Category Archives: 186 Recipe Experiment

186 Cookbooks: Revisiting with second and third thoughts

Some months ago, I finally noticed that I have a lot of cookbooks. (I think – no, I know – the count is actually higher than 186 of them, but that was the first number I came up with, and “186” is funnier than “around 200”.) So I decided to weed them out by testing one recipe from each; if the recipe was a success, the cookbook stays, and if not it has to find a new home.

What it’s supposed to look like…

Well, this post is about a followup. A while ago I tried a cookie recipe from one of my stranger cookbooks, and decided it was a keeper after all. I also decided I wanted one of its cakes for my birthday. That was two weeks ago, and for a series of boring reasons I never did get around to having a birthday cake – so I inflicted it on my husband for his birthday, yesterday.

What a project. First I had to make three layers worth of chocolate sponge cake from scratch. I also had to make a syrup flavored with orange juice and whiskey (!), and a chocolate ganache (chocolate melted with cream). One of the three layers of cake gets cut into cubes and mixed with some of the syrup and ganache, and that mess gets patted into a mound on top of a second layer.

Well, that’s the easy part. Next you take the third, thinner layer and make a “smooth dome shape”. Or, of course, you make a lot of sponge cake shards. Then you add the rest of the syrup and ganache, and chill.

While the cake chills, you make the next key part: a chocolate marzipan layer, rolled thin between sheets of wax paper. That was surprisingly hard work as the disc of marzipan got bigger and thinner; I wound up having to put my full weight on my forearms on the rolling pin to get it to spread out as far as it did. (Probably this part would have been easier if the top of the counter wasn’t above my waist. Ah, leverage.)

Then you remove the wax paper and creatively mold the marzipan into a deeply wrinkled mountainous shape.

And you take the cake out of the refrigerator and discover it’s falling to pieces. I scraped some ganache out of the bottom of the pan and did my best to stick it back together, then flopped the marzipan over everything.

Speaking of pans, here’s one of the big flaws of this recipe. These are only about half the resulting dirty dishes, waiting patiently for attention.

And we’re ready for the finishing touch: sieve plain cocoa over the cake to give it a velvety texture.

By the time I finished, I was expecting the cake to be a disaster – I was almost hoping it would be, considering how much work it was. I was also having second thoughts about whether the cookbook was worth keeping.

Except that everyone agreed it was delicious. So I guess I’ll keep this cookbook after all. Next time, I think I’ll just use orange juice in the syrup – you couldn’t taste the whiskey anyway – and maybe some grated orange rind in the cake, and cube two-thirds of the cake to make a mound on the base layer (that top layer was more trouble than it was worth). But next time won’t be any time soon.

186 Cookbooks: Pretty enough to eat

I bought Wackycakes and Kookycookies by Gerhard Jenne for the picture on the cover as much as for any rational reason. But is it a cookbook, or an art book complicated by recipes? Time to see if anything in it is edible.

I needed a cookie recipe, and Wackycakes offers several – I went with “Two-tone Cookies” because I had the ingredients on hand. (They’re pretty basic – flour, sugar, butter, egg, plus vanilla for the white dough and cocoa for the chocolate dough.)

Jenne includes instructions for a variety of designs, but I settled for the Spirals. (The picture above, from the book, shows an assortment of his patterns.)

First, you mix up the two doughs and chill them thoroughly.

Next, put each lump of dough between two sheets of wax paper. Roll the dough into a sheet about an eighth of an inch thick (around 3 mm, if you speak metric), and as neatly rectangular as you can manage.

Stick the sheet of dough back in the refrigerator again and leave it to chill for at least an hour, until it’s nice and stiff.

Take the top piece of wax paper off each sheet of dough and put the two dough sheets together. Remove the wax paper from the top piece of dough. Now you find out how well you matched the two doughs while rolling them out. In this case, I rolled the chocolate much thinner than the vanilla. Bah. Anyway, trim the edges so you have a rectangular double sheet of dough.*

Carefully roll the two sheets into a log. They’re likely to try to break while you roll them. Patch and coax them together as needed. (You could also let the dough warm up a bit so it’s more flexible. The trouble is, when it’s warm it will want to stick to the wax paper. Pick your frustration.)

