Kentucky Derby Mint Julep – Starting From Scratch

Mint Julep It has always eluded me..the Mint Julep thing. Spend all that time choosing the perfect outfit.A good deal of thought goes towards the perfect Derby hat. But the Mint Julep, which everyone respectfully carries around while laying bets on the horse, is usually not so perfect – the Mint Julep.  This year I decided to research the drink, and came up with some interesting ideas. The results? Mint Juleps are incredibly refreshing and delicious when prepared correctly.

Mint Juleps are typically done by bruising (muddling) fresh mint with sugar in the bottom of a glass, filling with ice, pouring the bourbon over that, stirring gently, then topping it with fresh mint. This recipe isn’t that.

Here’s the secret I learned from an expert that takes only a little planning. A few weeks in advance get your hands on some alright bourbon , (don’t judge my bourbon-said expert said “any” bourbon will do) and a large handful of fresh mint. Wash and dry the mint, place it in a large jar, pour the bourbon over it, and cover it tightly. Maybe it’ll snow between now and the Kentucky Derby,but that bottle of golden liquid is steeping in a cupboard, infusing the beautiful mint into it’s essence. And you’ll be busy sizing up  horses and jockeys.minted bourbon in the makingminted bourbon in jar steeping

The next secret, well it isn’t really so secret, is to make a minted simple syrup. Simple syrup is a (simple) thing to do. Take a nice bunch (large handful) of fresh mint. Add it to a cup of sugar and a cup of water. Place it all in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. When the sugar is dissolved, turn off the heat and let it sit for about an hour. Gently press the juices from the mint into the liquid, then throw away the mint.  Strain it into a jar and keep in the refrigerator (up to a month)This way you aren’t “bruising” the mint, which is said to give the Julep an off taste.

Now for the Mint Julep:

Use crushed ice. Finer is better. Fill the glass with it. A good tip, again from said expert, is to place the ice in a canvas bag and crush it with a carpenters mallet, which gives it a perfect consistency.   Pour about 2 Tablespoons of the minted simple syrup over the ice and top it with the minted bourbon. Stir it gently with a spoon. Top it with fresh mint leaves and enjoy. Sip it slowly. It’s a sturdy drink. As the ice melts, the blending of the mint, icy water and bourbon make it all the more refreshing.minted julip on fenceThe horse comes in for his sweet feed. He doesn’t like Mint Juleps. I know that I’ve published this too late to steep the bourbon, but you can make the simple syrup tomorrow, and remember this recipe for the next horse race.minted bourbon the horse

Violets In My Champagne

It’s February 7th, and I’m itching for Spring to have…SPRUNG!

Boston is expecting the blizzard of the century tomorrow. The Laurel Highlands is expecting balmy 45-50 degree weather; the sun is warmer than it was a month ago; a lovely bird was absolutely belting out an early morning promise – acapella – at 7am this morning.  And I started envisioning fields of violets. Yes, a gentle breeze, air pregnant with rain, gurgling brook emptying to the pond, dandilions everywhere, and patches of violets. I come from a long line of wild violet lovers.april 19 beautiful violetLast week my favorite husband and I went to a Champagne and Tapas bar in Pittsburgh. It was a fascinating experience that certainly broadened our minds to embrace Champagne and sparkling wines as we never had before. Since I consider myself to be fairly ignorant  on the subject, Jennifer, the bar manager, treated us to quite an evening. Here’s the happy girl:

champagne and bartender Her pleasant personality, breadth of knowledge, and passion for champagne took us to another world in the land of bubbles. Although most of the Champagne “drinks” disguised the subtle perfumes of Champagne, and who’d want to do THAT, there was one that was particularly fetching.  The Kir Yvette Champagne Cocktail was fascinating to drink, to look at and, maybe most important in February, to think about. The scent of crushed violet petals, mixed with a touch of blackberries and, well read this.

Excited, yes?

