Friday, February 29, 2008

Daring Bakers - My First! ~ French Bread

Aren't they adorable?

Check That Out!!!

OK, I'm getting a little ahead of myself in my enthusiasm... Let's start back at the beginning, shall we?

When I first visited the Daring Bakers Blogroll, I was instantly in awe of the Daring Bakers concept - hundreds of bloggers around the world, all striving to prepare the same challenging recipe each month, and then sharing their experiences. I am so psyched to now be a member of the Daring Bakers, and to complete my very first DB challenge - Julia Child's French Bread!

I used to bake yeast bread every Friday afternoon, loving how the heady scent ushered in the calm of the weekend. Gradually, however, work, school, and, oh yes, school-work, took over, and my weekly tradition ceased. What could be more wonderful than a return home to bread making?

And what a way to usher yeast breads back into my kitchen... This month's hosts, Breadchick Mary of The Sour Dough (who kindly has posted this month's recipe on her blog) and Sara of I Like to Cook, couldn't have put it better when they called this recipe "Julia's 18 page love poem to French bread." After all, isn't that what recipes really are, at their heart - love poems? Part functional instructions, part poetry and prose, recipes artfully document one of the most fundimental aspects of human existance - the preparing and sharing of food.

In case you're now saying "OK, already, she's digressing again," I'll cease philosophizing at present - time for the bread! At the beginning of the month I scrambled and crammed all week to complete my schoolwork before the weekend (By the way, in case you're new to the sagas of my life and kitchen, I'm in nursing school - after having already checked a variety of careers off the "done that" list - the full list is on your right!) so I could devote an entire uninturrupted Sunday to Bread.

I am presently in awe of the effortlessness of this recipe. One does have to wind their way through the epic instructions, but after a initial read-through and some judicious highlighting -yes, guilty as charged, I am the perpetual student, and I highlight everything - the actual steps are incredibly easy - and even tolerated a few "oh dear, well, I'm just going to have to make do with this" moments.

First morning cup of coffee in hand, I fetched the yeast and faced the reality that the only thermometer present in our kitchen was a large, dial-style analog meat thermometer, with a slightly dubious reputation after an accidental trip in the dishwasher, and no reading below 120 degrees. Since, as I've mentioned in previous posts, tuition fees have left me incredibly broke as of late - even, embarrassingly, too broke to justify purchasing another thermometer - I decided the bread would just have to cope with "somewhat hot" water and "rather lukewarm" water. Either all those years working in labs paid off, and I actually was able to approximate 100 degree water and 70 degree water (not so likely), or the recipe is very forgiving (a more reasonable explanation), because everything proceeded just as though the water had been prepared to a tenth of the correct degree.

The mixture began to gather together, with the promise of eventually forming a dough ball...

A little sticky though, right? Yep, here in the Deep South, it's very humid... And I'd thought it was a particularly dry day for us, too - it's not even raining! Oh well... Add more flour...

And scrape it out of the bowl... so the bowl can be cleaned... (Ya mean I have to wash the bowl by hand?)

Now it's really starting to do something! It's starting to look like grown-up dough already...

(As a side note, this is actually the first time I've used the dough hook on my beloved KitchenAid mixer - having grown up learning to make bread with my grandmother, who definitely is from the pre-dough-hook generation, I just kept on kneading bread by hand, rather habitually, until my mother dryly remarked last week that "perhaps you would make yeast bread more often if you used the dough hook that you have sitting right in your kitchen...")

It's out of the bowl now! Just like Julia said, after a bit of folding it does look just like a cushion.

Time for the first rising... (at this point I'm suddenly thankful for all the rising time, as I dash off to spend a few hours with my anatomy textbook...)

It took 4 hours to triple in size, at which point I gathered up the bowl, carried upstairs, and triumphantly presented it to Zach, who was studying for a radiology test: "Look! It's bigger!" Zach, rather than questioning his girlfriend's abnormal degree of enthusiasm, obligingly peered at the dough, and kindly remarked, "Look at that! Fancy!"

Fancy, no?

When I turned it out of the bowl to pat it down before the second rising, I realized that this was the most beautiful dough I'd ever felt... Smooth as mist, light as whipped cream, folding it was like touching 400 count thread sheets for the first time.

After the second rising, I discovered a newfound appreciation for ultra-sharp knives... I decided to divide the dough into threes, since there's just the two of us - that way I could freeze two of the loaves and we could have fresh bread 3 times!

