Favorites from 2017: Books.

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When I look back on a year of reading, I tend to see the same trends: many cookbooks, a few memoirs or collections of travel essays to satisfy my self-imposed quota of nonfiction, and an equal mix of novels and short story collections, mostly published the same year. Not 2017. I broke most of my own molds last year. I still read cookbooks, because I love them, but I managed to finish only 9 short story collections. I read more nonfiction than in any year I can remember– mostly essays about feminism, systemic racism, and politics. (Go figure.) The novels I read were long and detailed. I rediscovered Salman Rushdie and Alice McDermott. I cemented George Saunders in my pantheon of Great Authors, and expect Jesmyn Ward to be there someday, too. I finally read James Baldwin, Ann Patchett, Anne Enright. I read books shortlisted for awards– Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Locking Up Our Own by James Forman, Jr., Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng– and adored others that were puzzlingly under-read, or at least under-reviewed, like The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam and Human Acts by Han Kang. As always, I am thrilled to have met my reading goal, shared true gems with my book friends, and assembled a to-read list that will carry me well into the new year, just in time for more highly-anticipated books to come out! Here are my Top 10 books of 2017, mostly in order of how much I loved them… and here’s to more great books and plenty of time to read them in 2018.

Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole

This is one of the first books I read last year, in the cold and still month of January, and I knew the entire time I was savoring it that it would be on this list at the end of the year. Here are my notes from January:

‘I can’t shake the feeling this may be the best book I read all year, even though it is only the 23rd day of 2017 as I write this. The essays contained within spoke to me so clearly– to my love of literature, my fascination with photography (even when it’s clear I don’t understand/see it with the same critical eye), my concern for social justice and anger about oppression and discrimination. There were curious parallels between my real life and the subject matter of the essays I read each day; nothing earth-shattering, just intriguing coincidences like reading about James Baldwin on the bus ride home from the book group meeting in which we decided to read The Fire Next Time; reading about Selma the week I watched the movie with the same name; reading about the four official languages of Switzerland just an hour after randomly discussing the same topic at work; reading about Naipaul the day I chose to add A House for Mr. Biswas to my library queue, after hearing President Obama was a fan of Naipaul’s work. (I never did like A Bend in the River…) I have been thinking a lot about the essay about Palestine– it might be the most clear and concise discussion of the reprehensible sociopolitical situation there I’ve yet encountered. My highest recommendation for this collection.’

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

Without question my favorite novel of the year, one I have been recommending to anyone who will listen to me gush. The protagonist is not entirely sympathetic, the plot jumps around in time, and geographically… but overall it is a nearly perfect novel, in my estimation. There are moments of poignant and heartfelt love, scenes to make you bark laughter at the absurdity of the situation described, and descriptions of calculated selfishness and betrayal, sometimes all at once. The opening scene is perfect, the ending is exactly what I wanted. I must recommend you add this to your to-read list if you’ve ever enjoyed John Irving or Salman Rushdie, or if you just want to be absorbed by a well-written, character-driven novel.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I can’t shed any new light on a novel that is perhaps the most-reviewed and most-discussed of the year. I, too, struggled with the format for a few pages… and then it clicked, and I fell in to the story, and I loved it deeply. I had the privilege of listening to Mr. Saunders explain the book and his writing process, followed by his participation in a 4-person reading. Even before that night, I respected his work so much; now, as I mentioned above, he is solidly one of my favorite writers. When I met him after the reading, I was thinking of a political poem he shared with us and an essay he had written for The New Yorker, so of course I blurted out something to the effect of “thank you for your words, you are my life raft (in these dark political times)”. Sigh. He smiled kindly, said I had wise eyes, and signed my book.

ps. Both the poem and political essay are available to read online.

Human Acts by Han Kang

I almost didn’t read this one. The Vegetarian, her previous novel, was not a favorite, and this sounded so dark… which it was, but how could it not be, given the subject? From my review written just after reading in April:

‘Heartfelt, tense, beautiful, and informative. I did not know about the Gwangju uprising (May 1980) so the history was new to me. This novel is told through the eyes of observers and victims of the bloody and brutal stance against the unflinching regime of Chun Doo-hwan. The use of various narrators and historical recall managed to both mask (mercifully) the violence against students, and heighten its effect on those who saw friends and compatriots die. The storytelling was crisp and emotional, the translation beautiful.’

The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam

I still think of this novel often, so slim and with so few characters, and consider it one of the most impactful I have read in many years. Even months later, I recall my sense of what the beach looked like, the strangling heat and humidity, how the characters must have felt as strangers pushed together by war and family and circumstance. It is an emotional and impeccably written book, not one word wasted, and I marvel at the author’s skill to put so much detail, so succinctly, into 208 pages.

