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Posts Tagged ‘easy’

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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I can safely say that gingerbread, or anything molasses-flavored, is going to go over well in my house. Some people have their chocolate, their Proustian moment that renders them poetic. Apparently ours is gingerbread. And it turns us into stealthy nibblers.

I made a small pan of Martha Stewarts’s Chocolate Gingerbread, primarily as an olfactory impetus in ridding the house of the scent of bacon that I had cooked that morning. I don’t think the pan had even fully cooled before I slipped a knife through it and created a set of imperfect squares for us to sample. It was amazing; rich and moist with the tiniest hint of chocolate among the deep taste of molasses. Griffin and I nodded in agreement over this newfound treat. I pulled plastic wrap over the top and set it on the counter.

And then, a day later, there were considerable gaps in the pan. The next day, even more was gone. Something was amiss, because I’d only had one piece.

I can’t say I fault anyone for freely indulging in this treat. What I love about gingerbread is the lack of cloying sweetness that comes with most desserts. Gingerbread has enough going for it to give it dessert-like status, but it’s also like a teabread, and can be treated like a snack, or even a bit of your breakfast too. It partners equally with a scoop of good vanilla ice cream, a mound of yogurt or even topped with fresh whipped cream.

Or even just eaten out of hand, with a napkin to catch the crumbs.

This recipe, from Everyday Food, yields a moist and superbly tender cake, owing to the use of sour cream in the base. It’s a simple quick bread style recipe that takes minimal effort, but can taste fancy enough for a party, that is, if you can keep it around long enough.

Martha Stewart’s Chocolate Gingerbread Cake
from Everyday Food

  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted, plus more for pan
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, plus more for pan
  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled)
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon pumpkin-pie spice
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 cup packed dark-brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup unsulfured molasses
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/4 cup sour cream
  • 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • confectioners’ sugar, for dusting (optional)
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8-inch square baking pan. Line bottom with a strip of parchment paper, leaving an overhang on two sides; butter paper. Dust paper and sides of pan with cocoa; set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk together cocoa, flour, ginger, pumpkin-pie spice, and baking soda; set aside.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together butter, brown sugar, molasses, egg, and sour cream until smooth. Add flour mixture; stir just until moistened (do not overmix). Stir in chocolate chips. Transfer batter to prepared pan; smooth top.
  3. Bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack; let cool completely. Using paper overhang, lift gingerbread from pan. Transfer to a cutting board, and cut into 16 squares. Before serving, dust bars with confectioners sugar, if desired. (To store, keep in an airtight container at room temperature, up to 3 days.)

KATE’S NOTES:
I skipped the parchment step, instead just using cooking spray on my 8×8 pan. I did not add the chocolate chips, and probably would keep them out of future uses of this recipe. I just don’t think they’re necessary. The molasses taste was rich, the chocolate not so noticeable. I think that the addition of some extra cocoa would make it more balanced- and in future use I may reduce the molasses to 3 T. and increase the cocoa to 1/3 c. to see if it makes a difference. I also thought about the addition of 1 oz. melted bittersweet chocolate to increase that aspect a bit, and may try that. I don’t keep pumpkin pie spice on hand. I used a teaspoon of cinnamon, and 1/4 teaspoon each of nutmeg and allspice.

If you’re interested in other gingerbread recipes, you can find more gingerbread love with just a click.

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When making something like Pumpkin Pancakes, after a long day in which I awoke at 5:15am and couldn’t get back to sleep, and a rough but magical, much needed visit to the chiropractor that left me limp and relieved, trying to explain these pancakes to a teenager with a selective hearing problem might result in necessary culinary shorthand. Like saying ‘Pumpcakes’. It felt a little like baby talk, but it made The Teen smile and giggle just a little and when you’re the mother of a big boy on the verge of 16, making him giggle, regardless of how it’s extracted, is pretty heart-warming. Especially when he sort of coos “Aww. That’s kinda cute.” Shhh. You didn’t hear that from me, ok?

And also, on the tail end of a two-day snowfall that blanketed us with about 10 more inches that had to be put somewhere- like on top of and over the 4-foot plus piles around our slowly disappearing house- these Pumpcakes were awfully darn heart-warming all on their own.

Anyone want to take bets on whether this pile will still exist in July?

