28 September 2009

Irished up, or my divine kitchen comedy

Some of my favorite times from childhood were spent listening to my grandpa sing Irish and American folksongs. Grandpa had the true Irish tenor, and a seemingly endless repertoire. Naturally we had our family favorites, one of which was a song we knew as "Clancy Lowered the Boom". It starts like this:

Oh, Clancy was a peaceful man, and you know what I mean -
the cops picked up the pieces, when Clancy left the scene...

Or in modern parlance, he opened a big ol' can o' whup-ass. The refrain began, "Whenever they got his Irish up, Clancy lowered the boom!" My family has always related well to this song. We're a pretty peaceable sort, but if you get our Irish up, you'd best be getting out of the way shortly thereafter or else prepare to feel the wrath.

In addition to our temper - and probably closely linked - we tend to have a generous (by which I mean excessive) streak of good old Irish stubbornness. I have often found, when taking on grand new baking or cooking experiments, that said stubbornness is possibly as valuable a kitchen amenity as, say, the fridge. Similarly taken for granted, and yet indispensable, it's always there when I need it. This was never more true than on a recent Sunday, when it seemed like a good idea to spend the day making apple butter and cinnamon swirl bread. I had no idea that I was embarking on a journey that would make Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy look like a day in the park.

I got up at 8 a.m., knowing that the slow-cooker apple butter recipe called for 10 hours of cooking time, followed by straining the concoction. "No problem!" I naively optimistically thought. "I can probably still be done by 7:30." On Saturday afternoon, I'd picked a bunch of apples from the two trees in our yard, feeling rather domestic-pioneer-y as I did so. I noticed there weren't many apples without souvenirs from bugs or birds, but figured it wouldn't be that hard to cut around them.

And no, it's not that hard to cut around yucky bits in apples, but the volume can be just a tad daunting - especially when your goal is to end up with three pounds of usable apple bits. An hour later, my shoulders already were killing me from hunching over the cutting board, I'd gone through all the best-looking apples, and I still only had two-thirds of the amount that I needed. My husband heard me groaning in dismay, and came to see what was wrong. I immediately sent him out to the apple trees to pick the apples I couldn't reach the day before. He returned with another bagful, wished me luck and left the house as quickly as possible, before he could be pressed into further labor.

It was 10:30 a.m. by the time I had my three pounds of apples, and I mixed them up with the other necessary ingredients, turned the slow cooker on, and went to lie on the couch with a good mystery novel and my thoughts of deep, deep hatred for prepping apples. "Well, that's fine," I told myself. "I can probably still be done by 9:30. That's not so bad."

Strategically placed denial is another key tool in the cook's arsenal, in my opinion. No sense getting discouraged an eighth of the way into your project. Disgruntled, fine, that just taps into both the Irish temper and stubbornness, quickly resulting in a staunch determination to Not Let the Recipe Win. Discouragement? Avoid it at all costs; recipes, like wild animals, can smell fear.

Thankfully, how quickly we forget: three hours later, the apples were smelling really good, and I was even backing off my earlier vow to never make anything apple-related ever again. I'd done some chores and was feeling like a good person, a successful person, the kind of person who can work a full-time job, take on lengthy cooking projects over the weekend, and still keep her house relatively clean.

It was around 4:30 when I decided I should get started on the cinnamon swirl bread. The apples, now smelling absolutely divine, still had two hours to go before phase 2 of their cooking process. When I'd found the recipe for the cinnamon swirl bread, I somehow translated the fact that it came from Martha Stewart to mean "ooh, this will taste yummy" instead of (or including) "oh, this will be a royal pain in the ass". Again, I think this was my brain rather mercifully dispensing some well-placed denial, much as it doles out endorphins to block pain, and for a similar reason.

So, away I went. I should note here that I love baking. It's like alchemy, except you get to eat the resulting gold. I love getting out all the necessary ingredients and measuring cups and equipment, and arranging them on the counter so I can dive into the recipe and have everything I need at hand. I love the smell of yeast yeasting, or whatever you call it when it starts to bubble. I love the precision of it, and the mess, putting the dough in the refrigerator to rise (we're at high altitude, so you have to let dough rise in the fridge) and only then noticing that half the kitchen and much of myself are covered in flour.

