Saturday, November 24, 2012

Thanksgiving 2012

I had it easy for Thanksgiving this year - I made two pumpkin pies and the cranberry sauce. I also spent all of the long weekend writing papers for the encroaching term end, and honestly I'd much rather have been struggling with smooth gravy and browned turkey skin than my "policy memo."

My mom made the turkey and gravy, as well as stuffing from homemade cornbread and a salad with walnuts, blue cheese, red grapes, and mustard-herb vinaigrette. My mother-in-law steamed brussels sprouts and baked them with ground almonds and parmesan cheese. My cranberry sauce was more of a chutney with fennel, pear, and golden raisins.

I found my cranberry inspiration in a Fine Cooking Magazine recipe search. Their website offers many recipes for free, but requires a paid subscription for full access, and the recipe I was interested in for Cranberry Chutney with Fennel and Golden Raisins was behind the paywall. However, thanks to the blogosphere, I figured I could find a copy anyway, and a simple google search led me to the full recipe (along with four alternative versions from the article) at The Bitten Word. The version below has some of my own adaptations (especially since the boys over at bitten don't seem to bother responding to questions from their readers... I'm not trying to trash-talk them, but most bloggers seem to find interacting with readers to be the entire purpose of their posts.)

Fennel and Cranberry Chutney
Serves 12
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons butter
1/2 large bulb fennel, chopped to desired size (I made my pieces just slightly smaller than a raw cranberry) - about 1 cup
12 ounces fresh cranberries
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground anise seed
1 d'anjou pear, diced
1/2 cup golden raisins

Heat oil and butter over medium-low heat. Stir in fennel and cook until softened, 10-12 minutes. Stir in cranberries, sugar, water, and vinegar. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to simmer, stirring until sugar is dissolved and cranberries are popping. Stir in diced pear and raisins, and cook to desired consistency. Sauce will thicken some as it cools. Stir in ground anise, and salt if needed. Chill.

After many years of trying to creatively interpret pumpkin pie into pumpkin cheesecake or pumpkin mousse tart, or dress it up with streusel or caramel or toffee toppings, I have finally come to appreciate a traditional pumpkin pie. I use the recipe from Joy of Cooking, but have landed on the particular balance that I prefer. Although for Thanksgiving, I'm sure I will continue to make the expected pastry crust, my choice is definitely to use a ginger-pecan shortbread crust for the pumpkin filling, which also works pressed into a 9x9 or 9x13" pan for excellent bar cookies. Whatever crust you use, here is the filling recipe for 2 pies (actually, this makes more than I can fill in 2 9" pies - I always have enough left for a third pie or some bars, or use deep-dish pie pans.)

Pumpkin Pie
makes 2 pies
Par bake crust (line unbaked crust with foil, fill with pie weights, and bake 12 minutes at 350, then remove weights and bake anouther 3-5 minutes until golden).

5 eggs
1 29-ounce can pumpkin puree
3 cups cream
1 cup sugar
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons bourbon

Whisk ingredients together until thoroughly mixed. Pour into crust and bake 35-45 minutes, until firm. Chill and serve with whipped cream.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Nutmeg Cupcake Bites with Cinnamon Frosting

There were three reasons I decided to try this recipe. I wanted to take something to share with my classmates on my birthday, even though I was having a birthday party at home with friends. For my party, I was making a pumpkin-spice cake, which is always a favorite for me around October. So this recipe for nutmeg cake seemed like an appropriate riff on (or whiff of!) spice, while still being a significant departure from the other cake I would be consuming that week. 

Secondly, as so many of us were completely subsumed with the the presidential election, it seemed fitting to turn to a recipe historically referred to as "Hartford Election Cake" (apparently, Connecticut is unofficially referred to as The Nutmeg State and residents are known as "nutmeggers.") This recipe doesn't actually have anything to do with the original, which contained dried fruits, molasses, and brandy, but I guess that shouldn't be a surprise, given the source. Which brings me to my third reason.

I have not been at all impressed with Warren Brown's cookbook, United Cakes of America. The recipes are just "okay" and the book on the whole fails to deliver on multiple fronts including the fact that ingredients are scaled in unnatural portions, recipes span opposite pages instead of facing pages, photos are limited, and - to rip-off the criticism of a professional reviewer - a bunch of the recipes just aren't cake... including the very first recipe in the book: for whoopie pie. But, I really really wanted to be fair, so I thought I should try all the recipes that at the very least sounded good to me. That included these cupcakes, and while I will not be making them again, they were definitely enjoyed by my classmates, and made attractive, sturdy, tasty bite-sized bits of fall festivity.

