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Posts Tagged ‘baking’

Our life can be marked by our losses, which often can be more defining than the days that take our breath away. A loss in life is like running smack into a brick wall, after which you shake off the tweeting birds floating around your head and look around at what’s landed in your path. There is no more going forward as you have been; it’s time to look to either side and determine which is the next best step, choosing your new direction, heading off into the unknown. But sometimes those brick walls of life stop us cold. We had no idea it was coming and it’s frozen us in time, unable to shift our direction and find the new normal. We sit in front of it and stare, uncomprehending this change that we don’t want, and didn’t ask for.

I’ve had times like that. Bad times that have stopped me senseless. I lost my sister in 1991, my Mom in 1994. Both times it was so numbing that I simply sat down, right where I was, and hardly budged. I got stuck a lot in those days, and held big-time pity parties for myself complete with isolation, junk food binges, too much alcohol, or worse, something stronger. I lost a lot of time that I’ll never get back.


This loss was much different, as I had seen it coming for some time. But it didn’t hurt any less. Even with Mike and Griffin right there with me in the Vet’s office, as I held Harmon and felt him slip into an eternal sleep, it was the loneliest feeling I think I have ever known. The past 17 years flashed through my head; every little thing about him that endeared him to me, from the first glimpse of his face to his final day. He was such a part of me that I can’t even imagine how long it will take to stop looking around the house for him. Seventeen years is a very long time. Griffin has never known his life without this big orange cat. I can’t remember much about mine before he came along.

But we move on. We have no choice. And in the days following our loss, I was overcome with urges to eat foods I hadn’t touched in years. The need to cover the pain became very real, and yet none of my old coping mechanisms were still in place and I had to just let the pain seep out of me. It gripped me so hard that it left me physically gasping for air. I had no appetite, but ate mechanically. Nothing had any taste. I wept often, and uncontrollably. I craved fried foods, greasy burgers, heavy pizza, drinks with funny names, being prone under a pile of blankets and more isolation than is humanly wise. I was staring at yet another brick wall and the only thing I knew how to do with pain like this was collapse and disappear from life again.

This is now, however, the kinder and gentler Kate, and after the first acute and tenderly painful days, I realized that I did want food, and was pleased that I wanted good food. And the first dish that I took out and set before my grief was my most favorite Lentils and Farro with Caramelized Leeks. The attention to slowly caramelizing the leeks seemed to almost take my mind off the fact that there was no eager golden-hued face at my feet, weaving in and out of my legs as I stood at the stove. Then copious amounts of this white bean and roasted garlic spread not only had me set for life against vampires, but provided heady aromatic and tasty relief (that photo above should give you some clue as to how critical roasted garlic is in my kitchen). There were more roasted vegetables, despite the warm end to March in Minnesota, a succulent grilled pork tenderloin that I buried under a thick mustard glaze, salads crunchy enough to fill the echo within my heart.


And I baked, because what could soothe one more than homemade scones? Lacking fresh fruit for a Sunday morning treat before a necessary and pleasantly grueling 3.5 mile hike, I gently blended thick fruit preserves with the liquid in my favorite scone recipe, and came up with a delightfully light and flavorful round, studded with chopped pecans and warmly comforting to my tummy. Another batch of Orange-Cardamom Scones sent me skyrocketing into sheer happiness, lush with the crisp citrus scent. The secret to these, I am 100% certain, is the citrus-infused turbinado sugar that filled the interior and decked out the tops. With the crunchy sugar and fresh zest, really, can it go wrong?

And Brownies. Let’s just say that in everyone’s coping arsenal should be a good solid recipe for a Brownie that will calm even the worst of one’s inner storms. Fudgey or cakey, I’m OK with either because where good chocolate therapy is concerned, I’m always a willing participant.

There was also Spring Break with my Teen that included him getting contacts, and or course, the golden sunshine that tickled and warmed our faces as March bid us farewell. I busied myself cleaning up last year’s detritus in the garden, and marveled that I was sweating on the last day of a typically snowy and cold month. I took a very long bike ride. And I cooked more soothing foods. I’m exploring some terrific options for the weeks ahead, in April, the month where Spring explodes over our part of the Earth. I don’t want to miss out on that, or anything else coming my way these days. There’s no more hiding. Not for this girl.

And Easter Sunday I feel, is an appropriate time for a new beginning, wouldn’t you agree??

Orange Cardamom Scones
adapted heavily from Tyler Florence’s Real Kitchen

2-1/2 c. AP flour
1 T. baking powder
1/2 t. sea salt
2 T. sugar
1 T. orange zest
1/2 t. ground cardamon
5 T. cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1/2 c. fresh squeezed orange juice
1/2 c. buttermilk

Preheat oven to 400°. Line a baking tray with parchment.

Combine flour, baking powder, sugar, cardamom and salt. Blend together juice, zest and buttermilk, add to dry ingredients and mix gently with a fork until all flour is incorporated. Careful not to overmix.

Gently scoop individual portions onto cookie sheet. You should get about 8 scones. Bake until slightly browned on top, about 15-18 minutes.

