Monday, November 29, 2010

The Avalanche is Coming

The calendar is about to flip over to the last month of the year. Sigh. Where has the time gone? It seems as though each year starts out slowly, like a pebble that only moves when you kick it along, but by the end is going so fast, it's like an avalanche that buries you.

January is a letdown after all the excitement and activity of December. It's just dull, boring back-to-routine stuff.

February - oh, to know the true meaning of February blues you have to live in the Pacific Northwest where we don't see the sun for a whole month. Rain and overcast skies alternate for 28 days, 29 if we're not well behaved.

March always tantalizes us with one week of sun when we put on short and t-shirts in 60 degree weather, slather on sunscreen, and are certain that for once summer has come early. But it lies.

April is filled with spring showers. That makes it sound like something light and delightful. Nope. Basically more of the same.

May starts to look better. The end of the school year is ahead. Summer vacation plans are made. Stores stock bikinis and flip-flops. Even though it's still raining, there's hope and we can dream.

June is an agonizing month. Children are still trapped in school and each day seems like an eternity for them. The warm summer days are almost, but not quite, here.

In July things pick up speed. The days are full with trips to the Farmer's Markets, travel, camps, reading new books, and just reveling in the sunshine.

August goes by even faster. We have to cram in as much summer as we can before the inevitable return of school. Trips to the beach are capped off by back-to-school shopping.

September gains momentum. It's a month of readjustment, figuring out new schedules with school, lessons, study dates or play dates with new friends (depending on the age of the child), and trying to cram six new commitments into the old schedule because of the inability to say "no."

October goes by so quickly that Halloween creeps up behind you and says "boo!" while you're still trying to make a papier maché Bobba Fett head for your child's costume.

November passes by in a blur of holiday planning, anticipation, baking, eating, and shopping.

Which brings us to December. Watch out folks, it's going to go by so fast, you'll get whiplash trying to track it. It's the busiest month of the year, and people are always telling us how we can make it busier yet. There are presents to make or buy, wrapping to be done, and packages to be mailed. Then the house needs to be cleaned and decorated for the holidays. If you're not exhausted yet, why not host a holiday get-together? A cookie exchange, a white elephant gift exchange, or an elegant cocktail party? Any or all of those should be easy to squeeze into your free time, right?

Am I making you depressed? Anxious? Overwhelmed? I'm going to give you two secrets to surviving the season.

1- A pair of scissors. Just take all of your lists and cut them in half. Do you really need to get gifts for everyone in the extended family? Do you really need to hand make gifts for everyone in the office? Will Great Uncle Bob's next-door neighbor's barber really feel slighted if he doesn't get a card from you? Look at your list and evaluate what's important, what brings joy, and what is most closely tied to the reason for the season.

2- Cookies. I know for some people the baking associated with Christmas is stressful. But for the people like me, the weird, baking-obsessed people, it's an excuse to fire up the oven and perfume the house with the delightful smells of peppermint, gingerbread, and cinnamon. And cookies don't have to be picture perfect, just tasty. You can even invite friends over to bake with you. You'll have more fun rolling, dipping, flattening, and frosting than you would at a stuffy, formal cocktail party. At least, I would.

This recipe has a new technique that I love and plan on using again. It incorporates finely grated white chocolate into the batter, and then big chunks of white chocolate are pressed into the top. You might think the chunks are too big - trust me, the kids love them. And the husbands, too.

Keep this recipe handy and when it all gets too much for you, take a baking break. Put on your favorite tunes, warm up the kitchen, and then indulge in a cookie or two. It'll refresh your spirit in no time!

Winter Cheer Cookies
- adapted from The International Cookie Cookbook by Nancy Baggett

3/4 cup (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly softened
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
8 oz. best quality white chocolate
1-1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt*
3 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup coarsely chopped unsalted macadamia nuts*

(* Reduce salt to 1/8 tsp if salted macadamia nuts are used. Unsalted is preferred, but they can be hard to find.)

1- Place the butter in a heavy medium-sized saucepan over medium-low heat. Heat until butter boils and bubbles very gently, but steadily. Adjust heat as necessary to prevent butter from burning and continue simmering uncovered for 4 to 5 minutes, or until it is golden but not browned, stirring frequently. Don't burn it!

2- Immediately remove pan from heat and stir in brown sugar. Pour the mixture into a large mixing bowl and refrigerate an hour, or until mixture resolidifies but is not hard.

3- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F with rack in the center of the oven. Prepare several baking sheets with parchment paper..

