Rhubarb custard.

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There should be more custard in the world. If pudding is a steadfast matriarch and mousse is a worldly, fashionable sister, custard is a gentle, soft-spoken, doting aunt you go to when you need a hug or just a good companion. Custard is an old-timey dessert, associated in my mind with my great-grandmother and Thanksgiving dinner, and in both of those cases I’m thinking of custard pie. I’m not sure I had ever had a custard cup, but after my Mom mentioned in passing a rhubarb custard pie she remembered having years ago, I couldn’t stop thinking about custard, and beyond that, rhubarb custard. As soon as I got some fresh rhubarb, I decided to make some.

How funny that a search for a rhubarb custard recipe turned up almost nothing other than pies. But I did not want a pie. I finally decided to take the baked custard recipe from The Joy of Cooking and adapt it to include rhubarb. I figured out from all the various pie recipes how I could treat the rhubarb and incorporate it into the dish. I suppose custard is not made as often these days because it can be finicky, and folks want easy, now, no fuss. It’s really not difficult provided you follow a few steps: don’t introduce the custard mixture to hot rhubarb, unless you want scrambled eggs, and don’t skip the water bath, as it helps cook the custard at an even temperature, an important factor for eggs. There. If you can do those things, you’ll be rewarded with a creamy, lightly-sweetened, slightly-spiced, satisfyingly tart, comforting ramekin of goodness. And who doesn’t want that? Custard is usually thought of as a dessert, but I confess– I ate one of these for breakfast on Sunday, and I’ll do it again.

If the idea of rhubarb custard pie intrigues you, there are several great-looking recipes that come up with a simple Google search. I imagine I will try my hand at that someday. For now, I am happy with these custards and their basic ingredient list. It’s nice to have another gluten-free option, if you’re looking for one, and I am eager to slice a few strawberries into the ramekins and see how wonderful that may be. As rhubarb season ramps up (or approaches, if you’re reading from a still-snowy area), set a few stalks aside and give this recipe a try.

rhubarb custard

Rhubarb Custard (makes 5 servings)

  • 3 c. diced rhubarb
  • 1/2 c. sugar, divided
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 2 c. whole milk
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 tsp. vanilla
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Toss the rhubarb with 1/4 c. sugar and salt and spread out in a single layer in a shallow baking dish. Cook for 10 mins. Remove from the oven and cool for 15-20 mins. Reduce the temperature of the oven to 300 degrees.

If you have a 4 c. Pyrex (or similar) measuring cup with a pour spout, use that here; if not use a medium mixing bowl. Add the remaining 1/4 c. sugar to the milk and whisk until the sugar is dissolved. Whisk in the eggs, one at a time, and then the nutmeg and vanilla. Set aside the bowl and wait to see if bits of egg float to the top; if they do, keep whisking until you have a uniform mixture. You can use a blender or mixer, but it only takes a minute or two to get the custard to the consistency you need. Set aside.

setting up the baking dish for rhubarb custard

While the oven and rhubarb cool, arrange your water bath. I used a rectangular baking dish that accommodated my 5 ramekins (well, 4 ramekins and a tea cup, but who’s counting?), allowing for space all around each one. Use a wire rack, canning rings or bamboo skewers to make a base on which the ramekins can sit and have warm water circle beneath them. Into each ramekin (or use custard cups, or oven-safe tea cups), place a few tablespoons of the rhubarb mixture; as long as it is equally distributed, there’s no need to measure. Divide any juice from the baking dish among the ramekins, if you like; though the custard won’t set as firmly, the extra flavor is very nice.

before adding water to the dish, but ready for the oven

If your custard mixture is in a vessel with a pouring spout, your next task will be much easier. (In the absence of a pour, use a ladle.) When your rhubarb has cooled down (warm to the touch, not hot, so the eggs in the custard don’t scramble), divide the custard between your five ramekins, making sure 1/4″ of space is left at the top of each one. The rhubarb will float to the top, and that’s okay. Carefully transfer the dish full of ramekins to the oven rack, which should be in the center of the oven, and pour lukewarm water into the dish until it reaches halfway up all of the ramekins. Bake for one hour at 300 degrees. After an hour, use a sharp knife to test for doneness: if inserted near the edge of a custard, it should come out clean. Remove each ramekin from the water bath and cool the custards for 30 mins. at room temperature, then chill completely in the refrigerator. Serve as-is or with a dollop of whipped cream.

 

Chickpea patties with tahini sauce.

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I posted a picture on Facebook of a batch of these chickpea patties I made for my lunch; the response was positive, and quick, and that made me very happy. Having thrown together that batch, I made another so I could more accurately record the ingredient quantities. It was tough work, being forced to enjoy them twice in one week! Anything for my readers. So what are they exactly? The easiest answer is that they’re a cousin to falafel, made with similar ingredients but with garbanzo flour instead of ground chickpeas. I used this recipe from Bob’s Red Mill as a guide, subbing in fresh ingredients for some of the dry herbs and leaving out onion powder because I didn’t have any. The sauce is a basic tahini sauce and the quantities are my own, though I could attribute inspiration to any number of cookbooks I use regularly: JerusalemOlives, Lemons & Za’atarArabesque, etc.