For the Citrus Sugar that I sprinkled on top- Zest one orange and mix the zest with half a cup of turbinado sugar. Place in blender and mix until fully combined. Scrape into container and keep refrigerated. Use regular sugar if you have no turbinado. Sprinkle over tops of scones before baking.

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I’ve noticed lately that my days seem to be having their own soundtracks. We’ve become a kind of soundtrack world, what with the abundant use of iTunes, the earbud generation and the incessant need to insert any type of sound into the hours. These are the playlists of our lives, what we exercise to, the music in the background while we work, what blasts from our computers as we clean, or cook or just manage the day.

What I’ve been noticing is that each day seems to have it’s unique sound, a type of music that fits to the mood, weather and sense of self that we connect with through our waking hours. While most of us have our favorite music, I wonder how often we switch out the tunes in an attempt to match the feeling of a particular Friday, or a lazy Sunday afternoon or a bright shiny Wednesday morning. Rainy days have their own soundtrack, and sunshine makes music like nothing else. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, just sit down with an old Warner Bros. cartoon medley, and see what I mean. The Disney animators of old knew exactly how to use music to create a wordless story, to set mood, to create action. Remember the original movie version of Fantasia? It was all about matching music to mood. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, with it’s gentle Springtime lilt and angry Summer thunderstorm movements are a perfect example. I can’t ever listen to composer Paul Dukas’ famous orchestral work ‘The Sorceror’s Apprentice’ without seeing Mickey Mouse, flashing lights and thousands of brooms. Music sets the tone and starts the imagination, it inspires and ignites us.

And food fits into the sense of every day, much the same as music. We all know those lustrous summer days that beg for a juicy grilled burger and corn that’s fresh from the field, the springtime air that makes you dream of salads, fresh peas and asparagus. Winter speaks like soup, or a hearty stew simmering in a pot and then there’s those days that nothing else will do besides a long slow fire and the smoke of a perfect BBQ. Rain and baking, as I recently discovered, sometimes are the best of friends.

I love having music on when I’m elbow deep in the creative process in my kitchen. With iTunes radio, a huge selection is at my fingertips and with a few clicks I can have the perfect background to what I’m doing. I recently was faced with a rainy day that felt like it would perfectly match with soft cafe jazz, a warm oven and a pan of muffins to make it complete. Sitting at the top of my To Make pile on the counter, the place where inspiration lives with just a few shufflings of papers, was a recipe for Fig Muffins with Lemon Honey Cream cheese filling, and oh how that magically blended itself into the saxophone, the steady patter of spring rain outside the door and the gentle rhythm of mid-week. With a loaf of 10-grain bread from my dog-eared copy of ‘Healthy Bread in 5 Minutes’ and a steaming cup of tea, it was about as right and perfect as it could be to give chase to the gray sky.


Of course, I am a bit head over heels for figs, so it likely didn’t hurt that one of my most favorite fruits was the superstar in this moist and tasty breakfast treat. But when you blend up a lovely fragrant batch of sweet honey and lemon flavored cream cheese and bake up these muffins with it’s delightful hidden center, the result alone may have been enough to push the clouds aside for a ray of sun to enter the house.

Lemon is another true love I’ve found with baking. There’s something about the zesting and the juicing and the way the yellow oval resembles a bright July day that always makes me eager to place a few in my basket at the market. For me, the lemon scented cream cheese alone may be the path to a better day, with or without jazzy backdrop, whether it’s raining or not and I was so glad that I made the whole container into this fragrant mix. I will find ways to consume the leftovers. Like spreading it copiously all over these muffins, because I’ve discovered that with some food items, there simply can’t be enough of a good thing.

What kind of soundtrack defines your days? Do you change up your music to suit your mood??


Fig Muffins with Honey Lemon Cream Cheese filling

adapted from Eating Well magazine, February 2010

Preheat the oven to 400° and line two 6-count muffin pans with liners. You can use cooking spray too, if you like.

1  4-oz container cream cheese, softened
2 T. honey
1 T. fresh lemon zest
2-3 T. fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/2 t. fresh ground nutmeg

In a small bowl, combine all ingredients and blend until smooth. Add more zest or juice if desired. I love a good tart flavor.

For the muffins:

2 c. whole wheat flour
1-1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1/4 t. sea salt
1 T. ground flaxseed
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 c. turbinado sugar (you can sub in brown sugar if you don’t have turbinado)
1 c. buttermilk (I used vanilla soymilk)
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
1-1/2 c. chopped dried figs

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and soda, salt and ground flaxseed. In a separate bowl, combine the eggs, sugar, buttermilk and oil and whisk until blended and uniform. If you’re using turbinado, don’t worry if the sugar doesn’t dissolve fully, just whisk until blended. Mix the wet ingredients in with the dry and stir until just incorporated, then add the figs and gently fold together.