Annd – wrap the log in the remaining piece of wax paper and chill it some more! Then cut it into slices – about an eighth of an inch or a little thicker is good (3-4 mm) – and bake in a medium oven for about twelve minutes. Let the cookies sit for a minute or two before you try to take them off the pan.

Is it worth the bother? Well, you get lots of pretty, pleasant tasting rich (and fragile) cookies, kind of like shortbread. I won’t make them often, but the results are worth the trouble for special occasions. And I’ll try one of the cake recipes next, maybe for my birthday.

* And what about all those dough scraps? The easiest thing to do with them is jumble them together into another log and slice them up as marble cookies.

186 Cookbooks: Who can resist?

Seriously, who can resist a title like “Forever Summer”? We may not long for the heat and humidity, but when you’re thinking about food, summer is the magic land of luscious fresh produce, more of it than you can eat, more delicious than you could remember after a whole year of waiting for it to return.

And the recipe I tested is so flexible it’s almost shapeless; it’s almost cheating to try it. I (mostly) followed Nigella Lawson’s basic recipe: marinate chicken in lemon juice, olive oil, onion, and rosemary, and grill it. (I used drumsticks instead of whole chickens, and white onion instead of red; I had white onion.) But Nigella tells us that she also marinates chicken in peppercorns, garlic, and wine vinegar, or replaces the rosemary with tarragon, or uses sambal oelek (chili paste).

I haven’t tried those variations, but this one is great. Of course, chicken, lemon, onion, and olive oil are available year round; but the rosemary was about as fresh as it gets, straight off the little rosemary plant at the corner of my backyard garden. So that’s definitely summery.

And a small confession: this cookbook could be classified as a ringer, if this project is intended to identify cookbooks I’m willing to get rid of. There are a few authors whose recipes match my taste so well that there’s no chance I’ll ever give up one of their books: Julia Child, Rick Bayless, and the wonderful Nigella. On the other hand, it is true that I bought this book a year or two ago and hadn’t gotten around to trying anything from it yet. About time. Yum.

186 Cookbooks: Strangely organized, but tasty

Not your standard “natural food” cookbook! I have a variety of other cookbooks focusing on “natural” food, and they’re typically vegetarian (though some have a few fish recipes). Shepherd’s cookbook contains vegetarian forms (see next paragraph) of most of the recipes, but also tells you how to cook chicken and beef and pork and lamb. But this is a very early example of the category, copyright 1975. Maybe people have become more restrictive over the years. This would fit with the fairly recent growth of vegan cookbooks – it seems as if some vegetarians have decided that milk products and eggs just aren’t pure enough, even if they used to eat them.

The way the recipes are presented is unusual, and I think the easiest way to explain it is to give an example from the first chapter (Chinese cooking). First, we get a list of ingredients and cooking instructions for “Broccoli and Onions with Nuts”, a vegetarian dish. Next, “Broccoli and Onions with Bean Curd”; replace the nuts with bean curd. After that, on the next page, broccoli and onions with chicken, green beans and onions with bean curd, green beans and onions with nuts, green beans and onions with meat (pork or beef), and so on. The variations aren’t written out in full – you’re just told what to do with the new ingredient and otherwise told to follow the first recipe in the series.

But how does the food taste? So far, so good. I tried a shishkabob recipe that sounded as if it might be too simple to be interesting: Marinate meat in onion, parsley, olive oil, and lemon juice. Grill. Sprinkle with a little cumin. And it was delicious. (And tastier than the plain grilled meat would have been. Though I don’t think the cumin added much – I like cumin, but I’ll probably leave it out next time. It was the lemon juice, parsley, and onion that made the dish.)

There are a lot of recipes in Natural Food Feasts that I haven’t tried yet. And by today’s strenuous standards for authentic food, this book may be much too Westernized. But some days, cooking a meal that’s somewhat unusual but doesn’t require a two-week search for ingredients has a lot of charm. Another keeper.

