Buttercup Squash and Sage Biscuits

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I don’t think I can tell you how difficult it’s been to sit in this apartment all day long with these biscuits.  Combine their enticing scent, their visual appeal, and my unstoppable appetite for carbs, and it’s a wonder I’ve managed to eat anything else in the last seven hours.

One of my coworkers first mentioned this recipe to me the week before Thanksgiving, and it’s been dancing around in my brain ever since.  Squash and sage are two of my favorite ingredients, and biscuits are always satisfying and fun to make; it seemed like an ideal project for me, but I could never seem to find the time to get it done.  However, this Christmas my mom gave me a beautiful hand-carved wooden biscuit cutter, which was all the motivation I needed.  Earlier this week, on my first “normal” day off of the year, I got to work on these biscuits first thing in the morning.

The first step in the process is to roast the squash.  The original recipe called for delicata squash, which is a good choice; delicatas tend to be on the smaller side, and the recipe only calls for a half-cup of mashed squash, so with a delicata, you’ll use just about all of the flesh.  However, I forgot to pick one up at work, and the grocery in my neighborhood didn’t have any, so I opted for buttercup squash. (If you’re wondering what a buttercup squash looks like, you’re not alone; the cashier picked it up, examined it, and looked at me like I was trying to buy an alien life form.)  You could also use butternut or acorn squash, or even sweet potatoes if you prefer.

The flavor of the squash in these biscuits is perfectly accented by the fresh sage.  A few chopped leaves go in the dough, and each biscuit is topped with a whole leaf, which gets deliciously crunchy in the oven.

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The dough for these biscuits is really easy to put together.  I tried a new trick for this batch: instead of rubbing cubes of cold butter into the flour mixture, I used a coarse grater to shred the butter.  That way it takes practically no effort, and makes considerably less mess, to incorporate the butter into the flour.  And, as my friend Sam explained to me, it keeps the butter from warming up, as it can do if you’re breaking down bigger chunks with your hands.  Once the flour and butter mixture looks coarse and relatively uniform, add a mixture of cream and the cooked squash, and stir gently until just barely combined.  Turn the dough out onto a floured surface.  It doesn’t even need to be rolled– you can just gently pat it into a 3/4 inch thickness with your hands.

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I love that biscuit cutter!  But if you don’t have one, you can always use a round cookie cutter or a glass.  Or if even that seems like too much trouble, you can gently cut the dough into rough squares.

Brush the tops of the biscuits with a mixture of egg and milk– just enough to add an attractive sheen and help the sage leaves stick to the dough. Then into the oven they go!

The biscuits will fill your house with a warm, sweet, herbal fragrance that will linger for the rest of the afternoon.  They taste just as good as they smell, and they have a beautifully soft, cakey texture.  Soften some good butter, pour a cup of hot coffee, and dig in.  Try to save some for when your husband gets home (good luck).

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Buttercup Squash and Sage Biscuits
adapted from PBS via Kitchen Vignettes

1 small butternut squash (1/2 cup squash purée)
2 cups white flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoons baking soda
2 Tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled
1 small bunch of fresh sage (1 1/2 tsp. chopped and 10 whole leaves for garnish)
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 egg
1 Tablespoon milk

Preheat oven to 400°F.  Cut the squash in half lengthwise; scoop out seeds and pulp and discard.  Place squash, cut side down, on a foil lined baking sheet and roast in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes, until flesh is soft and scoopable.  Scoop out the flesh and mash in a bowl with a fork.  Cover the bowl with plastic and chill in the refrigerator for at least half an hour.

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Using a box grater, grate the cold butter into the flour mixture. Place this mixture in the freezer while you prepare the wet ingredients.

In another bowl, mix the chilled cream, 1/2 cup of the squash purée (reserve remaining squash purée for another use– pumpkin ice cream, anyone?), and finely chopped sage. Whisk together until smooth. In another smaller bowl, make the egg wash by beating the egg and 1 Tablespoon of milk together.

Remove the dry ingredients from the freezer. Using a spatula (or your hands), make sure the grated butter is fully incorporated into the flour (it should look like coarse meal). Gently add the squash and cream mixture to the dry ingredients, stirring with the spatula just until the dough starts to come together. Using your hands, lightly knead the dough in the bowl, being careful not to overhandle it.

Lightly dust a clean work surface with flour and gently press the dough out to 3/4 inch thickness. Using a 2 1/2 inch round biscuit cutter, cut out the biscuits. Brush the tops with egg wash and gently press a whole sage leaf on top of each biscuit. Place on a lightly buttered baking sheet. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes in a 400F oven, until golden on top. Transfer the biscuits to a cooling rack and serve warm.

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Provencal Tuna Salad

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First off: I know.  It’s a fairly weird move to start off a brand new year of blogging with a recipe for tuna salad, a dish with as many detractors as it has fans.  But you know what?  I love tuna salad.  It almost feels like an insult to my parents’ wonderful cooking to say this, but one of my favorite childhood dinner memories is sitting around a communal bowl of tuna salad with Ritz crackers on summer nights– usually church nights, or evenings when my Dad had to make it to the racquetball courts in just an hour after getting home from work.  Tuna salad is a super-fast meal to put together, and it’s satisfying and healthy (depending, of course, on the ingredients you use to dress it).  I’m sad to say that I haven’t yet convinced my husband that tuna salad is worth eating, but it’s been a lunch staple for me for years.

This particular recipe comes from The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper, a cookbook inspired by the popular podcast.  My copy was a wedding present from my dear friend Heather and her parents, and the sweet notes they wrote to me and Alex on the inside cover are even more precious to me than the recipes in the book.  That said, my new year’s resolution (the kitchen portion of my resolution, that is) is to cook my way through this book by year’s end.  I’ve already made decent headway through the segment on salad dressing (so many great ideas in this book– if you’re a salad lover, it’s definitely worth checking out), and I cannot wait to see what other treasures are lurking in the other pages.  But for today, it only seems natural to whip up a batch of tuna salad.