Spoon batter into muffin cups to half full. Add about a tablespoon of the cream cheese mixture to the center of each muffin, then cover with more batter. You shouldn’t see the filling, but don’t worry if you do. I spooned a smaller amount of cream cheese on to the tops of each muffin, but you don’t need to do that. Sprinkle the tops of the muffins with more turbinado sugar, or another sanding sugar if desired, then bake them for 13-15 minutes, or until they spring back when pressed.

Allow the muffins to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then take them out and allow to cool fully on cooling rack.

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Winter weekends sure can be a mixed blessing. You’ve got an entire day spread out in front of  you with endless possibilities; time on your hands and hours to make just the way you want, and yet, if you’re like those of us in Minnesota, you often wake on those long days to crackling cold air and sunshine thats full of promise but delivers nothing in warmth.

Those are the days that just require waffles.

There’s something about a crisp and aromatic waffle that deems it a culinary perfection for a chilly winter morning. A morning that you know needs to lead to a productive day. A morning where the coffee pot seems to be endlessly working, where your pajamas are often more desirable than a pair of blue jeans, mornings such as one that finds you casually sipping your brew, and noticing that the bright sunshine has highlighted your neglect of the vacuum cleaner, the dustmop and a Swiffer cloth or two.

I’m sure others can relate, right?

I grew up with Sunday morning waffles. It was eagerly anticipated to come down the stairs to the pungent scent of the percolator on the stove as it bubbled away, competing with the creaky old waffle iron, hissing emphatically, cranking out perfect rectangles of golden hued delectable treats. I do love pancakes, especially ones that stray off the beaten track of breakfast food; pancakes with shredded apples and yogurt in them, bananas and pecans in a whole wheat pancake, chocolate chip flecked ovals cooked to soft perfection and then topped with summer cherry sauce. Pancakes even spread with peanut butter and eaten out of hand. Oh, do we know about pancakes in this house, yes we do. But waffles, why there is really no other means needed to enjoy them other than good butter and syrup, because the waffle, in all it’s dented glory is the perfect palate to top with a few slices of cold butter and then drizzle warm maple syrup over to run through tunnels, cubes and edges to dress them in sweet buttery delight. Those edges crunch, the syrup absorbs and the bites come together in the mouth, a marriage to linger over, knife and fork in hand, coffee to the side. I’ll eat pancakes for dinner, and often we do, but waffles are strictly breakfast, and best on the weekends when their sturdy personality buoys you up for the long day ahead.

And who wouldn’t love the crunchy and wholesome addition of some cornmeal to the waffle?

I’ve made cornmeal studded pancakes before, and really, they’re pretty good and all, but there’s something about the added crunch of cornmeal on batter placed in the waffle iron that just sort of gets me right there. I don’t know how to describe it any more than that. And when I came across the recipe for these crunchy beauties on Kristin’s lovely blog, somehow I knew I would adore them like a treasured memory so I put together a double batch. People, I made waffles for hours, it seems. Hours. Did I care? Oh no, not at all. You see, after I made the first one and dressed it appropriately, I consumed it with gusto. My tummy, loving the introduction of it, politely asked for another. And I complied. The batter seemed endless, but I stockpiled waffles for the next few days and two packs to go into the freezer. We are happily away in waffle ecstasy. Don’t bother to look for us, ok? We’ll be fine, really and I will come back when they’re gone and do it all over again.

Oh yeah, and after I ate that delicious breakfast, it spurred me on to clean my house from top to bottom and boy, did it look nice in the dazzling but cold winter sunshine then. All thanks to a perfect little cornmeal waffle.

Buttermilk Cornmeal Waffles
(from Kristin at The Kitchen Sink Recipes, slightly adapted from Gourmet magazine)

1 cup sifted all-purpose flour (sift before measuring)
1 cup yellow cornmeal, preferably stoneground
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
2 cups well-shaken buttermilk
6 tablespoons vegetable oil plus additional oil for brushing waffle iron

Into a large bowl sift together flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Repeat sifting 2 more times.

In another large bowl whisk together eggs, buttermilk, and oil. Add flour mixture all at once and whisk just until combined.

Preheat a waffle iron and preheat oven to 200 °F.

Brush waffle iron lightly with additional oil. Spoon batter into waffle iron, using 1/4 cup batter for each 4-inch-square standard waffle and spreading batter evenly, and cook according to manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer waffle to a baking sheet and keep warm, uncovered, in middle of oven. Make more waffles with remaining batter in same manner, brushing waffle iron with more oil before adding each batch.

Serve waffles with syrup.

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Cranberry and orange is a classic combination, and even the thought of it brings me swiftly back to Christmas as a child when my Mom would pull out her superbly old hand-cranked food grinder and clamp it to the counter edge to make a fresh cranberry-orange relish that filled our kitchen with the lively tang of oranges and the tart haze of cranberry. My sisters and I loved standing at the counter turning the crank of that grinder while Mom fed whole cranberries and oranges into the hopper, the pop and crunch of the fruit filling our ears while the mouth dripped it’s ruby mass into the bowl underneath. It was the scent of the holiday for us, more than a fresh ham baking in the oven, better than her scratch mincemeat or a simmering apple pie. I can zest an orange in the burning July sunshine, wearing shorts and a tank-top, and I will immediately be transported back to wintertime, as a kid again in Mom’s kitchen, fighting my sisters for a turn at the grinder. Back then, the tart cranberries were not to my liking, but I absolutely adored that smell.