4- Grate 3 oz. of the white chocolate. Set it aside. Coarsely chop the remaining white chocolate and set it aside, also.

5- In a medium mixing bowl whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt, and set aside.

6- Remove the mixing bowl from the refrigerator and beat the cooled buttero-brown sugar mixture until lightened. Add granulated sugar and beat until fluffy and smooth. Beat in egg and vanilla. Beat in dry ingredients. Add the grated white chocolate and half of the chopped white chocolate, and nuts and stir until well combined.

7- Roll dough into generous 1-1/2 inch balls. Dip the top of each ball into the remaining chopped white chocolate, pressing lightly to imbed some pieces in the dough. Space the balls, chunk-studded side up, about 2o-1/4 inches apart on baking sheets (the cookies will spread as they bake). Press down the top of the balls just slightly with the heel of your hand.

8- Place in the oven and bake for 9 to 11 minutes or until just tinged with brown. Reverse baking sheets from front to back halfway though baking to ensure even browning. Be very careful not to overbake. Remove baking sheets from the oven and let stand for 4 to 5 minutes (the cookies will continue to bake from the heat of the cookie sheet). Transfer cookies to wire racks to cool.

Store in an airtight container for 3 to 4 days. Makes about 25 3 to 3-1/4 inch cookies.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Random Thoughts Before Breakfast

Sometimes my brain goes on sabbatical. Instead of focusing on the tasks at hand, it wanders far afield, contemplating the origins of the word "obfuscate", pondering what Pride and Prejudice would be like if it were set in Miami, and internally debating the merits of combining gingerbread with lemon vs. white chocolate (watch for the fruit of this debate in a future post).

One of my frequent random thought rabbit trails is "why are things the way they are?" Why, for instance, is it the norm in the United States to plant a front yard full of grass? Why not an herb garden that needs less maintenance and yields something useful?

Why is light red the only color group that gets its own name? We have light blue and light green and pink. Maybe we should have blunk and greenk as well.

Why do waiters at swanky restaurants wield pepper grinders that could double as renaissance weapons? Do they fear an uprising of the patrons when the bills arrive?

And why is our entire food culture based on wheat? There are a bunch of other grains out there, many of them higher in nutrition than wheat. So why is wheat the normal flour, rye is borderline normal, and all others are funky, weirdo hippie grains?

Whatever the reason, the rebel inside me likes to occasionally buck the trend and bake with different flours.

These were fun, easy pancakes to make. The spelt gave them a sweeter flavor than regular wheat pancakes, and they texture was nice and light, not the brickishness usually associated with whole grains.

Simple Spelt Pancakes
- adapted from King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking

2 cups ( 7 oz) whole spelt flour
2 Tbsp (7/8 oz) sugar
1 Tbsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
1-3/4 cup (14 oz) milk
2 Tbsp (1 oz) unsalted butter, melted
2 tsp vanilla (optional)

1- In a medium bowl, whisk together the spelt flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl, combine the milk, melted butter, and vanilla, if you're using it.

2- Form a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour the wet ingredients into the dry. Stir the batter just until the dry ingredients are thoroughly moistened; it will seem very thin and soupy. Let the batter sit for 15 minutes; the spelt will absorb the excess liquid and the batter will be much thicker.

3- Heat a nonstick griddle or heavy cast-iron skillet. Brush lightly with vegetable oil (or my new favorite, coconut oil). When the surface is hot enough to make a drop of water skip and hiss in the pan, spoon the batter onto the pan, 1/4-cupful at a time.

4- Cook until bubbles begin to form around the edges of the pancakes, 2 to 3 minutes. When they are just beginning to set, flip them and cook the second side about a minute more.

Depending on the how the first round of pancakes turned out, you might need to adjust your heat up or down.

Serve with good butter and your favorite syrup. Be prepared to be adored by those you share these with!

* One last question - milk comes from mammals, so how to you make milk from a grain? Does one have teeny tiny hands to milk the rice grains? Probably not. Can you make milk from spelt? If so, I'm sure there's no use crying over it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Toddler Treats

Everyone knows that when you're pregnant what you eat matters. Every bite should count to make sure you're getting the proper nutrition your baby needs, and that you're not feeding your growing baby nasty, toxic stuff. Even after they're born babies aren't fully finished developing and need special food developed just for their tender digestive systems that augments their brain development and builds their immune systems (it's called breastmilk, in case you were wondering).

