A Linguistic Conundrum for the Season

If you celebrate Thanksgiving with a traditional roast turkey, do you serve it with dressing, or with stuffing?

Butterball (the turkey people, the same ones who run the feast-saving turkey hotline every year) have a page devoted to that very question.  Turns out, as I suspected, that dressing is mostly Southern, and mostly cooked outside the turkey rather than in, while stuffing is more Northeastern, and is usually cooked (unsurprisingly) inside the bird.   My Southern roots show up in this:  In my native dialect, it’s dressing, and gets cooked in a separate dish, the better to have enough of it left over for breakfast the next morning.

(What?  You’ve never had leftover dressing for a post-Thanksgiving breakfast?  You’re missing something good.)

Now that we’ve settled that question, we can move on to which method of preparing green beans is the proper and canonical one:  Are they slow-cooked with bacon and a generous amount of salt, or are they cooked quickly and left unsalted so as to retain their crunch?

Only Two More Days…

…(and, as I write this, seven and a half hours, but who’s counting) until the US presidential election is over, and whatever comes next, comes next, but in any case I should stop getting multiple daily polling calls and stacks of four-color glossy political ads.

Meanwhile, to keep us all going, a recipe – not a simple one this time, but one that I got from my father quite a while ago.  It’s become my go-to recipe for when somebody phones up and says, “You will bring a cake to the bake sale, won’t you?”  Obligatory writing reference:  This is kind of like being asked to contribute a story to a charity anthology, except that you can’t keep re-using the same story from one anthology to another, but you can definitely make the same cake every time.

Anyhow, this is Marvelous Mississippi Mud Cake (or Triple-C Chocolate Cake, as I usually call it up here in far northern New England, where the marvelousness of Mississippi mud – providing, as it does, “the richest land this side of the Valley Nile” – is not exactly common knowledge):

  • 5   ounces (the original recipe called for “5 squares”, but that was before the chocolate makers changed to half-ounce squares and didn’t warn anybody) unsweetened chocolate
  •  2   Cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1   tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cup powdered instant coffee or instant espresso
  • 2   T boiling water
  • 1   cup plus 2 T cold water
  • 1/2 cup bourbon, or rum, or amaretto, or cognac
    (bourbon is the classic, but up here I use cognac, it being more in the local idiom)
  • 1   cup unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1   tsp vanilla extract
  • 2   cups powdered (aka confectioner’s) sugar
  • 3   large eggs plus 1 large extra yolk
  • 1/4 cup sour cream or buttermilk
  • cocoa or confectioners sugar (optional)

Generously grease  a nine inch Bundt pan – 10 cup capacity.  (This is a place where the recipe betrays its age and regional origins – I don’t think recipes say “grease” any more.  My father would have used Crisco; I generally use Baker’s Joy spray.)

Position rack in center of oven and heat oven to 325 F.

Melt chocolate in the top pan of a double boiler over hot, not boiling, water.  (Another indication of this recipe’s vintage.  These days, I melt my chocolate in the microwave.) Remove chocolate before it is completely melted and stir until smooth.  Set aside.

Sift together the flour, salt, and baking soda and set aside. 

In a two cup glass measure, dissolve the instant coffee in the boiling water, stir in the cold water and the bourbon or other flavoring and set aside.

Beat the butter with vanilla and sugar in the large bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle beater until  well blended and smooth. (Or, like me, use a handheld electric mixer because that’s what you’ve got.)  Beat in the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition.  Beat in the extra yolk and the sour cream.  Scrape down the bowl and beater.  Add the melted and slightly cooled chocolate and beat until the batter is smooth

Remove the bowl from the stand.  (Obviously, if you’re not using a stand mixer, you can skip that step.) By hand, using a spoon or rubber spatula, stir in small amounts of the flour mixture and the coffee-bourbon liquid.  Beat until the batter is smooth;  it will be quite thin.  Don’t worry if the batter looks slightly curdled.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan.  Bake until the cake top is springy to the touch and slightly cracked looking and a cake tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean — about 65 to 70 minutes.  Do not over cook.

Cool the cake on a wire rack for 15 minutes.  Top with another rack or plate and invert.  Lift off pan,  Cool completely.

Top with light sifting of confectioner’s sugar or cocoa.  Serve with bourbon-(or cognac, or whatever booze you’re using)-laced, slightly sweetened whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

This makes a decidedly grown-up chocolate cake.  Treat yourself; after the campaign season we’ve all had, you deserve it.

Sometimes Life Hands You a Sack of Ingredients

Maybe you have a friend with a garden that’s overproducing, and you get a surprise gift of a bag of zucchini and homegrown potatoes. You already know about making zucchini bread out of other people’s excess zucchini, but the potatoes deserve to have something good done to them before they go to waste, so you decide to make this;

Spinach and Bacon Potatoes

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 large or 2 medium onions, chopped (when in doubt, err on the side of more onion, rather than less)
  • 1/2 pound bacon, finely chopped (the original version called for pancetta, the which we do not have, up here in the wilds of the north country, but regular bacon works just fine so long as it isn’t maple-cured or something like that. I buy packages of bacon ends and pieces at the IGA, and they do just fine as ingredient-grade bacon.)
  • 5 large potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced (throw in a couple extra if your potatoes are running small)
  • 1 box of frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained
  • 4 cups shredded Mexican cheese blend (cheddar will also work)
  • 1 pint heavy cream (or half and half, if you’re being economical with money or fat)

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Lightly grease a medium baking dish.
  • Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat, and sauté the onion and bacon until onion is tender and bacon is cooked through.
  • Alternately layer the potato slices, the bacon and onion mixture, the spinach, and the cheese in the prepared baking dish.
  • Pour the heavy cream evenly over everything.
  • Cover and bake 1 hour in the preheated oven.
  • Uncover, and continue baking 30 minutes, until bubbly and lightly browned.