The mix of cranberry and orange seems to be everywhere right now, and for good reason as fresh cranberries are in season. For some delicious winter baking, I grabbed it with both hands and enjoyed the promise of greatness found in this match.

There were scones first…..

I had to backtrack to find out exactly where this recipe came from, but thankfully came across it on LoveFeast Table so I can be sure to give proper credit. I’ve linked the recipe for you because I seriously suggest you make yourself a pan of these before too long. The flavors speak of winter, they require you to pour a steaming coffee to sip alongside, and will make you smile happily with delight. We all need that in the chilly months ahead.  This past year has been a big one for me in terms of muffins and scones. I like being able to put together a batch if the moment seems right, and you really can’t lose with anything that has some semblance of chocolate in it. Even when the chocolate is white. And these scones are tender, moist and airy. You’ll never purchase a coffee shop hockey puck again.


Then, even while there were still a few scones left over, I forged into a Cranberry Date and Orange quick bread to bring to one of our Christmas gatherings. It was so hard for me to wrap these loaves and slip them in the freezer to await our celebration, because when I knocked them out of the pans to cool, the smell that rose from them reached into my nose and tickled it immensely. I had to walk out of the kitchen in order not to rip a chunk off one to sample. Thankfully, we ended up with plenty of leftovers.

CRANBERRY DATE ORANGE BREAD

2 c. all-purpose flour (I used half whole wheat)
3/4 c. sugar
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt (I started using sea salt in baking and I love the results!)
1 egg
1/2 c. orange juice
Grated peel of 1 orange
2 T melted butter or margarine
2 T. hot water
1 c. fresh or frozen cranberries
1 c. chopped dates
1 c. coarsely chopped walnuts (or pecans- but either is optional)

Heat oven to 325°. Spray a standard 9×5 loaf pan with cooking spray and set aside.

In a medium saucepan, combine cranberries, dates, water and butter. Heat to a low simmer, stirring occasionally and cook for about 5 minutes. Some of the berries should start popping but you want them to retain their shape as much as possible. Turn off the heat and stir in the orange juice and zest. Allow to cool until barely room temperature.

In a large mixing bowl, combine dry ingredients. Beat egg separately. Add egg and cranberry mixture to dry ingredients, stirring just until moistened. Fold in nuts, if using. Spoon into prepared loaf pan. Bake for 60 minutes or until toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes before removing to a wire rack.

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I really need to make more of it. Time that is, especially when I can get this……

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for something like 15 minutes of actual work; like getting my hands messy, watching the mixer spin and covering a bowl with plastic kind of work. Whoa. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

But really, I should do this more often.

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Maybe it’s because I don’t think bread photographs all that well. Like soup. I can make soup once a week but you rarely read about it here because it isn’t all that glamorous and hates to pose when the camera comes out. Some foods you can’t keep down if you tried. The camera turns on and they pose the heck out of themselves, flashing their merits for the lens to find, almost shouting ‘Look at me!!’ in their desire to be seen. And loved. Bread is just sort of there. The color isn’t superb and eye-catching; you can’t really show off the crumb in any photo and there’s no flashy edges, roasted and burnished, that tell it’s tale. And it’s bread. It’s a vehicle for your cheese, peanut butter, jam or fruit butter. It gets smothered in mayonnaise. No wonder it just sits there when the camera comes out. Rarely is bread honored on it’s own, although some of the best breads I have ever eaten can offer up their finest attributes with nary a spread in sight. But let’s face it. When you go for bread, you almost always have the thought of placing something on it, covering it up and hiding it from view, mashing it down in a press, or cooking it over a flame. Maybe over time, bread has developed somewhat of a complex, and when the camera points its way, it probably sighs and thinks ‘Oh great, next it will be the peanut butter jar. Or that god-awful mayo crap. Or that fabulous sharp cheddar in the fridge, maybe with chutney.’ It’s time to behold the bread. To claim it for the amazing food that it is, to place it forefront in the kitchen, to give it it’s due. To make time for it. To take 21 pictures of it like I did in an exhaustive effort to bring out the best of it, to try to make it shine. As I tapped ‘Command + Delete’ over and over again, sighing in frustration, the coarse and hearty crumb of this bread still playing on my tongue, I decided that the bread just needed to tell it’s own story in the only way it could. It needs to be made to be appreciated.

For five years of my life, I worked in the office of an artisan bakery and was subjected daily to fresh baked bread of all shapes, sizes and flavors. Some days all I could manage for lunch was to grab a ciabatta roll and maybe a little ham. Sometimes it was a Sesame Semolina loaf, a snappy and crisp Baguette or the mouth-puckering Sourdough Boule. My desk usually would be covered in crumbs, and when I cleaned out my keyboard, yep- you guessed it- crumbs. My daily log book was filled with crumbs. They crunched under my shoes, and almost every day as I exited the building and passed the rack of breads that were left, I would grab one to take home for Griffin. But I was surrounded by the wonder of all things yeast and it cemented a love for bread in me that lives strong still, nearly eight years after I left the job. I never really thought about how fortunate I was then, but now, when I want something yeasty, that snaps with a shower of golden snowy crumbs all over my lap, that’s what I think about.

