Sunday, April 27, 2008

Cast Iron: Gems

When I moved a few years ago, one important box, out of all the arguably negligible boxes, never made it to my house. It contained my entire collection of plain and enameled cast iron cookware, plus countless heat-proof serving pieces, many of them (like the cast iron) near-antiques, and several of them gifts with sentimental as well as culinary value. Common items such as large cast iron skillets are easy to replace (although, of course, anyone who has owned one for a long time will tell you that their seasoned pan is irreplaceable). Other things are harder to re-acquire. Good enameled cast iron and decorative bakeware are, for starters, expensive; thoughtful, well-heeled friends have used holidays and other opportunities to help me rebuild my collection with generous gifts. But some pieces are just not available anymore: a shallow round enameled cast iron paella-type pan with integral cut-out handles, for example, a gift in the early 1970s; the first piece of enameled cast iron that I ever owned, a blue and cream small gratin, that I purchased on my first trip to Europe; a Victorian-era ceramic mold, bought for me by my mother when I saw it in an antique shop. Don’t even get me started about true cast-iron popover pans, with their odd number of 11 deep compartments, designed to leave room on each side of the pan for picking it up. Mine had been an Erie pan of my Pennsylvania German grandmother’s, so I estimate that it was nearly 100 years old or more when I lost it. My large skillet was hers, too. For me, such losses are far more painful than, for example, the loss of a favorite gold ring a number of years ago. I never think about that ring. But I think about these pans all the time.
One item that I recently was able to replace, however, was a little cast iron gem pan with six ¼-cup compartments, called a muffin pan by its manufacturer, Lodge, the cast iron king, probably so as not to confuse modern buyers. I call this a gem pan because little muffins (and this is a little pan that makes little items) used to be called “gems,” especially those that were very plain and sturdy like the ones this pan is perfect for. Nowadays a muffin is more apt to be a big, sugary piece of muffin-shaped cake, and indeed muffin tins are the equivalent of cupcake tins. They hold more batter than a gem pan, and their aluminum construction is suited to the lower-temperature baking and higher-sugar content of the modern muffin.
I found my gem pan quite by accident while shopping at Chaves, the Portuguese market mentioned in last week’s post. I knew Lodge still made a pan like this, but had never seen it in a store and had resisted paying more for shipping than for the pan itself. And there it was, on an aisle I had passed by numerous times without stopping to look at the assortment of pots and pans. I’m not sure what the Portuguese use these pans for—I’m guessing little corn muffins or perhaps some of their dense, filled confections—but I was happy to see them and snatched one up.
Cast iron is an ancient, nontoxic, easily molded metal that is an outstanding heat conductor, and particularly good for cooking or baking at high or moderately high temperatures and where even browning and crispness are valued—hence the reason it is prized for fried chicken, popovers, or waffles, as a few examples. Cast iron weighs a ton. For this reason, cast iron pans have often been portrayed in comedies as weapons, but this is pure fiction: you could never actually lift them high enough to hit anyone. But do look for handles on both sides when you buy a large frying pan or you will never even be able to pick it up off the stove.
All new pans should be scrubbed with soap and hot water to remove factory coatings, dried thoroughly, and then seasoned. To season, use solid shortening or animal fat, never oil. You may melt it, however, to ease coating the entire surface of the new pan—inside and out—with the fat. Place the pan upside-down in an oven preheated to 350 F for one hour; a rimmed cookie sheet beneath the pan will catch any dripping fat. Store it in a dry area where it will not get scratched: on the stove, hanging, or unstacked in a cupboard. Normal use will keep your pan seasoned, but if it ever rusts or begins to seem brittle, or if for any reason it needs a thorough scrubbing with soap and water, season it again from scratch. After using, wipe out thoroughly with a paper towel; if it needs a bit of scrubbing, use hot water only and a plastic or straw pot scrubber, followed by a thin smear of shortening. When at a friend’s house, or even in your own, my advice is to never touch another’s cast iron pan, or at the very least be willing to subject yourself to supervision by its owner if the question of your cooking with it comes up. Never, however, wash it or otherwise involve yourself in cleaning it. It’s just safer that way for all concerned.
Date-Graham Gems
These are so dense, spartan, and healthful that they may not be indulgent enough for your taste. They are about as old-fashioned as you can get. I find them very satisfying and stick-with-you for breakfast. Makes 6.
¾ cup graham flour
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 T unsweetened cocoa
2 T brown sugar, packed
¼ tea salt
scant ½ tea baking soda
½ cup sour milk (or ½ cup whole milk with 1 T sour cream stirred in and set aside)
1 egg, beaten
generous 1 T butter, melted and cooled
¼ cup chopped dates
2 tea turbinado sugar
Preheat oven to 400 F. Grease the gem pan with a little butter or shortening.
Combine the dry ingredients in a small bowl, breaking up any lumps in the sugar and cocoa.
In a measuring cup, beat the milk and cooled butter into the egg until thoroughly amalgamated. Stir into the dry ingredients until just wet; there should be a sort of foaming of the batter. Gently fold in the dates.
Spoon the batter into the pan, dividing evenly. Sprinkle the tops with turbinado sugar for a little sweet crunch. Bake 18 minutes. Turn the gems out immediately, loosening the tops if needed. Serve warm or at room temperature, with or without butter.
Only three days left! Voting for Rhode Island Monthly’s Best of Rhode Island is open, and there is a category for best local website. If you appreciate Little Compton Mornings and would like to show your support, please vote here now: http://www.rimonthly.com/Rhode-Island-Monthly/Best-of-Rhode-Island/Best-of-Rhode-Island-Ballot/ I thank you!

