Archive for the ‘Recipes’ Category

A Little Bit of TinyScheme, a Lot of Cozonac

Monday, November 25th, 2019

There are few things as quintessentially Romanian, to my mind, as cozonac; the golden, nut-swirled, babka-like pastry dolled up and drummed out into the daylight for the two major Eastern Orthodox holidays. Then again, I'm not even so sure it's actually Romanian. Cozonac's one of those things that most states in the region boast as being their own, right up there with moussaka, smoked eggplant salad, goulash, and stuffed cabbage rolls. The diacritics and thus pronunciations may change, but not much else does. I guess it's proper, then, to introduce cozonac as an Eastern European thing, and to point out its specific spelling is Romanian.

Now that we've gotten there, we can promptly throw out a good half of what Romanians, and Eastern Europeans at large for that matter, think they know about cozonac. There are two main problems: the first's that folks don't put nearly as much of the awesome chocolate-walnut filling in their loaves of cozonac as they ought to1, and the second's that they put way, way, WAY too much sugar in it. A fairly common artifact of modern processed diets, the whole "dessert means heaps of sugar laced with occasional other ingredients" fanaticism is a hoary old positive feedback loop.

Thus armed with spite and sparseness, we can proceed to actually make some of this stuff. Except that I wanted to try out Mircea Popescu's image processor for blog articles, and also jfw's version of the same. Except! It turns out the box I'm using for publishing doesn't have Image Magick, required for both tools. An' I'm not happy about installing things --at all, much less things I don't know much about to "just get it to work". I do have Gimp, though, which was what I'd been using to process my pictures manually. And! It turns out Gimp uses TinyScheme, which wouldn't be a total waste of time to muck in a little as it's an interpreter of a dialect of Lisp, and maybe not too many layers removed from relevancy to learning to use some tools likely to survive the Republic's reckoning, thereby.

The following gets saved as batch-scaler.scm, to be placed in the ~/.gimp2/scripts directory:

(define (batch-scaler pattern
			new-width
			new-height)
	(let* ((filelist (cadr (file-glob pattern 1))))
		(while (not (null? filelist))
			(let* ((filename (car filelist))
				(image (car (gimp-file-load RUN-NONINTERACTIVE
								filename filename)))
				(drawable (car (gimp-image-get-active-layer image))))
			(gimp-image-scale image new-width new-height)
			(gimp-file-save RUN-NONINTERACTIVE image drawable filename filename)
			(gimp-image-delete image))
		(set! filelist (cdr filelist)))))

Note that I've put extraneous spaces between all multiple parentheses; you'll have to take these out. If someone has a better idea for preventing MPWP's cannonical footnote plugin from interpreting lisp parentheses as footnotes, please write in. The very MP in question has a fix for this in the comments, works splendidly.

Running it goes like so, from the directory where your selected but otherwise raw pictures are:

gimp -i -b '(batch-scaler "*.JPG" 1024 638)' -b '(gimp-quit 0)'

I scale my images when I re-size them, so I grabbed gimp-image-scale from the "Script-Fu Procedure Browser" and worked it into a batch processor, which goes through a glob of files according to the pattern given when running it (as long as the glob isn't empty) and then without loading the Gimp GUI, loads the pictures themselves, selects the drawable part, scales them according to whatever's set when running, saves them, and deletes the originals.

Some important problems: this only works for landscape-oriented images; you could pick out portraits, put them in a different folder and run this on them with different size parameters, but that's not so efficient. If I figure it out, I'll update this article, otherwise if anyone would care to modify this, please do. Ideally the width should be set to 1024 while preserving the aspect ratio, rather than manually specifying the length, too, regardless of orientation. Another thing to consider is that this creates one set of images, not a display size and larger size pair as in MP's process. Further, this just overwrites the images and saves them as such; the file-jpeg-save function takes fourteen, FOURTEEN, parameters, and I really can't be assed. So once the above is done,

ls -v | cat -n | while read n f; do mv -n "$f" "cozo-$n.jpg"; done

Then you can proceed to upload them as normal.