Pumpkin pancakes have never crossed our griddle, although I’ve seen them all over the ‘net; perfect dark rusty rounds of batter, thick and substantial. I always thought they looked pretty good. I love pumpkin bread, and muffins and scones and just about any baked good made better with the flesh of a gourd, but pancakes? It was time for me to explore. Plus, I was thoroughly out of inspiration for anything else and the little hand on the clock was rapidly approaching the 5:00 hour. I punted, did a quick Google and came up with this recipe.  Now, does it say something that this was the only recipe out of the first dozen or so that Google spit out to me that did NOT contain a base of Bisquick? Gah. I hope not. Scratch pancakes are pretty basic, requiring little else but flour, leavening, a bit of sugar and salt, liquid and egg. I had this recipe completed and sitting on the counter in about 5 minutes. It required only for me to climb on a chair to dig the container of baking soda out from where it had been pushed to the back of a top shelf.


The compote was total cowboy cooking. There was a leftover apple that I didn’t have room for after lunch and I quickly chopped it up, sauteing it in a small pat of butter before adding chopped pecans, a handful of currants and some leftover maple syrup blended with butter that we’d drizzled over roasted squash earlier in the week. It simmered while the pumpcakes cooked and in a few twists of a spatual, a hearty and aromatic dinner was on our plates. We could sit down with a sigh, the opalescent glow of fresh snow all around us and imbibe in these richly scented cakes with a sweet and crunchy topping and be warmed from both the food and the company. I do love days like that.


Now here’s my take on these Pumpcakes. They were good. No, scratch that; they were great. Really flavorful and hearty and thick. Lumberjack fare, if you know what I mean. Maybe it was the recipe but they took a rather long time to cook, and even when some of them were so robustly bronzed that I thought they’d be tough as shoe leather, they still seemed to me to be a little moist inside. Griffin even brought his to me and said “Are these done?” poking a fork suspiciously at the interior. I was expecting, like any pancake, that it would be fluffy, but given the added pumpkin, it would stand to reason that they’d be more dense. They tasted fine. Just plan on allowing them extra time on the griddle. The batter that resulted from this recipe was very thick. That should have been a clue to me. After a long day and with the added relief from my aches and pains, I can’t always sufficiently tie two strands of obvious together. On a side note, for some added nutrition I used WW flour in place of AP in the recipe, added 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed and a 1/2 cup of cornmeal, and subbed unsweetened applesauce for the oil.

And that compote? Now that was a winner. I wish I had made more to have on hand for oatmeal, or to spread on toasted bread. It was stellar, a perfect winter treat and way open to personal experimentation.

Apple, Pecan and Currant Compote
by Kate

1 medium tart apple, washed, cored and diced fine (I used one called ‘Jazz’- it was tart, but subtly sweet too)
1 c. chopped pecans
1/3 c. currants
1 T. butter
1/2 c. pure maple syrup

In a skillet over medium heat, melt the butter and add the apple. Saute for a few minutes until the apple is soft, then stir in the pecans and cook, stirring regularly, until the nuts are slightly toasted and fragrant. Pour in the maple syrup and reduce the heat to low. Cook, stirring occasionally until the maple syrup has been absorbed. Stir in the currants and heat through. Serve warm over pancakes or waffles. Will keep refrigerated for several days. If you can resist. Reheat in the microwave if desired. This tastes amazing if sprinkled with a light dusting of sea salt prior to serving. Something about that salty sweet crunch…..

I love the idea of pears, almonds and figs for another version of this.

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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’m not sure whether I feel sadness or relief that Christmas is over.


Some years, it’s a combination of both.

This year it seems to be more relief, as I struggled to bring the holiday forefront in my life. I am more eager for this coming New Year’s Day. I’ll be happy to throw out the last calendar page of 2009, thinking this month I might rip it into tiny pieces before fluttering them into the recycle bin, watching the last of a year to forget slip through my fingers. Maybe the metaphorical shredding will empty my heart of the effects of too many trials and ongoing stress. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for that.

Our Christmas celebrations were nice, as they always are. There was plenty of good food and family time. There was lots and lots of snow, Minnesota-style. We even had some rain, which led, of course to ice and then on top of that, more snow. I love how when I look out over a fresh snowfall, I feel giddy again like I did as a kid. It’s nice to feel that sense of wonder still inside me.


The more adventurous of our two cats had enough curiosity to venture onto the front steps, but that was about it. The sound of the snowblowers was a bit too much for him.


