Wednesday, June 30, 2010

You Have One Hour, and Your Time Starts ... Now

Quick! You're invited to a barbecue at the last minute and you need to throw together a contribution. What to make? That's why it's always good to have a couple of quick crowd pleasers in your repertoire. Like an easy blueberry sour cream cake.

This one evolved from a raspberry buttermilk cake published last June in Gourmet (sigh, I do miss it).  I always have almonds in the cupboard, so here, instead of 1 cup of flour, I use 3/4 cup flour plus 1/4 cup ground almonds, and in place of the buttermilk I use sour cream (or plain Greek-style yogurt), because I never seem to have buttermilk just sitting around in the fridge. My hubby and I don't like our desserts extremely sweet, so I decreased the sugar to 1/2 cup (instead of the original 2/3 cup).

Also, the leavening in the original recipe seemed excessive for what amounts to 1 cup of flour, so I've cut the baking soda in half (down to 1/8 teaspoon). Cooking science experts, such as "Bakewise" author Shirley Corriher, say that too much leavening actually drives air out of the batter instead of giving a cake more lift. The adjustment seemed to work. My husband didn't know about my change to the recipe and commented that the cake turned out lighter.

Blueberry Sour Cream Cake


3/4 cup flour plus 1/4 cup ground almonds* (OR just 1 cup all purpose flour)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 stick (2 ounces) butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon almond extract (optional)
1/2 cup sour cream or Greek-style yogurt
1 heaping cup blueberries**
1 tablespoon sugar (any kind of sugar crystals, eg. regular white sugar or turbinado sugar)


Before making the batter, place oven rack in the bottom third of oven*** and preheat to 400 F at least 15 minutes.
Generously butter and flour a 9-inch round cake pan (or spray nonstick cake pan with cooking spray) so that it will be ready when you need it.

1. In a medium bowl, mix together flour, ground almonds (if using), baking powder, baking soda and salt with a fork. This helps ensure you don't get a clump of baking powder or soda in one spot.

2. In a large mixing bowl, cream together butter and sugar, about 2 minutes, until fluffy. I use a medium speed of my hand-held electric mixer.

3. Add egg and extracts to butter, mixing well to combine.

4. Add about 1/3 dry ingredients into batter, mixing them in at low speed, then half of the sour cream. Mix in another third of the dry, followed by remaining sour cream. Mix in the rest of the dry ingredients just until combined.

5. Spread batter into prepared cake pan, and then arrange berries on top.
Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon sugar and bake at 400 F until golden brown and tester inserted in center comes out with no raw batter, about 25 minutes. (You may have to adjust the time depending on your oven.)

Let the cake cool in the pan for about 15 minutes. Run a knife between the cake and the side of the pan to
loosen the cake, place a plate on the pan and then invert it onto the plate. (This is the reason you need to generously butter and flour the pan ahead of time.) Remove the pan carefully, leaving the cake on the plate. Then invert the cake onto another plate so that it is right side up again.
Serve with fresh berries and whipped cream

*I really like using ground almonds (I whiz blanched slivered almonds in a food processor with a level tablespoon of sugar until they are ground relatively fine). But the original recipe used just 1 cup of all purpose flour (I like King Arthur Unbleached All Purpose), and it tasted very good that way too. If you don't use the ground almonds, you can add the tablespoon of sugar that would have been with the almonds to the creamed butter instead.

**The original recipe also called for 1 cup of raspberries, but I prefer 1 1/2 cups berries. I've also made the original recipe and this version with strawberries and pitted cherries, and all the variations were delicious.

***I like to preheat my oven (it's NOT convection) ideally for 20 to 30 minutes. I also keep a baking stone on the oven rack to preheat along with the oven and place the cake pan on the baking stone. This seems to help prevent the temperature from dropping drastically when I open the oven door to put the cake in. It also seems to keep the heat that hits the bottom of the baking pan more even.

