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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Irish Soda Bread and Being Polish

I am Polish. I am not from Poland.  Neither are my parents.  And neither were their parents. I don't speak Polish, unfortunately, and neither do my parents.  But I am proud to say that my heritage is all Polish.  My great-grandparents were the ones who came across the ocean from Poland.  I have a complicated Polish last name.  And I know how to pronounce the word "pierogi" correctly.  So I guess I am an American of Polish descent.  We Poles aren't known for much in popular culture.  We don't have popular foods, like the Italians do.  We don't have a day, like St. Patrick's day.  Our ancient history isn't fascinating, like that of Egypt.  We don't have a reputation for being especially funny or romantic or thrifty, like other ethnicities have.  We have the Polka, but it's not really very popular.  I mean, I don't even think they do it on Dancing With The Stars.  And so, while perusing Polish recipes to try out for Easter, I decided to try Irish Soda Bread.

I have seen my parents make golabki, I've joined my sister-in-law in her yearly pierogi-making, and I've helped my grandma make chrusciki.  And these dishes, like most Polish dishes I know of, all have two things in common.  They taste great, and they are a pain to make.  It's a long, multi-stepped process for each.  Some can take hours to make.  I honestly don't know any Polish foods I can just whip together.  Those Poles really devoted a lot of time to their cooking.

Being Polish isn't easy.  The language looks like it should be impossible to pronounce. Usually people can't get past the first three letters of my last name, and there's a lot more than three letters in it.  There is no time of year or popular food or tourist hotspot that we can point to and say, "Yup, that's ours!"  The one thing I can say that the Poles know for sure is difficulty.  Our history is racked with invasions, one heart-breaking occupation after another.  During the entire 19th century, there was no independent Polish state. But even though every revolution and uprising was crushed, they survived, with their faith and their language and their culture.  My grandma, like so many Poles before her, had an unshakable faith.  And the fact that Poles have overcome so many challenges and hard times for so long is source of pride.  This is where I come from.

Being Polish isn't easy.  You want to speak Polish?  The pronunciation alone is a challenge. Good luck.  You want to make Polish food?  You better know what you're doing and have a whole day to spare.  You want to dance the Polka?  Go ahead, but I'll warn you, it's not all that cool.  You want to learn about Polish history?  You better be ready to read heart-breaking books like Forgotten Holocaust and Poland Betrayed.

In my attempt to reconnect with my Polish roots, I looked up some babka recipes to try out and was struck by how difficult they are.  Difficulty is our heritage.  The simplicity and ease of Irish Soda Bread looked a lot more promising.  So, I made that instead, and it was absolutely delicious.  I got the recipe from All Recipes and made a few changes of my own.  I substituted half the flour for whole wheat pastry flour.  I didn't have enough raisins (the recipe calls for three cups of raisins), so I used one cup of raisins and one cup of dried cranberries, which turned out very tasty.  The recipe called for a cup of sour cream, but I substituted Greek yogurt.  The recipe also calls for caraway seeds, which I didn't use.  (I don't even know what caraway seeds are.)  The directions require you to knead the dough a little, but I don't think that is necessary--the dough is really sticky and you'll end up making kind of a mess.  All in all, a simple recipe resulted in a delicious sweet bread which I recommend eating warm with a smear of butter.  Mmmm.  So good.

So, here you go. Irish Soda Bread. Happy St. Patty's Day! (Hang in there, Polish babka. Your turn will come.)

Irish Soda Bread
From All Recipes

1/2 cup white sugar
4 cups all-purpose flour (I used 2 cups all-purpose flour and 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour) 
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups raisins (I used 1 cup raisins and 1 cup dried cranberries)
1 tablespoon caraway seeds (I did not use these)
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
1 cup sour cream (I used 1 cup Greek yogurt)

Preheat oven to 350. Grease a 9 inch round cast iron skillet or a 9 inch round baking or cake pan.

