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Thursday, August 29, 2013

What Vanilla Pudding Wishes it Was...Plus Our New Cafe

Have you made vanilla or chocolate pudding from a mix recently? Childhood memories must be playing tricks on me: those mixes just do not taste as good as I remember them.

Back in the day, it was dinner at 6 – don’t be late! – and if we had dessert on a weekday, it was usually watermelon or peaches in summer, and in winter, jello, canned peaches or pudding, served up in footed dessert cups.  But that was only if you ate everything on your plate, of course.

Sometimes the vanilla pudding was folded together with bananas and vanilla wafers in a square Pyrex baking dish.  And always, whipped cream from a can was available to squirt on top. Simple tastes for simple times.

Following is a recipe for pastry cream which undoubtedly tastes better than those long ago desserts, although it can never surpass the warm memories of time spent at the family table, admonitions of  no elbows on the table! no talking with your mouth full! no interrupting! notwithstanding.

There is a richness and depth of flavor from the combination of half and half, egg yolks, pure vanilla and fresh butter in this pastry cream which simply can’t be duplicated in pudding mixes.

Alien invasion at the Library!
Coffee and books - a great combination...

Grover’s Mill Coffee House in West Windsor, known for great coffee - they roast the beans themselves! -  just opened a café in our Library, and I was honored to make the cakes for their Grand Opening:  white cake with almond scented pastry cream, and whipped cream frosting.  The cakes, never from a mix of course, were enormous.  The ingredients tally: 48 eggs, 9 sticks of butter, 3 quarts of half and half for the pastry cream, and another 3 quarts of  heavy cream for the whipped cream frosting (certainly not from a can!). 

One customer came to the desk saying, “I just had to come over to see who baked this, because I took one taste and thought, “A real person baked this, not a bakery!” “.  

I used The America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book (in our Library!) for their pastry cream recipe.   Pastry cream is a very straightforward, but not necessarily “easy” preparation.  You have to follow the directions exactly (don’t run out of the kitchen to do something else in the middle!), but if you do, your pastry cream will be perfect. A little technique here goes a long way.

Pastry Cream adapted from America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book

2 cups half-and-half
½ cup granulated sugar, divided as follows:  6 Tablespoons , plus 2 Tablespoons
½ teaspoon kosher salt, (or ¼ teaspoon regular table salt)
5 egg yolks
3 Tablespoons cornstarch
4 Tablespoons butter (1/2 stick), cut into 4 pieces
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
½ teaspoon almond extract (optional)

In a medium saucepan, heat up the half and half, 6 Tablespoons of the sugar, and the salt together over medium high heat, stirring occasionally to keep from burning or sticking to the pan.  In the meantime, in a medium bowl whisk together the egg yolks, 2 Tablespoons of sugar, and cornstarch.

When the half and half just comes to a simmer, ladle out one cupful and add in a slow steady stream to the egg yolk mixture, being sure to whisk constantly (a helper could come in handy here – or just nest your bowl in a damp kitchen towel so the bowl doesn’t move). 

This gradual addition of the hot liquid brings up the temperature of the egg yolks slowly so the eggs don’t turn into hard bits of scrambled egg.

When that cup of hot half and half is completely incorporated, slowly whisk the egg mixture back into the bowl of the still simmering remaining half and half.  Then lower the heat to medium and whisk until thickened and a few bubbles pop slowly on the surface of the pudding.

Immediately remove from heat and add in the butter and vanilla extract (and almond extract, if using).

Transfer to a bowl and cover the top with plastic wrap placed directly on the surface of the cream (or a piece of parchment paper if you prefer not to have plastic in contact with your food).
Cool for 3 hours.  (Can be made a few days ahead of time.)

Besides using pastry cream for a great cake filling, make a quick dessert by combining with bananas and vanilla wafers for a retro combination; mixing with peaches and gingersnaps; or pairing with blueberries, raspberries and amaretti cookies.  Adding a flavored liqueur like framboise (raspberry), Grand Marnier (orange), or Amaretto (almond), when adding the vanilla extract would be a nice addition too, along with a dollop of fresh whipped cream.

