on a summer day

Today was one of those days. You know, the kind of days . . .

when you wake up to cheerful children, and they stay that way for most of the day.
when your breakfast includes biscuits and crispy prosciutto.
when the heat of summer feels inviting - rather than oppressive - so you spend as much of the day as possible outside.
when you are serenaded by the sound of young cardinals, chickadees, blue jays, and catbirds cavorting around your home.

when the songs of said birds makes you that much more grateful for all the greenery available to shelter them.
when you realize that your not-quite-two year old can identify both catbirds and blue jays by their call alone.
when mowing the lawn feels like worthy, satisfying work.
when you are reminded of the joys of playing with a sprinkler for hours on end.
when a chocolate mesquite ice cream cone seems like a logical pre-lunch snack.
when inspiration strikes and you decide you need to build a breakfast patio.

Oh wait. Should we back up? To the ice cream? Okay.

Today was absolutely an ice cream day, and most specifically, it was the perfect day to sample our Flavor of the Day, chocolate mesquite. I've mentioned before that I've been playing with the intriguing flavors of mesquite flour, and with the recent heat (which, really, is the story of our entire summer) I decided ice cream was the obvious next experimental subject. The temperatures have relaxed just enough that we don't find ourselves understandably grumpy in the afternoons, and so I've been able to get back into the kitchen to make a batch of ice cream base. (For a while, there was no way I was willing to stand at the stove to stir custard over a hot flame! Ah, the ironies of ice cream - when you need it the most, it's too hot to make it.)

So I added mesquite flour to the chocolate base I use for ice cream - a delicious, rich chocolaty thick sauce that, when added in small amounts to ice cream base results in a creamy milk chocolate flavor, with increasing amounts giving you a more and more intense dark chocolate ice cream. Quite versatile. By the time I had the mesquite flavor at the strength I was going for, I wanted to just eat the base straight, with a spoon. I resisted (mostly).

Instead, I stirred it into some ice cream base and let my ice cream maker do the rest of the work. (During which time I wished that I made ice cream often enough to justify an upgrade to a real, commercial ice cream maker. But then, I realized, I would also need a separate freezer to store all my concoctions. How does David Lebovitz do it in that tiny apartment? I am at least happy to have two bowls for my machine.)

Kalen, who had been ambivalent, to put it nicely, about the ice cream while it was still a liquid, decided that he loved it once it froze into a more recognizable confection. So when he asked for an ice cream cone, just as I was preparing to make lunch? Of course I gave it to him.

Yes, my love. So long as you promise to run and play and be your wonderful exuberant self for the rest of the day - keeping all that sugar energy outside.

The flavor of mesquite, as we've previously discussed, is a natural with chocolate. But freezing it resulted in two unexpected changes, both for the good. First, the mesquite lends a smokey, warm sensation to the ice cream, and almost makes me imagine that I am tasting some chili pepper heat in there as well. (Which, now that I mention it, would be a great addition to the recipe!) The contrast of warm flavor with cold texture is complex, and good.

The second surprise is that it created a texture is unlike any traditional ice cream I've had. As Josh informed me, I shouldn't even be calling it ice cream, because that seems deceiving (regardless, apparently, of the fact that the ingredients and technique are exactly ice cream). It is incredibly thick in the mouth, with a substantiveness that doesn't start to immediately dissolve like normal ice cream. It feels like you could chew it, but it's not chewy. It feels like it's heavy with flour, but it's not grainy. In short, it feels more like a frozen pudding than an ice cream. And, in case that description made it seem less-than-optimal, it's incredibly appealing and addictive.

In fact, I'd be happy eating this ice cream all the time, if not for the other flavors I'm also working on. (Remember I said it was the Flavor of the Day? Yes, there are more flavors to come! It is a hot summer, after all.)

So, grab some gluten-free cones (or, okay, a martini glass if you'd like to play at being a bit more grown-up - both have their charms), find yourself a bag of mesquite flour if you haven't already, and pray that you have some perfect summer weather headed your way. Hot enough for ice cream, but accented by a cool-enough morning or evening for ice cream base-making.

And I hope that you, too, find yourself having one of those days.

Chocolate Mesquite Ice Cream
yields approximately 1 1/2 pints

Make the basic ice cream base:
1 1/2 fluid cups heavy cream
3/4 fluid cup whole milk
2 Tbsp light brown sugar
3 (54 grams) large egg yolks
2 Tbsp granulated sugar
pinch of salt

Combine the cream, milk, and light brown sugar in a medium bowl set over a pot of just-simmering water. Heat the mixture until hot.

