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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Lemon Curd Ice Cream

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For the last couple weeks in Boston, we’ve been having unseasonably cool weather.  This is how I know that I’ve become a more-or-less “real” Bostonian: I am not happy about this.  Yes, it makes my bicycle commute a bit more pleasant, and yes, it makes it slightly easier to sleep comfortably in a non-air conditioned bedroom.  But these days, the first hints of fall in the air remind me less of leaf peeping, pumpkin pie, and Sam Octoberfest, and more of 4:30pm sunsets and the retirement of my sundresses and sandals.

But hey, it’s still August.  I’m sure we have a couple more heatwaves in the works before we have to break out our wool socks and snow boots.  And that means we have time for more ice cream!

This recipe has been sitting quietly on my Pinterest board for at least a year, just awaiting the day when an ice cream maker would wander its way into my life.  I’ve come to terms with the fact that I will probably never get around to making all the foodstuffs I’ve pinned to my board (or any of the DIY home improvements I’ve pinned, for that matter), but now, with the necessary equipment in my possession,  I’m going back for all the ice cream recipes– starting with this one.

By this point, you probably know how I feel about lemon curd.  If you’re making this recipe at home, I highly recommend that you make your own (I have two recipes to choose from!), just because it’s fun and rewarding.  However, for this batch of ice cream, I decided to use pre-packaged lemon curd– mainly because I had three different jars of different brands in my fridge at that time.  I used a full jar of Wilkin & Sons– a jar I was able to take home from work for free because the lid was dented.  (It didn’t even matter how much I already had in the fridge at that point– I always say yes to free lemon curd.)

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Another key element in this recipe is the egg base.  You’ll use five egg yolks in the batter, which will make the ice cream rich and custardy.

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Because there are so many steps in this process– making and cooling the lemon curd, cooking the base, tempering the eggs, chilling the batter, etc.– it will take you a whole day to make the ice cream.  But I can promise you that it’s well worth the time.  While the ice cream has a strong lemony tang, it also tastes rich and buttery, much like a good lemon curd should.  Its texture is velvety smooth, rich, and creamy– pure heaven by the spoonful.  And, it should be mentioned, it pairs especially well with peach and blackberry cobbler.

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Here’s hoping we have several more balmy, laid back days yet to come– and here’s hoping you enjoy them with ample amounts of frozen treats!

Lemon Curd Ice Cream
adapted from Relishing It

2 cups heavy cream, divided
1 cup whole milk
2/3 cup granulated sugar
dash of kosher salt
1 tablespoon (packed) lemon zest
5 egg yolks
1 cup lemon curd (see post for recipes, or use store bought)

In a large saucepan, heat 1 cup of cream, milk, sugar, salt, and lemon zest together.  Bring to a simmer just until tiny bubbles appear.  Remove from heat and let infuse for 1 hour.

After the hour, bring mixture back to a small simmer.  Have the egg yolks in a large bowl and slowly ladle half of the milk and cream mixture into the eggs, whisking constantly.  Pour the egg mixture into the the remaining milk and cream mixture in the saucepan.  Cook until the temperature reaches 175°F, being careful not to let it boil.  Remove from heat.

Meanwhile, place the remaining cup of cream in a gallon-sized Ziploc bag, and place the sealed Ziploc bag in a bowl of ice water.  Enlist someone to help you hold the Ziploc bag open, if possible; hold a mesh strainer just inside the bag, and pour the milk and cream mixture into the strainer to combine with the remaining cup of cream.  Reseal the bag, and let it sit in the ice water until the temperature reduces to 70°F, refilling the bowl with ice as necessary.  Once the mixture is cold, mix in the lemon curd.  Chill in the refrigerator for about three hours.

Once the ice cream batter is thoroughly chilled, churn according to your ice cream maker’s instructions.

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Cherry Raisin Bran Muffins

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Sometimes when I’m faced with a chore I don’t want to do, or a task I’d rather avoid, I can convince myself to do it by looking at it as a gift to my future self.  For instance, Thursday night me definitely does not want to do the dishes, but I know that Friday morning me will hate it if she wakes up to a messy kitchen.  So, as an act of kindness to Friday me, I clean up the mess, and if I’m in a really benevolent mood, I’ll go ahead and set up the coffee pot, too, so the following morning will be a breeze.