At first glance, the ingredients in this recipe might seem a little odd.  With so many bold flavors in play– briny Niçoise olives and capers, potent red onions, tangy fresh dill, sweet tomatoes, sour lemon juice– it seems like all the components might fight each other.  But once they’re combined and given time to marry, they all blend together harmoniously, adding up to a dish that is well-balanced, delicious, and utterly more-ish. I had a very hard time resisting the urge to scarf down the entire salad while it was supposed to be marinating.

Assembly is a snap for this dish.  First, break up about 17 ounces of drained, water-packed albacore tuna in a large bowl (the original recipe calls for three 6-oz cans, but I had a hard time finding that measurement, so I used one 12-ounce can and one 5-ounce).  Add all the dry ingredients: halved cherry tomatoes, pitted Niçoise olives (or halved kalamatas, if you prefer), capers (normally not an ingredient I love, but delicious in this salad), minced red onion, and finely chopped dill leaves.  Add olive oil and fresh squeezed lemon juice, and fold everything together with a rubber spatula, taking care to incorporate all the bits and pieces that tend to cling to the sides of the bowl.

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Next: taste, taste, taste several forkfuls of the mixture.  You’ll likely need to add a bit of salt and pepper, but with so many bold and salty ingredients in the mix already, you’ll need to know what your baseline flavors are before you pick up a shaker. Once the salad tastes like you want it to, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it sit for at least an hour.  If you’re stuck for what to do during that hour, I suggest back episodes of Top Chef– I’m currently on season 10, the excitement of which is slightly tempered by the fact that I already know Kristen wins (Go Boston!).

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After the salad has had time to let all its components meld, pile it up on hearty bread or whole wheat crackers– olive oil and dill Triscuits are my favorite– and revel in the fact that you extracted such a good meal from so little effort.

Cheers to a new year, and many new food adventures!

Provencal Tuna Salad
from The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper

17-18 ounces water-packed albacore tuna, drained
1 cup halved grape tomatoes
1/2 cup whole Niçoise or halved Kalamata olives
3 Tablespoons drained capers
1/4 cup finely chopped red onion
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh dill leaves
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
salt and fresh-ground black pepper

Place the drained tuna in a large bowl, and break it into chunks with a fork.  Fold in the tomatoes, olives, capers, red onion, and fresh dill.  Pour in the olive oil and lemon juice; taste, and add salt and fresh ground pepper to taste.

Let stand at room temperature for about an hour.  Serve  with slices of hearty bread or whole wheat crackers.

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Let’s Talk About Food

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Well, hello there.  As I mentioned last week, my good camera is out of commission.  For the last little while, I’ve been relying on the camera I’ve had since college, a pocket-sized Sony Cybershot that has definitely seen better days, thanks in part to the fact that it lived in my purse for the better part of five years.  As I was clearing out space on the tiny camera’s memory card to make room for an onslaught of new blog photos, I ran across the shot above.  I don’t remember when or where it was taken, but I’m glad I saw fit to save it.  It could easily have been taken in the last few days in Boston, when the sky has been steely gray, but there are still small bits of color on the trees here and there.

This is a busy season for everyone, but especially for those who work in retail.  Whether you’re selling clothes or groceries or something else entirely, you are absolutely going to be up to your elbows in customers for the entire month of December.  It’s a fact of life, and in many ways, it’s a good thing; more customers = more opportunities to show your stuff, more opportunities to hone your craft.  The only bad thing is that all that busy-ness at work reduces the energy I have to devote to non-work pursuits, including blogging, unfortunately.

So today, instead of showing you a new recipe, I’m playing along with a project started by The Shortbread, whose aim is to host food conversations among people who are not food writers.  Mind you, The Shortbread has not asked me to respond to its questionnaire, but when someone publicly starts a culinary discussion, I can’t help but respond.  Let’s go!

Name: Jesi Dunaway Nishibun

Date / Time / Your location: December 9, 2014; 9:22pm; the right side of a red couch in my apartment in Allston, MA

What is the last thing you ate? A heaping bowl of spaghetti and meatballs, which Alex made for me. 

What is the most interesting item in your fridge or freezer right now? Probably the most interesting thing is the vast quantity of condiment jars, but if I had to pick a single item, I’d probably choose a jar of everything bagel mustard, aptly titled Deli Dirt, from Green Mountain Mustard.

Tell me about a food that evokes nostalgia for a certain time or place for you. Thick-sliced, garden-fresh summer tomatoes sprinkled with salt and pepper will always and forever remind me of my Grandmother’s kitchen table.

Talk about your favorite restaurant in your home town. Eating out is practically a sport in Dothan, Alabama, but the majority of our restaurants are chains.  My family and I used to joke (in a “just kidding… but seriously” kind of way) that it was a waste of time to eat out, since we ate so well at home.  However, my favorite restaurant for a long time was River Nile, a very cutesy sandwich shop/bakery/coffee house that started out in an adorably rustic space in our tiny downtown.  I loved River Nile so much that I worked for them between my sophomore and junior years of college (at that time, they were housed in a building right next door to my dad’s workplace, so I got to see him fairly often); since my turf, the hostess stand, was right beside the bakery case, I got to eat all the raspberry-white chocolate scones that “accidentally” broke.  I’m having a hard time figuring out whether they’re still in business.

What is the best meal you’ve had while traveling? A few years ago, Alex spent a summer in Portland, Maine, singing with a young artist program.  When I went to visit, he took me to Emilitsa, an upscale Greek restaurant, where I had a meal I still dream about. It started with a plate of housemade hummus (usually I can take or leave hummus, but this was incredible), which was followed by the best lamb I’ve ever tasted.  But the coup de grâce was a cheesecake made from sheep’s milk yogurt, topped with cherry compote and a sheet of doily-like crystallized sugar.  Actually, can we go there right now?

