Sunday, September 26, 2010

Home Grown...By Someone Else

I grew up in a land of hot, hot summers with an avid gardener. I took it for granted that whatever you put in the ground grew. Not just grew, but grew with a wild abandon. Tomato plants flourished and in the spot where last year's tomatoes had grown, volunteers cheerfully sprouted and bore fruit. Peas clambered toward the sky, shyly hiding their pods behind fans of greenery. Squash and melon vines snaked their way around the garden, flowered, and threatened to take over the rest of the growing space with their enormous leaves.

It took me many years of attempted gardening in the temperate Northwest to figure out that I did not have the same recipe for gardening that my father did. Even if I bought the best seeds, amended the soil with rich compost loam, transplanted indoor-started seedlings after the last danger of frost, and weeded industriously, I had no guarantees that my efforts would yield anything other than slug fodder. The fickle nature of the weather meant that a spring that started with hardy starts and high hopes would most likely end under grey, drizzly cloud cover with sadly stunted, yellowing vines and no produce to harvest. Oh, and I have a brown thumb, so any starts to come into my house are pretty much doomed.

This year my gardening efforts culminated in a single tomato. Yes, just one. And it was a cherry tomato at that. Above is a picture of my son holding our amazing harvest.

I've finally resigned myself to the fact that I'm a terrible gardener and attempt only tomatoes in containers and herbs in the ground, because herbs are basically good-tasting weeds and weeds are all that I'm really good at growing.

Oddly, even though I can't grow them myself, I resent having to pay money for produce that I know my parents are desperately trying to give away. It's not worth the 17 hour drive to go get a bag of free zucchinis, but I still feel ornery forking over cash for them at the market.

When I saw this recipe, though, I know it was worth it to pay cash for the squash. My zucchini-hating family gobbled it up and looked forlorn when the pan was empty. If you find an end of the season monster lurking in your yard, you definitely need to make this cake. And if you have to actually buy zucchini, it's still worth it. It's moist, delicious, plus it has the bonus of sneaking some veggies into your dessert course.

Note: I had an end of season bag of cherries in my refrigerator, so I halved them and added them to the cake. They are entirely optional, but really take the cake over the top

Chocolate Cherry Zucchini Cake
- adapted from homespun living

2 cups sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup plain yogurt
3 eggs
1 cup white whole wheat flour
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cocoa
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup milk
2 cups shredded zucchini
3/4 cup pitted, halved sweet cherries (optional, but very good)
1 Tbsp vanilla

1- Preheat oven to 350 deg. Grease a 15 x 10 x 1-inch pan (jellyroll pan).

2- In a mixing bowl combine the sugar, oil, and yogurt. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

3- In a medium bowl, measure the dry ingredients, whisking to combine.

4- Add the dry ingredients in 4 additions, alternating with the milk in 3 additions. Stir in the zucchini, cherries and vanilla. Spread in prepared pan.

5- Bake 30 minutes. Allow to cool on a wire rack. When cake is at room temperature, frost.

Quick Chocolate Frosting

1-1/3 cups sugar
6 Tbsp milk
6 Tbsp butter
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

1- In a medium saucepan heat sugar, milk, and butter to boiling. Boil 30 seconds.

2- Remove from heat and add chocolate chips, stirring until the chips are melted. Spread over the cooled cake.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Bite This

There is a basic inequity in my marriage. I'm not talking about the fact that my husband has a reach that's about twice my height. Or the fact that he's way stronger than me, easily opening jars that confound me. Or that he can fix just about anything. I'm talking about the fact that we can go outdoors together and he'll come back refreshed by the encounter with nature and I'll be one giant, swollen, itchy mass of bug bites.

It doesn't matter what the insect is - spider, mosquito, midge, or whatever- if it has a choice between my husband and me, it'll turn up it's buggy nose at him and make a beeline for me. For some reason I'm irresistible. Maybe all the sugar I ingest makes me sweeter than him; I don't know. All I know is it's not fair!

However, as I've been told and frequently tell my kids, Life Is Not Fair. You just do the best you can with the way things are. I retaliate by clobbering the daylights out of any bug I see, pounding it with my shoe till it's a pulp. And I make my own bites. Brownie bites.

Far more satisfying than scratching insect bites is making little nibbles of brownie, capped with a dollop of Nutella. With bites like these, life is sweet again. And honestly, I'd rather bake than hike any day!