Anyway, I was saying: let's make cozonac. The instructions below are for two loaves, because who does this laborious stuff one output item at a time?!

First comes the filling. I typically make the filling the night before as it needs to cool completely before being used, otherwise it'll make steam pockets in the dough and fuck up the whole thing. Grind about a half kilogram of walnuts3 and add them to a saucepan in which you've dissolved about a tablespoon of brown sugar into 150ml or so of milk over low heat. Keep stirring; you want a paste-like consistency, for which reason you may use a little more or a little less milk. After it's thickened admirably, stir in a little rum.

cozo-1

And five or six tablespoons of unsweetened dark cocoa. Zest an orange or three and stir in the zest, too. Your mixture should be fairly thick, and very nicely scented. Set it aside, or put it in the fridge if you're saving the rest 'til tomorrow.

cozo-2

For the dough, melt 150 or so grams of butter into another 150ml or so of milk. Dump two more tablespoons of brown sugar in there, and once everything's dissolved and incorporated take it off the heat and zest two oranges and a lemon into it, and add some vanilla; either scrape the seeds into it or steep a pod in the milk while it heats, or better yet, do both.

cozo-3

Also while you're waiting for the temperature to drop, get something like 2/3rds of a kilogram of bread flour into a big bowl, add a pinch of salt, a teaspoon each of cinnamon and nutmeg, a handful or so of the best raisins you can find, and plenty --that's around 6 grams-- of dry yeast, and distribute it all evenly.4

cozo-4

Once this concoction's cool enough to touch but still warm, break three eggs into it and stir.

cozo-5

Now dump the wet stuff into the dry stuff, and knead it until it's pliable and doesn't stick to your hands too much. You might need to add a little more flour; not too much though, or your dough will be too tough. Once you're done kneading form the dough into a ball and let it rest in a warm kitchen under a slightly damp towel.

cozo-6

If your kitchen is cold, heat your oven for a few minutes, then turn it off and put the bowl in there. Leaving dough to rise in a cold place is begging for disappointment.

cozo-7

Once your dough has doubled, which should take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half or so, prepare a workspace for rolling. Your filling should be room temperature, either because you've let it cool for several hours or you've taken it out of the fridge a few hours before --note that very cold filling is no good here, as it'll cool the dough for its second rise and you'll be stuck waiting f o r e v e r to get your loaves in the oven.

cozo-8

Oil your countertop/foil-lined table/friend's back/whatever surface, and do the same with your rolling pin/wine bottle. Generously butter two loaf pans and sprinkle them with flour.

Divide your dough into quarters. For each loaf, roll out first one quarter and then the other into rectangles, until they're quite thin but not too thin to pick up. Spread each with a quarter of your filling, leaving small margins at the edges.

cozo-9

Roll these up lengthwise, then twist them together to make a floppy, unwieldy helix; immediately plonk them into the loaf pans before they get any unwieldier.

cozo-10

Brush them with an egg yolk beaten with a bit of milk, and let them rise another hour or two, until they've started to threaten the edges of the pans. Then bake at 200C, preheated if you're stuck with an electric oven, for just about an hour. After fifteen minutes or so in the oven, lightly cover the loaves with aluminum foil to keep the tops from burning.

cozo-11

Let them cool for a few minutes after taking them out, then remove them from the pans and cool them completely, resting on their sides, and switching sides occasionally. There's a delicate juxtaposition of dense chocolaty nuts and light, puffy dough inside --it has to cool down gently and evenly, hence all the elaborate dancing.

cozo-12

Once they're cool, slice and enjoy. Cozonac also freezes very well, and can even be eaten as frozonac, for the adventurous. All in all this is a rather heathen recipe, unlikely to be approved of by most Romanian cooks, who tend towards the strict and unexaminedly-traditional side. It is however highly praised by those whose opinions I actually care about, and owes something to the instruction of Ellie, whose basic discussion of procedure managed to somehow break through very heavy Hallmark-isms, Jesus worship, cups and cups of sugar, and other incompatibles to teach me something.