What is your favorite item in your kitchen – this could be a cooking tool or something entirely non-food related. Probably my stack of mismatched salad plates.

What is your favorite image of food from a movie or book? Without question: the scene from Hook in which Peter finally plays make-believe with the lost boys.  While they scarf down an invisible feast, Peter scoops up a wad of imaginary food and flicks it at Rufio, and suddenly the table is filled with beautiful, delicious food.  I remember being simultaneously disgusted and intrigued by all the bowls of rainbow colored goop.

Describe your ideal sandwich. The Farmer’s Lunch from City Feed in Jamaica Plain: a baguette stuffed with mayo, whole-grain mustard, pickled green tomato, Granny Smith apple slices, sharp cheddar, and red romaine.

What makes for great barbecue?  It’s probably blasphemous to ignore the meat entirely, but for me, it’s all about perfect baked beans– with ample quantities of brown sugar and molasses.

What do you like to eat when the weather is hottest? Joe’s carnitas and sangria.

What do you like to eat when it is freezing cold outside? A big bowl of tomato soup and a simple salad with Dijon vinaigrette, both topped with homemade croutons.

What can you cook really well? How did you learn this dish? Describe the process. I can make a delicious, velvety butternut squash, sweet potato, and/or carrot soup with my eyes closed.  I learned it because I was trying to replicate a restaurant favorite, and I made it over and over and over in my first apartment in Jamaica Plain, often making use of whatever ingredients I happened to have on hand.

What would you like to be able to cook well? Meat.  My current title is “queen of the sides,” which suits me fine, but I’d love to be able to turn out a great steak, too.

What is the best meal you’ve eaten for under five dollars? A pork bahn mi with sliced jalapeños from New Saigon Sandwich in Boston’s Chinatown.

What has been your most satisfying food splurge? Room service breakfast on the first morning of my honeymoon with Alex.  It wasn’t so much the price of the food that made it a splurge, but the sheer decadence of having food delivered right to our door, which we then ate in our bathrobes.

Tell me about an experience or person that has changed or inspired the way you eat. He’d probably be surprised to hear this, since I don’t think he considers himself much of a food person, but I’d have to name Alex.  He introduced me to Korean, Vietnamese, and German fare; he instilled in me a love for burritos that continues to this day; and he taught me not to be afraid of cooking meat until it’s super browned (before he came along, I was so afraid of burning food– and setting off the smoke alarm–that everything came out of my pan looking pale and flabby).

A food ethic is a set of values and principles that guide the choices you make about what to eat. Describe your personal food ethic. I’ll offer two thoughts: 1) When guests show up at your house, feed them, whether you expected them or not. 2) To paraphrase from the legendary Cajun chef, Justin Wilson: “What wine should you drink with this?  Whichever one you like.”

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Wonton Soup

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I’ve been watching a lot of Top Chef lately.  Not the most recent season, mind you (so no spoilers, please!)– I basically quit watching after season 6 and am just now going back to watch the rest on Hulu.  On one hand, watching Top Chef reminds me of all the reasons I don’t want to cook professionally (insane hours, crazy pressure, the fact that I don’t know what “brunoise” means).  On the other, Top Chef is always inspiring; it makes me especially proud of the very few chef-y things I can do, and it makes me want to jump in the kitchen and try new things.

I also enjoy learning chef lingo from the show’s contestants.  The phrase I’ve heard tossed around most often lately is “in the weeds,” which as far as I can tell, means some combination of “I’m falling behind schedule/nothing’s going right with this dish/I’m desperately trying to get it done.”  I’m so glad I learned this term, because that means I can tell you that lately, this blog and I have been in the weeds.  I can’t even tell you how many recipes I’ve botched in the last few weeks (including sugar cookies, which you might think are a snap to make– but no), or how many times I took pictures of the whole cooking process and forgot to photograph the finished product.  And then, the cherry on top: my good camera is on the fritz, which is both a fact and an apology for the low quality of the photos in this post.

It’s fitting, I suppose, that this post is about wonton soup.  Wonton soup is my ultimate comfort food.  It’s what I want when I’m sick, it’s what I want when it’s slushy and freezing outside, and as I learned this week, it’s also what I want when I’m frustrated.  It’s a little time consuming to make, but it’s easy, and it makes an enormous batch that will feed you for about a week.  That means you get to take at least one of the next few nights off from dinner preparation.  Here’s how to do it.

First, get your broth going.  Making broth from scratch is not one of the aforementioned chef-y things I know how to do, so I start with boxed broth and dress it up with sliced scallions, a squeeze of lime juice, and a drizzle of sesame oil.  Let it simmer while you make the dumplings.

You’ll prepare a quick filling that consists of ground pork, finely chopped raw shrimp, some minced ginger and garlic, and a few other ingredients (not pictured, because raw ground meat just ain’t that pretty).  And then comes the fun part: assembly!

Lay a wonton wrapper on a cutting board, and have a bowl of water nearby.  Spoon about a teaspoonful of filling in the center of the wrapper, then dip your finger in the water bowl and wet the border of the wrapper.  Fold the wrapper in half diagonally to make a triangle shape, and press the edges of the wrapper together.  Next, wet one of the bottom corners of your wonton triangle, and press the two bottom corners together.  It’ll look like this:

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You can leave the wonton as-is at this point, but I like to fold the top corner down as well, a-like so:

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So, a fair warning: this recipe makes a lot of wontons.  Like, sixty wontons, minimum.  If you’re not the type of person who enjoys repetitive tasks, definitely get a friend to help you make them.  I happen to have a certain gift for repetitive tasks; I find them relaxing and meditative.  That gift has served me well in my professional life.  Whether I’m folding an entire wall of men’s T-shirts or breaking down a 20-pound slab of Gruyere into uniform pieces, I always find my hands doing the work and my mind going into a Zen-like state of reflection.

