It being summer, I’ll take a break from the usual serious topics of science and faith to share a few culinary and other finds.
( 1 ) Refrigerator or “Icebox” Cake
I like baked items like cakes, pies, and bread, but prefer to not heat up the kitchen with baking in the oven during the summer. I recently re-connected with an “icebox” cake recipe I remember having long ago. It consists of simply layering Nabisco “Famous Chocolate Wafers” with real whipped cream. The wafers by themselves are dry and (to me) unappealing. But layered with the whipped cream and left to set overnight in the refrigerator, they soak in just enough moisture to bring out rich chocolate flavor. The stacking can be done in various configurations. A classic way is to make a long “log”, then for cut it at 45 degrees to create a zebra stripe effect for serving.
This is a photo of the end product, with the “log” sliced on the diagonal. (That photo shows a somewhat thicker coating of whipped cream on the exterior than I would use). Here is a specific recipe I used with success: https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/220495/zebra-cake-iii/
Further thoughts here: I once tried using whipped cream from a spray can for this recipe when I could not whip up some real cream. That was a fail – – the artificial whipped cream shrank away to almost nothing overnight. If your local grocery store doesn’t carry these chocolate wafers, see if they will order some for you, especially if you commit to buy say four boxes worth. (I usually double this recipe, consuming two 9 oz boxes at a time; with a group of any size, it all gets eaten right away). Don’t succumb to the temptation to order these wafers via Amazon – – you will pay 2-3 times as much, with a high probability that the fragile, brittle wafers will arrive all broken up in transport.
There are many other recipes that use the layering concept to create moist cake-like desserts without baking, e.g. here. Some of these recipes use graham crackers and are themed around fruit instead of chocolate.
( 2 ) Barley
For dinner starches, I usually reach for rice, pasta, or some form of potato. However, we have had a small bag of pearl barley (Bob’s Red Mill brand) sitting around for many months, and I decided to start consuming it. I threw a cup of it into 3 cups of boiling water, with a bit of salt, and simmered it for 50 minutes. Simple, and it came out really good. Nice chewy-but-firm texture, and pleasant nutty taste that blends well with other flavors. I just spooned chicken/cream sauce over it, but folks use barley in soups and in salads a lot.
I also tried a small box of quick-cooking barley. It only needs to boil about 12 minutes. I can’t recommend this – it had flabby texture and insipid taste, besides being more expensive than the pearl barley.
(3) Indian Flatbreads: Roti/Chapati and Naan
I am used to bread requiring yeast as an ingredient, and taking hours to rise and then requiring a hot oven for cooking. In pondering a way to make fresh bread without heating up the kitchen so much, I became aware of roti or chapati. This is widely made in India. In its simplest recipes, it consists of just flour, water, and a little oil and salt. After the dough “rests” for 30+ minutes to let gluten form chains, this dough is rolled out into a circle or oval, and cooked on a hot skillet. If all goes well, a skin forms on the outside, trapping steam inside. The steam causes the bread to puff up, like this:
There are many recipes out there that seem to work. I liked the ones with half whole wheat flour. It seems to be key to have enough moisture in the dough for the steam generation, and to have a very hot pan, and to flip the bread after the first ~10 seconds so it quickly develops a “skin” on both sides. It can help to lightly press the bread disc against the hot pan surface to get it to puff up.
I found it was possible to make some decent flatbread this way, but the wet, sticky dough made rolling out and handling the dough just enough of a chore that I decided this was not worth the effort. Also, I sometimes smoked up the kitchen with frying on a hot cast iron surface. However, a friend who had an unloved electric flatbread maker gave it to us. This turned out to be a big labor saver, and it doesn’t heat the kitchen as much as having a big gas flame burning under a griddle. The particular model is a 10” diameter Chef Pro flatbread or tortilla maker; many similar devices are available. It has upper and lower heated nonstick surfaces. Per YouTube reviews, some users are frustrated with this sort of device. Again, technique matters. I was greatly helped by various comments on the internet. I make the dough with the ingredients below, let it rest 25+ minutes, plug in the flatbread maker, and wipe the cooking surfaces with a little vegetable oil.
When it is hot, open it up, and roll ~ 1.75-inch (~4.5 cm) sphere of dough, place it a little to the back of the lower plate, and quickly squash down the upper plate to spread the dough out into a thin ~ 8 inch diameter patty. After a few seconds, open the plates to continue cooking on the bottom plate. (If you don’t open the plates up soon enough, steam will jet out sideways to escape and split the dough). After about 10 seconds, flip the roti and cook about 30 seconds; flip again to brown another 15-20 seconds, then gently lower top plate to press lightly on the upper surface of the roti for maybe six seconds. If all goes well, at this point the roti will puff up and be done.
Here is a picture of a typical flatbread maker in the open position, with a blob of dough ready to be squashed:
Ingredients for flatbread (roti):
1 cup white (all-purpose) flour + 1 cup whole wheat flour
¾ teaspoon salt, 2.5 tablespoons oil or melted butter
Mix these ingredients, then add 2/3 cup warm water and knead to make a slightly sticky dough.
Naan bread is sort of a flat bread (like pita), with yeast as an ingredient and needing time to rise. Traditionally, naan is cooked inside a very hot “tandoor” oven, but it can be cooked on a skillet. This recipe worked well for me. The dough was not sticky, so rolling it out was easy. As is typical with classic breads made with just flour, yeast, salt, and water, with little added fat or egg and no special preservatives or texturing agents, the fresh product tasted great, but the next day it tasted like just flour and water. The chemistry of “staling” is interesting. To some extent, the starch decrystallization process which (in a hot oven) converts a flour-and-water dough into bread gets reversed when the finished bread sits at room temperature or in a refrigerator. Stale bread can be partially resuscitated by reheating it, but it might be best to freeze whatever portion is not eaten right after cooking.
( 4 ) Benefits of Playing and Listening to Music
I guess it is obvious that listening to music, and playing it, can be good mental stimulation. I was impressed, however, by some articles I ran across, e.g. here and here, which describe studies which quantified these sort of benefits, especially for the over 60 crowd and including those suffering from Alzheimer’s. These benefits include improved cognitive function, fewer falls, improved mood, strengthened immune system, etc., etc., etc. A couple of examples:
- Music has been found to stimulate parts of the brain, and studies have demonstrated that music enhances the memory of Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, including a study conducted at UC Irvine, which showed that scores on memory tests of Alzheimer’s patients improved when they listened to classical music (Cheri Lucas, Education.com, “Boost Memory and Learning with Music,” pbs.org).
- Adults age 60 to 85 without previous musical experience exhibited improved processing speed and memory after just three months of weekly 30-minute piano lessons and three hours a week of practice, whereas the control group showed no changes in these abilities (Nina Kraus, Samira Anderson, “Music Training: An Antidote for Aging?” Hearing Journal, Vol. 66, No. 3, March 2013).
Armed with this fresh motivation, I am deliberately playing more classical music on my iPad, and have taken up playing the harmonica again. There are many tutorials on YouTube for learning almost any instrument. If you wonder whether a harmonica can produce music other than wailing blues, check out this rousing five-minute YouTube of Buddy Greene playing several classical pieces, including the William Tell overture, in Carnegie Hall.