In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, granulated sugar, and salt. Temper the yolk mixture by slowly whisking in a small amount of the hot cream, then add it all back to the cream mixture and cook over the double-boiler, stirring with a wooden spoon, until it is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon (nappe, in technical culinary terms). Be patient and really get the mixture as thick as possible - your ice cream will be all the better for it.

Strain the ice cream base through a fine mesh sieve into another metal bowl, and transfer that bowl to an ice bath. Stir frequently and add ice to the ice bath as needed to quickly cool down the base.

At this point, the ice cream base can be refrigerated, covered, for up to three days, until you're ready to churn ice cream.

Make the chocolate mesquite base:
1/2 cup Dutch-process cocoa
1/2 cup granulated sugar
4 Tbsp mesquite flour
1 fluid cup half and half
1/4 pound (4 ounces) bittersweet chocolate, chopped

Sift the cocoa, sugar, and mesquite flour into a small saucepan. Whisk in the half and half. Over medium-low heat, bring the mixture to a low simmer, and simmer for five minutes. Off the heat, add the chopped chocolate and whisk to combine. Chill.

Make the chocolate mesquite ice cream:
Whisk the chocolate mesquite base into the ice cream base. I added 1 1/4 cups chocolate mesquite base, but taste as you go; you may want your ice cream milder or richer. (And I must admit that the leftover chocolate mesquite base is being consumed plain, spoonful by spoonful. I can't just let it go to waste!) Pour mixture into the bowl of your ice cream maker, and churn according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Once the ice cream reaches soft serve consistency, transfer it into the container you'll be freezing it in. I like to use chilled 1-quart lidded glass bowls. Press plastic wrap directly on the surface, put the lid on, and stick it in the freezer. It's ready to eat once it's firm! Ice cream keeps, frozen, for up to two months.


getting back to the grain

Well. This is certainly the blog post that didn't want to get written.

I have sat down in front of the computer no less than three times already, trying to fill in these gaps between photos. I have filled them in. I have then deleted the filling. I have been interrupted by children and siblings and my lovely husband, waylaid by much-needed sleep and impromptu dinner parties and evenings playing on the beach. I have thought about what I want to say during long car trips, and fretted over this unfinished post even as I scheme up and craft new recipes. In short, I have been gratefully living a busy summer life, which just so happens to include infrequent moments in this chair, in front of this screen.

I think this is a good thing. But it's also ironic, since the post I had mentally written and rewritten (and typed out a fair amount of) for well over a week was all about the other kind of busy, the kind that fills your time when you're not running around doing things, the kind that's more cerebral than physical, more introspective than outgoing. The kind that, until this afternoon, I had mistakenly believed described my life recently.

Hahaha, the joke's on me, obviously. When I actually took a moment to wonder why I was having such a hard time getting this post done, I realized that I've been running all around the state recently! Imagine that! How did I not notice? This fragment from the now long gone former post was my first hint:

And after all this? That's not even what I'm here to tell you about today. I sat down at the computer to talk about breakfast, and incorporating more whole grains and less refined sugars into the beginnings of your day, and using the cool morning hours to play in front of the stove, since you know that by 10am you'll want nothing more to do with flames and heat for the rest of the day.

Hmm. It seems that even my writing was scattered and confused and off-topic. Surely the sign of a busy mind that can't quiet itself enough to get into the zone. I was so busy and frazzled that I didn't have time to realize I was busy and frazzled! No wonder the writing didn't feel right to me - it was a completely inaccurate description of my life at the time. Off-topic indeed.

So, let's get back on topic, shall we? Back to wholegrain breakfasts and other such goodness. Because I really want to share this recipe with you, and also because {ahem} I have some not-so-healthy treats coming down the pike that I'm anxious to get to.

It should be well-known by now that we're a pancake-loving family. And that's probably not going to change. But I must admit I've been impatiently brushing aside a small nagging voice in the back of my head who calls out to me every time I make our favorite pancake recipe: Really? You're starting your kids' day with white sugar AND corn syrup? And all those refined starches? Not to mention whatever they're going to pour all over it? That voice has finally gotten too loud to ignore.

I decided we needed a new pancake recipe, not to replace our old favorite, but to supplement it, to alternate with. Something I can feel better about feeding to my family on a regular basis. This, plus some inspiration from a recent Martha Stewart Living article rhapsodizing about corn in all its various forms, resulted in pancakes that are reminiscent of sweet cornbread, made entirely from whole grains and without any refined sugar.