One night last week, I decided to take it one step further by assembling the ingredients for muffins the night before I wanted to make them.  Few things are better than a fresh-baked muffin first thing in the morning, but all that scooping, sifting, and measuring–and all those floury cups and spoons–are not appealing in the early hours of a new day.  So I did all the dirty work the night before.  You’re welcome, future self.

I am a big believer in self care, as evidenced by the fact that I keep bringing it up on this blog.  I’m very fortunate to have a lot of other people who are willing and able to care for me (especially over the last couple weeks, in the aftermath of a bike accident– yikes), but it’s still important to me to be able to tend to my own needs when necessary.  Besides the practical reasons for that, I think practicing self care builds self confidence.  If you’re in the habit of caring for yourself, then you’re equipped to deal with the problems that only you can handle, like the little monsters inside your head that creep up from time to time and tell you that you’re not good enough, that you’ll never amount to anything.  If you have the confidence that comes from treating yourself with love, then you’ll find it much easier to tell those monsters to stuff it and get on with your life.

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One of the things that made this particular batch of muffins so great was the jam I stirred into the batter.  When I made these muffins, I had just returned from the Vermont Cheese Festival with a bag full of goodies, including a jar of this Cherry and Black Pepper Jam from Marsh Hollow.  I’d had to fight a pretty impressive crowd just to reach Marsh Hollow’s table, and once I got there, I could have easily emptied my wallet and filled my entire tote bag with their wares.  But I managed to choose just this one jar.  The pepper is so subtle, adding a hint of complex warmth and offsetting the sweetness of the cherries.  I’d highly recommend adding a few pinches of black pepper into the muffin batter to replicate the flavor of the Marsh Hollow.

Of course, once the muffins were made, I ended up throwing at least half of them into a bag to distribute to coworkers and friends.  Self care that benefits other people, too?  Win-win.

Cherry Raisin Bran Muffins
recipe from Oakview Farms Granary, in Wetumpka, AL

1 1/2 cups fresh wheat bran
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup white flour
1 cup sugar
4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
2/3 cup milk
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup cherry preserves or jam
a few pinches freshly grated black pepper (optional)
1/4 cup canola oil

Preheat oven to 375°F.  In a large mixing bowl, cover the bran with 1/2 cup boiling water.  Stir with a fork until moistened; set aside.

In another large bowl, combine flours, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt, stirring with a whisk.  Stir in egg, milk, raisins, jam, pepper and oil; mix gently until just combined.  Gently fold in the bran.

Spoon batter into a muffin pan lined with baking cups; bake in preheated oven for 18 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

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Lettuce Cups with Pork, Noodles, and Summer Veggies

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Last week, I hinted that this post would probably involve bran.  I know you’re so disappointed to have these lettuce cups staring you in the face instead.

The fact is, when temperatures are in the 90s, even with an air conditioner, I feel less like baking and more like throwing together a little bit of pork and a ton of veggies in a pan and calling it dinner– preferably with cold wine on the side.  I’ve been making these lettuce cups for several years, and they never fail to satisfy.  And even though there are lots of steps in the process, if you make sure everything is prepped before you start cooking, the recipe is a breeze to prepare.

Part of the reason these lettuce cups are so great is because they’re pretty and colorful, and that’s due to the rainbow of veggies that get tossed into the meat.  The main players are carrots, red bell pepper, cucumber, and onion.  While the original recipe calls for matchstick-cut carrots, I think that kind of knife work is far too painstaking for a weeknight, so I typically just use a peeler to cut a couple of carrots into ribbons.

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You can also get away with minimal chopping for the cucumber– keeping the pieces on the chunky side saves you work and also gives the final product some welcome crunch.

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The veggies alone look like a pretty good meal, right?

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But we must resist the urge to scarf down all the raw veg.  Instead, it all gets tossed into a mixture of ground pork and garlic with a little bit of chopped fresh mint.  You’ll also toss in some cooked rice noodles.  While rice vermicelli is best, I have also made do with bean threads, and even with the noodles from a Trader Joe’s instant rice noodle soup bowl.  Whatever you use, you might find it helpful to snip the noodles several times with kitchen shears before adding them to the meat and veggie mixture– shorter noodle pieces are easier to stir, and they resist clumping.

Once all the ingredients are incorporated in the pan, you’ll stir in a simple mixture of lime juice, soy sauce, and sugar, and toss just enough to coat everything.  Then, finally, you’ll put a spoonful of the filling into dainty, buttery leaves of Boston lettuce, and– my favorite part– top each cup with a handful of chopped dry roasted peanuts.