The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel

A fascinating read about the Hermit of North Pond, a legend I had heard about for years in murky detail through sensationalized local reporting. The story is astonishing: Christopher Knight lived for 27 years in the dense Maine woods, undetected and without human contact. The story by Mr. Finkel begins after Mr. Knight has been discovered, arrested, and charged for the break-ins he used to gather food and gear, moving between present conversations and past recollections. As a Mainer, it was fun to uncover the story from the hermit’s perspective, and as a reader, it was a fast-paced account of a story unlike any other.

The Return by Hisham Matar

A heartbreaking and fraught account of a family’s experience with loss and fracture. The author’s father was a political dissident in Libya, disappeared after living in exile in Cairo and never seen or heard from again. The author tells his father’s story, as well as he can; some of the story of Libya, from as far back as the time of Italian rule; and his own story as a fatherless son returning to Libya after Qaddafi was overthrown. I cheered when I saw that Mr. Matar won a Pulitzer for this book. To be recognized for the importance of the story and the strength of his writing is the least he deserves.

Somebody with a Little Hammer by Mary Gaitskill

Oh, Mary Gaitskill, how I adore you. One of my favorite short story authors, I somehow never knew her talent as an essayist. From my review in May:

‘Finding this collection of essays was like finding a treasure chest long-buried in the attic. Like her or not, Ms. Gaitskill has a strong and familiar voice. I admire her frank discussion of all manner of subjects: books, music, movies, art, sex, love, treatment of others. I used to think her “shocking”, because she says and writes things I don’t often see, but I realize she is truthful. I don’t think her words are intended to provoke, or shock, just to make the reader consider something or someone in a different light. It’s refreshing, and interesting.’

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

Boy, was this novel ever more than I expected. I like to read books “cold”– even when recommended by a friend, I beg for no more than basic plot info, so I can discover on my own. I never read reviews or criticism beforehand. As such, I really didn’t know anything more than this: there’s a husband, and wife, and some discovered letters. The story that pours from these letters is half love story and half confessional, with a whole lot of mystery and feelings stirred up and stirred in. The plot alternates between current-day, narrated by one of the couple’s adult daughters, and letters from before, written by the wife. The timeline stayed hazy for me, and my feelings about each character shifted dramatically as the letters were revealed. I loved that aspect of the story. I had no idea where the plot was going and was honestly surprised by the way the story played out.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

This novel broke me in half. I was quite literally breathless reading most of it– I would have to pause, remember to breathe, and then continue. The characters are crisp and distinct, especially Jojo. There is so much pain, love, devotion, and loyalty in the story… I’m not even doing it justice. There are no words I can offer that haven’t been shared by a critic or fan, so I will say simply: read this book. It is not easy to read, but it is important and exquisite and worthy of every bit of praise, every award. Ms. Ward is clearly one of the best authors writing today. May she bless us with dozens more novels like Sing.

So there you have it, my Top 10 of 2017. Now, tell me your favorites! Please comment. What did you love reading in 2017, and which books are you looking forward to in 2018? Happy reading!

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Cranberry clementine breakfast rolls.

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We had Christmas with my sister’s family this past weekend, and I wanted to make something special for Sunday brunch. I’ve been thinking about a breakfast-appropriate baked treat with cranberries and orange for a little while now, so I decided to adapt the Meyer lemon breakfast rolls I made a few years back to make cranberry clementine breakfast rolls. They feature an enriched dough which is studded with cranberries, rolled with tangy cream cheese filling, and topped while warm with a bright clementine glaze. I am really pleased with how they turned out! I used clementines for the orange/citrus part because they are so sweet and easy to juice. They give the rolls a bright, fresh flavor and scent. The cranberries are an accent flavor; they look so pretty and festive in the dough. The rolls themselves are soft and flaky, an ideal base for the tart, sweet, tangy flavors of the fruit and filling.

I enjoy working with enriched dough: it can be made by hand or quickly in a stand mixer, is easy to pat or roll out into the rectangle you need to create, and is forgiving if you need a little more of less time to proof. In other words, it’s a great recipe for beginners or novices because the final product almost always tastes fantastic, and the recipe usually works with the time constraints of, say, a busy holiday weekend. I think the pictured batch could have risen for another 30 mins. before baking– but I didn’t have an extra 30 mins., and I was still pleased as punch with how they looked and tasted. That, to me, is an ideal holiday (or any day) recipe: festive, special, flexible, and mostly made ahead!

After a family breakfast with scrambled eggs, Mailhot sausages, plenty of coffee, and these fragrant cranberry clementine breakfast rolls– which my 4 year old niece helped me glaze– we were properly fortified to watch the kids open their Christmas gifts. A nice treat to start a fun day. Happy Holidays!