They're good. They're also a bit thicker than the ones you see here - the photo shoot happened with an earlier batch, whereas the batch from the final recipe was eaten quickly, as we were preparing to go away for several days. There was no time for cameras and scrims and props.

I don't think these pancakes will ever replace our standard ones - they're too different. For one, all that cornmeal makes them taste unlike any pancake we're used to, hence the name 'corn cake.' Also, I don't think I want to stud them with blueberries like regular pancakes, although a lovely blueberry compote alongside would be much welcomed.

But the ways in which these corn cakes differ from pancakes are actually the aspects that most endear them to me. I love the floral sweetness of the honey and vanilla against a backdrop of earthy corn. I love the hearty, somewhat chewy texture, that in no way is going to be confused for a pastry. I love using buckwheat and millet flours, two grains which don't normally get star treatment in my kitchen. And, truth be told, I love the way Steen's cane syrup is the perfect topper, giving me another excuse to use this much-hoarded liquid sweetener.

So here we are. I finally finished writing this (see Tara? It wasn't that hard!), and you get a recipe for a quick, easy, and - most importantly - healthy breakfast. Or dinner. Because breakfast-for-dinner is a wonderful thing, made even more wonderful when it's composed of whole grains and good protein. And as a parent who has lived through it far too many times for comfort, I can say that children high on refined sugar at bedtime is not a good thing. These corn cakes are a delicious solution.

Buckwheat Corn Cakes
yields approximately 1 dozen corn cakes

3/4 cup buckwheat flour
1/4 cup millet flour
1/2 cup coarse yellow cornmeal
1/2 tsp guar gum
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp kosher salt
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup buttermilk 
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 Tbsp honey
1/2 tsp vanilla

August 10, 2010 edit: when we made these on our camping trip, we added some melted butter to the batter - about 2 Tbsp. They were even more perfect than before. You may want to follow suit.

In a medium bowl, combine the dry ingredients and whisk thoroughly. Add the milk, buttermilk, eggs, honey, and vanilla and stir to combine. (There can be some small lumps in the batter, but try to stir out any large clumps.)

Heat a large skillet or griddle over medium heat and brush with your favorite fat (I usually use butter, but canola or coconut oil works in a pinch, and I've also been known to use bacon drippings. I realize there are people who will prefer to use a non-stick cooking spray, and that's fine too.) Ladle the batter by the quarter-cup into the pan and cook the corn cakes until the edges are dry and bubbles burst at the surface, and the bottoms are golden brown. (If they're cooking too quickly, turn down the heat; I find every batch of pancakes, regardless of the recipe, seems to cook at its own rate.) Flip, and cook until the other side is golden brown. Repeat with remaining batter, adding additional fat/spray to the pan as needed.

If they aren't being eaten immediately, put the corn cakes on a plate, cover with foil, and keep warm in a 200° oven. Corn cakes should be served warm, with good butter and your favorite syrup. Fruit and/or bacon also make great accompaniments.


how things change

The news around here hasn't been all that interesting lately. It's been hot, but that's not really news anymore. It's hot in a lot of places these days, and it seems that the longer the heat stretches out before us, the less we're inclined to talk about it. It's not new, unusual, or different, it just is.

We're doing the typical hot-weather things: Going to the beach. Playing in the sprinkler. Swinging in the hammock. Sitting in front of the fan and playing with its voice-altering effects (does anyone else remember doing this as a kid?). We haven't been wearing much in the way of clothes.

Oddly, the kids seem not to have noticed that the mercury and relative humidity have been closing in on the 90°/90% marks almost every day now for weeks on end. They continue to run and jump and dance, matted with sweat, but with as much energy and exuberance as ever. That's one aspect of childhood that my adult self hasn't figured out how to recover. (And honestly? I'm not that eager to. I'm content with my fan and a lemonade.)

But what the heat does change, for me anyway, are my food choices. What I want to eat, how I want it prepared, and where I want to eat it, are all dictated by the weather these days. Mostly, I can say that my preferences are pretty static: I want lots of fruits and veggies, eaten raw or minimally cooked, and served outside, preferably in the shade of our large maples. (Unless it's dinner at the beach, of which I'm becoming an ardent fan.) My once bustling, constantly-in-use kitchen has been reduced to a food-storage facility, with a nice countertop for chopping and slicing. A quick mental check tells me I've only turned on my oven once in 12 days - surely a record for me! But the thought of preheating that behemoth is a terribly strong deterrent lately.