Here’s a nice little line up of some of the drinks we enjoyed. The Champagne Yvette Cocktail is in the middle. The famous Bellini to the left, a lovely California Rose Sparkling Wine to the right.Champagne cocktailsWe discovered that most Champagne cocktail drinks mask the beauty of the Champagne, but not the bubbles. So, depending on the “why” of sipping bubbly, there were drinks that reminded me of a daiquiri, all the way to the Yvette, which was so subtle and delicate that it has become quite the fascination for this OCD leaning gal.  🙂  Imagine being told you’re sipping on crushed berries and violet petals – and it is the dead of winter 10 degrees and gray, and the sun will never shine again – and here you are all wrapped in your mink coat (faux, if this vision rubs you the wrong way) – soft lighting and music are making your heart merry –  and you’re with your best ever boyfriend. Ladies?

I share this with you because while most of my friends who love the out doors will be playing in the soil in April, as will I. I will also be gathering violets by the baskets, washing them, destemming them, and crushing them into a bottle of good quality vodka with just the correct amount of sugar (or honey). Then I’ll place that concoction into a clay jar, cover and let set for a month.  I shall have Creme de Violette.  And shall make bubbly cocktails from it in the dead of winter, when everything is gray, and a toasty fire is in the hearth, and Spring is calling me.

Amen.violets after a rain ready for sugar coating

Peaches and Cream Angel Food Tunnel Cake is Gluten Free. Yeah Baby!

This is the Peaches and Cream Angel Food Tunnel Cake I just made!

This is the Strawberry Angel Food Tunnel Cake my sister made for Dan and Kelly’s wedding celebration.  It was made from a boxed angel food cake mix.  It looks delicious. I heard it was amazing..except some of us…ahem, ahem…Scott, Missy, Marcia….couldn’t eat it because it contained gluten.

My daughter’s birthday is tomorrow and angel food cake is her favorite. She has committed herself to being gluten free.  For the first time ever in this house ( ‘this house‘ because I did try one years ago and said ‘ehhh, a lot of work and not as good as boxed’) we will have a gluten free angel food cake celebration.  The birthday girl just happens to be coming off a week of liquids because of intense mouth pain  and so the light silkiness of an angel food cake is just what the doctor mother ordered. Maybe I’ll make the same Strawberry Angel Tunnel Cake pictured above, maybe not. We’ll see what the girl can eat.

Let’s go over what makes this cake successful before we get into the fray. Egg whites, sugar and flour are the most important ingredients.

It doesn’t matter if the egg whites are cold or at room temperature. It is the speed used to inflate them that counts, and you don’t have to own a power machine because some people use a wire whisk – imagine that!  Always start the eggs at a low speed and mix until the big bubbles disappear around the edges and the whites barely begin to form what might look like meringue before adding anything else.  In this recipe ingredients are added a little at a time and, using an electric mixer, you never have to go above medium speed.  You’re not looking to spackle the walls with it!

Sugar can be granulated or superfine. I chose superfine because it incorporates more quickly.  Superfine is hard to find so I make mine by whirring it in the blender for a few seconds, just long enough to make the granules less visible.  Adding it slowly assures thorough blending.

Flour is a big deal too.  There are plenty of gluten free options out there and most everyone has their own preference.  I’ve tried most of them and, let’s be honest, I can’t adjust to having flour taste like hummus or cardboard.  With an angel food cake the goal is to have a light silky end product. I turn to Jules All Purpose Gluten Free Flour when I want a superior product.  Her flour is as close to what I grew up with as I’ve been able to find. It’s a big deal to make something where no one has to ask if it’s gluten free.  One flour I used to use tasted like I’d mixed sand into it. It was awful!  Sifting is important with angel food cakes.  Light and no lumps is required. If you don’t have a sifter – I don’t – just whisk it with a wire whisk several times and even whisk it as you add it into the mix.

Slow baking, bottom shelf, turning it upside down once it’s finished and allowing it to fully cool that way for a few hours are all important.

Here goes:

You’ll need about 1 dozen eggs to make almost 2 cups of egg whites only. I found you can freeze the yolks. I did it in baggies of 4 yolks so that I can make things like Hollandaise Sauce and Pasta Carbonara. Pound Cake takes more yolks than whites too.