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Once all your wontons are assembled (or, once you’ve made as many as you can stand and have stashed the remaining filling and extra wrappers in the fridge), add the dumplings to the simmering broth.  Also, throw in some baby bok choy, or if you can’t find the baby ones, regular-sized bok choy chopped into bite-sized pieces.  Let it all simmer away for 10 minutes (the wonton wrappers will adhere to the filling and start to look deliciously brainy), then cut a wonton in half to check for doneness.  Simmer a bit longer if the filling is undercooked.

When the wontons are done, fill up a nice big bowl and, if you feel like it, top with more sliced scallions, chopped cilantro, and another squeeze of lime.  And then let the soup wash all your troubles away.

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Back soon with more non-botched recipes (I hope)!

Wonton Soup
adapted from Joylicious (This blog post is totally adorable.  Go read it!)

for the broth
6 cups chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
1 teaspoon sesame oil
one bunch scallions, white parts only, sliced
one lime wedge

for the wontons
one-half pound shrimp, shelled and chopped fine
about 14 oz ground pork
1/2 egg white
1 tablespoon corn starch
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/4 t salt
1 tablespoon rice wine
1 teaspoon ginger, minced
1 teaspoon sugar
1 package wonton wrappers

15-20 baby bok choy, stems trimmed, or 1 bunch regular bok choy, cut into bite-sized pieces

for garnish
lime wedges
1 bunch scallions, green parts only, sliced
chopped cilantro
sesame oil

In a medium soup pot over medium-high heat, simmer chicken stock with pepper, sesame oil, green onions, and the juice from one lime wedge.

Meanwhile, assemble the dumplings. Combine all filling ingredients (shrimp through sugar) in a bowl, stirring well with a fork to mix.  Spoon the filling by the teaspoonful into the center of the wonton wrappers.  Moisten the edges of each wonton wrapper, fold in half diagonally, and press edges together to form a triangle-shaped dumpling.  Moisten one of the bottom corners of the wonton triangle, and bring the two bottom corners together, pressing to seal.  Moisten the top corner, and press it into the joined bottom corners.

When the dumplings are assembled, simmer them in the prepared broth for 10 minutes; add the bok choy to the broth along with the wontons.  After 10 minutes, test a wonton for doneness, adding extra cooking time if necessary.  Serve soup with lime wedges, chopped scallions, cilantro, and a drizzle of sesame oil.

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Pumpkin Cranberry White Chocolate Cookies

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I’ve noticed a trend in social media over the last few weeks: a total backlash against fall in general and pumpkin-flavored foodstuffs in particular.  I love pumpkin, but I can understand this.  I remember that during my freshman year of college (2005, holy cow), the Starbucks pumpkin spice latte was basically the only pumpkin-flavored product on the market, and I wolfed those lattes down with reckless abandon.  However, over the course of a decade or so, other food producers have taken note of the success of the PSL (as Starbucks now abbreviates the pumpkin spice latte, annoyingly enough) and churned out every pumpkin-flavored product that mortal brains can concoct, from trail mix to coffee to beer to Greek yogurt (gross).  And if there’s one thing people hate, it’s being inundated with things, even things they like.  Maybe especially things they like.  Having a beloved food thrown repeatedly in your face flares up the “I liked this before it was trendy” feeling like nothing else can.

But overhyped or not, pumpkin baked goods are without a doubt one of my favorite aspects of cooler weather.  I’m on a personal mission this year to embrace the cold—winter won’t be any warmer or any shorter if I resist it, after all—so I am going to revel in all my pumpkin pastries for as long as I can, even if the internet says that makes me “basic.”

Speaking of which, if you’ll allow me the tangent: this whole trend of calling people “basic” needs to die, and now.  For the uninitiated: “basic” refers to a female who is supposedly unoriginal and boring.  There are some particular fashion choices and turns of phrase that warrant the label– e.g. leggings, boots, and scarves; “I can’t even,” etc– and, at this point, the pumpkin spice latte (and pretty much anything from Starbucks) is completely synonymous with “basic.”  I get why these things are easy and amusing to make fun of, but 1) it’s lame to make fun of people based on what they wear and how they take their coffee, and 2) it basically sets up a lose-lose situation for us girls.  If you step out in riding boots and a fall scarf and order your coffee from Starbucks, you’re basic, but if you wear unusual clothes and order black coffee from a independent cafe, you’re a pretentious hipster.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like spending precious energy scrutinizing my every decision to make sure it stands up to some ridiculously vague standard of fashionability, so how about we all just enjoy the things we enjoy– especially things as simple as our morning beverage and footwear choices– and stop ragging on people who enjoy different things.  Sound like a plan?

Anyway, these cookies are full of pumpkin and other treats, and you should definitely make them at your earliest opportunity.

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(I always buy the One-Pie pumpkin puree solely because of the nifty vintage-looking label.)

One of the best things about these cookies is that you don’t have to worry about softening the butter ahead of time.  There are few things worse when you’re getting ready to make cookies than realizing that your butter is still hanging out in the fridge.  For these cookies, you melt the butter in a saucepan along with the pumpkin and spices, and then mix all the ingredients together by hand.  It’s such an easy recipe, and yet the results are so satisfying.  The cookies are somewhat cakey, sort of like a cross between a muffin top and a scone, and the addition of white chocolate chips mimics the frosting you might find on a pumpkin cake.  Dried cranberries add a tart edge, which keeps the white chocolate from being overwhelmingly sweet.

And I dare anyone who thinks pumpkin is stupid to walk into my kitchen while these cookies are baking and turn up their nose.  If the smell of warm cinnamon and sugar wafting out of the oven doesn’t soften your heart, then I don’t know what to tell you.  But then again, if that does nothing for you, well, you’re probably not reading this blog anyway.