186 Cookbooks – No. Just no.

Still Life with Menu by Mollie Katzen

A keeper? OH no.

Another book that sounds really good…until you try to cook from it. Still Life with Menu is a vegetarian cookbook with, well, menus – instead of the usual cookbook structure of recipes organized by type or by main ingredient, this is the kind of book that gives you lots and lots of menus, with the recipes for each meal grouped together. It’s a wonderfully convenient type of organization if you want to make that whole meal just as the author planned it; not so much if you’re curious about what you could do with some particular ingredient, or you’re trying to decide what to make for dessert.

Yes, but no matter how a cookbook is organized, the first question is always “Would you want to eat this food?” I decided to try the Banana Cheese Empanadas (Latin American turnovers), because at a quick glance the recipe sounded easy, appealing and unusual.

Well. It was unusual. I’m not sure it was ever tested, though.

The first problem crops up when you start to make the dough for the turnovers – it’s just flour and water (well, a bit of salt). And not enough water. Moistening all the flour was impossible. Bad start. (I checked a couple of Mexican cookbooks, and found that their empanada recipes called for pastry; flour and water, yes, but also some fat. Maybe Katzen was following the low-fat-no-matter-what approach; but, as you’ll see when we get to the cooking instructions, probably not.

Then I really read the instructions for preparing the filling. You’re given detailed instructions on exactly how to cut a banana into 8 pieces – cut it crosswise, cut it lengthwise, got to get this right. And then the recipe tells you to “cut a 1/8 inch piece of the banana into several small strips”. (1/8 inch is about 3 mm.)

That’s just silly. I assumed that what Katzen really meant was “cut 1/8 of the banana into small strips”, and did that. (Well, actually, I used a quarter of a “nino” banana for each empanada, since I was only making half the recipe.)

You’re given two choices for cooking the empanadas – bake or fry. If you’re going to bake them, you’re supposed to use a couple of tablespoons of butter to grease the pan and to brush the tops of the turnovers; that’s a lot of butter, really, which would have been better used mixed into the dough. Oh well. By this time, I was annoyed enough to stick to exactly what the directions said.

So I daubed two of the empanadas with butter and baked them for the specified 15 minutes. Meanwhile, I melted a little more butter and fried the other two.

Frying worked better than baking, though the fried empanadas (above) were much too greasy for my taste. Also, since you’re shallow-frying them, you have to stand them on edge in the pan to get the sides of the turnovers cooked.

The baked ones (right) were hard on the outside but barely browned, and the dough was so gluey I didn’t want to eat it. The fried ones were less inedible; at least they were cooked through. Unfortunately, the filling wasn’t very good; some bites tasted of just melted cheese, which was okay but it’s less work to make a toasted cheese sandwich; some tasted vaguely of cooked banana; some tasted of nothing.

I had intended to try Katzen’s spinach souffle too. After the empanada disaster, though, I re-read the souffle recipe, paying more attention to the fact that her approach to souffles relies on putting cottage cheese and buttermilk through a food processor. That’s not the usual method for souffles, but I would have given her souffle technique a chance if the empanadas had been good. At this point, I think I’ll skip it. Especially since I seem to have tried one of her salad dressings a while ago – I didn’t leave any notes on what went wrong there, just a scribbled “no”.

I guess I should be thrilled to announce that I can get another book off the shelves.

186 Cookbooks: Maybe too authentic?

Mediterranean Grains and Greens by Paula Wolfert

A keeper? Not this one

Several years ago, I had lots of money and a fascination with “Mediterranean cuisine”. As a result, I bought a number of good cookbooks that I haven’t mentioned yet in this series – the old classic The Mediterranean Diet of course, and Mediterranean Street Food, and Trattoria, and A Taste of Ancient Rome.

And also I bought Mediterranean Grains and Greens. In fairness, the title gives you a pretty good idea of what most of the recipes emphasize. In additional fairness, Paula Wolfert typically focuses on painstakingly authentic and somewhat obscure recipes – and she stays true to herself in this cookbook.

So what’s the problem?

