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Archive for the ‘Sweet Stuff’ Category

No fruitcake jokes. None. This is NOT anyone’s nightmare of a fruitcake, the hefty, dense and vastly feared offering that comes around this time of year. No sir. This is what something labeled ‘Fruit Cake’ should really be.

Of course, with me, if I see anything with figs in it, I’m suddenly propelled to make it. I adore figs. Fresh from the pack and popped in my mouth, crunchy seeds and chewy pulp and I am a very happy girl. Me and figs are tight.

But there was something else about this recipe that touched a distant spot in me, something so long ago that I can’t even begin to place it. This cake, an authentic and traditional Swedish Christmas offering, spoke to me from my past, in a whisper so quiet and unassuming that I barely heard it until the required fruit mixture of raisins, dried apricots and figs was marinating in it’s liquid bath on my counter, and I popped open the lid to stir it around. Has that ever happened to you? A scent stirs in you a touch of something from the dark recess of memory that springs back to life and yet you can’t understand it’s origin. But somehow, you just know you loved it at one point when you were small and trusting, and you’ll love it all over again, as an big grown up adult. We’re built like that, you know. Aroma is so powerful, and your nose can carry you backwards like no other part of your body, leading your mind to a precious but forgotten memory. I love when it happens. That’s why I bake. For the smells.

But it’s also for a plate of this, a moist and densely loaded sliced cake that is buttery, sort of spicy and altogether flavored much like a cascade of tastes that tumble across your mouth as you nibble. The macerated fruit is chewy and tender. A slice jogs that memory and I wish I could place where it started but all I know is I’ve got it now, it’s on a page and I don’t have to be without it again. How wonderful it was to find such a taste that I never even knew I had missed. It tastes a bit like a late afternoon in winter, where the amethyst twilight shares itself with a cup of steaming tea. With lingering aromas of something glorious from the oven, and enchanting like a first snowfall.

It was even enchanting to Harmon.

But then again, we’ve known for a long time that he’s pretty much made out of sugar and spice.

Fruktkaka
From the December 2009 issue of Saveur magazine

4 oz. each dried figs, apricots and raisins- fine chop figs and apricots
1/2 c. dark rum
1 T. orange zest
1-1/2 t. lemon zest
12 T. unsalted butter, softened
1-3/4 c. AP flour
1 t. baking soda
1 c. superfine sugar
4 eggs

Combine figs, apricots, raisins and both fruit zest with rum and stir to combine. Cover and allow to sit at room temperature for up to 4 hours, and as long as overnight. Stir the mixture on occasion.

Heat oven to 350°. Grease the bottom and sides of a standard loaf pan and dust with flour. Tap out excess and set aside.

Whisk flour and baking soda in a measuring cup and set aside. Combine the sugar and butter in the bowl of a stand mixer, and blend on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 3-4 minutes. Scrape the bowl a few times to make sure it’s uniform. Add the eggs one at a time and blend thoroughly after each one. Add the fruit, then the flour mixture and blend until fully combined. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, smooth the top and bake for 40-45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the loaf comes out clean. Unmold cake after 15-20 minutes, then cool completely on a wire rack before slicing.

KATE’S NOTES:
I chose to macerate the fruit in apple cider, as opposed to the suggested rum. I’m not a huge fan of rum due to an excess of cheap drinks in college, and I found apple cider to be an appropriate and worthy substitute. Being that I somehow KNEW I was going to love this recipe, I doubled the batch, but the doubled fruit amount was excessive. I did not add it all to the cake or there would have been little ‘cake’ and way too much fruit. The extra fruit compote is perfect on oatmeal, spooned over yogurt or simply enjoyed with a spoon. Warm it up and it becomes even more sublime.

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If you saw a recipe for Nutella Swirl Pound Cake, you’d probably think like I did….

“That has to be amazing…..”

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It was amazing. In fact, amazing or fantastic or decadent or incredible might just begin to scratch the surface of expectation for something with Pound Cake and Nutella in the title. If you’ve got a better description, please share it with me, preferably over a slice of this cake and some dark coffee. I could use some help in making this disappear.

I don’t make pound cakes much at all. I mean, a cake in all it’s sponge-y glory is bad enough, the butter laden, sugar sweetened lofty treat. But a POUND cake? Equal gobs of butter, eggs and sugar that all come together to create a glorious dense concoction not only tastes amazing, but can do incredible things to your thighs. And not many of them good. And with Nutella on top of all that sugar. And butter. To have that temptation around, or get my guys used to such decadence would be evil for all of us. We have no resistance, no self control. I think I’ll stick to cookies. My feet can’t possibly handle all the cardio I would need to do to work off the calories in a cake such as this. I like my waistline.