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Have we talked about the fact that my hometown claims to be the Peanut Capital of the World?  Peanuts are in my blood.  Nearly every year of my life in Dothan included a trip to the Peanut Festival (and attendance at the Peanut Festival Parade); one of my elementary school classes threw a peanut butter party, at which every student had to bring a peanut butter-themed food to share (that was the first time I ever remember eating until my tummy hurt); a neighboring town houses a monument to the boll weevil, a pest that forced farmers to switch from cotton to peanuts; in college, I wrote a paper about the rich history of peanuts in Alabama.  You get the picture.  I love me some peanuts.  And they add the perfect salty, crunchy note to the lettuce cups.

These completely hit the spot on a hot summer evening following a weekend of heavy eating.  Juicy pork studded with bright, refreshing vegetables, a minty kick, and nary a carb in sight (ok, except for the noodles)?  Yeah, I’ll take it.  And look how adorably handheld they are!

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But don’t think you’re off the hook on the bran thing.  It’ll be back for yuh.

Lettuce Cups with Pork, Noodles, and Summer Veggies
adapted from Cooking Light

3 ounces rice vermicelli
14 ounces ground pork
2 large cloves garlic, minced
juice from 1 lime
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1/2 cup shredded carrot
1/2 cup chopped cucumber
1/3 cup chopped red bell pepper
1/3 cup chopped onion
3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
1 head Boston lettuce
1/2 cup chopped dry-roasted peanuts

Cook the rice vermicelli according to package directions; drain, and snip the noodles several times with kitchen shears.  Set aside.  Combine lime juice, sugar, and soy sauce in a small bowl; set aside.

In a large nonstick skillet, cook the pork until it begins to brown, about 3 minutes.  Add the garlic and continue cooking until the pork is fully browned.

Add carrot, cucumber, bell pepper, onion, and mint; cook for about 1 minute, then add the lime juice mixture and toss to coat.

Spoon about 1/4 cup of the pork mixture onto each lettuce leaf; top with a spoonful of roasted peanuts.

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Chocolate and Coffee Whole Wheat Cookies

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Things that will sort out a flustered soul: 1) puppy snuggles. 2) spontaneous road trips. 3) spontaneous road trips with your puppy. 4)  spontaneous road trips to pick up your husband who has been away for a week. 5) chocolate chip cookies.

On Saturday, I woke up believing that Alex would be returning home the next day, late in the afternoon.  By 10am on Saturday, I had a Zipcar reserved, I had cut my shift at work short, and I was making preparations to go fetch him that evening.  I had been longing to take a quick trip in a car for weeks (relying solely on a bicycle and public transit can start to feel stifling after a while), and what better opportunity than to go retrieve my husband, with Moose in tow?  It was a picture-perfect trip: a gorgeous drive across the state of Massachusetts, passing through the Berkshires, and ending up at the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, a scenic masterpiece in its own right.  And having Alex back at home put me in a super cheerful mood– the kind of mood that calls for fresh-baked cookies.

I’m sort of struggling to describe these cookies in a way that points out their hearty attributes without making them sound like a bummer.  They’re full of good, healthy things, like whole wheat flour, wheat bran, and rolled oats, but I don’t want to give the impression that they’re any less indulgent than a cookie from the bakery around the corner.  They’re chewy, rich, nutty, and packed full of chocolate– and they just happen to be a tad more wholesome than your traditional chocolate chip cookie.

Could you do without the wheat bran in this recipe?  Yeah, probably.  But bran totally deserves a place in your pantry, for reasons we will discuss next week– so you might as well go ahead and buy a bit now.  It’s great for baked goods, obviously, but it’s also delicious sprinkled on top of yogurt or ice cream for a bit of added crunch and toasty flavor.

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These cookies are also chock full of toasted hazelnuts.  Their flavor plays nicely off the bit of coffee that goes into the batter (you won’t taste the coffee– it’s just there to add a bit of darkness and depth to the cookies).  Once you’ve chopped the hazelnuts, you’ll notice lots of fine flakes in addition to the bigger chunks.  You can sift the chopped nuts if you want to remove the flakes (pick them up a few at a time with a slotted spoon and let the bits fall through), but I prefer to add them– it bumps up the nutty flavor even further.

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These cookies absolutely made my day– and that’s a bold statement, given how great a day I was already having.  Make these the next time you’re feeling cheery– or the next time you wish you were.  I’m pretty sure they’ll fix you right up.