At this point, I was practically bouncing with delight. I thought the loaves were so cute, I'm surprised I didn't name them... :-)

Before I knew it, the bread was out of the oven... Once they were cool, I secretly almost didn't want to slice one - but I'm glad we did! The first slice, dressed with melted butter... Heaven.

Let's bake bread more often, shall we?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Introductions at Last!

For a dose of randomness, here come 5 facts about me:

1.) I grew up on a sheep farm, and I know how to shear a sheep! (and drive a tractor...)

2.) Besides the USA (which is where I, well, live) the country where I've spent the most time is Israel. I still dream about the fresh figs and dates...

3.) While I love to read nearly everything, I am obsessed with: a. anything William Faulkner ever wrote. b. 18th Century British literature.

4.) While I was in college getting my undergraduate degree, I took Organic Chemistry, Biochemistry, and Calculus... AS ELECTIVES. They still remain some of my favorite classes of all time. Even I cannot explain this. :-)

5.) One of my favorite food memories is of the time my friend Lisa and I stayed up all night frying fig and goat cheese wontons for a catering gig the next day... We saw the sun come up, there were piles and packages of wontons everywhere, I'd never seen so much goat cheese before in my life - and we were still wide awake and laughing!

Amidst the spirit of getting to know each other better, it's high time I properly introduced the cast and crew with which I share the kitchen!

I share adventures and a warm, wonderful house here in the Deep South with my incredible fiance, Zach, who is in medical school and is an amazing chef,

and our three cats,

Fritz (who is embarrassed that I dress him in such undignified clothing),

Ruby (who is always ready to keep us safe from anything flying by the window),

and Roux (who has a passion for 20th Century American Literature).

The cat trio is certain that, at the very least, the bed, the couch, and the dining room chairs belong to them, and that we are allowed to use these items purely because of their generosity. They are quite adept in the kitchen in their own right, although their primary task is attempting to trip me in the hopes of catching a flying bit of salmon or Parmesan...

We also have a catfish named Bernard, who is surely more amusing, erratic, and insane than a fish is ever supposed to be...

Oh yes, and this is me -

So now that you’ve been introduced to us all... welcome to our kitchen family!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Lighter Memories

Some memories come with extra burdens that are tough to escape. And no, I'm not talking about the time my friend Lizzie told me, in graphic detail, about a tarantula horror movie, and I spent the rest of the night with the terror that only a 6-year old's mind can conjure, convinced I was going to die at the hands of a giant spider... because that's another story. I'm talking about those classic, childhood recipes you grew up loving, and then later discovered were laden with things your adult body could do without. The solution? Lighten them up! Often, they wind up being even better than the original...

For instance, I still fix tuna-noodle casserole. Please stop snickering, I know it's not gourmet - or at least the original might not be... (admit it, though, if you've tried it - it's pretty darn yummy, no? :-) But it is one of my fondest childhood recipes - my mother fixed it all the time, despite having an extensive and excellent set of culinary skills, simply because my father and I never tired of requesting its gooey, creamy depths. It also holds the distinction of being the first recipe I ever prepared by myself... That same, formative 6th year of my life, when I was busy acquiring my life-long fear of spiders, I also, one evening, tired of listening to my mother chat endlessly on the phone, pulled a stool up to the counter-top where Mom had gathered the ingredients for that night's tuna casserole, and began carefully assembling the recipe. In a miracle of kitchen safety I somehow managed to operate the stove-top, the oven, and even drain the pasta without injury, and, by the time Mom emerged from what indeed was a very long phone call, I presented her with tuna casserole. Ever patient in the kitchen (well, most of the time :-), she somehow managed not to screech, ask just what I'd been doing, or even act surprised. She set the table festively, credited me grandly during dinner, and my independent culinary adventures had begun.

What do I fix now, in my own kitchen? Tuna Casserole goes healthful gourmet - complete with a homemade, fat-free white sauce, whole wheat pasta, and portabella mushrooms.

Memories are sweet... and growing up is even better.