After consuming the fake “pastry cream” which most bakeries serve, people forget how delicious simple things made from scratch can be.   This is one of those quintessentially old fashioned recipes that makes you feel like you’ve re-discovered an old friend, even if you’ve only ever had the boxed pudding mixes.

Try this with coffee made from the freshly roasted coffee beans now available in our new cafe - the Grover's Mill Coffee House at the South Brunswick Public Library, and enjoy with a good book!

Diane Whitman
Twitter @whitlibrarian
Reference Librarian
Grover's Mill Coffee Loyalist

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

More Good Movies You Might Have Missed...

by Jill Eisner
Information Services

The Invisible War


Directed by Kirby Dick, starring Helen Benedict, Anu Bhagwati, Susan Burke, Kori Cioca.

A groundbreaking investigative documentary about the epidemic of rape within the U.S. military. Follows the stories of several idealistic young servicewomen who were raped and then betrayed by their own officers when they courageously came forward to report.
2012, not rated.  Documentary.

Liberal Arts


Directed by Josh Radnor, starring Allison Janney, Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Reaser, Elizabeth Olsen, Zac Efron, Richard Jenkins.

When Jesse, a 35-year-old
New York college admissions adviser, is invited to his Midwestern alma mater to attend his favorite professor's retirement dinner, he quickly falls back in love with the university life. But when he meets 19-year-old student Zibby, the daughter of his professor's friends, he suddenly finds himself caught in a moral dilemma: does he pursue a relationship with this kindred spirit, or does he break her heart and return to the real world?
2012, rated PG-13. Comedy/Drama.

Before Sunrise 


Directed by Richard Linklater, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.
A young American man meets a beautiful French student on a train bound for Paris, falls in love and asks her to share his last night in Vienna.  1995, rated R. Drama/Romance.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Rules for Cinnamon Doughnuts

Rules for Cinnamon Doughnuts

Rules are made to be broken.  I agree with that, but only sometimes.  People can be divided into two camps – rule followers and rule breakers.  Me:  rule follower - I have to walk against the traffic and bike with the traffic.  If you’re walking with me in the neighborhood, I’m uncomfortable walking on the right, so just so you know?  We’ll be staying to the left.

Such rules make sense, and are intended to keep you safe.

With recipes it’s different, safety is not the issue (unless you’re talking about sanitation and safe cooking/storing temperatures, about which I am even more of a stickler).  When cooking, most recipes can be used as guidelines, whereas when baking, most recipes need to be followed to the letter. 

Not so with this recipe for Ina Garten’s Cinnamon Baked Doughnuts baked in a doughnut pan - baked, not fried, in a nod to health, a very slight nod, almost an imperceptible one because after baking, these doughnuts are dipped in melted butter and then rolled in cinnamon sugar. And because of that they are glorious – especially when still warm from the oven. 

You don’t actually need a doughnut pan – bake these as I did in a standard muffin tin.  I dislike having dedicated one-use items in my kitchen – too much clutter - and prefer to have versatile, good quality basic items instead.  The resulting cakes did not look like Ina’s but were certainly just as good tasting.

Not so beautiful but delicious!
Do I feel like I got away with something?  Maybe.  (Full disclosure - I actually used a silicone baking mold that someone gave me for Christmas - the muffins stuck, I recommend using a standard metal muffin tin, so yours will look better than these!)

This morning I heard a snippet of a BBC radio broadcast and the phrase “the allure of bending the rules” jumped out at me.  I can see where rule bending might be an attraction, more for some people, less for others. 

For me, my Catholic angst prevents me from reveling in this allure and I much prefer to stay on the side of the rule followers, walking on the left, biking on the right, but occasionally baking in muffin tins instead of doughnut molds…

Cinnamon Baked Doughnuts  from Ina Garten’s Foolproof

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon kosher salt (or ¼ teaspoon table salt)
1 extra large egg, lightly beaten
1 ¼ cups whole milk
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For the topping:
1 stick (8 Tablespoons) unsalted butter
½ cup sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease and flour a 12 cup muffin tin, or spray  with Baker’s Joy (baking spray with flour).

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. 

In a small bowl whisk together the egg, milk, melted butter and vanilla.  Pour the wet ingredients into the dry until just combined.

Portion into 12 muffin cups.  Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, checking at 15 minutes, and removing them when a toothpick comes out clean.  Let cool on a rack for 5 minutes.