Nutella Brownie Bites
-adapted from Sunset magazine

1/2 cup butter
1 oz. unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup flour
1/2 cup Nutella

1-Preheat oven to 350 deg. F. Generously butter 24 mini-muffin cups.

2- In a heatproof bowl, microwave 1/2 cup butter to melt. (Use medium power and cover the bowl with wax paper to keep the butter from spattering.) Add the chocolate, stirring until melted, then add the sugar and cocoa powder. Stir to blend. Whisk in eggs, vanilla, and salt. Add flour and stir until smooth. Spoon batter evenly into mini-muffin cups. (The batter will make 24 brownie bites, plus have a bit of leftover batter.)

3- Using the tip of a wooden spoon, make a small depression in each portion of batter. Spoon 3/4 tsp Nutella into each hole.

4- Bake until a toothpick inserted into the brownie part comes out with just a few moist crumbs, about 15 minutes.

5- Let cool on a rack about 10 minutes. Using a small spatula or plastic fork, loosen brownies from pans and move to rack to cool completely.

Store covered at room temperature.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Going Flat Out

My first ever blog crush was David Lebovitz. I love his writing and his passion for food. What a bonus that his recipes are easy to follow and give amazing results.

When I got to attend his ice cream class promoting The Perfect Scoop, I was just about incoherent, stuttering and blushing like a jr. high girl meeting Zac Efron. Actually, I'd probably do that meeting Zac, too. I think he's pretty cute.

But crushing aside, I think David's blog is the bomb. It's a goldmine of information, entertainment, and recipes. And he usually makes me laugh. Not just quietly chuckle, but snort milk through the nose laugh.

Recently I'd taken on a personal challenge to bake Peter Reinhart's bagels. I was not fastidious in following directions, taking a somewhat careless approach to things like rising times and shaping directions. Having made bagels before, I was pretty sure that this batch wasn't going well. The dough never felt as stiff as what I was used to. After the shaped bagels rose, they felt slack and sticky, and when I attempted to remove them from the pan to boil them, they…. well, they went flat. I hoped they'd revive in the oven and puff up. No such luck. They came out looking like sports equipment - a discus minus a center. But they tasted good. I consoled myself with that as I toasted them, smeared them with cream cheese, and made sandwiches from them. They did taste good.

But then I read a post of David L's wondering why store-bought bagels had gotten so puffy, like a celebutant's collagen-filled lips. He said that some of the best bagels he'd ever tasted were flat.

"Ha ha!" I yelled, leaping up from the computer and fist-pumping the air. "According to David, my bagels weren't failures!" There was no one else around to appreciate my moment of triumph, but I definitely exulted.

See why I crush on him? Who else can take a kitchen fail and turn it into a high five?

Speaking of which, I'm awarding myself a High Five for finally getting around to trying this recipe. I've had this cookbook for over a year, and this is the first recipe I've been brave enough to try.

Note: Read through the recipe all the way before starting, noting the rising times and making sure you have all the ingredients and equipment. The bagels are mixed and shaped the day before baking and rest overnight in the refrigerator, so make sure you have space in the refrigerator for two baking sheets.

Deliciously Flat Bagels
- adapted from Bread Baker's Apprentice
by Peter Reinhart

1 tsp instant yeast
4 cups (18 oz) unbleached bread flour
2-1/2 cups (20 oz) water, at room temperature

1/2 tsp instant yeast
3-3/4 cups (17 oz) unbleached bread flour
2-3/4 tsp salt
2 tsp malt powder OR
1 Tbsp dark or light malt syrup, honey, or brown sugar

To Finish:
1 Tbsp baking soda
Cornmeal or semolina flour for dusting
Sesame seeds, poppy seeds, kosher salt, rehydrated dried minced garlic or onions

1- Sponge: In a 4-quart mixing bowl, stir the yeast into the flour. Add the water, stirring only until it forms a smooth, sticky batter (think pancake batter). Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for approximately 2 hours, or until the mixture becomes very foamy and bubbly. It should nearly double in size and collapse when the bowl is tapped on the countertop.

2- In the same mixing bowl, add the additional yeast to the sponge and stir. Then add 3 cups of the flour, the salt and the malt. Stir (or use low speed on an electric mixer with a dough hook) until the ingredients form a ball, slowly working in the remaining 3/4 cup flour to stiffen the dough.

3- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter and knead for at least 10 minutes (or 6 minutes by machine). The dough should be firm, but still pliable and smooth. There should be no spots of raw flour and the dough should be 77 to 81 deg. F (use an instant read thermometer). If the dough is too dry, add a few drops of water and knead it in. If the dough seems sticky, add more flour a bit at a time till it feels sufficiently firm. The kneaded dough should feel satiny and pliable, but not tacky.

4- Immediately divide the dough into 12 pieces of 4-1/2 oz each. Shape each piece into a ball.

5- Cover the balls with a damp towel and allow them to rest for 20 minutes.

6- Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and lightly mist with cooking spray.

7- Take the dough balls one at a time and shape them by gently pushing your thumb through the center of the ball and working your way around the ring to evenly stretch it till the center hole is about 2-1/2 inches across.

8- Place the dough rings on the pans 2 inches apart. Spray the rings lightly with the cooking spray. Cover each tray loosely with plastic wrap, or slip it inside a large food-grade plastic bag. Let sit at room temperature for about 20 minutes.

9- Check to see if the bagels are ready for their rest in the refrigerator. Fill a small bowl with cool water. Take one bagel and drop it into the water. If it floats with 10 seconds, the bagels are ready. Return the bagel to the pan, pat it dry, cover the pan with plastic, and place in the refrigerator overnight (or as long as 2 days).

If the bagel does not float, return it to the pan and continue to proof the dough at room temperature, checking back every 10 to 20 minutes or so until a tester floats. The time needed to accomplish the float will vary, depending on the room temperature and the stiffness of the dough.

10- The next day (or when you are ready to bake the bagels), preheat the oven to 500 deg. F with two racks in the middle of the oven. Bring a large pot of water to a boil (the wider the pot, the better), and add the baking soda. Have a slotted soon handy. Sprinkle the parchment-lined baking sheets with cornmeal or semolina flour

11- Remove the bagels from the refrigerator and gently drop them into the water, boiling only as many as comfortably fit (they should float within 10 seconds). After 1 minute flip them over and boil for another minute. For very chewy bagels, you and make it 2 minutes per side. Using the slotted spoon, scoop out the bagels, one at a time, let drip briefly and then transfer to the baking sheet.

12- If you want to top the bagels, do so as soon as they come out of the water. You can use any of the suggestions in the ingredients list or a combination.

13- When all the bagels have been boiled, place the pans in the oven. Bake for about 5 minutes, then rotate the pans, switching shelves and turning back to front. After the rotation, lower the oven temperature to 450 deg. F and bake for about 5 minutes more, until the bagels turn light golden brown. If you prefer darker bagels, leave them in a few minutes longer.

14 - Remove the pans from the oven and remove the bagels to a wire rack to cool for 15 minutes before serving.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Oh Nutty Me

Lately I've been playing with nuts. It all started at the farmer's market. A lady had a stall there and she was selling gourmet nut butters. The idea of going beyond plain old peanut butter intrigued my daughter and she started making her own nut butters. Then she showed me how to do it and the simplicity of it made me a fan, too. Now I'm going nuts with nuts.

Over on Simple Bites I've got an article about how to make nut butters in your food processor. Here I'm going to tell you about how to make them in a VitaMix blender (or something equally heavy duty). Either method will work, but the Vitamix gives you a smoother product.

The first step is selecting the nut or nut blend you want to work with. Each nut has it's own flavor, texture, and nutrition profile. The fun part is blending them together, adding complementary spices, if desired, to create your own tasty masterpiece.

My current favorite is a dreamy, creamy blend of macadamia nuts, cashews, and Brazil nuts. It's so amazing that sometimes it never makes it onto a piece of bread. We will eat it by the spoonful straight from the jar. Every time I savor a smooth, creamy mouthful, I dream of swirling it into brownies, ladling it over ice cream, or using it as a layer cake filling.

Amazingly, something that tastes this fabulous is also good for you.

~ Cashews contain 5 grams of protein per ounce and have high levels of the essential minerals iron, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, copper and manganese.

~ Macadamia nuts are a good source of protein, calcium, potassium and dietary fibre and are very low in sodium. The natural oils in macadamias contain 78 per cent monounsaturated fats, the highest of any oil including olive oil.

~ Brazil nuts are high in selenium, which is important for prostate health, as well as Vitamin E and lycopene, important anti-oxidants.