So why is it that after they start eating solids, common wisdom says to load up their little bodies with.....umm..... how can I phrase this delicately?.....poop? Ok, that wasn't that delicate, but you get my drift. If you look at the "toddler foods" section in a grocery store and start reading labels, it's appalling. It becomes something of a game to see if you can find anything that doesn't have High Fructose Corn Syrup. Or hydrogenated fats. Really? This is what we're supposed to feed that precious miracle that took so long to grow?

Fortunately, a baker, like a three year old, can "do it myself!" So as the first in an ongoing effort to "redo" classic kids foods, preparing for when my granddaughter comes over to Gramma's for a snack, here's my take on graham crackers. They have whole grain nutrition and taste great! Perfect food for my little sweetie to suck on, gum up, crumble on the carpet, feed to the hamster, and fill up the cracks of her carseat with.

If the sugar amount is too much for you, you can play with that. But because sugar is considered a liquid in baking, be aware that reducing the sugar will affect the texture and consistency of your crackers. To add a little more kid appeal to them, I used my zoo animal cutters, but the dough was kind of sticky for that. Next time, I'll just roll them out and cut them in squares like the ones at the store.

Gramma's Graham Crackers
- adapted from King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking

1 cup (4 oz) whole wheat flour
1/2 cup (2 oz) whole barley flour
1/2 cup (2 oz) graham flour
1/4 cup (1-7/8 oz) packed light or dark brown sugar
2 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup ( 1 stick) unsalted butter, chilled
1/4 cup (2 oz) milk
2 Tbsp honey
Cinnamon-sugar (optional)

1- Combine flours, sugars, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt in a mixing bowl or bowl of a food processor. Cut or process the chilled butter into the dry ingredients until very crumbly.

2- Add the milk and honey and combine until you have a stiff dough - you may need to add a bit more or less milk.

3- Knead the dough lightly till it's smooth, cut it into 2 pieces and flatten each into a rectangle. Wrap each in plastic wrap and chill until firm, about 1 hour, or overnight.

4- Preheat the oven to 350 deg. F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.

5- Working with one piece of dough at a time, turn it out onto a floured surface and roll it to 1/16th-inch thickness. The thinner you roll it, the crisper the cracker. If you prefer, you can roll your dough out directly onto the parchment paper, to save the step of transferring.

6- When you're done rolling, trim the edges so you have a 9 x 12-inch rectangle. Set the scraps from both pieces aside and roll them for a third rectangle.

7- Cut the dough into 3-inch squares, then cut each square in half. Prick the crackers several times with a fork and place the crackers on the prepared baking sheet. If you rolled onto the parchment paper, this step is done. If you like, sprinkle the crackers with the optional cinnamon-sugar.

8- Bake the crackers until they're lightly browned, 12 to 15 minutes. They'll brown more quickly if they have cinnamon-sugar on top. Remove the crackers from the oven, transfer to a rack, and let cool completely before serving.

Monday, November 15, 2010

RX - Carbs

My husband is big on preparedness. We have first aid kits in our cars, in the bathroom, and in the garden shed (in case the earthquake flattens the house and we can't get to the other ones; although if the house is flattened, I don't think a first aid kit with aspirin, bandaids, and ace wraps is going to cut it).

Also in the shed we have a stockpile of two liter jugs filled with water. We don't have a two-year supply of food, but we do keep the pantry stocked. And any room in our house has a supply of candles and matches or flashlights. Or both.

This past weekend we had an emergency. My husband took a misstep on the stairs and ended up at the emergency room with a nasty bad sprained ankle. It was very stressful to watch my husband in so much pain and to have to drive him to the emergency room. Thank heavens that I, too, believe in preparedness.

The best non-prescription way to soothe jangled nerves is with carbs. Carbs and chocolate. So it was a good thing that my cookie jar was stocked. I'd just made a new kind of chocolate chip cookie - kind of a hybrid between a molasses cookie and a chocolate chip cookie. Soft and chewy, chocolatey, it's the just what the doctor ordered for my jittery nerves and upset tummy. Don't believe me? Try it for yourself and see if you don't feel better.

Soft Whole Grain Chocolate Chip Cookies
- adapted from King Arthur Flour

6 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
3 Tbsp molasses
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp espresso powder
3/4 tsp salt
1 Tbsp cider vinegar
1 large egg
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
2 cups King Arthur White Whole Wheat Flour
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

1- Preheat the oven to 350 deg. F and position oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

2- In a large bowl, beat together the butter, sugars, molasses, vanilla, espresso powder, and salt till smooth. Beat in the vinegar, egg, baking soda, and baking powder. Stir in the flour, then the chocolate chips, mixing JUST till combined.