Chickpea flour is a great addition to your pantry: gluten-free, it has 6 g. of protein and 10% of your daily recommendation of iron in a 1/4 c. serving. I have been thinking about subbing a portion into savory breads to increase protein content, and have been experimenting with it as a sauce/soup thickener in lieu of all-purpose flour, as is suggested on the package. Because of the protein content, it’s not surprising that these patties, though they look small, are filling, and I found they satisfied my hunger longer than a similarly-sized vegetable patty. I frequently make sweet potato, spinach or eggplant patties for quick meals, but two of these, as pictured below, were almost too much for lunch, especially in combination with the tahini sauce. That’s a good thing! You can make them small and stretch that meal. I love finding easy-to-make, relatively inexpensive options like that; these particular patties are made with ingredients I almost always have in the pantry, which is also great.

In addition to eating the chickpea patties solo with tahini sauce, you can make a wonderful wrap or pita sandwich with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, onion or a combination of those. If tahini sauce isn’t your thing, send it my way and try tzatziki or even aioli. Yum! The ingredients as listed made enough for a generous dinner for me and my husband– served with whole-wheat pitas and cucumbers, radishes alongside– with one medium-sized patty left over. Writing about them is making me hungry for them again– do you think my husband would mind them three times in five days? Maybe not; he’s a fan, too. As I think you might very well be, if you give them a go.

chickpea patties with tahini sauce

Chickpea Patties with Tahini Sauce (makes 4-6 small patties)

For the patties:

  • 1 c. chickpea (garbanzo) flour (I use Bob’s Red Mill)
  • 1/4 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
  • pinch of kosher salt
  • 1 – 2 cloves garlic, crushed (about 2 tsp.)
  • 1/4 c. finely chopped fresh herbs: flat-leaf parsley, cilantro or a mix (I use equal amounts of parsley and cilantro)
  • 1 T. fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 c. warm water

For the tahini sauce:

  • 1 -2 cloves garlic, crushed (about 2 tsp.)
  • 1 T. fresh lemon juice
  • pinch of kosher salt
  • 1/4 c. tahini (I like Joyva brand)
  • warm water

To make the patties, combine chickpea flour, baking soda, salt and cumin in a bowl and mix with a fork. Stir in garlic and herbs and then water and lemon juice. The mixture will be sticky but should be thick enough to dollop into patties that hold shape. Before doing anything, let it rest for ten minutes at room temperature.

While the mixture is resting, make your tahini sauce. In a small bowl, mix the garlic, lemon juice, salt and tahini; you’ll notice it starts out runny but thickens, almost seizes up, when mixed. That’s okay, that’s what the water is for. Add 2 T. warm water and stir to incorporate. Continue adding warm water, 1 T. at a time, mixing well in between additions, until the sauce reaches the consistency you like. When I am eating patties alone, I like the sauce thicker, almost like hummus. For sandwiches, I thin it out a little more. Taste and add more garlic or salt if you like.

When you are ready to cook the patties, heat a skillet over medium heat. Add a few teaspoons of canola oil if your pan is not reliably non-stick. Dollop the batter into the heated skillet, keeping in mind that you’re trying to make 6 small or 4 medium patties. Make sure there is space in between to allow you to flip them; cook in batches if your pan is not large enough to give them room. Cook for about 3-5 mins. until the patties are golden brown and firm enough to flip without a mess. Flip, press the top of each patty down slightly and cook for another 3 mins. Serve warm with tahini sauce or use 2 patties to make a wrap or pita sandwich. Cooked patties can be reheated and used, but they’re much better fresh.

Spicy beef jerky.

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Beef jerky is my new favorite snack. Some of you who know me well are doing a double take right now, I know. I blame my husband’s boss, and subsequently our good friend Scott, for making homemade jerky so delicious I had to try making my own. For many years I have been wary about beef; I actually went years without eating red meat, despite craving steak fajitas and grilled cheeseburgers on an almost weekly basis. I refuse to support the unfair conditions that define the living standard of so much of our commercial supply of meat; I won’t get into that now, but will say, again, to anyone who will listen, how lucky I am to have several local sources of meat from which I feel good about purchasing and eating beef.  The folks at Rain Shadow Meats have incredible variety and quality, there’s a Bill the Butcher in walking distance of our house and Uneeda Burger and Dot’s Charcuterie & Bistrot are a short drive away, just to name a few. As a snack, a small portion of beef jerky is filling; knowing exactly what is in it makes me feel good about sending a piece to work with my husband in lieu of cookies or crackers. We’ve both made lunch from jerky, cheese, apple slices, pickles and a piece of bread– a version of a ploughman’s lunch, I suppose.

When I first decided to try making jerky, I thought it was going to be a complex and time-consuming process with lots of steps and intricate temperature controls– but it is none of those things. You don’t need special tools, appliances or pans. As many of my favorite kitchen projects are, it’s a matter of being patient over doing lots of work: the beef has to be sliced carefully, then marinated for a while, then dried. That’s it! I use my oven to dehydrate: one benefit of having an older model, small oven is that the temperature settings go down to 125 degrees, so it is ideally suited for jerky. You can use a food dehydrator if you have one (just follow the instructions in the users’ guide) or rig up a box fan system, Alton Brown-style, as he explains here. Though I used my oven, not the box fan, I did use his marinade recipe (minus the liquid smoke) the first couple times I made beef jerky to get the hang of the ingredients and what they contribute to the final product. After that, I combined ratios from that recipe with ingredients from our favorite short rib marinade and our current ingredient obsession, gochujang, a savory Korean chile paste with a deep, wonderful flavor. This is the version I’m sharing today, and it’s pretty darn good, if I do say so. It’s for the heat seekers out there, especially if you use gochujang in your marinade. A little sweet, a little salty and about medium spicy– as a snack, it satisfies all my craving tendencies. If you’re looking for something a little less spicy, you could certainly omit the gochujang, but I haven’t tried doing that– more spice for me, please! As for the kind of beef, you can use any lean cut of beef, but I strongly prefer and recommend flank steak. It’s tops on my list for texture, ease of preparation and flavor.