The writing life can be like this sometimes, as well.  You may be going along, working on the project or projects you currently have in hand, when your personal muse shows up with a basket full of ideas and says to you, “Here.  I’m sure you can make something tasty out of these.”

Since it’s a bad idea to ignore gifts from your muse, even inconvenient ones, you’ll have to do something with all those fresh ingredients.  Maybe they can go together to make something you can whip up in a hurry before getting back to your main projects – a quick short story stir fry, as it were.  But maybe they’re better suited for something complex and long-simmering that you don’t have time for right now, so what else can you do?

Well, that’s where food preservation techniques real or virtual scrapbooks and idea files come in.  Get that gift basket full of ideas safely frozen or pickled or salted down and stored in the root cellar, and come the cold midwinter of the mind, they’ll be waiting there to nourish you.

Two Peeves and a Link

Yes – it’s grey and rainy outside today, which means that it’s peeve time here in blogland.

Peeve the first:  It isn’t “per say” (though that’s what it sounds like.)  It’s per se, because it’s Latin, meaning “by itself.”  Per is one of those useful prepositions that also shows up as a prefix, usually one that means “thoroughly” or “extremely” or “completely” – probably from one of the other meanings of per-as-a-preposition, which is “through.”  (If you think that’s a wide range of meanings to stuff into a single word, just consider for a minute some of our English prepositions, which let us say things like “He came by himself to the house by the river by car.”  Which is an awkward sentence – I’d flag it in a heartbeat if I ran across it during a revision or editing pass – but not an ungrammatical one.)

But seriously, people, if you’re going to throw in Latin phrases, at least spell them right.

Peeve the second:  Don’t say “this begs the question” when what you mean is “this raises the question.”

Nobody, but nobody, gets this one right, and it drives me batty.  “Begging the question” is the English term for one of the common logical fallacies, also known by its Latin name, petitio principii, in which the person making the argument assumes as true, and argues from, the very thing which he or she is seeking to prove.  (For a fuller explanation, with diagrams, you can look here.)

Finally, to sweeten things a bit after that outburst of peevishness, a link:

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America 50th Anniversary Cookbook, edited by Cat Rambo and Fran Wilde, is now available for pre-order.  It contains 175 recipes as well as interior illustrations, and is available in both print and e-book formats.

It Doesn’t Have to be Difficult to be Good

We – that’s both the artists-and-critics “we” and the people-in-general “we” – have a habit of conflating difficulty and quality.  If something is hard to do, or hard to understand, we tell ourselves that it must also be in some way better than a similar thing that is simple or clear.  This is a tendency that needs to be watched out for and kept on a tight leash, because for every complex and difficult thing that it encourages us to appreciate, there’s something plain and straightforward that it tempts us to pass by.

Herewith, by way of edible illustration, is a simple recipe that produces a better-than-store-bought enchilada sauce.  (This comes in especially handy if you happen to live, as we do, in a locale where the grocery store doesn’t carry any strength higher than Medium.)

Red Enchilada Sauce:

2 T oil (canola or vegetable)
2 T flour
2 T chili powder
1 T cayenne
1 T powdered chipotle pepper
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. oregano
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock

  • Mix up the seasonings – chili powder through oregano – in a small bowl.  (If the mix as given looks too hot for your taste, go with 4 T of mild chili powder instead of the chili powder/cayenne/chipotle mix.  If you want an even higher octane, go with a 2 T chili powder/2 T cayenne mix, or experiment with other powdered hot peppers until you’ve got a blend you like.)
  • In a saucepan, heat up the oil and add the flour.   Mix it up and cook it for a minute, stirring so it doesn’t burn.
  • Add the chili powder and other seasonings.  Stir it up some more – it’ll be a thick paste.
  • Add the chicken stock, and use a whisk to stir it up so that the mixture doesn’t clump up or stick to the bottom of the pan.
  • Reduce the heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes.

Either use immediately or decant into a glass jar or similar container and use later.

This makes enough for one batch of enchiladas.

A Useful Thing Which I Have Discovered

(Which has nothing to do with writing, and which most other people have probably known about for ages):

If you’ve got a rice cooker that came with a steamer basket, the steamer basket is very handy for turning uncooked chicken breasts or tenders into cooked chicken suitable for shredding or dicing and incorporating into things like enchiladas or pot pies or any other recipe that calls for cooked chicken bits.

Well, okay . . . this is like writing in one respect:  Don’t automatically assume that the idea you’ve just had is old hat, or is no good because it is old hat.  Because you can always take that old idea and use it to make something new and tasty.

For Your Amusement

A trio of links:

These people have developed a blight-resistant American chestnut tree, and are now crowdfunding a project to plant 10,000 new trees and start the work of bringing the species back to American forests.

Here are some nifty pictures of spherical layer cakes frosted to look like planets – complete with proper planetary cores.  And here’s a link to a tutorial on how to make one yourself at home.

And finally, in honor of the upcoming holiday, a link to NASA’s cornbread dressing recipe.