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Pumpkin Cranberry White Chocolate Cookies
adapted from Homemade Decadence

1 cup canned pumpkin (if you feel like using homemade puree, do it!)
1 stick unsalted butter
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup dried cranberries
1 cup white chocolate chips

Put a rack in the upper third of the oven; preheat to 325°F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine the pumpkin, butter, and spices (cinnamon through cardamom) and heat until the butter is melted and the mixture is warmed through.  Remove from the heat and cool slightly.

In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

When the pumpkin mixture has cooled to about room temperature, stir in the eggs, sugar, and vanilla.  Pour pumpkin mixture into flour mixture and mix well with a spatula; add cranberries and white chocolate and stir to combine.

Spoon the cookie dough onto prepared baking sheet, using about 2 tablespoonfuls of dough per cookie (about the size of a ping-pong ball).  Bake for about 15 minutes, or until the cookies just start to turn golden on the edges.  Let cool on the baking sheets for about five minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

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Pasta Carbonara

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Last week Alex was in Atlanta, singing with Skylark. I’ve gotten used to these nearly-monthly trips, and I’ve even found ways to enjoy the extended periods of alone time.  Basically, I use Alex’s absences as opportunities to do things that don’t appeal to him at all; last week, I binge-watched season 6 of Top Chef (you know, the one that aired in 2009, the one that featured Kevin Gillespie, aka the best season ever); I made one dinner that consisted solely of soup and salad, and another that featured the insanely spicy chicken wings from Bon Chon; I finally finished watching Twin Peaks (anyone else who’s seen it, call me– I need to talk it out with someone); and I spent a significant amount of time on the couch, in silence, just reading.  Frankly, the week flew by.

I only got sad one time while Alex was away, and it was the night that he rented a car and drove down to Montgomery to visit his oldest brother, sister-in-law, and nephew.  I haven’t seen those guys since our wedding weekend (almost exactly a year ago), which means that said nephew is a whole year older and probably a totally different baby by now.  I found myself wishing I had access to a teleport device so I could hop over and join them for the evening.

Alex and I used to spend a lot of time at Shane and Tiffany’s house when we were in college.  Anyone who has lived in a dorm can understand that dorm residents frequently need to just get out and spend some time in a normal setting, and we were fortunate enough to have family members nearby with an open-door policy.  And it certainly didn’t hurt that Tiffany had food available nearly every time we showed up.  Chips and guacamole, fresh pancakes, a giant tub of Utz cheez balls– there was always something to munch on.  And if we were ever there for an official dinner, there was a pretty good chance we were eating pasta carbonara.

The appeal of carbonara really isn’t hard to explain: pasta, bacon, cheese, and heavy cream– what more could you possibly want out of dinner?  Throwing in browned onions, sweet green peas, and about a pound of black pepper just sweetens the deal.  Savories the deal.  What?  You know what I mean.

I decided to make carbonara for this week’s first post-Skylark dinner.  The weather’s getting cold in Boston, and it’s getting dark earlier and earlier every day.  It was the kind of day that just begged for comfort food– and I was all too happy to oblige.  Red wine on the side?  Don’t mind if I do.

Carbonara is ridiculously easy to make.  You can cook all the components while you prepare the pasta.  First, you’ll fry a few pieces of bacon in a skillet; when it’s browned and medium-crispy, remove it from the skillet, pour off the fat, and then throw in some chopped onion.  The onion picks up a good bit of color from the remaining bacon bits and the fat that clings to the pan, so you’ll have to go more by fragrance than by look to determine when the onion is properly softened.  Once the onion bits start to turn translucent, toss in a few cloves of minced garlic (don’t put the garlic in at the same time as the onion, though, or it’ll burn).  When the garlic is fragrant, turn off the heat and throw in about a cup of frozen green peas.  You’re not trying to cook the peas– you’re just warming them up so they don’t cool down the pasta when you mix everything together.

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Chop up the bacon and throw it in the skillet, too.  The residual heat from the pan will keep it warm while the pasta finishes cooking.

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When the pasta is done, drain it thoroughly and transfer it back to the pot in which you cooked it.  Pour a mixture of eggs, cream, Parmigiano-Reggiano, salt and pepper–which you’ll also have had time to prepare while the pasta cooks– into the warm pasta while stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, enlisting an extra pair of hands if necessary.  About halfway through, stop pouring in the liquid mixture and dump in the vegetables and bacon, then proceed until all the liquid is mixed in.

At this point, I like to put the pot back over medium-low heat for just a minute; since the egg mixture is room temperature at best, it tends to cool down the whole dish, and reheating everything gently makes for a more satisfying dinner.  Just make sure you’re still stirring the pasta constantly while it reheats, otherwise you might end up with some cooked egg bits floating about.

And then, once everything is heated to your desired temperature and the sauce is silky, divvy it into bowls and top with an ungodly amount of fresh ground pepper.  Seriously.  I counted the number of times I twisted the pepper mill, and even after one hundred grinds of pepper into the eggs and cheese– no kidding– I still doused the final bowls with at least an extra twenty grinds.  Is that normal?  Is my pepper mill on the fritz?  Or am I just a pepper belly of the highest degree?

Hey!  You should make carbonara for dinner this week.  Invite a friend over.  Or eat it all for yourself.  Either way, it’ll make your day.

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Pasta Carbonara
adapted from The Pioneer Woman

1 16-oz package penne rigate, or your favorite pasta
3 slices bacon (increase to 5 or six if your bacon is sliced thin)
1/2 medium yellow onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 whole eggs
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
3/4 cups heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper, plus more
1 cup frozen green peas

Cook pasta according to package directions.

While the pasta is cooking, fry the bacon until moderately crisp. Remove from the pan and drain on paper towels. Pour off the bacon grease, return the pan to the stove over medium-low heat, and add onion. Cook until golden brown; add garlic, reduce heat, and cook for a few minutes more, or until garlic is softened and fragrant.  Turn off heat, and add peas to the warm skillet.