Grown-Up Tuna Casserole

1/2 lb whole wheat pasta
1 1/2 cups skim milk
3 heaping T flour
1 T olive oil
8 oz portabella mushrooms, sliced
1 onion, chopped
1 cup sliced green, yellow, and red bell pepper
2 (6 oz) cans albacore tuna, drained
Cajun seasoning
1/4 cup shredded fat-free mozzarella-style soy "cheese" (optional)

~ Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
~ Cook and drain pasta according to package directions, and set aside.
~ In a small saucepan, whisk the flour into the milk, then cook, stirring constantly, over medium heat until thickened. Remove from the heat, and transfer to a large mixing bowl.
~ In a large skillet over medium high heat, sear the portabella mushrooms until they begin to release their juices. Add the onion and bell pepper, and saute until the onion is translucent and tender.
~ Add the mushroom mixture and the tuna to the white sauce, and stir gently to combine. Season to taste with Cajun seasoning.
~ Fold the pasta in with the sauce. Transfer the mixture to a large casserole dish, and sprinkle the fat-free soy "cheese" on top, if you like. Bake, uncovered, just until set and slightly browned on top - about 10 to 20 minutes. Enjoy - and enjoy being good to your body and your taste-buds!

This is my submission to the terrific, inspiring blog event The Heart of the Matter, hosted by The Accidental Scientist. Make sure to check out the end of the month round-up for a collection of delicious ways to take good care of our hearts and our whole bodies, so we can keep making happy, healthy memories!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Me Received a MeMe!

Firstly, apologies for the frightful grammar in the title... I was just so excited about being tagged, by Bellini Valli of More Than Burnt Toast, with such a fun MeMe that I got a bit carried away. You've likely seen these great ways of getting to know your fellow bloggers that are circulating around the blogging community - "MeMe" questionnaires!

With thanks to Valli, here is mine...

What were you doing 10 years ago?1998?
Let’s see, I was supposed to have been in high school. Instead, I was riding horses full-time and taking my homework with me (which has to be one of the most random professions to have been pursuing, but it seemed like a good idea at the time… and, when the time came, college admissions offices were surprisingly cool with the whole thing…)

What were you doing 1 year ago?
Studying in an English Literature graduate program, working as a university instructor teaching American Literature and Shakespeare, learning how to make random repairs to my 70 year old wooden, pier-and-beam house, pruning a giant 100 year old oak tree in the hopes that it wouldn’t fall on said house, learning how to make "real" Cajun rice and gravy, reading great philosophy, and, best of all, falling in love.

Five snacks you enjoy:
1.) Cereal (any kind – I even love All-Bran!) with sliced bananas and soymilk… Yum… Basic as it may be, it’s one of my favorite foods in the world… I even love cereal for dessert!
2.) Super crunchy whole wheat pretzels!
3.) A cup of coffee, with a splash of cream and a wee splash of vanilla… Does coffee count as a snack? Hmmm, I’m not sure… I’m hoping it does… because a cup of coffee in the afternoon, when I don’t usually drink coffee, feels like the most decadent thing ever…
4.) Crunchy peanut butter on a homemade biscuit (I’m southern, so I’m allowed to be a biscuit snob… :-)
5.) Raisins mixed with raw almonds – I still have yet to get over the simple miracle of the soft mixed with the crunchy, the sweet with the slightly sweet and nutty… Ooohhh…

Five things you would do if you were a millionaire:
1.) Pay off all our student loans so Zach and I would no longer have a single drop of student loan debt (oh yea, and pay off the mortgage, too!) – and then be very thankful not to have to accrue any more student debt…
2.) Be so excited to be able to give lots and lots to every charity for which I’ve ever wished I could do more.
3.) Open a coffee shop and bakery, with my Dad as the manager, because we actually have dreamed and talked about this for forever…
4.) Travel! Zach and I could go everywhere!
5.) Give Zach the giant flat-screened TV for which he’s been wishing! It would be SO much fun to have it all set up in the house when he came home…

Five bad habits:
1.) Oh dear… INDECISIVENESS. If Zach didn’t give me “the look,” I would spend half an hour in the store just trying to decide between two kinds of balsamic vinegar.
2.) Getting caught up in a book or a project of some sort, not going to sleep until very late at night, and then being dependent upon caffeine the next day when I have to get up before dawn to go to work. Of course, I only do that, oh, I don’t know, every single night…
3.) Stressing over school entirely more than necessary.
4.) Asking redundant questions when I’m really just thinking out loud (which probably has something to do with answer number one…)
5.) Doing too many things at once – I’m the kind of girl who drives a car, talks on the cell phone, changes the CD in the CD player, and flips through Bon Appetit all simultaneously… In my defense, though, I work deep in a Big City where the evening’s traffic is so thick that you could put your car in park and take a nap for an extended period of time…

