milk

1/2 cup of raisins

For glaze: 1 egg and 1 tablespoon of milk

To start, mix all the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt) together in a large bowl. Blend well. Then cut in the butter.

Or, well, plop it in first, and THEN cut it in.

If you don’t know how to cut in butter, well, it’s pretty easy. I use this fancy pastry cutter that my mom got me.

Thanks, Mom!

It also works really well for making guacamole.

You can also use two knives, or just plunge your clean, dry hands into the mix and crumble up the clumps of butter. The idea is just to combine the butter with the dry ingredients, and make sure that you don’t have butter pockets floating around somewhere, just waiting to sabotage your dough.

Although floating butter pockets sound like a good idea in most aspects of life.

Then make a well in the middle of the mixture.

Well?

In a separate bowl, beat together the 2 eggs and the 1/3 cup of milk. Or, if you’re feeling tired, don’t. Just dump them in the well separately. It’ll probably be okay. Stir well. I usually take a wooden spoon, dip it in my flour jar, and then start stirring. Once the mixture starts to come together and using a spoon becomes annoying, I coat my hands in flour* and knead and mix at the same time. Once the dough has come together, dump the raisins in and knead/mix some more. If you’re someone who managed to stick with the spoon the whole time, ditch it now and either knead in the bowl 5 to 10 times or turn the dough out onto a floured cutting board and knead there five to ten times.

*I just turned to Josh and said, “isn’t it funny that ‘flower’ the plant and ‘flower’ the grain are spelled the same way?” Then I realized that I had lost my mind for a moment and forgotten how homophones work. Yes, I work with words for a living.

Some people like their scones in triangles. Me? I like ’em round. This recipe is intended to make eight scones, so I split the dough in half, then in half again, and then in half again. Voila — eight more or less equal portions. I roll them into balls and put them on a cookie tray.

Then, mix the egg and the 1 tablespoon of milk together and use a pastry brush to lightly brush the tops of the scones. I am ultra paranoid about starting fires in the oven (yes, this makes no sense), so I am always very careful not to drip any of the glaze onto the baking sheet. It’s not that anything is going to go wrong if you do, but it will make a burning smell and possibly freak you out. If you’re like me.

Fun fact: before I had a pastry brush (thanks, Mom!), I used to use a toothbrush to do this. Not the same one I used to brush my teeth.

This pastry brush is admittedly a lot easier to use on unbaked goods than an Oral-B.

You will not even come close to using up this amount of egg wash. I hate wasting food, so I usually scramble the remainder and have a tiny scrambled egg.

Then it’s time to bake! I really cannot give you a whole lot of guidance on this part. I bake them at 400 degrees and supposedly I bake them for 7 to 10 minutes, but they usually end up needing about 15 minutes. Sometimes I make the scones a lot bigger and they need 20 – 25 minutes to bake. I read an article recently that pointed out how unreliable oven temperatures are anyway, so the best advice I can give you to bake them until they’re done. Which means a lightly browned top and no dense zones when you cut one open. I always cut one open to see how it looks. If it’s not yet done, I shove the two halves back together, pretend nothing happened, and put the tray back in the oven for a few more minutes. If you make your scones in triangles, they will cook more quickly.

This is what they look like when they’re done.

To me, the raisins are the most classic way to make scones. But you can put anything in them. Some of my favorite things are chocolate chips; tiny cubes of cheese and chopped up chives; dried cranberries; and dried cherries with dark chocolate. Not all together. Those are four separate iterations, for the record.

I like to put butter on my scones and/or dip them into coffee or black tea.

YES

It’s raining, it’s 50 degrees after the hottest summer ever, and I have a scone and some coffee. Life is good.

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One of the primary facets of the beer geek culture–as opposed to wine, whisky, or toilet hooch geeks–is the stocking of bottles for aging. See, beer evolves as it sits around in the bottle. Some age quite well, some not so well, and a few can yield interesting, unsettling results.

This guy, for instance, spilled a Milwaukee’s Best on his shirt and didn’t get to the ER in time.

It’s difficult for me to keep stuff around for this long because A) I don’t have a lot of money, and can’t really afford to buy large quantities the usually top-shelf brews that age especially well, and B) I’m impatient. I’ve tasted aged beers before, and been pretty blown away by some: a nine-year-old Thomas Hardy ale and a four-year-old Old Rasputin imperial stout were highlights.