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This cake came out of the oven, however, looking anything but fabulous. The top sunk, the crust was really crumbly and it seemed quite fragile. The bottom of the cake fell off as I tipped it out of the pan. But, it was utterly delicious, superbly rich and proof that even when it looks sad and forlorn, what it’s really all about anyway is how it dances across your tongue. It was so tantalizing in fact, once I was done photographing it’s sturdy swirled slices, I promptly wrapped the remainder of it tight and placed it in the freezer. If the threat of tooth-breakage looms, I won’t be so quick to indulge in a stolen bite or two. And my thighs will be pretty grateful for that. I’ll pull it out for Thanksgiving, maybe, or when there’s a need to share something that the comfort of chocolate and sugar, a close friend and a cup of tea can provide is the only requirement necessary.
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Nutella Swirl Pound Cake
From Food and Wine magazine, originally by Lauren Chattman, Cake Keeper Cakes

4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 t. pure vanilla extract
1-1/2 c. unbleached AP flour
3/4 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
1 c. butter, softened
1-1/4 c. sugar
1 13-oz jar Nutella spread

Heat oven to 325°. Spray a 9×5 cake pan with cooking spray. Dust with flour. Fill a bowl with hot tap water and place entire jar of Nutella in it to soften. Place the eggs and vanilla in a small bowl and whisk lightly to combine. Blend dry ingredients together in another small bowl.

In a stand mixer, blend the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes, scraping down the sides at least twice. Turn the mixer to medium-low and add the egg mixture in a steady stream, stopping to scrape down the bowl once or twice. Reduce mixer speed to low and add the flour mixture, about a half cup at a time, scraping the bowl after each addition. After the last addition, blend the full mixture together for 30 seconds on medium speed.

Scrape 1/3 of the batter into the prepared pan. Smooth with a spatula. With a clean spatula, spread half the Nutella on the batter and smooth. Add in another 1/3 of the cake batter, then the remaining Nutella. Spread the last of the cake batter on the top. With a clean butter knife, swirl the batter and Nutella together to create a marbling effect. Don’t overmix the two!

Bake the cake until it’s golden on top and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool for 15 minutes in the pan, then turn cake out onto a wire rack to cool completely. This cake tastes excellent after spending a night in the refrigerator, wrapped tight in plastic. I don’t know why. But trust me on that.

KATE’S NOTES:
I may be labeled insane, but using the entire jar of Nutella is kind of overkill. The first issue is something I saw in all the photos of this cake across the internet, and is evident in mine. The Nutella sinks. It caused the bottom of my cake to scorch slightly, and the bottom fell off when I took the cake out of the pan. I think the same marbling affect could be achieved with less Nutella, and without the end result of it sinking. I think that the Nutella would be utilized better if drizzled over the layers of cake batter, and not swirled with a knife. This is just an opinion. I probably won’t make the cake again to see if it actually would make a difference. Although I might. If I’m desperate.

However, should the bottom of your cake fall off too, do what I did: I used a large spatula to gently scrape the stuck parts out of the pan and then I replaced them on the bottom of the cake. Once wrapped up and chilled, which I can’t recommend enough, it sort of glued itself back together. And despite how high and lofty your cake will look when it comes out of the oven, for whatever reason, it will sink. All the cakes I saw on the internet had the same sunken tops. Don’t despair. It isn’t your fault. It still tastes delicious.

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The FDA is pretty darn good at sounding the alarm over foods that one shouldn’t eat, or maybe not in excess. They’re just as good at recanting that advice after a year or so, more research and maybe some hand deep in their back pocket, but do they ever go the opposite direction? Can a food item be so stuffed with good ingredients, a high health quotient and incredible good taste that it’s possibly too good for you? Would the mighty FDA ever come at us like a pack of angry Chihuahuas for bypassing the french fry in favor of whole grains and fruit?

Eh, I think not. But this muffin might come a wee bit close to inducing a good health coma, if that is indeed possible.

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Muffins are one of my favorite snack items to make. There is so much that can be done to your basic muffin that I could spend from now until next November making a different variety each week and likely never run out of options. They tend to have a split personality though; as much as everyone wants to believe that eating a muffin is healthier, most of them sold in stores or coffee shops aren’t any better for you than eating a cookie or a croissant. And they’re HUGE, usually. Much too huge, and come on….who eats only half of those monsters? Uh, huh. That’s what I thought.

These basic whole grain muffins are one of my favorite recipes to play with, and they’re loaded with healthy ingredients. With their good hearty texture, they’re wonderful for any eating need from morning coffee to a late night indulgence and they adapt to any kind of extra I can dream up to mix into the batter. I’ve made them with zucchini, chopped pears and pecans, banana, blueberries and here in this version with apples. They freeze beautifully too, as any good muffin should.