Five things you like doing:
1.) Cooking, baking, reading recipes (and especially food blogs!), and creating new recipes – of course! :-)
2.) Watching a movie, curled up on the couch with Zach.
3.) Reading great literature (fully recognizing that “great” is a subjective statement)
4.) Hanging out with friends, having fascinating conversations that range from the comical to the deep and intense
5.) A myriad of excuses to be outdoors – hiking, kayaking, yard work, gardening, clay target shooting
6.) Oooo, may I please have a 6th entry? How could I forget writing – poetry, songs, essays, and of course, blog posts and recipes – I maintain that a well written recipe is a work of art too!

Five things you would never wear again:
1.) Those “babydoll” tops that are very high waisted and then balloon out below the waistline – I think they just look silly.
2.) A dress over jeans – try as I may, I’ve never understood the concept, even though it looks great on my friend Beth.
3.) Torturously uncomfortable shoes. What is the point of being in pain all day? No thank you.
4.) Bulky, itchy sweaters… *shudder*
5.) Turtlenecks of any kind! They’re the only thing that makes me feel claustrophobic…

Five favorite toys:
1.) Laptop
2.) Digital camera, which goes everywhere with me
3.) My zippy, perky, cheerful gas-mileage-friendly car
4.) KitchenAid stand mixer – a dream come true!!
5.) 8” JA Henckels chef’s knife (thank you, fellow food bloggers, for giving me a venue in which I can list this as a toy without people getting concerned!)

Time to share the MeMe love... I think I shall take this opportunity to thank 5 bloggers who were some of my very first visiters when I became a brand new blogger a few months ago, and continue to inspire me today!

Greg of Greg's Food, who prepares stunning, healthful, diverse dishes that taste as delicious as they look (as I can attest, having tried several of his recipes) - and jogs in below-zero weather!

The ever-delightful ChocolateCoveredVegan, whose posts are as witty as they are scrumptious...

VeggieGirl, who writes posts filled with mouth-watering vegan baking and warm, inspiring stories of sharing the love of family and friends through food...

CookieMouse, who writes a blog filled with poignant information about organic foods, healthy living, topical issues - and chocolate!

Anya of Godful Food, whose writing is filled with delicious jubilation, and never fails to make me smile.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

No Croutons Required: Score One for Soup

I might be longing for spring, but I'm still seeking out winter warmth in soup... When the chill wind chases you and a bag of groceries (or two... or three...) into the house, a bowl of soup can remind you that there really is still warmth in the world - if not in the air outside!

Down here in the South, we aren't exactly used to winter weather... In the uncharacteristically cold winter we're having this year, I'm trying not to notice just how many layers I need to wear when walking out the front door, and instead focus on the wonderful opportunity for fixing soups! I was especially excited, then, when Lisa of Lisa's Kitchen introduced me to her terrific blog event, No Croutons Required, with this month's perfect theme of vegetarian soups! I especially love how Lisa requested submissions of "a soup that even the most carnivorous diner would drool over," perfectly highlighting the incredible versatility of vegetarian dishes for everyone. And since I'm all about tasting and savoring everything with everyone... what better excuse to combine chickpeas, one of my favorite ingredients of all time (and a complete power-horse of protein and fiber and flavor), with a couple of my favorite spices, for a bowl of hearty goodness?

Oh yes, and this simple, intensely flavorful, healthful, filling, vegetarian and vegan soup did indeed garner the official seal of approval from the two intensely carnivorous guys at the table... I beleive their exact response was a slightly muffled, mouths-full, "mmm... wow... good... really good..."

Score one for soup.

Chickpea and Spinach Soup

2 T olive oil
2 large onions, sliced
6 large garlic cloves, chopped
2 (15 oz) cans chickpeas, drained
1⁄2 tsp. crushed red pepper
4 cups vegetable broth
1 tsp. ground cumin
1⁄2 tsp. turmeric
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
10 oz baby spinach leaves
1 cup arborio rice

~ In a small pan or rice cooker, cook the rice according to package directions.

~ Meanwhile, in a large soup pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat, and saute the onions for 5 minutes - until limp and transparent.

~ Add the garlic, and saute for one more minute.

~ Stir in the chickpeas, crushed red pepper, broth, cumin, tumeric, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cover until the rice finishes cooking.