I am so excited to have learned how to make jerky at home! With spring hikes and summer camping trips right around the corner, this will be a great item to have on hand. I’m going to have to start making larger batches to keep up with demand…

 

spicy beef jerky

Spicy Beef Jerky

  • 1 -3 lbs. flank steak
  • 1/3 c. soy sauce
  • 1 T. gochujang
  • 1 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1 tsp. dried ginger
  • 1 T. rice wine vinegar
  • 2 T. brown sugar

This amount of marinade will accommodate anywhere from one to three pounds of steak. The batch of jerky pictured above came from the piece of flank steak pictured below, which was about 1 1/2 lbs. If you plan to make more jerky than that, you’ll want to double the marinade recipe. To prepare the beef, trim it of all excess fat, or ask your butcher to do so. Put the flank steak, whole, into the freezer for 30 mins. to an hour to make it easier to slice. Slice into thin strips, about 1/4″ wide, against the grain for easier chewing. It is helpful for the pieces to be a uniform size so they cook at the same speed.

trimmed flank steak-- this piece was about 1 1/2 lbs.-- and marinade in a Ziploc bag

Make the marinade: in a Ziploc bag or narrow container with a cover, mix the soy sauce, gochujang, garlic powder, ginger, vinegar and brown sugar until combined. Add the sliced beef and ensure that all pieces are coated in marinade and submerged in liquid. Refrigerate overnight, at least 8 hours. When you’re ready to dehydrate, heat the oven to 150 degrees. (Break from my instructions here to follow the instructions for your food dehydrator, if you’re using one.) Cover the lower oven rack in tin foil to prevent a mess in the oven. Remove the top rack of the oven and wash thoroughly; lay the pieces of jerky directly on the top oven rack, being careful to leave space around each piece so it can dry completely.

beef jerky after about 1 hr of dehydrating, directly on the oven rack

When all pieces are on the rack, carefully put it back into the oven, near the center. Use a wooden spoon to prop the oven door open slightly. After two hours, turn each piece of jerky over; you should notice that they’re drying out and shrinking slightly. Dehydrate for another two hours and then check to see if they’re done. Jerky is ready when you can bend it and no beads of moisture form at the bending point. My batches have been very consistently done between four and four and a half hours of cooking.

Beef jerky can be stored in an airtight container for 2-3 months, according to Alton Brown; a batch this size hasn’t lasted more than two weeks at our house yet.

 

Rice noodles with cabbage, mushrooms & pork.

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Last time I made this noodle dish, I got quite a compliment from my husband: “This tastes like take-out. GOOD take-out.” I puffed right up, I did. I see what he means, though. Noodles with salty (but not overly), spicy (as much as you want it to be), crunchy (if that’s your thing) goodness tossed in? Another bowl for me, please. I was vaguely inspired by a noodles with cabbage dish I’ve had at a local Chinese restaurant, but the truth is that the recipe is my own. It has peanuts, because I like them in pad thai, and sriracha because I like it in pho. I make this recipe most often with ground pork, but have also used ground turkey and (pre-cooked) tofu, and occasionally just leave it “plain”, maybe with some extra vegetables. It has rapidly become a favorite, made often enough that I toss in the ingredients without measuring, but don’t worry– I made sure to test these quantities before writing. If you twist my arm, I’ll test it again for you.

There’s lots of potential for customization here, some of which I’ve mentioned already. The spice level as written is medium, so take it up or down (or out) as you wish. If cabbage isn’t your thing, perhaps bok choy, scallions, shredded carrots or snow peas would be in your version. The wonderful part about these noodles is that they’re quick, and very tasty left over, as any good take-out would be. Now, if I can master crab Rangoon, panang curry and pho, I’ll never have to order take-out again.

rice noodles with cabbage, mushrooms & pork

Rice Noodles with Cabbage, Mushrooms & Pork (serves 4)

  • 1/3 – 1/2 lb. cooked rice noodles*
  • 1/2 lb. ground pork (turkey or beef would also work)
  • 4 T. soy sauce, separated
  • 1 tsp. sriracha
  • 3/4 c. sliced white mushrooms
  • 2 c. shredded cabbage (green or Napa work well
  • 2 T. grated fresh ginger
  • 3 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 1 tsp. rice wine vinegar
  • 1 T. Shaoxing cooking wine (or sherry)
  • liberal amount of black pepper, preferably freshly-ground
  • 1 egg (optional but recommended)
  • 1 T. fresh lime juice
  • cilantro to garnish (optional)
  • crushed peanuts to garnish (optional)

In a large skillet, brown the ground pork. Don’t overcook, as it will cook more later; remove from the pan when there is no longer any visible pink meat. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pork to a bowl and add 1 T. soy sauce and all of the sriracha you plan to use. Mix and set aside.

Drain all but 1 T. drippings from the pan; add canola or grapeseed oil to the pan if you have less than that amount. Add the cabbage and mushrooms and cook over medium-high heat, stirring often to prevent sticking, until the cabbage begins to wilt. Make a small well and add the ginger and garlic; cook for 30 seconds or so and then continue to toss the ingredients until the cabbage and mushrooms have softened slightly, about 5 mins. Return the browned pork to the pan and stir to combine. Add the remaining 3 T. soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, Shaoxing wine and pepper and stir; cook for about 5 mins. Toss in the cooked rice noodles and taste, adjusting heat and salt (soy sauce) levels as needed. Make a well (you want to be able to see the pan) and crack the egg into it; over medium-high heat, scramble the egg until cooked and then mix it into the noodles thoroughly. Stir in the lime juice and serve, garnished with cilantro and/or peanuts as desired.