And in the early stages of Martha's recipe, everything seemed to go swimmingly. The yeast yeasted, the dough mixed perfectly, I kneaded in cinnamon as instructed and savored the smell. I lightly oiled the mixing bowl where the dough would rise, covered it with a thin kitchen towel, put it in the fridge to rise for an hour and noticed that the second phases of the apple butter and bread were due to coincide within five minutes of each other. This meant I had an hour to make and eat dinner before getting back into the apple-butter-and-cinnamon-bread process.

It was as I made dinner (falafel and couscous with a roasted tomato sauce) that I noiced my feet were starting to hurt. As I've mentioned, I'm Irish, not Spartan. I'm not one to suffer in silence. (No, really?!) My mood correspondingly began to sour a bit, and when the first few falafel fell apart in the frying pan, I swore at them with all my Celtic inventiveness. At this point we were 10 hours into the cooking process, and I was starting to wish I'd picked something easier to bring to the book club "locavore" feast (we read Barbara Kingsolver's 'Animal, Vegetable, Miracle' this month, hence the importance of using bug-savored apples from our trees and making homemade bread instead of buying nice un-bug-touched apples and cinnamon bread at the grocery store).

But just as dinner was ready, my husband came home, exclaiming (wisely) how great it smelled in the house, and taste-testing the apples with hearty appreciation. Mollified, I ate my dinner and mentally gathered myself for the next round of cooking and baking.

The apples were easy; add the rest of the spices, stir, and cook on high uncovered for two more hours. The hard part was keeping my husband from eating them all while they were still cooking, especially now that they were uncovered. The bread wasn't difficult, either - just needed to pat it out and roll it up again, then put it back in the fridge to rise for another 40 minutes. I tried not to dwell on the fact that my neck, shoulders, back and feet all hurt by this point, and that there was a hell of a lot of kitchen clean-up to do when I'd really rather be on the couch with my book and a movie in the background. Fortunately, sufficient groaning at the sink prompted my hubby to come do the rest of the dishes for me. I took a break.

Then came the fun part with the bread (which was now three and a half hours into its own process - instant gratification, baking is not). I mixed cinnamon, sugar and water; beat an egg; divided and rolled out the dough; brushed the dough with the egg; and then covered it in the cinnamon-sugar mixture using a method remarkably similar to finger-painting. It looked picture-perfect, and I thought with more than a touch of smugness, "Yeah, you think you're so badass, Martha. What's so hard about this?"

*droll chuckle* Oh, what fools we mortals be. Here's a little tip: never, never, never think you have out-domestic-goddessed Martha. She has a vicious suckerpunch hidden in nearly every recipe.

Anyway. The filling was slathered on the dough, the dough was rolled up and put into the greased loaf pans, the pans were covered again with the towel and put back in the fridge to "rest" for 30 minutes. I stifled my resentment ("Oh, sure, the dough gets to rest. It must be exhausted. I'll just keep going here, shall I? No, don't mind me, I'll just be over here slaving away... of my own idiotic volition...") and tackled the next step in the apple butter, and the one that would nearly break me: straining it.

See, my apple butter recipe dictated leaving the skin on while the apples cook, because the pectin helps the apple butter thicken, supposedly. Then, it blithely instructs, just strain it through a fine mesh strainer or use a food mill to remove the skins from the apples.

I wonder, sometimes, if the authors of cookbooks have themselves a good laugh over these innocuous little sentences sprinkled throughout their books. You know, the sentences that take it for granted you have the appropriate equipment to prevent one sentence of instruction from turning into a two-and-a-half hour nightmare.

See, I'd just sort of glossed over that sentence originally, figuring that a food mill couldn't be much different from a food processor. But eleven and a half hours later, when it came to the point of action, a nagging doubt arose in my mind. I googled "difference between food mill and food processor," and learned to my dismay that a food mill has a key difference from a food processor, somehow involving a strainer in its mechanics.

The other problem was that the only fine-mesh strainer I have is about four inches in diameter; I'd thrown away the larger ones years ago and never replaced them, because I almost never used them. "Who," I blithely thought then, "needs a strainer when you have a colander? Big deal!" Oh, yes, I was young and foolish then; and I felt old and foolish now.

So I got out my comically small strainer, shooting dark, dubious glances at the three pounds of apple butter mush waiting to be strained of its bits of peel. I got out a couple different sizes of mixing bowls into which I could strain the mixture. And I figured out in about a minute and a half that the four-inch strainer was seriously, utterly, emphatically not going to do the trick.