And I need to give it the time and attention it should have, time it deserves and way more than I do, which is a rarity. Even if most of that time is spent gazing at a plastic covered bowl, faint drafts of yeast and flour emitting from within, while I sigh heavily, dreaming of warm bread covered with melted butter, a drizzle of honey or a gooey slice of melted Brie. The warmth of a 400° oven easily chases the chill of an October Sunday away, while I doze through the NFL game, one synapsis just awake enough to keep track of the time passing and bringing me ever closer to those dark brown loaves. And the smell. God really knew what He was doing when He created bread, didn’t He? Somebody say ‘Amen’.

Whole Wheat Multi Grain Bread
From The Essential Eating Well Cookbook

1-3/4 c. whole wheat flour
3/4 c. bread flour
3/4 c. 7-Grain cereal (Bob’s Red Mill makes a delicious one)
2 T. milk powder
1 pkg. active dry yeast (2-1/4 tsp.)
1-1/4 t. salt
1-1/3 c. water
2 T. molasses (I did not have any, subbed in unsw.applesauce and loved the result)
1- 1/2 T. canola oil

Fit your Kitchenaid mixer with the dough hook. Spray a medium bowl with cooking spray and set aside.

Combine flours, cereal, milk powder, yeast and salt in the mixer bowl and blend on low speed for about a minute. Whisk together the water, molasses and oil until combined, and then with the mixer running on low, slowly pour the liquids into the flour mixture. When fully combined, stop the mixer and allow the dough to rest in the bowl for 30 minutes.

Turn the mixer on to low again, and mix the dough for about a minute stirring in about 2 more tablespoons of wheat flour. The dough will not form a ball and will be slightly sticky. Scrape the dough into the prepared bowl and cover the top with plastic. Allow to rise until doubled in size- 1 to 1-1/2 hours.

Coat a standard loaf pan with cooking spray. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and sprinkle a little more flour over the top. Carefully collect the dough together to form a loaf and place in pan. Cover with plastic and let rise until doubled in size, 50 minutes to an hour.

Bake at 400° for 35-40 minutes, until top of loaf is golden brown and there is a hollow sound when you tap on the top. Allow to cool in pan, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely before slicing.

KATE’S NOTES:
Bob’s Red Mill makes a 5-Grain, 7-Grain and 10-Grain cereal mix. Although the recipe calls for the 7-Grain, I used the 10-Grain as it was what I had on hand. Either of the three varieties would work just fine in the proper quantity. I was a little skeptical about the amount of time the dough mixed after the rest period. It seems pretty short and does not seem to develop the gluten much like other methods. However, the result of the loaf tasted really good, with a dense and coarse multi-grain crumb and a nice texture. I might experiment with the amount of mixing time to see what the end result might be. I doubled the recipe and both loaves were a bit short but I might have baked them sooner than they should have though.

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Seemingly a whole lifetime ago, I worked for five years in the office of a wholesale bakery and I have to say,  the smell of yeast has been and still is one of my most favorite smells of all. I loved walking through the production area in the early afternoons as the baking staff began their daily preparations; I loved standing by the enormous mixing bowls as hundreds of pounds of bread dough, pungent with the scent of yeast and flour, spun and smacked around inside. It was a happy day indeed when my boss would inform me that they would be making test batches that day because I knew he would be bringing me endless samples of warm bread to critique. And the best perk was free bread for the taking- crispy baguettes that snapped when you broke them, showering golden shards of crust everywhere, tangy sourdoughs, pillowy stirato loaves, rustic wheat breads and a mouth-watering marble rye that was my favorite sandwich loaf. The best lunch I could indulge myself in was a sliced baguette spread with a little of their scratch aioli and a few slices of salty ham. I was in carb heaven. I still miss the amazing bread, and it’s been a very long time since I last walked through those doors. I can buy the loaves in the grocers, and the flavor is still good, but I miss the experience of picking up a loaf off the rack that was only hours out of the oven, ethereal in it’s taste.

breadsI still love really good bread and for a long time I routinely spun loads of flour, water and yeast in my bread machine, so much so that I managed to effectively kill the thing outright, but I’m happy to have gotten my money’s worth. Since then, which was quite a while ago, I haven’t made a lot of bread from scratch despite having the time and the desire for it. I experimented with this amazing no-knead bread and loved the rich dense crumb and tangy flavor, but I am plagued with a ‘Must Have It Now’ mentality sometimes, and this just doesn’t work well with the patience and time required for a good loaf of scratch bread. There are some high quality artisan bakeries in the Twin Cities, including my old employ, and for a short trip in the car I can pick up a few loaves of bread to indulge myself in, but what I really need to do instead is lose the impatience inside of me and buckle down to make myself a good loaf on a regular basis.