*Rice noodles come in more sizes than I ever thought possible. Any thickness will work, but if you have options, I prefer very thin noodles for this dish– think spaghetti instead of linguine. Here is a link with more information on cooking them if your package, like the most recent one I bought, has all cooking instructions in Thai.

Pasta with sweet potato, spinach & chicken sausage.

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February was National Sweet Potato Month, and I meant to share this recipe then… but I just didn’t get it written, maybe because I was too busy making it, twice. I debated waiting to post it until next February, but that seemed extreme. If you like sweet potatoes, I think you will also be happy I didn’t wait. This pasta dish is an easy weeknight meal, very little prep time needed, and just delicious. You can use any mild sausage you like, but I recommend chicken sausage, more specifically one with garlic and an Italian-style herb blend. Or, leave the sausage out completely; if you do so, consider replacing it with a minced shallot for flavor. I had never before considered using sweet potato with pasta, as I try to avoid starch on starch, but the natural sweetness is a perfect compliment to the slightly bitter spinach and nutty saltiness or Parmesan cheese. As we near spring greens season, don’t be shy about substituting other leafy greens for the spinach. This is a new favorite pasta dish for us, and one I hope you will also enjoy throughout the year.

sweet potato, spinach, chicken sausage

Pasta with Sweet Potato, Spinach & Chicken Sausage (serves 3-4)

  • 2 chicken sausages
  • 1 T. canola or olive oil
  • 1 c. sweet potato, peeled and finely diced*
  • 3 packed c. fresh spinach
  • lots of black pepper, freshly ground if you can
  • 1/4 c. grated Parmesan, plus more to garnish
  • 1/4 c. cream
  • 8 oz. cooked pasta (I used gemelli)

Cook your pasta according to package directions. It takes about the same amount of time as the sauce does, but cook it ahead if you like.

In a large skillet over medium heat, cook the sausage links for about 8 mins., turning once or twice to brown evenly. Remove to a clean cutting board and slice into pennies. It’s okay if they’re not quite cooked through, as they will be cooked more later in the process.

To the same skillet, heat the oil and add the diced sweet potatoes. Cook for 5 mins., without stirring, over medium heat and then flip/stir and continue cooking for another 3-5 mins. Add the spinach to the pan and allow it to wilt for about 3 mins., stirring occasionally. (If your sweet potatoes start to stick, add water 1 T. at a time to loosen from the pan.) Return the sausage pennies to the pan and cook until they are no longer pink; add pepper.

Add the cooked pasta, cream and 1/4 c. Parmesan cheese and toss to combine. Keep the pan on the heat just until all the ingredients are warmed through and then serve immediately; garnish with additional pepper and/or Parmesan if desired.

*I cut the sweet potato into 1/4″ cubes; you can go slightly larger but may need to adjust cooking time accordingly.

Whole-wheat muffins with blueberries & vanilla.

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As a kid, I loved All-Bran muffins. All-Bran was purchased expressly for muffins and I was pretty happy to see a new box in the cupboard. I’m not sure that bran muffins are typically what you think of as a kid-friendly choice, but that recipe made muffins that were so sweet, nutty and good, they ranked right behind my Mom’s (epic) blueberry muffins on my list of favorites. I don’t know that I have ever made them myself– is All-Bran still available to buy? I’m not even entirely sure what it is. So, why the extended intro about All-Bran muffins? It’s because this recipe, which I have made for the past few weekends and now must share, tastes just like the All-Bran muffins I remember from childhood.

The first batch was an accident– I was trying to make Alton Brown’s blueberry muffin recipe specifically because I had yogurt to use up and not enough butter to make my Mom’s. (I told you they were epic.) I had all the wet ingredients measured and mixed when I discovered we didn’t have enough cake flour on hand. We didn’t have any cake flour on hand, so I did an elaborate and haphazard mix of all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour and cornstarch. Why whole wheat flour? Because I ran out of all-purpose flour 8 oz. in to the 12 1/2 oz. of flour called for. Whoops. I should know better than to bake before coffee! Here’s the thing: the muffins that came out of this experiment were delicious! I had to add a little milk to thin a very thick batter, but the flavor and texture were wonderful: moist from the yogurt, slightly nutty from the whole wheat flour and appropriately sweet from the juicy blueberries. The vanilla is key, in a way I can’t quite put my finger on, but don’t leave it out; if anything, add a bit more. My husband loved them and asked me to make them again. For the second batch I used all whole-wheat flour, though slightly less than before, and didn’t bother with any cornstarch. Once again, perfect muffins. The recipe I used for this second batch is what I am sharing below. Though blueberries are always a delicious addition to muffins, I think these might be really great plain, and I am tempted to make a batch with bananas in place of the berries– for some reason I remember bananas being great with All-Bran.

If the All-Bran muffin recipe that was on the side of the box (remember?) in the late 70′s and early 80′s is a fond memory for you, too, please let me know if these muffins are similar to what you remember from back in the day. Perhaps All-Bran is made from whole wheat flavored with vanilla? Who knows. I feel like I stumbled on to something good here, taking a great recipe and adding a twist that made the muffins equally good and with a bonus twist of nostalgia. Give them a try next weekend, or soon– and check your ingredients before you start to mix. A word of wisdom.

whole-wheat muffins with blueberries & vanilla

Whole-Wheat Muffins with Blueberries & Vanilla (adapted from Alton Brown)

  • 12 oz. whole-wheat flour (I like Bob’s Red Mill)*
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 c. plain yogurt
  • 1/2 c. canola oil
  • 2 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 1/2 c. fresh or frozen blueberries

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a pan or pans to hold 12 “Texas” or jumbo muffins (or about 16 regular-size muffins) by lining with papers or greasing well with extra canola oil or baking spray.

