Saturday, May 29, 2010

Vintage Veggie + Memorial Day Feast: Wacky Cake

I haven't been baking much since Christmas, because the oven in my old apartment didn't work very well and I didn't have an excuse such as a pending holiday to drive to my mother's and usurp her oven.  However, Eric and I have moved to a sublet, pending a further move closer to Fall, and the oven here seems to work fine.  Expect more baking recipes, as I really love to bake and I can do it all I want to now.

I have long wanted to try this recipe for "Wacky Cake", a World War II-era chocolate cake recipe that is fascinating in the way it showcases the degree to which rationing impacted the American table.  A cake recipe like this seems rather odd to us, with its relatively sparse chocolate usage and commands to dig holes in the mixed dry ingredients, and pour some of the wet ingredients in the holes in order to produce a chemical leavening reaction because eggs were in short supply.  A cake such as this would have probably been a special event, as chocolate itself was hard to come by in 1942.

I found this version of Wacky Cake in America's Best Lost Recipes, by the editors of Cook's Country Magazine.  They found it in The Time Reader's Book of Recipes (1949), where it had been submitted by a Mrs. Donald Adam of Detroit, Michigan.  I did not tweak this recipe much at all, as I wanted to pay a Memorial Day tribute to wartime scarcity by being as accurate as was possible within my budget.

Wacky Cake

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup natural cocoa powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons vegetable oil (NB: I used olive oil, because I dislike vegetable oil in cooking and hadn't been baking enough to warrant buying any for baking)
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup water
confectioner's sugar (to be dusted over the cake when done)

Part 1.

Adjust an oven rack so that it is right in the middle of the oven, and preheat to 350 degrees.  Grease an 8-inch square baking pan.  (I used margarine because I wanted to be authentic.)

Part 2.

Whisk the dry ingredients together in the pan.  Make one large and two small craters in the dry ingredients.  (This is where I had problems, as my craters crumbled rather quickly once I started filling them with stuff.  It didn't seem to hurt the recipe, but the ingredients did mix a little more quickly then they were supposed to.)  Add the oil to the large crater and vinegar and vanilla to their own individual craters.  Mix these ingredients while pouring the cup of water into the pan.  (You should hear a fizzing sound.)  Mix until only a few little streaks of flour remain in the pan.

Part 3.

Bake for thirty minutes.  Dust with powdered sugar before it cools.

Verdict:  This really needs more chocolate, but otherwise I was surprised by how moist and fluffy it was.  Yay, chemistry!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Vegetarian in a Meat Eater's World: Redbones, Davis Square, Somerville

"I see no entrees without meat in them," Eric said, glancing over his menu at me, "except the Portabello Mushroom Sandwich. We can't both eat one thing, should we just order appetizers?"  I glanced at my menu and took a sip of Sam's Summer*,  "I don't see why not, I've never tried succotash."

We had come to Redbones because summer was coming and we wanted to try something different.  Redbones is something of a local favorite with Tufts and Harvard students: the surf shack decor, the cheap booze, the affordable food, the fact that it is one of the few places in the Greater Boston Area where you can get decent barbecue.  Eric and I are past our student days, and barbecue is not really on our radar.  Our visit was made in the spirit of experiment:  what would two vegetarians eat for dinner at a place called Redbones?

"Well," I said, "I call dibs on the mushroom sandwich.  They have a veggie burger option, but I don't know... I've had bad experiences with those.  Does the spelling of chicken as "chik'n" indicate that they're using fake meat?"
"I don't know, we'll ask."
"Mmmmm.  I've always wanted to try hush puppies, ever since the characters ate them in Summer of My German Soldier."
"And the garlic mashed potatoes look good, and maybe succotash? It looks meatless."
"What exactly is succotash?"
"Well, here it's made of lima beans, corn, onions, and peppers."
"Weird. I always pictured it as more of a fried-spinach type thing, like ravis."