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Chocolate and Coffee Whole Wheat Cookies
adapted from The Chocolate Box

3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 Tbsp wheat bran
1 tsp baking soda
pinch of salt
1 1/3 cups semisweet chocolate chips
2 cups rolled oats
1 Tbsp strong coffee
2/3 cup hazelnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped

Preheat oven to 375°F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Cream the butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer until fluffy.  Add the egg and beat well.

In a large bowl, combine flours, bran, baking soda, and salt.  Add to the butter mixture and stir on the mixer’s lowest setting until most of the flour mixture is incorporated (this will prevent the flour from flying all over your kitchen).  Increase mixer speed and beat for about a minute more.  Add chocolate chips, oats, coffee, and hazelnuts and mix at low speed until combined.

Drop dough by the Tablespoon onto the prepared baking sheet, leaving about two inches between each cookie.  Bake for about 10 minutes, until the cookies are brown around the edges and just set in the middle.

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Cherry Crisp For One

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Without question, one of the greatest lines ever uttered on film was delivered by Macaulay Culkin as Kevin McCallister in the early-90s Christmas classic Home Alone.  As he stands on a balcony in his fantastic house, feeling oppressed and ignored by his enormous family, Kevin yells down at them, ”When I grow up and get married, I’m living alone!  Did you hear me?  I’M LIVING ALONE!  I’M LIVING ALONE!”  I still giggle at that one every time.  And I used to think old Kevin was on to something; I once had some very romantic ideas about what it would be like to live by myself as a young, chic twenty-something.  (I differed from Kevin in that I didn’t expect to have a husband while also living the solitary life.)  But now that Alex has spent about one week out of town every month since December, I’ve changed my mind.  Living alone is overrated.

During Alex’s most recent travels, I have been remarkably productive.  I finally finished watching 30 Rock (that last season was a bit of a chore).  Then, because I felt bad about all the TV watching, I read about half of The Keillor Reader in two days.  I filled the kitchen with smoke once.  I began a quest to locate the very best everything bagel available in Boston (so far there’s a clear front runner, and some strong contenders for second place).  I took Moose on some extra-long walks out of sheer boredom.  And, perhaps most importantly, I bought lots of cherries.  They were marked way down at Whole Foods, and I got excited, so I bought a two-pound bag, thinking I’d make a pie.  Then I realized that I didn’t feel like making a pie, and even if I did… I cannot be trusted alone in an apartment with an entire cherry pie.

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Fortunately, it is super easy to make single-serving cherry crisp if you have a ramekin.  A muffin tin would also work in a pinch.

For one crisp, you need about 8 cherries, cut in half and pitted.  If the cherries are good and sweet, you can use them as they are, but if they’re a little bit on the tart side, toss them with a drizzle of maple syrup, or a couple teaspoons of sugar.  Put them in a ramekin and top with a simple mixture of flour, sugar, cinnamon, oats, and butter.

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And then you pop it in the oven for 20 minutes– and that’s it.  That’s all it takes.  You’re welcome for the knowledge that a good, homemade dessert is less than half an hour away at any time.

Cooking for myself in Alex’s absence is always a comfort.  It makes me feel like a grownup, knowing that I can fend for myself; it’s also a great method of self care, treating myself to a good meal every night.  But there’s just something about a fresh-baked crisp that makes home feel like home… even when I’m the only one there.

Of course, since I only used eight, that means I still have nearly 2 pounds of cherries in my fridge.  So maybe I need to make a pie after all.  Good thing Alex will be home soon.

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Cherry Crisp For One

8-10 sweet cherries, halved and pitted
about 2 teaspoons maple syrup or granulated sugar (optional, or to taste)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup brown sugar
3 Tablespoons rolled oats
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
2 Tablespoons cold butter, cut into small pieces

Preheat oven to 350°F.

In a ramekin, toss the cherries and the sugar.

In a medium bowl, combine flour, sugar, oats, and cinnamon.  Add the butter, and using your fingers, press and rub the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture looks like crumbs.

Top the cherries with a generous amount of topping (you will have some topping left over).  Bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes, or until the topping is golden brown.  Let cool slightly, then dig in!

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Rhubarb Ginger Crumb Cake

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A little over a week ago, Alex and I got to meet Garrison Keillor at a lecture and book signing.  Even though I’m a good bit younger than his target audience, I grew up listening to him on the weekly radio show A Prairie Home Companion, especially in the back seat on the way home from beach trips.  The show happened to come on at about the time we usually hit the road, so I associate the show, and Mr. Keillor’s voice, with freshly sunburned skin and the satisfying kind of fatigue that only comes from a day of swimming.