In a bowl, mix together eggs, Parmesan, cream, and salt and pepper until smooth.

When the pasta is done, drain thoroughly and return to the pot. While the pasta is still really hot, slowly drizzle in the egg mixture, stirring the pasta the whole time, and stopping halfway through to add the bacon and vegetables. The sauce will become thick and should coat the pasta.

Serve immediately with generous amounts of fresh ground pepper.

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Kitchen Sink Granola

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In general, I think the word “amazing” is applied a bit too liberally in discussions about food.  I’m guilty of it, too, of course; I typed “amazing” into the search bar over there to the right, just to see how many of my posts contain the word, and, uh… it’s a lot.  So I know you’ll take it with a grain of salt when I tell you that, in the last few days, I’ve come across a couple of foods that were truly, dare I say literally, amazing.

The first was fresh mozzarella from Wolf Meadow Farm.  I really wasn’t expecting much going into that tasting, since all the fresh mozzarella I’ve ever gotten my hands on was pretty dull.  It’s possible that I was somewhat swept up in the experience of the tasting, which began with a thirty-minute talk with the cheesemaker himself, a native Italian with a passion for his work and a romantic accent to match.  But the cheese… sigh.  I haven’t stopped dreaming about it since that first bite.  It actually had flavor!  Delicious, sparkly, tangy flavor!  And the texture was pleasantly firm and chewy where most mozzarellas are soft and flabby.  It rocked my socks off.

The other amazing food moment, surprisingly enough, was a bag of granola.  I know that the last time I brought up this subject, I had some not-so-nice things to say about bagged granola.  Well, last week I was forced to eat my words, along with an entire bag of White Lion Baking Company’s grain-free granola.  Again, I was skeptical as I cracked the bag open, partly because that bag was emblazoned with all sorts of red-flaggy terms like “Paleo” and “low carb” and “grain free.”  But I soon stood corrected; that granola was far more delicious than any granola has a right to be.

The great thing about exceptional eating experiences is that they inspire me to jump into the kitchen and get busy.  Fortunately, I had the good sense not to try to recreate the mozzarella experience (even though I do have a mozzarella-making kit in the back of the kitchen cabinet, collecting dust).  But the granola seemed doable.  Rather than try to recreate the exact product, I decided instead to make an oat-based granola and follow White Lion’s lead by throwing in a multitude of tasty ingredients; the granola I’m showing you here is decidedly not grain free or low carb (and I don’t know the rules of Paleo, but I’m pretty sure oats are out), but it has a flavor and texture similar to what I found in that life-changing bag.

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First things first: shredded coconut and slivered almonds are toasted in the oven.  They’ll go in the oven later with the rest of the granola, too, but pre-toasting them provides extra crunch factor.  (And we all love crunch factor!) I think coconut chips would also be delicious in place of the shredded coconut, but they’re definitely more expensive, and they didn’t happen to be in my cabinet this week.  Once the coconut and almonds are toasted, mix them in with some oats, roasted peanuts, wheat bran, and a touch of cinnamon.

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All the dry ingredients are bound together with a mix of coconut oil, honey, and coconut butter.  I’ll admit coconut butter is a little esoteric.  I happened to have some on hand because I got it as a freebie from work (read: I took it home because it was technically expired).  It’s delicious (notice that the label includes the word “amazing”), but you can easily swap in any other nut butter.  The wet ingredients cook over low heat, just long enough for everything to meld together so they’ll combine evenly with the dry ingredients.

The granola bakes on a cookie sheet for about half an hour on fairly low heat.  After it’s done, I like to let it cool completely, untouched, so that some clumps form.

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There’s so much I love about that picture: the crusty edges of the granola, Alex singing and playing the piano in the background, and that one little rogue oat that clearly wanted no part of this project and jumped ship.

Once the granola has had a chance to cool, break it into chunks and mix it in a big bowl with big handfuls of dried cherries, dried cranberries, and golden raisins.  And then try your best not to devour the whole giant bowl.  (Seriously, it’s irresistible.  And maybe a little bit amazing.)

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Kitchen Sink Granola
(makes 8 cups)

1/2 cup shredded coconut
1/2 cup slivered almonds
3 cups rolled oats
1 cup roasted peanuts
1/4 cup wheat bran
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup coconut oil
1 cup honey
1/2 cup coconut butter (or your favorite nut butter)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup golden raisins
1/3 cup dried cherries
1/3 cup dried cranberries

Preheat oven to 325°F.  Spread shredded coconut and slivered almonds on a baking sheet and toast for about 7 minutes, until fragrant and golden brown.  Reduce oven temperature to 300°F.

In a large bowl, combine oats, peanuts, bran, cinnamon, and salt; add toasted coconut and almonds and stir to combine.

In a medium saucepan, combine coconut oil, honey, coconut butter, and vanilla; cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until melted and completely combined.  Stir warm oil mixture into oat mixture and mix until well incorporated.  Spread the mixture onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or foil and bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes, or until golden brown.  Cool granola completely.

Once granola is cool, break it into pieces and mix in a large bowl with golden raisins, dried cherries, and dried cranberries.  The granola will keep, tightly covered, for a week.

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Carrot Raisin Salad with Walnuts and Blue Cheese

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First, before we get started here, I just want to say: I know.  I know.

If you’re familiar with carrot raisin salad, you probably picture it as a gloppy mess bound together by mayonnaise, possibly with the horrifying addition of chunks of canned pineapple.  I swear to you, that’s not what this is.