The Christmas celebrations had plenty of high points; my son, our little carnivore, got his fill of good meat, a gift in and of itself. We caught up on some much needed sleep and my sister-in-law gave me a beautiful, warm hand-knitted shawl that I am completely uninterested in removing from my shoulders any time soon. We’ll have a new niece or nephew any day now and the anticipation is very high. There is much to be joyful about, and this is no lie. Even in my pensive state I am well aware of the multitude of blessings that surround us.  And I am here now, in the last few days of one year, a year I can’t imagine ever wanting to re-visit again, eagerly full of hope, mystery and the potential of something far better starting in the new year on Friday. I’ve always been in wonder over the fact that you can lay down to sleep on December 31st, and wake up to a whole new stretch of months ahead, a new numbered calendar year, a lineup of days, blank and exciting to make into what you wish. I remember being young, ushering in a brand new year, and unaware that life had the potential to keep kicking you after you’ve tripped and fallen flat. I always thought it should look different, that switch from one year to the next; I expected the new year to dawn bright and shiny, unblemished and superbly fresh, like that moment you step out of the bath. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have the ability to place your burdens on the ground, the stroke of midnight imminent, and step over some magical threshold into 2010, closing the door and leaving them behind? Spiritually this is full of possibility. I hope to be able to do just that, the best I can this coming Thursday evening. I think about changes I wish to see in the coming year. I think about stress relief, smiling more, hoping more, praying more. I think about rising up to a better level of personal contentment, stretching my culinary wings, digging deeper, loving more fully, reaching out farther, accepting life more gracefully with less judgment. What’s the next step? The right step? Maybe my best option is simply to keep myself open to immense possibility.

And let’s talk about immense possibility, with regards to this Cornbread Stuffed Poblano Pepper.


I came across this idea while blog surfing one day and had yet another ‘Eureka!’ moment. If I recall correctly, we ate it for dinner that night and I was swirling with the potential of greatness to be found in this simple option. Like the New Year ahead, it’s bright with new promise and endless outcomes. I think about chunks of pork, mixed with green chile sauce and topped with cornbread mix nestled into a dark green pepper, baked to perfection and steaming hot, topped with avocado and a spot of sour cream. I think about chili beans too. Maybe spicy chicken pieces. I like thinking in terms of potential, for both my life in the 12 months coming rapidly my way, and for my food. It makes future endeavors seem much more delicious.

For your Cornbread Stuffed Poblano Peppers:

Buy as many poblano peppers as there are people to serve. Look for firm, unblemished peppers with as much roundness as possible, not the easiest option in a poblano. Heat the oven to 375° and cover a baking sheet with foil. Spray the foil with cooking spray.  Slice the peppers the long way and trim out the core and seeds. Prepare your favorite cornbread recipe, reducing the liquid up to 1/3. A more dense cornbread won’t spill out of the peppers as it bakes. Jazz up the cornbread by adding a chopped jalapeno, or a 4-oz can of diced green chilies, some sharp cheddar cheese, a spoonful of minced chipotle peppers. Be creative with the additions. Spoon some of the cornbread mix into each pepper half, just enough to barely touch the top. Sprinkle extra cheese over the top. Any remaining cornbread can be baked as muffins, or any option you wish. Bake the peppers until the cornbread is cooked, about 18-20 minutes. Serve immediately.

A savory meat or bean layer underneath the cornbread strikes me as a delicious option for these, turning a healthy side dish into a delightful main course meal. Oh, the possibilities……..

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It came on as ferociously as promised and effectively shut down a large portion of the state. What a great metaphor, if you choose to see it that way. The Christmas crazies have taken hold and yet, no matter what your plan, be it a holiday party, a shopping trip, weekly youth group meetings or even dinner out, Mother Nature said ‘Not a chance, bud’ and forced us to stay in, stay warm and just sit, quiet and calmly, during what amounts to some of the nuttiest days of the year. The snow swirled around us, the wind howled and we took a small step away from the frantic pre-holiday race. Honestly, should we be forced to do this every year, I wouldn’t be one to complain.

After a few days of relative inactivity, I bundled myself up to take a chilly hike, ever aware of the need to move, to get the blood flowing and to whittle away not only the pesky excess on the body, but the loud and clamoring voices in my head that I often can’t shut off. I also wanted to see the winter landscape, to find the moments of clarity that come from a fresh snowfall when the hushed silence around us is marked only by the squeak of your boots. I needed the cold, and the cardio output. It helped immensely.

