Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Rock this guac

Guacamole with chips by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
I love the way supermarkets are designed for impulse buyers. From the glistening red ripe strawberries just inside the door, to the cartoon character cereal at kid eye-level, to the intoxicating scent of roasting chicken wafting from the deli at 5 p.m., it's all there to make me shove my shopping list to the bottom of the Vera and give in to temptation. The strawberries, at 2 for $5, usually make their way into the buggy, (after I turn the package upside down to check for signs of slushiness or mold). I usually avoid the kiddie cereal, but the roast chicken is another matter. I make an excellent butter-roasted chicken, but it's easier and less expensive to buy the roasted bird in the cute bag with a handle.

My other impulse buy is avocados, directly behind the strawberries in my market. The pebbly exerior of a Hass avocado hides the creamy celadon flesh, and I take my time selecting the fruit, picking up only the glossy, heavy ones that just barely give when gently pressed. I buy exactly two, because the sign says 2 for $3, and eat them over the next four days, each morning spreading half on a split whole wheat bagel - my favorite breakfast.


Perfectly ripe avocadoes by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books.
When I'm feeling flush, and when the avocados look especially good, I'll buy extras and make guacamole, the essential smashed avocado dip. There are lots of variations out there, pureed, whipped and loaded with everything from tomatoes and onion to bacon and olives. (And in the context of loaded guacamole, this bacon version by Susan Russo is to live for). My favorite guac, however, the kind I make for just me and my family, my own rockin' guacamole, is really very simple. And like the simplest recipes, attention to technique and ingredients can mean the difference between everyday and out of this world.

My Guacamole

enough for my family of 4, multiply p.r.n.

4 avocados
Juice of 1/2 lime
1 garlic clove, minced
1 Roma tomato, diced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. You will need a sharp chef's knife or paring knife, and a spoon. Slice avocadoes in half along the length. Using a spoon, remove and discard the pit. Use the knife to make 1/2 inch cuts through the flesh, diagonally left to right, then right to left. Scoop flesh of three avocados into a bowl. Reserve flesh of fourth avocado.

2. Pour lime juice over avocados, and smash until the mixture is dip-like, but still chunky. Add garlic, diced tomato and salt and pepper to taste. (I go easy on the salt because of the salty tortilla chips). Add reserved avocado flesh, gently stirring in the chunks. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve with tortilla chips.

Browning is the nemesis of all avocado preparations and I have three solutions: First of all, if you're making this dip ahead of time, place guacamole in a container that is deeper than it is wide, creating as little surface area exposure as possible, squirt some lime juice overall (remember the other half of the lime?) and place plastic wrap directly on exposed, lime-y surface, pressing into corners. Cover with lid and refrigerate.

My second tip, one I haven't tried yet, is from Bon Appetit, where they suggest cutting avocado, then rinsing in cool water. I'll experiment and report back.

My third solution, the obvious one, is to make the guacamole right before serving and to eat every last bite so there's nothing to store. No guacamole, no browning.
That's about it. What do you like in your guac? Do you have a nifty no-browning avocado solution?

 “Get Grillin’ with Family Fresh Cooking and Cookin’ Canuck, sponsored by Ile de France Cheese, Rösle, Emile Henry, Rouxbe and ManPans.”

Monday, May 30, 2011

Remembering soldiers and sailors on Memorial Day

My house has a long hallway from the breezeway door into the dining room and kitchen. It's the utilitarian side of the house, a blank wall on one side and a laundry room on the other. Just right for pictures of family and the girls. Somewhere along the way, it became the family history wall, I guess because I'm the only daughter and have become the repository for the photographs of my ancestors - stern German immigrants, early 20th century party girls, and a collection of soldiers and sailors. They are my family history and because I walk by them every day of my life, their names and faces are as familiar as my children's.

Because all these soldiers and sailors made it home from their wars, this post is probably more appropriate for Veteran's Day, but I can't help thinking that even when soldiers and sailors come home, they've given more than most to keep us safe and comfortable. So I send a heartfelt thanks to all soldiers, sailors and their families, especially the families whose sons and daughters have given their lives to this country.

My husband's grandfather, D.B. Mercer, Sr., who survived WWI, only to die young in Macon, Georgia.

My grandfather, E.C. Eggert, Sr., who served in France in WWI, came home and died at age 89 in Nashville, Tennessee.

My husband's uncle, Lewis Howard ,and his wife Bernice, Macon, Georgia.

D.B. Mercer, Jr., was a decorated pilot in WWII, stationed in England.

