The Olfactory Pleasures of Marshmallow.

I have been reading Molly Birnbaum's Season to Taste. It caught my eye on the new shelf at the library, and although it has taken me a shamefully long time to read it, it has caused me to really examine and be thankful for my sense of smell. She talks about the loss and gradual regaining of her sense of smell after an accident. At first it seemed that the scents that came back were related to her emotional state, either to happiness or anxiety. After a few years when it seemed she had regained almost all of what was lost, she discovered that she had trouble "labeling" scents when she smelled them. This in particular I have thought about a lot. When walking through the neighborhood after dinner tonight, I swear I smelled ketchup right behind the smell of a charcoal grill, a blistery hot dog blackened in spots. If I lost my sense of smell for a few years and then smelled this same scene again, would I recognize it the same? Could I put my finger on it?

The neighborhood stroll after dinner tonight was much needed since I made and torched kitchen s'mores for our dessert. This was the first time I have used my culinary torch since my Baked Alaska escapades one year ago, and as the marshmallow toasted, charred in places, the wonderful scent of sugar caramelization reminded me yet again of Molly's book. Charred marshmallow is singular, no other sweet when toasted smells the same, and I was shocked that this small act instantly transported me to a much younger self - the way that smells often do.

Instead of being fashionably late in food trends, I end up being so tardy that I feel that I am indeed starting it again. Wasn't everybody and their uncle making marshmallows a few years ago, before the French Macaroon and the Cupcake? I'm so late I'm afraid that I'm wishing I were the person that made marshmallow so popular to begin with.

In my mind, this may have been another Mollie: Mollie Weizenberg. I remember reading her article in Bon Appetit, which she used to do monthly at the time. (It was probably the main reason I kept my subscription as long as I did.) She knew she would marry a man who had made her marshmallows from scratch. After her eloquent account, it seemed like she had convinced everyone to make marshmallow, sticky variations appearing everywhere I looked. I can't say that I ever made marshmallows for the sake of making them. Since reading her story, I have made variations for cookies and for frostings, but never cut them into fat homemade squares with the sole intention of torching them in a bonfire.

homemade grahams.

The beauty of my kitchen life is that I never know what is going to happen from day to day. I have really stopped planning meals. This is so much better for my creativity, since I make what is available and turn it into what I have a taste for. I have a few staple things that usually appear weekly: some kind of taco, some kind of fermented condiment, sourdough concoction, but as for everything else it's up in the air. When the Kiddo and I decided to go out to the Farm this weekend, my Dad texted me to see if my urban boy would like to camp out with him. When I asked, he said enthusiastically "Yes! And we can eat marshmallows!" So with that statement, my personal marshmallow trend emerged. A day later, a batch of bouncy, white mallows in hand cut squares grace my counter. And, I see what all the fuss over homemade marshmallow was all about.

I used the recipe from Gourmet, via Smitten Kitchen, which was written about 10 years prior to Molly Weizenberg's "Fluff Piece". It's curious, that maybe trends are reinvented every decade - and maybe I'm just rutted in the half-life. The recipe uses more gelatin than I've ever used in a single recipe before: 2 T. plus 2 1/2 t. It softens in a half cup of water when the sugar mixture is coming up to temperature. I have to say that my heightened awareness of my olfactories made me wonder if I would enjoy these marshmallows, the gelatin swelled in the water and smelled animalistic, and not really in a good way. I actually tried to keep myself from noticing the gaminess as the 140 degree syrup was poured over the softened mass, I stirred with a wooden spoon to combine it before letting the KitchenAid have at it.

I had faith in the sugar content, and in the remainder of the vanilla bean stolen from the bottle of vanilla extract. I had used nearly all of the waning bottle in the graham crackers, and fortunately could pillage the precious seeds. I also added a teaspoon of almond extract, just to up the flavorant a bit in case the gelatin didn't tame itself in the fridge...

The marshmallows work at promised. I poured out a mass of sticky goo, and quickly spread it into a prepared pan with a silicone spatula. I did not touch it with my fingers. It hardened quickly as it cooled, leaving my whisk coated in spongy, sticky white but strangely melted off without effort when soaked for 5 minutes in soapy warm water. The whole process seemed easier than buying a bag of marshmallows to tell the truth, and even though I used corn syrup which was probably genetically modified, I comfort myself with the knowledge of a one week shelf life.