In a large bowl, mix together the yogurt, canola oil, vanilla, sugar and egg. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. Add the dry ingredients and blueberries to the wet ingredients and stir together just until the dry ingredients are incorporated. Use a cookie scoop or large spoon to fill the prepared muffin cups; bake for 23-25 mins. until golden brown. A toothpick inserted into the center of one of your larger muffins should come out clean, provided you don’t put it through a blueberry. I found it helpful to turn the pans halfway through the cooking time so they browned evenly. Serve warm, or store in a tightly-covered container at room temperature for about 3 days. Muffins can be frozen for up to 3 months.

*If it’s an option, I highly recommend weighing your flour; whole-wheat flours vary so much brand to brand. If you don’t own a scale (here’s the one I use and recommend), 12 oz. is roughly equivalent to 2 2/3 c.

Cherry-rhubarb preserves with vanilla.

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I know some of you are thinking: preserves in February? This lady has lost her marbles. But it’s true, and I am here to talk about the wonders of winter jamming. January and February weekends are not just for marmalade. I make some of my best preserves on winter weekends when it’s too wet/cold to go outside and I have nothing better to do. I love to warm up the kitchen and house with bubbling vats, and it’s terribly therapeutic to have fruit simmering on the stove– you can close your eyes for a minute and pretend it’s July. My summers are often overwhelmingly busy, and my freezers indicate that last year was especially so, as they are chock-full of fruit I intended to jam and didn’t get to then. Rather than lose the fruit*, or miss out on having a certain kind of jam (cherry, strawberry, plum, for instance), I filled the freezer full in anticipation of quieter, less scheduled days. Now, on any given day, I would chose fresh, ripe fruit to work with when making preserves, but it’s true that a few kinds of fruit are forgiving enough to make good, tasty jam after being frozen. One is rhubarb, another is cherries, and I put them together last weekend to make these cherry-rhubarb preserves with vanilla.

When Bing cherries are in season, I often make jam with those and some of the last rhubarb from my plant. It is one of my favorite flavors of the year and often the first used up from my cupboard. I used the last of my Bings to make a batch of smoky cherries in January, but had some pie cherries on hand and thought I would try those instead; it seemed like an especially good combination, given my preference for tart, not-too-sweet jam. These preserves are quite tart, in the wonderful way rhubarb- and pie cherry-lovers adore, deep pink in color and nuanced with vanilla. They will be perfect as a yogurt stir-in or a cookie filling, or on a piece of oatmeal toast.

If you have Bings instead, by all means make the substitution with no changes to the recipe. I find both versions of cherry-rhubarb preserves to be a delicious treat. I’d love to hear from others who jam with frozen fruit: what have you made?

cherry-rhubarb preserves

Cherry-Rhubarb Preserves with Vanilla (makes about 5 half-pints)

  • 4 c. rhubarb, fresh or frozen
  • 2 c. pie cherries, fresh or frozen
  • 2 1/2 c. sugar or organic evaporated cane juice
  • 2 vanilla beans, split
  • 3 T. lemon juice

Start a water bath and sterilize your jars and lids. If you’re working with frozen fruit, allow it to thaw (at least most of the way) in the refrigerator; be careful not to lose any juice.

Into a jam pan, Dutch oven or equivalent, add the rhubarb, cherries, any juice from thawing and sugar; stir to combine. Add the lemon juice and submerge the split vanilla beans in the fruit. Bring to a rolling boil over medium-high heat; cook, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching, until the preserves boil down and thicken. I prefer a looser set, like a thick applesauce, so I stop cooking mine when the jam thickens enough to fall in sheets from the side of a spoon. I also leave the cherries whole, other than any breaking down that happens naturally from stirring, which is why I refer to this as preserves instead of jam; you can (carefully) blend with an immersion blender if you’d like a smooth consistency. If you’d like to add pectin to make a thicker product that is more like a traditional jam, there are some helpful tips on the Pomona’s pectin website, as well as in the insert found in each box of Pomona’s.

When you reach your desired set point, remove the pan from the heat. Carefully remove the hot vanilla beans and use a knife to scrape out any seeds that may be left in them. Ladle hot jam into hot, sterilized jars; wipe the rims of each jar carefully and affix the lids. Process the jars in a water bath for 10 mins.; remove to a clear, towel-lined counter and allow to sit untouched overnight. Check that each jar is sealed; refrigerate unsealed jars immediately. Properly sealed jars will keep in a cool, dark cupboard for up to a year.

*I only ever freeze perfectly ripe, unblemished fruit. Putting under- or over-ripe produce into the freezer does not magically transform it into good quality fruit, and poor-quality fruit is not well suited for canning in any form.

Cinnamon raisin bagels.

