Monday, February 26, 2007

An Ode to Blueberries on a Frosty February Morn

One of the best things about living in the Northwest that almost makes up for the mildew is blueberries. I have blueberry bushes in my yard and my children love to run outside in the morning to pick some fresh berries to put on their cereal or just to pop into their mouths and savor the sweet, juicy, tartness.

Most years I try to purchase an additional 10 lbs or so to tuck away in the freezer for year round use. On years when I've really got it together, I take my kids blueberry picking. We bring out Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey and read about Sal's adventures on Blueberry Hill with her little tin pail and then go to the blueberry farm with our own tin pails, although ours are plastic.

This year I had it moderately together. My friend and I took our kids blueberry picking, but we left it too late in the season. All of the easy to reach, fat clusters were gone. We had to reach for the few, small berries we could find and there was not much for our kids to do. While we tried to find enough berries to make the trip worthwhile our children were busy spotting toads in the irrigation ditches, playing house amongst the bushes, and generally complaining about the August heat. So, we eventually conceded that there was little point in staying and went home to enjoy the fruits of our labors.

I made muffins, a coffee cake, and froze the sad remainder, which I've been hoarding and using sparingly this winter.

This morning I woke up to find the ground covered in frost. Brrrr - aren't we done with winter yet? But what better time to use up the remainder of my precious blueberry stash? Muffins are in the oven and my children will be happy campers when they wake up!

My favorite blueberry muffin recipe is from Have Your Cake and Eat It Too by Susan Purdy, a holdover from my low-fat cooking days. It yields a nice, moist muffin that's not greasy. I like to double the batch, making 24 muffins so I have some to tuck into the freezer or share with friends and neighbors.

Old-Fashioned Blueberry Muffins

1 large egg
1/2 cup skim or 1% milk
1/2 cup nonfat plain or vanilla yogurt
3 Tbsp. safflower oil
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp + 1 tsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1-1/2 cup fresh blueberries, rinsed and dried, or frozen unsweetened (do not thaw)

1 - Put rack in center of oven. Preheat to 400 degrees. Coat muffin
cups with cooking spray.

2 - In large bowl mix together egg through sugar. Set a strainer over
the bowl and add flour through salt. Stir and sift the dry ingredients
onto the egg mixture, then stir just to blend. Stir in the berries.

3- Divide the batter among 12 muffin cups. Sprinkle a little granulated
sugar on top. Bake about 20 minutes or until the tops are well risen
and golden brown. Cool muffins in the pan on a wire rack for about 5
minutes, then use a fork to gently pry from pan. Serve warm. This also
works as a coffee cake in an 8" square pan, baked for 25-30 minutes.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Marshmallows at last

My husband announced to me with glee a few weeks ago that he'd found my new vocation - food blogging. "Food and writing; it's so you!" he said. So after browsing the exciting, enticing, exotic world of food blogs and finding a few favorites, I've taken the plunge into my own.

The name, Cookie Baker, is what I am at my core, although I'm more than happy to try other avenues of culinary exploration. It's just that to me a cookie is the essential distillation of happiness, comfort, and love in sweet bite-sized morsels. That's why, more than likely, the majority of my writing will be about cookies, or at least dessert-oriented foods.

It might seem peculiar then to have as my first blog entry a non-cookie item, marshmallows. The first time I saw a marshmallow recipe, though, was in Maida Heatter's Cookie book. She made is sound delightful, but for some reason I never got around to actually trying it. I think it sounded just too tricky. I've seen different recipes, calling for non-standard ingredients such as potato starch or 200 bloom gelatin (where do you buy that??), and they always put me off. But still the siren song remained. And then intensified when Williams Sonoma began selling handmade marshmallows at Christmas time. I was enchanted then appalled. $12 for marshmallows? I don't think so!

If there's one lever that really moves me into action it is thrift. The idea that I could make my own handmade marshmallows AND save beaucoup bucks was huge. So it was that I was perfectly positioned to act when I opened my latest library acquisition, Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa Family Style, and saw:

Homemade Marshmallows

3 packages unflavored gelatin
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1/4 tsp salt
1 Tbsp. pure vanilla extract
Confectioner's sugar, for dusting

Combine the gelatin and 1/2 cup of cold water in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and allow to sit while you make the syrup.

Meanwhile, combine the sugar, corn syrup, salt, and 1/2 cup water in a small saucepan and cook over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Raise the heat to high and cook until the syrup reaches 240 degrees on a candy thermometer. Remove from the heat.

With the mixer on low speed, slowly pour the sugar syrup into the dissolved gelatin. Put the mixer on high speed and whip until the mixture is very thick, about 15 minutes. Add the vanilla and mix thoroughly.

With a sieve, generously dust and 8 x 12 inch nonmetal baking dish with confectioner's sugar. (My Pyrex dish has sloping sides, so some of my marshmallows came out warbly shapes, but this gave my husband an excuse to tidy up the "uneven" ones.) Pour the marshmallow mixture into the pan, smooth the top, and dust with more confectioners' sugar. Allow to stand uncovered overnight until it dries out.

Turn the marshmallows onto a board and cut them in squares. Dust them with more confectioners' sugar.

Maida Heatter adds at this point that you can store them in a plastic box or in a plastic bag like commercial marshmallows. (Her recipe, the original one to woo me, is remarkably similar to this version.)

I made the marshmallows following the amazingly simple directions and met with great success! Soft, sweet pillows, with a hint of resistance as you bite into them, melting in a heady cloud of vanilla. As I told my husband as he happily licked his fingers, "That's at least $20 worth of marshmallows there by Williams Sonoma prices!"

And of course, when you have marshmallows, you have to have hot cocoa. Mmmmmm.