In a mixing bowl, combine flour (reserving 1 tablespoon), sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, raisins and caraway seeds. In a small bowl, blend eggs, buttermilk and sour cream. Stir the liquid mixture into flour mixture just until flour is moistened. Knead dough in bowl about 10 to 12 strokes. Dough will be sticky. Place the dough in the prepared skillet or pan and pat down. Cut two 3/4-inch deep slits in the top of the bread in a cross. Dust with reserved flour.

Bake 65 to 75 minutes. (Mine was done after only 55 minutes.) Let cool and turn bread onto a wire rack.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Best Chocolate Chocolate Cupcakes and Failure

For a while now, I have been hesitating to post my chocolate cupcake recipe because it wasn't absolutely perfect.  When it comes to chocolate cupcakes, my standards are pretty high. 

Mary's Requirements for Chocolate Cupcakes:

1. They must have a winning chocolate taste.  As a chocoholic, taste is the first and most important requirement. All ingredients must bow to the chocolatey taste as their primary goal.

2. They must be super moist.  No dry, crumbly chocolate cupcakes for me. 

3. They must be fluffy without being too light.  As far the texture is concerned, as Goldilocks would say, they have to be "just right." 

4. They must dome up, having a slightly rounded tops.  Flat top cupcakes are unattractive, and cupcakes that dome up too much are just trying too hard.  This requirement has no bearing on the taste.  This is an issue of aesthetics.  I know a cute little frosting swirl will cover the flat top, but a perfect chocolate cupcake needs the cute domed top.

I found a recipe that fulfilled the first three requirements beautifully, but try as I might, the fourth requirement was a hit or miss.  Sometimes, no matter how much they would puff up in the oven, as soon as I would take them out, they would flatten out.  I tweaked and I adjusted but still couldn't pull off a fool-proof dome.  I've tried filling the cupcake tins halfway, two-thirds, three-fourths, and (as I did this time) almost completely full, but the perfect shape continues to be elusive.  And so, I considered it unworthy of blogging.  But, the fact of the matter is that even though they aren't perfect, this is the best chocolate cupcake recipe I have.

My mother often says, "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing wrong," meaning if there is something you need to do, don't worry about getting it perfect, just get it done.  But I worry about getting things perfect.  I worry that my efforts aren't going be the best.  Maybe someone will taste my best chocolate chip cookies and think "Eh, I've eaten better."  Maybe someone will hear me sing one of my favorite jazz tunes and think "She sings this too slow."  Maybe I need to wait until my efforts are without question the most perfect I can put forth.  I am afraid of failing, and so sometimes I don't try.

My mother is right.  Maybe my cupcakes, my cookies, my songs, or my apologies aren't perfect, but fail or not, these things are important, and so they are worth doing, even if they are done poorly.  Instead of being afraid of failure, I should learn to embrace it.  Keep trying, keep failing, but keep going.  It's a hard lesson to remember, but an important one.

And so here they are.  My best chocolate cupcakes topped with a dark chocolate frosting recipe I found on Beantown Baker.  They may not  keep their cute little rounded tops after you take them out of the oven.  But in my humble opinion, the taste is absolutely unbeatable.  And Beantown Baker's dark chocolate frosting truly is an amazing addition.  You will love these chocolately babies as much as I do.  

Mary's Dark Chocolate Cupcakes 
(a.k.a., Hershey's Especially Dark Chocolate Cake, tweaked and adapted by me)

2 cups sugar
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup Hershey's Special Dark Cocoa
1 tsp baking powder
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup boiling water


1. Heat oven to 350.  Prepare cupcake tins with liners.

2.  Stir together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl.  Add eggs, milk, oil, and vanilla; beat on medium speed of mixer for 2 minutes.  Stir in boiling water (batter will be thin).  Pour batter into prepared cupcake tins.

3.  Bake 22 to 26 minutes or until tops spring back at touch.  Cool 5 minutes in pan; remove from pans to wire racks.  Cool completely.

