Thursday, December 30, 2010

Girl’s Fruitcake Memory, Interrupted

The Memory

When I was growing up in Dallas, every year my dad ordered the Deluxe Fruitcake from Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas to give as holiday gifts. Collin Street was—and still is—the reigning fruitcake empire, and you could only get their fruitcakes via mail order. My proud papa was on the fruitcake forefront—in the know about this company in a little town in Texas that sent thousands of fruitcakes to people all over the world. Every December, like clockwork, a cake would be sent to his secretary, business cronies and relatives in New York. And of course, we’d get one too.

Most people love them or hate them, but I am that rare bird who straddles the fruitcake fence. I always liked the cake and nut part. Dense with Texas pecans, what’s not to like? The red and green parts were the gray areas. I wasn’t sure what to make of them. At first, I’d simply eat around them. Then I’d dip my teeth into the shallow end of the fruit reservoir, trying to talk myself into taking the plunge. Finally I’d dive in, distrustfully chewing the red and green U.F.O.s (Unidentified Fruity Objects), in an attempt to brainwash myself into thinking they were good. Collin Street's cakes were good, as far as fruitcake goes.

The Collin Street Bakery started in 1896 when a master baker brought the fruitcake recipe from Wiesbaden, Germany to Corsicana. The bakery claims to have had visitors from Enrico Caruso to Will Rogers. When the Ringling Brothers Circus passed through town in 1914, they ordered dozens of cakes to be mailed to friends and family around the world. Thus, the company’s mail order business began.

Today the bakery ships to 196 countries, and they sell about 3 million pounds of fruitcake a year, or roughly 1.5 million individual cakes. That fruitcake wasn't cheap back then, and they cost a pretty penny now. You can still only buy them through mail order, but the bakery has expanded to another store in Corsicana and one in Waco.

I recently stopped at the store alongside the highway in Waco on my way from Dallas to Austin. It’s a big, attractive, airy-white refuge from the road, full of baked goods that I wanted to love. Fruitcakes make up 98 percent of their sales, but there were other pastries that looked enticing throughout the large shop. Unfortunately, I read the ingredients on some of the items and noticed most of them contained hydrogenated oil. Yes, hydrogenated oil!

The Interruption

Instead of riding off into the red and green sunset ensconced in the sweet air of yesteryear, I saw storm clouds on the horizon. This is what I read on the Collin Street Bakery web site:

Our world-famous DeLuxe® Fruitcake has been a favorite since 1896 — still baked faithfully to our original recipe.

Then I dug a little deeper and found this:

Ingredients: pecans, cherries, corn syrup, sugar, flour, pine-apple, raisins, eggs, invert sugar, honey, liquid soybean oil & hydrogenated soybean oil, papaya, water, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup solids, orange peel, natural and artificial flavor, sulphur dioxide, red #40, blue #1, tumeric (color)

Hmmm. All these modern, industrialized “food” ingredients in 1896? I decided to do a little research in order to set the historical record straight. Here are a few of my distilled findings:

Hydrogenated Oil

In 1901, a German chemist named Wilhelm Normann introduced the hydrogenation of fats, creating what later became known as trans fats. He acquired a German patent in 1902, and in 1909 Procter & Gamble acquired the US rights to his patent. In 1911 they began marketing Crisco. This invention of adding hydrogen atoms to food had a profound influence on the production of margarine and vegetable shortening, enabling a longer shelf life.

High Fructose Corn Syrup

Since corn naturally has glucose, not fructose, in 1957 researchers created an enzyme called glucose isomerase that rearranged the composition of glucose in corn syrup and made it into fructose. It turned a mildly sweet corn syrup into the highly sweet high fructose corn syrup. It was first produced on an industrial scale in the 1970s.

Food Coloring

Seven dyes were initially approved under the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, but several have been delisted and replacements have been found. In 1938, the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics (FD&C) Act approved 15 dyes for use in food, drugs, and cosmetics and assigned color numbers instead of their common names. As of 2007, there are seven artificial colorings permitted in food: FD&C Blue No. 1, FD&C Blue No. 2, FD&C Green No. 3, FD&C Red No. 40, FD&C Red No. 3, FD&C Yellow No. 5, and FD&C Yellow No. 6. (Yellow 5, 6 and Red 40 contain compounds that have been linked with cancer.)

So it’s not exactly baked faithfully to their original recipe, but it’s close. Kind of like me riding off into the red #40 and blue #1 sunset is close.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Naughty Holiday Biscotti (with Cleavage)

Who cares if you're a 36D when your biscotti is a 10.

The way to Santa's heart may be through his stomach, but the old guy isn't blind. So why not show him a great pair? This comely coupling of cranberries and pistachios will have him drooling from his North to South Pole. The festive recipe, adapted from that cleavaged culinarian Giada De Laurentiis, will satisfy on all fronts.