That is one tired, sweaty-looking boy!

So now the challenge has been to find enough variety in what I am willing to make to satisfy my palate, while keeping me out of the kitchen as much as possible. This has been harder than perhaps it should be. I blame it on the fact that I make almost everything from scratch, so have very few convenience foods to work with, just ingredients. Couple that with my children's annoying habit of refusing to eat green salads, and I have lately found myself hard-pressed to come up with a good dinner. This is not a position I am familiar with, or comfortable in.

Which leads me to you: how have you been beating the heat while still keeping your families well-fed? Are you all raw foodists these days? Or maybe you've got some favorite make-early-while-the-kitchen's-cool dishes that you've been relying on? These are common questions in the food blogosphere, but I'd like to hear your take on it. (Obviously, I'm fishing for ideas here.)

In the spirit of sharing, I'll start things off by giving you my new favorite no-cook summer recipe, which I'm calling Asian Slaw. I think most "Asian" slaws have those crunchy (full of gluten) noodles in them, but mine is cabbage-based. Specifically, it is full of baby bok choy. Do you remember how much I hate bok choy? Well, not anymore! Thanks to the encouragement of friends in response to that bok choy post, I bought some and tried out a couple of dishes with it.

The biggest surprise for me, given my historic distaste for the cabbage? Turns out that the only way I don't like bok choy is steamed whole! This, you must understand, was not what I was expecting at all. I was hoping for a best-case scenario where I might find one or two specific preparations in which the texture of bok choy was buried deeply enough under other appealing textures and flavors that I could tolerate it, if not outright ignore it. Imagine my surprise to discover that the slippery texture I was so put off by isn't ever an issue as long as you put a bit of thought into the preparation of bok choy! And the flavor is refreshing: sharp and bitter, but in a much cleaner, clearer sense than the earthy bitterness of, say, kale or chard. It is a wonderful vegetable to spend the summer with.

So, here's the secret to my newfound friend: separate the leaf from the stem, and cut it all up into manageable pieces (I like to chiffonade it). This way, I can cook (or not cook, as the case may be) the bok choy stems just long enough to soften them a bit, without going all the way into limpdom, and toss in the leaves at the end to just barely wilt them. Perfect. And, truthfully, not a "secret" I can take credit for at all - I owe a big Thank You to my friend Irvin over at Eat the Love. He's just a wealth of ideas and inspiration, this bok choy situation being just one example. Irvin, thanks to you, I have gone through two heads of bok choy and one head of baby bok choy in about a month, and I've got another head of baby bok choy waiting to become dinner tonight! I am officially a convert.

Back to that Asian Slaw recipe - this is my current favorite incarnation of bok choy, not coincidentally due to its raw state. I get to keep my kitchen cool, and the bok choy stays crisp and crunchy, miles away from the dreaded sliminess. When I first made this slaw, I intended to have a base of all bok choy, but a last-minute moment of doubt caused me to add some mild green cabbage as well. It was delicious, but I think you could go even heavier on the bok choy without it becoming unpalatably bitter. The sauce is nothing surprising, a typical Asian peanut sauce, but it's perfect with the cabbages, and makes for an addicting slaw. Seriously - I ate it three days in a row without tiring of it. And if you have leftover sauce (and you may want to make extra to ensure that you do), it makes a fabulous cold pasta salad with gluten-free spaghetti, grated carrots, and chopped scallions.

There, now I've given you two cool, easy-to-make summer meal ideas. Your turn!

Asian Slaw
Makes a large bowlful, about 6-8 servings. You may get a couple meal's worth out of it, unless you've got guests over. In which case you might want to make a double batch.

For the sauce:
6 Tbsp rice wine vinegar
4 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp sesame oil
5 Tbsp all-natural peanut butter (creamy or crunchy)
3 Tbsp wheat-free tamari
3 Tbsp light brown sugar
a 2-inch piece of fresh ginger root, grated (I use a ceramic grater like this)
3 large garlic cloves, minced

For the slaw:
1 head of baby bok choy, cut into chiffonade
1/2 head of green cabbage, sliced thin
1 large carrot, julienned
2 scallions, sliced thin
2 Tbsp cilantro, coarsely chopped, plus extra for garnish

Make the sauce:
Place all the sauce ingredients in a small bowl, stir (or whisk) to combine, and set aside to let the flavors mingle and intensify.

Make the slaw:
Place all the slaw ingredients in a large bowl, toss to mix, and add the sauce, mixing to thoroughly coat everything. You may want to add half the sauce first, taste, then add more according to how strong (and saucy!) you want your slaw.