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Making bagels seems like such a challenging thing to do. How many people do you know making their own at home? My answer to that question is zero, one if I reach to include acquaintances from my barters… At our first Backyard Barter Urban Food Fair in late 2012, a lady showed up with a few dozen homemade bagels to trade and was swarmed by excited folks offering pretty much anything she wanted in exchange for a few precious bagels. I know firsthand because I was one of the excited folks– I think I traded a jar, maybe two, or homemade, organic jam for three bagels. And it was a worthwhile trade, because the bagels were wonderful: soft but with a perfectly chewy exterior, flavorful and satisfying. When I read somewhere at the beginning of the month that February 9th is National Bagel Day, I decided it was time for me to give bagel making a go. A lightly-scheduled Saturday turned out to be the perfect day for me, though a full day is not at all necessary. My bagel adventure took just about two hours from start to taste.

Cinnamon raisin bagels are a favorite in our household; I adapted this recipe from Spoonful with additions of cinnamon, raisins and vanilla to create that signature flavor we enjoy so much. The verdict from my husband? “They taste just like Mister Bagel”, high praise indeed! I couldn’t agree more. These bagels are soft on the inside, chewy and golden on the outside and full of plump, sweet raisins. Thank goodness I thought to put in vanilla; I think it added just the right touch. If anything, I could have used more cinnamon. You can taste it, but it’s not an assertive flavor, and I probably could have added another 1/2 tsp. This is a recipe I will make again and again– it was really fun, very approachable and with better-than-expected results.

With my confidence boosted from the experience of making these cinnamon raisin bagels, I envision many more afternoons of flavor experimentation. My husband’s favorite kind is cheddar jalapeno, so I think I’ll try those next, and I am faint at the notion of recreating my beloved spinach bagel– I haven’t had a good one since college, when we used to road trip to Finagle a Bagel in Boston. I really can’t say enough how much fun I had making bagels. Now, if I can just recreate my favorite schmears, I’ll be in business. That’s good news for my bagel-loving barter friends!

cinnamon raisin bagels

Cinnamon Raisin Bagels (makes 8)

  • 1 1/2 c. lukewarm water
  • 2 1/4 tsp. yeast
  • 3 T. sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
  • 3 1/2 – 4 1/2 c. flour*
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 c. raisins
  • 1 egg white + 1 1/2 tsp. water

I used a stand mixer to make my dough and recommend doing so; of course, you can mix by hand if you prefer.

Add the warm water to your mixer bowl and sprinkle the yeast over the top; allow to sit for 5 mins. in a warm spot until the yeast softens. Sprinkle the sugar over the top and add vanilla. Sift together 2 c. flour, salt and cinnamon and add to the bowl; mix with the dough hook attachment until combined. Add the raisins and an additional 1 1/2 c. flour and mix again until combined. At that point, assess whether you need more flour: the dough should be smooth and not too sticky to handle. It should form a ball easily and not look or feel very wet. If it is still quite wet and sticky, add more flour, 1/2 c. at a time, until the dough is smooth enough to be handled. Remove from the mixer bowl and knead for a minute or two with your hands, folding the ball in on itself one way and then the other. Lightly grease a glass bowl and put your kneaded ball in the bowl, turning it to coat all sides with oil. Cover the bowl with a tea towel, place in a warm area and allow the dough to rise until doubled in size, about one hour.

dough, after rising for 1 hr

After your dough has doubled, punch it down and allow to rest for a minute or two. While it’s resting, prepare a board or counter top by sprinkling it gently with flour and cover two cookie sheets or similar baking pans with parchment paper. Fill a large stockpot two-thirds full with water and add the remaining 1 T. sugar; put it on to boil. Whisk together the egg white and 1 1/2 tsp. water; this is your egg wash. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

Turn your dough onto the floured surface and divide it in half. I found a bench scraper to be very helpful, but a knife will work. The key to this step and the next few are consistency. Cut each dough half into halves, and then each quarter again into halves, so you have eight equally-sized balls of dough. I used a scale to weigh mine (each ball was between 4.8 and 5.1 oz.) but your eyes will work if you don’t have a scale. Gently form each ball of dough into a round and pat it flat; repeat until all eight are done. Rest the dough again at this point for 2-3 mins.

8 equally-sized dough balls

Now it’s time to turn those dough balls into bagels! Working one at a time, press your thumbs through the center of each dough ball and pull apart gently to form the center hole. Pull slowly away from the center with your thumbs until you have the shape you want. Continue until all eight balls of dough have a hole in the center. Rest the dough again for at least 10 mins. or until the water in your stockpot is boiling.

holes!

Before you start cooking, put a cotton tea towel over a plate or rack directly adjacent to your boiling water and have ready a spider or some tongs. Also, have your baking sheets ready and nearby. Working 2-3 at a time, add bagels to the boiling water; cook for 30 seconds and then flip on to the other side and boil for another 30 seconds. The bagels will puff up significantly during this stage. Remove them to the towel-lined plate to drain some of the excess moisture, then put them on to a baking sheet, leaving space between so the bagels aren’t touching. Repeat until all bagels are boiled.

bagels have been boiled but not yet egg washed

Use a pastry brush (or spoon in a pinch) to glaze the top of each bagel with egg wash. Bake for 25 mins. until golden brown, rotating the pans halfway through to ensure even baking. Remove from the oven and cool slightly, but make sure to eat (at least) one hot from the oven! It’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced. Bagels will keep in a tightly-covered container for 3-4 days and can be frozen.

yum!

Baked Mediterranean-style meatballs with feta sauce.