Yes.

Hell yes.

It’s just a coincidence that, in past two nights, we drank two beers that are perfect for aging: Scuttlebutt Old No. 1 Barleywine, and New Glarus Thumbprint Enigma. The former is nearly four years old, the latter is extremely fresh. Eventually we hope to blog about tasting different vintages of the same beer side by side, but this’ll do until we have the capital and the cabinet space.

So, there’s a story behind this one.

In the background are books about a gay bishop, a storyteller who went off his rocker, and the Higgs-Boson. Fun facts.

Michelle bought this for us almost a year ago during a trip to Madison, just a day or so after I proposed to her. It was $12.99 for a single 12 oz. bottle, and I’d like to thank her for riding the post-proposal high for so long.

It was the last one at Brennan’s, a 2009 bottle. I’d never heard of Scuttlebutt before, and I’m not sure that they have much in the way of distribution. Rate Beer lists the bottling, tap availability, and distribution as “unknown” which is about as sinister as you can get with beer.

This, on the other hand, is about as adorable as you can get with beer.

We did well in aging it for about another year, but last night was chilly, stormy, and it just felt right. After a few minutes in the fridge to lightly chill, we poured it up.

It’s a barrel-aged beer, so one of the first notes you get is a big oaky vanilla character. This thing has had nearly four years to mellow and the bourbon notes are still pretty prominent, so I can’t imagine what it must have smelled like when it was first bottled. There’s big plum, raisin, and apricot notes, expected in a barleywine, but this one had a nice caramel presence, and even a hint of chocolate, with a sharp hop bitterness on the finish. At 13.3% ABV, there’s almost no heat, which, even after four years in the bottle, is impressive.

So, verdict. Not the best we’ve had–Three Floyds Behemoth or Central Waters Bourbon Barrel Barleywine probably takes it–but definitely a great surprise. The brewery is based in Everett, Washington, but some of their stuff obviously makes it halfway across the country. Give it a shot, if you don’t mind the price tag.

Now this…this, I’m excited about.

The cats in the picture on the door are even looking at it. They knew this day would come.

Anytime New Glarus puts out a new seasonal or Thumbprint–their limited run series–is cause for celebration. This year they’ve kept it reasonably simple, releasing a barleywine, a saison, and a cherry stout that was really more of a cherry brown ale. They were all great. But this is something of an event. New Glarus brewed Enigma on two other occasions only, in 2006 and 2010. It’s a sour wild ale, which means it was spontaneously fermented with random, wild yeast strains. To further play up the moniker, the brewers released it with little warning. It just showed up on shelves last night, magically.

The wand chooses the wizard, Mr. Potter. It’s not always clear wh–oh hey, is that a Kohl’s gift card?

I love sour ales. They’re an interesting beer to age, because they tend to be rather low in alcohol (5-7% or so); higher booze content typically helps stuff like imperial stouts and old ales develop in the bottle. Here, the wild yeast strain does the work. The best ones typically come from Belgium, but some American brewers are really starting to step it up; New Belgium’s La Folie is a ridiculously good beer, and this one ain’t too shabby either. Brilliantly red with an off-pink head, the nose on Enigma is just rife with tart cherries, a bit of Granny Smith apple, and a touch of vinegar. Bracingly sour only up front, it mellows out into tart-sweet cherry, along with hints of vanilla from the oak vat.

We’ve got two bottles sitting in our cabinet, alongside a New Glarus R & D Ale that we’re holding onto till the wedding, and we’re determined to make them last. Unless it rains again.

I learned how to make crepes from a French woman I met while I was living in Honduras in the Peace Corps. After I finished my three months of training with a group of 46 other new volunteers, I was then assigned to the city where I spent the majority of my two years in country. It was a big transition to suddenly be a “real” volunteer, far away from home, and trying to accomplish something meaningful in a new, often baffling environment. I was very lucky to have an incredibly kind and welcoming host family, who I lived with for the first two months in my site, and who welcomed me as a member of their clan. And I was lucky to meet Lucie.