  1. "Ought to" maps, of course, to as much as MP would like, here. []
  2. I'm using 2.8, fwiw. []
  3. You can also add some measure of pecans, almonds, pistachios, or macadamias, though walnuts are the traditional, and really the best for this recipe. []
  4. You can also use fresh yeast, which imparts a pleasant flavor for those with a taste for it. It'll also cause your dough to rise a little faster, which isn't a bad thing. To do this, mix eight to ten grams of crumbled fresh yeast into the warm milk mixture after you mix in the eggs, which are coming. []

Wellington Schmellington

Friday, October 27th, 2017

Pork Wellington is a dish created by a certain gourmand and which I especially appreciate for its competent obfuscation of that off-copper, sub-glottal twinge that typically assaults one attempting to finish their liver1. It's pretty much a roast-in-crust, with the more common beef tenderloin swapped out for pork, and the pate made with chicken rather than goose liver, which is also deeply spiced.

Make the pastry first so it can sit in the fridge while everything else gets going. Follow a basic pate brisee method, but sift in some baking powder before you cut in the butter. Smoosh it into a disk and let it chill so it's easier to roll later.

wellington-1

Next make the pate. Dump about a kilo of fresh chicken liver into a big pot of boiling water and get ready to lose some of your enthusiasm about eating this thing later on (don't worry, it'll come back). Sorting through your livers to discard any gallbladders that might've gotten in there before this point is a good idea. A few drops of whatever vinegar you have on hand will help tame the smell and aid coagulation in the pot.

wellington-2

Keep it roiling for half an hour, then drain the stuff and dump it into a bowl with your spice mixture, which should contain around ten grams of allspice berries with black and white peppercorns to taste, finely ground. Mash these up with a fork, adding a pat of butter now and then to achieve a thick, clumpy velvet sort of texture. Remove any whitish membrane threads you find during this procedure. Once you're happy with the texture, add a few spoonfulls of fermented dairy --I used plain yogurt and some splashes of kefir, though sour cream would also work. This'll make the pate easily spreadable, a paste rather than a stucco.

wellington-3

Now it's time to sear your steak; heat a pan to suparhot with some butter, and brown the tenderloin on all sides, giving the whole thing no more than two minutes or so, then transfer it to a plate to cut the heat.

wellington-4

Your components now prepared, you can proceed to roll out the dough; try to make a shape that more or less echoes that of the tenderloin. Spread about half of the pate on the dough, leaving a goodly margin as below, then plop the seared tenderloin on top. Slather on the rest of the pate2. At this point you'd typically spangle the log3 with sliced mushrooms, but I opted to make a bechamel of dried porcinis instead. A sprinkling of fresh thyme leaves works well, too.

wellington-5

Anyway, wrap the thing up like any other package, taking care not to get much of any overlap of the dough, else it'll end up too thick in places. Seal on top or along the sides, brush with an eggwash, slash a few holes, and stick it in the oven around 190C for about 50 minutes.

wellington-6

Pork Wellington is best eaten with his dearest friends in tow: Sir Worchestershire, Herr Rottkohl, and Madamme Bordeaux.

  1. As part of some grand cosmic joke I'm not in on, the only working remedy for my interminable affair with anemia is weekly consumption of ~half a kilo of chicken liver, which I initally found abhorrent and by now swallow with only somewhat of a frown. []
  2. Depending on the "about" of your kilo of liver and the size of your tenderloin, you might end up with too much pate --you don't want to go thicker than about a third of an inch. If you end up with extra, put it in a glass jar in the fridge and enjoy with tomorrow's toast or whatever, tell your sister you've discovered a fabulous "hair masque" she just has to try. []
  3. Masturbatory euphemism not intended. []

If at first you don't succeed, scoop it into the garbage and ask how many cups of stupid you threw in there.