Heavenly Macashew Brazil Butter

1 cup shelled Brazil nuts
1 cup raw or roasted cashews
1 cup plain macadamia nuts
pinch of salt

1- Toss all of the ingredients into the containter of a Vitamix (or other powerful blender).

2- Select Variable 1

3- Turn the machine on and quickly increase speed to Variable 10, then to High, using the tamper to press the ingredients into the blades.

4- In 1 minute you will hear a high-pitched chugging sound. Once the butter begins to flow freely through the blades, the motor sound will change and become low and laboring. Stop the machine. Taste the nut butter and adjust the seasonings, adding a bit more salt, if needed, or sprinkling in a little Stevia, if you'd like it a bit sweeter.

5- Using a rubber spatula, scrape the nut butter into an airtight container (I like to recycle glass jars for this) and store in the refrigerator.

Monday, September 13, 2010

She's Baaaaack

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

As a student, I always felt that the compulsory first day back at school writing assignment was a time filler for teachers who had procrastinated on their lesson planning. As a teacher now, I see some value in it. It's helpful to look back at the blur that summer becomes in the rear view mirror of fall, to look back and sort through the days, giving weight to accomplishments and reliving the delight of the perfect days.

I have leapt full into the school year, as usual putting off ordering school books and materials until the last possible moment, as if the procrastination will postpone the inevitable return to structure, scheduling, and the straight-jacket of school. I look regretfully at the dark clouds lowering in the sky, echoing my mood.

Where did summer go? It went so quickly that it seems little more than an ephemeral mist lingering in the memory. Did I really have a summer?

Looking back at the calendar I recall that there were indeed things happening. I didn't go to Paris or Hawaii, but life happened.

My daughter had a baby. That's been a big part of the summer, helping her adjust to being a mom. Frequent visits to help, to visit, and to hold the baby. Lots of holding. We want her to know that she is loved.

We painted the deck. Again. Replacing the wood with something that doesn't need painting went up a notch on the priority list.

We had birthdays, but no parties. My son's pirate party got pre-empted by his niece's birth. I made him a cake to console him. My husband had a birthday with a zero at the end. I made him a cake to console him.

My son learned to ride his bike. We thought it would never happen, but this year he got the hang of it and is giddy with the freedom of riding all the way around the block by himself.

My daughter went to camp. Her dad almost called it off when we were signing her in - there were boys in line who shaved! Camp and a week of sickness meant she missed 2 out of the 5 swim meets for the season. It was a really lame year for swim team.

And me? I just did what I normally do. I worked out, ate blueberries from my bushes, watched some junk TV, went to the farmer's market, and baked. Since I was on vacation, I gave myself a lot of freedom in baking. If I'd made it before and had already blogged it, I could make it anyway. If it was ugly, I didn't have to take pictures. And it was too hot to turn on the oven, I didn't. It was really nice.

Now I'm back from vacation and I'm trying to carve out my new schedule and routine. I'll try to be faithful in posting. But if I miss a day or two, please understand. It's not that I don't want to share, it's just that life is going on. Not necessarily memorable, but day after day it goes on. And when baking is a part of that, I'll let you know.

Last Gasp of Summer Fruit Tarts
- adapted from Taste of Home

1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup cold butter
1 egg, beaten
4 oz cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup sweetened condensed milk
2 tbsp lemon juice
Assorted fresh berries
2 Tbsp apricot preserves

1- In the bowl of a food processor combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Pulse to cut in the the butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the egg and pulse briefly to blend. Shape the dough into a ball. Cover and refrigerate it for an hour to help the dough relax.

2- Preheat the oven to 350 deg. F. Grease six 4-1/2-inch tart pans.

3- Divide the dough into six portions. Press each portion into a prepared tart pan. Place the tart pans on a baking sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until edges are lightly browned. Cool for 10 minutes before removing from pans to wire racks to cool completely.

4- In a small bowl beat cream cheese until smooth. Beat in sweetened condensed milk and lemon juice.

5- Spoon 2 rounded tablespoonfuls of the cream cheese mixture into each cooled tart, smoothing the top. Arrange the berries over the filling.

6- In a small saucepan, melt preserves over medium heat. Stir until smooth. Using a pastry brush, brush the preserves over the berries.

The tarts can be served immediately or refrigerated until serving time.