Garnish with cilantro and serve, preferably outside. Asian slaw keeps, refrigerated, for up to three days.


a little less ordinary

I've been trying to decide for a couple of days now how to tell all of you about some brownies I made.

The problem that's been holding me back is this: these aren't just any ol' brownies. These are intensely rich, fudgy-but-not-gooey, knock-your-socks-off brownies. They have a complexity and a depth of flavor missing from most of their competitors, thanks to a generous amount of espresso and mesquite flour. They can best be described as Special Occasion Brownies. None of this is actually the problem, per se - the issue is that I haven't figured out an appropriately over-the-top story with which to introduce you to them.

But I can't wait any longer, so here we go. Readers, it is my pleasure to present to you the best brownie I've ever known:

Looks like no big deal, right? Isn't that always the way with brownies! It's amusing for me to recognize that sometimes we manage to create truly amazing food in the midst of a truly un-amazing day. And then the day goes on, ordinary as ever, with no noticeable change caused by the aforementioned amazing food, except that we're slightly different, slightly better than before, because we're harboring this special knowledge: scrawled on the back of a scrap of recycled paper (it looks like it used to be some sort of tax form) is the best brownie recipe ever.

That is how it happened here. The brownies were made, in awkward stages to accommodate a restlessly-napping toddler, and against the loud protests of a young boy who really doesn't like the sound of my mixer running interminably. ("I think it's done now!" "But Kalen, it's not at ribbon stage yet!" "It's done, though!") Once baked, sampling a small(ish) sliver from one corner of the pan confirmed that these were, indeed, better than any brownie I'd ever had before. But I didn't tell anyone at the time, because there really wasn't anyone to tell: the two young children at home with me wouldn't fully appreciate the significance of what had just occurred in the kitchen. And honestly, is a brownie, even a truly spectacular one, a legitimate reason to call someone up and interrupt their day? I didn't think so. So it stayed my little secret.

The next day, I brought the brownies to my extended family's 4th of July celebration. But they looked unassuming in their plastic-wrapped baking pan (and I didn't say anything to contradict), so they didn't get touched for a while. And after we'd consumed the requisite copious amounts of traditional cook-out fare (plus, admittedly, the big bags of M&Ms that just happened to be laying around), we were all pretty full, so the brownies stayed on the table, where I'd first set them upon my arrival.

It was not until it was almost time for everyone to clean up and head home that someone was motivated enough to get out a knife and unwrap the pan. Only then was it revealed that these were Serious Brownies. I think there had been an earlier mention of topping them with ice cream, but it never materialized. It didn't matter, though - ice cream simply would have distracted from the experience of fully savoring the brownie in all it's chocolaty-mocha goodness. A chorus of "wows!" and moans of pleasure filled the room, and then the rest of the pan was quickly divided up amongst family members and packed to go.

Needless to say, I wasn't left with much to bring home. Which was fine by me, since cooking as a way of giving pleasure to others is the point of most of my baking exercises, anyway. I've learned that when you create something phenomenal, it doesn't always need to be served in a phenomenal setting, for a phenomenal occasion. Sometimes a brownie does its best work - can make the biggest, most appreciated impact on others - when you simply hand it out to people, in a Ziploc bag and with rough, uneven edges from the plastic knife used to cut it, to be taken home and enjoyed when the time is right. When their own ordinary days need a little jolt of something spectacular. And I am happy to provide.

Espresso Mesquite Brownies
yields one 9x9 pan of brownies

In the interest of full disclosure, I would like to mention that I was sent a complimentary package of mesquite flour by the nice people at Casa de Mesquite (formerly Casa de Fruta). This recipe is one of several that I played with adding mesquite to. It happens to be my favorite, but not, I think, because of the mesquite. Mesquite flour is really quite wonderful, with both a scent and flavor that are warm and chocolaty and spicy, and it complements the chocolate and coffee flavors in the brownies like no other flour could ever hope to. However, this brownie recipe is so insanely rich and has so much goodness going on in it that omitting the mesquite is not going to make it fall flat on its face. So if you've got mesquite flour, or know where to source it? By all means, use it here. But if not, just make Espresso Brownies instead, and sit back and smile, knowing that you're still going to have an amazing brownie experience.