After a few minutes of awkward, nervous conversation when we reached the front of the book-signing line, GK signed my book: “To Alex and Jesi: Love and rhubarb and all,” a reference to a bit from the show about “Be-Bop-a-Re-Bop Rhubarb Pie.”  It was a thrill, of course, but it also reminded me that I have never cooked with rhubarb– not even once.  Can’t have that, now can we?

I suppose a rhubarb pie would have been the traditional way to go, but this recipe caught my eye instead.  The cookbook author called this cake a “buckle,” but as far as I can tell, all the term “buckle” means is that the cake is studded with fruit and topped with crumbs.  So why not just call it a crumb cake?  I suppose calling it a buckle makes it sound more rustic, but at least with a crumb cake, you know what you’re going to get.

The first thing you do, even before you make the batter, is prepare the crumb topping.  Once it’s made, pop it in the freezer; if it’s nice and cool when you put it on the cake, it’ll hold together in the oven much better.  The secret ingredient in the crumb topping is crystallized ginger.  It adds a pleasantly spicy kick, but it’s chopped finely enough that it blends in perfectly with the crumbs.

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Working with the rhubarb was quite a treat, too.  It sort of looks like celery stalks, but with a reddish tinge.  It actually reminds me a lot of what we used to call Indian grass, a stalky weed with a reddish-greenish stem that grew all around our house.  All the kids in my neighborhood would pick it and chew on the stems, which kind of tasted sweet and sour– and a lot like rhubarb, as it turns out.  (I’m sure you are now having visions of me and my country friends running around the neighborhood in grubby clothes with floppy grass hanging out of our mouths– and that is basically accurate.)  Fortunately, rhubarb’s sour punch mellows out a good bit once it’s cooked.

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Also, have you ever read through a recipe and thought, “Wait… are you sure?”  This recipe was like that.  Once the batter was done, as I spooned it into the cake pan (the cake pan that was the exact size specified by the recipe), I noticed that the batter was coming up almost to the very edge of the pan, allowing no room for rising.  I considered reserving some of the batter and filling the pan to the usual 3/4 level, but there was something about the folksy name, “buckle,” that made me hesitate.  What do I know about buckles, after all?  Turns out that all that extra batter baked up over the edge of the pan and lent the cake a beautiful rustic look, and also dripped onto the floor of the oven and filled the kitchen with the smell of burnt cake.  So there you go.  Trust your instincts.

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Burnt bits aside, this cake is wonderful.  It’s buttery, sweet, sour, and spicy, but none of those flavors fight each other.  The crumb is light and fluffy, the topping is wonderfully crunchy, and the bits of rhubarb are the perfect accent.  The cake is good for dessert, of course, but it’s even better for breakfast.  (It’s basically just a large-format muffin.)

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And, in the words of Mr. Keillor himself: mama’s little baby loves rhubarb, rhubarb.

Rhubarb Ginger Crumb Cake
adapted from Rustic Desserts: Crumbles, Buckles, Cobblers, Pandowdies and More

for the crumb topping
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger
2 Tablespoons butter, melted

for the cake
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon dried ginger
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
3/4 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
2 1/2 cups sliced rhubarb, about 1 pound

Preheat oven to 350°F.  Butter a 9-inch round cake pan (or coat with cooking spray).

To make the crumb topping, mix the sugar, flour, and crystallized ginger in a bowl, then stir in the melted butter to make crumbs.  Place the crumb in the freezer while you prep the cake batter.

To make the cake, combine flour, baking powder, ginger, baking soda, and salt in a bowl.  In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine butter and sugar, and beat until light and fluffy.  Add eggs one at a time, scraping down the bowl as necessary.  Stir in the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with two additions of buttermilk (begin and end with the flour mixture).  Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then fold in the rhubarb.

Fill prepared cake pan 3/4 full of batter.  (You will have leftover batter, which you can use to make muffins.)  Sprinkle crumb topping over the cake; bake for 45 to 50 minutes, until golden brown.

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Cannoli Cream Ice Cream with Magic Shell and Pistachios

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When I first moved to Boston, I was a very committed sight-seer.  It was mid-summer, I had no job, and grad school, my reason for moving, didn’t start for nearly two months.  The only reason I came up so early was that our lease began in July, and as long as I was going to be paying for an apartment, I figured I might as well go ahead and live in it.  So, for the first several weeks of my Boston life, I’d wake up in the morning, go to a café around the corner and bum their internet for a while.  When my roommate woke up, we’d get on the train and ride until we came to a stop that sounded interesting, then hop off and explore the area.