~ When the rice is cooked, add the rice to the soup pot, cover again, and continuing simmering.

~ 1/2 hour before you're ready to serve the soup, stir in the spinach. Cover again and simmer for that last half hour... then... Soup's ready! (See it steaming?)

Monday, February 18, 2008

Sugar High Fridays: Banana Dreams

Rachel of Vampituity presented an incredibly, beautifully unique theme for this month's Sugar High Fridays (the once a month celebration of a themed dessert, created by The Domestic Goddess) - "pies that evoke your dreams!" Inspired by Pie Ranch (*see below), which helps adolescents realize their dreams through pies, this month's theme is a true testament to food as art - creating a pie representation of a dream.

As soon as I read the theme, I knew I wanted to bake one of my grandmother's pie recipes. I discovered my love of cooking through helping my mother and grandmother in the kitchen, and my very first kitchen memory is of helping my mother prepare Grandma's pumpkin pie recipe. From that day on, I was hooked - I've never forgotten that pure feeling of joy and comfort, sitting on the counter (I was too small to reach the counter-top!) beside the mixing bowl, stirring spices into the pie filling, somehow knowing, even as a small child, that this simple act connected the generations of our family in a gesture of love and caring as we created a dish to be shared. Grandma's pies are all classics - I contemplated her pecan pie recipe (which has now become my most-requested pie), the aforementioned pumpkin pie, lemon meringue pie, cherry-apple pie... The list continues almost indefinitely, but then, on Valentine's day evening, Zach mentioned that one of his favorite desserts was one his grandmother always prepared for him when he was small - banana pudding with Nilla wafers. Right there, I decided that, in the spirit of grandmothers' love and the continuation of recipes across the generations, I would create a pie variation on the classic banana pudding/cookie combo that holds so many memories. Because, you see, my dream is for everyone to be able to experience the joy of a family recipe, and the act of gathering together, in love, around the kitchen table.

Banana-Nilla Cream Pie with a Chocolate Oatmeal Crust

For Crust:
2 1/4 cups oats
½ cup raw sugar
1/4 cup cocoa powder
6 T light canola margarine, melted
1/8 cup honey
1/8 cup milk
1 1/2 tsp vanilla

For Filling:
3/4 cup raw sugar, divided into 1/2 cup and 1/4 cup
1/3 cup flour
pinch of salt
3 eggs, separated
2 cups milk
1/2 tsp vanilla
approx. 1/2 box Nilla Wafers (or a similar vanilla-intensive cookie)
approx. 4 ripe bananas, sliced

~ Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
~ Combine all the crust ingredients, and mix well. Press into the bottom and sides of a pie pan, squishing firmly to create an 1/8" thick crust (you will probably have some crust mix left over, but it's wonderful for a variety of fillings, including cheesecake!).
~ Moving on to the filling, mix 1/2 cup raw sugar, the flour, and the salt together in a small saucepan. Add the 3 egg yolks, whisk until combined, then cook, over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture has thickened to a pudding-like consistency. Remove from the heat, and stir in vanilla.
~ Spread a small amount of the custard filling across the bottom of the pie crust. Cover with a layer of Nilla wafers, followed by a layer of bananas.
~ Pour half of the remaining custard over the bananas. Cover with another layer of Nilla Wafers, and another layer of bananas. Pour the rest of the custard over the bananas.
~ Beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Add the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar, and beat until stiff peaks form.
~ Spread the egg white mixture across the top of everything in the pie pan, making sure to seal the edges well.
~ Bake in the top 1/3 of the oven for 20 minutes - until browned. Refrigerate, and serve cool - topped with whipped cream!

*Please consider making a contribution to a non-profit helping to transform the world of food through pie - Pie Ranch. Please specify "Pie Ranch/Green Oaks Fund” in the "Designation" field of the online donation form (Pie Ranch is fiscally sponsored by the Rudolph Steiner Foundation) at:

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Huh? HotSlaw?