D.B. Mercer, Jr., in WWII. He was stationed in  England and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
 For Veteran's Day 2010, I wrote about D.B., the father-in-law I never knew. Going through the papers from his time in the service was fascinating and humbling, and brought someone who I only knew through stories, to a version of life. Whenever I encounter a veteran or meet someone of the "Greatest Generation," I always ask about their service - some folks will talk and some won't. I've met helicoptor pilots and nurses who served in Vietnam, poor country boys from Georgia who served on ships in the North Atlantic, a paratrooper who made 13 jumps in WWII. And after I've heard their stories, I thank them for their service. It's the least I can do.

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Very Hungry Caterpillar Cake

Very Hungry Caterpillar Cake by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Thursday was the last day of preschool for my baby girl. And unless I’m a grandmother before my time, it was my last day as a preschool mom for a very long while. These September babies get nearly an extra year before they start kindergarten, a spare year that from the moment I knew my due date, I dreaded a little (or maybe a lot). An additional year of drop-offs at 9 a.m. and pickups at noon, snack schedules, and tution. But now at the end of this extra year, I know I wouldn’t have changed it for the world, even if I could.

My baby girl has grown. Her blond locks are darkening, and the wispy baby curls are gone. Her face is slimming down, the little roll of fat just above her knees is long gone because she doesn’t just walk, she runs and skips. Really why walk when you can run? And why run when you can skip?

In this year, she’s grown four inches in height and leaps and bounds in behavior. In the classroom, she's everyone's friend and if she had to pick a career for her, her teacher would choose "an advocate for world peace.”

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle/Penguin Group

The final class party for our preschool days was a “Very Hungry Caterpillar” theme based on the childhood classic by Eric Carle. Words cannot describe how much I love and adore Eric Carle’s books. I want to live in a Carle-colored world, with oranges and reds and blues that subtly change to yellows, purples and greens. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, to those unfamiliar with the story, concerns a caterpillar on an eating binge – fruit and vegetables, then cake and pie. All this food creates a tummyache, so he eats a green leaf and feels much better. Then he realizes he’s a very fat caterpillar. He spins a cocoon where he stays for two weeks, then nibbles a hole in the chrysalis and he becomes a beautiful butterfly.

Fat caterpillar by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

As the children recited the story with pictures, I realized the metamorphosis that has taken place, in my child’s heart and mind. She’s no longer a baby, she’s now ready for kindergarten. She can count, she can read, name all her shapes. She knows that Eric Carle is an author and an illustrator. She's a beautiful butterfly.

Beautiful butterfly by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I expected to be a little teary at the final party, and it was poignant, but I’ve sailed this cruise ship before. When one schoolhouse door closes, two months later, another opens and I have lots of end-of-school year parties ahead of me. And let's not forget Halloween, Christmas, Valentine's, Easter, and Cat in the Hat Day. Wonder what cakes I'll make for those parties?

Very Hungry Caterpillar Cake by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Funny thing about having a food blog – you occasionally get asked to bake and decorate cakes. I’m not a Wilton Warrior by any stretch of anyone’s imagination, but I can Google and I know where to buy fondant, so this is the cake we created. And I do mean we - it was a family project. Laura helped with the caterpillar face and Lindsey helped frost the cupcakes.

Very Hungry Caterpillar cake by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Some particulars: The cake was based on this one here, from CocoaCakeCupcakes. I especially liked that this artist used varying shades of green in the cupcake frosting, just like Eric Carle’s artwork. I molded the caterpillar head from Rice Krispie treats shaped in a small springform pan and covered it with red Wilton fondant. I used my go-to cupcake recipe from America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, Easy Yellow Cupcakes, but to be honest, I’m ready for a new recipe, this one tends to be a little dry and coarse in texture. I used the Rich Vanilla Frosting from the same cookbook, and it was a winner, but the cakes do need to be refrigerated if not serving right away. This buttery frosting does not hold up well in the heat.

The endpapers of Eric Carle are always a treat – I took inspiration from the endpapers and sponge painted some freezer paper (butcher paper would work, too) to make a colorful background for the cake.

Caterpillar booties on toothpicks by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

The little caterpillar feet were so cute! I molded fondant onto toothpicks and inserted them in individual cupcakes. The antennae were shaped onto toothpicks and inserted in the Rice Krispies cake. I considered attempting the swirled frosting tops, but 3 considerations kept me from that: I would need more frosting, already hyped-up 5 year olds would be eating this, and it was 10 o’clock at night - I needed my rest for such a big day!

Be safe this Memorial Day weekend and have fun!

