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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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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