Friday, September 26th, 2014

I made a failed cake yesterday. I loathe few things more than failed foodstuffs, but like most anything, they require a bit of failure now and then to season a person into sanity. It was a pineapple upside-down cake, and while a specific procedural error led to the failure, the real cause of the soupy, inedible (but still quite deliciously fragrant, because fuck me) disaster that flowed out of my pan was a momentary preference for not thinking.

In general I don't use recipes when cooking, though only yesterday did I really understand why. Inasmuch as a recipe presents itself as a complete set of instructions and a material rider, it offers a replacement for thinking, if you're prone to succumbing to that sort of thing. So a recipe for pineapple upside-down cake that calls for fresh fruit and doesn't mention the need to wring the juice from the cut pieces nor to evaporate extra juice with a long, slow, caramel-covered sauna over low flame is a recipe for sludge --similar to the substance occupying the space between your ears as you mindlessly list-check and step yourself along.

Here's version one, in all its abortive glory:
bad cake

The conversation upon opening the springform went something like this:

Person Promised Cake: "So...how many cups of water did you put in here?"
Me: "...water?! There's no water."
PPC: "You put some water in here. Some liquid with water in it."
Me: "Uh, well the caramel had like a tablespoon of cognac in it...the batter had around four."
PPC: "Nah, you put like a cup of water in here."

I was incredulous and combative until the virgin pineapple was finally dragged on stage. This'd be another symptom of eschewing thinking for the instructions. It didn't call for a cup of water, I didn't just randomly throw uncalled for things in, obviously I didn't put a cup, a whole cup, even, of water in there! Except I did, because the poor pineapple is simply going to do what it does without a care for what should be or what someone else assumed it'd do.

It's not that cooking can't be learned in the presence of recipes, just as it's not true that math can't be done with calculators. The problem is that relying on such things to do one's thinking for oneself is a quick ticket to amorphous mush, of whatever kind follows from the inputs. I never knew what the fuck I was doing with basic math until I stopped using calculators and did things in my head, and I only learned how to cook well when I became actively engaged in making new things, which absolutely as a first step requires thinking. Faking understanding with tools may go unpunished for a while, especially in an environment marked by mickey mouse tests and tasters and "scores" that reflect what should be rather than what is. Math, cake, or anything else, though --it'll fall apart at some point, and the more you seek to find fault with the tools rather than with yourself, the worse it'll be.

Here's version two, which landed upside down cake firmly in my repertoire:
good cake

It's a banal accomplishment in the grand scheme of things, but served as an important reminder of the wasteful stupidity of tuning out, and of the pernicious poison of poorly-chosen submission.

Soup's On

Saturday, October 13th, 2012

Today I watched a pot boil. Immature as it may sound, I nevertheless find a little piece of pleasure in checking on a pot just before it hits the boiling point, proving the old adage wrong. I suspect we grow up with too many adages, whether they're formalized or not.

The pot I watched began to bubble and stir around various herbs of its own momentum; I was making soup. I've been making soups and having a bowl almost every day for a few years now. One of the major differences between cooking and eating in the US and in Romania is that here, there's always soup on offer, and generally it's eaten before the dinner meal. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've had soup before dinner back home. When I came to Romania, the tradition seemed insignificant --soup was more like this needless and boring thing, and it took me forever to make one, not to mention that I had no real idea of what to put into a pot. Today I make them in about twenty minutes, and a pot's good for me and company for three to four days. It's splendid how a good soup fills the house with the inviting scent of herbs and vegetables. It aids digestion. It's filling enough that it gracefully encourages eating smaller meals throughout the day. And while the cost varies according to season and what exactly I'm making, that three to four day pot runs ~$4.

In many parts of the world, soup is absolutely integral; in some areas soups are served in parlors specifically for the purpose of gathering people together to have a small repast and enjoy a game of backgammon or discuss whatever ongoing concern. Soup's good if you're sick or if you're well, whether you're old and frail or young, whether you have a meager grocery budget or want to try something epicurious. It's even been suggested that the proliferation of modern restaurants has as its original raison d'ĂȘtre the provision of soups for the public. The staple's been commercialized to all hell, of course, and cans of soup take up a big piece of your given grocery store aisle now, but I think the shortcomings of processed soup were largely to blame for my disinterest in the dish before I started to make it myself. When you make your own soup, you're free to put in exactly what you want, leave out what you don't, and perhaps most importantly, avoid all the preservative, chemical crap your body certainly doesn't need.