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I have been on a meatball kick lately. Before six months ago, I had never really made meatballs and was intimidated by them– what if they came out tough? What if they were flavorless? What if they fell apart in the pan? Now, those fears seem silly, knowing that meatballs are one of the most versatile, easy things to make. The trick is to season them with strong flavors– spices, garlic, herbs– and take care not to overwork them when mixing in your flavors. My husband loves meatballs and encourages me to experiment with different seasonings, so we’ve had traditional Italian meatballs cooked in marinara; pork meatballs flavored with ginger, soy sauce and scallions; lamb meatballs with harissa and mint. All of those variations were tasty, but this recipe is my absolute favorite. I call them Mediterranean-style because they are flavored with spinach, loosely-crumbled feta cheese, preserved lemon, oregano and mint. I most often serve them with barley or couscous, and they are killer in a pita or wrap accompanied by the creamy feta sauce and fresh tomatoes, cucumber and lettuce.

For these meatballs, I prefer to use ground pork, but beef, lamb or a combination of meats would work equally well. You can use what you’re comfortable with, what you prefer. The base of the feta sauce can be either Greek yogurt or sour cream, and you can dial up the heat or make it mild. I bake instead of pan-cooking meatballs, primarily for these three reasons: I don’t worry about them crumbling and sticking to the pan, I don’t have to use any added oil and they still come out brown and crispy from the oven. Less fuss, less muss. The recipe as written serves three as an entree (two of us for dinner with some left over) and can be easily multiplied.

Slightly salty from the feta, with the fresh taste of spinach and mint, the bright flavor of preserved lemon and a nice garlicky bite, I adore the flavor of these meatballs and hope you will give the recipe a try. Make them smaller for a fun appetizer, or try them in place of traditional meatballs next time you make pasta. The feta sauce is also wonderful with falafel, roast chicken or lamb. If this meatball kick keeps up, I’ll have more recipes for you soon, but for now I can’t seem to stop making these!

Mediterranean-style meatballs with feta sauce

Baked Mediterranean-Style Meatballs with Feta Sauce (makes 12)

For the meatballs:

  • 2 packed c. fresh spinach
  • 1/2 lb. ground pork
  • 1/4 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1/4 tsp. dried mint
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 T. preserved lemon, minced very finely (optional)
  • 1 – 2 cloves of garlic, minced very finely
  • 1 egg, slightly beaten
  • 2 T. feta, crumbled
  • 1/4 c. bread crumbs (I use these, but any plain or panko work well)

For the sauce:

  • 2 T. sour cream or Greek yogurt (plain)
  • 1/4 c. feta, crumbled
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced
  • liberal amount of black pepper, preferably freshly ground
  • 1/4 tsp. harissa (optional)
  • 1 T. milk (optional)

Start by wilting your spinach. I use a dry pan to do so, but use 1 tsp. or so of canola or grapeseed oil if you think it will be necessary. Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium-low heat and add the spinach. Stir occasionally until all leaves have been exposed to the hot pan and cook until the spinach is soft and wilted, about 5 mins. Remove to a cutting board and allow to cool slightly. If the spinach looks at all wet or is releasing liquid, drain off the liquid or blot gently with a paper towel. Chop the spinach roughly.

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with tin foil or parchment paper and place a baking rack on top. This set up allows the meatballs to cook without sitting in the fat they will inevitably release. If you don’t have a rack, you can cook the meatballs right on the foil (spray lightly with cooking spray) or parchment.

Put the ground pork into a large bowl and use a fork (or your hands) to break it into smaller pieces. Add the rest of the ingredients to the bowl, including the chopped spinach once it has cooled to close to room temperature. If using preserved lemon, make sure it is very finely minced, almost to a paste-like consistency, as chunks in your final meatballs are overwhelming. Use your hands or a fork to gently combine all the ingredients, mixing just until the spices and spinach are evenly distributed. Try not to pulverize the feta, if you can help it.

If you have a 2 T. cookie scoop, use that to form the meatballs. If not, you can do it with your hands or a tablespoon. The key is to make them all the same size, so they cook evenly. Place your meatballs in rows with space between them. Bake for 25 mins. (smaller ones will take less time), until golden brown. If you did not use a rack, remove the meatballs from the pan to a paper towel-lined plate to blot some of the excess fat. Serve immediately with cooked couscous, rice, barley or similar; cooked pasta; or in a sandwich. Though delicious plain, as pictured below, they are extra-special served with the creamy feta sauce.

meatballs, before sauce

While the meatballs cook, make your feta sauce: mix the sour cream or yogurt with the feta, garlic, pepper and harissa, if using. Use the milk to thin out the sauce so it’s easier to drizzle, if you like. This recipe makes enough sauce for 12 meatballs but can easily be multiplied.

Cardamom rolls with almond-cream filling.

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Whatever happened to the tradition of having people over for coffee and a chat? Though not something I have ever done, as host or guest, I still miss the courtesy and custom of “dropping by”. My Nana *always* had something sweet available to offer to a guest with their cup of coffee or tea, and it seemed like such a civilized, grown-up thing to do, to sit and talk over coffee and a slice of cake, or cookie, or piece of pie. Perhaps her Swedish heritage gave her a leg up, an innate sense of how to entertain lightly. There is the wonderful Swedish fika, a coffee break that is so much more. The idea of setting aside time to catch up with friends in a relaxed setting with sweets is just about the best thing I can think of. My enchantment with the idea of fika may explain my undying love for cardamom-heavy breads and rolls that are ideal for dunking in coffee or tea. Someday I will share our precious family recipe for bullar; until then, let me introduce you to semlor.