I know this recipe by memory now, so it comes together super quickly for me (just under an hour from measuring ingredients to a slice on my plate). But I still set up the ingredients before getting started, and I place them in bowls on my counter (just like on TV cooking shows) in the order that I will be using them (a.k.a. mise en place). Not only does it let me zip through preparation quickly and easily, it makes me less likely to forget an ingredient. Yes, I've had a more than a few senior moments.

Monday, June 28, 2010

And the World Tastes Good 'Cause the Ogre Thinks It Should

If Shrek can get kids to eat onions, then maybe he can get them to do just about anything.

Anyone who dismisses the food industry's power to influence kids' minds and palates should take a look at today's Wall Street Journal and a Yale study on the influence of licensed characters on kids' taste, published online last week in the journal Pediatrics.

 In a page 1 story of the Wall Street Journal, an industry group marketing Vidalia onions said sales of the root veggie jumped after it enlisted children's character Shrek as a "spokesman" of sorts. The big, green ogre adorns bags of onions, and Vidalia displays in some stores include a big stand-up cutout of the cranky but lovable character.

The article quotes more than one person attributing sales to the Shrek campaign's influence. One mother interviewed for the story said her child pitched a fit until she bought Shrek-marketed onions at the supermarket and he gobbled them up at home even though he never eats vegetables. I'd rather have that powerful influence on my side than working against me.

A few days ago, when I picked up my school-age son from a day at camp, he whined at me to take him to McDonald's. After all, my dinners don't taste as good. My meals come with a side of broccoli or corn, not Transformers, "Ice Age" personalities or -- GASP! -- "Star Wars" characters. I have a stubborn streak and can't be worn down too easily, but some moms and dads may crumble under such assaults as "You don't love me!" and "Happy Meals taste better."

As a matter of fact, regardless of cooking quality (Me: "PLEASE, just take one bite of the lemon pancetta potato salad. What do you mean you don't want to taste the chicken larb with napa salad? Do you think any other kid you know gets to eat this stuff?" My son: "Can I be any other kid I know?"), there's good evidence that kids really like a food better if it's promoted by a popular pitchman... or pitch-ogre or pitch-girl, such as Dora.

Researchers at Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity gave 4- to 6-year-old children pairs of identical food items in packages with and without a sticker of one of three cartoon characters (Shrek, Dora the Explorer and Scooby Doo). The children were asked to taste both identical food items (eg. graham crackers in a package without a cartoon character and graham crackers in a package with a cartoon character), and to say which tasted better and which they would rather have for a snack.

The researchers, in their report published online June 21, said that the kids "significantly" preferred the character-stickered snacks over the identical non-character snacks.

They concluded that marketing that uses licensed characters, even those geared to older children, can substantially influence young children's taste preferences and choice of snacks, especially for energy-dense, nutrient poor foods. They said the findings suggest that this type of marketing of junk food should be restricted.

The study, which examined the choices of just 40 children from a small geographic area, isn't the last word obviously. But I find it to be compelling.

Defenders of such marketing say parents, of course, bear the ultimate responsibility for guiding kids' choices. That is true. I can, and usually do, say "no" to my children when they want to eat fast food or other foods that contain more fat and salt than I think is healthful.

But that is NOT the point. The point is whether it is ethical to use sophisticated psychological methods to influence children, who aren't even old enough to understand or legally consent to other matters involving their health, including psychological treatment, on their own. I don't think that some marketing Pied Piper should even attempt in the first place to lure minors toward questionable health choices.

And industry leaders who say they market specifically their "healthful" options to kids are simply being disingenuous. They know that they are building loyalty not to a healthful lifestyle but to their brand. If you asked a typical consumer, after years of marketing, to quickly tell the first thing they think of when you say "Burger King" or "McDonald's" or "Wendy's," are they going to reply, "apple wedges" and "baked potato"?

I have a confession. I like some McDonald's stuff. I eat at the chain's restaurants when I travel, and sometimes I love a hot packet of fries or Filet-O-Fish. But I'm old enough to understand the company's pitches to me, as well as the consequences of choosing its food, and hopefully I'm able to make those decisions judiciously -- meaning I don't eat big combo meals and I save those fatty fries for occasional splurges. Plus I try to avoid going when the kids are with me, which means I make even fewer trips to Micky D's than I used to.