The waitress came to our table and took our orders, the "chik'n sandwich," sadly, was made of real chicken, so we pigged out on the cornbread.  The cornbread was made of the fine, white corn meal that is a hallmark of Southern and Midwestern cooking (Sarah Vowell talks about it in her famous Thanksgiving essay), but is relatively hard to get in the Northeast.  I ordered my mushroom sandwich, and Eric got three appetizers: the mashed potatoes, succotash, and hush puppies.

Our food arrived quickly.  My mushroom burger was wonderful, well fried and with a satisfying sense of chewiness.  The "onion merlot jam" was merely a certain type of pickled onion, and was delicious.  It came with an unremarkable side salad that Eric and I shared.  Eric's appetizers were really big, an entire plate of garlic potatoes, a big bowl of succotash, and another plate of hush puppies.  No one was going to go hungry eating any of those dishes.  I asked to try a hush puppy, and Eric graciously let me grab one off his plate and dunk it in the garlic sauce.  It reminded me a bit of the french fries I used to get at chippies in Edinburgh: vaguely oniony, crisply fried starch soaked in vinegar.  Comfort food.  I also cadged a forkful of garlic potatoes (real potatoes, just the right amount of garlic, wonderful), and finished off his succotash when he got full.  (It tasted a little like minestrone, except more bland.)

The results of this experiment: any vegetarian can go to Redbones with his or her meat-eating friends and be assured of something to eat.  However, it would probably not be a good place to regularly go for dinner. Obtaining a pre-date snack, though, should be no trouble at all.

*I have an allergy to some preservatives in alcohol, so you'll find few reviews of local brews (or, for that matter, red or rose wines) on this blog.  I just stick to the boring offerings I know are "safe".

Monday, May 17, 2010

Finally, I Got the Thai Noodles Right

Finally, after a week of trial and error, the vegetarian version of Ruth Reichl's "Not Quite Thai Noodles".

The Sauce

3 heaping tablespoons of peanut butter  (chunky is the best, because the peanuts fry up with a nice crackle)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 tablespoon garlic powder
soysauce to taste
siracha sauce to taste

Carefully pour the 1/4th cup olive oil into a pan and heat up slowly.  Add the curry and garlic powders and sauté.  Slowly stir in the three tablespoons of peanut butter, making sure that each spoonful melts.  Warning: it might froth slightly, if it's frothing alarmingly -- and you will know what that looks like when you see it, turn the heat down.  (It's sad how long it took for that to occur to me.)

Slowly stir the chopped vegetables of your choice into this sauce.  If the mixture gets sticky or catches on the bottom of the pan, add a little water and thin out the sauce before you add more vegetables.  Do not use spinach.  Any strong vegetable with a flavor that can hold its own will be fine:  broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms, carrots, peppers.

The Noodles

1 large packet of rice noodles (I like Wai-Wai Rice Noodles.)
1 pot of water
olive oil

Boil the noodles following the directions on the packet.  Grab a bigger pan and grease it up with some olive oil.  Then stir fry the noodles, slowly adding the sauce and vegetables.  (You can also just pile up the sauce and veggies on the plain noodles, which is my favorite way to eat them.)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Bad Luck With The Noodles, or "Cookery with other conceits and secrets"

I was going to post a vegetarian version of Ruth Reichl"s "Not  Quite Thai Noodles" this week, but that will have to wait. My attempts at test piloting that recipe have met with mixed results.  (The peanut butter either foams or scorches in seconds, there is no happy flavoring medium. I'm all Thai noodled out right now.)  So instead, I have dug into my roots as a historian, Museum Educator, and former teacher of colonial cooking to girl scout groups, and have brought you the following recipe for "A Spinnage Tart":

"Take good store of Spinage and boyl it in a Pipkin with White-Wine till it be very soft as pap.  Strain it well into a pewter dish, not leaving any part unstrained.  Then put to it Rose-water, great store of Sugar and cinamon and boyl it till it be thick as Marmalad.  Let it coole and after fill your Coffin and adorn it.  Serve it in all points as you did your Pruen-Tart.  And this carrieth the colour green."*

We did not ever have the kids cook this one, they mostly baked gingerbread, but I love the language of this little recipe.  I contemplated test piloting this recipe for a while, but I've already destroyed enough defenseless food this week.