We discovered this recipe completely by accident... I thought we were making steamed cabbage with lemon and butter, and Zach didn't realize the cabbage was cooked when I put it in the serving dish, thought we were making coleslaw, and added a dollop of mayo... and this has been one of our favorite dishes ever since. We decided that instead of coleslaw, we had hot-slaw! It's the ultimate in comfort food... Flavorful, soothing, and full of fabulous creamy crunch. It's not exactly, um, a light recipe... but it is veggies, at least, right? ;-)


6 cups shredded cabbage (I like a mixture of red and green cabbage, if I have them both in the fridge)
1/2 cup shredded carrot
2 T butter or vegan margarine
2 to 3 T lemon juice (depending on how much tangyness you desire)
1/4 cup light mayo or vegan mayo (for vegan mayo, use a canola or flaxseed based mayo - avoid a soy based mayo for this recipe)
Salt and black pepper to taste

~ In a medium-sized pot over medium heat, melt the butter.
~ Stir in the cabbage, then add the lemon juice and toss again.
~ Cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the cabbage is wilted (but still textured - not soggy) - about 10 minutes.
~ Transfer to a serving bowl, and stir in the mayo. Season to taste with salt and cabbage, and it's ready to enjoy right away - nice and hot!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Love for Breakfast

It might be the day after Valentine's Day, but in the spirit of February love I still wanted to tell you of one of the many reasons that I'm a very, very lucky girl to be able to share a home and kitchen adventures with my boyfriend, Zach...

Late nights of studying for medical school usually result in Zach being sound asleep when I slip from bed in the pre-dawn hours in order to wind my way through traffic and make it to work by 8AM. However, some mornings I wander downstairs, showered and dressed but still sleepy, to find a breakfast feast awaiting me! One morning in particular, my first thought when I stepped out of the shower was "mmmm, something smells good... No, that can't be possible - I must be imagining things... Wow, I must really be tired, because I sure smell breakfast cooking..." Of course, breakfast was cooking - Zach had, in an incredible feat of gallantry, gotten up at 5AM to great me with buttered toast, crisply browned vegetarian sausage (which is positively delicious, and incredibly good for you),

and the most monumental, decadent, delectable omelette I have ever tasted.

Zach's omelette secret? Add a generous dose of sour cream to the egg mixture...

Thank you, Darlin'. You're incredible.

Zach's Omelettes

5 eggs
1/4 cup sour cream
1 T minced onion
1/4 tsp Cajun seasoning, plus more to taste
2 T olive oil
1/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese

~ Beat the eggs well with a balloon whisk. Whisk in the sour cream, onion, and Cajun seasoning.
~ Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Pour in the egg mixture, and cook, partially lifting each of the four sides in turn and tilting the pan so that the uncooked egg runs underneath the lifted corner.
~ When almost all of the uncooked egg has been cooked, and there is only a little runny egg on top of the omelette, sprinkle the cheddar cheese on top and fold the omelette in half. Turn off the heat, and leave the omelettes on the stove-top for 2 minutes or so to set. Then it's ready to share with someone you love...

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Molasses Mornings

I learned how to eat breakfast by watching my grandfather. Not how to literally eat breakfast, of course, but how to really eat breakfast - leisurely, gently, and with reverence, savoring the flavors that guide you into the day. (Unfortunately this is not the way I get to eat breakfast during the week now, although I do my best to enjoy my 6AM banana and cereal to its sleepy pre-dawn utmost...)

When I was little, around 6 years old or so, I of course wanted to do everything the way my grandfather did, which included eating breakfast... My grandfather is a gentle man - soft spoken, of few words, and a patient, hushed, there is all the time in the world manner. Sitting beside him at the breakfast table, I mirrored his moves - Grandee ate oatmeal one tiny, miniature serving at a time, so as not to waste any, and hence I too ate my oatmeal in multiple minuscule installments, each carefully garnished with a sprinkling of brown sugar and a puddle of cream. Above all, my favorite meal to share with Grandee was pancakes, because we had our own special pancake ritual: Grandee topped his pancakes not with maple syrup, but with molasses - thick, deep, intense, black-strap molasses. No one else in my family could tolerate its pungent flavor straight-up, but since Grandee liked molasses, of course I learned to love it too. I still do, genuinely, to this day - I love the heady depth of its bittersweet flavor.

In Grandee's honor, I always keep a big bottle of molasses in the pantry, even though I still remain the only one I know with a fondness for the stuff (aside from my grandfather, of course, who, thankfully, is now a hearty 92 years old). Fortunately, there are plenty of recipes that can put molasses to good use in a more, well, subtle way than using it to drown one's pancakes. Driving home from work last night, I chatted with my grandfather on the cell phone, and, when I got home, found myself drawn to that big jug of molasses. Several states away, I couldn't sit down to a stack of pancakes with Grandee, but I could bake cookies... and hence these molasses ginger-snap cookies were born. If my grandfather were here, he would say to savor their rich, sweet, spicy flavor slowly... There is always time for a cookie.

