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Getting Mead-ieval

(plus 2 era-appropriate desserts to go with it)

Chaucer's Mead shelftalker label

Chaucer's Mead new 2010 label. Diehard homebrewers aren't as enthusiastic as Wine Enthusiast, but most of them seem young and clearly weren't expecting a dessert wine.

A couple of years ago my husband was rooting around our dwindling wine rack selection on a Halloween eve, right before the trick-or-treat crowd came by. It was actually starting to get genuinely chilly outside in the evenings…

“Hey, Deb–what is this stuff? Chaucer’s Mead?!” [squints at label] “Says you’re supposed to serve it fresh. How old is it?”

“I dunno. Last year? I forgot it was there.”

“Are you sure it’s still good?”

I started typing away to find out. “One of the Renaissance Faire bloggers says it’s really gross fresh and you’re supposed to let it age, but it looks like they mean the kind you make at home.”

Clearly neither of us was an expert.

Mead, of course, is a drink made by fermenting honey. I’d been vaguely aware of it ever since I was eight or nine years old and my dad handed me a copy of Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. (Quick, everybody, picture Errol Flynn or Kevin Costner, your preference, dressed up more or less as Kermit the Frog in a pointy hat and feather, leaping up onto a dead log with arms akimbo to shout “Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha!” at his fellows in a gratingly cheerful tone…)

I like reading about medieval and renaissance Europe, but I’ve never favored the Renaissance Faire approach–especially because you have to sew your own costume AND know all the names of the pieces AND how to lace them all together. A lot of participants get very snotty about each other’s authenticity. Which is fun, clearly, but I’d be the one they were getting snotty with. Also I’ve never wanted to be addressed as “wench” unless I had a huge frying pan handy to teach the knave who tried it some manners.

Also, after seeing my ex-brother-in-law’s home beer brewing setup (very successful, but then he’s English and knows his stout) I always thought that brewing mead at home would also involve big trash cans with burp valves (I mean, gas traps, though on reflection that’s actually no politer), attract a guaranteed parade of ants even in January (this being Pasadena), and that the stuff would come out cloudy and greenish and a little too authentically medieval for enjoyment.

So all in all, it wasn’t until I stumbled on a bottle at the Trader Joe’s while looking for a gift bottle of more conventional port that I ever considered tasting mead. It was enough of a novelty and the price was right–about $10. Then, of course, I put it in the wine rack and forgot about it for an entire year…which, it turns out, is the right thing to do.

Back at the kitchen counter my husband had finished squinting at the fine print, decided it probably wouldn’t kill or blind both of us at the same time, and was already opening the bottle to pour  a sip into each of two glasses. It looked and smelled like a white dessert wine–light, clear, not at all the cloudy, beerily fermenting syrup I’d been imagining. So we decided to risk it on the count of three.

Even though it looked fine, I’m not crazy about sweet dessert wines and my husband is, so I was still prepared to wince. But whatever I was expecting, it certainly wasn’t this.

It didn’t taste like honey at all–it tasted like all the flowers the honey had been made from. Somehow the brewing and aging had unlocked all the delicate nectary flavors that had been trapped inside the honey, and the flavor kept changing and shifting with every sip. A sherry glass was plenty–it was a bit rich, another surprise, because sherry hovers around 18% alcohol, and this mead was only 10%. But it was intense and fascinating.

Just then, of course, my husband spotted the little packet of spices, like a teabag, that had been hanging around the neck of the bottle and decided he really ought to mull some of the mead with them. In five minutes, the whole downstairs smelled of nutmeg. It was too cloying for me, but he liked it. (Chorus: because he’s a boy) See, though, you can get away with that for a $10 bottle, and your wife doesn’t have to get mad at you. And there was enough left to have a little unsullied mead over the next couple of days.

What to serve with it, though?  I want to keep the contrast between the mead and the food, which is going to have to be either an appetizer or a dessert–you don’t want a full glass of this mead at a time, you really don’t, so dinner dishes are out.

I’m not sure what would suit as an appetizer–something ungarlicky and not too salty, though. This mead is floral and spicy, and I keep thinking honey goes with goat cheese or ricotta or Greek yogurt or labaneh. Figs or prunes stuffed with one of those, then, maybe with some toasted nuts–pistachios? hazelnuts?–on top. And maybe brie or camembert with crisp sliced pears.