Whole Grain Muffins
by Kate

1 ½ c. buttermilk
2 large eggs
2 T. butter, melted
¼ c. oil
¼ c. real maple syrup
1-1/2 c. All-Bran cereal
½ c. packaged 7-Grain cereal (like Bob’s Red Mill; 5-Grain or 10-Grain is fine too)
3 T. whole rolled oats
1-1/2 c. AP flour (can sub Whole wheat flour for half, if desired)
2 T. ground flaxseed
¼ c. brown sugar
1 t. EACH baking powder and baking soda
¼ t. salt.

Heat oven to 375°. Line muffin tins with paper liners, or spray with cooking spray.

In a medium bowl, whisk together buttermilk, eggs, butter, oil and maple syrup. Stir in All Bran cereal, oats and the 7-Grain cereal. Let stand for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

In another bowl, whisk together the flour, brown sugar, flaxseed, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Blend in the wet ingredients and fold together until just combined. Scoop into muffins tins to 2/3 full and bake for 18-20 minutes, or until tops spring back when touched. Cool on wire rack for about 10-15 minutes, then remove muffins from pan to cool completely.

Added ingredients– 1 c. blueberries, frozen (do not thaw) or fresh; 1 c. chopped pear like a D’Anjou or Bosc; 1-2 mashed ripe bananas, 1/2 c. of any nut you prefer; 1 c. shredded zucchini; 1 medium apple, cored and chopped or shredded (or about a half cup of chunky applesauce), 1/2 c. coconut (delicious with banana and pecans)  The possibilities are endless for what you put in these!!

And yes! Pumpkin, sweet potato or even squash is an option too, but check out this recipe for a delicious muffin idea with those ingredients.

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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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Stone fruits are fickle little things. They can be at once a juicy sweet perfection, and yet also a rock hard, gritty and sour disappointment. They taunt us endlessly with their possibilities, rarely consistent and yet so tempting.

The tiny purple Italian prune plum has the means to bridge this gap between hope and despair in the mere fact that it simply begs to be cooked in order to reach full enjoyment. The flesh when raw is acceptable; it’s fairly sweet with a decent amount of juice, but given just a brief turn in a warm skillet and it becomes something sublime and intoxicating. Poach it with some deep red wine and the experience soars.

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These days I’m needing all I can get to fill the yawning gap inside me, brought about by Harmon’s cancer diagnosis. The turn to Fall is often one choked with melancholy for me; the loss of summer’s warmth and the mountains of fresh produce, the chill in the air and shutting down the flower beds. Our September has been more glorious than imaginable. We’ve been graced with warm and languid days followed by cool crisp nights that begged for open windows and a light blanket. In our semi-rural neighborhood of open fields and ponds, the geese have gathered in massive droves and flown their missions overhead by the hundreds with noisy and eye-catching appeal. The field mice are much more active, giving our intrepid hunter an endless supply of ‘gifts’ to try and bring to us. Baskets of winter squash are appearing in the Farmers Markets. There are shocks of color through the trees as the thick greens of summer give way to Autumn’s richly burnished palate. But I feel like I am in a state of flux. We just have no idea how the last course of Harmon’s life will go, and for me, I just want to be here with him soaking up what remains of our time together. I feel like Autumn will pass by my windows while I snuggle my old friend and begin to consider life without him. It’s slightly ironic, and painfully so that in this transition of seasons outside, within the walls of our life we are transitioning as well from life to death, a golden leaf withering in front of our eyes into the silence of eternal winter.

So the need for something to soothe is evident. I don’t want much these days, wishing for little effort in exchange for nutritional gain. There were delicious and knobby Oatmeal Sweet Potato Muffins that spoke of Fall, tinged with cinnamon and warmth. I found an extremely deep sense of comfort in a simple hard-boiled egg and warmed cooked potato sprinkled with a dusting of sea salt. A package of tiny gnocchi dumplings became  crispy and soothing after a sear in brown butter and topped with tender sage leaves, and in the midst of the past few days, where my tears have been so close to the surface that most anything can bring them springing to life, a few of these poached plums have been a perfect foil to fill the pit in my stomach that threatens to engulf me. I sneak them from the bowl in the fridge, where they sat silently as their original use for a delicious cake fell to the wayside while sorrow took over. After a few days, and some stealth tactics of enjoyment, I did manage to cook up a quaint and tiny little coffee cake, richly hued in these dark purple slabs, crunchy with almonds.

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This is a coffee cake unlike any coffee cake that I’ve known before. Thin, somewhat crisp, not too sweet and thoughtfully simple, is a lesson in cake’s alter ego, that which doesn’t comprise itself of towering airy layers sporting thick rolls of buttercream. It can shed that cloying nature, throw off the layer-icing-layer makeup and just be fabulous without fuss. You don’t even need rich and succulent wine soaked prune plums to make it; any ol’ plum will do, or perhaps a good firm pear or a gently caramelized apple.