Well, I gave this one two chances. First, I tried Black and White Risotto – mostly because my store had some Tuscan kale (the “black” part – the rice, of course, is the “white”), and I wanted to branch out from spinach.

Later, I found out that the second half of the bunch of kale worked fine, sliced and stir-fried with the meat (or tofu) of your choice plus some soy sauce, as an Italian-Chinese vegetable. But in risotto? Well, no. It just didn’t taste very good. (And not that it matters, but the dish wasn’t really black and white – more of a dark pine green and cream.)

But Wolfert always sounds so sure of herself, so certain that her recipes are delicious! So I tried again. This time it was radicchio pasticcio – a sort of vegetarian lasagna (at least, it used lasagna noodles).

You slice the radicchio and fry it for a couple of minutes, make a plain old white sauce with flour, butter, and milk, add some grated parmesan and the radicchio, and layer the sauce mixture with lasagna noodles, then bake.


It wasn’t horrible, but it was duller than I expected – radicchio is bitter in salads, but cooking seems to tame the bitterness. Maybe too much. After the first bite or two, it needed more grated cheese to give it some flavor.

I may try one more of her ideas – a salad for which you slice various types of lettuce and greens very very thin and let them wilt a bit before adding a vinegar-and-oil dressing. But even if that turns out to be delicious, do I really need a whole cookbook to tell me how to make a salad? Not when I’m this short of shelf space, I don’t.

Maybe someone else will find these recipes delightful.

186 cookbooks – some like it hot

We have another winner. The Spicy Food Lovers’ Bible passed the “Okay, let’s try a random recipe” test. (And it’s been over a month since I tried one of these experiments to weed out my oversized cookbook collection. Then again, the last time I tried to challenge a cookbook, I lost my favorite pie plate in the process šŸ˜¦ )

Anyhow. This one combines a fairly narrow focus with a lot of interesting-sounding recipes, plus a hundred pages of background information on “hot” spices of various sorts – specifically chiles, ginger, horseradish, wasabi, mustard, and black pepper – where they come from, their history, and how to use them.

I tried Tangiers-style grilled chicken, which uses both black pepper and cayenne for heat, as well as about half a dozen other flavorings. It’s pretty simple to make – mix the seasonings well, smear them on the chicken, let it all marinate, and grill.

And it tastes good. This one’s another keeper. How will I ever clear my bookshelves at this rate??

186 cookbooks – 7 days of lentils

This time I didn’t follow my usual pattern with this project to weed out cookbooks – one cookbook, one recipe. Hey, it’s my project; I get to make up the rules as I go along.

There I was, looking through Raghavan Iyer’s 660 Curries, when I realized that he was offering 7 different recipes for red lentils, and they all sounded easy and appealing.

All right, I decided. I’ll try them all. I’ve been testing lentil recipes for lunch almost every day since Wednesday a week ago. (And in the process, I discovered a way to make the cooking even quicker and simpler, though Mr. Iyer probably wouldn’t approve. He tells you to cook the lentils – it only takes a little over 20 minutes – while you prepare the seasoning mixture, and then combine them at the last minute. But it’s awkward to cook just one serving of lentils at a time. What I wound up doing was cooking enough for several days, refrigerating what I didn’t need for the recipe I was trying out that day, and then adding a serving worth of lentils to the seasonings each day and reheating them.)

All the seasoning mixtures are different, but the procedure is basically the same – chop or puree various vegetables and fry them in a little oil, adding different spices as the vegetables cook. Finally, add the lentils, and sometimes lime juice and cilantro at the end. Once you’ve cooked any of these recipes, the process for all of them will be simple and familiar.

But were they worth eating? Yes, almost all of them (and many people might like the one I didn’t care for). I didn’t like the red lentils with mint; but then, I don’t like mint very much in general. The lentils with bell pepper and the lentils with caramelized onions were good – so was the version I made of the lentils with gongura leaves (I can’t get gongura leaves, never saw any, and never heard of them before, so I followed Iyer’s advice to substitute spinach and lime juice); maybe with the correct greens it would be even better.