On a recent trip through the library, I came across the publication of a local group called The Saint Paul Bread Club. I barely hesitated before slipping the slim book off the shelf. It’s basic and fundamental, nothing glossy or fancy, just page after page of bread recipes from a local group of passionate bread bakers, along with plenty of insider tips and hints to making better breads at home. After a few perusals and some thought to the first loaf to try, I rolled out of bed on a particularly gloomy morning after a simply pathetic night’s sleep and all I could think about was the smell of yeast, a warm glowing oven and the taste of a fresh warm loaf. The weather promised everything from rain to an eventual accumulation of upwards of 6″ of snow. It instilled in me both a bluesy melancholy, and a fierce need for the routine of baking, the rhythmic kneading and the promise of carbohydrates.

honey-whole-grain-bread-001

This loaf contained bulgur and millet and I had both on hand. Bulgur  is cracked and parboiled wheat and really simple to use- it requires little else but a soak in hot water. Millet is a hulled, wheat-free cereal grain- the outer husk is removed leaving tiny yellow balls. Millet requires cooking, but this recipe didn’t make any mention of pre-cooking the grain so I didn’t, and it plagued me on whether or not this would result in a tooth-cracking slice. It didn’t.

honey-whole-grain-bread-005

This recipe started with a sponge- honey, warm water and yeast were whisked together until foamy, then stirred with whole wheat flour, bulgur, oil and salt and allowed to sit until all puffy and fragrant. I mixed in the bread flour and millet, and pretty soon was faced with a coarse hairy blob of dough, and tiny grains of millet popping all over the kitchen. It seemed like hours before I stopped feeling their little hard knobs under my feet, even with obsessive sweeping. But the magic of kneading kicks in- and magic it is- taking a rough and craggy blob and transforming it into something smooth, elastic and uniform, dotted with the tiny yellow points of millet and smelling alive and warm.

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The rest is your basic bread instructions; rise until doubled, punch down and allow another rise (which I skipped for time purposes) shape the loaves and place in a pan, rise to double again and then bake. I won’t bore you with instructions.

And somewhere along the way, amidst all this tactile interaction and flour/yeast transformation, a tiny sliver of light knifed through me, lifting the melancholy, driving it far away. Was it the nap I took during the first rise? Maybe. It likely was something else altogether; the bread making lifted my spirits, even with the late winter storm blowing hard outside and the yeast saturated me with it’s own little charm. It could have been the workout I gave my arms and shoulders as I kneaded, driving a much appreciated blast of endorphins into me, or it could have been the fact that a hands-on loaf of bread is a thing of beauty. It transports you back to a simpler time, before cellophane loaves were the norm, where you watch a few pantry staples work a magic trick right before your very eyes. It’s nearly impossible to bury yourself in the blues with that happening in front of you.

And the taste….well, that’s enough right there to lift your spirits. This loaf was moist, a nice dense crust and crunchy little bites of millet throughout. It made awesome toast too- to me, the best indicator of a good bread. I’m thinking that I need to buy this little bread book.

(recipe after the jump)

(more…)

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And you thought I was done talking about food holidays!!

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December is National Fruitcake and National Eggnog Month.  Blech. Just the word ‘fruitcake’ conjures up images of crazy people, and the real deal is not at all appetizing although I would like to taste one, for real, that is fresh and worthy of praise instead of ridicule. The poor Fruitcake just never gets any respect- the lil’ Rodney Dangerfield of food.

Today is National Date Nut Bread Day. I’m a big fan of dates and have been since childhood. My mom made the standard Date Bars- you know, with the oat topping?- and I loved them dearly. Sadly, her recipe isn’t in my treasured recipe box of hers, and despite several attempts with recipes found on-line, I haven’t been able to duplicate her offering and gave up, full of sad face and regret, resigned to a date-less existence.

But the holiday intrigued me because this is bread, and it has dates and it shouldn’t be too hard to come up with an option that doesn’t make my teeth hurt from being too sweet. Dates are notoriously sweet and contain the highest concentration of sugar in any dried fruit. They are also higly caloric, but they are loaded with potassium and fiber and can be an enjoyable treat, in moderation. One thing they don’t need at all is any extra sugar, so in finding a recipe that relied on only the dates for sweetness was a bonus in my mind.

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I’m not one to expend too much effort searching online recipe databases for the perfect recipe. I’m not patient enough for that. If I’m looking through Recipezaar, AllRecipes, Epicurious or any other site, I want to find something quickly and not spend endless time perusing through countless offerings, reading dozens of reviews and gazing at pictures. I trust reviews the most and they need to be unanimously positive. Coming across this bread recipe on the AllRecipes site, the first thing I noticed was that it had no added sugar, the next thing I read were the enthusiastic reviews that claimed this moist tender bread would surely be a hit. I didn’t need any more than that.

