February 20, 2012

Texas Pecans

Lately, I've been wanting to make a German Chocolate cake, which is our favorite cake around here. I missed a January birthday and I missed Valentine's Day. Easter's coming up quickly. I decided I needed to make more of an effort to get this done.

To make the traditional coconut-pecan frosting for the German Chocolate cake, one needs to have some nice pecans.

After a cold and rainy Friday and Saturday, the Sunday skies were blue and clear. The cool, crisp weather invited one to venture outdoors to take advantage of the day, so I chose this day to take a short roadtrip that's been on my To Do list for a while.

I've not had good luck in the past couple of years in buying pecans from the grocery. It doesn't matter which store, or which brand; they all seem to taste a bit rancid. I've checked the best-used-by dates before my purchases, I've returned them to the store, I've written emails to the companies, I've gotten my money back, numerous times. It's hit or miss, usually miss, and it wastes a lot of my time when they're not right.

I finally gave up buying them from the grocery store and when the need arises for pecans, I just go to a place called Potter's, which is not too far away (if you live in Texas and are used to driving long distances to get anywhere). Potter's is kind of a tourist place, the kind of place located in a small town along the highway, where you might exit to buy gas or pick up something to drink. To get more value from the trip, we stopped for Sunday lunch at Schobels, where the baked ham, fried chicken and fresh vegetables tasted almost like what you'd get at Grandma's house on Sunday afternoons in the past (and there are no dishes to wash).

I was too stuffed after the delicious meal to accept any of the samples of roasted caramel or cinnamon pecans that the sales assistants were passing around. My goal was the 3-lb. container of the fresh shelled pecan halves. They were grown right there in Schulenburg, and they tasted so fresh and full of pecan goodness.

But they were dear. I brushed aside the thought that paying $45.00 for pecans was completely ridiculous, and did I really need pecans so badly that I just couldn't get a $6.00 bag at the Wal-Mart down the street from me? It was a fleeting thought, however, because these will last awhile--several cakes and chocolate chip cookie batches' worth and the quality is just so much better.

They also sell bags of Pecan Meal, which I've purchased in the past, that I use in breadings for fish and such. I've noticed that Texans seem to prefer pecans over other nuts and I'm no different. I add them to everything I can. They are great for sprinkling over green salads too.

There were recipe brochures available on the counter and you know I took one. Nutritious and Delicious Texas Pecans (not dated) was published by the Texas Pecan Growers Association and is just a small fold-out single page. There are four recipes (Savory Pecan Cheese Balls, Pecan Cupcake Brownies, Helen's Coconut Cake and Sauteed Trout with Pecans) along with the nutrients found in shelled pecans listed on the back. Pecans are another heart healthy food with no sodium, trans fat or cholesterol. Never mind (again) that I will mix them up with sugar and butter which may not be quite so heart healthy. I consider the brochure an added bonus, to slightly offset the price of the pecans. (Another added bonus were the two give-away ball point pens that just happen to be my favorite style of gimme pen. The bank won't let me have any more so I get them when I can.)

The cookbook that I use for my frosting recipe is the Baker's Book of Chocolate Riches (1983, 96 pp). It's a spiral bound hardcover that I remember sending away for in the mail back in the early 80s. Although I have made the cake from scratch using the recipe inside, I must confess that most often I use a Duncan Hines German Chocolate cake mix, which usually tastes better than mine anyway. (I'm not too fussy about cake mixes. A homemade cake that's made with a cake mix is still far superior to a cake that you buy from the store (excluding some of the fancy-dancy bakeries.) I do, however, use the recipe for the Coconut-Pecan Filling and Frosting. The recipe says that you can use either heavy cream or evaporated milk to make the frosting, and I always use the evaporated milk because I think that's part of what makes it taste so good. That, and the fresh pecans. (I always use real butter too.)

Coconut-Pecan Filling and Frosting: Combine 1 cup evaporated milk or heavy cream, 1 cup sugar, 3 slightly beaten egg yolks, 1/2 cup butter or margarine and 1 teaspoon vanilla in saucepan. Cook and stir over medium heat until mixture thickens, about 12 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in 1-1/2 cups (about) Baker's Angel Flake coconut and 1 cup chopped pecans. Cool until of spreading consistency, beating occasionally. Makes 2-1/2 cups.

I don't go to a lot of trouble making a layer cake because it doesn't last long enough to take the extra time. I use a 9x13 pan and just slather the frosting over the top.

It may be that the frosting is the main attraction of this cake in the first place since I obsess over the ingredients so much.

February 17, 2012

Artichokes Anyone?

It's not often that I find a perfect food for me, but artichokes are one of the vegetables that fit the bill. I try to keep an eye on my magnesium and potassium intake and artichokes are high in both. Keeping those levels up seems to help in keeping my random tachycardia episodes at bay. They're also high in vitamin C, which I always need more of, since keeping my immune system in good shape goes a long way towards fighting off upper respiratory infections that are a result of Houston's ever-changing yo-yo weather and the constant high humidity. That they have no fat, cholesterol or trans fat is just an added bonus.

A few days ago, I received several recipe booklets from Ocean Mist Farms, who is the largest grower of fresh artichokes in the United States.

The four booklets are:

Grilling: Year-Round Vegetable Grilling

Soups and Salads: Year-Round Vegetable Cooking

Appetizers for Entertaining: Creative Ways to Use and Serve Artichokes

Slow Cooking: Year-Round Vegetable Cooking

Each booklet gives several valuable tips for cooking with artichokes, which is particularly useful if one isn't used to serving them on a regular basis. Did you know that besides steaming, you can also bake, microwave or grill them? There are nice detailed instructions with illustrations that help you understand how to prepare them for cooking.