Cranberry Clementine Breakfast Rolls (makes

For the dough:

  • 3 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 c. sugar
  • 2 1/4 tsp. active dry yeast
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • zest of three clementines
  • 1/2 c. buttermilk
  • 8 T. unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into pieces
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1/4 c. chopped fresh cranberries (not frozen)

For the filling:

  • 5 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1/2 c. sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla
  • 2 T. clementine juice (from about 1 clementine)
  • pinch of kosher salt

For the glaze:

  • 1/4 c. clementine juice (from about 2 clementines)
  • 1 c. confectioner’s sugar, sifted
  • pinch of kosher salt

Day 1: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine 3 c. flour, sugar, yeast, salt and zest. Mix to combine. Add the buttermilk and cubes of soft butter to the dry ingredients and turn on the mixer, low speed. Lightly whisk the eggs and add to the mixer as it runs. Walk away if you need to, but let the mixer go on low-medium speed for at least 5 mins.

Toss the chopped cranberries with 1/4 c. more flour and add to the dough. Mix for another minute. Remove the dough (it should be in a ball around the hook) from the mixer bowl and knead with your hands for a few minutes, adding a dusting of flour if the dough is very sticky, then create a ball again. Place a small amount of neutral oil in the bottom of a glass or ceramic bowl; make sure the dough is entirely coated (lightly) with oil. Cover with a tea towel and allow to rise in a warm spot for about 3 hours, until it has about doubled in size.

While the dough rises, make your filling. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix until smooth. Refrigerate until you are ready to roll the dough, though it is helpful to bring the filling to room temperature by removing it from the refrigerator about 40 mins. before you need to use it.

Lightly flour a bread board or large cutting board. Turn the dough out and pat or roll into a large rectangle, about 10″ x 15″. Starting at one long end, spread the cream cheese filling over the surface of the dough, leaving 1-2″ of dough open at the other long end. The filling should completely and evenly cover the rest of the dough. Starting at the filling-covered end, roll the dough into a long tube. Pull the clear end up and over the roll and pinch to seal. Refrigerate or freeze the dough for about 20 mins. before cutting.

Cut the cold filled dough in half through the middle to make two tubes of uncut rolls, about 8″ long apiece. Then, cut each tube again in half, then each of your four tubes into 4 pieces. (I know this does not add up to 15– I had two stub ends that I combined to make one bun.) The key is consistent thickness, so work slowly. It does get messy… but I like to think of the mess as flavor and character, so I don’t get frustrated. I used a serrated bread knife, cleaned between cuts, and have seen other methods using bench scrapers and plain dental floss to make the cuts. I was not that concerned with perfection… but if you are, there are some good instructions on the web. When you have about 15 similar-sized buns, place them in a lightly sprayed 9″ x 13″ baking pan in five rows of three. Push the rolls right up against each other so they fit snugly in the pan. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. The rolls should rise again, slowly, overnight.

Day 2: Remove the pan from the refrigerator and loosen the plastic wrap so it covers the pan lightly. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Allow the buns to warm up for about an hour at room temperature. Bake at 325 for 20-25 mins., rotating the pan once midway through, until the cranberry breakfast rolls are golden brown and the center ones are cooked through.

Mix up the clementine glaze by combining 1/4 c/ clementine juice, 1 c. confectioner’s sugar, and a pinch of kosher salt in a small bowl. Drizzle the glaze, yes all of it, over the rolls, as soon as they come out of the oven. Use a bread knife or spoon to pull the rolls away from the side of the pan so the glaze drips down around all sides. The glaze will harden slightly as the buns cool. Serve immediately.

Leftover breakfast rolls will keep, tightly covered, for 2-3 days.

Chocolate ginger cookies.

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I love baking cookies to give as holiday gifts. I start looking for recipes to make in early November, poring over cookbooks and baking magazines and taking notes on food blogs. There are a few I make each year: buckeyes (technically candy, but who’s counting?), Mexican wedding cookies, stuffed cookies, and snickerdoodles. In addition to the standards, I like to create or try at least one new recipe. I made butterscotch no-bakes and peanut butter-stuffed cookie cups from the new (and fabulous!!) Sally’s Cookie Addiction cookbook. And, after a request from a coworker to marry ginger and chocolate in a holiday treat, I made these Chocolate Ginger Cookies.

I love the bite of ginger, but decided to keep it subtle here, giving you a festive, zingy hint of flavor but letting chocolate be the star. Chocolate ginger cookies have a crisp exterior and a perfectly soft middle. They are dunkable in coffee or tea, and shippable, which checks most of the boxes I consider when planning cookies to gift. The sugar coating gives them texture and a pretty, wintery look. They are un-fussy, a key factor for me at this busy time of year. There is a time and place for frosting and cookie cutters, but I relish a cookie recipe I can scoop and bake quickly. In past years I would send boxes of homemade goodies to New England; this year I’ll be mailing back to Seattle, so they have to hold up for a few days in transit, and not arrive in pieces. Chocolate ginger cookies should be perfect for shipping.

If you are looking for a cookie to make for a potluck, cookie swap, or holiday gift, look no further! Peppy ginger and rich chocolate together are a wonderful match. Your friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, etc. will be thrilled at your thoughtfulness. Happy holidays!