Dark Chocolate Frosting
Adapted from Beantown Baker, who adapted it from My Baking Heart
(The original recipe wasn't enough, so I expanded it a bit)

8 Tbsp butter

2 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
4 cups powdered sugar
1 cup dark cocoa powder
½ cup milk

Cream butter and vanilla.   In a separate bowl, combine powdered sugar and cocoa powder. Add dry ingredients to creamed mixture. Slowly add milk until frosting reaches desired consistency, then beat another 5 minutes until creamy.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

My first Apple Pie and a Tribute to Grandma

My grandma made wonderful apple pies.  She often had a pie in her refridge, usually either apple, lemon, or chocolate.  To her, making a pie was easy as...well, pie.  My mother makes equally good pies--only, her approach always involves a little drama over if there will be enough pie dough to cover the pie (there always is) or whether the crust will come out okay (it always does).  And then there's me.  A little wary of attempting the same recipes my mother and grandma made with so much success, I steered clear of baking pies.  But it's high time for pie time, and in honor of the AMAZING women in my family, a few months ago, I attempted my very own apple pie.

My Grandma is the type of person who keeps going and never looks back.  Before she became severely ill with Alzheimer's disease, no matter how difficult her life got, she never felt sorry for herself.  When times got tough, she got tougher.  She loved to dance and never missed a polka dance at her church.  She always listened to the Saturday morning polka program on the radio and danced in her little living room.  She loved dressing up at Halloween, and frequently told us about the time she went to her church Halloween party as "Apple Annie" complete with wig and mask, and nobody knew who she was.  Her house on Christmas Eve was just about as close to heaven as I've ever experienced.

Grandma had a lot of sayings and advice, both famous and infamous in our family.  Here are a few "Grandma-isms":

     On love, a job, or pretty much anything: "Say a novena."

     On men:  "Kick him in the pants!"

     On marriage, to her daughters: "Never let a man know you can do anything, or you'll be doing it the rest of your life."

     On politics:  "That darn Constitution!"

     On the top health/beauty cure-all:  "Bag balm."

     On general frustration with the rest of the family: "You people."

     On good apple pie: "Use 20 Ounce apples."

And so a few months ago, my Grandma in mind, I opened up my mother's recipe book and took a look at the hand written recipe.  The recipe contains minimal instructions for the pie and none for the crust.  Nevertheless, I forged ahead.

I decided to deviate from the recipe a little and used half whole wheat pastry flour for crust (I consider fruity desserts a "health food" and usually try to boost the health factor by using whole wheat flour.)

The pie came out wonderfully, and I can honestly say I have conquered my pie fears.  I don't think my pie was as good as Grandma's, but I don't mind that.  Grandma can hold the title for Best Apple Pie Baker forever, as long as I am concerned.

Apple Pie

Pie Crust for Double Pie

2 cups flour (I used half whole wheat pastry flour)
1 tsp salt 
3/4 cup Crisco
1/4 cup cold water

Mix the salt and flour together in a large bowl, and then cut the Crisco in with a pastry fork.  Sprinkle in the water.  Form two balls of dough to roll out.  Lay one half of the dough in a pie pan, and use the other half to cover pie.

Pie Filling

4 large 20 Ounce apples (I used 5)
3/4 cup sugar 
1/8 tsp salt
2 tbsp flour
1 tsp cinnamon
If apples are ripe, add a little lemon juice.
1 tbsp butter

Mix sugar, salt, cinnamon, and flour in a small bowl and set aside.  Peel and slice apples into a large bowl, then stir in sugar mixture.  Add lemon juice if necessary.  Pour apple mixture into prepared pie pan.  Dot butter over apples, and cover with other pie crust, folding the edges.   Brush top crust with egg yolk, if desired.  (I didn't do that, but I'll try it next time.)  Bake at 425 for 15 minutes, then 350 for 45 minutes or until golden brown.