Browsing through the recipe booklets upon their arrival certainly made me hungry... for artichokes! Since Ocean Mist also grows many other vegetables, there are a few non-artichoke recipes included as well. Creamy Crock Pot Baby Artichoke Soup. Easy Grilled Artichokes. Artichoke Hummus. Fennel Tangerine & Spinach Salad. Mmmm. All accompanied by beautiful, mouth-watering photographs.

It's a cool, damp and dreary day here, with more rain in the forecast, so I found the following recipe for Artichoke Sourdough Bisque to be especially appealing. A trip to the grocery may be in order. Ocean Mist grows artichokes year round so I'm not too worried that I won't be able to find any at the grocery. One of the benefits of living in Houston is that you can usually find anything you need somewhere around town.

I also liked this page from the Appetizers booklet, 5 Ways to Spice up Mayonnaise for Artichoke Petal Dipping. The Chipotle Lime Mayonnaise sounds like a good thing to dip any vegetable into (or maybe just to eat with a spoon!).
Don't take my word for it that these are very nice booklets with some potentially great recipes. You can go right now to the Ocean Mist website and download your own copies, as they have made them available in PDF format. For free. That's always a good price in my book.

February 03, 2012

18 Secrets to Baking a Cake

The little recipe booklet, Cake Baking Secrets (1932, 16 pp.), published by the Furst-McNess Company of Freeport, Illinois, has an interesting aspect to it, in that it uses a first person narrative to persuade you to try their products.

The advice is dispensed by a Mrs. Edith Moore and it feels like she is talking directly to you, sharing her personal experiences and the wisdom she has gained after fourteen years of entering baking competitions at state and county fairs, shows and exhibitions all over the U.S. She is described in the booklet as a Champion Cake Baker, and mentions, several times, the prizes her cakes have won.  She attibutes her success to the F.W. McNess brand of products that she uses in her baking.

Furst-McNess was a partnership that began in 1908 between Frank E. Furst and Frederick William McNess, a chemist. They were a direct sales company who sold medicines, flavorings and spices from horse drawn wagons in the Midwest and upper Midwestern states. Other direct sales companies with similar product lines who were active at that time were W. T. Rawleigh and Watkins.

There's a picture of Mrs. Moore on the front cover of the booklet. It appears to be a realistic photo, rather than a colored illustration such as those used for the infamous Betty Crocker, but given the intracacies of print advertising, I suppose you never can tell for sure.

The products mentioned in this particular recipe booklet were sold under the J. W. McNess label: Champion Brand Flavoring Extract (Vanilla), Baking Powder, and Breakfast Cocoa. The rear cover of the booklet also mentions Champion Lemon Extract.

Mrs. Moore advises about the importance of the quality of ingredients one needs in order to achieve a successful cake: super-fine sugar, fresh butter, fresh milk or cream, very sour milk when called for, cake flour, a high quality flavoring agent and baking powder (she makes no bones about the fact that, in her opinion, the McNess brand is the best and the only one that should be used).

Mrs. Moore's Secrets to Prize-Winning Cakes:

  • Use good quality butter, sugar, flour and milk

  • Always use cake flour

  • Use F.W. McNess Champion Brand Flavoring Extract instead of regular vanilla

  • Use F.W. McNess Baking Powder instead of other brands

  • Use F.W. McNess Breakfast Cocoa for chocolate cakes

  • Make sure all measurements are level

  • Mix your ingredients correctly by using the proper methods of stirring, beating and cutting or folding

  • Let your egg whites stand a few minutes before using

  • Cream butter and sugar first

  • Sift your flour and baking powder five or six times before measuring

  • Add flour and milk alternately

  • Add baking powder and salt to the last cut of flour for best effect

  • Fold in eggs, don't beat

  • Fill the pans 2/3 full, 1/2 full if cupcakes

  • Do not move the cake in oven after it begins to rise until it is fully risen and slightly set

  • For chocolate or mahogany cakes, prepare the chocolate mixture first so that it has a chance to cool properly

  • Before adding chocolate mixture to the sugar, butter and eggs, add a half cup of flour to prevent curdling

  • Don't be tempted to add extra flour to the chocolate batter; the cocoa custard is thickening enough

This booklet is a brilliant little sales tool, which is evident by the fact that the Introduction from the company inside the front cover tells of the thousands and thousands of women who have already learned the secrets of cake baking from this very booklet.

It looks like the secrets to successful cake baking are about the same in 2012 as they were in 1932. Of course, each person, just like Mrs. Moore, has their own preferences for brands of baking powder and vanilla extracts. Other than the lack of directions for an electric mixer, this booklet could have been written yesterday.

On the other hand, today the big secret to a prize-winning cake might be to bake your cake from scratch rather than starting out with a cake mix.

After reading the booklet, I was left to wonder whether or not Edith Moore was a real person or just a ficticious personna created by the advertising department of Furst-McNess.  According to a communication from the McNess firm, it turns out that she was indeed real, thought to be from Kansas and that "she communicated with former company president, Charles Furst concerning her use and love of the Furst-McNess line of products."

Would love to hear from anyone who knows more about the real Mrs. Edith Moore; please leave a comment if you do.

If you want to see if Mrs. Moore's advice holds water, then you are in luck, as many of the Furst-McNess extract products are still available today.