The best part was, they were right. Even slightly overcooked- which seems to be a recurring theme in my kitchen lately- the bread held a nice moist feel and was chock full of date flavor without making my eyes water from the sweetness. Without the sugar, the true flavor of the fruit shone through, and really, isn’t that why we eat something in the first place? This will be a repeat in my kitchen, with proper oven timing, whether it’s a food holiday or not.


Moist Date Nut Bread
from AllRecipes

  • 2 1/2 cups chopped dates
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1 1/2 cups boiling water
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees F). Grease and flour a 9×5 inch loaf pan.
  2. In a medium bowl, combine the dates and butter. Pour boiling water over them, and let stand until cool.
  3. When the dates have cooled, stir the mixture to break up any clumps. Mix in the brown sugar and egg until well blended. Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt; stir into the date mixture until just blended. Pour into the prepared pan.
  4. Bake for 50 minutes in the preheated oven, or until a wooden pick inserted into the center comes out clean.

KATE’S NOTES:
I followed this to the letter except for the walnuts. I don’t do walnuts, not after a childhood of dealing with walnuts in every home baked goodie I ate. I loved my mother’s baking, just not her love for walnuts. Instead, I finely chopped almonds and sprinkled them over the top of the loaf before baking. I think pecans would be nice too.

Be sure to thoroughly allow the dates and butter to cool and absorb the liquid. It will become a thick fragrant paste and really, is quite delicious all on it’s own but keep your spoon out of it and use it in the bread! A little fresh grated nutmeg would probably add a nice flavor touch to this, but the date flavor all on it’s own is really delicious.

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Aaaaaaand I’m back! Miss me?

I did treat you to a few posts, shelved prior to ‘the week without tastebuds’ in my house so I wasn’t superbly absent. Interestingly enough, while I recuperated, my blog was inundated with hits, mostly searching for pictures of funny cats. I suppose I’m not so remiss in that area, but this is a food blog!

So it’s December, and the month of Christmas, which means it’s time to bake cookies. Baking for me is highly nostalgic; my mother was a champion baker, if only just for our family. She prided herself on never having store-bought cookies, cakes or anything like that in our home, she baked, and she baked really darn well. If she had one prominent love language to show us, it was in her Baking. She only had to call out “Who wants to help me make cookies?” and I would often drop everything I was doing and race to the kitchen. It was our time to bond, hang out and laugh, not to mention, nibble on warm cookies. Each recipe I have of hers brings me waves of nostalgia whenever I make them- Gingersnaps, Peanut Butter Fingers, Coffee Toffee Bars, Three Layer Bars; they all spelled L-O-V-E in our house. I love to bake but don’t have the benefit of five kids to take away the tempting treats, so I don’t do it too often unless it’s for a crowd, or a special occasion.

Onto the cookies!!!

One of Griffin’s favorites is what our family, and likely plenty of others, always calls ‘Church Window Cookies’. It’s a simple chocolate and colored mini-marshmallow cookie, that when cut (and if you squint and engage enough imagination), can resemble stained glass.

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RECIPES:

Church Window Cookies:

Melt one stick of butter and one bag of chocolate chips of your choice, stir gently until smooth, then cool. Pour over one bag of colored mini marshmallows, stir to combine. Either roll into logs, or scoop into plastic drink cups, chill until firm, then slice.

Date-Nut Pinwheels

8 ounce package dates
1 cup hot water
1 cup very finely chopped pecans
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups firmly packed brown sugar
1 cup butter
2 eggs
3-1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon soda
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon salt

Combine dates, sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla, and hot water in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat until thickened – about 6 – 8 minutes. Stir constantly. Remove from heat and stir in pecans. Set date mixture aside to cool. Combine brown sugar and butter. Cream until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs. Combine flour, soda, cream of tartar, salt and cinnamon. Stir into creamed mixture. Add 1 teaspoon vanilla and mix well. Divide dough into thirds. Roll each portion into a 12″ square on waxed paper. Spread with 1/3 of date mixture. Lifting up edge of waxed paper, gently peel off dough and roll jelly roll fashion. Wrap rolls in waxed paper and refrigerate overnight. Cut dough into 1/4″ slices and place two inches apart on greased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 8 – 10 minutes. Cool cookies on wire rack.

Lemon Cream Cheese Cookies

3/4 cup butter, room temperature
1 (3 ounces) package cream cheese, softened
1 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla flavoring
1 Tablespoon lemon zest
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 cups cake flour
1 cup chopped pecans (optional)

Cream together butter and cream cheese until light and fluffy. Gradually add sugar and beat hard. Stir in vanilla, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Add flour, mixing well. Stir in nuts. Push small amount from spoon onto a greased baking sheet. Bake at 300 degrees for 20-25 minutes or until delicate brown. While hot, roll in powdered sugar.

RECIPE NOTES:

On the Date-Nut Pinwheels, I doubled the filling mixture, using half dates and half dried sweet cherries. This mixture took a lot longer than 6-8 minutes to thicken, likely from the extra bulk. Cook until it resembles a thick paste, almost jam-like, and allow it too cool completely. I also subbed in some wheat flour, and used a little extra cinnamon. The dough was tacky, I treated it somewhat like pie dough, tossing a little flour over it to keep the rolling pin from sticking. Chill the logs thoroughly and keep them chilled while baking. Any extra filling is wonderful spread on toast.