Place oven rack in the bottom 1/3 of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees.

1 dozen large egg whites (what ever it takes to equal a little more than 1 3/4 cups)

1 cup Jules All Purpose Gluten Free Flour (my preferred choice)

1 1/2 cups superfine sugar, divided into two equal *3/4 cup parts

Sift the other 3/4 cup sugar with the flour.

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/4 teaspoon table salt

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice

The ticket for success with angel food cake is the way you mix it. More power doesn’t equal a taller or lighter cake. I learned that there are many methods to increasing volume and sturdiness of meringue. So follow this and trust me, I’ve done a lot of research…..of course we don’t know how it will taste yet, do we?

Place egg whites in large clean bowl.

Beat on the lowest setting of your mixer until  large bubbles around the edge disappear and soft tight bubbles begin to form a bit of mounded shape. Add in the cream of tartar.

Then add 3/4 cup of sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing at medium speed.

Mix this until the meringue is shiny and soft peaks are forming. Don’t mix till peaks are stiff.

At this point go ahead and add the lemon juice, vanilla and almond extracts.  Mix just until blended. You can put the mixer away at this point and use a firm spatula for the next phase of folding in the flour/sugar mixture.

Fold the flour/sugar mixture and salt into the batter, 3 Tablespoons at a time, until all is folded in and no lumpy flour pockets remain.

This process should take about 5 minutes.

Once this is done you’re ready to pour the mixture into the angel food cake pan that has a removable bottom.  Run a spatula through the batter once it’s in the pan, then tap the pan a few times on the counter to make sure there are no bubbles left in the batter.

Bake the cake for 50-60 minutes until it is golden on the top and springs back when pressed firmly.

Oh baby, this looks like the real deal!  We shall see!

Invert the cake over a glass bottle or turn upside down if the pan has prongs on it like mine does.  The goal is to leave it that way for several hours until it is completely cooled to prevent it from falling back into the pan and becoming dense….I mean it IS Angel Food.

Since this cake will probably be covered in whipped cream and currently has little crumbs all over it, take a food brush and dust it off. That way it will be prettier and ready for icing.We’re ready to decorate.  My mother always used fresh flowers rather than making decorations out of icing.  Make sure if you do this you choose flowers and herbs that are not sprayed with chemicals and are edible choices. Mint, lilies, pansies, lilacs, violets, carnations and lemon verbena are some obvious choices and so pretty.

To prepare this tunnel cake take about an inch off the top of the cake and set it aside.Next create a tunnel inside the cake, making sure the bottom stays intact, and remove the pieces. Set pieces aside to be folded back in later.To prepare the filling you will need 15 1/2oz. sweetened condensed milk, 1 cup heavy whipped cream, 1 teaspoon almond extract, 1/3 cup lemon juice and 10 oz. chopped peaches (or 10 oz. frozen sliced strawberries) and the cake pieces that were removed.  The birthday girl chose fresh chopped peaches instead of strawberries.  2 more cups of whipped cream are needed to frost the cake.

Mix condensed milk, extract and lemon juice. Fold in the 1 cup of whipped cream. Chill 10 minutes. Take 1 1/2 cups of this mixture and fold in the little cake pieces and the peaches or strawberries. Spoon this mixture into the tunnel.Replace top of cake and prepare for frosting by brushing the crumbs away.

Now is the time to frost the cake. Because I used peaches I decided to add some peachy food coloring to the remaining frosting.  I used a combination of red and yellow to achieve a pretty pastel color.  It’s easier to frost a cake that has had the crumbs dusted off.  The frosting (in this case cream) sticks to the surface better.On to the transformation.  I washed and dried mint leaves and day lilies, then decorated the base of the cake with them.  Gold sugar sparkles made it festive!It was amazing with a touch of fresh raspberry sauce!