Then there were the lentils with chilis – hot but very good – and the lentils with ginger and garlic…mmm. And best of all, the lentils with tomatoes, lime juice, and scallions. The only word for them is “delicious”.

For those who care, all the lentil recipes are vegetarian – if you leave the optional butter out of the lentils with chilis, they’re all vegan. (Many of the recipes in this cookbook do include meat.) They’re cheap, too. I started this recipe test before reading about the Food Stamp Challenge, but these dishes have been a big help in staying under the $5/day ceiling.

It was amazing how different the seven dishes taste. They even look different. Several call for a little tomato, which turns the lentils an attractive pinkish color. The lentils with, well, spinach leaves not gongura leaves were very green from the spinach. Others were mostly the light yellow color of the cooked lentils with specks of other colors from the seasonings. And each of the seven could be cooked in less than half an hour.

By the way, I think I’ll keep this cookbook.

186 cookbooks – Julia wins again (From Julia Child’s Kitchen)

Julia Child, the one and only. It’s true, she can get a little carried away. In her first cookbook (Mastering the Art of French Cooking vol. 1), she paints a vivid picture of serving a pot-au-feu to your next dinner party, describing how the host forks out a hunk of boiled beef, then a chunk of boiled pork, and “finally, to wild acclaim, he brings forth a chicken”!

Julia, Julia, Julia. Get a grip. I don’t care if it’s the best boiled chicken (And beef. And pork.) anybody in the room has ever tasted, it’s Still. Just. A. Boiled. Chicken. Maybe life in the late fifties really was that boring.

But even though you have to smile sometimes when she gets enthusiastic about one dish or another, her recipes are almost always reliable. Never mind reliable – they’re almost always really good. What’s more, she usually starts by teaching you a general-purpose cooking technique and then briefly listing six or eight or more variations on it. And that’s how I wound up serving chicken sauted in vinegar (sometimes known, oddly, as hell fire chicken, even though it’s not all that spicy).

Actually, the first step felt more like Southern fried chicken than anything French to me – she tells you to dip the pieces of chicken in milk before flouring and browning them. No matter where the technique comes from, it turned out very well, and I’ll use it again. If you wanted to, you could just stop there and serve “crisp brown chicken”, and it would be a nice meal.

I wanted to push the cookbook a little farther, though. So I added some thyme – Julia suggests various herbs, but thyme was what I had on hand – and a bit of chopped onion and let it all cook, covered, in the chicken juices. Toward the end, I splashed in a little wine vinegar and let that cook down.

Personally, I thought it would have been better without the vinegar, but my husband and son loved it. So – another point for Julia Child. Never mind poor Marie Antoinette, never mind nationality: Julia for Queen of France!

186 cookbooks – burgers gone wild

Well, I admit it. I kind of bought this cookbook on impulse. But look at those exotic versions of plain old hamburgers on the cover. (That’s a salmon burger, a pesto beef burger, and a mustard seed chicken burger, left to right.) Wouldn’t you at least pick it up and look inside? And if you went that far, you’d see more and more and more versions of how to cook patties of ground (well, usually ground) meat (well, mostly meat – or poultry – or fish…only four vegetarian burgers and three desserts). With various interesting garnishes and side dishes, and all of it gorgeously photographed.

Was it worthwhile, though? Yes.

I tried the recipe for buffalo burgers yesterday. Chopped red onion and fresh thyme, cooked with a bit of red wine, mixed into the meat. Some gruyere on top.

The recipe called for a couple of optional garnishes, but I’m out of apples*, and April tomatoes aren’t worth the wear and tear on the knife from slicing them. So we just had salad to provide veggies.

*(Yes. Apples. The book suggested thinly sliced lightly grilled apples, to go under the meat. Maybe another time.)

Oh, they were good. I’m not sure how much of the flavor came from the thyme-wine-onion mixture, or whether bison / buffalo (same animal, two names) is just that much more tasty than beef. Probably some of both. Anyway, the burgers were delicious, and only slightly more work than the plain old throw-a-lump-of-ground-beef-on-the-grill kind. I’ll use this cookbook again.