Christmas is having a hard time reaching me this year. Not particularly sure why, but given that the last 12 months have been challenging, it would suffice to say that getting festive may be the last thing on my mind. But a part of me wants to drench myself in the spirit, hauling out the decorations in an attempt to impress my mind with the full blown effects of the holiday. There is still plenty to be happy and excited about this season. We are in high anticipation of a new member imminently joining the already large clan on Mike’s side. This Christmas will be more beautiful when sharing it with someone so brand new and perfect, a simple reminder of the true reason we celebrate Christmas in the first place. Fresh promise. New hope. I should be eagerly awaiting the end of December, the turn of a new calendar page, a fresh start to another 12 month saga. I should, really. And I am. But every year is the same; I fight the despicable commercialism of Christmas, the vapid holiday music that is everywhere, and the rush, rush, rush of everyone thinking that somehow there is perfection wrapped in a package, tied up in a bow. One year when I was in college, my cousin took a trip to Europe over Christmas. I remember thinking she was crazy to go away that time of year, but now, looking back, I almost wish I could do just that. Part of me wants to just jump from here to the 31st.

My kitchen repertoire during this quick cold snap turned towards the warm and comfort angle- thick soups, pastas, a delicious meatloaf. It’s a return to the familiar, like the chill wind outside. I don’t complain about cold. It’s inevitable here in Minnesota. Dress warm, keep moving. You’ll be fine. Filling tummies with comfort and warmth is just another step in the process.

This golden and fragrant Spiced Quinoa made it’s way to our table on a dragging Friday, the end of another long week. With the warming spices of cumin and ginger- easily my favorite duo in the kitchen-  the quinoa was rich in flavor, soothing to look at and warm in the belly. It easily took us from busy day to quiet evening, where all I wanted was my couch, my PJ’s and a good movie to engage my mind. It smelled fabulous. And for those frantic days ahead, this could be the easiest and least demading thing you put your energy towards. I spent more time measuring out the spices than doing anything else.

Spiced Quinoa
from the Taste for Life test kitchens

2 T. extra-virgin olive oil
1 t. each ground ginger, cumin, coriander and turmeric
1 c. quinoa, rinsed and drained
2 c. boiling water
Fresh cilantro or mint, if desired

In a medium saucepan, warm the oil and brown the spices for several minutes, stirring frequently. Add the quinoa and stir to coat with the spices. Pour in the boiling water, make sure it’s simmering and then reduce the heat to low. Cover the pot and allow to simmer, undisturbed, until the water is fully absorbed and little holes appear on the top of the quinoa. Gently pull back the grain to check for any remaining liquid but do not stir. When all the liquid is absorbed, turn off the heat and allow the pan to sit, covered, for about 10 minutes. Fluff grain with a fork before serving, and top with fresh cilantro or mint if desired. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

KATE’S NOTES:
It’s imperative NOT to stir quinoa when it is cooking. Like rice, it will get mushy if disturbed in the cooking process. One cup of the grain cooks in about 15 minutes or so at a gentle simmer. Quinoa is a perfect alternative to a rice side dish. We topped this option with chopped pepitas (pumpkin seeds). Soy nuts are also good with it, as are chopped almonds or cashews.

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Beyond the sugar, flour and butter of a good cookie, beyond the proper pan, the parchment or silpat on top and the tried and true recipes, even beyond the cookie jar on the counter, rubbed and worn from decades of hands reaching for it, cookies have become infused as a part of me from as far back as I can remember. Thanks to my mom, for certain.

Hey Everyone! You know what time of year it is, right????

Any amount of time in my little obscure corner of the blogging world and you know that my love of baking goes deep. And long. I’ve eaten all manners of cookie; any and all types have passed these cookie-loving lips, of all shapes and sizes and styles and colors and proportions. I’ve had chocolate chip a thousand different ways and oatmeal cookies to swoon over. I’ve had double chocolate rebels and chewy chocolate bites and thumbprints of all manners and madelines that melt in my mouth. I’ve had cakey chocolate drops covered in mocha frosting that nearly made me faint. Gingersnaps both chewy and crisp, macaroons both airy and dense and cheesecake cookies scented with lemon. I’ve had exotic varieties from other lands, sugar cookies of all kinds and shapes, cookies with seeds and nuts and sprinkles and colored sugars and tiny hard candy dots, out of bags, boxes and freezer cases. With one bite I know whether you’ve used butter or not, whether it was built from a recipe or cut from a pre-made log with a brand name on it. I know my cookies. And I think the one item missing from my life, my kitchen and eventually, from my son’s memory is a cookie jar standing on the counter, ready for the next best cookie to fall into it’s fathomless interior. For whatever reason, we don’t have a cookie jar. I love my kitchen, the room where magic occurs and genuine smiles are formed, but my counter does not hold that memorable item.