Chocolate Ginger Cookies (makes about 45 cookies)

  • 8 T. unsalted butter
  • 1/2 c. semisweet chocolate chips, or 4 oz. dark or semisweet chocolate
  • 3 T. candied (crystallized) ginger, minced
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 c. dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 c. white sugar
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 c. flour
  • 1/2 c. baking cocoa powder
  • 2 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 – 1 c. white or sanding sugar, to finish

In a small saucepan over low to medium heat, melt the butter and chocolate chips. Remove from the heat, add the candied ginger pieces and salt, and cool slightly. Make sure the mixture stays liquid. Steadfastly avoid eating this chocolate mixture with a teaspoon, or you’ll have to make more.

Into a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, add 1/2 c. white sugar, brown sugar, eggs and vanilla. Mix on medium speed until well combined and slightly frothy.

Sift together flour, cocoa powder, ground ginger, and baking soda. Set aside.

Stream the cooled chocolate mixture into the egg mixture, while the mixer runs on low speed. Scrape the sides of the bowl and mix for 2 mins. Add the sifted dry ingredients in two batches, stopping to scrape the sides of the bowl in between additions. Mix only until combined. Cover the mixing bowl and chill the dough for at least 2 hours, and up to 2 days.

When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 3 baking sheets with parchment paper. Use a small 1 T. cookie scoop (or a small spoon) to form balls of dough. Roll each ball in white or sanding sugar and place on a cookie sheet with 1″ or so room between cookies, about 16 per sheet. Bake for 12-14 mins., rotating the pan once halfway through. Remove from the oven and slide the parchment paper with cookies onto cooling racks. Let cool at least 20 mins. before serving, at least 1 hr. before packing.

Chocolate ginger cookies will keep for 4-6 days in a tightly covered container at room temperature. You can freeze them for 2-3 months.

Thanksgiving traditions: corn spoon bread.

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For years, so many I lost count, we’ve had Thanksgiving dinner with our closest Seattle friends. We got really, really good at making this meal. Everyone had a specialty to add to the table: smoked or fried turkey with perfect gravy, green bean casserole with Red Mill onion rings for the topping, the Best Yams Ever, rutmousse, homemade pies, a dessert known simply as Log. We never tired of our standards and rarely added anything new to the mix, having perfected the ideal array of dishes… until spoon bread. A revelation of butter and corn. The happy marriage of cornbread and corn pudding, both of which I adore. It’s rich, sweet, comforting, and absolutely at home with all the other flavors of Thanksgiving.

Though being in Maine means spending holidays with family, something I’ve dreamed of for years, I will miss our Thanksgiving dinner with friends. When I was feeling a little wistful last week, I decided to make corn spoon bread for my family, and oh-my-goodness did they like it. Mom thought maybe I should make it for Thanksgiving dinner, and my sister liked it enough to ask for the recipe, so I decided to share here. Though I’ve added nothing to the original recipe, it certainly qualifies as a Thanksgiving tradition in my home– and writing up the recipe is a cool reminder of our epic celebrations with beloved friends. Happy Thanksgiving to all! Most especially to C&C, M&S.

Corn Spoon Bread (from Deep South Dish)

  • 1/2 c. fine yellow cornmeal
  • 2/3 c. flour
  • 1 T. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • several grinds of fresh black pepper
  • 1/4 c. sugar
  • 2 c. frozen (thawed) or fresh corn
  • 1 15 oz. can of creamed corn
  • 1 c. sour cream
  • 1/4 c. whole milk
  • 8 T. unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 large eggs, whisked

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly spray a 2 1/2 qt. casserole dish, or equivalent. I like to use a 2 qt. white souffle dish.

Whisk together the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, kosher salt, black pepper and sugar. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, mix together the remaining ingredients. Fold the dry ingredients into the wet mixture, just until mixed. Carefully pour the batter into your prepared pan.

Bake for 75 to 90 mins., until the center has set so a knife inserted into the center comes out clean, and the top is golden brown.

Serve hot or warm. Leftovers will keep in the refrigerator, tightly covered, for about 4-5 days.

Banana spice cake.

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Hello readers! It’s been a long time. My Master Plan for Blog Continuity went right off the rails in mid-April, shortly after my (very fun) experience with the Peoplehood of the Traveling Swirly Pan. I knew my writing was going to slow down, but I didn’t expect it to stop. If you’re reading this post… hi! Thank you! Glad to be back.