This is my best attempt at replicating the carrot raisin salad at Sweet Cheeks Q, the closest thing to Southern barbecue available in Boston.  At Sweet Cheeks, in addition to your barbecued meat of choice, you have the option to order a “hot scoop” (collards, mac and cheese, baked beans, etc.) and a “cold scoop” (cole slaw, potato salad) to go along with it.  I never would have ordered the carrot raisin salad, but it came highly recommended, and as soon as it arrived at my table, I could see that there was absolutely no gloop involved (and thankfully, no pineapple).  Instead, it’s a perfect mix of textures and flavors; you get crunch from the carrots and walnuts, sweet chewiness from the raisins, and a hit of cool creaminess from the blue cheese, while parsley adds color and a slightly bitter bite.  A simple red wine vinaigrette ties everything together.

The only painstaking part of this process is shredding the carrots.  If you have a food processor, that would make quick work of the task.  A mandoline might also speed up the process, but I just use a Y-peeler.  It takes some time, but it turns the carrots into perfectly-sized ribbons.

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The crunch of the walnuts is one of the best parts of the salad, so I think it’s best to toast them.  I like to do that in a cast iron skillet on the stove; whenever I try to toast them in the oven, I inevitably forget about them and burn them.

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And as far as the cheese goes, if you’re not a fan of blue, you could substitute crumbled feta or goat cheese.  However, I really think the tartness of a good blue cheese is a great accent for the salad.  If you can find Point Reyes Original Blue, that’s my favorite.

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The salad is perfect– either as a side dish, or for a simple lunch.  Toss it with shredded leftover chicken, and it could even work as a light dinner.

Of course, for the best dinner, this should go alongside a plate of pulled pork or a rack of ribs… but that’s another story.

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Carrot Raisin Salad with Walnuts and Blue Cheese

for the dressing
1/4 cup olive oil
2 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp fresh ground pepper

for the salad
6 carrots, cut into ribbons
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and roughly chopped
1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese
2 Tbsp chopped parsley

First, make the dressing: whisk all ingredients together until the sugar is dissolved.  Set aside.

Combine carrots and raisins in a medium bowl; toss with the dressing.  Top with the toasted walnuts, crumbled cheese, and parsley.

To make ahead, combine carrots, raisins, and dressing.  Refrigerate, and top with the remaining ingredients just before serving.

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Bread Pudding with Knob Creek Pecan Ice Cream

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Is it too soon to come back to the blog bearing yet another recipe for ice cream?

I’ve had my ice cream maker for a little less than three months, and I’ve been using it on a near-weekly basis.  There’s something so satisfying about combining a few simple ingredients, putting them in a machine, and coming back later to find a rich, silky frozen treat.  I can totally understand why there are so many small-scale ice cream producers cropping up all over the country; every time I pull a fresh batch out of the freezer, I have visions of starting an ice creamery, too (though I am sadly coming up short in the creative name department).

My most recent batch was inspired by the Jeni’s cookbook, a super fun read whether you’re interested in making ice cream or not.  Although I’d been considering making one of her funkier flavors– toasted rice with coconut and black tea, perhaps– I quickly changed my mind when I came across her Cognac ice cream recipe and its subsequent variations.  I was making the ice cream for Alex’s return from another week-long singing engagement, and I figured the Bourbon pecan rendition would be right up his alley.

The ice cream is ridiculously good, just like everything else I’ve made from the Jeni’s book.  But Alex and I both agreed after our first taste that it could only be improved by serving it alongside bread pudding.  (But isn’t that true for most things?)  So this week’s post is two recipes for the price of one.  Lucky us!

Bread pudding is currently making me feel better about impending cold weather.  It’s one of my favorite desserts, and just utterly inappropriate for summer– so I am glad, at least, that the temperature drop has allowed me to bring it back into the lineup.  This time around, I decided to use a whole wheat baguette instead of the usual white French or Italian loaf, partly in an effort to be healthy, partly because I already had the baguette on hand, and partly (mainly!) because I liked the idea of a heartier, more flavorful pudding.  I recommend it, as it cuts the sweetness of the pudding significantly; however, if the plain version seems more your speed, any day-old white bread does just fine.

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Honestly, cutting up the bread is the most labor-intensive part of making bread pudding.  The rest is super easy—just heat up some milk on the stove and pour it over the bread cubes; while the bread soaks, whisk together some sugar and eggs, and whisk that mixture gradually into the hot milk-bread soup.  But before you  pop it in the oven, you need to put the dish containing your pudding inside another, slightly larger dish filled halfway with hot water.  The purpose of the water bath is twofold: it makes the oven steamy, preventing the pudding from drying out; and it insulates the pudding, preventing the eggs from overheating and separating.  (Hooray for science!  Hooray for me telling you all that like I just knew it off the top of my head, like I didn’t just Google it two seconds ago!)

And then there’s the ice cream.  Ideally, you should make it a day ahead, just to ensure that it’ll be nicely firm by the time you pull bread pudding out of the oven.  However, in a pinch, you could make it first thing and the morning the day you want to serve it, and you’d probably be fine.

Aside from the timing issue, the ice cream is really easy to make, too.  It’s a pretty simple process of heating, stirring, and cooling the batter (but with Bourbon this time!), then churning it– but with the extra, oh-so-worthwhile step of making buttered pecans.  The original recipe only called for 3/4 cup of pecans for the whole batch of ice cream, but I say this is nonsense.  We’re making two cups.  Simply melt 2 Tablespoons of salted butter (but don’t brown it), then toss in 2 cups of pecan halves, sprinkle with some extra salt (you want them nice and salty so they’ll contrast with the sweet and smooth ice cream) and roast them on a baking sheet until they’re crunchy and a little bit caramelized.  Break them into slightly smaller pieces once they’re cool, and toss them in the ice cream for the last few seconds of churning.

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Sidenote: as you likely know, I’m a bit of a butter fiend, so naturally I used some fancy stuff for the pecans.  If you see this butter– or anything resembling this butter– snap it up.  SO delicious.  (Of course, you can use any butter you have on hand and the pecans will still be perfect.)

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(I’m not even sure I should be telling you I have this– I’m pretty sure that it’s technically not supposed to be making it through customs at the moment.)