Meringue Swirls of Lavender and Lime

All spring we’ve been making these puffy clouds.  Cinco de Mayo brought orange and lemon flavors in red and green stripes; Kelly’s bridal shower produced orange and lime in a pretty apricot shade; today a walk through my garden gave me an idea.  

Lavender is amazing.  Beautiful, fragrant and delightful to cook with.  As a member of the mint family it has a refreshingly astringent taste.  Each year I gather stems just as the buds are opening and hang them to dry.  Then I keep them in airtight containers for cooking.  Pretty soft lavender blossoms are pretty sprinkled over cakes; steeped in milk and then strained out for lavender scones and lavender panna cotta.  When my children were small we’d make a drink called Lavender and Lime.  It was delicious and refreshing  for a summer afternoon by the pond.  Why not swirl lavender and lime zest into meringue cookies?

This morning as I considered how to describe what makes meringue cookies so special (I confess I had never once chosen them from a cookie tray).  Until you sink your teeth…not so, no teeth required… until you press one to your lips you haven’t encountered the beauty of pillows of flavor bursting in your mouth.  If we could dine on clouds!Elle snapped this photo at a  picnic in the Laurel Highlands.

Don’t be frightened by past meringue failures. Meringue always flopped for me until I finally researched.  If you think meringue is difficult this recipe should help.

SOME TIPS

1. Egg whites room temperature and not fresh from the hen

2. Oven temperatures very low and it takes a long time

3. Best to use metal or glass bowls

4. Even a tiny amount of egg yolk or fat/oil will prevent eggs from whipping properly

5. Don’t do this when it is humid in the house.

If this information discourages you maybe you should not try these – but come now – are you kidding?  Think of it as an art experiment.

8. There are three methods of making meringue: Swiss, French and Italian. I encourage you to look this site over http://www.epicureanpiranha.com/2010/meringue-types-techniques/. She has done her homework.  I’ve tried them all and they all work as long as you apply the aforementioned 5 rules.

While this recipe uses lavender and lime, you can just as easily make them vanilla bean, orange, lemon, almond; use your imagination and have fun.

*The tiny holes you see in the meringues I made are because I did this last night and I think we were at 80% humidity. Should have seen that one coming – we’ve had torrential rainfall since midnight.

YOU WILL NEED:

4 egg whites

1 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar or vinegar

pinch salt

2 tablespoons dried lavender buds

1 teaspoon lime zest

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract or 1/4 vanilla bean, scraped

parchment paper or Silpat

food color gel

small paint brush

pastry bag and large tip (I’ll show you)

Great tool!

METHOD:

Divide eggs. Save yolks for something like Pasta Carbonara or pound cake

Take the lavender buds and sugar and whirl them in a food processor until they are blended and the sugar isn’t completely powdered but fine. Then stir in the lime zest.To the bowl of room temperature egg whites add the cream of tartar/vinegar, vanilla and pinch of salt.  With electric mixer beat whites at high speed for about 30-45 seconds until white and foamyContinuing to beat on high speed add sugar, 1/4 cup at a time. Beat just until all is incorporated.  Following are some photos that will show the stages the meringue goes through until it is ready. It has to be very firm to hold it’s shape through the baking process.

Starting to hold shape

NOT YET

PERFECTION!

At this stage the meringue can take on any shape at all and hold it beautifully.

Now how to make those swirls:

Take the assembled pastry bag with the large tip on the end, lay it on the counter and make sure it’s open.  If you use a jar, take a tiny paint brush and draw three very thin lines, spaced evenly, up the sides of the bag -starting from down at the base and draw lines to about two inches from the top.  If you use a tube of gel it will make a perfect line, no brush needed. Then place the bag carefully inside a sturdy glass or something similar so that you can fill it with meringueCarefully fill the bag with meringue, pushing it gently down to the bottom.  Don’t worry if a little of the gel smears, it will still work.Twisting from the top to add pressure and force the meringue out, start making small circles on the silpat or parchment on a cookie sheet.  As you make the circle use less pressure as you reach the top and allow it to form a peak.Space them just so the edges don’t touch.