So here’s what happened: in late June we hopped into a moving truck with two cats, a dog, and lots (and lots and lots) of boxes… and moved to Maine. This was a very good move for us, and we were both excited, but I think we underestimated how complicated it is to move cross-country. When we were 20-something babies going west, it was so easy. This time, packing was a little more involved than I expected (I had TWO KITCHENS) and I thought it might be smart to plan out each day of the trip– how long we would travel, where we would stop for meals and to sleep– instead of winging it like we did in 1998. Great idea, right? When I wasn’t researching hotels in Gillette, WY, I was spending as much time as possible with Seattle friends, and eating out fairly often: one more trip for tacos at El Camion, one more bowl of pho from our local spot, one more book group meeting at Lola, etc. I sure didn’t factor in how challenging it might be to cook with most of my kitchen gear in boxes and zero free time to recipe test in my usual leisurely way, and then find time to write and edit. So here it is November… can you believe it?… and I am mostly settled, and my shame about my Master Plan failing so spectacularly is pretty much gone, and I am cooking and baking and ready to write.

So let’s talk about banana spice cake. This is not the recipe I thought I would write as my First Post From Maine. I had grand plans of a themed return, maybe even a “guess where I am?” series with recipes featuring blueberries, maple syrup, lobster, Allen’s Coffee Brandy, etc. I thought I would at least lead with whoopie pies: at one point my Master Plan included creating a Seattle-themed whoopie pie as my last West Coast recipe, then writing about traditional whoopie pies when I got to Maine. Well, that didn’t happen. (Yet. Those Seattle-style whoopie pies are still front and center in my recipe testing plans, so stay tuned.) Anyway, the best laid plans and all that. One day last month I was staring at some very ripe bananas and got the idea to create a cake that was a happy marriage of banana bread and spice cake. Banana spice cake has brown sugar and buttermilk for texture and moisture; cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice for flavor; and is topped with an easy cream cheese frosting because why not? This banana spice cake was an instant hit with my family. (I *swear* they are letting the bananas get too ripe in the fruit bowl now so I will make it again… and I really don’t mind.) A few weeks ago I started mixing one up while dinner was in the oven and it was done and frosted in time for dessert. I realized at that point I was inspired to share the recipe, eager to jot down some notes and write again (hooray!). Even if banana spice cake was never part of the Plan, it is the right recipe right now, and so here it is.

The leaves are mostly on the ground now and it is getting legitimately cold. I don’t mind; I have a good winter coat, cute hats, and new Bean boots, so I am ready! I look forward to having more time to cook, bake and plan while it’s cold and (dare I say it) SNOWY outside, and more time to write so I can share my recipes with you. As for this banana spice cake– if you’re looking for a warm, gently spiced, easy, autumnal recipe, this is worth a try. I promise it won’t be my last recipe post for six months. Thanks for reading!

Banana Spice Cake (adapted from Kitchen Treaty)

For the cake:

  • 8 T. unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 c. dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 c. sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 2 large eggs
  • 3 large (or 4 small) very ripe, soft bananas
  • 1 c. buttermilk
  • 2 c. flour
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 2 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. allspice
  • 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt

For the frosting:

  • 8 oz cream cheese, softened
  • 3 T. unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • pinch of kosher salt
  • 2 c. sifted confectioner’s sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon (optional)
  • 3 T. whole milk (optional)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly oil or spray a 13″ x 9″ glass or ceramic pan.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together the butter, brown sugar and sugar until very light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and eggs and mix until well combined. Add the bananas, which should be so ripe you don’t need to mash them… but if they’re not quite there, mash them a little with a fork before adding to the bowl. Mix until you have a lumpy (from the bananas) batter.

Sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and kosher salt. Add to the wet ingredients and mix just until combined.

Spread the batter evenly in your pan and bake for 35-45 mins, until the cake is golden brown and a knife inserted in the center comes back clean. Let the cake cool for at least 30 mins. before frosting.

While the cake cools, make your frosting: In a clean mixer bowl, whip the cream cheese, 3 T. butter, vanilla and salt until smooth. Sift in the confectioner’s sugar and mix until combined.

Optional: To play up the spices in the cake, add an extra 1/2 tsp. cinnamon to the frosting. To make a slightly thinner, looser icing-style frosting, add 3 T. milk.

Serve the cake warm or at room temperature. It will keep, covered, for about 3-4 days.

The Peoplehood of the Traveling Swirly Pan.

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In 2013 I was working from home and spending hours each day recipe planning, recipe testing, baking, cooking and writing for this, my beloved blog. I was also reading a lot of other cooking blogs, and Jenni Field’s Pastry Chef Online was (is!) one of my very favorites. I forget the exact origin story, but at some point Jenni announced the start of a community-building, cake baking project called Peoplehood of the Traveling Swirly Pan. The traveling swirly pan is Dorothy, a dramatic Nordic Ware bundt pan, and with her companion journal Toto (and now Toto II), she travels the country to the kitchens of those who have signed up to participate in the Peoplehood. Anyone lucky enough to host the pair will have a week to bake, document and share their experience online and in Toto. So… cake, community and writing about both? You better believe I added my name without hesitation.

