Monday, December 14, 2009

Starting Fresh

I'm back! Which I guess is the great thing about blogging: you can check out for two months, then announce "I'm back!" and make it seem like you were away on some exotic journey that didn't include 15-hour workdays, two ho-hum holiday parties, a few sick days, lots of nights in, and a bunch of clean-out-the-refrigerator vegetable soups. Not like that's what my little blogging hiatus consisted of, or anything. But if it did, you'd never know it.

My usual approach to returning to Red Ramekin after some time spent away is to apologize profusely to my dear and numeriferous readers, but this time I think I'll skip all of that. Suffice it to say that I've been busy indeed, with work of course, but also with entire weekends filled with yoga, a trip to Minnesota for Thanksgiving, more holiday cookie-baking than one would think is humanly possible, and even a bit of writing*.

But I've missed blogging, and I've missed sharing the tasty things that tend to come out of my kitchen every now and again. And so, I'm back!

There have been too many instances over the past few weeks that were so close to being blogging moments; those kinds of moments where the dinner is on the table or the cookies have just come out of the oven and I've thought that surely this would be the recipe that brings me back here, to share and pass it along. And maybe I'll eventually share the fruits of those almost-moments, but today I have to share something that just could not be anything but blogged. And eaten, obviously.

Here's the thing: I own just about every kitchen appliance and cooking implement that you can think of. Ravioli stamper? Check. Vitamix? Oh yeah baby. Tagine? You'd better believe it. The one thing I've never had is a waffle maker. When I was growing up, my mom had one and would make the most delicious waffles on a lucky Sunday morning. Ironically, even people I know who don't do much cooking tend to at least have a waffle maker. But it never seemed like a practical investment (both of money and counter space) when pancakes required no special equipment and were made with essentially the same batter. Besides, the last thing I needed was one of those dreaded single-purpose items that tend to make a flurry of appearances at first and then slowly fade into the dark recesses of the storage closet.

Which all made perfect sense until I discovered the existence of vintage waffle makers. We're not talking electric plugs and red lights and non-stick surfaces, here. We're talking two irons, heavy and checkered, ready to be greased and thrust into the cooking fire. Truly old-fashioned, and truly adorable. Since I just so happen to be the luckiest girl in the world, Jonathan ordered me such a device (not quite an appliance, but not merely a pan) while he was making another purchase from Lodge (so great I've been known to write poetry about it). It is now my incredibly bad-ass waffle iron: two inter-locking, waffled pieces made of cast iron that fit snugly and turn out deliciously thin and homey waffles. I even had to season it myself.

I pounced on the first Saturday morning I could to make my first batch of waffles using the new iron, and it was quite the experience. It took a bit of getting used to, but by the end of the batch, my waffles were ever-so-slightly crispy on the outside, and soft on the inside. They may essentially be made of pancake batter, but these are no pancakes. The only setback was the timing. Since I don't have a gas stove or a huge firepit in the middle of my kitchen, I had to heat the irons and then cook the waffles in the oven, which, even at 450 degrees, took nearly 15 minutes per waffle. Not exactly quick and easy, on-the-go breakfast material. But on a Saturday, especially a well-below-freezing Saturday, sitting around and waiting for the waffles wasn't such a bad thing.

And what of the recipe? To maintain the whole vintage-novelty theme, I went with my trusty old Joy of Cooking, useless for anything fancy or inventive, but truly invaluable when it comes to things like Saturday morning waffles. I went with the basic recipe, which calls for whipping the egg whites separately to provide extra fluff and lightness to the finished waffles. I also used whole wheat pastry flour instead of all-purpose or cake flour, which probably counteracted some of the egg white lift, but no matter. These were hearty, and maybe even a tad bit healthy, and were quite the decadent vehicle for our Grade B, extra-mapley syrup. Next time I might try the fancier yeasted waffle, or maybe even do something savory, but for a first go with my new favorite toy, these were pretty darn good.

In lieu of the simple JoC recipe, and in the spirit of favorite new kitchen gadgets and the fact that we've now entered the present-centric time of year, what are your favorite kitchen tools? Although it surely is nothing new to post a list of the "Essential things I cannot cook without," I'll admit that I love reading what other people call their "essentials." Here are a few of mine - perhaps they'll serve as gift inspiration:

1. Dutch oven. Le Creuset if you can afford it, Lodge if you can't (I can't). So great for everything - soups, stews, roasts, etc.

2. Rimmed baking sheets. Essential for cookies, but also for roasted vegetables, granola, and toasting nuts.

3. Small whisks. More versatile than a large whisk, and good for everything from breaking up clumpy flour to tempering eggs.

4. A good, super-sharp chef's knife. Seems obvious, but you wouldn't believe how many people don't have one. I use Global knives, but anything sharp and sturdy will do.

5. Large iron skillet with lid. Works on the stove and in the oven. I use mine for frittatas, chicken, sauteed vegetables, and cornbread.

6. Food processor. Not necessarily one of the absolute basics, but O.M.G. is this thing useful.

7. Kitchen scale. For fussy recipes, especially ones that you want to scale up or down, a kitchen scale is a hundred times more useful than a measuring cup.

8. Silicone stirring spoons and spatulas. Not only are these easy to clean, but they are essential if you're cooking for someone with a wheat/gluten allergy.

9. Recycled, quart-sized yogurt containers. Super classy, I know. But these are always the perfect size for leftovers, and they're (basically) free! I always save mine, and don't feel bad tossing them when they start getting a little ratty.

10. Pretty cake server. OK fine, this isn't essential. But it will make your life (and your parties) so much better, believe me. Just buy one.

And of course, if you're like me, you can go ahead and add "old-fashioned, vintage, cast-iron waffle-maker" to the list. Perhaps it will never be the most used tool in your kitchen, but it will certainly make it easier on those chilly winter Saturdays to start fresh.

* So, about this writing thing. I've been lucky enough to do some guest writing for the online newspaper The Faster Times. Check me out in the "Sweets" column, where I have articles on boozy desserts (always popular), gluten-free baking for the holidays (completely useful), and (coming soon!) holiday cookies (obviously amazing). Check it out and tell me what you think!

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