Place them on the middle rack of a preheated to 250 degree oven (for meringues that are about 1 1/2 inches in diameter).  If you choose to make larger meringues you may want to use a 300 degree oven.  Bake them for somewhere between one and two hours, checking to see that they don’t brown.  The goal is to cook them very slowly, which allows them to dry thoroughly.  It is advisable to then turn the oven to off and let them remain in the oven with the door closed for several more hours or over night.  A test when you are checking them is that they don’t feel at all sticky when touched lightly.  And beyond that test is that they don’t adhere at all to the parchment or silpat when lifted.  When all that is good, turn off the oven and leave them to finish drying.  Not doing this will result in gummy or deflated meringues-pillows-clouds

Orange and Vanilla Bean Meringues – why won’t this photo turn upright?

Giant Lemon and Orange Meringues make pretty Bridal Shower favors

Simple Bruschetta

You saw this in my bread recipe.

It’s all I eat all summer. I have very little to say about this bruschetta recipe. It’s delicious. Garlicy. Summery. Balsamic vinegary. All of the best things. You can make it in less than five minutes and pair it with bread and wine and a porch. In this recipe, I used fresh frozen basil from a brand called Dorot that sells trays of cubed herbs. My boss picked up a container for me from Trader Joes, and I have used it to add that uniquely summer taste to everything from scrambled eggs to spaghetti.

Enjoy.

Simple Bruschetta
Makes 2-3 Servings

1 large tomato, chopped
1/2 clove garlic, diced
1/2 cube Dorot basil, or a small handful fresh basil, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

In a medium bowl, combine the tomato, garlic, basil, olive oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper. Stir until wholly combined. Set aside at room temperature for at least 15 minutes – time allows the flavors to blend – before eating.

Candied Violets and Lilac Blossoms

They are beautiful. They are exotic. They are delicious.

Have you ever eaten a flower?  They taste exactly like they smell, and taking time to crystallize them is artfully therapeutic.

However, if you are hoping for a buddy to assist you’ll probably need to bribe them.  I’m thinking wine but if you don’t drink – this takes tons of time – I’m still thinking wine.

OR…

this could be the perfect distraction for the “chat” you need to have with ____.  Both will be so engaged in candying flowers that there will be no awkwardness.  Where was this idea when I was stumbling through awkward chats?

The photo below is of our beautiful lilacs under branch breaking wet snow. This was dubbed Snowpril by the media.  The biggest snow in late April in recent memory.

And this…

…made me pick all these sweet violets and lilacs so they would not freeze.

Candying (crystallizing) flowers kind of suspends them in time.  I like that!  In December I can bite into one of the tiny lilac flowers, close my eyes, and be back in May for a moment.  That will be very nice, let alone how beautiful they are even underneath a layer of crisp sugar.

THESE ARE SO BEAUTIFUL.

Enough tiny flowers that will be lovely on cakes or petit fours, cupcakes.   I learned how to do something new, all because of a big bad storm. I work several jobs, most of us do; you know how life gets going and you can’t stop until one day you take a deep breath and say “Where did Spring go?”.  “I think I missed it.”.

To get started you will need bunches of very fresh edible flowers: violets, lilacs, borage, pansies, rose petals and even mint leaves.

Very Important:  Do NOT ever use flowers that have had chemicals used on them.  If there is any uncertainty do not use them.

Choose only perfect flowers and leaves that have not begun to wilt at all.  This is important.  Even the smallest amount of wilting will collapse under the little bit of weight of egg wash and sugar. Look back at the lilacs under that wet snow.  A healthy fresh flower has amazing staying power.  That was a 48 hour heavy snow they survived.

Egg White(1): beaten with a fork until frothy (If you have concern about raw eggs choose instead powdered egg whites found on the grocery store shelf).