Once your pudding and your ice cream are both ready, all that’s left to do is put them together and dig in.  It’s a perfect blend of textures; the pudding is crispy on top and pillowy soft underneath, and the ice cream, which is both cold and strangely warming, thanks to the Bourbon, slowly melts into the pudding, making it even silkier.

The only problem is that now there’s half a bread pudding and a quart of Bourbon ice cream in my kitchen, staring me down.  Not the worst problem to have, I suppose.

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Bread Pudding
adapted from Cooking Light

1 tablespoon butter, softened
2 cups skim milk
4 1/2 cups day old bread, cut into cubes
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large egg whites
1 egg
1/2 cup golden raisins

Preheat oven to 350°F.  Spread the butter onto bottom and sides of a square baking dish. Set aside.

Heat milk in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat until tiny bubbles form around the edge (do not boil). Place bread in a large bowl; pour hot milk over bread.

Combine sugar, vanilla, and eggs in a medium bowl, stirring with a whisk until well blended. Gradually add the egg mixture to milk mixture, stirring constantly with a whisk. Stir in raisins; pour into prepared dish.

Place dish in a roasting pan; add hot water to pan to a depth of 1/2 inch. Bake for 50 minutes or until browned and set.

Knob Creek Pecan Ice Cream
adapted from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home

2 cups whole milk
1 Tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon corn starch
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup sugar
2 Tablespoons light corn syrup
1/4 cup Knob Creek Bourbon (or your favorite whiskey)
2 cups shelled pecan halves
2 Tablespoons salted butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon salt

Mix two tablespoons of the milk with the cornstarch in a small bowl; whisk until smooth.

Combine the remaining milk, the cream, sugar, and corn syrup in a large saucepan and bring to a rolling boil over medium-high heat.  Boil for four minutes, then remove from the heat.  Slowly whisk in the cornstarch mixture.  Return to the heat and boil for one minute more.  Remove from the heat and stir in the Bourbon.

Carefully pour the ice cream batter into a gallon-sized Ziploc; seal the bag, and submerge in a bowl of ice water.  Chill for about 30 minutes, or until completely cold, adding more ice to the bath as needed.

Meanwhile, make the pecans.  Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Toss the pecans with the melted butter, and spread evenly on a baking sheet; sprinkle with the salt.  Bake for 10 or 15 minutes, stirring once, until nicely toasted.  Let cool completely, and break into smaller pieces.

When the ice cream batter is thoroughly chilled, spin in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s directions (keeping in mind that the alcohol lowers the freezing point, and you may have to spin longer than usual).

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Multigrain Buttermilk Biscuits

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I am a bit of a magazine junkie (read: hoarder).  Although I strongly prefer to keep my living areas neat and tidy, I am somehow not bothered by stacks and stacks of magazines.  In my living room, there are two file boxes stuffed full of back issues of culture and Cooking Light (mostly from my college days) and at least two stacks of magazines that I’m “currently reading” (Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and Cook’s Illustrated ranging back for at least two months), not to mention several file folders full of magazine clippings.  It comes pretty close to being a problem… but I justify it by keeping all those stacks perfectly neat and organized.  After all, it’s not a mess as long as the piles are sorted by size or arranged in chronological order, right?

Even with the mass of magazines taking up space in our apartment, I couldn’t resist asking my mom to send me the August issue of Garden & Gun, which was all about Southern food.  How could I say no to that?  It took me a couple weeks to read my way through it (Garden & Gun is a bi-monthly publication and thus heavy on the writing, which I appreciate), but it was a thoroughly enjoyable investment of time.  (I’d like to briefly address my favorite article, but if I mention even one detail, I know I’ll go off on a tangent, so I’ll just link to it.  Go read it!)  But most of all, it left me really hankering after a biscuit.

Although I remember eating a lot more cornbread than biscuits in my childhood, the charm of a light, fluffy, flaky buttermilk biscuit is undeniable.  A good biscuit is equally delicious with a plate of fried chicken at dinner or with bacon and eggs at breakfast, and dabbed with butter and jam, it makes a perfect afternoon snack (after all, what’s a biscuit but a more rustic, homespun version of a scone?).  This recipe is yet another one I’ve been making for several years, and it retains all the indulgence of a classic buttermilk biscuit, but adds the nutty richness of whole wheat and the crunch of cornmeal.

The key to successful biscuits, as anyone will tell you, is not to overwork the dough.  As you’re mixing it all together, you can keep it all very loose, and even leave a significant amount of flour unincorporated.  Once you turn the dough out of the bowl, you can work the loose flour (gently!) into the rest of the dough with your hands.

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And then, when you roll the fully incorporated dough out, nice and easy does it with the rolling pin.  You’re aiming for about 3/4″ thickness, which should only require one or two soft rolls.

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I’ve probably mentioned before that I don’t have a lot of basic dough cutters; the only ones I do have are shaped like leaves, hearts, and forest creatures.  So, for round biscuits, I just used the rim of a wine glass.  Done!

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These biscuits… well.  When I’m feeling a little homesick, foods that remind me of home can be both helpful and not-so-helpful.  But these biscuits hit the spot.  Especially with a little blackberry jam.

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Multigrain Buttermilk Biscuits
adapted from Cooking Light

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup stone-ground cornmeal
2 Tablespoons sugar
1/2 Tablespoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 1/2 Tablespoons chilled butter, cut into small pieces
1 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 450°F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Combine flours, cornmeal, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl.  Add the butter, and rub into the flour with your fingers until thoroughly mixed in.  Add the buttermilk and stir with a rubber spatula until just barely incorporated.

Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface and gently incorporate any loose flour with your hands.  Roll gently to a 3/4 inch thickness, and cut into about 2 1/2 inch rounds.  Place biscuits on prepared baking sheet, and bake in preheated oven for about 10 minutes, or until well-risen and golden brown.  Makes about 12 biscuits.

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