Text and images copyright Lucy Mercer, 2011, with the exception of the Very Hungry Caterpillar artwork from Penguin Group. As I wrote this article, I found some excellent Eric Carle resources. Penguin Group's Eric Carle page and Eric Carle's website with videos showing how he creates the caterpillar collages.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Blackberry winter

Blackberry Doobie with Lemon Ginger Ice Cream by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Spring comes early in Georgia, and like the best dinner guest, knows when to leave. We can spend Easter afternoon in flip-flops and shorts and Mother’s Day poolside, but every now and then we get a taste of what the old-timers call blackberry winter, a cold snap just as the wild blackberries come into fruit. Blackberry winter is in contrast to Indian summer, the warmish spell in autumn. The chilly temps are said to sweeten the ripening berries.

Evening temperatures usually hover in the 50s in late April, rising to the 60s in May, just enough chill in the air to make you grab a sweater before leaving for work in the morning. Every now and then the white witch of winter will sweep her frosty gaze across the land in May, and we scurry to locate sweatshirts and long pants and only recently forgotten socks. In addition to the wardrobe change, blackberry winter can put a hurting on tender annuals and other blooming glories of spring, like azaleas and rhododendrons, turning their vibrant blooms to brown mush.

Blackberries by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Blackberry winter visited us last week, two nights of temps in the upper 30s, which meant making a place inside for the herb seedlings I’d left in pots on the porch. Down went a bathmat by the front door, and I placed upon it pots of chives, basil (both sweet and purple ruffle), Italian parsley, rosemary and thyme. (I will consider myself a true gardening success if I can get the thyme and rosemary to grow – both plants can put up with the suffocating heat of July and August in north Georgia, but I need to get them through a frosty May first.)

Blackberry, the plant, and I are old friends. I don’t have the barefoot memories of picking berries as a youngster, but since we cleared the land for our house, I know a lot about the thorny vines. We pull on our long pants and long sleeves and gingerly approach the fearsome plants, more afraid of the chiggers, (some call them red bugs), than the skin-piercing thorns. My granddaddy used to dust his ankles with stinky sulfur powder to keep the chiggers away when he went hiking. On our scrubby, woodsy acres, we’ve pursued the wild blackberries, pulling them up by the roots, until they’re nearly gone. To be honest, I don’t miss the tiny, seedy berries, and I certainly don’t miss the thorns and red bugs. I do, however, like to pick a couple pints of fat blackberries from the market and make Bellwether’s blackberry doobie, an old-fashioned stewed fruit dessert with buttery dumplings that soak up the sweet, tart berry juice. I serve this bubbling fruit stew with frosty lemon ginger ice cream – a month of weather extremes reflected in dessert.

Bellwether's Blackberry Doobie with Lemon Ginger Ice Cream by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Bellwether’s Blackberry Doobie
Bellwether Vance is a wonderful, witty writer and cook on the Florida Gulf Coast. Her stories appear on Open Salon every couple of weeks and I look forward to her posts as much as I do my children's artwork (that is to say, very, very much - they are treasures). This is her Blackberry Doobie recipe taught to her by her grandmother.

For the blackberry broth:

2 (12 oz.) packages fresh blackberries

Water to cover

½ cup of sugar (or more, depending on the sweetness of the blackberries)

Juice of ½ lemon

1. Place the berries in a medium saucepan and add enough water to cover the blackberries. Stir in the other ingredients. Simmer over medium heat for fifteen minutes - tasting and adjusting the sweetness and acidity along the way. Set aside to steep and cool slightly, about 15 minutes. Strain using a fine-mesh strainer, and return the strained juice to the saucepan. Heat to a low boil.

For the dumplings:

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small cubes

½ cup buttermilk (whole, if you can find it)

1. Combine the dry ingredients. Cut in the butter with your fingers until it resembles coarse meal. Add the buttermilk, kneading it into a ball. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and press out to ¼-inch thickness. Using a knife, cut into strips that measure about 1 ½ inches wide and 2 ½ inches long.

2. Drop the dumplings, one at a time, into the bubbling broth. Once all the dumplings are in, lower the heat slightly and let it simmer at a slow bubble for 10-12 minutes, stirring gently every few minutes. Remove from the heat and let it sit for at least 20 minutes to cool and thicken. Serve warm with a scoop of lemon-ginger ice cream.

Lemon-Ginger Ice Cream

3 lemons, zested and juiced

2/3 cup sugar

4 cups half-and-half, divided

5 egg yolks, whites saved for another purpose (angel food cake!)