Wine Poached Prune Plums
by Kate

Wash, split and pit any quantity of prune plums- I used a full container from the grocer; it probably had about 1-1/2# in it. In a deep skillet, combine 2 T. chunky fruit jam of choice (I used Thomson’s Sweet Cherry Preserves), 2 T. red wine (I used a syrah) and 2 T. of water. Heat gently to melt jam, stirring to combine everything. When warm and a few bubbles have been seen around the edges, add as many of the halved plums as you can, cut side down. Cook gently, without stirring, for about 5 minutes. Turn plums over. Cook about 2-3 more minutes and remove to a bowl. Add remaining plums and cook, adding to bowl when done. Pour any juices over the plums and gently turn to coat the fruit. Allow to sit as long as you can. The more time, the deeper the flavor. Chill in fridge.

Prune Plum Coffee Cake

3/4 c. flour
1/2 c. sugar
1/3 c. sliced almonds (I had whole; I broke them up first)
1/2 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
6 T. butter
1 egg + 1 egg yolk
1 t. pure vanilla extract

Heat oven to 350°. Spray a 9-inch springform pan with cooking spray.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the sugar and almonds and process until almonds are ground. Add flour, baking soda and salt and pulse twice to combine. Add butter and pulse until mixture resembles coarse sand. Add in egg and yolk and extract and pulse until combined. Spread batter in pan and top with poached plums, pressing them into the batter. Bake for 40-50 minutes or until cake is firm. Allow to cool for 15 minutes or more, then release the spring.

KATE’S NOTES:

This cake could be better, I’m sure of it. While always wary of using a food processor to make a batter, thinking that the spinning blades tend towards overkill more than gently combining, I would be interested in doing this in a different method. The cake, while good, was a bit dense. The batter quantity is small, and 40 minutes in the oven resulted in browned and crisp edges. I love that on a cake, but many don’t. It was, with it’s almond base and simple design, an amazing flavor. It might come out slightly better if baked in a loaf pan too. At any rate, there is much to experiment with this recipe.


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Banana bread? Oh yawwwwwnnn……seriously?

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Oh my yes! Seriously!

If you are at all a fan of a good banana bread, one that smells perfectly banana-y, is superbly moist and tender, with the added attraction of caramelized banana pieces on top- yes! on top!- of the bread, then you really, I mean, really need to give this recipe a whirl. I love a good banana bread. I mean, since I was a kid I have loved banana bread and I have always been a stalwart for my Mom’s tried and true recipe that I’ve rarely ever strayed away from, but oh do times change, and tastes mature and now, with this recipe and it’s 8 bananas….yes, no typo there folks…. I’m pretty sure that even my Mom would be nodding in approval. And snatching another piece, maybe feigning indignant hurt that I’ve strayed, with her mouth full.

This recipe comes from the Huckleberry Bakery and Cafe in Santa Monica CA. No, I haven’t been jet-setting across the country to bring you a new and agonizingly delicious banana bread recipe, I just happened to be browsing the LA Times food section and came across this. One glance and I was sold. Eight bananas, people. Eight. And poppyseeds. And dates. And did I mention the eight bananas?

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So besides the abundance of fruit, the sugar sprinkle across the top that melts and gets gooey brown and fabulous in the oven and the pockets of tender dates baked into the loaf, just what makes it so good? For one thing, you whip the butter and sugar until it’s barely recognizable as such, creating a base layer that just shouts out it’s fluff and tender personality. It’s loaded with vanilla. There’s sour cream and some poppy seeds. It’s like a whole adventure in texture, taste and crumb, and a day or two on the counter only intensifies it’s beauty. I’m a goner. Better crank up the cardio if this one sticks around, because I foresee it sticking to many spots I may wish to ignore before too long. Restraint, where art thou???

Banana Poppyseed Loaf-
From The Huckleberry Bakery and Cafe, Santa Monica CA (and the LA Times newspaper)

3/4 c. butter, softened
3/4 c. sugar
1-1/2 c. AP flour
1-1/2 c. whole wheat flour
1-1/2 t. baking powder
1-1/2 t. baking soda
3 T. poppyseeds
1 t. salt
5 ripe bananas, plus 2 fresh bananas (divided)
3 eggs
1 T. vanilla extract
1 c. plain or vanilla yogurt
6-8 oz. chopped dates (most pkgs are 8 oz; I used the whole pkg)

Heat oven to 375°. Spray two loaf pans with baking spray.