*Taken from Gervaise Markham's 1630 cookbook Housewive's Skill in Cookery, aka The English Housewife.  Reprint 1991 The Stony Press.

Friday, May 7, 2010

A little Feastlet: "Scotland Summer" Salad Dressing

I made up this salad when I was a starving American student abroad in the UK, unable to afford... much of anything.  (American-style salad dressing is expensive over there, and I dislike creamy salad dressings so the British-style use of mayo or salad cream didn't really do anything for me.)

Throw chopped cheddar cheese on salad comprised of lettuce, tomato, etc.  Drizzle olive oil and siracha hot sauce over your choice of salad fixin's.    Add whatever other spices may pop into your head (with me it was usually pepper).

Serve with a cheap bottle of Sainsbury's plonk or a pint of Three Shilling.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Battle of the Boston Area Fast Food Joints: Chic Yuppie Lunch Places

I've been waking up at five in the morning for a new work assignment across town. I also spend a lot of time visiting elderly relatives and working on this blog.  Eric does a lot of volunteer work, and therefore our days and evenings can be pretty busy, verging on exhausting.  The upshot of this schedule is that by Thursday or Friday we're  feeling very little desire to cook, or sometimes even eat.  That is where these two restaurants come in:  they offer reasonably priced, relatively uncomplicated vegetarian meals, and they're big enough chains so that their food is easy to pick up on a half hour break or on the way home from work.


(Full Disclosure:  Eric worked for the Cosi chain a few years after college and was really very fond of it. His fondness has probably unintentionally colored my keen critical senses.  You have been warned.) At six bucks for the cheapest vegetarian item on the menu, Cosi is probably the more expensive of the two restaurants I'm reviewing today.  It offers a reasonable amount of vegetarian choices: a full Cosi* offers flat-bread margherita pizza, tomato or (on Thursday) lentil soup, and a selection of three vegetable sandwiches (the fire-roasted veggie, the hummus and veggie, and the "TBM").  I'm completely in love with their "TBM", a cold tomato and basil sandwich containing mozzarella so fresh it verges on fluffiness, drizzled with a light balsamic vinaigrette containing just a hint of mustard.  The critic in me wants to try other menu items, but I just love the "TBM" so much I can't quite see my way to shelling out more cash for something that is not a  "TBM."

They also make their own iced green tea, the taste of which is reminiscent of real southern Sweet Tea (as drunk by me on all of my trips to Florida): just the right hint of lemon, and without being so nauseatingly over sugared in the way of so many northern attempts at Sweet Tea.


Boloco (short for "Boston Local Company"), is a little too "crunchy granola" for my tastes, but it could possibly be the most vegetarian friendly restaurant I have ever set foot in.  I can't believe I had a store down the street from my apartment for the past year I've been living here, and I've been trying to position myself as a restaurant critic, and yet I'd never eaten there before last week.  They are wonderful for vegetarians because their burritos start out vegetarian and you can choose to add meat if you would like.  What a refreshing change from going to a restaurant and having to ask to have something cooked without meat!  Anyway, the burritos come in different types: all of which feature some combination of rice, beans, and a sauce or salsa.  They also have not one but two (an entire two!) vegetarian add in options along with their meat options: roasted vegetables and tofu.  Prices start from $3.95 for a "disturbingly small" standard burrito, and the price goes up depending on the size of the burrito and how much you want added to it.

I'm dying to try the Nutella shake, but I think that will be a different article.  ("Comparative Frappes" is definitely going to happen sometime this summer.)

* Full Cosi restaurants are open at night instead of simply for the breakfasts and lunches of city office workers.