I’m imbued with the scent of baking cookies, brought on by a lifetime of saturating myself in the process of making them, the rhythmic scooping, the whir of a mixer, the flour covered countertops that result in a hot tray of tiny fragrant orbs that’s sole purpose is to coat and soothe an otherwise hectic life down to a manageable roar. I recall days as a child where the call of the cookie jar would pull me forward, the familiar squawk of the metal lid being pulled off our old worn canister as I eagerly plunged my hand in to bring forth Mom’s comfort and salve. I would indulge until spent, broken and weary from the sugar high but otherwise calmer than when I entered her kitchen, bent on seeking a balm for what ills I had endured. From my cookie coma, I often wished to simply slip to the floor and lay in the sunshine, brushing the crumbs from my face. Likely I just lay my head down on the formica tabletop. If I thought of anything at all, it was when I would feel ready to eat more. My Mom knew that her cookies were our Achilles heel; she knew what each of us liked and didn’t like. She knew how she could draw us to her by simply announcing that she was baking cookies. She just knew. Through chocolate chips and chopped dates and broken nuts and some old worn cookie sheets warped with age and use, she could reach to us across any barriers we tried to put up and give us a piece of her heart. Mom was not so demonstrative with her love, but she made us cookies, and in turn, it gave me the first of many glimpses into the divine dance that occurs when one cooks for someone they love. She taught me to bake cookies and it taught me how to take care of someone’s heart. I make cookies for my family, but what I might be trying to do, at least in spirit, is to awaken in me the memory of her, to keep her alive and beside me, along with grasping a moment where my own child runs to my side, eyes gleaming and smiling wide to take in the cooling rows of cookies. To watch him eagerly reach for a handful, to see him dip into the container that holds them, eyes shut in his delight as he takes a bite is to see pure love.

[[All right, want the mother-lode of Cookies?? More than you can imagine?]]

Christmas comes, and in my life there’s a cookie exchange each year. I always want to offer something new and different, more to stretch my own concept of a cookie than anything else. There are endless variations to be formed through a bowl and a tiny scoop, or sliced from a chilled log. All manner of ingredients can be used. What’s important is the memory and feeling behind pulling out the stand mixer, getting down the ingredients, the smell of the oven and a hot tray of blissful bites on the counter.  This year, just prior to my annual baking frenzy, my tiny cookie scoop was broken and my search for a suitable replacement was futile. These slice and bake cookies saved the day. And opened my eyes. Life’s little surprises, in the shape of a sweet morsel in your fingers, continue to roll forward.

Earl Grey Cookies (bottom left in the photo above)
(courtesy of Shannalee at Food Loves Writing, and everyone’s friend, Martha Stewart)

2 c. AP flour
2 T. finely ground Earl Grey tea (from about 4 teabags. Can be crushed in a baggie with a rolling pin, or in a blender or coffee grinder)
1/2 t. salt
1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 c. confectioners sugar
1 T. finely grated orange zest

Whisk flour, tea and salt in a large measuring cup.

Place butter, sugar and orange zest into bowl of a stand mixer. Mix on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrap the bowl occasionally to insure uniformity. Reduce speed to low and blend in flour, only until incorporated.

Divide dough in half and place each piece on parchment paper. Shape into logs and place in fridge until firm, 2-3 hours. Dough can be chilled overnight too, and frozen for up to a month.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350° and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Remove dough from refrigerator and slice into 1/4″ slices. Place on cookie sheets and bake for 13-15 minutes, or until browned at the edges. Cool on sheets on wire racks. Store in airtight containers.

KATE’S NOTES: The Stash tea I used came very finely ground already. I did not have to crush it any further. I strongly recommend a good quality tea for this cookie. Don’t fear the tea leaves in this cookie; the flavor of these is fresh and lovely, chock full of orange essence. The tea is barely noticeable. I am certifiably crazy about this cookie. As soon as the last one was gone, I wanted to make another batch and I better hurry up and do it quickly before I drink up all the delicious tea.

Vanilla Spice Cookies (top right in the photo above)
(from Shannalee again)

1/2 c. butter, softened
1 c. firmly packed brown sugar
1 egg
2 t. vanilla extract
1-3/4 c. AP flour
1/2 t. baking soda
1/4 t. salt
1/4 t. ground cinnamon
1/4 t. ground cardamom

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat butter at medium speed and gradually add sugar, beating well. Add egg and vanilla and blend. In a separate bowl, combine flour, soda, salt and spices. Add this to the butter mixture on low speed and blend only until incorporated.

Shape the dough into two rolls, about 12 inches long. Wrap in parchment or wax paper and chill until firm, 2-4 hours or overnight.

