Wednesday, September 18, 2013

It is now officially better from scratch: we've moved to our own URL!

After 4 years and 14000 visits at the wonderful blogspot, itsbetterfromscratch has moved it its own URL!

Please visit at and share in the fun

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Oh the things you'll eat: living with a Brazilian cook

I have been shamefully negligent getting these recipes up on the blog, partly because I have been so busy eating this endless parade of wonderful Brazilian food living with Jac this past year. Many of these I could never recreate, but others I will sure do my damndest to make and post and share and love with you all. From white-corn-and-peanut creamy deserts, to every-part-of-the-pig beans and rice and straight-to-your-head caipirinhas, I have never eaten such a constant stream of delicious things as over the last year and I miss my Jac very very much (for many reasons, but the lack of good Brazilian food sure doesn't help!)

Thankfully, she left me with a whole bag of frozen Pão de Queijo (cheesebread) when she deposited me in my new home in St. Louis. And thankfully for you, they're almost out and I have the recipe for back up, so that will be coming soon.

Until then, let your eyes water over these photos and come back soon!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Monk heads: Caramelized Cherry tomatoes in sesame seeds

I recently learned that Tete de moine (monk's head) is already a French cheese... but a name can't be changed once assigned so these shall forever remain, mes tetes de moine. If you don't get it, just turn one upside down and imagine it bobbing through a monastery.

I first tasted something of this sort outside the Chatelet Opera as an accompagnement to a pre-show glass of wine. The crispy caramel that just might cut the inside of your mouth melts along with the juiciness of the cherry tomato and honestly, I still can't decide if I love these or just think they're another silly byproduct of cooking experimentation.

In any case, they always draw comments at a dinner party, so I continue to serve them.

Tetes de moine
a dozen cherry tomatoes
1c sesame seeds
about 1+ c sugar

The making of these is fairly simple, with the one huge catch that you must already have an eye for making caramel.

Rinse the tomatoes, dry them thoroughly and spear each one just opposite of its little brown spot so that said brown spot (you know... where it connects to the vine) will 1. be covered by caramel and 2. create the perfect bottom surface so that they will sit up on the serving plate.

Lightly brown your sesame seeds (a couple minutes under a high heat oven, stirred often, just until you start to smell a nutty scent rising through the room) and pour them into a small bowl with at least 1/2 inch depth of seeds for dipping and rolling.

Now you can start your caramel. I am not an expert on this. I mess up frequently and have developed strong disposing-of-hot-burning-caramel skills (tip: do not pour in plastic trash bag. empty egg cartons dont burn, so they're a great receptacle) . But the basic idea is simple: heat sugar in a heavy bottomed sauce pan over medium heat without stirring until it begins boiling and starts to darken to juuuuuust the light brown color that you want. The melting will begin around the edges of the pan and slowly engulf all the sugar. If you stir before it is liquid, it clumps, but sometimes you can tilt the pot around if you just cant resist the urge to melanger. Once the sugar is all liquid, you can feel more confident stirring, but it is not highly recommended.

The tips are:
1. Dont get your heat too high or you will have half burned caramel and half still-crystal sugar
2. If you can help it, do not stir as it heats or you will have lumpy caramel
3. Watch very carefully once it starts to brown because it will quickly turn black and stinky
4. Remove from heat BEFORE you think it is done by just a few moments because it will continue to cook itself after.
5. Some recipes suggest a squeeze of lemon etc. with the sugar to make it cook slower, ie make it less likely to burn. I haven't experimented with this.
6. Next time I am also going to experiment with a pad of butter in the caramel just as it comes off the heat to make a softer crunch of the caramel. This is what they do for caramel sauces.

Assembly: just as your caramel finishes, tilt the pan to the side, pooling the caramel with one hand, grasping the toothpicks, dip and roll the bottom half of each cherry tomato in the caramel, removing the excess by dragging it along the surface of the caramel in a zig zag motion for 2 seconds, and quickly roll in sesame seeds to cover the sticky caramel surface.

Place on plate. serve. bask in comments.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Beehive Honey in Wilmington

A huge thanks to Ed Beck, my favorite Beemaster for showing me around the stacks last summer!

It has been far too long since I started this post, and sadly the details have escaped me since then, but I found it in my drafts and wanted to share some of the mad knowledge that Ed dropped on me one fine day last summer in Coastal Carolina.