Mini-cupcakes all dressed-up and packaged for carrying to class!
I found this cake to be pretty dense. That worked okay for small cupcakes, because they held together well even when bit into a couple of bites, but I'm not sure I would like it as a slice of a whole cake. The nutmeg flavor is really nice, if you like it (which I do!), though otherwise the cake really lacked flavor. However, paired with this our most favorite of frostings for it's sugary spiciness, it was a great match. This buttercream has appeared previously and as thick, sweet, and heavy, worked well on a dense cake where a more tender texture might otherwise be lost.

Nutmeg Spice Cupcakes
from Warren Brown's United Cakes of America
recipe says it makes 10 cupcakes; I got 30 mini-cupcakes from one batch

8 ounces (1 cup) sugar
5 ounces (1 cup) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon potato starch
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (P.S. I wouldn't even bother with these if you don't have fresh nutmeg)
pinch of allspice
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
3 ounces (6 tablespoons) butter, melted
1/4 cup half-and-half
1 tablespoon rum
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 egg yolk

Preheat oven to 325. Coat cupcake pan with cooking spray, butter, or use liners.
Whisk together dry ingredients.
Combine wet ingredients and mix well. Lightly whisk wet into dry ingredients.
Fill cupcakes 2/3 full. Bake 20-25 minutes or until tops are golden and skewer comes out with just a few crumbs (watch your time carefully - it depends on how full your pans are, and what size tins you use, so I can't be sure this timing is accurate).
Cool completely before frosting with cinnamon buttercream (recipe below).

Cinnamon Frosting
2 sticks plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4-5 cups powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup cream

Beat together the butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon until fluffy and smooth. Add 2 cups of powdered sugar and beat until incorporated. Beat in the vanilla and cream, scraping down the bowl, then add an additional 2-3 cups of powdered sugar, until desired consistency is reached. (I used a little more than 2 cups, then thinned down ever-so-slightly with just a bit more cream.)

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Let Your Freezer Show How Much You Care

This cake doesn't use any new recipes so it doesn't necessarily warrant a posting beyond a photo on the cakes page. But there are two reasons that I wanted to give this its own entry. First of all, I thought I did a really nice job of decorating it. And secondly, I made these two 6-inch layers back in May when I was preparing for the big wedding cake
I had originally assumed this darkest chocolate stout cake layer would be the top tier of the cake, but the couple asked for this recipe to be used for the bottom main layer of the cake. I had already baked the 6-inch rounds, so I just kept them well-wrapped in the freezer.
In a way, I'm a bit embarrassed to share that I served a frozen cake to friends. At the same time, I'm also a bit proud of the fact that it is possible to bake from scratch but still manage your life so that you don't have to do everything at the last minute. I feel it's important to share this with others of you who have some time to bake, but maybe not at the times you most want to have baked goods. Don't be afraid to use your freezer, especially if you freeze things properly so they will be well-preserved.  
Cake should be frozen on a plate just for 30 minutes or so, so they are firm enough that you can handle them and wrap them tightly. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap, and then in foil. Label them so you know what they are, and place them carefully in the freezer until they are solid - you don't want anything heavy or sharp poking into it or it will dent! Frostings freeze really well and can be defrosted and refrozen multiple times without much problem. Cakes can also be filled and frosted and then frozen - this is common with wedding cakes, especially the top layer. Just freeze it unwrapped until it is firm, and then wrap it tightly in plastic. Cookies can be frozen as well! Our favorite thing is to make our own dough and freeze it in individual balls, then take out however many we want to bake up fresh. Friends who tell me they don't bake because "I would just eat them all!" have no excuse - bake a few, and freeze the rest of the dough and then you are ready whenever you want to give someone you love a fresh batch of homemade cookies.

I really like how the decoration on this cake turned out. Part of that is simply using a frosting that holds it's shape really well. See below for the buttercream recipe. The cake and the filling were both taken out of the freezer where I'd stored them for five months.  Of course, when making something to take to a party, it's hard to sample the cake to know if it's still fresh - I just had to trust that it would be, and that any deterioration would be covered by fresh frosting. But I've done this enough times now that I don't worry about it anymore. I defrost the cake (and the filling and/or frosting, if they were made in advance as well) in the fridge overnight. Fill and frost it and it's ready to go - well, after a few chocolate shavings that is.

Amazingly Simple Buttercream
from Laura Temple
1 1/2 cups of sugar
6 large egg whites 4 cubes of unsalted butter (1 pound) softened to room temperature
3/4 teaspoon real vanilla


Put egg whites and sugar in top of double boiler over simmering water. Whisk until temperature reaches 160 degrees. Remove from heat and move to a stand mixer bowl. Whip on medium high until they are room temperature. (Wrap ice packs or bags of frozen vegetables around the base of the bowl to speed cooling).