Even when school started, I still saw my fair share of variety; we lived in Jamaica Plain, I went to school on the edge of Chinatown, worked in Back Bay, and frequently visited Alex at his job in the financial district.  But now that we’ve been here for five years, I tend to stick to my basic route and deviate from it only when necessary.  And that’s a shame, because there are so many great parts of the city that I now rarely see.

Take the North End, for example.  I’m sure part of the reason I think it’s so great is because I’m there so rarely (I can probably count the times I’ve visited on one hand), but then again, what’s not to love?  Narrow streets, coffee shops with their windows thrown open, charming grocery stores, boatloads of wine… and of course, cannoli.  I won’t even get into the whole Modern Pastry vs. Mike’s debate, because 1) it’s all been done and 2) it’s an unwinnable war. But I will acknowledge the dizzying array of flavors you have to choose from, wherever you go.  You have options for the filling (plain ricotta, chocolate, pastry cream, etc) and the shell (plain, florentine), and you can have the whole shebang dipped in chocolate and rolled in nuts if you like.  The combinations are endless, but my all-time favorite is a plain cannoli with ricotta cream, dipped in dark chocolate and rolled in pistachios.  This ice cream is an homage to that rare treat.

It all starts with a good-quality, whole milk ricotta.  I used Maplebrook ricotta, from Bennington, Vermont, which is the brand I carry in my cheese case.  (I carry it because a pushy customer badgered me into it, and then I realized that it really is great.)  You’ll also use heavy cream and whole milk (I used fancy-pants local milk from a glass bottle– *ooohs and ahhhs reverently*).  I can see you over there, thinking, “Hmmm, that sounds like a lot of fat.”  And to that, I say, it’s ice cream.  That’s why it’s good.

The batter is a really simple mixture of ricotta, milk, cream, and sugar, plus a little orange zest to brighten things a bit.  It all gets whirled in a blender until perfectly smooth.

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And then comes the part where it’s necessary for you to have an ice cream maker.  I just got the Kitchen Aid mixer ice cream attachment for my birthday (thank you, Mom!!), after longing for it for quite a while.  It’s a good option if you already have the mixer, and if you have a lot of freezer space; then you can just keep the bowl in the freezer full-time, and you don’t have to plan too far ahead to make a batch of ice cream.

The ice cream maker will freeze the batter until it’s the consistency of soft-serve, but not much more.  That means you have to spoon it into a bowl and freeze it for a couple hours more to get a firmer texture (a piece of parchment or waxed paper pressed against the surface will keep ice crystals from forming and making the ice cream too hard).  It also means that you get to enjoy a few bites of soft-serve while you transfer the ice cream to the freezer.

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The ice cream on its own is a total delight: mildly cheesy, not too sweet, and with just a little perk from the orange zest.  But, to take it into my-perfect-cannoli territory, I added a dusting of pistachios, and, perhaps most importantly, homemade magic shell.  I feel like magic shell could be a post of its own.  The nostalgia!  The yumminess!  The science!  The totally unnatural ingredients!  But I’ll just keep it short and tell you that it is ridiculously easy to make at home:  just a 3:1 ratio of Nutella spread to coconut oil, gently warmed in the microwave, will do the trick.

You know how I said last week that I hadn’t been in the mood for desserts?  Yeah… consider that problem remedied.

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Cannoli Cream Ice Cream with Magic Shell and Pistachios
adapted from Cookies and Cream

for the ice cream
1 15-ounce container good-quality, whole milk ricotta
3/4 cup whole milk
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon orange zest

Place all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor or blender and mix until smooth.  Place mixture in refrigerator until completely chilled, about 1 hour.  Pour the chilled batter into the bowl of an ice cream maker and freeze according to manufacturer’s instructions (it took about 15 minutes in the bowl of the Kitchen Aid ice cream attachment).  Transfer the soft ice cream from the ice cream maker to a bowl with a tight-fitting lid, and apply parchment or wax paper directly to the ice cream’s surface.  Place lid on bowl and chill ice cream in the freezer until firm, about 2 hours.

for the magic shell
3 Tablespoons Nutella
1 Tablespoon coconut oil

Combine Nutella and coconut oil in a heatproof bowl.  Heat in the microwave for about two minutes, stirring every 15 seconds, until Nutella is melted; stir with a fork until well-combined.  Allow to cool slightly.

to assemble
Scoop fully chilled ice cream into small bowls.  Top with magic shell, and while the shell is still liquid, sprinkle with chopped pistachios.  Allow the shell to harden, then serve right away.