A semla is a yeasted cardamom roll with a two-part filling of almond cream and whipped cream. It is not very sweet; think of it less as a cream puff, despite its appearance, and more along the lines of a scone, muffin or breakfast bread. A semla is for dunking. In addition to cardamom rolls and loaves, I adore fruit-studded breads like hot cross buns, and the texture of these semlor is quite like that of a good hot cross bun. Semlor are traditionally associated with Shrove Tuesday, when they were eaten as the last indulgent treat before Lent. Nowadays, they are available year-round, though some still hold to tradition by serving a semla floating in a bowl of warm milk. In Finland, the almond filling is sometimes replaced with raspberry jam– I will be anxious to try that variation.

As with any raised bread, making semlor is a time-consuming process, though not difficult. I successfully employed my stand mixer to do most of the work, in the interest of saving time, but the steps are straightforward (even if you’re working the dough by hand) and well worth the time spent. I very lightly adapted this recipe from Allrecipes.com by taking away some sugar in the bread and adding more cardamom. I also used almond paste instead of marzipan, and though the differences are subtle, I believe this swap may have lessened the sugar even more. The most challenging part of the process was preparing the almond cream; almond paste is finicky to work with and expensive, so I was determined to get it right without waste or do-overs. If you’re not up to the challenge (or hassle), go the Finnish route of raspberry jam, or add a few drops of almond extract to your whipped cream and skip the almond cream altogether. In my opinion, the rolls are so good they can be eaten plain; the fillings just take them to another level.

A semla with my morning coffee is a treat I look forward to having again soon; I won’t be waiting for next Shrove Tuesday. The roll soaks up some coffee (coffee and cardamom together is one of my favorite flavor pairs) and the cream filling melts slightly and gives a rich creaminess to your coffee. It’s a nice way to start a Sunday, or anyday, let me tell you. Someday, I hope to have semlor on hand when a friend stops by to chat. We will try this lovely concept of fika.

semla

Cardamom Rolls with Almond-Cream Filling (Semlor) (makes 24)

For the rolls:

  • 10 T. unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 c. whole milk
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 1/4 tsp. yeast
  • 6 c. all-purpose flour, separated
  • 1/3 c. sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 1/4 tsp. ground cardamom, preferably freshly-ground
  • 4 tsp. baking powder

For the fillings:

  • 1/2 c. whole milk (more as needed)
  • 4 oz. almond paste
  • 1 pint of heavy whipping cream
  • 2 T. sugar

In a saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the butter; add the milk and continue to heat just until lukewarm. (I played this by touch, but you’re looking for 70-80 degrees if using a thermometer.) Whisk the eggs lightly and then whisk them into the lukewarm milk mixture. Transfer to the bowl of your stand mixer and add the yeast; set the bowl aside for 5 mins. to allow the yeast to soften.

While the yeast is blooming, sift together 5 c. of flour, salt, 1/3 c. sugar and the ground cardamom. Return to the milk mixture and check to make sure the yeast is dissolving and spreading to cover the top of the mixture. Break up any clumps, gently, and allow those to soften. When you are ready to proceed, add about half of your flour mixture to the bowl and use a dough hook to gently mix on a low speed until combined. Add the rest of the flour and mix again until you have a very wet, very soft dough that resembles thick pancake batter. Remove the bowl from the mixer and cover with a towel; rest the dough for 30 mins. in a warm place.

When the 30 mins. is up, the dough should look like it expanded slightly, but it will still be wet. Sift together the remaining 1 c. flour and baking powder and add it to your dough. Put the bowl back on the mixer stand and mix slowly, so you don’t cover the kitchen in flour, until combined. At this point your dough should be smooth, only slightly sticky (if at all) and very supple. Prepare your baking pans: I used a half-sheet cake pan (about 12″ x 16″ rectangle) but you can use one or two cookie or jelly roll pans instead. Cover the bottom of your pan(s) with parchment paper or lightly grease them. Pull off balls of dough, slightly smaller than a tennis ball, and roll them into smooth rounds. You want consistently sized balls for even baking; at the end, I eyed the pan and pulled bits from larger rolls to add to the smaller ones. Try to get 24 rolls from the batch.

dough balls before proofing

Cover your pan(s) and allow the rolls to proof for 35 mins., during which they will not quite double. At that time, preheat the oven to 375 degrees and, when it has come up to temperature, bake the semlor for 20-30 mins., until golden brown and hollow-sounding when you tap on the top. Cool the rolls until they can be pulled or cut apart neatly, about 45 mins. to an hour.

making the almond filling

When the rolls are sufficiently cooled, make your filling. I highly recommend employing a food processor, as you are trying to turn stiff almond paste into a filling with a pudding-like consistency. Use a sharp knife to slice the top off each semla; pull out a few tablespoons of the soft center (placing the bread scraps in the bowl of your food processor) to create a well for the fillings. When you have cut and scooped all of the rolls, add 1/2 c. milk to the bread scraps and let it soak for a few minutes. Break the almond paste into smaller chunks (it is often a solid piece coming out of the can) and add to the milk and bread mixture; pulse, scraping down the sides of the food processor bowl as necessary, until you have a uniform consistency that resembles Greek yogurt or thick pudding. Add more milk, 1 T. at a time, if necessary to smooth the filling out, but be careful not to make it too runny.

semla with almond filling

In your stand mixer bowl, whip the cream with the remaining 2 T. sugar until it holds a stiff peak. Transfer the whipped cream to a pastry bag, or a Ziploc-style bag with a hole cut in the bottom corner.

Place one tablespoonful of the almond filling in the well of each hollowed semla and pipe whipped cream to cover. Return the top of each roll and press down slightly. Repeat until all your semlor are filled.

Serve with hot coffee or tea. Store in the refrigerator for 3-4 days, tightly covered. Rolls can be frozen without fillings but are best served fresh.

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