Lucie was a French student studying urban planning who, through a series of events that I never 100% understood (we communicated in Spanish, a second language for both of us), was completing a six month internship in Honduras working with the same municipal government that I was. Lucie and I became friends quickly through a shared circumstance – being far away from home in a foreign culture – and through a love of cheese. When my first care package arrived from my parents containing a block of four year old sharp Wisconsin cheddar, the look on Lucie’s face when she bit into it was the look of a partner in crime.

Lucie replied to my cheese offering by teaching me to make crepes on my little single burner cookstove in my bright blue, windowless apartment. When Lucie left Honduras and I had a year and a half left to go, I was very sad to imagine the rest of my time without this friend. And after a few trans-Atlantic emails we, perhaps unsurprisingly, fell out of touch very quickly. We were from different cultures, were different ages, and were in different stages of our lives. Our friendship was very much borne of a place and a situation. But I still think of her every time I make crepes. It is such a beautiful thing to be touched by the people who we encounter in life, even if we only know each other briefly.

Now on to the food.

It’s about time. I’m starving over here!

To make the crepe itself, all you need is eggs, flour, and milk. When Lucie first started to show me how to make them, I asked her how much of each ingredient we’d need. She looked at me like I was a bit crazy and said, “How can we know yet?” She then cracked two eggs into a bowl and added the tiniest pinch of flour. She whisked until the flour was incorporated, then added a little more. Once the flour and eggs started to come together, she could add larger quantities of flour, maybe an eighth to a quarter cup at a time. The key is to whisk as much flour into the eggs as you can, until the whisk can barely move through the thick mixture.

Thick AND rich!

Once the batter looks more or less as pictured above (and feels thick on the whisk), it’s time to add milk. Just like when the flour is first added, the key is to drizzle a very small amount of milk in at first, always whisking until it’s completely combined before adding more. Larger quantities of milk can be added the further along you are in the process. When the crepe batter flows off of a spoon like milk, you’re ready to cook.

That’s a fine looking drizzle you have there.

There are special crepe pans you can buy, but I always just use a regular frying pan, because that’s all I had when Lucie taught me. The key to cooking a crepe well is to oil the pan properly. I do this by pouring some vegetable oil into the pan, and then using a wadded up paper towel to wipe it all around. This spreads the oil evenly and also mops up any excess. I do this in between every single crepe that is cooked.

That scratch on my hand is what happens when playtime with the kitties gets real.

Your pan should be hot — so hot that drops of water flung on it sizzle and jump. Again there are probably fancier ways to do this, but to pour the crepe, I simply pour a quarter to a third of a cup of batter into the pan and swirl it around to coat the bottom.

Don’t even worry about the tendrils of batter. No one will ever know. Unless you take pictures of your half formed crepe and post them on a blog or something.

Once the crepe seems solid, you’re ready to flip it. A good way to test the crepe’s solidity is to run a fork along the edge of it. If the edge is lifting up and appears to hang together, you’re ready! If the fork seems to simply be pushing the crepe around, give it another minute. The crepes cook quickly, usually less than a minute on each side. To flip the crepe, the easiest method is to pry up the edge with a fork, then grab it with your (hopefully clean) fingers and flip the whole thing over with your hands.

They call ’em fingers, but I’ve never seen them fing… (c.f. The Simpsons, circa 1993)

If a crepe is all you want, you’re all set!

But… what if you want was Lucie called “The Complete Crepe”? Then you’re going to need another egg, some chopped up ham, and some cheese. Lucky you.

To make the complete crepe, crack an egg into the pan, on top of the crepe, after the flip. Do it! Break the yolk! Spread it around! Hey, even lift up the edges of the crepe and let some of the egg fall underneath!

Eggs on top of crepes? What will they think of next?

Then throw on some chopped up ham and some grated cheese. In this picture, we are using mozzarella and goat cheese.

You are so close! Just let the egg cook a little bit and then…

Oooooh, yeah….

Again, even with the egg all over the place, the easiest way to close up your crepe is to run the fork around the edge. This time, I’d recommend using the fork itself to lift up the concoction instead of your fingers. But hey, to each his own.

I hope you enjoy. I do, with some regularity, and remember a strange time in my life and afternoons spent with a friend.