The Bees are dying... which is troubling considering that they pollinate... everything.

I found it distressing to learn from Ed that natural hives of bees are dying off of mysterious reasons... literally just falling out of the sky.

Ed told me about bee keepers needing to apply 3-5 antibiotics and other medicines to the hives just for the bees to survive through the season. This has only been true, apparently, for the last decade or two.

This is even more upsetting to learn of apple growers having to hire traveling bee-circus-hives around the country to pollenate their fields.

My final lesson from this crash course: It will be hard to keep cooking from scratch if ingredients keep disappearing.

Brazilian Carrot Cake & Redneck chocolate glaze

It might be a bit of an exaggeration to call this a carrot cake ... but apparently the half a cup of grated carrot constitutes a carrot cake in Brazil. The cake is especially soft and spongy, which I would like to say is thanks to the vegetable matter (think: zucchini muffins), but is more likely thanks to the generous serving of oil to go with your vegetable of the day.

Like in so many moms and grandma recipes, "measure" has no meaning here. But fear not, there is at least a system of comparison. Each 'cuppa' is based on the glass below, which is exactly 3/4 a cup in American measure.

"Cuppa" Carrot Cake
cuppa vegetable oil (3/4 cup)
2 cupps-a sugar (1.5 cups)
4 eggs
1 carrot, shredded
2 cupps-a flour (1.5 cups0
1 tbsp baking powder

"Caipira" Redneck chocolate glaze:
4 heaping spoons of sugar
4 spoonfuls of milk
2.5 tsp (one hunking scoop) butter
2 heaping spoons of cocoa powder

For the cake:
With a good mixer, or idealy an immersion blender, mix the sugar, eggs, vegetable oil and shredded carrot.

Stir together the baking powder and flour and whisk into the liquid mixture.

Butter a cake pan (the one in the photo is the only pan we have... but it is best in a traditional 9x13 flat pan)

Bake at 180ºC for 20 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 150ºC until lightly golden and you can see the cake starts to pull away from the edges. 

Caipira Chocolate Glaze
Note: this sauce needs to finish at the same time that the cake comes out of the oven. 

The sauce will thicken as it cools, but if both the sauce and the cake are warm when it is poured, the sauce will find all the right nooks and crannies to impregnate the cake.

SO, in the last 10 minutes that the cake is baking, make your redneck glaze: 

In a sauce pan, stir together all the ingredients for the glaze and place over medium heat. Continue to stir as it all melts together, then let it cook a bit... until it thickens and starts to leave traces in the pan as you stir.

As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, use a knife to poke holes all over the top.

Poooouuur the glaze over top and watch lovingly as it disappears into the cake and all around the sides. 

As an extra, you can grate chocolate over the top, wait until it starts to melt and spread with a knife. If you cover the cake well, it will harden into a nice, lightly crunchy crust.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Pancakes: momma's southern cooking in a Paris apartment

There are two secrets to successful pancake making: mix the batter as little as possible (there may even be dry flour left... but stop mixing!) and when cooking them in your pan, flip only once. You'll know its time when the top is covered in little bubbles.  Remember: at each step in the process, bubbles are your friends.

Otherwise, it is a basic english pastry recipe where you mix the dry ingredients and the wet ingredients separately and combine them just at the last minute.

For a hearty 2 person breakfast:
Dry ingredients:
1 cup flour
1 generous tsp baking powder
optional: replace 1/2 the flour with whole wheat
optional: 1/3 cup almond powder
optional: up to 1/2 cup nuts, pecans or walnuts

Wet ingredients:
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup milk
1 tbsp oil
1 splash vanilla
optional: (and I think better) replace the milk with a soy, almond, or oatmeal milk. I find it makes for fluffier pancakes.
optional: fruit chunks are always yummy, especially thawed blueberries

Combine Dry ingredients. Combine the wet ingredients, starting by slightly beating the egg.

Heat your frying pan to medium heat, and if it is not nonstick add a touch of butter.

Combine the wet and dry ingredients, mixing AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE, a whisk is best because it allows you to combine with little movement.

Ladle 1/3 to 3/4 c batter into the pan at a time in small circles. The batter will spread out, so keep that in mind for your spacing.

It is best to only flip the pancakes one time each pancake. You'll know its the right time to flip because raw top will have a hundred little bubbles that rise to the surface.