And then I promptly lost track of her. 2013 was a long time ago. When I got notice in mid-March that my turn was coming up, I was surprised, excited… and worried. What would I bake? WHEN would I bake? At the start of the project, I had grand plans of baking a cake a day, or at least several during my week, hosting a tea/tasting party to share the bundts, and decorating my pages in Toto with color pictures and clever comments. Well. That just is not my reality these days, so I sat down to plan a better strategy for my time with Dorothy. I thought I could definitely do two cakes, one with the spices and flavors I love to show in my recipes, and another that was just over the top decadent. I thought about almond and cardamom, maybe something using cherries and mahleb, or perhaps a spring celebration of rhubarb and fresh herbs. I thought about a savory bundt for exactly two minutes. I considered filled bundts, pudding bundts, frosting vs. glaze vs. dusted powdered sugar. I thought about showcasing some of our family favorites, gluten-free apple or coconut with ginger and orange. Nothing grabbed me, nothing seemed quite right… and then I got sick. Sigh. Baking while sick is never a great option.

Don’t worry, this story has a happy ending. Once more I evaluated my plans and decided that when I felt better, I could get one beautiful cake made, photographed and shared. I looked through my notes about options and decided I would do something more classic than exotic but stay true to my own style and preferences. I also decided it was important to celebrate Dorothy with a new recipe instead of making a cake I had already baked and shared. There is a sweet little cake book called Cake Simple with a half dozen (okay, more) recipes I had bookmarked to try. One is a dark chocolate bundt, rich and decadent, I thought would go beautifully with the salted caramel sauce from Baked Elements. A perfect solution! Dark chocolate is nearly universally appealing, and the salted caramel sauce as “glaze” is exactly the kind of workaround I would find to make an exciting cake with no frosting. The cake looked straightforward and I had caramel sauce already from another recent baking project. I was so happy to have a plan that felt in line with my usual recipe planning methods.

I baked the cake on Tuesday night; it was a dream batter to make, fairly simple with no mixer required. I let the cake cool overnight before taking it out of Dorothy to glaze. Well, let me tell you, Dorothy must have liked my choice, too, because she was not interested in letting the cake go. When the bundt finally released, it was missing the top pieces that would have made the beautiful sharp angles in her swirl pattern. I got rolling hills instead of Rocky Mountains. And I still call it a victory: the dark chocolate cake is delicious; the salted caramel sauce is a perfect match, and served to disguise some of the missing top; and the crumbs stuck in the pan were scraped out and saved so I can make the chocolate babka recipe I have wanted to make for years. Now that is a win-win if I have heard of one.

My time with Dorothy has come to an end; I wrote up the recipe and a quick summary of my week in Toto, and packed everything back up to send to the next lucky baker in North Dakota. I am grateful to Jenni for coordinating this project! It was so much fun to read through Toto about other cakes, baking parties, and even meet-ups where Dorothy was passed in person, geography allowing. I am proud to be part of the Peoplehood, to have this story to tell, and I hope someone will be inspired to try my midnight chocolate cake in their own beloved bundt pan.

Midnight Chocolate Cake with Salted Caramel Sauce

For the cake:

  • 3 oz. bittersweet or unsweetened chocolate, shaved or broken into small pieces (I used Scharffen Berger 99%)
  • 3/4 c. boiling water
  • 3/4 c. cocoa powder (I used Hershey’s Special Dark)
  • 1 3/4 c. flour
  • 2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 3/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 c. dark brown sugar, packed
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 1 c. buttermilk
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 T. vanilla

For the salted caramel sauce:

  • 1 c. sugar
  • 2 T. light corn syrup
  • 1/4 c. water
  • 1/2 c. heavy cream
  • 1 tsp. fleur de sel
  • 1/4 c. sour cream

Let’s start with the caramel sauce, since that can be made days in advance. This recipe makes about 1 1/2 c. and you won’t need much more than 1/2 c. to glaze the cake. (But don’t let me stop you from using more.) You can use leftover sauce on ice cream, brownies, apple slices, etc.

Have all ingredients measured and nearby BEFORE you start cooking. In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, corn syrup and water. Stir gently to prevent the mixture from splashing up the sides of the pan. Heat on medium-high, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Increase the heat to high and cook, without stirring, until the mixture is dark golden brown and a candy thermometer reads just shy of 350 degrees. Do not leave the pot unattended or you will burn your caramel. You will. It takes about 6-8 mins. to get the right color/temperature and goes from clear to perfectly golden quickly.

Remove from the heat and add the cream; the mixture will hiss, bubble and release steam. Do not add cream with your hand/face/arm over the pan; steam burns. Add the fleur de sel. Whisk in the sour cream and set aside to cool. The caramel sauce will keep in the refrigerator for 10 days, according to the cookbook, and sometimes a little longer, according to my experience.

Now let’s make the cake. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Liberally grease Dorothy or a similar 10 cup bundt pan. Use melted butter, canola oil or spray, and get into all those ridges. Lightly flour the pan and shake out the excess.

Put the dark chocolate pieces in a large bowl and pour the boiling water over. Stir until the chocolate melts and set aside to cool.