7 ounces unsweetened chocolate
3.5 ounces bittersweet chocolate
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
4 large eggs
2 fluid ounces cooled espresso, or other strong brewed coffee
2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup Tara's gf pastry flour mix
2 Tbsp plus 1 tsp mesquite flour (optional)
1/2 tsp xanthan gum
1/2 tsp baking powder
3 Tbsp Dutch-process cocoa powder
pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 350º. Butter a 9x9 cake pan and line with parchment.

In a double-boiler or in a bowl set over a pan of just-simmering water, melt together both chocolates and the butter, stirring occasionally. Set aside to cool.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, or in a large mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, espresso, sugar, and vanilla on high speed, until the mixture pales, thickens, and triples in volume. (This will take awhile. Warn any easily annoyed 4-year olds in the house.) When it's ready, the egg mixture will fall in "ribbons" from the whisk when you raise it up.

While you're waiting for the eggs to be done, blend the remaining dry ingredients together in a medium bowl, and set aside.

Once the egg mixture is ready, turn the mixer down to low speed and slowly add the cooled chocolate mixture. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.

With the mixer still on low speed, add the flour mixture in three additions. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and give the batter one quick mix with a spatula to ensure everything is well-blended.

Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 45-50 minutes, or until a tester inserted near the center comes out with moist crumbs on it. Cool completely on a rack. (The brownies should collapse a bit - this is good. It means they aren't over-baked.) Brownies keep, covered and at room temperature, for 3-5 days.


always revising

I don't know how they do it, those professional recipe writers. How does one decide a recipe is finally done, and ready to find its place in a cookbook? How can you ever be sure you've hit on the best version? Me, I'm always playing with my recipes, switching up the flours, sweeteners, flavors. For this site, I make sure the recipes I post are versions that (at that moment, at least) I truly love. But I'd rarely say they're done.

Case in point: early in the life of this blog, I wrote a post about biscuits. I wrote about how part of my love for them was the way they connected me to my husband's side of the family, and through them the rich history of Southern cooking I'm able to tap into. I'm not taking any of that back.

But the recipe? Yes, I'm replacing it. Now, don't get me wrong, it's still a good recipe, and because of all the generational ties it creates, I'm keeping it in our family stash. But I have to admit I've found a new favorite. And the thing I find really funny? The recipe isn't that much different! It's less sweet (no sugar or coconut flour) and has less butter in it, so it's healthier for you. And I've mixed up the flours a bit, resulting in a biscuit that I'd swear has a bit of wheat in it (thanks to the teff). But really, it's still a pretty typical Southern buttermilk biscuit recipe. It's so interesting to me, to realize what a big difference minimal changes to a recipe can make!

Well, truthfully? While I'm extremely pleased, I'm not actually that surprised by the changes in flavor - lots of past experimentation means I'm well-versed in the ways gentle tweaks of the gluten-free flours used can result in significant alterations to the flavor profile. I guess what really shocked me was noting that I'd used less butter this time around, yet the biscuits lost none of the tenderness or richness of their predecessors! I don't have the two versions side-by-side to compare, but I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that these new ones might actually be more tender and satisfying than the old ones.

I attribute this largely to the teff. Or, more accurately, to replacing the coconut flour with teff. Coconut flour is lovely to bake with, and I really appreciate the flavor it adds. But it's texture is definitely on the grittier end of the gluten-free flours scale. And teff? Well, it's one of the finest grains you can get (by which I mean it's small, although it's a pretty darn good grain, as well), and it's great in gluten-free baked goods, where so often we're trying to replicate the soft, finely-milled texture of wheat flour.

Also, the method is, um . . . updated, shall we say? I don't think it's very traditional to use the food processor for biscuits (I absolutely can not imagine Josh's grandmother doing it this way!), but, like with pastry dough, it really benefits the end product. In addition to making for a quick and easy method, it aerates the flours, which is always good. It also keeps the butter as cold as possible, meaning that you'll maximize the steam created as the butter melts during baking.

So, softer flour, colder (albeit less) butter, and no sugar. Writing it out like that makes these biscuits sound pretty unremarkable, when in fact they are quite remarkable! They have the best scent, for one thing. Yes, during baking, but also afterwards, when they've been sitting out on the cooling rack for an hour, and you're about to wrap up the leftovers. That scent, that lingering, rich, nutty, wheaty scent, makes you decide that maybe you need just one more before you're done for the day. Honestly, as much as I love bread products, it's usually the sweet, not savory, baked goods that make me unable to resist yet another bite. These biscuits could be a turning point for me.