There are a few things you absolutely need for good soup, and a variety of things that can help but which aren't totally necessary. In that first category, perhaps the most important would be a good pot. Thick-bottomed, able to hold a gallon or more, and with a securely-fitting lid, preferably vented. And then you've got to have some ingredients. But there aren't really any absolutes. It's a good idea to have a basic herb garden (as it is within the context of all cooking). I grow a couple of pots of basil, and one each of rosemary, tarragon, and mint, though depending on your taste and your light situation you might also grow some coriander, fennel, thyme, or dill. Lovage, which doesn't seem too popular in the States, is absolutely wonderful, with a slightly sweet, broadly herbal taste that incorporates notes of licorice. I tried to grow it on my balcony this year, and learned the hard way that local birds apparently think it's some sort of ambrosia. I went out one morning and found my plants completely severed at the stalks, and caught a bird hopping around now and then checking out the damage to see if there were any scraps left. Next year I'll have a proper battle plan. I round out what I grow with what's in my cupboard. Paprika (which I wish was available smoked here, but they haven't quite caught on yet despite the fact that next-door Hungary is the preeminent producer of paprika), parsley, black, white, pink, and green peppercorns, powdered ginger and rosemary, coriander seeds, cumin, fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, whole nutmeg, lemongrass, curry leaves, whole allspice, cayenne, oregano, and bay leaves make up the bulk of my stash and often find their way into soups in different teams.

Then you'll need liquids. This summer and fall I've been using plain old tap water for my soups, which is great when fresh vegetables are available at the market. In winter months, or if the goal is something particularly special, a stock is in order. I haven't yet found any prepared stocks here that are sane; there's a plethora of over-salted, hydrogenated fat-laden stocks that I won't touch, so I make my own stocks. For chicken and beef you'll need some bones, a little lean meat if you want, and some basic vegetables (carrots, a whole onion, celery root or stalks) and some bay. Simmer these in a big pot of water for a few hours, skimming off any foam on the surface, and discard the solids. For seafood, get some shellfish husks. For vegetable, follow the chicken/beef bit above but obviously omit the meat and bones. You can pour well-reduced stock into ice cube trays and freeze it, which gives you better quantity control.

By now, all you have to do is pick some core ingredients, like diced or pureed vegetables and/or bits of meat, and maybe some pasta, add your herbs and you're done. In Romania a lot of soups are heavily modified at the table, with lemon wedges, sour cream, hot peppers, and so forth. I like to eat the following soup with a splash of whole milk and a little bit of Sriracha (oh Cholula hot sauce, how I miss thee). So here's a soup I've been feasting on all summer, a welcomely sweet and herbal pause in the bitter iron-heavy diet I've slowly been phasing out as I get over some devilish anemia.

Summer Soup

Bring a pot of water to boil, and throw in sufficient salt, pink peppercorns*, paprika, turmeric, and ground fennel and fenugreek seeds. While the water heats up, peel and dice 3 - 4 carrots and a few ounces of celery root, and dump them in. Leave the pot be for a while, and in the meantime peel and chop a cup or so each of zucchini, green beans, and tomatoes. Slice a couple of green onions and chop a few basil and rosemary leaves; set these aside. After the pot has boiled for anywhere from ten minutes to an hour (depending on how done you like your vegetables and how strong you want the soup), dump all the other ingredients in and turn the heat down so it barely boils; leave this for about fifteen minutes. Sometimes I'll throw in a little fresh ravioli, which goes in with the zucchini etc.

Crusty bread drizzled with olive oil goes nicely.

*I like peppercorns floating freely in my soup, but if you don't especially enjoy the idea of biting down on a spicy bit of pale pink heaven, tie them in a cheesecloth before you drop them in.