There are other splurges (all legal, of course). But that's between me and the doughnut shop.
As for the cheesy appeals to my children, well, I know how to keep my wallet shut. Unless, of course, Shrek wants to shill collards and bok choy.

You may also like: The Center for Science in the Public Interest Threatens to Sue McDonald's Over Happy Meals Toys

Burger King Picks New Agency for Children and Family Ad Campaigns.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Cue the Cukes

I can't believe it's been a couple of months. We got sick after the week of birthdays and other doctors' and school district appointments that couldn't wait -- I was burned out. Then came the Disney vacation, then the recovery from vacation and getting kids who are home from school to occupy themselves with something other than a glowing, mind-melting TV screen.

But I promise I'll do better and offer the recipes soon for the cakes (they are sort of Frankenrecipes, so I have to pull them together to present them in a readable way).

Meanwhile, we've spent the past couple of weeks eating more healthful foods -- grilled chicken breast (satay style), small low-fat sirloin burgers and brats. Well, the brats aren't that healthful. But our overall diet is.

But my favorite dishes lately have been not the meats, but the sides -- peanut noodles, cellophane noodles, little quick carrot pickles and cucumber salad.

The cucumber salad is truly amazing. The cool freshness of the cukes accented by the zesty Southeast Asian-inspired dressing doesn't just taste great to me. My three children, all LOVE it, including one very picky nearly 3 year old who used to be fed via tube. I had made a batch after breakfast one day, and he came trotting into the kitchen for a bite, then back to his toys in the family room, then back for a bite ... His twin sister wouldn't leave my side and kept taking one after another. Within half an hour, the bowl was empty and I had to rethink our veggies for that night's dinner.

Tangy Cucumber Salad 2.0

1 large seedless cucumber or 4 mini seedless cucumbers (about 14 to 16 ounces)

finely grated zest of half lime
juice from half lime (I get about 1/8 cup lime juice)
1 rounded tablespoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons peanut oil (or canola oil)
1 tablespoon low sodium soy sauce
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger (optional)
1/2 to 1 teaspoon sriracha (hot chili) sauce

garnish (to sprinkle over salad when serving): 1 to 2 tablespoons toasted chopped peanuts or black sesame seeds or chiffonaded thai basil

1. Slice small cucumbers into coins or ovals (about 1/4 inch thick) or cut large cucumber in half lengthwise, then across into 1/4 inch thick half-moon pieces. Place slices in a colander over a bowl to drain 1/2 hour to 2 hours.

2. Combine remaining ingredients for dressing. Just before serving, toss cucumber with some of the dressing to coat slices. Don't dump all of the dressing at once. It can be a little strong for some people, and you can always add more if you want.

3. Sprinkle with preferred garnish, and eat immediately.

This salad does not keep well after the dressing is combined with the cucumbers. If preparing ahead of time, keep dressing and sliced cucumber in separate containers.

This recipe's success REQUIRES the fish sauce and some sort of chili sauce. I like Three Crabs brand fish sauce and Huy Fong sriracha, which I get at my local Asian grocer, but some supermarkets in my area do sell some sort of fish sauce and chili sauce in the Asian section of the international foods aisle. Those are the ingredients that MAKE the dressing. And put down the bottled lime juice -- step away from the little green plastic bottle.

This dish was inspired by another cucumber salad I used to make, which itself is an adaptation of a Sweet, Tart, and Spicy Shrimp and Cucumber Salad from Epicurious. It's a tad simpler, and uses less fish sauce for those who are intimidated by its rich flavor. But I recommend going for the version with more flavor, unless you REALLY are sensitive to the taste of fish sauce. Three Crabs brand is already pretty mild.

Cucumber Salad 1.0

1 large seedless cucumber or 4 mini seedless cucumbers (about 14 to 16 ounces)

finely grated zest of half lime
juice from half lime
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon peanut oil (or canola oil)
1/2 to 1 teaspoon sriracha sauce

 DIRECTIONS -- Same as for the other cucumber salad, minus the extra ingredients.
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