And the flavor is just as good as the scent promises. I really don't know what to say about it. I mean, on the one hand, they're just biscuits; do they really deserve any more gushing and fawning over than I've already afforded them? But on the other hand, gluten-free biscuits that are a breeze to make and taste like some of the best gluten-full biscuits you've ever had? That is reason to celebrate! So I'll just tell you this: I made a batch and brought them to our family's 4th of July picnic, to use for strawberry shortcakes. As I was eating my shortcake, I kept scraping aside the strawberries and whipped cream, because I just wanted bites of plain biscuit. And after everyone had their fill of shortcake? At least two (non-gluten-free eaters!) went back for seconds, of only the biscuit, because it was so good. If that's not enough to convince you to make these biscuits, I don't know what would.

You know, I think I may just be ready to call this recipe done. For at least the next six months.

Buttermilk Biscuits, v2.0
yields about 8 biscuits

1 cup minus 1 Tbsp Tara's all-purpose gluten-free flour mix
1 cup minus 1 Tbsp Tara's gluten-free pastry flour mix
2 Tbsp teff flour
1 tsp xanthan gum
1/4 tsp baking soda
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 tsp kosher salt
6 Tbsp butter, cold, cubed
3/4 cup buttermilk (approximate)

Preheat oven to 450º. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking sheet.

Combine the flours, xanthan gum, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse to thoroughly combine.

Add the cold butter pieces, and pulse just until most pieces are pea-sized. Pour in the buttermilk, pulsing just until the dough comes together. (Keep an eye on the dough as you do this - depending on your flours and buttermilk, you may need slightly less than 3/4 cup buttermilk for it to form a cohesive dough. You want to stop adding liquid before it turns wet and sticky.)

Turn the dough out onto a gf-floured board, and gently pat (don't roll!) in into a 1-inch thick round. Cut with a biscuit cutter, round cookie cutter, even a glass will work. You can pat the scraps back into a round and cut them also, but they won't be quite as fluffy and tender. Place the biscuits on the prepared baking sheet.

Bake for 10-15 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool on a rack, for as long as you can stand the wait. Serve warm, with good butter and honey, or fruit preserves, or eggs and bacon, or sausage gravy (goodness, I'm getting hungry just typing this!), or let them fully cool and make your favorite shortcakes. They are also phenomenal completely unadorned.


taken down a notch . . . or two

Aside from parenting, blogging has turned out to be the most consistently humbling thing I've done in a long time.

I could list a lot of reasons for that. The realization of how challenging it can be to come up with new posts on a regular basis. Making plans to blog about a baking project I'm particularly excited about, only to have said project flop miserably. Related to that, being determined to master a difficult item within three tries, having the first go around fall way below my expectations (of myself and the item), abandoning the next two attempts, and coming to the understanding that my follow-through is not nearly as strong as I always thought it to be. And of course, finding that readers don't materialize magically once you hit 'publish,' especially for someone not good at (or comfortable with) self-promotion.

But the main reason, the one I never even thought would be an issue?

Photographs. This photography thing is driving me crazy.

It's my own fault, of course. If other people make something look easy, even within a field about which I have no knowledge or training, I am apt to foolishly (and arrogantly) believe that it is easy, or at least that it would be for me. This has led me into trouble before, and now is no different. (Another fault of mine would be, I suppose, the inability to learn from past mistakes. But let's take them one at a time for now.)

Which is not to say that I didn't recognize the incredible camera skills some of my favorite fellow bloggers have - certainly, I did. It's more that I didn't understand how painstakingly hard those skills can be to come by! And so I jumped into food blogging, confident that all I had to do was bake up something delicious, snap a picture of it (albeit with a decent camera), and la di da, I'd have actual food photography - not snapshots - on my blog.

Um. Are you laughing yet? Turns out taking snapshots is easy. True food photography, on the other hand, is very difficult if you want to do it right. So difficult that I am not too proud to admit that I am a long way off from accomplishing it.

But I have finally figured out a key part of it, one which shouldn't have been news in the first place if I'd really been paying attention to all the photo chatter around me: it's all about the light.

Oh, the lens and the subject and the composition are all important also, but light (or lack thereof) seems to be the trick to making a shot go from snapshot to photograph. And not just light in general, but what kind of light, and what color it is, and how strong it is, and where it's coming from and what it's bouncing off.

These are concepts I have never thought about before, and it's as if I'm suddenly looking at the world afresh, or through a new lens, if you'll forgive me the pun. It's fun, invigorating, and challenging. (And humorous, as I've had to make-do with non-traditional scrims and bounces. And since I'm no longer content to merely move my food close to a window for each shot, I now chase the light through my house, setting up my 'equipment' in awkward, precarious ways, with a toddler and young child along to 'help.' Fun times.) It also makes me realize how much more I have to learn than I previously thought. Such is the nature of the beast, I suppose.