Whisk together the cocoa powder, flour, baking powder, baking soda and kosher salt.

When the chocolate mixture has cooled, add the white and brown sugar and stir until smooth. Add the buttermilk, eggs and vanilla; stir until smooth and well-combined. Sift in the dry ingredients and fold them in just until combined. The batter may look a little lumpy, but that’s okay. Pour into your prepared pan, smooth out evenly, and bake for 40-50 mins., until a skewer inserted into the deepest part of the cake comes out clean. Cool completely on a wire rack before attempting to get the cake out of the pan.

When you are ready, use a rubber spatula to loosen the cake around the edges and from the center tube. Place a plate upside down over the bundt pan and invert the cake onto the plate. You may need to shake and shimmy a bit to get it out.

Drizzle the salted caramel over the top of the cake. Serve immediately. Store for 3-5 days in a cake keeper at room temperature. Enjoy!

Baked lima beans with fresh dill.

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I created this dish of lima beans with dill specifically to go with baked salmon, wanting something creamy and mild flavored, seasoned with spring herbs, and reminiscent of mashed potatoes, without extra starch and butter. I like this dish so much, we won’t be waiting for another salmon dinner to have it again! Poor lima beans have such a bad reputation, and I just don’t understand why. They are nutritious- high in fiber, folate, protein, potassium, and vitamin B1- and serve exactly the purpose I intended, acting as a neutral vehicle for a variety of flavors, similar to how you might use potatoes, parsnips, or even rice. I noticed recently an increase in recipes for “butter beans” and “gigantes”, which are both less-stigmatized ways to say lima beans. (Would anyone care for a dried plum?) I say, from now on, call them whatever you like, but get them into your meals. Here’s an easy place to start.

To make this dish, you can begin with frozen lima beans, canned, fresh, or dried. The first two options will be easiest to find; you will probably have the option of baby lima beans in the freezer section, or the aforementioned butter beans in canned form. Fresh limas are wonderful but difficult to find; look for them in farmers’ markets in late summer or early fall. Dried lima beans have finally earned a spot in the bulk section of our grocery store, perhaps due to the popularity of other wide, flat legumes like Scarlet Runner beans and favas. In the bulk section, they are often labelled gigantes, and sometimes you can find cooked gigantes in the deli or salad bar. Again, whatever they’re called, they will work for this dish. I would avoid deli gigantes in a vinaigrette; it might not be bad… but I wouldn’t risk the possibility that the acidic marinade might overpower the delicate dill flavor and curdle the cream. If you are starting with dry beans, just soak overnight, put in fresh water, and boil for 30-40 mins. until tender. You could also use a pressure cooker or Instant Pot. You can add cooked lima beans to salads and soups if you make extra.

I wanted to take advantage of the inherent mildness of the beans to show off the flavor of fresh dill. I have been reading Scandinavian cookbooks recently, and salmon is often paired with three ingredients/flavors: fresh dill, cream, and new or mashed potatoes. Those elements were the inspirations for this dish. The lima beans have the perfect texture to seem creamy without the need for a lot of extra dairy fat. I do use cream here, but just a touch, and less than I would use for a comparable plate of mashed root vegetables. If you wanted to try something with or instead of dill, chives, sorrel, or tarragon would all be delicious. In addition to salmon, these beans would be great alongside steak or roasted chicken, or as a light vegetarian option served with cooked greens, broccoli, or asparagus.

I have written before about my ongoing challenge to incorporate legumes into our diet; finding that we really like lima beans was pretty exciting. I have so many ideas for how to use them. In addition to baked sides like this, I look forward to putting them in soups (anywhere I have used cannellini beans or chickpeas before), salads (nicoise, chop salad, or a hearty fresh kale salad), and other warm dishes like my baked Scarlet runner beans. Ignore those childhood rumors that lima beans are unworthy and give them a try!

Baked Lima Beans with Fresh Dill

  • 2 c. cooked lima beans
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • generous amount of fresh cracked black pepper
  • 3 – 4 T. fresh dill, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed and minced (optional)
  • 2 T. finely minced chives (optional)
  • 1/3 c. cream

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Put the cooked beans into a 2 1/2 qt baking dish, or similar ovenproof dish. If you’re using frozen limas, defrost them completely or blanch for 1-2 mins. in boiling water. For canned beans, drain and rinse off the canning liquid. Dried beans should be cooked at least to al dente state; you can add 1-2 T. of cooking liquid with them if you like.

Mix in the rest of the ingredients. Bake for 25-30 mins., until the sauce is bubbling and the beans are completely heated through. Serve immediately.

Leftover beans can be reheated or served cold, and will keep in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator for 3-4 days.

Everything cookies.