Pinch of salt

2 teaspoons vanilla

2 2-inch slices crystallized ginger, finely diced, divided

1. In a saucepan over medium heat, heat 1 cup of half-and-half, the sugar, the lemon zest and ½ of the chopped, crystallized ginger. Stir with a whisk until sugar is dissolved and let it come to a boil. Remove from heat and let cool for at least15 minutes.

2. In a bowl, whisk the egg yolks until thick and lemony in color. Slowly add the half-and-half mixture, whisking constantly. Pour the mixture into the saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture coats a spoon. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve into a large bowl.

3. Add ½ cup of lemon juice, the vanilla, and the remaining chopped, crystallized ginger to the strained custard, whisking until combined. Add 3 cups half-and-half, whisking again. Pour mixture into ice cream maker and freeze according to manufacturer’s directions. Store in airtight container in freezer.

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Atlanta Food Blogger's Bake Sale + Lemon Glazed Cookie Recipe

I'm very proud to have participated in this past weekend's Great American Bake Sale to benefit Share Our Strength. This amazing organization has the goal of eliminating childhood hunger in America by 2015. The Great American Bake Sale takes place across the country on the same day - all bake sales, all committed to helping families and communities.

Atlanta's Food Blogger Bake Sale was coordinated by Tami Hardeman of Running With Tweezers who just announced this afternoon that not only did the bake sale raise $3,000, but because it was the highest-grossing bake sale in the country, Duncan Hines will add another $10,000 to go to the Atlanta donation for Share Our Strength!

I want to send out special thank you's to Tami for coordinating this project and Wanda of The Teacher Cooks who graciously transported my cookies to the event.

It's been awhile since I participated in a bake sale and I had an inkling that this sale's emphasis on individual packaging would require a lot of time to label and assemble. I chose to make two of my favorite cookies - Ginger Cookies with Strawberry Jam and Glazed Lemon Cookies. I'm glad I listened to the inkle - baking a double batch of ginger cookies and a single batch of lemon cookies took about 3 hours. Packaging the cookies took another 3 hours. All the work was absolutely worth it.
Ginger cookies with strawberry jam. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Soft, spicy ginger cookies with strawberry jam are my go-to giveaway cookie. They're old-fashioned and a change-up from the usual variations on chocolate chip (not that there's anything wrong with chocolate chip cookies). I've been on a lemon kick lately so I added my adaptation of the Glazed Lemon Thins recipe in Susan Purdy's "The Family Baker." About lemons - my dessert output this year includes lemon pudding, lemon pound cake, lemon tea loaves. Truth be told, I've been on the lemon kick for awhile - the very first story I ever wrote for the blog, in January 2008, was for coconut macaroon tarts with lemon curd, a little bridal shower treat that I must find an excuse to make again. And there's homemade lemon ginger ice cream chilling in the freezer as I type.
Glazed Lemon Cookies by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Glazed Lemon Cookies
adapted from Susan Purdy's The Family Baker

Yield: about 40 cookies


1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 egg
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Zest of 1 lemon
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 cup sifted confectioners' sugar
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1. For the cookies: In a large bowl with an electric mixer, beat together the butter and sugar until smooth and well blended. Beat in the egg, lemon extract, lemon juice and lemon zest. Scrape down the bowl and beater and add flour, confectioners' sugar, cornstarch and baking soda, beating everything together until fully incorporated.

2. Dust a countertop with a small amount of flour and turn dough out. Knead lightly and shape into a log. I like a square cookie, so I square the edges. You can divide the dough into two logs, if that works better for your refrigerator. Wrap the cookie dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least two hours or overnight. You can also double wrap the dough logs, place in a freezer container, label and freeze for up to 2 months. If using frozen dough, set out on counter while the oven preheats, to make the dough easier to slice.

3. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350. Line baking sheets with Silpats or parchment paper. Place cookie dough log on a cutting board and use a sharp knife to slice 1/4-inch slices. Place on prepared baking sheets about 1 inch apart. Bake for 10 minutes at 350 or until the cookies are a light golden brown on the edges. While cookies are baking, make glaze by combining lemon juice, confectioners' sugar and lemon zest. Use a spatula to gently remove the cookies from the baking sheet and place them on a wire rack set over wax paper or foil (to catch drips) to cool slightly. Use a brush to spread glaze on cookies while they're still warm. Let cookies dry and place them in airtight containers for storage. (As if. They'll be gone before you can turn around.) It's a good idea to put parchment paper or waxed paper between the  layers of cookies.