In a medium bowl, whisk the flours, leaveners, salt and poppyseeds together. In your stand mixer or with a hand mixer, cream butter and sugar until very light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Don’t skimp here. Make it really airy and light. Add eggs, one at a time, and blend each one well. In a separate bowl, mash the 5 ripe bananas well and stir in the vanilla. Spoon into the butter mixture and blend well. It will look kind of curdled but don’t fret. It all comes together. Mix in the yogurt until incorporated then gradually stir in the dry ingredients. Fold the dates in gently.

Divide the batter between the two loaf pans and smooth the top. Slice the other bananas into 1/2″ slices and line the top of the batter with them, pressing them down slightly. Sprinkle the bananas with sugar of choice. A good raw sugar would be nice, or a flavored version if you have one. I used a pistachio sugar.

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Bake the loaves for about an hour, rotating them halfway through. Check at around the 50 minute mark for doneness. Use a wooden skewer if necessary. Cool loaves for about 20-30 minutes in pan, then run a knife around the edges and unmold the loaves onto a cooling rack. You may have a banana piece drop off in the process. Bummer. Better eat it.

Sift powdered sugar over the top if you wish, but I didn’t. It doesn’t need it. Indulge. Enjoy. Live the banana joie de vivre!

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Growing up in South Minneapolis, there was a bakery that my Mom went to regularly on W. 50th St. between Aldrich and Bryant called Meyer’s Bake Shop. It was a tiny little place with decorated cakes in the windows and mirrored cases along the walls, loaves of yeasty breads in baskets on the countertops and long glass front cases that held every imaginable delight, right at eye level for a kid my age. I remember the decisive creak of the door as we pushed it open; the warm of the room, the smells…oh the smells!…. that rushed forth in the humidity inside to meet us. My head swoons just recalling what it was like.  Mom would load up on sandwich breads, rolls or buns and chat with the friendly ladies behind the counter as me and my sisters would oogle the baked goods, the luscious cupcakes, fudgey topped brownies and petit fours, waiting until the expected moment when Mom would tell us to pick out our cookie. We always got to choose one. Karen wanted Oatmeal Raisin, Kris usually took Chocolate Chip. I asked for a Sugar Cookie every single time.

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Meyer’s had the finest sugar cookies. They had scalloped edges that had the perfect crispy snap to them, with centers that were soft and moist. The cookie nearly melted in my mouth and was rich in vanilla and butter, with crystallized sugar covering the surface. I never refused a trip to the bakery with Mom. Meyer’s meant Sugar Cookies. Getting just one was a wonderful experience, although I easily could have eaten as many as I could hold, if just once given a chance. It was perfection in waxed paper.

But then life as we knew it ended, and suddenly there were no more trips to the tiny neighborhood bakery, no more moments of sugar cookie bliss. We moved too far away, life became more about making it through each day than about bakery breads and kindly chatting. And even when Mom made me a batch of specially requested Sugar Cookies, the flavor was flat and uninspiring. I ate them, but they didn’t have the same snappy crunch or sweet tender bite. Sometimes I would ride by Meyer’s and see the decorated windows, and think in my mind that I had to get back there and buy myself a sack of their Sugar Cookies. A sack that would be full of the nostalgia I sought, and craved. When I was in high school, which was about a half mile or so from that bakery, I went down there one day after school and pushed open the big heavy door. The creak was still there, and the smell of yeast and sugar came rushing to my nose like I hoped it would, but my teenage eyes took note of the worn countertops, the dusty curtains in the window and had I ever realized that those cakes were fake? The ladies behind the counter weren’t very friendly, mostly they looked tired and worn. The glass cases were scratched and one had a long crack in it. The selections of breads were minimal, but in the cookie case lay the prized scalloped sugar cookies like always. I bought six of them and eagerly dug into the bag as I left the store, yearning for the first buttery bite. I was going to stuff myself with each one of those golden discs and no one was going to stop me.

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But the cookie that came to my mouth was nothing like I remembered. It was pasty and dry, and left a coating on my tongue and lips that could only have come from shortening. The butter was gone, a wisp of memory. It was crunchy through and through. There was no soft interior or moist crumbs. It looked the same, but it was wrong. All wrong. And it was a crashing disappointment. Somewhere along the way life had veered off into the direction of adulthood, and the whimsy of simpler days ends up left behind in nothing more than shadowy memories. What I wanted from that cookie was to be taken back to something that no longer existed; a trip to a neighborhood bakery, holding on to a trusted hand and the sweet buttery bite of love. I know that life has to change, and we have to grow and move on, learning hard lessons along the way and laying waste to a warehouse of memories, but really, do the beloved flavors have to go with it? Maybe the cookie was exactly the same, but my mouth, having now experienced the bitter plate that life pushes our way, had become jaded and sour. It’s probably a combination of the inevitable change for both the cookie, and the hands that consumed it.