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Polenta with Corn, Tomatoes, and Basil

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I’ve noticed a trend on my blog over the last few weeks: a general absence of sweets.  It’s weird, but I just haven’t been in the mood for dessert much over the last month or so (except for the few days surrounding my birthday, when I wanted all the cake and all the ice cream).  I’m not too worried about it, though, because it’s summer (finally!), and that means summer produce.  It’s still a bit early for good local tomatoes and corn, but I couldn’t wait to break out this recipe again, which I’ve been making regularly since I first found it about six years ago.

Since scent is the sense most closely tied to memory, making this dish fills me with nostalgia.  The smell of fresh corn kernels and sliced tomatoes takes me back to my mom’s kitchen, and my grandmother’s; meanwhile, the fresh basil reminds me of Paul and Jan, who hosted me for a summer while I worked near their house, and who introduced me to Caprese salad.  I always think about the fact that Jan pronounced “basil” to rhyme with “battle,” whereas I stick with the pronunciation that rhymes with “nasal.”

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And then there’s the polenta.  It’s creamy and cheesy and basically just a sneaky way to eat cheese grits and make it sound classy.  While there are some differences between grits and polenta– the type of corn they’re made of, the fineness of the grind, and that sort of thing– they’re similar enough that if you have grits on hand and don’t feel like tracking down polenta, I’d say go for it.

Also, while it seems unfair to brag about the rest of this meal without showing it to you or sharing even a little bit of it… I’m going to do it anyway, because it was the best meal of the summer thus far.  While I made the polenta, I also had a pot of collard greens on a back burner (did you know that collard greens are 94 cents a bunch?  I did not know that.  This is going to be the summer of collards for me), and Alex occupied the other half of the stove with a pan of Cajun-spiced chicken legs.  Sweet goodness, it was like being back in the Deep South.

A happy summer to you all!  I’ll be back soon with a pie or something, I promise.

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Polenta with Corn, Tomatoes, and Basil
adapted from Cooking Light

2 teaspoons olive oil
1 Vidalia onion, chopped
4 cups fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth
fresh corn kernels from 2 ears (about 2 cups)
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 cup instant dry polenta
1/2 cup grated Asiago, Parmigiano-Reggiano, or Pecorino Romano
1/2 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
1 cup chopped tomato

Heat oil in a soup pot over medium heat; add onion and cook until translucent, stirring occasionally.  Add broth, corn, and garlic, and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for about five minutes.  Gradually whisk in polenta, stirring constantly, and cook until polenta is thick, about five minutes.  Remove from heat and stir in the cheese, salt, pepper, and basil; gently fold in the tomatoes and serve immediately.

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Roasted Spring Veggies with Bacon and Poached Eggs

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You may be looking at these photos, and the recipe title, and saying, “Wait a second.  You’re making oven-roasted veggies… in June?  Haven’t you spent the last three summers complaining about the difficulty of cooking in the heat?”  And to that, I would respond: yes, I know.  And you’re right—I have been insufferably whiny about summer cooking conditions ever since I started this blog.  However, I’m in a new apartment now, and while we still don’t have central air (that probably won’t happen unless we move out of the city or suddenly strike it rich), we do have a small built-in air conditioner in the living room, which is technically the same room as the kitchen.  I’m not saying it’s necessarily comfortable to crank up the oven now, but it also no longer puts my life at risk; thus, my meal planning possibilities have broadened considerably.

That’s particularly fortunate, given the abundance of über-seasonal vegetables available at the moment.  I’ve already shown you ramps once this year, and garlic scapes are right around the corner.  But this month, we’ve also had fiddleheads, tiny young fern fronds with a faintly lemony, vegetal flavor and a whimsical, “are-you-sure-I-can-actually-eat-this?” appearance.  While fiddleheads would make for an interesting side dish on their own, I think the best way to enjoy them is by tossing them with a mixture of your other favorite vegetables and roasting them all together.  And you know what makes a plate of vegetables even better?  Bacon and eggs.  Voilà—instant dinner (or brunch, or any other meal, come to think of it).