For desserts, though, I don’t want anything achingly sweet or gooey or rich alongside the mead. Not chocolate, not caramel, not frosting. Several things come to mind for quick and at least partly microwaveable desserts–gingerbread, for starters. Flan (surprisingly microwaveable) or a custardy bread pudding (probably though not definitely also microwaveable), with a hit of nutmeg and a brandied compote of some tart fruit like cranberries and apricots on top. Apple and almond cake. Apple strudel (much easier than you’d think). All of these have the advantage of being spiced with things that go with the mead, but you don’t have to mull them in the mead itself and ruin it.

Microwave gingerbread with pineapple

Microwave gingerbread, this one with fresh pineapple "upside down" topping underneath

I like the gingerbread recipe in the Silver Palate Cookbook–it’s quick, it tastes good, it involves hot coffee (well, at least in my adapted version for Rosh Hashanah honey cake, and it was too good not to keep doing). Sub the molasses back in for the honey. You can cut the recipe in half if you feel like it–just use the egg white instead of the whole egg. Use applesauce instead of oil if you want. Pour the batter over fresh fruit topping, as in the pineapple version above. You can even microwave it instead of baking.

Gingerbread, with microwave instructions

(adapted from The Silver Palate)

  • 1 2/3 c flour
  • 1 1/4 t baking soda
  • 1 t ginger or more if you like it
  • 1/2 t cinnamon
  • 1/4 t each clove and nutmeg
  • A bit less than 1/2 c sugar
  • A little more than 1/2 c molasses or honey (not 2/3 c, that’s too much)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 c vegetable oil or applesauce
  • 1/2 c. fresh hot coffee or boiling water

Mix together everything but the coffee or boiling water just enough to combine, then whisk the coffee in quickly and pour into a greased and floured deep-dish pyrex pie plate, casserole or loaf pan (if baking conventionally, but you can skip it for microwaving).

Bake conventionally: at 350-375 F for 35-40 minutes OR

Microwave by setting the pan on top of an inverted saucer or bowl on the turntable, covering with a dinner plate, and microwaving 5-6 minutes at 70% power. Uncover carefully and do the toothpick test. You may need 2 more minutes uncovered but test every 30 seconds or so so you don’t overdo it and turn the cake to rubber. It should just be pulling away at the edges. Go by 20-second intervals if you need more, and wait 2-3 min in between. Unmold it to cool and to dry the bottom surface.

Microwaveable Flan (really)

Yes, this actually works (see my microwave notes on custard-based pies like the spinach quiche and pumpkin pie). This is a really “slow food fast” kind of recipe, about 5-7 minutes prep and cooking, plus time for chilling. It’s not the absolute star of flans, but it’s not bad for what it is either–I’ve had worse in restaurants. It won’t have the caramel top unless you make a caramel to coat the bottom of the flan bowl and pour the custard on top to microwave, but I’m not sure the caramel would be safe from scorching in the microwave the way dulce de leche does if you let it go a little too long–haven’t tried it myself. That’s why I opted for a separate cinnamon syrup here instead. I’m also not absolutely sure you need the flour in for a stabilizer, it just seemed like a good idea at the time I came up with this, so if you want to leave it out, go ahead and let me know how it comes out.

Flan:

  • 1.5-2 c. milk
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 c sugar
  • 2 T flour
  • shakes of cinnamon and/or nutmeg optional

Cinnamon syrup:

  • 1/2 t cinnamon
  • 1/3 c sugar
  • ~3-4 T water

1. Microwave the milk in a small pyrex bowl 2-3 minutes on HIGH to scald (hot, steam rising, small bubbles at the edge, not a full boil). Meanwhile, beat the eggs, 1/2 c sugar, flour and spices for the flan.

2. When the milk is scalded, pour a little of it into the beaten egg mixture and quickly whisk it through to temper the eggs, then whisk the egg mixture back into the remaining hot milk. It will start to thicken into a custard.

3. Cover the bowl with a microwaveable dinner plate or lid and microwave ~3 minutes at 70% power (for a 1150W or better oven) or until the flan is set and not liquid anymore. Cool and chill.

4. Make the cinnamon syrup: combine the cinnamon, 1/3 c sugar and 3-4 T water in another small bowl and microwave 1-2 minutes until the sugar is dissolved and the syrup is just beginning to color. Quickly pour it over the flan and let it soak in a bit.

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