So I turned to ye olde trusty colander, the one I forsook the strainers to use, all those years ago. Now I was using the stupid little fine-mesh strainer (which, even if it had been of a useful size, still would have been ridiculously hard to strain the apple butter through, since apple butter is really rather thick and fine mesh is, well, rather fine) to push the apple butter through the holes in the colander. It took maybe five minutes to give up on this method, so it was perhaps an improvement on effort #1, but still possessed a sort of Charlie Chaplin/Keystone Kops element. Unfortunately, more than twelve hours into the apple butter process, my sense of humor was not one of the kitchen tools still at my disposal. The Irish temper and stubbornness were about all I had left to me.

The problem was that the strainer ladle thingy had a long, straight handle on it that didn't work with the shape of the colander. 'What I really need is something flat-bottomed that I can press straight down on,' I thought, dredging my bleary mind for an idea. And through the fog emerged a thought: my trusty potato masher. It's an oval with holes in the bottom, rather than one of those condensed-wavelength looking ones, and came closer to fitting the bill than any other utensil in my kitchen.

It was around this time that I realized my cinnamon swirl bread dough must be fully rested and needed to go in the preheated oven. I shoved it in there, set the timer for 45 minutes, and turned back to the apple butter problem with a grim determination. There was no way on earth I was going to let this recipe win.

And so for about an hour, I used my potato masher and every expletive in my vocabulary to strain the apple butter through the colander. The masher kept getting covered with the bits of peel, and I'd have to stop about every five minutes to pull them off and toss them in the 'discard' bowl, marvelling at just how sticky and glue-like apple butter could be. I was making progress, albeit weary, messy, frustratingly slow and inefficient progress, and strained about half the apple butter this way.

It was at some point during this process that I realized black smoke was pouring forth from the oven. As you might imagine, this was pretty much the absolute last thing I wanted to see at this point. Also, my husband had fallen asleep by this time, and if there's one thing that embarrasses a cook, it's waking people up with the smoke alarm after you've been cooking and baking for nigh on 12 hours. I ran to the oven to find that the filling of Martha's effing bread (note that this is all Martha Stewart's fault, not mine) had somehow expanded and overflowed from the loaf pans and was dripping cinnamon-sugar onto the bottom of the oven, where it was burning to an icky, oozy, foul-smelling crisp.

Well, I wasn't about to stop baking the bread, not after coming this far. I snagged my hot pads, yanked the bottom rack out, grabbed a metal spatula, scraped as much of the crap off the bottom of the oven as I could - maneuvering around the 425-degree heating thingy, and miraculously avoiding burning myself, an event notable for its rarity - threw the loaf pans on a large baking sheet to catch the rest of the dripping crap before it hit the oven floor, and added a few minutes onto the timer to make up for the oven door being open for so long.

I may or may not have invented a few new expletives during this process. The point is, my Irish was well and fully up, and I turned back to the apple butter process with the fury of a woman who has just about reached her breaking point. Now, remember: you cannot let the recipe break you; that constitutes it winning. That's why it's important to temper the Irish fury with stubbornness, so you don't lose it to the point of being unconstructive. I found myself almost lethally calm, instead, and looked at the bizarre assortment of kitchen tools and bowls that had accumulated on the table during the straining process.

'What I really need,' I thought, my mind more awake now that I'd had a near-kitchen-fire to get my adrenaline going, 'is something flat-bottomed, without holes in it, that I can push straight down on.' And as if an invisible hand had smacked me upside the head, I looked at the cabinet across the room so fast I almost got whiplash.

The cabinet I was looking at is full of pint glasses. Flat-bottomed pint glasses. Flat-bottomed pint glasses without holes in them, that you can push straight down on.

A small - okay, a large - part of me wanted to sit down at the kitchen table, put my head in my hands, and laugh, or cry, or possibly both. I was just the tiniest bit frustrated that this idea had not occurred to me about two hours prior. But endless optimism is also an essential cook's tool, right up there with a semi-violent temper and bullheaded stubbornness, and I tried to focus what energy I had left on being glad that I had finally thought of this solution.

Sure enough, pint glass in hand, I strained the rest of the apple butter in less than half an hour. Let's not dwell on the fact that if I'd only been smart enough to start with this method, it would have taken perhaps 45 minutes to an hour, instead of three times that long. The point is, I finished the apple butter at almost exactly the same time as the cinnamon swirl bread, the oven timer woke up my husband instead of the smoke alarm, and together we ate an entire loaf of bread slathered in apple butter at eleven o'clock at night.

And it was absolutely delicious.