Refined Sugar(1 cup) : (not powdered, not granulated)  Can take granulated sugar, whir it in a blender for about 15 seconds and it becomes what is called refined sugar.  Too long and it becomes powdered

Waxed paper, 2 small bowls and a small paint brush for each person.  Also, a cookie sheet or cooling rack to on which to dry flowers.  To store, you will need a tin or plastic container to layer flowers between waxed paper so they will keep for up to a year.  If tightly sealed, the flowers can be frozen in the container and keep longer than a year.

You are ready to start.  Remember – only fully fresh flowers. Discard weak or fading flowers.

Here is an example of perfect:

Take the paint brush and dip it into the foamy egg whites and literally paint every exposed part of the flower, including the inside and the back and tops of the stem.

This takes time so just let go and give yourself over to it.   I’ve read about the idea of immersing the whole flour into the egg whites to save time, and some flowers might do okay but mine got all snarly and bunched up and it ended up either ruining them or I had to take even more time unfolding the petals again.  Just go for the right method.  Put the flower on the waxed paper if it helps.  Then you will immerse the flower in the refined sugar, again making sure every visible part is covered.

After that process is finished make sure the petals look the way you want them to and place the flower gently onto the waxed paper to dry

Do the same with lilac blossoms.  Lilacs separate in small “bouguets” and can be candied  like I did in the photo above, or do individual flowers.  Lilacs are much easier to work with than violets because they are sturdier.

Candied flowers should be saved for only extremely special occasions or gifted to someone who will appreciate them.

Fresh lilacs on a carrot cake!

Cooking with Saffron; A Means to a Beautiful Garden End

Spring is in the air and in the ground.  Purple and golden crocuses are dotting the landscape, hugging the ground against the unpredictable weather.  It was a surprising discovery to learn that the incredibly expensive saffron spice  comes from a lowly crocus.  Even more surprising was the discovery that the saffron crocus, Crocus Sativus, grows easily where I live.  See the long red saffron threads below? They are known as “red-gold.”

I had passed over many recipes because of the cost prohibitive little vials of saffron.  Then we had a special dinner party where my husband requested Spanish Paella to celebrate his memories of Spain.  I believe I spent $17 on a tiny glass jar containing three delicate threads of saffron wrapped in paper. The threads are so delicate they must be picked carefully by hand, ergo the whopping price tag. Paella would not be authentic without the threads.  Moors brought Crocus Sativus (autumn blooming saffron crocus) to Spain a few hundred years after their conquest. Paella is a very pretty dish with things like sausage, mussels, shrimp, tomatoes, and peppers tucked into the huge pan of scented rice, and every region of Spain boasts it’s own take on the dish.


The scent of saffron is somewhat elusive.  Dusty and slightly bitter but sweet is the best I can offer, other than that I’d say it tastes like a flower, which it is.  Since I’ve not eaten many flowers you see how I’m going in circles with this? I read one report that likens it to honey and fresh cut grass.

Let’s go back to the fun part of this story where the saffron crocus grows cheerfully in western Pennsylvania.  I like that.  If there’s a way to have the most expensive spice in the world and get it by going out into the back yard  to harvest the stigma’s of this crocus I’d think that’s pretty fine. Imagine the small cottage industry potential! They increase in numbers over the years, just like any other crocus.  

Here’s the little lady showing off her first blooms last fall.  We planted her in honor of our Rosie girl, the best dog ever.  She had a great appetite – we knew she’d approve.  A brief history of how central Pennsylvania became a major exporter of saffron: The ancestors of the Pennsylvania Dutch widely grew this crocus in Europe and brought it with them when they left and came to America for religious freedom.  Saffron cultivation into the modern culinary world can be traced to these diligent farmers. It is generally accepted that saffron grown in this area is the finest in the world.

Just reading the romantic history of saffron and that I can grow it makes me want to make some tasty something with it. Since Spanish Paella, which blends a multitude of flavors, is the only dish I remember using it in, I’d like to try something that showcases the delicate nature of saffron.

If saffron has been mysterious to you and you love to garden, this could be an interesting multifaceted experience.  Let’s see where it goes and maybe we’ll all be planting the lovely Crocus Sativus this coming autumn!