These luscious lovelies are not only busting out with vibrant fruits and nuts, perky lemon zest is front and center too. Giada dips hers in white chocolate, but I say why constrain these babies in unnecessary accoutrements? Show off that strapping pair in all its red and green glory. Let the flavors shine on their own. And while I may not fill out a Wonder Bra like Giada, my biscotti are every bit as
wunderbar as hers. In fact, when I made these last year, a guy called me a "ho" three times. What more could a girl ask for?

(adapted from Giada De Laurentiis)

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs

3/4 cup unsalted pistachios, coarsely chopped

2/3 cup dried cranberries (coarsely chopped if you wish)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Line a heavy large baking sheet with parchment paper. Whisk the flour and baking powder in a medium bowl to blend. Using an electric mixer, beat the sugar, butter, lemon zest, and salt in a large bowl to blend. Beat in the eggs 1 at a time. Add the flour mixture and beat just until blended. Stir in the pistachios and cranberries.

Form the dough into a 13-inch long, 3-inch wide log on the prepared baking sheet. Bake until light golden, about 40 minutes. Cool for 30 minutes. (Note: Make sure to let them cool the full 30 minutes before gently cutting them with a serrated knife or they will break.)

Place the log on the cutting board. Using a sharp serrated knife, cut the log on a diagonal into 1/2 to 3/4-inch-thick slices. Arrange the biscotti, cut side down, on the baking sheet. Bake the biscotti until they are pale golden, about 10-15 minutes. Transfer the biscotti to a rack and cool completely.

The biscotti can be made ahead. Store them in an airtight container up to 4 days, or wrap them in foil and freeze in resealable plastic bags up to 3 weeks.

Related Link: Orange-Hazelnut Biscotti

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Hope on a Farm in Watts

As he cups the small fruit in his hand, José informs me that it’s a guayaba. “It tastes good,” says the eight-year-old. “Is it tart?” I ask, faintly recalling that guayaba means “guava” in Spanish. He shakes his head yes. I’m pleased that he not only likes the fruit, but that he takes such pride in knowing about it.

José and his four-year-old friend Emily are hanging out at Mudtown Farms in Watts, where the children's grandparents are tending their plots in the community garden. This 2.5-acre parcel is across the street from the notorious Jordan Downs housing project—one of the flashpoints of the Watts riots and home to the Crips in South L.A. It's a gray, drizzly Saturday, and I'm touring the farm with my Food Bloggers Los Angeles group.

The farm was started after the riots in 1965, and today about 12 to 15 farmers pay $8 a month to grow things like cilantro, lettuce, chard and corn. I'd been to Watts a couple of times before—to see the famous Watts Towers, only a few blocks from here—and to go to the Central Avenue Jazz Festival. Central Avenue is a street steeped in history where some of the most celebrated jazz musicians in the 20's-50's played, from Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. But today, Watts is not exactly known for being a thriving artists' enclave.

In addition to the gangs and drug lords, the area is ruled by corporate fast-food pushers, out to get the 'hood hopped up on Happy Meals. With only one major grocery store in a wide area, fresh and nutritious is hard to come by. But you can get a quick fix from a 99-cent burger on any street. It's class warfare between the bottom liners in their corner offices and the bottom dwellers on every corner. The convenience-food and big-agro oligarchs with their processed and genetically modified agendas are pulling the nutritional strings, so it's no wonder this socioeconomic class has such elevated rates of obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. In a bold move two years ago, the city put a moratorium on new fast food restaurants in South Los Angeles. That was a start, but there are still few alternatives to healthy eating in these parts. When you've been a junk-food junkie your whole life, how do you come clean?

Enter the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC), a service and development organization who bought the land in 2005. The group has teamed up with architect Michael Pinto (above), a Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) professor and founder of Project Food LA. WLCAC and Pinto want to turn the under-utilized farm into a center for education and food sustainability, providing the residents with resources and access to healthy, locally grown food.

Pinto posed the possibilities as a project for his students, and they came up with a myriad of ideas, some of which are being seriously considered. WLCAC would like a professional farmer to oversee the land, and some of the options are to have an on-site kitchen with a chef offering cooking programs, a community-supported agriculture program, a seed library, as well as other avenues of education and support. Whatever they eventually decide on will hopefully bring healthier eating and more independence to the community.

It's hard for me to imagine a diet without fresh fruits and vegetables, but that's the grim reality for some. It's why we need to take matters into our own gardens and our own hands. They say real change starts from the ground up. I hope Mudtown Farms proves them right. Kids like José and Emily deserve a break today. But not at McDonald's.

Related links:

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ode to a Star

In my masala you were good

And now it’s on to Bollywood

Your anise charms will so entice

You’ll steal the stage from Ginger Spice

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Travel Bite: Turkish Chestnut Vendors

In Istanbul, you'll see chestnuts roasting on an open fire even when Santa's not on his way. Apparently Turks love their chestnuts almost as much as their cell phones. I saw vendors like this all over the city, especially at large public attractions like the Blue Mosque.