When ready to bake, heat oven to 350° and line cookie sheets with parchment. Unwrap rolls and slice into 1/4″ slices. Place on cookie sheets and bake for 10-12 minutes. Cool on wire racks and keep in airtight containers.

KATE’S NOTES: I added extra cinnamon and cardamom to these to amp up the spice flavor. They tasted like Chai tea and were just lovely.

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Pictures can be amazing, can’t they?

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I sometimes surprise myself when I am going through the photos I’ve taken of my recipes. There are, without a doubt, the ones that hastily cause you to hit the ‘Delete’ key, shuddering in horror; they’re too close or too cloudy or they just don’t allow for one to discern what’s on the plate. They’re overexposed. Ugly. But those tiny slips caught in the wink of the shutter are evened out by beauties that can convey taste, aroma, and feel with one glance. The beauties that make you go ‘Wow’ and when you place them in your post, they literally tell the story without you needing to do much else. But every food has a story. Sometimes the tale tells of a feet-first plunge headlong into love with a certain food, a single bite causing your taste-buds to explode while the endorphins engulf your brain. You’re whupped and there’s no going back. Or it may be a telling of how we find a food that quietly asserts itself into our life, a slow and deliberate culinary courtship. Maybe the first exposure isn’t mind-blowing, but it isn’t a dud either. You look forward to the next time. You know there’s more to it than this. After a few meetings, the quiver in your heart starts to build and when you spy your current food crush, it’s silly how your chest seems to collapse in relief that you’ll be together again.

This past year I crushed, big time, into total infatuation with gold beets, and their greens. It didn’t take much. By routinely visiting the organic farmer at the local markets who carried these burnished lovelies and allowing them to roast to their full potential, I became fully acquainted with their earthy solid personality. We just clicked, those beets and I. It was quality time well spent. Mike gave me an enthusiastic endorsement for sauteed beet greens and we never looked back. Beets were in the recipe box, finally. We ate them so much that it was a turgid and satiated overkill. We sighed a lot during those dinner meals. Then high summer came, the corn took hold along with eggplants so shiny and purple, followed by a parade of tomatoes and zucchini and endless grilling adventures. Beets were nearly forgotten, sad as it was. But I was sold on the roasting method, and most days couldn’t even consider turning on the oven. They simply had to wait. I realized after a while that I missed them a great deal but I knew, like any solid friendship, that we would endure through our separation.

Then I found this recipe. It was the way back to my summer love of beets and caused me to drive across town just to find a bunch, greens attached, that would do this recipe justice. The moment we connected again was like any friendship renewed after absence. No lapse of time could remove the bond and the oven, once more, shared it’s warmth with my old friends and turned them soft and supple.

I was enamored…no, scratch that… bewitched by the flavors that came from this dish. It’s simple base of whole grain farro is more than capable of standing up to the lusty flavor and texture of beets and their greens, and the beets happily share their colors with the grain to diffuse the entire dish in sunshine-y warmth. Since 2007 I’ve been experimenting with whole grains, and I found farro to be an amicable and easy friend to bring into my life, a chewy and simple grain that mimics wheatberries and a heartier barley. Never mind that it was costly. Or that only one store I knew carried an affordable brand. Of all the whole grains I’ve encountered in the past two years, this one has become a good and trusted companion, steadfast, reliable and so so good for me. We all need friends like that in our lives, in both our hearts and our pantry.

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The original recipe for this dish was in salad form, but for a November meal, a cold offering wasn’t going to cut it. Even with the warm sunshine that’s been poured upon us, the chill and darkness comes quickly with the descent of the five-o’clock hour, and something steaming, whether a bowl or a plate, more appropriately fits the season. I’ll revisit the salad option next Spring when the markets open again, and I can once more hone in on that stand, with the kind bearded farmer behind the table, the dirt still stuck to his knuckles. For this time of year, and especially with the brisk wind that came up after several days of that limpid sunshine, a pilaf was exactly what we needed.

Farro is not a quick grain to cook, and you’ll find many recipes call for it to be soaked ahead of time, but I’ve discovered that to be unnecessary. Washed and placed in boiling water, the grain cooks up deliciously chewy in 35-45 minutes, and once cooked to that al denté stage, it freezes really well with little loss of texture. And maybe it’s the way it is with you too, but I roast my beets or I simply don’t eat them. Call me picky, but I never met a beet I wanted to devour before being introduced to those that mellowed in the oven, swaddled in foil, and so perfectly tender that the skins slipped off with hardly any effort. Again, this isn’t quick. I made both the farro and the beets the day prior to creating this pilaf. It worked for all of us.

