Mini snack cakes – and an extra note

First things first, as I write this, I’m eating my orc stew, from the previous Hobbit post.  It’s decent, but I still have some ways to go with the seasoning.  It’s got a nice zing to it thanks to some habanero and sriracha, but it needs a bit more body to it.  I wanted to try leaving out bay leaf, thyme, and sage, but they’re in damn near everything for a reason – the earthy flavors of the soup are quite strong on their own, and they need a good compliment.  On the other hand, using celery root instead of celery was an excellent move, particularly as the celery root itself also is texturally much like potato pieces.  Overall, it’s a decent soup that only needs a few more tweaks to be amazing.

Now, for the coming new year, I found that a local sci-fi bookstore is doing an all-night gaming event.  Can’t say no to that, right?  So I’ve been going over in my head as to what to make for that.

In terms of bold and creative, I think I’ll actually make snack cakes – just pour some cake batter onto a lined pan, and then fill them with some frosting.  It’ll be like whoopie pies… except, of course, that I’m going to try to take these to a new level.

For the cake itself, I’m thinking of a luxurious Amaretto cake.  I’m hoping it’ll be a modern spin on pandoro (that Italian cake that I see so often around this time of year), with a moistness that calls to mind good times by the fire – be it the fireplace of grandmom’s house or the hearth that you imagine your characters meet in front of in a Dungeons & Dragons game.  The goal is to be satisfying and blend many things at once – even the line between yourself and fantasy.

Along those lines, the filling is quite important.  The cheap answer would be chocolate; after all, everything’s better with chocolate.  But being experimental means going off the beaten path, so I think my filling will actually be a combination of maple syrup and fresh vanilla – powerful and bold, yet using flavors familiar and warm for everyone.  I want it to be inviting and new without alienating folks who like something traditional.

Regardless, this should be a fun way to celebrate the new year.

And finally, for those who realize who I am now – go back over everything I said.  And more importantly, what I didn’t say.  For all that you realize how I may have misled you, I never once lied.  So I hope everyone had fun, continues to follow what I have to say, and enjoy a slice of bacon cake.  You’ll see me in a better forum for non-food questions soon enough.

Sometimes, keeping it simple is best

I thought I would have some fun experiment lined up for Christmas.  I really did.  I had visions of complex meat dishes, creative sides, and combinations that few folks have tried.

But when I asked my wife what she wanted, she merely asked for my roast chicken, some homemade buttermilk biscuits, and some spinach lightly sauteed in olive oil and garlic.

Sometimes, even with a pantry stuffed to the brim with all sorts of strange spices, and in a head with all sorts of ideas on how to combine foods, what you need are the classics, which should never be totally abandoned even as you try new things.

On that note, happy holidays everyone.

Aromatics and me – we should get to know each other

I was reflecting earlier about an entire style of cooking that I seldom use – herbs as aromatics.

I think the basics of my lack of use come down to tea.  As in, I have some strange genetic quirk that keeps me from being able to taste it.  The strange thing is that I can smell it just fine – but I can’t taste it on my tongue.

Mind you, this is extremely useful when it comes time to take care of a sore throat, actually – it tastes like water, but soothes my throat.  But as I was drinking some tea to prepare for a night of karaoke (which was frustrating, because two different people took songs I wanted to do – a maneuver I call the “karaoke cockblock,” if you forgive my French), I was thinking about how I seldom do this when I cook.

Of course, I cook with herbs all the time.  But I always cook with them in rubs, in crusts, and in mixing with other ingredients to make broths.  I never allow them to simply warm up and smoke their flavors through the foods I’m working with.  And really, given just how much I like several herbs that are good for such moves (like rosemary), I figure that this ought to be my next experiment.

I figure my first attempt will be chicken – relatively affordable, and rosemary chicken is a delightful dish.  I might even try fun with rounds – pound the chicken flat, put on a layer of sundried tomatoes and one of mozzarella cheese, then roll it up, slice it into rounds, and bake it with some olive oil and the aromatics.  That would be a fine meal, I think.

Anyhow, it’s a start.  In the meantime, I just finished another cup of tea – always time for one more song.

Fun with sauces and tentacles

Calamari is one of the more divisive foods I’ve seen.  I remember once seeing it on a menu, mentioning it out loud, and one of my dining companions immediately launched into a diatribe against it.  ”Oh God, nobody actually likes that stuff.  People only order it to gross out the people they’re dining with.”