Once the whites/sugar mixture is at room temperature, keep mixing, and add the butter a couple of tablespoons at a time until all is incorporated. It might looked curdled part-way through, but just keep going and it will come together. Add the vanilla and mix just enough to incorporate it fully. Stir in any optional food coloring. This makes a great stark-white buttercream on its own.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Banana Bacon Dutch Baby

We have all stared deep into the dark brown spots on the skin of a decaying banana and asked "aren't you good for anything besides banana bread?" Will loves banana bread and at times will deliberately avoid eating his daily tubefruit so that I will feel compelled to convert it to a buttery, toasty snack. Such was the case this time, when he transferred two aging phalli from the counter-top to the fridge. It's actually been quite a while since I baked banana bread, but somehow I was just not in the mood, so there they sat becoming darker and softer.

By Saturday night, we were frying up bacon with some friends to top our homemade pizza, and the residual fat in the pan seemed worthy of a second frying. I didn't know how or what, so I just shoved the whole skillet into the fridge overnight. The next morning, I felt inspired. Sunday is "pancake day" - generally from mix, but at times made from scratch. Less frequently, I will try something more glamourous like a puff pancake, and that is what I decided to do with the bananas.

I added a little pat of butter to the bacon fat already in the pan (total 2 T fat), heated to melting and sliced the two otherwise rather nasty bananas in a single layer over the hot fat. Pour over the blended batter and bake.

Preheat oven to 375. Preheat 10" cast-iron skillet.

serves 2

2 eggs
2.38 ounces all-purpose flour (about 1/2 cup)
1 tablespoon melted butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Blend with blender or food processor.
Pour batter over sliced bananas in 10" cast-iron skillet and bake at 375 for 30 minutes. Slice and serve immediately, dusted with powdered sugar or drizzled with maple syrup.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Parsley-Prune Salad

This was one of those concoctions that comes from staring into the fridge and knowing you need to go to the grocery store but really wanting to have dinner now. We always seem to have plenty of food to eat, but we don't always have what comprises a "well-balanced meal" but this salad came together in a nutritional bonanza even though we were disappointingly low on fresh vegetables.

Parsley Prune Salad
serves 2
parsley leaves; roughly chopped (1/2 cup)
2 inches cucumber, diced
1/2 green bell pepper, diced
5 prunes, diced
1-2 tablespoons roasted, salted sunflower seeds
fresh ground pepper
olive oil
dash of lemon juice or champagne vinegar

Friday, November 9, 2012

Pumpkin Party 2012

The fourth annual Pumpkin Party brought nice additions to the pumpkin recipe repetoire. Pumpkin party recipes must meet certain criteria, which limits to a degree the types of dishes I will offer. If you compare the menu each year, distinct patterns will be quite obvious. Nevertheless, I spend a lot of time looking for creative ways to update my basic pumpkin party theme. The recipes below were all winners, not just because they can be made in advance, require little attention to serve, and are meat-free, but also because they were delicious and a little bit different.

I guess the sign of a great party was that I didn't have time to take photos of the food. Except for the cake of course, which was not just the coup de grace for the pumpkin party, but was also my 35th birthday celebration cake.

Hors d'Ouvres
I made a dip for chips and crudites by cooking 1/2 cup of red lentils and pureeing with a cup of canned pumpkin along with salt, pepper, olive oil, garlic powder, freshly ground cumin and coriander. Mix to taste! This can be made ahead and frozen, though I needed to strain it after thawing because it released a lot of water, so that's a bit of an annoying step, but it will bring it back to a nice creamy texture.

Mixmaster Will used this recipe for a "fall leaf fizz" as inspiration for our pumpkin-pear punch. You will want - as always - to mix to taste, but his version was approximately this. It looked stunning in my mom's antique pressed-glass punch bowl, and for better or worse, many friends commented, "I can't even taste the alcohol!"
2 cups vodka
3 bottles sparkling wine
4 cups pear cider (available at Trader Joes)
1 jar (10 oz) pumpkin butter (from Trader Joes)


Black Eyed Pea and Pumpkin Salad
Serves 20
This recipe was my flavor template, but I wanted a more fall, earthy palette than the bright flavors this recipe uses with lime and basil.
DressingI made my own walnut-flavored oil (because it seemed like a worthy experiment and given the expense of actual oil from walnuts). I used black walnuts because I had them leftover and they have a strong walnut flavor, but a bitterness that I don't enjoy in baked goods but thought might be tempered by this process. I toasted 5 tablespoons of chopped black walnuts, then added in 6 tablespoons olive oil and heated over medium, then transfer to jar to steep overnight. Strain before using and mix with 1 1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, 2 teaspoons mustard, and salt and pepper to taste.
one sugar-pie pumpkin
1 cucumber, seeded and chopped
2 cups cooked or canned black-eyed peas
1 1/2 green bell peppers, seeded and diced
1/2 cup parsley
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1 pound baby spinach or mixed greens
Roast pumpkin by cutting in half, seeding, and baking cut-side down on an oiled baking sheet at 450 for 40 minutes. Cut into dice and toss with remaining ingredients when cool.

