Sunday, September 21, 2014

Cooking Like Nanny

To cook like Nanny is a goal never actually to be attained. But I try.

Nanny (my maternal grandmother) raised me in the kitchen and taught me about love and family and food. So of course it is fitting that Southern Living's October issue (the month of her birth) has an opening letter from the editor on family recipes handed down by tradition through generations.

To my knowledge, Nanny never owned a cookbook or written recipe in her life. I certainly never saw her use one. Nanny learned from her grandmother, who I am certain learned from hers. All I ever knew growing up was that foods were prepared by mashing until things looked right, by stirring until things felt right, and by seasoning until they tasted right.

I remember in elementary school, a Girl Scouting project required us to bring in recipes to contribute to a troop cookbook. I remember coming home, feeling so excited to get Nanny's suggestions, and feeling quite certain that our recipes would be the most prized contributions to the collection. Equally vivid is my memory of the look on her face, as she tried to explain that she didn't think she had anything to share. We worked and worked to measure and figure out how to write up some version of a recipe, but I have no idea if the final instructions came close to creating whatever they were supposed to make. At the time, I remember feeling embarrassed that our family's "recipes" were somehow not good enough--why couldn't she just use measuring cups like all the other moms? But today I look back and am so thankful for the years Nanny patiently spent teaching me--not how to read steps off of an index card, but how to put my heart into something and serve it to someone I love and connect with people I care about around a dinner table.

In ten days, Nanny will celebrate her 95th birthday but she will not know the meaning of the day. We will gather and eat cake, and we are hopeful she will be having a good day so that she will remember how to chew and swallow it. My children will see an elderly woman in a chair, but they will never know the body of knowledge and love within her, except as I am able to pass it on to them. The woman who raised me is no longer able to remember the recipes of our family, but I am so thankful that my kids will know a piece of her from my kitchen.


Perhaps the editor's opening remarks were only coincidentally used alongside this month's focus on cast iron cooking, but I'm going to pretend like the overlap was intentional, because there is no better piece of cookware than an inherited cast iron skillet. Mine was my husband's grandmother's, and I cherish it and hope that one day my kids or their kids will remember meals we made together in it. Maybe they will even say, "This meal came from my mother's mother's mother" or "This pan once belonged to my father's mother's mother."

So to honor Nanny's legacy of recipe-free cooking and Gran's fine piece of well-seasoned cookware, this month I have no recipe for you. Just some photos of an amazing dinner of steak and mashed potatoes, inspired by Southern Living's recipe for a Cast Iron Cowboy Steak. I've also scanned this issue's tips on caring for cast iron cookware, because I couldn't find a link to it on their site.

Hope y'all are able to enjoy something delicious with someone you love this month. If you happen to have an old cast iron skillet laying around, preheat it in your oven to 450, sear some ribeyes on high heat on your stovetop, and then finish them back in your hot oven. Just season them before you sear them with salt and pepper until they look right, and finish them with a little butter, herbs and garlic in the pan until the house smells right. If you're serving them with mashed potatoes, be sure to pour a little of those buttery-herbed pan drippings over the top--just enough to where it feels right to you. But whatever you do, don't measure anything. That's just a waste of time.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Apple Cupcakes and Taking It Down a Notch

With all the over-the-top end-of-summer pictures all over social media, paired with the oh-my-word how do you have time to create a fruit sculpture in your child's back-to-school bento box pictures...well...I've done some self-reflection on being over the top versus taking it down a notch.

Because nothing says over-the-top like recreating the cover of a magazine every month. Yikes.

The thing about me is that I simultaneously love to do a little over-the-top stuff in my kitchen every once in awhile, and I also love to wear sweatpants and hit up the Chick-Fil-A drive-thru. Occasionally I fall into the trap of feeling like I have to choose, or somehow define myself as a member of one "camp" or the other. But the thing is, I am neither. I am both. I am a person who loves to get lost in a half-day kitchen experiment, AND who loves to take it down a notch sometimes. One of the most useful things I picked up in grad school was the phrase, "It's not either/or. It's both/and." So simple. So true.

When I decided to write this blog, I worried that people would think I was being too-much. Running a marathon? Baking insane cakes? Going after who knows what will be on next month's issue of Southern Living? Too much.