Of course, I responded “Well, before you interrupted me, I was thinking about ordering it.”  And, truth be told, I still did.

Calamari itself is actually not that difficult to make, once you clean it.  You just have to be careful about cooking times.  It stays tender if you cook it for about a minute, and then it turns rubbery unless you cook it for another hour.  So really, you either cook it fast or you cook it slow.

Myself, I usually like a fast preparation, but there admittedly isn’t much you can do about that.  You flash fry it, and it comes down to whether or not you breaded it or not.  That said, there is plenty of avenue to experiment with the sauces that you dip it in.

Now, some find that simple marinara is the only acceptable choice for dipping them.  I do enjoy that, but I feel like a tomato sauce is only the start of your dipping choices.  I’ve always been fond of fra diavolo sauce myself, and the extra zing that a bit of spiciness brings to the dish is always enjoyable.


One sauce that I’ve seen gaining popularity is sriracha – or, as my family traditionally calls it, that weak stuff with a rooster on the bottle.  Mind you, I find it tasty, but it’s a bit lacking for my taste buds.  However, I’m making it into the greatest sauce ever, at least I hope – two teaspoons of honey, one teaspoon of rice wine vinegar, and one teaspoon of sriracha.  Hoping this comes out to a sauce that’s rich, flavorful, and maybe just a tiny bit of a kick.


Which isn’t to say that I’m shying away from a major kick.  I’m also going to roast some habanero and serrano peppers together, and blend that with a bit of molasses and a touch of dijon mustard.  That should be for people like me, who think that the major problem with calamari is its lack of nuclear qualities.

Sadly, though, I’m not sure when this experiment will happen.  So much is going down; I don’t know when it’ll all end.  Hopefully, when it does, I’ll easily be able to chow down on tentacle fun.  Such is life, I’m afraid.

Recharging my batteries

The one major downside to cooking at this point of the year is that I’m mostly just eating leftovers.  I make a damn good Thanksgiving turkey, if I may forgo humility, but this results in a few weeks of leftovers.  This keeps experimentation down to a minimum.

I am getting back into the swing of things, though.  I decided to draw inspiration from a previously discussed experiment – the Don Quixote burger.  I didn’t want to go quite as all-out as a full burger (holiday shopping is wearing me out), but I felt that it would quickly come together to get me thinking about new foods.

To begin, as I mentioned, I picked up some pane rustico.  Between two slices, I had one covered in a rich black olive tapenade, and the other had a bit of quince paste.  I used jamon iberico, and in honor of the Don, I used Manchego as I had previously described, which had herbes de provence encrusted on the rind.  I toasted it for about five minutes, and I enjoyed it immensely.

I guess in some ways, this sandwich was like Quixote himself – full of grand aspirations, but really nothing more than a ham and cheese sandwich, with an olive and an over-glorified apple.  Is it a bit much to claim that this sandwich is anything more than that?  But at the same time, I’m not deluding myself into thinking that I’m any great chef because I make classics out of fancier ingredients.

Instead, maybe the key to this is to act opposite to how Don Quixote himself acted – take something basic, and build on that to make a classic that can re-energize the mind and soul.  For all that it was a basic sandwich, I do feel a bit more energized and ready to make an excellent meal – at the very least, I’m going to make those Hobbit cupcakes for a holiday party very soon.

Almond encrusted fish

I strangely tend to be very boring when preparing fish.  Maybe because it’s nostalgic of growing up with ready access to it, but fish is always something I do traditionally.  Butter, maybe some onions/shallots, maybe some garlic or white wine if I feel adventurous… nothing all that outrageous.

I honestly have no good reason to have not experimented with fish before.  So, I think it’s time.

I think I’m going to start small, at first – I found a local nut roaster that does some amazing things with almonds, and I have some sea salt and rosemary roasted almonds from them.  The challenge is what else should go with this.  I think a quick broil with mustard to make the seeds stick is the obvious choice, but I still want to combine more into this dish.  Or maybe I need to find a creative side to go with it… regardless, it needs more.  Suggestions would be appreciated.

Theme meal thwarted – The Hobbit

Sorry for the silence of late.  I was being a bit superstitious… and it turned out to not matter anyway.