Butternut Squash Bread Pudding
Serves 20
This could be understood as an odd concept if you think of bread pudding with raisins and rum sauce. It certainly doesn't seem like something for a cocktail party. And the reviews of the original recipe or terribly mixed, so I was probably unwise to test this out as the main course for 16 friends. But it received huge compliments, enough so that I decided to serve it to my parents, in-laws, and grandmothers the next day as leftovers and they all raved.

1 pound day-old french bread, cut in 1" cubes
1/2 cup cream; 1/2 cup skim milk
5 eggs
freshly ground nutmeg and black pepper to taste
2 teaspoons stone ground mustard
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 pound kale (I used "baby kale" from Costco)
3/4 cups shallot
2 small cloves garlic
1 1/2 pounds butternut squash cubes (available refridgerated at Costco, or Trader Joes - cutting your own is dangerous because the squash rind is very tough, and will take forever!)
8 ounces grated sharp cheddar cheese
olive oil
Mix cream, milk, eggs, seasonings, mustard, and wine. Soak bread cubes in this mixture about 30 minutes.
Toss squash cubes with just enough oil to coat, and roast at 400 for 20-25 minutes.
Saute shallot in olive oil until tender. Add kale and stir over medium until wilted. Allow to cool slightly.
Layer 1/2 soaked bread cubes in 9x13 buttered baking dish, top with 1/2 squash, 1/2 kale, and 1/2 cheese, then repeat layers, ending with cheese.  Bake at 350 for 20 minutes covered, then 20 minutes uncovered. Broil at end for two minutes to make a bubbling cheese crust if desired.
Can be refrigerated covered overnight before baking if desired.

For this version (in November, 2012) I used a 1/2 recipe based on above,
with acorn instead of butternut squash, walnuts instead of hazelnuts,
and spinach instead of kale. Both are yum!

Kabocha Squash and Shitake Rigatoni
This is a dense, rich dish which could easily stand alone as a main course. I made a number of substitions from this version which had mixed-reviews. I made my sauce the day before. I cooked the pasta the morning of my party and tossed with the sauce, then refrigerated until I was ready to serve and reheated on the stove. It made so much that we were eating it for days and it held up very well.
1 pound rigatoni
5 ounces dehyrated shitake mushrooms, reconstituted in boiling water
2 pounds kabocha squash, roasted at 400 degrees until tender
8 ounces goat cheese
1/2 cup chopped toasted hazelnuts
4 cups stock
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
Puree squash with goat cheese and stock to desired consistency. You may want less squash or less broth. Add seasonings.
Saute mushrooms in butter until tender. Toss with sauce and cooked pasta. Sprinkle with hazelnuts to serve.


To make this adorable pumpkin cake, I used this pumpkin spice bundt cake recipe. You will need two cakes to build the pumpkin. I do not recommend doubling the recipe, because it was too full for my stand mixer, so make the recipe twice. I also like my cake spicy, so I added an additional teaspoon of freshly grated ginger and 1/4 teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg to each batch.

Place one cooled cake flat-side up on a platter. Stack the other cake flat-side down on top. I used cream-cheese frosting died orange. My favorite recipe is from Joy of Cooking; 8 ounces of cream cheese, 5 ounces softened butter, 4 cups of powdered sugar, and 1 teaspoon vanilla.

To decorate, I saved the pumpkin stem from the sugar pie pumpkin I used in the salad - wrap in plastic and store in the fridge if you aren't going to use it for the cake right away. It fit perfectly in the bundt cake hole, and I just frosted over to the base of the stem. I also used piped green frosting and some licorice ropes and gumdrops for leaves and vines. Obviously, this makes a ton. I only used half the cake for my party, but instead of cutting slices through the whole pumpkin, I cut slices just through one layer of cake, and we only ate the top half. The next day, I flipped the bottom layer right-side up and had an entire uncut bundt cake which I refrosted and served to family. Gross, or clever? You decide. But it was most definitely delicious. This cake stays moist and fresh for days.