The flavor and texture of these marshmallows is perfect. They resist chewing and are sticky, but then give in and dissolve without coating your teeth. When eaten without smelling (which you can approximate by pinching your nose shut - I do this with almost everything after reading Molly's book), their sponginess is more pronounced, a foamy mouthful that registers as sweet. When eaten with a sense of smell, they are sweet but not too sweet, and the whole experience would remind you of eating a bag of Jet Puffed if they were consumed directly after being factory made. If you can call pure sugar "fresh", these are.

Though my jars of homemade components will be heading west on Friday, I couldn't wait that long to make a s'more. I had a small jar of ganache still in the fridge from a few weeks ago, and it is still good. I spread it over the grahams and then speared the mallows with bamboo skewers. I heated them gently with my torch, letting them catch fire so I could blow them out, noting the aroma of singed mallow sugar. Our open faced s'mores were more than plenty for dessert, so rich and elegant that it was a shame I didn't have more people over to share them with.

Will they taste even better outside in front of a fire? I'm pretty sure they will. When the nuance of fresh cut grass and nighttime dew, the smell of the dark and the country influence the sugar and cut it in two. What a privilege to have 5 senses, and what reminders to appreciate them!

Updates, Wasted Food, and Being Thankful.

It seems like I haven't been cooking lately. I have, really, but I feel like it has been nothing so exciting to warrant a place here in the chronicles of CakeWalk. All week, I've been wondering if I'd make it to my Vegan Monday, and technically, no I didn't. I have eaten a fair share of vegan foods, namely smoothies and vegetable drinks. I am finally a proud owner of a VitaMix, and feel like I've never eaten so many raw fruits and vegetables in my life. I do have lots of new vegan recipes bookmarked, but haven't embarked on them officially and I'll tell you why.

Part of the reason is that I've been reading American Wasteland by Jonathan Bloom (he also blogs at Wasted Food). Well, to be honest, I started it, got a couple chapters in, and then have taken up reading three different bread baking books, trying to see if I can calculate my own flour to water ratios to improve my final bread product... But what I have read so far has changed my cooking habits forever.

I'm always looking for the next thing I can make, and I confess that sometimes this leads me to more waste than I'd like. I have been better this year; it was a bit of a New Year's Resolution last January to make less and consume more of what is already made. But this book sums it up in the very first pages, in fact in the first sentences of the introduction:
Every day, America wastes enough food to fill the Rose Bowl. Yes, that Rose Bowl - the 90,000-seat football stadium in Pasadena, California. Of course, that's if we had an inclination to truck the nation's excess food to California for a memorable but messy publicity stunt.

As a nation, we grow and raise more than 590 billion pounds of food each year. And depending on whom you ask, we squander between a quarter and a half of all the food produced in the United States. Even using the more conservative figure would mean that 160 billion pounds of food are squandered annually - more than enough, that is, to fill the Rose Bowl to the brim. With the high-end estimate, the Rose Bowl would almost be filled twice over.
I will say that the rest of the book so far is equally engaging, taking me on a journey from farm waste to supermarket waste, and finally to neglect in the home. I know that a heated political debate could ensue, but I think it's just criminal to have so much waste when we have a real need to feed people. Signs are everywhere in our cities for food pantries, Food Network frequently endorses Share our Strength, and it's Great American Bakesale (sponsored by refined sugar company giants) to help hungry children in our own country. We have this idea in the US that everything needs to be beautiful and unblemished to be consumed - EVERYTHING in our marketing and media focuses on the beautiful, the young, and the airbrushed. Take a head of iceberg lettuce, or a 18 year old model wearing Louboutin shoes, and the treatment is the same: we don't want it if it isn't hyped and wrapped and neatly approved into our massive consumption lives. And we have real need for people who are hungry. (But hungry for fruits and vegetables, or hungry for pre-packaged meals? That is a whole different debate, as well.)

Now, I know that most people I know don't fit into this generalization. We food shop locally, preserve much ourselves, and limit packaged food purchases. But as my Mom was just telling me, gone are the days when the Grandmothers make a soup out of the dregs of the celery.

My Mom's (maternal) Grandmother was the first generation born in the United States. Her name was Laura, but it was supposed to be "Lottie", her mother's accent too thick for the writer of the birth certificate to understand. My earliest memories of soup were from her summer home in the Northwoods, just down the road from our house. Her pea soup, most clearly, I can still taste on my tongue. Surely, it was nothing more than a ham bone and split peas, maybe some onion, but it was so good that it has stuck with me all of these years, and no soup I've ever made has rivaled it. Her husband, my Great-Grandfather Casey, was a DP, also from Poland. Food was especially precious to him, as was his American citizenship. He was detained in a camp during WWII, and when he finally came to America, he brought with him a heel of bread that he kept until he died - a memory of the scarcity of food he came from and the bounty of his new country.