Farro Pilaf with Gold Beets
originally from The New York Times recipes for Health and Nutrition, March 27, 2009; adapted by Kate

3 large gold beets, roasted and diced, with greens washed, de-ribbed and rough chopped
2-3 c. cooked farro (can sub brown rice)
1 red pepper, seeded, cored and diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 small shallot, diced
1/2 c. crumbled feta or goat cheese
1/3 c. pecan pieces
salt and pepper to taste

{{Farro can be cooked like any other grain, with a 2:1 ratio of water to grain; 1 cup uncooked will yield the amount needed for this recipe. It should be tender to the bite, not too firm with a texture similar to barley. Be sure to rinse it thoroughly in a wire sieve prior to cooking. It can be very dusty.}}

In a deep skillet with a tight fitting lid, heat oil of choice and add red pepper, cooking for about 5 minutes. Add shallot, cooking until soft and slightly browned, maybe 5-8 more minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, 30 seconds or so. Add the chopped greens and cook, stirring continually until just barely wilted. Stir in the cooked farro and diced beets. Add about 1/3 cup of water and combine. Cover the pot, turn heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally until heated fully through. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve topped with cheese and nuts.

KATE’S NOTES:
The mellow flavors of the beets and farro simply beg for a good salty and robust cheese. Feta is perfect, goat cheese would be great but blue cheese and gorgonzola also would work nicely.

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I demand a do-over on October. Now.

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The colors are woefully gorgeous. Woeful it is, as the glorious October sunshine that tends to set them off to perfection, causing my jaw to drop in awe has been conspicuously absent, leaving the bright yellow maples and dark red oak trees to show off their glory in nothing more than rain-drenched light. Halloween is bearing down on us, and I have only fleeting images in my mind of how beautiful this month can be in Minnesota. Soon comes November, dreary November and then all the holiday junk and then……well, there’s just winter after that. I need my October to set my mind right before taking that plunge. I need piles of crisp dry leaves to kick through, another sorely missed option of this fleeting month. All the leaves have been far too soggy to play with, and certainly not desirable for your shoes.

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There is some kind of somber romantic beauty caught up in the fog, the burnished colors trying their best to break through the unbroken and gray light. And amongst that backdrop of drab this October, I have craved all manners of comfort through steaming bowls of soup. Fall is perfect for soup, with or without expected weather habits, and the kicky Chorizo and Black Bean recipe here is good for warming the tummy, and chasing away thoughts of the impending gloomy November. Remind me that I need to stock up on candles.

It’s also one of those recipes that sent me to three stores to find a good quality dry-aged chorizo to use in this recipe. Do you ever do anything like that? I kind of like darting into a store and buying one thing, for some reason. Maybe because I do it so often. I do highly recommend using that type, usually in a casing and referred to as Spanish chorizo, as opposed to the loose ground kind. While you likely will get good flavor from both, the dry-aged variety is so agreeably piquant, giving it a better flavor profile. This soup came together as an amalgam of two separate recipes, each stellar in their own right. I couldn’t choose which one to make, so I took the best of both of them and made something new and fabulous.

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Ahhhh hearty soup, warm and satisfying. This was excellent; chock full of good vegetables and beans, chunks of seared sausage and a nice dollop of sour cream to smooth out the heat. It was a land mine of flavor and texture for the eye and the belly. I served it with these yummy cornbread croutons, an outrageously good idea I had recently to use up some leftover cornbread in a different way.

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These snappy little squares are perfect with soup or stew, a delicious tasty extra with amazing toothsome bite. Take your prepared cornbread pieces and cut them into thin slices, no more than 1/4 – 1/2″ thick. Place the slices on parchment covered cookie sheets in a 325° oven and bake them until they are crisped and golden brown, turning once or twice while they bake. This could take about 45 minutes to an hour. You can cook them in a higher oven; they tend to not dry out as completely as a slower temperature but the outcome is completely subjective. Save some to crumble over a salad for a nice touch of crunch. That is, if you can keep yourself from eating them all.

Chorizo and Black Bean Soup
By Kate

This soup comes together pretty quickly, but like many, it will develop deeper flavor after a day, or even more. Adjust the amount of water for the thickness you prefer. The broth is thin, and can be thickened in any manner you prefer if you wish.