Fourteen hours. Two jars of apple butter, three loaves of cinnamon swirl bread. I'd like to think we ate another jar's worth of apple butter during the cooking process and immediately after finishing. Was it worth it? Yes. If only because I won.

If, after reading this, you actually want to try this yourself - and if so, I hope that reading my mistakes will save you several hours of agony - here are the recipes I used. Having a food mill (or a pint glass) handy will save you about two hours; buying locally grown, non-bug-appropriated apples at the farmer's market or grocery store will save you at least another hour in prep time. I sincerely wish you the best of luck, and may the Force (or the Irish) be with you.

Literally All-Day Apple Butter (Adapted from 'Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker')

3 lbs cooking apples (I used Jonathan apples), cored, left unpeeled, and cut into eighths
1 c firmly packed light brown sugar
3/4 c apple cider vinegar
~ 2 tsp honey
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 whole cinnamon stick
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cloves

Combine apples, brown sugar, apple cider vinegar and honey in your slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours, until apples are very soft.

Remove the lid, stir in the spices, set heat to high. Cook uncovered for 2 hours, stirring halfway through.

Strain the apples, removing the cinnamon stick and the apple peels. Use whatever method works for you... allow me to recommend a food mill, preferably, or a colander and pint glass in a pinch.

Once the apple butter's cooled to room temperature, you can store it in the fridge in tightly-lidded clean jars without having to actually go through the canning process. It should keep for several weeks.

Cinnamon Swirl Bread (from http://www.honeyandjam.com/, which evidently got it from a Martha Stewart cookbook)

1 envelope (2 1/4 tsp) active dry yeast
2 cups warm milk (~ 110 degrees)
6 - 6 ½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 stick butter at room temperature, cut into pieces
½ cup sugar
2 eggs, plus 1 egg, lightly beaten
2 ½ tsp coarse salt
1 Tbs ground cinnamon

1 ½ cups sugar
2 Tbs ground cinnamon

In the bowl of an electric mixer, sprinkle the yeast over the warm milk and whisk to combine. Let sit for 5-10 minutes to bubble. Add the flour, butter, 1/2 c sugar, 2 eggs, and salt. Attach bowl to mixer fitted with the dough hook. Mix on low until all the ingredients are well combined, about 3 minutes. Increase speed to medium-low, and continue to mix until the dough is completely smooth and pulls away from the sides of the bowl, about 3 minutes more.

Turn out the dough on a lightly floured surface and pat into a big round. Sprinkle with 1 Tbs cinnamon and knead and fold until just incorporated. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, and cover with a thin kitchen towel. Let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour (if at high altitude, let rise in refrigerator; may take slightly longer to rise, but rising in the fridge is important for maintaining the gluten structure at altitude).

Return the dough to a lightly floured work surface, and pat into a round again. Fold the bottom third of the dough up, the top third down and the right and left sizes over, pressing down the seal; rolling the dough seal-side down on the counter a bit can help also. Return the dough into the bowl and let rise in the fridge again until doubled in bulk, about 40 minutes.

Make the filling by combining 1 1/2 c sugar and 2 Tbs cinnamon with 2 Tbs water in a small bowl. Generously butter two 9 by 5 inch loaf pans (or one 9 x 5 loaf pan and two mini-loaf pans, as I did) and set aside.

Return the dough to a lightly floured work surface, and divide in half (if making one large and two mini-loaves, divide in half, then divide one of the halves in half again). Roll each portion out into a rectangle, a bit bigger than your loaf pans. Brush with the beaten egg and smooth a uniform layer of the filling over the dough.

With the short end of the rectangle facing you, fold in both of the long sides of the dough. Roll the dough towards you, gently pressing to form a log. Roll back and forth to seal the seam. Place loaves in the prepared pans. Cover loosely with thin kitchen towel, and let rest in a warm place (or fridge, at altitude), about 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 425°F.

Brush the tops of the loaves with the rest of the beaten egg, and transfer pans to the oven (for god's sake, place them on a baking sheet!!!). Bake on rack in the middle of the oven, rotating pans halfway through, until loaves are golden brown, about 45 minutes. Check about halfway through - if the tops are browning too quickly, tent with aluminium foil. Turn out the bread onto a wire rack to cool completely before slicing. The bread can be kept wrapped in aluminum foil up to 4 days.


Kirsten said...

Oh my good god! What an event! I'm really impressed you took the time to write all that out too!

Anonymous said...

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