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So it would stand to reason that I’ve looked long and hard for a recipe that closely duplicates that flavor and crunch. It has to be with butter and just the right touch of vanilla. The edges need to be crispy, the interior moist and soft. And it needs the scent of my childhood. I’m fairly certain that what was in that cookie memory from days back when wasn’t much different than any recipe out there, but surrounding the standard butter, sugar, egg, flour and vanilla was the cozy cocoon of a life that had yet to break at the edges, where trust was all you needed that from the moment you awoke to when you lay to sleep at night, someone had your back, and was holding your hand. At some point we’re all cast out into the chasm, finding our footing and learning how to navigate a life we know nothing about. We seek comfort in our foods to help remind us that it wasn’t always this way. This recipe comes awfully close

Sugar Cookies
1 c. softened butter, no substitutes (reserve one of the wrappers)
1-1/2 c. white sugar
2 t. pure vanilla extract
1 egg
2-3/4 c. AP flour
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. baking powder

Heat the oven to 375° and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Place about 1/3 of a cup of white sugar on a small plate and set aside.

Cream butter and the 1-1/2 cups of sugar together until very light and fluffy. Add in egg and vanilla extract and blend thoroughly until smooth and creamy. You really can’t overmix at this point. You want a base that is smooth and creamy as it makes the end result stupendous. Stir together flour, baking soda and powder, and with mixer on low, gradually add to butter until fully incorporated and mixture is in large, somewhat dry chunks. It will not be a smooth batter, but granular, like pie crust. The dough should hold together when pressed between your fingertips. If it doesn’t, give it a few more turns with the mixer. Here’s where you don’t want to mix more than necessary. The dough will come together when it bakes, I promise.

sugar cookies 003

Using a small scoop (I used a #60 sized) press dough tight into a ball and drop onto cookie sheet. With your butter wrapper, wipe the bottom of a smooth glass, then dip the glass onto the sugar you’ve set aside. Gently press down on the cookie dough, dipping the glass before each one. If any dough falls loose, lightly push the pieces into the sides of the cookie.

sugar cookies 010

The cookies will bake up just fine if you don’t wish to flatten them; that’s just my preferred method. Bake for 8-10 minutes, reversing trays from front to back, and swapping top to bottom about halfway through.

I like to remove the cookies right way, on the parchment to a cooling rack. These are pretty sturdy once baked, and will slip off the parchment easily with a gentle nudge. You simply must eat at least a few of them warm. Of course, a glass of cold milk, or a nice cup of coffee or tea is an excellent accompaniment. The cookies will become firmer as they sit for a day or two.

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Mike and I recently had our 7th anniversary. I’ve posted on the blog in prior years about it, but this time around I enjoyed it quietly. With cake. I’ll get to that in due time, ok?

And as a side note, today, August 22nd, is Mike’s birthday, my niece Leah’s birthday, and my friend Melissa’s birthday!! Woot!

Ok, now back to anniversaries, the untraditional, and of course, CAKE.

Someone asked me what gift coincided with the 7th anniversary, and I had to pause a moment to recall what they were talking about. Apparently each year has some sort of meaning in terms of the gift you give, and seriously,  who does this anymore? If you’re at all interested in what each year should entail, check this out. The 7th anniversary, according to that chart, should be either Wool, Copper or a Desk Set.

wool

copper

deskset

I’m stunned at the romance behind that.

My husband is not a gift giver, and I don’t know that I’ve met anyone who has more anxiety and trepidation over getting someone a gift. It just isn’t his thing. If you’re one of those people who think that no special occasion is complete without a pretty wrapped package, you might have some trouble with this mentality, and admittedly, it was a somewhat tough reality for me to accept at first, but Mike has shown me in the eight years I’ve known him that the best gift he can give me resides within him, not in some store. He gives me his heart and his love on a daily basis. No brightly wrapped box will ever come close to that. Although in years past I have asked for a few items- a simple bracelet, a 5th anniversary ring- what I get from him every day comes without a price tag, and all year long. I would take that over a thousand red roses, a paper card or a shiny trinket because it really is so much more vital to a happy union than some expected token given out of a sense of obligation.

So I didn’t get an anniversary gift, not in a box, wrapped in paper, with a bow anyway. I got this…..

mikepic

……for the rest of my life. That’s an awfully spectacular gift.

But there has to be cake. It is, after all, the best of celebrations, the finest excuse to kick up our heels and revel in what we share. And because there is little convention to our celebrations, what with the absence of pretty packages, the cake we shared should also bear little resemblance to those towering stacks of genoise, layered in thick cloying buttercream that are often represented at your standard party.