This magnificent mosque, built between 1609 and 1616 during the rule of Ahmed I, is one of the most striking sites in Istanbul. It has six minarets (not all visible here), while most mosques only have four. Inside, the high ceiling is lined with 20,000 blue tiles, hence the name: Blue Mosque.

Turkey is a major producer and exporter of chestnuts, and they are traditionally served candied or glazed as a dessert. Candied chestnuts are made by boiling peeled chestnuts in heavy syrup that’s flavored with vanilla. They also process the nuts into flour or meal to use in pastries and other sweets.

This vendor was parked outside of the sprawling Spice Bazaar. You can see how a metal shelf sits on top of the cart with a round metal receptacle built into it for roasting. It has holes like a sieve, and below is the fire. Do you think this is what Mel Tormé had in mind when penning his famous song?

Related Links:

Thursday, November 18, 2010

An Overthinker's Guide to Saving the Planet

My name is Lentil Breakdown and I am an overthinker.
Pfew. It felt really good to type that. It's tough keeping all these unmedicated thoughts bottled up inside. So now that I've outed my brain, let me explain. There’s a fine line between being a conscious person and an overthinker. An overthinker is really just a conscious person who accidentally wanders into the next mental county when she’s too busy thinking to see where she's going.

One symptom of my affliction is how far out of my way I’ll go to save plastic. I have become so conscious of the natural resources we use and cavalierly throw away that on my way to the recycling bin, I’ve moved closer to the loony bin. But before I officially lose my mind, I want to share some of the conscious choices I make on a daily basis to illustrate my good intentions—along with proof of my impending insanity. Maybe you’ll start to think about what you can do to save resources too—without veering off to the funny farm. This is my daily 12-step program for saving the planet. I'm pretty sure it's too late to save me.

1. Committed I save any type of plastic bag from bread, rice cakes, tortillas, chips—even scraps of seran wrap—to put my cat’s litter-box jewels or old cat food in. Commit Me I can’t throw any plastic bag away. Pack rat + bag lady = plastic pack-rat lady.

2. Committed Instead of wasting a large piece of seran wrap to cover a bowl of leftovers or a cut melon, I’ll put a plate on top of it or invert the melon face down on the plate. Commit Me Water doesn’t grow on trees. How much H2O does it take to wash that extra plate? Would I be better off using the plastic?

3. Committed I carry my own cloth Eco Bags to the farmers’ market to put my produce in, but if I accidentally forget to bring them, I will refuse to use their plastic bags. Commit Me I didn’t grow up in the circus, so getting three pounds of loose apricots on the scale when you’re not a professional juggler is a bitch.

4. Committed I try to avoid buying produce in plastic containers, and when I’m at the farmer’s market, I take out the cherry tomatoes, strawberries, figs, etc. and give the containers back to the farmers. Commit Me With no formal box-boy training, my precious, pricey produce has arrived home smashed—and it didn’t even stop at a bar.

5. Committed When I see things in my shared trash bin outside that should be in the recycling bin, I get so mad, I rummage through the trash and take them out. Commit Me The neighbors refer to me as “the homeless lady that lives next door.”

6. Committed I don’t want to throw my kitchen scraps in the trash because they emit a lot of carbon, but I don’t have a yard to make a compost. So I’ll put the scraps in a container next to the sink and let them sit there for days. Commit Me A sourdough starter makes a lovely bread, but this type of fermentation? Not so much.

7. Committed I wash Ziplock baggies with dish soap and reuse them when possible. Commit Me See step #2. And if they’re so dirty they require too much water, I feel guilty and revert to step #1.

8. Committed I wash and reuse plastic containers from take-out food or yogurt—even styrofoam ones (since they are technically plastic). Commit Me Is it safe to reuse single-use plastics or do the plastics break down in your food? Will I get cancer from trying to be green? Bonus Neurosis: Is it weird to rent a storage locker for your plastic containers?

9. Committed I put my trash in a brown grocery bag inside of a plastic grocery bag (am still looking for that plastic alternative). When ready to be thrown in the dumpster, I’ll take the plain brown bag out of the plastic outer bag so I can reuse it with the next brown bag. Commit Me Wet garbage falls through the brown bag as I'm walking through my living room, and my carpet curses at me.

10. Committed If I’m eating out and want to take home leftovers, I’ll ask for a piece of foil rather than use a plastic or styrofoam container. Commit Me Waiters find it an odd request, so I confess to them that I’m on a plastic-saving crusade. They think that’s even odder.

11. Committed I save paper towels in my kitchen that have only been used to dry my clean hands, and I’ll use them later to dry produce or wipe up spills. Commit Me If anyone needs proof to commit me, I’ve left a paper trail.

12. Committed Sometimes when I’m at a public function, I’ll sit there dehydrating rather than drink a bottled water or use a hard plastic cup. Commit Me Even my bladder thinks I’m crazy.

Geez. Now I’m feeling T.M.I. remorse. And that was only the tip of the insanity iceberg. What “unusual” things are you doing to save resources?

Related Links

What's Your Plastic Footprint?

My Bladders' Carbon Footprint

The Plastic Eater