The cooking pancake in photo just above and to the right is about halfway there, but you can already see the bubbles starting around the edge. (the lumps are walnuts...) Also, I start seeing the edges of the pancake dry out, but that might be specific to my pan.

The second side will need to cook less than the first as the middle is already mostly done.

If you're cooking many at a time, let your pan cool down a bit after half the batter or the pancakes will start burning before the middle is done.

Eat with Brazilian Doce de leite, nutella, or just be boring and smother them in butter like Jac.

Pastel: Brazilian "not ravioli"

I am going to break my rules a bit here and share something with you that neither you nor I will ever be able to recreate. It might have been from scratch at some point in its Brazilian artisan form, but all of the ingredients arrived on our doorstep on my birthday with my roommate's mother, straight from Sao Paulo. Happy birthday to me! And indeed it is, because our cupboard is now full of 3 suitcases worth of fresh doughs, sausages, dried meats, and I even got some brilliant brazilian nail polish out of the deal. 

We tend to think of frying food as a very greasy affair, but like most things, there is a secret to it: if the oil is the right temperature it creates an immediate seal around whatever is being fried and the outside crisps but the oil is never absorbed. This is why frozen fries, for example, are so greasy. When you throw them into the oil, the temperature immediately drops and since the oil isn't hot enough to seal the potato's outside, it soaks up all the oil. Alternatively, if you "seal" a piece of meat in a frying pan before putting it into a liquid dish, it will keep all the good juices... The result here is a beautifully crisped outside and a tender, soft inside. And a bit less guilt because grease is not draining down your fingers as you eat.

So here we go, Pastel, or "not ravioli" according to Jac, in pictures:

Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Pie Crust That Can Fly

I'm just going to give it to you straight. The best pie maker in Wilmington is not a southerner. Yes, I know it is hard to accept, but Carolyn Atkinson is a welcome transplant at Flying Pi Kitchen on the corner of 4th and Chestnut and you'll stop complaining once you taste her pie of the day.

Number two in the "from scratch wisdom with Carolyn Atkinson" series: the pie crust that you can't seem to get enough of.

The recipe for a good crust is never particularly complicated. You need a ratio of flour to fat to liquid that lets the water evaporate while baking, leaving the buttery flour crisp and rich. And you need to do it fairly quickly, keeping everything cold and not letting the gluten form.

And yet there are a million astuces, tricks and pieces of advice from bloggers and great aunt elmas. I've read articles discussing the percentage of fat in French vs. American butter (which is apparently government regulated) and the merits of a food processor vs hand mixed, but the simple truth seems to be that each person is going to have a different pie crust. You just need to develop your own style with as much wisdom input as you can get.

I realize I am repeating myself, but a recipe won't teach you to cook. Cooking with someone who knows how to cook will teach you to cook. And yet I have a blog, so here's my best shot at transcribing that experience.

Ingredients for 2 crusts
(or one top and one bottom)
1c butter
3c flour
tsp sugar (if sweet crust)
tsp salt (if savory crust)
A mix of 1 part grain alcohol, 1 part water, ideally in a squirt bottle
Note: This recipe uses a food processor

Cut the butter into 1 inch cubes and put everything in the freezer for a good 30 minutes before starting. Yep. Everything. In the freezer.

Put the flour and sugar or salt in the food processor and give it a quick buzz to mix. Cover it first, silly, or you'll have flour all over the place.

Next in goes HALF the butter. There is an eternal debate about the ideal size of butter clumps floating in flour, which Carolyn solves once and for all by blending the first half into the consistency of sand, and then adding the other half and blending until they are about the size of lima beans.

Then comes the water and alcohol liquid. This you squeeze in 2 tablespoons at a time, blasting a few times in the blender between each addition, for a total af about 6T. Always use bursts of processing, checking each time before adding more liquid because there is no perfect amount. The liquid to flour ratio will depend on altitude, the weather that day, how long your flour has sat out, etc. So you have to develop and eye and a fist for it.

When a handful squeezed in your fist clumps together, you probably have enough liquid, and a few more blasts of processing will get you to the 'ball' point you see to the side.

This is always kind of a miraculous process as it looks as if there is no possible way that there is enough liquid... and then three seconds later it is a wet ball of dough.

The food processor comes in handy here: you're supposed to work fast, keeping the dough cool, and the food processor makes that possible.