3- Drop the dough, by tablespoonfuls, onto the prepared baking sheets. Bake the cookies for 10 to 11 minutes, until they're just set on top and beginning to brown around the edges. Remove them from the oven and allow them to sit for 5 minutes on the baking sheet before transferring them to a rack to cool completely.

Yield: about 3 dozen cookies

(Disclaimer: I am not a qualified medical practitioner. The advice here is offered purely for humorous and gastronomic enjoyment. Please do not take this advice without first consulting your doctor, nutritionist, or your own common sense.)

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Sleeping the Pounds Off

First off - we have a winner! Actually, 2 of them. Nicole, congratulations, you won the Mitford Cookbook and Kitchen Reader. And Carol, you won the newest Mitford novel, In the Company of Others. Congratulations and happy baking and reading!

Thank you to the publishers for sending me a preview copy of the cookbook and for allowing me to be a part of this giveaway!


I recently read an article stating that lack of sleep could make you fat. I find this very comforting. Apparently, it's not the things I bake and eat that are making my jeans tight, it's my sleep habits!

It's ridiculous the number of brownies that are on my blog. I know this, but I'm not good at turning down another opportunity to make brownies. When I see a new recipe that promises to be "the best," or someone's "absolute favorite," I just have to try it to see if they're right. The only thing that holds me back is knowing that if I bake the brownies, I will eat them.

Thank goodness I found out about the sleep thing. Now I can bake the brownies, do an extensive taste-testing, and then go sleep it off. It's all good.

Speaking of good, these brownies are. They straddle the line between fudgy and cakey perfectly, plus they have the bonus of nut crunch. I vastly prefer brownies to have nuts. It makes them taste better and gives your teeth something to do while your tongue is getting a chocolate spa treatment.

Are they the very best out there? I'll leave that for you to decide. Just be sure to have a nap after your sampling so the calories don't cling to your waist.

Robert's Absolute Best Brownies
-adapted from Ready for Dessert by David Lebovitz

6 Tbsp unsalted or salted butter, cut into pieces
8 oz bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/4 Cup all-purpose flour
1 cup walnuts; almonds, hazelnuts, or pecans, toasted and coarsely chopped

1- Preheat the oven to 350 deg. F. Using a large sheet of foil, line a 9-inch square pan, with foil extending beyond the edges of the pan. Lightly grease the foil with butter.

2- In a medium saucepan over low heat, melt the butter, then add the chocolate and stir until the chocolate is melted and smooth. Remove from the heat and stir in the sugar and vanilla until combined. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Add the flour and stir energetically for 1 full minute (very important!), until the batter loses it's graininess becomes smooth and glossy, and pulls away a bit from the sides of the saucepan. Stir in the chopped nuts.

3- Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake until the center feels almost set, about 30 minutes. Don't overbake.

4- Let cool completely in the pan on a wire rack. When cool, use the foil overhang as handles to remove the brownies from the pan.

The brownies will keep well for up to 4 days at room temperature.

Monday, November 1, 2010

I Love Cakes and Giveaways!

I love reading a fabulous book with engaging characters, believable settings, and engrossing story lines. Even better is finding out that the book is the first in a series, knowing there are many hours of reading pleasure ahead.

That's how I felt when a friend introduced me to At Home In Mitford, by Jan Karon. The tale of a small town priest and how he got a dog, and discovered he had diabetes, and was introduced to a beautiful new neighbor, and....I know, it sounds pretty dull when I say it. But in the hands of Jan Karon, it is a page-turner. As you read, you can't wait to find out what happens next to the characters that you come to love.

I was with a group of women and we were discussing what books we'd recently read. Most of them were Oprah picks, fairly gritty and grim. Then one woman mentioned the Mitford books and a wave, like a sigh of happiness went around the room. Once woman summed it up best - "Reading the Mitford books is like putting on a pair of soft, flannel pajamas and fuzzy slippers."

When I was approached by the publisher, asking if I'd like to do a blog giveaway of the new paperback edition of the Mitford cookbook, I naturally jumped for joy and shouted, "Yes, yes!" That was a waste of time, since they were asking by email, but I had to do it anyway, because I was so excited.