I hope that what y'all know is that the intentionality behind it is honest. And in that spirit, I thought it would be fun to recreate this month's over-the-top cake with a toned-down version, more true to the type of thing I might actually make. Like, in my real life. Boxed cake mix, apple pie filling out of a can...I'm talking about straight-up not Southern Living cover material. But (spoiler can scroll down for the pics) it was still awesome.

In general, here's the deal on how to make boxed cake mixes taste more homemade:
1) Substitute basically anything more tasty than water in place of the amount of water called for on the box. In the case of this Duncan Hines box, it was 1 cup of water, so I used 1 cup of buttermilk. But depending on the flavor of cake, you could use whole milk, chocolate/vanilla soy milk, buttermilk, chocolate syrup, juice, coffee, liqueur, or any combination of these, totaling the amount of liquid called for on the box.

2) Add 1 box pudding mix plus 1 cup sour cream. For this cake, I used French Vanilla pudding mix, but instead of 1 cup of sour cream, I used 1 cup of apple butter.

3) Add an extra egg, above and beyond whatever was originally called for on the box.

4) Use softened butter instead of the cooking oil called for on the box.

5) Decrease cooking temp from 350 to 325, and bake a little longer than the box calls for.

6) Add 1 tsp. extract/flavoring (e.g., vanilla extract, almond, lemon, etc., depending on your cake flavor). For citrus cakes, you can also add lemon, lime, or orange zest.

7) Optional: Throw in some mix-ins like nuts, chocolate chips, etc.

8) Optional: Y'all are gonna freak out on this one, but it's true. Add 1/4 cup mayonnaise. When you think about it, it makes sense--mayo is basically oil and eggs, which you already throw into a cake anyway. You just have to mentally get past the fact that you are putting mayo in a cake. I actually didn't use mayo in this particular cake, mostly because I was planning on having BLTs for dinner later this week and didn't want to use up all of my mayo. But I've done it sometimes in the past, and it does make a moist cake. So, yeah, do what you want...

In summary, here's the recipe for Take-It-Down-A-Notch Apple Spice Cupcakes
1 boxed Spice Cake Mix
1 box French Vanilla Pudding Mix
4 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup apple butter
1/3 cup softened butter
1 tsp. vanilla

Mix all ingredients and fill 24 cupcake liners. Bake at 325 for 20-25 minutes. Allow to cool completely, then frost with Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting. Top with 1-2 apples for decoration (see below).

Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting
2 packages (8 oz each) Cream Cheese, softened
1/2 cup butter, softened
2 tsp. vanilla

32 oz powdered sugar
3 tsp. ground cinnamon
Dash of salt

Beat cream cheese, butter, and vanilla until whipped. Slowly add powdered sugar and cinnamon. I like the balance of a dash or two of salt (to taste) added at the end, and I also use regular salted butter for this frosting (rather than unsalted butter, which most people say to use for baking). The frosting won't taste like a "salty-sweet" concoction, I promise...I just think the salt helps it to have more balance and cuts the sweetness intensity just a dab. 

Note: this recipe makes a double batch of icing, because I like to go a little heavy-handed on the icing, and all the "designer" cupcakes always have a ton of icing on top to look pretty. You could totally cut this recipe in half if you are more of a traditional/light-icing kind of person.

In terms of taking it down a notch, you also could totally substitute frosting out of a can, if you like it. I'm not the hugest fan of it, and mixing up a batch of icing is simple enough that I'm cool with going from-scratch just on this part of the recipe. But you should totally take it down a notch here too, if you'd like!

Apple Topping
And here's where we really take it down a notch. Open a can of apple pie filling. Stir in some cinnamon, to taste, if you'd like. Pick up a baked apple or two and place on top of the cupcake for decoration (and obviously for deliciousness too). Seriously. People will look at the cupcake and be all, like, "Oh my gosh, look at this thing!" And you'll be all like, "Yeah, I can operate a can opener like nobody's business."

Most delicious take-it-down-a-notch-dessert ever. And if you read my last blog post (where I actually recreated the Southern Living layer cake), you could totally substitute that version of the cake recipe and/or apple topping, instead of going fully down-a-notch like I did here.

Love y'all. Thanks for loving me, despite being both over-the-top AND taken-down-a-notch.