Molasses Ginger-Snap Cookies

½ cup turbinado sugar
¼ cup olive oil
½ cup applesauce
¼ cup molasses
2 egg whites *
1 cup unbleached white flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 tsp baking soda
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ginger
¼ tsp cloves

~ Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spray cookie sheets with cooking spray.
~ In a large mixing bowl, combine sugar, olive oil, applesauce, molasses, and egg, and blend well.
~ Stir in the remaining ingredients until the batter is smooth and combined.
~ Chill the dough for at least 1 hour in the freezer or two hours in the refrigerator (this will keep well overnight, if you want to make the dough the day before you bake them)
~ Drop dough by teaspoonfuls onto cookie sheets to form balls 1” in diameter.
~ Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until the edges are set.

*For a Vegan Version, replace the eggs whites with 1/4 cup soymilk or ricemilk, and add 1 tsp baking powder!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Humble Food: Chipotle Winter Warmth

There's something soothing about a pot of chili, slowly simmering away the afternoon on the stove, perfuming the house with a heady, rich aroma that proclaims "dinner is on its way..." I fixed a big batch of this extra-hearty, fiery hot, super-smoky chili on Sunday, and, along with a salad and thick slices of warm, buttered bread, it was a festive supper and then some - and it was even better simmering away again on Monday night.

(I seem to be in a black bean mood lately, don't I? Something about these cold February nights...)

*I'm also now part of the Foodie Blogroll! Thanks to The Leftover Queen for creating this great catalog of food blogs!*

Chipotle Black Bean Chili

1 lb. chicken sausage, sliced OR 1 lb. vegetarian "sausage style" crumbles plus 2 T olive oil
1 1/2 lbs ground beef OR 1 lb. whole grain tempeh, cut into chunks, plus 2 T olive oil
1 large or 2 medium onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, chopped
3 T ketchup
2 tsp raw sugar
1 tsp salt, plus more to taste
2 tsp cocoa powder
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp cumin
1 cup white wine
1/4 cup lime juice
3 cups beef broth or vegetable broth
1 (28 oz) can diced tomatoes, undrained
4 T cornmeal
2 (15 oz) cans pinto beans, drained
1 (15 oz) can black beans drained
Sour cream and shredded cheddar cheese, for garnish

~ In a large soup pot over medium-high heat, saute the sausage or "sausage crumbles" until browned. Remove the sausage from the pot, and set aside.
~ Add the ground beef or tempeh to the pot, and saute until browned. Remove from the pot, and add to the sausage.
~ Add the onion and garlic to the pot, and saute for 3 minutes.
~ Stir the chipotle chiles, sausage, beef, ketchup, sugar, salt, cocoa, coriander, oregan, and cumin in with the onions, and cook for one minute, continuing to stir.
~ Pour in the wine, lime juice, broth, and tomatoes, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 1 hour.
~ Pour in the cornmeal slowly, and stir until smoothly combined. Add the pinto beans and black beans, and bring the chili back to a boil. Reduce the heat again, cover, and simmer for 1/2 hour.
~ Serve garnished with plentiful sour cream and cheddar cheese!

Monday, February 11, 2008

My Almond Brittle is Smokin'...

I try not to indulge in “Shoulda, woulda, coulda” too much, but I really should have ignored that recipe last night. Zach asked if I could make either nut brittle or pralines, and specifically with almonds, so, since we only had whole, raw almonds on hand (and it was well past the hour of ‘oh, I’ll just run to the store and pick up some slivered almonds’) I decided to make a nice, chunky, crunchy, whole-almond brittle. This is when I should have simply whipped up some almond brittle without a second thought. It’s the simplest candy, really, and I could have just thrown it together from memory… but, since it was late at night, I still had the tail end of a head cold, and had consumed entirely too much Advil and coffee throughout the course of the day, I went and fetched a recipe to keep me from drifting off course in a sleepy daze halfway through the process.
Into the pan went the sugar and water. Merrily I watched it boil, sweeping sugar crystals from the sides of the pan with a pastry brush and feeling confident, as One Does While Making Candy. 8 minutes later, I started to peer into the mixture suspiciously. “It looks ready…” I muttered to myself. “The recipe says to keep boiling, though… for two more minutes… until it reaches this temperature, not the temperature where it is now… but darn it, the stuff sure looks ready…”

You know that saying about trusting your instincts? The one I didn’t listen to? It’s true. Two minutes later, I had smoking, blackened, burnt sugar syrup that didn’t even taste like the nice kind of burnt sugar.