Melt the butter.  Mix together the sugar and cinnamon.  Dip the muffins in the butter, then coat with the sugar. 

Best when warm.

The more experienced you are with cooking, the more you know some of the unwritten rules of cooking, and will follow them in all your recipes.  Here’s a few I see broken often:

Don’t crowd the pan when you’re sautéing. Take the time to cook in two batches or more. If you don’t, the food will steam instead of fry, and will never get a nice brown sear.  

When you’re using a gas grill, preheat the grill with all burners on high with the lid closed for 15 minutes.  Then change the setting to the desired temp and cook your food. 

Salt your food to taste during cooking, it won’t be the same if you only add salt at the end. 

When a recipe says sift together, it’s perfectly ok to whisk all the ingredients together instead. 

When baking, switch your pans left the right, front to back, halfway through the baking time.  This ensures more even cooking.  Just be quick, lest your oven cool down too much.

Diane Whitman
Reference Librarian
Rule Enforcer

Friday, August 2, 2013

Zucchinis and Twitter

Zucchinis and Twitter

It's that time of year again when good looking zucchinis are in every New Jersey market, and you can't help buying them because they look so fresh and healthful.  If you have a garden you probably have been resorting to dropping zucchinis off at neighbors houses. (Ringing the front door bell and running? -  well, maybe not that bad.)

In any case, here's a yummy way to not only use up but to enjoy zucchinis (and/or any kind of summer squash) in a versatile and delicious preparation:  Zucchini Butter.

(from Food 52's website)
Zucchini Butter is perfect warm and unctuous slathered on bruschetta, as a dip for crackers, carrot sticks or even zucchini sticks.  Or you can just do what my friend Carol did and simply eat this out of the bowl.  She proclaimed this "the best zucchini I ever ate", and my friend Barb texted me the next day for the recipe to make for her weekend guests.

This comes from the website Food 52, which I initially found because it sponsors and publishes an awesome competition for the best cookbooks of the year, but which I keep in my Twitter feed because it showcases some of the best food trends and recipes out there.  (, @food52 on Twitter)

Did I mention that Zucchini Butter is easy, cheap, and would keep well in the fridge for a day or two if all of it is not eaten immediately?

Yep, you should buy some zucchinis right now and have this tonight.  Disclaimer -  this may have been fantastically delicious because of the great quality of the ingredients I used:  fresh from the farm zucchinis and onion, flaky Maldon sea salt, black pepper imported by a friend from India, and olive oil purchased from Natirar Restaurant which they import themselves from Tuscany.  Which all goes to prove that sometimes great cooking is really just great shopping.

But don't despair if you don't have these same exact ingredients - the silky smooth "buttery" texture that the zucchini takes on from cooking down and having its flavors concentrated will still be present and wonderful; if not that elusive sweetness and freshness that you get from cooking with just picked ingredients.

Jennie Cook's Zucchini Butter adapted from Food 52's Twitter Feed, from July 24, Kristen Miglore

1/4 cup good tasting extra virgin olive oil
1 small white onion (OR 2 shallots, OR 3 large cloves of garlic - in fact, anything from the allium family, to give that onion-y flavor)
Sea salt, if you have it, kosher or regular salt if you don't
Freshly cracked black pepper
3 or 4 medium zucchini (1.5 to 2 lbs.), grated to make anywhere from 6 to 8 cups (can mix in yellow summer squash too!)

Saute the onion (or shallots), sprinkled with salt and pepper, in the olive oil in a large skillet on medium low heat for 5 or 10 minutes until softened and translucent.  (If using garlic, cook only for 30 - 60 seconds.)

In the meantime, squeeze out handfuls of the zucchini to rid the squash of excess water, and then add all the wrung out grated zucchini to the skillet.  Add more salt, turn up the heat to medium high, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes.  It's ok if the zucchini browns here and there, it will just add to the flavor.

Serve warm, or gently reheat if used later.  Yields about 2 cups.

Enjoy the bounty of the Garden State in summer!  And sign up for my All About Twitter class at the Library on Friday, September 27 from 12 - 1 to learn how to get connected.

Diane Whitman
Reference Librarian
Jersey Girl/ Tweeter