There was a local store that had this great idea – it’d do a contest for dishes inspired by Middle Earth, in conjunction with the upcoming film of The Hobbit.  Perfect for me – I love Tolkien’s work, and I love to cook.  So I signed up to actually make dishes inspired by hobbits, dwarves, and orcs.

And then the contest got canceled because only one other person signed up.  Sigh.

I hadn’t talked about it until now because I thought that I’d either jinx it by discussing it online or possibly give someone ideas to compete against me.  Well, little fear of that now.  So, here were my thoughts.

Orcs – Black heart stew

Truth be told, there’s not a very wide discussion of orcish dietary habits in any of the books.  The closest I have to any of that would be the fiery drink that they used on Pippin and Merry to get them up and marching in The Two Towers.

Enough for me to work with.

I was going to make a spicy soup – allow spicy peppers to steep in beef stock for 24 hours.  I was probably going to use dried ancho chilies, because I don’t think too many folks besides myself are going to give the ghost pepper a chance (oh, the stories I have).  To go with that, I was going to add cumin, bay leaf, and sage to the seasoning mix to give a rich and powerful kick to it.

With this broth, my hope was to combine it with black lentils and black mushrooms.  These would serve to both give further body to the soup as well as serve as a nice thematic component.

Dwarves – mountain potatoes

Thinking about it, the dietary habits of a species of sentient creatures that live primarily in mountain caves are more than a bit limited.  While there certainly is a biome that can support life, much of what a dwarf would have access to is pretty limited without trade.  And I was thinking that the most famous story about dwarves by Tolkien involved dwarves who were refugees and thus probably stuck eating what was native.

To be honest, I think mushrooms are a bit too cliche, plus I honestly don’t know just how well mushrooms grow in high mountains and mines – since they typically need moisture to grow, it seemed like a more sea-level food.  However, various types of edible taproots and culinary herbs do grow in mountainous terrain.

With that said, I imagine a good side dish for dwarves that would be extremely native would involve potatoes, sage, rosemary, thyme, and lavendar – all very tasty in combination as well as capable of growing heartily in mountainous regions.  They’d have to be tossed in some kind of fat – I bet the traditional dwarven method would be rendered goat or sheep fat. That said, olive oil would be tastier, vegetarian, and olives can grow in pretty hearty areas as well.

Hobbits – Cherry mead cake

I do make tons of different foods, but I will always admit to having a weakness for experimenting with different kinds of cake.  Also, given their dietary habits, if anyone could appreciate a soft and rich cake in Middle Earth, it would be those irrepressible hobbits.

In this case, I would start with a spice cake base.  Hobbits strike me as the sort that would just swoon at the scent of freshly ground cloves, grated nutmeg, powdered allspice, and any other spice that would make a spice cake stand out.


Also, I think that the spice mix goes quite well with mead.  Of course, I had to make this a booze cake, and while plenty of drinking of all sorts happens in the story, a strong yet sweet honey mead is the one that I always come back to when I imagine hobbits.  I think the combination of the two would be fabulous.

Also, I would include cherries in two steps.  One, I would take dried cherries and mix them into the cake batter.  I don’t have a good story reason as to why (a classic carrot cake really does seem like something hobbits would make and eat), but I thought it’d be a bit more playful and unexpected, which is always what Tolkien showed with them.

Also, I would add a bit of cherry juice to the frosting.  Making a basic cherry simple syrup, I’d add just a touch to a good cream cheese frosting, in order to give it a light but unmistakable complimentary cherry flavor.  A good finish to a hearty meal.

I will eventually make this, but probably not for at least a week.  While I didn’t do any experiments over Thanksgiving, I did make a ton of classics.  I have a lot of leftovers to clear.

Requested recipe – Arthurian legend meal

So, a couple weeks ago, I had a request for a meal reminiscent of Aurthurian legends, from QXZenith.  This request, I felt was a worthy one, but I wanted some time to do some research.  There are plenty of ingredients that you might first think would be suitable, but weren’t around in Arhturian times.  Anything with wine was a bit much to request, potatoes are right out, and even the seasonings involved are restricted.

That said, I think I have a good one.