3 links Spanish chorizo, diced
1 medium onion, diced
1 red pepper, diced
1 jalapeno pepper, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 15-oz cans black beans, drained and rinsed
1 15-oz can diced tomato, fire roasted if you can find them
1 c. whole kernel corn
2 t. chipotle pepper in adobo (I run the whole peppers through the food processor to make them easier to use- chop a whole one, or more to taste. You can sub ground cayenne pepper to your liking, or dried chili of choice.)
1 t. dried oregano
1-2 t. ground cumin
Salt and pepper to taste

In your soup pot, warm oil of choice over medium heat and cook onion for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add garlic and peppers and cook for about 5 minutes more. Add the chorizo and cook until the pieces are seared and slightly browned. Stir in about a quart of water and gently scrape the fond off the pan. Add in the chipotle, tomato, corn and black beans, and more water to the consistency you prefer. Stir in the cumin and oregano and bring to a boil. Simmer for about 15 minutes. Taste and season with salt and pepper if needed.

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sweet potato

You’re not a potato, my chalky tuber. You are not even really considered a yam, by the true means of the word. But to avoid confusion and misunderstanding, you are required to carry the moniker ‘Sweet Potato’. You are golden, bright orange, pale yellow and the color of a sunrise, at once starchy and dry, as well as moist and tender. You make amazing oven fries, stunning side dishes, distinct risottos and perfect pies. You have that multiple personality trait down to a science, don’t you? Who would have thought that you were distantly related to gorgeous Morning Glory flowers? And aren’t you the healthy one? Rich in antioxidants like beta carotene and Vitamin A, complex carbs and fiber, you rank awfully high on the nutritional value chart, giving us iron and calcium to boot. Oprah is a big fan of you, lucky spud. That pretty much guarantees you’ll be the talk of the town, doesn’t it?  We can come by you quite inexpensively too, although no one can call you cheap- you are a class act, my friend. You hold up well to storage too. And thankfully, you are in great supply, for our demand for you is high and you’re readily available all year round. And if we choose to cook you, mash you and store you in the freezer, you never complain. And patiently you wait for us to bring you back out and make something wonderful from you.

Like these muffins. Thanks for offering up all your golden glory to a humble breakfast and snack food.

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You and I, though, we haven’t always been friends, and I’m sorry I ignored you all those years. Think of the fun we would have had! But no matter. We’re tight now, and that’s all that counts. I love it hanging out with you, and am so glad I introduced you to my good pal oatmeal. The two of you make quite a pair in this delicious and stout muffin, don’t you?

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I’m not at all jealous that you get along so well, in fact, I really like it when my friends find something good about each other, something they enjoy that has little to do with me. I was happy to introduce you two; it seems to be a match made in heaven, and how easy is it to get you two to hang out? Really, it takes little effort, and for my gain I get delightful and simple muffins that speak poetically of Fall, warm with cinnamon and nutmeg and the hearty toothsome bite of whole oats. Not to mention that sweet tender tang of you, my tuberous pal. I’m so glad I gave you more than a passing glance. We’re great friends for life, yes we are.

Oh by the way, have you met another good friend of mine, her name is sweet cream butter?

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Oatmeal Sweet Potato Muffins
from the Louisiana Sweet Potato Commission

1 c. old fashioned rolled oats
1 c. flour (AP or Whole Wheat, or both)
1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 t. ground nutmeg
1 T. ground flaxseed
1 c. cooked and mashed sweet potato
3/4 c. brown sugar
1/3 c. canola oil
1/4 c. skim milk
1 large egg
1 t. pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 400°. Line two standard muffin tins with paper liners.

In a medium bowl, whisk oatmeal, flour, baking powder and soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and flaxseed. In another small bowl, combine sweet potato, brown sugar, oil, egg, milk and vanilla, whisking to blend well. Pour over dry ingredients and stir to combine. Mix until just moistened. Scoop into muffin tins and back for 15-20 minutes. Check at the 15 minute mark- these bake up quickly.

KATE’S NOTES:
This recipe doubles really easily. I doubled it using both AP and whole wheat flour and the result was nice and firm. You can substitute pumpkin for the sweet potato, or use garnet yams. Be sure that the vegetable is cooked and mashed well. I used soy milk in mine and it works just fine. For one batch of these, I added 1/2 c. of flaked coconut, and I think chopped and toasted pecans would be wonderful in these.

For an extra level of flavor, you can top these with a crumb topping made from 1/4 c. oats, 1/4 c. flour, 1/4 c. brown sugar, 1-2 T. softened butter and 1 t. vanilla extract. Combine these well and sprinkle over the muffins before baking. I have not used it, but imagine it would be excellent.

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