The cookbook is wonderful. Besides giving full recipes for comestibles that are mentioned in the books, there are quotes, book excerpts, charming illustrations, and kitchen tips. This must be why it's called Jan Karon's Mitford Cookbook & Kitchen Reader. You'll have plenty to read while you're roasting a chicken, baking Deep Dish Blackberry Pie, or cooling a Rhubarb Tart. Plus you can learn about how to season a cast-iron pan, how to keep strawberries fresh for ten days, and how to take starch build-up off an iron. And how can you help but love a cookbook that has four different biscuit recipes?

It was easy choosing which recipe to make for this post. The signature dish of Esther Bolick was her Orange Marmalade Cake. It was an easy win in any baking competition, a sure fire fund-raiser at a bake sale, and the recipe was jealously guarded.

In the cookbook Jan Karon reveals that at every speaking engagement, she'd get requests for the recipe. People wrote to her begging for the recipe. The problem was that there was no recipe. The cake was a work of fiction!

Finally, Scott Peacock, a well-known chef, was commissioned to create a recipe in keeping with the fame of the cake. And boy, did he get it right. The cake is amazingly moist, flavorful, and deliciously rich without being heavy. If you make this cake, you might well become known as the premiere cake baker in your town!

Perhaps because of my exuberance, the publishers sent me not just the cookbook, but also the newest hardback in the series, In the Company of Others, which takes place not in Mitford, but in Ireland. So I have not one, but two giveaways! To enter to win, leave a comment with either "cookbook" or "In The Company of Others" in your comments. You can enter for both, but they need to be separate entries. The contest is open only to the US or Canada.

Esther's Orange Marmalade Cake
- from Jan Karon's Mitford Cookbook & Kitchen Reader

For the cake:
1 cup unsalted butter, softened, more for dusting the pans
3-1/4 cups cake flour, more for dusting the pans
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2-2/3 cups granulated sugar
5 large eggs, at room temperature
4 large egg yolks, at room temperature
2/3 cup vegetable oil
1 Tbsp grated orange zest*
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature

For the orange syrup:
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1/2 cup granulate sugar

For the filling:
1 (12 oz) jar orange marmalade

For the frosting:
1 cup heavy cream, chilled
4 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 cup sour cream, chilled

( *Note: I used 2 organic Valencia oranges and that yielded enough zest and juice for the cake)

1- Preheat the oven to 350 deg. F. Lightly butter three 9-inch round cake pans, line them with parchment paper, then lightly butter and flour the paper, shaking out any excess.

2- Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl. Sift a second time into another bowl. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter on medium speed until light in color, about 4 minutes. Add the 2-2/3 cups sugar in a steady stream with the mixer running. Beat until light and fluffy about 4 minutes. Add the eggs and yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Be sure to stop at least once to scrape down the batter from the sides of the bowl. After all of the eggs have been added, continue to beat on medium speed for 2 more minutes. With the mixer on low speed, add the oil and beat for 1 minute.

3- In a small bowl combine the orange zest, vanilla, and buttermilk. Using a rubber spatula, fold in half of the dry ingredients. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add half of the buttermilk mixture. Fold in the remaining dry ingredients, scrape down the sides, and add the remaining buttermillk.

4- Pour the batter among the prepared pans, smooth the surface, rap each pan on the counter to expel any air pockets or bubbles, then place in the oven. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Let the cakes cool in the pans on racks for 20 minutes.

5- In a small bowl stir together the orange juice and 1/4 cup sugar until the sugar is dissolved. While the cakes are still in the cake pans, use a toothpick or skewer to poke holes at 1/2-inch intervals in the cake layers. Spoon the syrup over each layer, allowing the syrup to be completely absorbed before adding the remainder. Let the layers cool completely in the pans.

6- Heat the marmalade in a small saucepan over medium heat until just melted. Let cool for 5 minutes.

7- In a chilled mixing bowl using the wire whisk attachment, whip the heavy cream with the 4 Tbsp sugar until stiff peaks form. Add the sour cream, a little at a time, and whisk until the mixture is a spreadable consistency.

8- Invert one of the cake layers on a cake plate and carefully peel off the parchment. Spread one--third of the marmalade over the top, smoothing it into an even layer. Invert the second layer on top of the first, peel off the parchment, and spoon another third of the marmalade on top. Place the third cake layer on top, remove the parchment, and spoon the remaining marmalade onto the center of it, leaving a 1-1/4 inch border around the edges. Frost the sides and the top border with the frosting, leaving the marmalade on top of the cake exposed. Or, if your prefer, frost the entire cake first, adding the marmalade as a garnish on top. Chill for at least 2 hours before serving.