So I made a Flourless Honey Almond Cake.

flourless honey almond cake 007

This cake, from the April issue of Eating Well magazine, caught my eye immediately when I first read about it. I like a good cake that is versatile, a slice being perfect for a quick light snack or dressed up with vanilla bean ice cream for a more glorious treat. The cake is light and deeply nutty, using ground toasted almonds for the base that is then fluffed with beaten egg whites. Although I was expecting something a bit sweeter due to the honey, and it was delightful as it was, I imagined a version with orange zest and juice to give it just a little more personality, some more ‘Hey, Look at Me!’ kind of taste. It was the easiest cake to put together. My new springform pan worked beautifully too.

Flourless Honey Almond Cake
1-1/2 c. toasted whole almonds
4 large eggs, room temperature and separated
1/2 c. honey
1-1/2 t. pure vanilla extract
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt

Topping (optional)
Honey and toasted sliced almonds

Heat your oven to 350°. Spray a 9-inch springform pan with cooking spray; line bottom with parchment paper and spray paper. Process the whole toasted almonds in a food processor until finely ground. It’s ok if there are some larger bits, it makes for a delicious texture.

In the bowl of your mixer, beat the 4 egg yolks, honey, vanilla, baking soda and salt on medium speed until well combined. Add in the ground almonds and mix to incorporate. The mixture will be very thick and sticky.

In a separate bowl, and with clean beaters, beat the 4 egg whites until they become very foamy and double in size, but not to a point of holding stiff peaks. You want them to be firm, but still loose. Turn off the beaters and push them gently through the whites; the whites should be firm enough that the beaters make ridges yet still fall away when you stop.

With a rubber spatula, gently fold the egg whites into the almond-honey mixture until just combined. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the bowl as you fold. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake on center rack of oven for 25-30 minutes. A cake tester will come out clean and the top will be golden brown. Allow the cake to cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then run a knife around the edges and release the spring. Cool the cake completely before removing the bottom part of the pan.

Serve with vanilla ice cream, yogurt or fruit topping. Or just eat it plain.

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Let me tell you about my nephew Matt, or as he likes to refer to himself  ‘my second son’.

weekend fun 014

Matt is nine, with light red hair and an adorable grin that’s going through its ‘Jack-O-Lantern’ phase, losing his baby teeth and replacing them with Chiklet chompers. He has a personality that just lights up a room. Last summer, he spent so much time at my house hanging out with Griffin, sleeping over and basically insinuating himself into our lives that it stopped surprising me to find him sprawled on the sofa with my own child, coming out of the bathroom in the early morning hours or pulling up a chair at mealtime. He became a permanent fixture, and when September rolled around, I missed him like crazy.

When Matt was about three, we were at our lake home for a perfect summer weekend and all the kids were outside playing Flashlight Tag as the sky darkened. On our screen porch, Matt’s mom Aimee pulled out a bundt cake, a stack of plates, forks and a big knife, and as she began cutting into the cake, the kids came racing inside to gather round the giant wooden picnic table that dominates the room. Matt climbed onto one of the benches, saw what his Mom was doing and loudly exclaimed “CAKE!?? What’s happening??”

cake_whats_happening

See, he always associated cake with celebration, and this was just another typical summer weekend for our extended family. But the sight of that cake was enough to send him into shivers, with the wonder of his age bringing forth a now most cherished family quote. Rarely does a real celebratory event pass where someone doesn’t exclaim “Cake! What’s happening!?” when dessert is being served.

nectarine ginger cake 012

I’m not one to make a lot of cake. Special occasions aside, cake is just too tempting in this house, and should there be a plate of delicious moist cake hiding out under the domed cake holder, it slowly gets whittled away through furtive slips of a knife, while telltale crumbs are disposed of as sweet tooth cravings are duly satisfied. My family has no willpower. And neither do I. It’s best that we just leave cake to those special occasions where it can be appreciated in a quick burst of sugar joy and then forgotten. I think it leads to a better cake appreciation factor.

nectarine ginger cake 005

On a whole other level, cakes that fall outside the ordinary of the flour, butter and sugar world have quite a different effect on me, hence the siren pull of this Nectarine Ginger Cake. With an unusual (at least for cake) recipe, lots of ripe fruit and a one-bowl and pan deal, this was a cake that I knew wouldn’t languish under the cake dome once we got our cake-ness fill,  especially given the fact that the recipe mentions this being a perfect breakfast, snack AND dessert option. Cake with multiple personalities should be on everyone’s To-Do list.

nectarine ginger cake 002

Who am I to argue with lemon zest, olive oil, crystallized ginger- this is cake?- not to mention using one bowl, getting to cut into fragrant nectarines and all that finished off with an aroma of baking cake that rose from my oven like a treasure trove slowly displaying its riches. I’m so there. Even with a few fundamental flaws in the recipe (which are totally correctable and well worth a repeat- I’ll spare you the same issues) this cake was a hit.

nectarine ginger cake 013nectarine ginger cake slices 002

Now, admittedly, I’ve never made a cake with olive oil and whoa, tell me why I waited so long? That won’t be happening again. The subtle flavor of this moist and tender cake was only a part of it’s beauty; this cake sang like the Spring days outside my window. It was fresh and incredibly light with a nice browned crunchy top full of chewy nectarine slices and tiny dots of candied ginger. And about that breakfast option? I might just have to pour another cup of coffee and check that out. I mean, you need all the exquisite details, don’t you? I would be a bad blogger to leave them out.