This is not bad, however. For one thing, I love learning new things (yes, I was one of those annoying kids who got excited over homework). I remember when I graduated college, being so relieved that I could finally stop doing research and writing papers. Well, that relief wore off quickly, and I soon landed myself a job . . . doing research and writing papers! I loved it. So, knowing that to become a better photographer, I'm going to have to do a lot of practicing and research? It's right up my alley.

But also, I feel so much better about the way I view other blogs now. Admiring someone's work takes on a whole new level of meaning (and loses a lot of the jealousy factor) when you can truly appreciate their mastery of the artistry and craftsmanship behind it. It's similar to the way I've always viewed home construction. Most anyone can slap together a blog and upload some photos, just as modular homes can be pieced together in an afternoon by laymen, and they're both fine. But the blogs, as well as the houses, that truly take your breath away and send you off fantasizing about what it would be like if that were yours? Well, those take skill, and years of practice and mentoring, for which I am glad. I come from a family that values knowledge, hard work, and persistence, and it always warms my heart and gives me hope when I recognize those traits in other people.

It also makes me more determined than ever to keep working on my own skill set, because I know I am chasing an achievable goal. So I'll keep snapping away, and chasing the light, and reading up on things like RAW and tethers and histograms. I'm looking forward to it.

Oh, and of course I'll keep baking and offering you my best photo versions of the goods, since that (the food, I mean) is probably why you're here in the first place. Speaking of food, I do have a recipe to share with you! It's for the cherry cake featured (and I use that term loosely) in some of the above photos. This cherry cake represents some of my best follow-through attempts to date. Last summer, I made four versions of this cake before I landed on the current, and my favorite, manifestation. My diligence at the time benefited greatly from the over-abundance of cherries at the market, as well as the relative ease of making the cake. (I only wish tender, lofty gluten-free croissants were so easy!) When I tried it again this year, I was happy to find the cake as delicious as I remembered it. The crumb is very soft and fine, and the cherries lend a delicate floral nature to the buttery cake. (That 'floral nature' becomes decidedly more intense and winey if you use Bing cherries, my personal favorite. But Rainier were in my fridge that day, and I'm not complaining.) Alongside a dollop of whipped cream, this cake is a fine way to end a summer supper. Or to take a break mid-afternoon. Or to welcome the morning. You can see where I'm going here . . .

Cherry Cake
yields one 10-inch round cake

2 cups fresh cherries, halved and pitted (both Rainier and Bing are great in this recipe)
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 1/4 cups (10 fluid ounces) whole milk, divided
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp French brandy (Kirsch would also be lovely, but it's hard to find around here)
1 1/2 cups Tara's all-purpose gluten-free flour mix
1/4 cup sorghum flour
1/4 cup coconut flour
1 tsp xanthan gum
3/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
zest from one lemon
3/4 cup (6 ounces) unsalted butter, room temp.

Temper the cherries:
Add the 2 Tbsp of sugar to the cherries, mix to combine, and set them in a colander to allow the excess liquid to drain out. Let them sit for close to an hour. Transfer the cherries to a bowl, stir in 1 tsp vanilla extract, and set aside.

Make the cake:
Preheat oven to 350ºF. Butter a 10-inch cake pan and set aside.

Lightly combine the eggs, 1/4 cup milk, vanilla, and French brandy (I find a liquid measuring cup works best). Set aside. 

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large mixing bowl), combine the flours, xanthan gum, 3/4 cup sugar, baking powder, salt, and lemon zest and mix on low speed to blend. Add the butter and the remaining 1 cup milk and mix on low until the ingredients are moistened, then increase speed to medium (high speed if using a hand-held mixer) and beat for 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and paddle. Add the egg mixture in three batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition. Gently fold in the tempered cherries by hand, until they are evenly distributed.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and use a spatula to smooth the surface. Bake for one hour, or until a tester inserted near the center comes out clean. Note: every time I have made this cake, I have had to cover it with foil after an hour, and continue baking it an additional 20 minutes in order for it to be baked through. But, my oven is very old, inconsistent, and just plain doesn't work great. I think an hour in a *normal* oven should be fine.

Allow cake to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then invert onto a cooling rack. Serve at room temperature, preferably with lightly-sweetened whipped cream. Cake keeps, covered and at cool room temperature, for up to three days.
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