You'll see that this is a bit more moist than a lot of crust recipes, but the secret of the alcohol is that it dissolves extremely quickly, leaving your crust perfectly flaky while still giving you a dough that is moist enough to work with.

Place the ball of dough in the fridge for 1hour before working it! Yes, covered, silly. This makes for a more tender crust because it loosens the gluten.  Remember: you have enough for two here, so it is a good idea to separate it into two before putting them in the fridge. The second can keep for a day or two.

When you're ready to roll it out, the ideal is on a silicon pad sprinkled with flour. I won't pretend to know other good alternatives, but metal and marble stay really cold... just sayin. Perhaps on parchment paper, also sprinkled with flour.

Roll starting from the center and moving out, with short gentle rolls, making sure the roller has a bit of flour to keep the dough from sticking. Drape the finished crust over your roller and gently unfold into your pie crust.

If you're highly skilled like Carolyn, you can use this fancy crimping method for the sides.

If you are going to fill the crust with a non-bake filling (French Silk, for example), you'll need to blind bake first. 

All that means is prebaking, but if you just throw the pan in the oven as is, the crust will puff up in the middle, giving you a crust dome instead of a crust that you can fill. Wikihow has a good article on it.

Blind Baking:
1. use a fork to punch a bunch of holes in the bottom of the crust
2. cover it with parchment paper
3. fill the pie with a dry bulk item in the kitchen, or if you're fancy with ceramic pie crust beans you can buy in stores that are fancy like yourself
4. bake.

Flying French Silk Pie: "I believe in a certain way of eating"

I believe in apprenticeship. Somewhere in the transition to modern science we took on a chemical
understanding of the human person and forgot that humans learn from other humans. Slowly. and it with lots of love.

I had the great luck to spend an afternoon last fall with Carolyn Atkinson, the chef and owner of Flying Pi Kitchen in Wilmington, NC, basking in the long and nuanced knowledge of a "from scratch" sage. The original plan was to learn to cook her famous Ginger Pie - think of a gingery chess pie with sweet cream over top - which she believes will be the signature pie of the shop. But I ask a lot of questions, and her responses are immeasurably generous, so before the afternoon was out I had filled my little notebook with a handful of recipes and an infinity of ideas.

It was one of those afternoons that started gently, with a nice cup of tea and a discussion on her inspirations (Alton Brown, Graham Kerr and the Galloping Gourmet), her disappointments with the mediocracy of the modern food supply chain (one year with Sysco Services) and the essentials for a well equipped kitchen (one paring knife, one bread knife, and one chef's knife, along with solid measuring cups, dried potatoes and good spices).

It ended with a pie in hand, popovers in my belly, and a new found passion for the possibilities of from scratch cooking to bring the community together. I felt a bit overwhelmed by the task of trying to do her generosity justice in blog form. And so as with all things, I put it off. The notebook I took with me is full of small wisdoms (Don't use any ingredient you wouldn't eat yourself: no one drinks cooking sherry, so don't cook with it!), tips on how to learn to cook (smell everything and notice where you feel it on your tongue as you inhale), and even a bit of world history (Pregnant french women around the world wars were required to take classes on the exact portions needed for their children, creating a nation unconsciously portion controlled individuals!). I will slowly try to share some of this with you.

We will start with French Silk Pie. This no-bake pie recipe is actually just the recipe for the filling, which you pour into an already baked crust and chill. Enjoy and keep an eye out for the next round of recipes.

1 prebaked flying pie crust
1/2c softened butter
(just take it out of the fridge for a few hours before you start)
3/4c caster sugar*
1oz unsweetened baking chocolate, melted and cooled
1t vanilla
3 eggs, lightly beaten

*Caster sugar is just a white sugar that has been ground more finely and is also called baking sugar. If you don't want to buy it, just grind some sugar in a food processor or a coffee grinder.

Prepare you pie crust (Carolyn's version coming soon! but sneak peak, the secret is high proof alcohol), fork the bottom and bake it. Let cool.

In a mixer on medium, beat together the softened butter and the sugar for a good few minutes.

Add the chocolate, making sure it is already cooled, and scraping down the sides to keep the mix homogeneous.

Add one egg at a time, adding the next as soon as you can no longer see the last.

This is an emulsification effect and it should get light and fluffy for you.

Add the vanilla.

Beat for a good five minutes in total.

Pour into pie crust and chill.