It’s generally good advice not to give someone a pet as a gift. I seem to remember Abigail Van Buren saying this, repeatedly, in the era when The Capital Times still existed as a daily newspaper and I used to read Dear Abby before taking the bus to high school. But my brother and sister-in-law found a pet that was low maintenance enough that it was just fine to give me for my birthday.

Low maintenance and compact:

What exactly is in the can, you might ask?

Now with zero trans fats!

The cat was surprisingly difficult to inflate, which is probably why we didn’t do a very good job of it.

Maybe I’m supposed to look this droopy.

And how did it get along with our current tenants?

Leave me alone, please.

An inflatable WHAT?

In the craft beer world, the term “seasonal” means less and less each year. Mostly, this is due to each brewery’s obsession with being the first to get their particular seasonal out on shelves. This afternoon, we went to the Steve’s on University Avenue, and they already have Rogue Santa’s Private Reserve (a hoppy, piney amber ale) in stock. It’s a good beer, but when it’s still hovering around 85 degrees in Madison, WI, it might be a little early for getting into the yuletide spirit. And this is coming from someone who will watch the HELL out of A Christmas Story year-round.

 

Mickey Rourke plays Santa in the gritty reboot.

 

But man, do I mark out for fall and winter beers. Oktoberfests are okay, but honestly, if you’ve had a decent one, you’ve had them all (for the record, Paulaner and Ayinger make the best ones). What really gets me going, though, is pumpkin ales.

 

“Now it is well-known throughout the Midwest that this man is a pumpkin JUNKIE…”

 

New Holland Ichabod, Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin, Post Road Pumpkin, I drink ’em all. This year, I’ve bought two so far, one a mainstay (Southern Tier’s Pumking) and the other a brand new one (Samuel Adams Fat Jack Double Pumpkin). Despite the common pumpkin element, these beers can vary wildly in flavor profile, so I thought it’d be nice to try these two side by side. We’ll start with Samuel Adams:

 

Mmmmmmm…

 

Samuel Adams is most famous for being the beer you buy in college when you feel like splurging. They get a lot of flack for being as big as they are (nationwide distribution and then some), but they’ve stepped up their game recently. Fat Jack is just the newest in their Batch One series, which also includes some pretty great brews in their Tasman Red IPA, Dark Voyage Baltic IPA, and Griffin’s Bow Blonde Barley Wine.

 

4X Mmmmmm…

 

 

 

As expected, it’s a damn good beer. It pours almost like a brown ale, with some nice russet highlights and a giant khaki head. Aromas of fresh, creamy pumpkin pie, prominent cinnamon and nutmeg. Big, bready mouthfeel, with fresh pumpkin peel, sweet cream, brown sugar and tons of mashed pumpkin. The alcohol (8.5% ABV) is well-hidden, and it’s a steal at $6.99 for a 22 oz bottle.

 

This, my friends, is the Pumking.

 

And yes, he’s totally singing The Darkness’ “Black Shuck.”

 

It’s been around for years now, and is one of the more divisive pumpkin beers out there. Southern Tier has a tendency for generating that kind of buzz; their imperial stouts, particularly Creme Brulee, are knocked as overly sweet as much as they’re praised for big, bold flavors. Pumking is no different. This is my second time having it, and there’s a reason for that.

 

Daddy like.

 

Michelle had this on tap about a year ago at the Brick Store Pub in Decatur, GA. I loved it, all the way. Michelle, though, tired of it about halfway through, and I can see why. At 9% ABV, and with a huge focus on the spice characteristics, it was a big, pumpkin-y beast.

 

Yes, this is EXACTLY what I’m talking about.

 

Southern Tier must have mic’d our booth, because this year’s batch takes everything good about the beer and evens it out. The slightly lower alcohol content (8.6%) makes for a less bracing finish, while the big, bold pumpkin spices still cut through nicely. The carbonation is suitably prickly, which accentuates the bite of nutmeg and cinnamon. It’s a little pricier at $8.99 per 22 oz bottle, but it’s definitely worth it.

 

So yeah, get these beers, and any other pumpkin brews, while you can. By the time Halloween rolls around, we’ll be getting all kinds of big, crazy Christmas beers. Which is not a bad thing.

 

Wheech is wheen you shoot eye out. Also, drone is better.