One of the best things about cooking this meal is that the ingredients move along in an easy progression; you never have to scramble to cook three ingredients all at once, or coordinate the timing of multiple elements.  You can preheat the oven while you prep the potatoes and carrots, and while those roast, you can cook the bacon and prep the remaining veggies.  During the last round of roasting, you can chop the cooked bacon and poach the eggs.  You might even have enough down time between steps to wash some dishes, if you’re a clean-as-you-go type.

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One thing you’ll definitely need to remember, though, is to soak the fiddleheads.  As you can imagine, these things hold a lot of dirt, so you’ll want to start cleaning them first thing.  Put them in a bowl of cold water and swish them around, then leave them alone until you need them.  When it’s time to trim them, remove them from the water one at a time—don’t dump them out, or all the dirt that has sunk to the bottom of the bowl will get sprinkled right back on top.

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Also, as you have undoubtedly noticed, this dish requires you to poach an egg.  Well, technically, it doesn’t require anything—you can fry the egg, if you prefer, or leave it out entirely, but if you want to poach the egg (and you should), let me tell you how.  Like most intimidating kitchen tasks, the best way to learn is by doing.  It took me a couple of tries to get the hang of it, but now I could probably poach an egg with my eyes closed.  I’ve heard about a lot of tricks and tips, like adding vinegar to the simmering water, or swirling the water with a spoon and dropping the egg into the swirl, but I’ve found that none of those things are necessary.  The best thing you can do to ensure a good poached egg is to buy the freshest eggs you can.  And I don’t even mean that you have to track down just-laid eggs from a local farm—just pick a dozen from the grocery store with the latest expiration date, and you’ll be fine.  Put a pot of water over medium heat, and when the water starts to bubble, turn the heat down a few notches to hold it at a simmer.  Crack an egg into a small bowl or cup, and holding the cup right at the surface of the simmering water, gently slide the egg into the water.  Don’t worry about what it looks like for the first few seconds; after about half a minute, you’ll see that the white is beginning to solidify, and you’ll see less and less of the yolk.  Let the egg poach for about three minutes, then remove it from the water with a slotted spoon and drain briefly on a paper towel.  Simple as that.

This is one of those dishes that I was frankly a little nervous to serve to the husband.  Not that Alex has any special demands for his evening meals or anything, but I recognize that, when left to my own devices, I tend to eat a bit on the lighter side.  However, I am happy to report that this received rave reviews.  The veggies provide lots of color and crunch (not to mention health factor); the bacon adds smoke and umami; and the slightly runny egg yolk makes the perfect sauce.  It’s completely killer.

And I didn’t even break a sweat making it.  Oh, hello, sweet summer.

Roasted Spring Veggies with Bacon and Poached Eggs
(makes 4 servings)

3 medium-sized potatoes (I used two Red Bliss and one Yukon Gold)
2 large carrots
olive oil
4 generous pinches each of dried oregano, cumin, paprika, and chili powder
florets from one head of broccoli
1 heaping cup fiddleheads
6-8 ramps, greens and white bulbs separated
3 slices thick-cut bacon, cooked and diced
4 eggs
freshly grated black pepper

Preheat oven to 425°F.  Place fiddleheads in a bowl of cold water and stir them around with your hands.  Allow fiddleheads to soak for at least 10 minutes, letting any dirt and grit sink to the bottom of the bowl.

While the oven preheats, chop potatoes into bite-size pieces.  Peel carrots and slice them into thin coins.  Toss potatoes and carrots in a 9×13-inch baking pan with a generous pour of olive oil; sprinkle with oregano, cumin, paprika, and chili powder and toss to combine.  Roast in the preheated oven for 20 minutes.

While potatoes and carrots cook, trim and rinse the broccoli.  Carefully remove fiddleheads from the water bowl and trim off the ends.  Finely dice the white bulbs from the ramps, reserving the green leaves.

Add fiddleheads and broccoli to the roasted potatoes and carrots, and toss to combine.  Scatter the diced ramp bulbs on top of the veggies and roast for a further 20 minutes.  While the veggies continue to roast, roughly chop the ramp leaves.  Set a saucepan of water over medium heat and bring to a simmer.

Remove the veggies from the oven and allow to cool.  While the veggies cool, poach the eggs for about three minutes each, and drain briefly on paper towels.

Divide generous servings of roasted veggies among four dinner plates; top with chopped bacon, poached eggs, and sprinkle with freshly grated pepper.  Serve immediately.

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