So I threw out the recipe, and, like any good southern girl, decided to make pralines. Except, since pralines are a rather soft candy, and almonds, especially whole almonds, are much harder than the traditional praline pecan, I decided upon a hybrid – almond brittle pralines. Softer than your usual brittle candy, but crisper than a praline – these did not burn. These, I’m delighted to say, were deliciously reminiscent of pecan pie…

Here’s to generations-old family recipes that simply list ingredients, and then, helpfully, say “cook.” Because that’s just what I did – and it worked.

Here's the beginning of "cooking" the syrup...

Now it's really starting to do something... Look now nice and frothy! :-)

My syrup runneth over! (almost)

Now stir in those nice almonds and pecans...

and... we have gooey almond brittle pralines!

Almond Brittle Pralines

3 T butter
1 cup whole almonds
1 cup chopped pecans
1 ½ tsp vanilla
2 cups brown sugar
¾ cup milk
½ tsp baking soda

~ In a skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Stir in the pecans and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, stir in the vanilla, and set aside.
~ In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, stir the brown sugar, milk, and baking soda until it comes to a boil.
~ Let the sugar mixture boil, without stirring, until it reaches the soft ball stage (235 – 240 degrees F). This will take a while…
~ Remove from the heat, stir in the almond and pecan mixture, and beat until it begins to hold a shape.
~ Fill muffin tins 1/3 full with the mixture, cover, and chill in the fridge overnight. Pop them out the next day – delicious with a bit of whipped cream…

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Saturday Scones

Every weekend, we have a breakfast tradition: French toast on Saturday, and pancakes on Sunday. Except even the best of traditions can use some variation every once in a while... This Saturday morning, when I asked Zach if he'd like French toast, he replied in a somewhat lackluster tone, "OK, I guess so." Hmmm... I looked down at my hands, and lo and behold, I happened to be holding a recipe for scones. I looked back at Zach - "would you prefer French toast, or scones?" Zach paused. "Where would you get scones from?"

"I'd make them," I replied.

"Well then, Hell, I want scones," said Zach.

And that was that. Scones we had, indeed.

Oh, and such scones... This is a very classic, straightforward scones recipe, but it's just simply lovely - light, fluffy, and buttery. Yet surprisingly, an added benefit to drop scones like these is that cooking them on a skillet, with just a bit of olive oil cooking spray, gives them a melting tenderness without all the myriads of butter needed for oven scones. This recipe also contains nearly every possible rising agent, making them perfectly adaptable to an egg-free vegan version!

Skillet Drop Scones

2 1/2 cups flour
2 tsp raw sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
2 T cold butter
1 cup reduced fat milk
1 T lemon juice
1 egg, beaten

~ Toss together the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, baking soda, and cream of tartar in a large mixing bowl.
~ Transfer the flour mixture to a food processor, add the butter, and pulse until the mixture resembles course meal.
~ Return the mixture to the mixing bowl, add the milk, lemon juice, and beaten egg, and stir just until a soft dough forms.
~ Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and knead lightly 4 times.
~ Divide the dough into thirds, pat each third out to a 4-5" circle, and then, using a very sharp knife, cut each circle into 4 wedges.
~ Dust each wedge with flour, and brush off any excess.
~ Spray a large, non-stick skillet with cooking spray, and place the skillet on the stove top over low heat.
~ Place as many scone wedges as will comfortably fit in the skillet, and cook over low heat for 3 minutes.
~ Increase the heat to medium low, and cook for 5 more minutes.
~ Turn the scones over, increase the heat to medium, and cook for 3 minutes. Reduce the heat back to medium low, and cook for a final 3 minutes.
~ Remove the scones to a serving tray, and repeat the cooking procedure with any remaining dough wedges.
~ Serve the scones warm, with butter and jam!

* Vegan Version: Replace the butter with vegan margarine, leave out the egg, replace the 1 cup milk with 1 1/4 cup soymilk or ricemilk, and increase the baking soda from 1/2 tsp to 1 tsp.