Friday, December 31, 2010

Sol Food

It's a Puerto Rican restaurant.  Get it?

I stopped there for lunch the other day, wanting to try something on the menu I hadn't tried before.  I chose a Nino Pobre (how the heck do you make the tilde work on this thing?), which is this restaurant's version of the classic Po' Boy, only the prawns are dredged in a plantain batter.  I don't know who thought of that, but it's delicious. It paired perfectly with the side of maduros I ordered.   I can't think of much that doesn't pair well with maduros.  I have also been known to eat just maduros for a meal in extreme cases. And in Guatemala.

The problem, though, was when I paid for my food. Sol Food ain't the cheapest place in town, but the total was more than I expected.  And I'm pretty good at estimating. In fact, I won a prize once at a math seminar for coming the closest to the actual number of jelly beans in a jar. The point is, I knew I had been overcharged, yet was surprised into paying the total and stepping aside to calculate more precisely. I was still correct and had still been overcharged by the third or fourth time I checked my calculations.  But the line at Sol Food never disappears, and I didn't really want to wait in line for the $3 I was owed. I figured it was about how much should go in the tip jug anyway, so I said nothing, waited for my food, and left. 

I don't suspect Sol Food of overcharging its customers regularly, and still cannot figure out how I was charged more for my food than I should have been, since my order, stapled to my bag, was correct.  I was annoyed at them and at myself for tolerating it.  But if it does happen every so often, and people don't complain since the line is long, or the staff is too busy, or the amount is too small...

I still love this place, and will eat here again.  And I will also get a receipt.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sweet Things Should Be Soft

A guy I dated said this more than once after I'd baked some sweet creation that was not to his liking.  While I disagree with the statement, and also find it the perfect metaphor for our difficult relationship (me= not so soft. Or is it me= not so sweet?), it happens to be true in one instance.

I had a hankering for caramels, and thought a little bag of hand-made caramels tied with pretty ribbon would make a great gift enclosure, so I looked in an old Fannie Farmer cookbook for a recipe.  And by old, I mean copyright 1937. The recipe seemed quite simple, calling for just 4 ingredients: granulated sugar, corn syrup, heavy cream, and vanilla extract. The directions said to boil the mixture a total of 3 times, never getting hotter than 244 degrees, which, according to my candy thermometer, is the "firm ball" stage. "Firm ball" seems to describe caramels pretty well, so I dove right in.

Chocolate-topped, pecan-crusted toffee.

Oooh, presents!
Part of the test for doneness, says this recipe, is to drop a small amount into cold water and see if it forms a soft ball (first boil/238 degrees) or a "decidedly firm ball" (last boil).  My mixture did form these balls, but not at the specified temperature.  No, mine formed the soft balls at maybe 225 degrees, and formed a hard-as-a-rock ball at 238 degrees. By 244 degrees, I had invented Caramel Life Savers. 

While I wound up with candy in gift bags anyway, I wonder what went wrong.  I actually followed directions this time, knowing that candy-making does not leave much room for improvisation. I found a new recipe today for salted caramels, and notice the ingredient list is much longer: 3 kinds of sugar (white, brown, and corn syrup). heavy cream, butter, vanilla, and sea salt.  Does the additional sugar help stave off the hard crack stage?  Does the butter? I admit I am totally confounded by the science behind this problem, and to add to the confusion, the new recipe calls for heating the mixture to 255 degrees!

Can anyone help with this?

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Mexican Christmas?

Forgive me the gray-on-gray blog design, but it has been raining for days, and more rain is predicted. I might as well still live in Chicago.

In my family, a Christmas tradition was to make at least 2 varieties of cookies each year, to be nibbled secretly until dessert time on Christmas Eve.  My mother would store the tins of cookies in what we called The Back Hall, which was unheated (and likely unenclosed at some point in the house's history); having to brave 50-degree "weather" to get to the cookies was no deterrent for me.  I don't think it was much of a deterrent for anyone else in the family either, since some years we came dangerously close to having no cookies on Christmas.

By far my favorite cookie was one we called a pecan sandy (sandie?). My mother obtained the recipe from a work colleague perhaps 30 years ago, and the directions called for the cookies to be rolled by hand into finger shapes, baked, dusted in powdered sugar, and dipped at one end into melted chocolate. I alternated between believing it was best to eat the chocolate end first, and thinking it was better to save the chocolate end for a most satisfying finish.  As an adult, I solved this dilemma once by dipping BOTH ends into chocolate. 
Fingers and rounds, as homage to the cookies' Mexican roots.

 For the last few years, many of my cookbooks have been in storage, first in Utah and now in Christy's garage.  I thought this would be the end of pecan sandies, but I remembered an observation of mine one year.  A guest brought us a tin of what she called Mexican wedding cookies. They were round ball-shaped cookies dusted in powdered sugar, and were green. After one bite I exclaimed, "These taste just like pecan sandies!" Many years and the Internet later, I had no trouble finding a replacement recipe for my beloved pecan sandies, which are someone's Americanized version of Mexican wedding cookies. 
I'm not sure which colleague my mother got the recipe from, since several were involved in some kind of recipe swap.  I suspect, though, the one named Sandy. Who was Filipina, not Mexican.

Caution: the baked cookies are fragile, and should be dusted and dunked with care.

Pecan Mexican Sandie Wedding Cookies
adapted from, and Sandy
1 C (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
1/2 C confectioners' sugar, plus more for dusting
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 3/4 C all-purpose flour
1 C pecans, finely chopped

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Cream butter and sugar until light. Add vanilla and beat well. Add flour to butter mixture and mix well.  You may need to add up to 1 tablespoon of water to the mixture. Mix in pecan bits. 
3. Shape dough into a ball and wrap in waxed or parchment paper.  Refrigerate for 1 hour.
4. Shape dough into fingers or balls and arrange on baking sheet. 
5. Bake for 14-17 minutes, or until cookies are golden and edges are brown.
6. When cooled, roll carefully in more confectioners' sugar, and dip one end into melted chocolate (I prefer bittersweet here, but semi-sweet will work too).