Entree – pot roast marinated in mead

Mead is often overlooked culinarily these days, because you don’t see as many people sell it anymore.  That said, it has its own rich flavor, it was popular in Arthurian times, and it marinates just as well as any other alcohol.  A standard roasting procedure using mead, a basic mirepoix (that’d be two parts onions, one part celery, and one part carrots for the unfamiliar – all of which have been around for millennia; feel free to substitute shallots for onions if you want to be fancy), and choice herbs.  As sage was a traditional flavoring and ward against evil in Arthur’s time, it’s an excellent choice, as are parsley, bay leaves, and thyme.

A pork tenderloin would also work for this, as would a Cornish hen, but I find beef to be the most evocative of a knight.

Side dish – Steak over salad

Taking inspiration from Gawain and the Green Knight, I think a salad featuring steak strips over lettuce is a perfect choice – a little salt and a good sear is all you need for the steak.  Feel free to top it with an appropriate blue cheese (many fine varieties from either northern mainland Europe or England itself will do), and perhaps some cucumbers if you’re up for them.  I highly recommend using a stronger-flavored lettuce varietal, like Bibb, over something that’s used as a dressing-carrier like iceberg.

Drink – mulled apple cider

Mulled drinks (alcoholic or not) were quite popular amongst the royalty of the era; if you’re going to eat like you’re in the court, you should drink like it as well.  While nutmeg isn’t nearly as exotic today as it once was, it’s an excellent choice for a high-end mulled drink, as well as a tiny amount of peppercorn for kick.  While cinnamon and cloves are ordinarily wonderful for such purposes, trade issues that weren’t fully resolved until the 1700s limited England’s access to the seasoning, so I recommend against a period-specific drink featuring it.  For those who want a bit of an exotic flavor, mull a bit of currant with the drink.  And, of course, red wine and mead also work well for this.

Mushrooms, but not the power-up kind

I long ago learned that mushrooms are a love-it-or-hate-it food.  Seems that very few people are passive on them; either they wish their meals had more of them, or they never want to see one ever again.  Personally, I’m in the “love them” category, but I have to admit, my knowledge of them could use a ton of work.

Push comes to shove, I really only know four kinds – the button, the portabello, the shiitake, and the oyster.  Of the four, I actually like the oyster the best – I find it has the fullest flavor, and it goes with the most dishes (even my one attempt at pasta sauce used the oyster).  That said, when I make stuffed mushrooms, I end up falling back on the portabello.  You can’t really stuff an oyster properly, which is tragic, but you work with what you can get.

That said, I’ve been tempted to give morels, hen of the woods, and straw mushrooms a try. I’ve even pondered making my own mushroom broth, to be enjoyed much like French onion soup… of course, that’ll be quite the experiment.

Also, sorry for the delay in updating – when the huge storm hits, you worry less about experiments.  I’ve tragically been living on soup and grilled cheese for the past few days.  Unless you consider melting together Port Salud with blueberry jam to be a fascinating experimental sandwich, it’s been extremely dull for me culinarily.  Hopefully, things will be back in full swing shortly.

On various experiments

As I didn’t want to recommend dishes without having tried them first, I made the soup that I had previously mentioned, inspired by Christine from Phantom Of The Opera.  Perhaps I should have done that before recommending it, but such is life.  Or, at the very least, I should have waited to try it when others were going to be over, because the soup was strong.  Perhaps too strong – while it was an incredible flavor, the various flavors didn’t muddle at all, and it everything came through as bright as day. Having a whole bowl of this was probably not my best move; it overpowered a bit and I ended up wishing I only had a cup of it instead.

Even though I actually added extra stock and wine to the soup, it also came out with roughly the same consistency as mashed potatoes.  Now, it occurs to me that this is still a delightful side dish with that consistency, and I would whole-heartedly recommend it for that purpose.  I just was hoping that, when I recommended a soup, it actually had the consistency of a soup.  Anyhow, as I said at the beginning, not everything is going to work.

It kind of reminds me of when I tried to make cheesy oatcakes.  My idea was to make steel-cut oats, mix in some cheddar cheese, and then fry on a griddle (like pancakes) until they were firmed up.  I discovered that oatmeal doesn’t really firm up when baked like that – gluten plays a much bigger role in the process than I had anticipated.  It resulted in a loose pile of buttery, cheesy oatmeal. I did consequently discover that it meant that you could produce a savory oatmeal that works much like polenta/grits for a side dish to an entree, but it wasn’t exactly what I intended.  I think that’s what I’ve managed to do with the squash “soup”.