I was very young when I knew them, but remember all of the stories: their foraging for mushrooms that led to the pumping of stomachs, my Grandfather's impossibly thick accent, the rabbit hutches where they kept the pets that I later found to be sources of food, the bonfires and family times that were so important to them both, and ALWAYS contained food.

Waste was never a part of their lives. My Mom would bring us to their little cottage and it would appear there was nothing to eat. Moments later, somethings were made from nothings, and I'm now remembering this daily in my own kitchen. I would never tell someone else what he SHOULD be eating (except my Husband, of course), and would not support Big Brother stepping in to take hold of our food consumption issues. But this waste! It's hard for me not to cook, or to not have many wide, open mouths that want to eat. But, I've been trying to take pleasure in eating my leftovers, and living more reliably out of my home canned pantry.

The trick, I've found, is trying to make much less. My Husband isn't a fan of leftovers, but some things I can get him to eat a second time. Of all of my bread experimenting, I haven't had much waste, but turned what I did have into breadcrumbs. (An infinitely more exciting task since I just got my very own VitaMix! The crumbs are uniform and even the hard crusts are punished into complete dust, and I can't wait to coat something in them and panfry...)

Dinner tonight will be the end of this bread, turned into toasted panino type sandwich. Glamorous, no, but it will be tasty, and then I can make another loaf of bread!

This one, I kneaded until it felt smooth and elastic. I haven't been making much "kneaded" bread lately, in part because I wasn't sure my starter was vigorous enough. Now, I am certain that my starter is active, and strong enough to lift dough. I started this bread at 11 AM, and it rose, was shaped, rose again, was baked, and came out of the oven at 10:30 late last week. One more notable thing about sourdough, is that it seems to have preternatural ability to be fresh. I made this on Thursday, and though not technically "fresh", it is still absolutely tasty - especially as toast. I used this recipe from King Arthur Flour, but omitted the commercial yeast and sugar. After all, I went through the trouble to raise up the starter, I don't mind waiting around for it to do it's job. Yesterday I was reading in Bread by Jeffrey Hammelman, that the incorporation of air into the dough is essential to the raising of the dough. You can do this too much, and run into problems, but I found that this kneaded loaf did rise more quickly than the wetter doughs I just mix and let rest for 18-24 hours. I feel I have volumes to learn, but that's half the fun.

Fall also brings with it low-light photography that challenges my camera...

I also decided that the brotform is best suited to kneaded, 'drier' doughs. I had no problem tipping the loaf out of the basket, and then carefully lowering it into my dutch oven by hand. I was even able to slash into it with the lame, another KAF purchase that was going largely unused. My next several loaves will likely be kneaded, and I may even try to approach my scientific side and pay more attention to the temperature of dough, air and water and the ratio of water to flour.

It still completely amazes me, and it probably always will, that bread is flour and water. That's it. A union that immediately begins the fermentation process when combined, and can satisfy the world over. Almost no bread is ever "inedible", as well. I baked kind of a brick last week, since the dough was too wet and stuck to my brotform so much that all of the air was knocked out of it. It ended up a flat discus of dough, and was still edible. Honesty permits me to tell you, that we ate a little of it, but then I ditched the rest. Waste. That's the price I pay for bread snobbery - and for never being hungry enough. I should not have thrown away that loaf. My Great-Grandparents wouldn't have. My Gram wouldn't have. My Mom was here, and was eating it. But me, bread-snobbish me, decided that I needed to make a better one, and tossed it out so I wouldn't have to think about it.

On my last library trip, I also picked up One Magic Square, in hopes to learn a bit more about packing more into my raised beds next spring. The author, Lolo Houbein, begins the book with her own family history in the Netherlands. As a child in 1944 and 1945, her family survived a famine - and she tells of eating grass scavenged from beneath the snow to "steady her stomach". At 5 foot 8 inches tall, she withered to 75 pounds, but survived. She has tended her own food sources ever since, and inspires others to grow at least a small percentage of their own foods. Another reminder never to take for granted all that America's food has to offer us, and to be responsible and diligent with what we do have. That probably includes that loaf of brick-ish bread I tossed out.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I am thankful for enough food and the knowledge of how to prepare it. I'm thankful that I am the only one in my house that likes squash, and I have 9 (!) of them to figure out how to eat myself thanks to my CSA the past several weeks. I am thankful that as the season grows colder, we can heat our house (and that my baking bread warms the kitchen so that I keep the thermostat a bit lower). I am thankful for my picky-eating family, and never abandon hope that they will someday also like things like squash. I am also thankful that I have many everyday reminders not to waste food.