So what did go wrong with this, as I hinted to? For one thing, again I didn’t trust my culinary instinct and when I read some things in the directions that just didn’t sound right, I went with them anyway and had some issues. The temperature called for was 375°, which to me seemed a bit hot for a cake. Most cake recipes I’ve used require 350°. The cake pan called for was way too small, and I knew it but didn’t scrape out the batter into a bigger one. At least I put the pan on a foil lined cookie sheet. First instinct ignored, and I fumed as I watched it bubble over. Secondly, it called for 5 large nectarines, four of them diced. Folks, that’s a lot of fruit, and this cake needed a 9″ pan. I used barely four and got a super fruit-filled result which is fine; the snack of the leftover fruit held off my cake-hunger, but if you’re making cake- that fluffy concoction of flour and sugar- it’s good to actually have something cake-like in the finished results.

Other than that, the recipe is indeed very simple. While it calls for ground ginger in the batter, I think that fresh grated would taste better. I detected little ginger taste in the end result. The lemon zest is amazing, people, and do yourself a favor; slip a few tablespoons of juice into the batter. Your taste buds will high-five you in joy.

Nectarine Ginger Cake
(with modifications already made)

Preheat oven to 350°.  For your cake pan options, the original recipe called for a 9-inch round cake pan with a removable bottom. This is entirely too small so don’t do it, unless your pan is higher than normal. I started to use an angel food cake pan and decided against it. Then I kicked myself as the cake poured out while baking. A 9 x 13 would work well too, with a slightly shorter end result. Whatever pan you use, spray it and sprinkle a little sugar in to coat.

Cake:

2 eggs
1/3 c. milk
1/3 c. good quality olive oil
1 lemon, zested completely and half of it squeezed
2/3 c. sugar
1  T. fresh ginger, grated
1 1/2 c. AP or cake flour
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
4 large nectarines, three diced small and one for slicing
1/4 c. crystallized ginger, minced or sliced

In a large bowl, whisk eggs, milk and oil until emulsified. Add in all the lemon zest and juice and blend well. Stir in the sugar and fresh ginger. Seperately, blend flour, baking powder and salt then stir into wet ingredients until just barely incorporated. Fold in diced fruit gently.

Pour batter into prepared pan. Arrange nectarine slices on top and scatter crystallized ginger over that. Sprinkle with about two tablespoons of sugar, either white or something fancier. I think raw sugar would be awesome. I’ve been gifted with a divine pistachio sugar, and I’m almost inventing excuses to use it.

Bake until cake top is nicely golden brown and cake springs back when touched- about 45-60 minutes (See Notes). Be careful if you touch the cake top- the candied ginger gets really  hot! The toothpick method will work as well.  Allow to cool, or serve warm.

CAKE NOTES:
Depending on the freshness and juice level of your nectarines, this cake’s cooking time could vary. Be sure to check starting around the 45 minute mark. If the top is browning too much, place some foil over it.

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ew-brownies-009Tell me if you think those look like they are low in fat.

Uh huh, yeah…… a low fat brownie. Oh, and do they look like they might taste pretty good? Rich and fudgey like a true brownie should? Gooey in the center with a nice firm edge that’s chewy, but soft too?? A low-fat brownie that may never pass as one if you didn’t give it away?

Well that was the goal, for certain; I was just convinced -utterly convinced -that it would never happen. I mean- a Brownie! Low fat?!- doesn’t seem possible, especially one that tastes like a fudge filled chunk of chocolate dynamite in your mouth, a small chunk so totally satisfying, but surprisingly light and full of all that good earthy brownie flavor that you crave, that sends you into chocolate nirvana. Can it be achieved without 2 sticks of butter, 2 cups of sugar and 4 eggs?

Apparently, it can. But I was mighty skeptical.

There are few baked goods that scream pure decadence like a really good chocolate brownie, yet all that richness comes at a pretty high cost calorie wise, and in fat. While they’re nice once in a while, to have them around when you’re trying hard to look good for the very-quickly-approaching time of year when the layers are shed and the body is finally exposed again, they wouldn’t be on the top of the list to indulge in. So what do you do when a Brownie Craving hits you like a freight train? Well….

(more…)

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