11 comments:

Donald said...

OK, your website has made my mouth water. Where do you direct visitors to Little Compton to eat? Where to stay if they were looking for a weekend overnight?

Jane said...

Thank you, Donald! While Little Compton is a great agricultural and fishing area, it is NOT a restaurant area, I am sorry to say, nor is there any place to stay: basically, it's the country. It is possible that the Stone House Club in Little Compton will have re-opened for lodging by this summer, but doubtful. I do have a few recommendations, though: The Back Eddy in Westport, MA, on the Little Compton line, serves very good, somewhat expensive regional food with an emphasis on seafood and local produce, and is on the water. It is the best restaurant in the area. The closest place to stay, and a good base, is Bristol, RI, where there is also a great bike path and a few good restaurants. I suggest Quito's for a casual New England seafood place and DeWolf Tavern and Persimmon for fancier food. For true clamshacks some people like Flo's in Island Park and Evelyn's in Tiverton; be aware that the fish, not the sides, are the focus of these places, and in my opinion they are not what they used to be. But they are always packed. Thin jonnycakes may be found at the Common Lunch in Little Compton, Four Corners Grill in Tiverton, and Barn in Adamsville (village of Little Compton); Gray's grist mill is nearby.

Donald said...

Thank you for the honest commentary and the recommendations. They're just what I had hoped for. I'm planning someone's birthday weekend around a performance at Trinity Rep in Providence, and now I know some features to consider for framing it.

Meanwhile, I have some recipes to practice in the weeks ahead!

Jane said...

You're welcome. Nice of you to do that planning. By the way, I find Bravo Bistro around Trinity very reliable. If you come down this way on a nice day, I can add The Boathouse in Tiverton for a drink at the waterfront bar.

Anwyn said...

Hi--glad to find another cast iron fan. Heartbreaking, the loss if your pans!

I own several pieces of basic cast iron and love them, but I've never cooked at all with the enameled variety. Can you give a few tips on the pros and cons of enameled cast iron, or what dishes in particular they're good for? For example, I don't have a Dutch oven in either material, because my instinct would have been to use basic cast iron but I balked at deliberately cooking broth- and water-based items like soup and stew in cast iron. Your opinion very welcome. Thanks.

Jane said...

Hi Anwyn: Enameled cast iron is perfect for exactly what you said you don't like to use regular cast iron for: soups and stews, but also fondue and big batches of sauce or even jam. It also looks pretty, and goes oven-to-table easily, and is nonstick. A large dutch oven can also be used for baking rustic breads. This item, while expensive, is very useful. I also like having a small or medium gratin for things like scalloped potatoes or raclette.

Anwyn said...

Thanks! Would you say enameled cast iron has any value for frying/browning things like potatoes that will stick to the ordinary cast iron? I haven't yet been brave enough to make fried potatoes in my ten-inch cast iron because I don't want to deal with stuck potatoes, but I read somewhere that frying/browning in enameled cast iron will "burn the finish" of the pans.

Jane said...

Enameled cast iron is not the choice for high-heat sauteeing or searing, but you can certainly use them fry eggs or to make potatoes at moderate heat. A bigger risk than that the finish will "burn"--which, given the high heat at which it was fired is minimal--is that the surface will become scratched over time from repeatedly pushing things around in the pan. Because enamel is naturally nonstick, however, it is not going to produce the same browning as a good quality aluminum pan, which you can use at higher heat.

Anonymous said...

I recently was freecycled some wonderful cast iron pieces. I've tried seasoning as you explained (as well as many other websites) - but I could never get that non-stick glassy coating I was vying for. I assume it might be because I'm cooking in an electric stove? Regardless - the veggie oil, 500 degree version of seasoning seems to work much better.

I had a question in my head when I started writing this. Oh, yes. One of the pieces freecycled to me was a flat skillet with 7 circular compartments in it. Is this a gem pan? The compartments seem so shallow - maybe a quarter of an inch deep. I assume I can make biscuits, scrambled eggs and sausage in it all at once and then put together breakfast sandwiches?

I'm new to the cast iron experience. Any advice on what I might use this pan for? It is really too shallow for muffins/large biscuits - I'm stumped and embarrassed to ask the previous owner what it is. :-)

Thank you!

Donica Ben

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Anonymous said...

I found out that my "shallow gem pan" is actually called a plett pan used to make Swedish pancakes.