In our version of the Window cookies, we used Ghiradhelli dark chocolate pieces. If you’re going to eat chocolate, why not make it dark?? Don’t sub the fake stuff for butter; trust me, it tastes so much better to use the real thing. We keep these chilled for a better texture. Cool down the chocolate mix before pouring over the marshmallows or they will melt. Using plastic drink cups is super easy; make sure to press the mixture well into the cup for the best effect. When chilled, cut a slit in the side of the cup and break it apart, pushing the solids onto a cutting board. Use a serrated knife and just a little pressure to slice. *Hint* The bottom slice from the cup is the best part!

For the Cheesecake cookies, I added in about 3/4 of a teaspoon of pure lemon extract to give the cookies more pizazz. It’s been my experience with using just zest and juice that it needs a little added something to really make that lemon flavor shine. Instead of adding in the nuts to the batter, I dipped the cookies into the nuts prior to baking, then finished them with a glaze made of lemon juice and powdered sugar.

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Coconut Tempters

2 c. sugar
½ c. cocoa
½ c. milk
½ c. butter
½ c. peanut butter
1 t. vanilla
3 c. quick cooking oatmeal
½ c. coconut (optional, but yummy)

Place sugar, cocoa, milk and butter in a medium saucepan and cook to boiling, stirring constantly. Boil 1 minute. Add peanut butter and vanilla, stir until dissolved. Pour over oatmeal and coconut and mix thoroughly, then beat until mixture begins to thicken. Drop by teaspoonful onto parchment paper or silpat and let cool.
A decadent and delicious recipe for Three Layer Bars (also called Nainamo Bars in other parts of the country/world) can be found here on my site . My mother made these bars every Christmas and they are a wonderful treat. I make them at Christmas time for the family still. We all just love them. Another treat from my childhood is Coffee Toffee Bars. I am not sure why they have ‘Toffee’ in the title, as there is nothing even remotely like toffee in them. They are a delightful chocolate/almond/mocha flavored shortbread with a thin and delicate almond glaze over the top. My mom had a specific jelly roll pan that she made them in, and we never referred to it any other way than “the Coffee Toffee bar pan”. It was a heavy steel pan, worn and well used with ornate curved handles. I wish with everything that I am that I still had that pan.

Coffee Toffee Bars

2 ¼ c. sifted flour
½ t. baking powder
¼ t. salt
1 c. butter
1 c. firmly packed brown sugar
1 t. almond extract
1 T. instant coffee
1 pkg. chocolate chips

Mix flour, baking soda and salt. Cream butter. Add brown sugar and cream well. Blend in almond extract and instant coffee. Add dry ingredients, then chocolate chips. Press into cake pan and bake 20 minutes at 350 degree.

Almond Glaze (double all ingredients)

Combine 1 T soft butter, ¾ c. powdered sugar, 1/8 t. almond extract. Add 1 T. milk until frosting is of spreading consistency. Frost bars while still warm.

Here’s a refrigerator dough cookie, delicately flavored and just fabulous. They would be delicious using real lemon juice instead of extract, and possibly a little lemon zest as well.

Lemon Crisps

½ c. butter
½ c. shortening
1 ½ c. sugar
2 eggs
1 ½ t. lemon extract
3 c. sifted flour
3 t. baking powder
½ t. salt

Cream butter, shortening and sugar until light and fluffy, beat in each egg, then flavoring. Stir in sifted dry ingredients. Form dough into rolls, 2 “ in diameter, wrap in wax paper then chill overnight. Using a sharp knife, slice dough into thin wafers and bake approximately 8 minutes at 375 degrees. Keep dough chilled between baking.
Some call them Molasses Cookies, others call them Gingersnaps. We used the latter, and this recipe is wonderful. It was one of my Mom’s favorites. We always made a double batch. Gingersnaps: Combine 3/4 c. shortening, 1 c. brown sugar, firmly packed and 1 egg until fluffy. Add ¼ c molasses and beat well. Mix together 2 c. sifted flour, ¼ t. salt, 2 t. baking soda, 1 t. each ginger and cinnamon and ½ t. cloves. Add to wet ingredients and mix well. Chill dough for several hours or overnight. Shape dough into 1” balls and roll in granulated sugar. Place on greased cookie sheets and bake 12-15 minutes at 350° F.

One more…..another of our favorites growing up. I could eat a whole pan of these.

Peanut Butter Fingers (double all ingredients for a 9×13 pan): Cream together: ½ c butter, ½ c sugar, ½ c brown sugar, firmly packed. Blend in: 1 unbeaten egg, 1/3 c. peanut butter, ½ t. baking soda , ¼ t. salt. Stir in: 1 c. flour, 1 c. quick cooking oatmeal. Spread mix in 8″ cake pan and bake 20-25 minutes at 350° F. Sprinkle with chocolate chips when hot and spread evenly when melted.

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