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Most weekends I bake something for my husband to take with his lunch during the week. We went through an extended granola bar phase before he asked for a change– could I make some cookies instead? I often lack the patience for cookies… you need to chill and find parchment and (heaven forbid) roll, or scoop, and then time and wait and do it again. I made bar cookies for a while as a compromise: brownies and chippy cookie bars, sometimes Scotcharoos or jam bars. One Sunday, as I prepped the pan for another batch of bars, my husband asked, quietly and kindly, if I could do something different. He was grateful for the bar cookies, but hoping for something new. Oatmeal cookies, or maybe peanut butter? We had a hard time deciding which ones, so I pulled out this recipe, which combines the best elements of those classics, plus chocolate chips for good measure. An everything cookie covers all the bases, and they are so delicious I don’t mind the chilling, dropping or waiting.

I have seen other wonderful versions of this cookie: my Aunt J’s famous triple chippers, my friend M’s dangerously good recipe with Speculoos (cookie butter) and white chocolate chips. My recipe uses ingredients I almost always have on hand; peanut butter chips are the only grocery list item, most of the time. My husband likes them because they are substantial, even filling, which is good when you are looking for a sweet snack that counts a little more than just a quick sugar rush. Of course, they taste great. The base of the cookie reminds me of Girl Scout Do-Si-Dos, the peanut butter and oatmeal sandwich cookies, enough that someday I would like to try making these smaller, without the chips, with a peanut butter filling… But I am getting ahead. And perhaps gilding the proverbial lily, since I find these everything cookies satisfying and tasty exactly as-is. A bit of peanut butter, a bit of chocolate, held together by just enough oatmeal to make them interesting… it’s a pretty perfect combination.

Next time you are in the mood to make cookies, especially if you find yourself waffling between oatmeal, peanut butter, or chocolate chip, why not avoid the decision by incorporating elements of all three? Give everything cookies a try.

everything cookies

Everything Cookies (makes 40-60 cookies)

  • 1 c. unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 3/4 c. creamy peanut butter
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 1 c. light brown sugar, packed
  • 2 tsp. vanilla
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 c. flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 1/2 c. quick-cooking oats
  • 1 c. chocolate chips
  • 1/2 c. peanut butter chips

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together the butter, peanut butter, salt, sugar and brown sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 mins. Stop the mixer and scrape the sides of the bowl at least once.

Add the vanilla and eggs and mix until combined, another 1 – 2 mins.

Sift together the flour and baking powder. Add to the bowl and mix just until combined, or almost combined.

Add both kinds of chips and the oats to the bowl. Mix on low speed until incorporated. If the thick dough is taxing your mixer, you can do this last step with a wooden spoon.

Cover the bowl and refrigerate your dough for at least 2 hours and up to 2 days. Don’t skip this step.

When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cover 2 – 3 cookie sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners.

Drop the cookies onto the prepared pans. I like to use a #30 scoop for these, which holds 2 T. dough. Using this size scoop yields about 40 generous cookies. Leave space in between the cookies for spreading. I put 10-12 cookies on a sheet. My oven does best baking one sheet at a time.

Bake for 12-14 mins. to yield soft-in-the-middle cookies. Add 2-3 mins. to the baking time for a crisper cookie. If you used a smaller scoop, start with 10 mins. and see how you like the results.

Slide the parchment off the pan onto a rack or the counter to cool. The cookies will keep in a covered container at room temperature for about 5 days. I like them best after a few days. They also freeze beautifully and will keep in the freezer for about 3 months.

Spring fruit crumble.

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I am very optimistically calling this a spring fruit crumble, writing as I wait for snow to fall again today. This is the type of baking that pushes me through the last weeks of gray, when I’m tired of apples and bananas and yearning for summer farmers’ markets. I should call it a “ready for spring fruit crumble”… but that is just too wordy.

When fresh fruit is in season, I freeze recipe-sized portions (2 to 4 c. at a time) for exactly this kind of use. A crumble uses about 8 c. of fruit, and nearly any combination you can think of will work, all fresh, all frozen or a mix. (Working with frozen fruit, measure the portion frozen, and then thaw, or thaw completely and include some juice in the measurement. That’s why the premeasured portions are so handy!) To choose the fruit, imagine what you might find in a pie: rhubarb; all manner of berries; stone fruit like peaches, plums and cherries; apples; or pineapple. My rule of thumb for creating a mixed fruit combination is sweet + sweet + tart; here I used fragrant fresh pineapple, strawberries I know to be sweet as honey, and a precious bag of local rhubarb. If your combination is all sweet, you can even play with the amount of sugar, starting with 1/2 cup. You can also experiment with spices here; again, I recommend using pie recipes, or other recipes with baked fruit, as a guide. If your combination is primarily stone fruit, try using nutmeg instead of cinnamon, or 1/2 tsp. of each. My combination of fruits below would also work with ginger, or a mix of cinnamon and ginger. A mix of apples and berries works well with cardamom. You have some latitude to experiment, and can really customize the recipe to suit your preferences. And last but not least, the crumble is a simple butter streusel topping from The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book; I find it works consistently and tastes delicious.

A bowl of warm crumble is a welcome break from the cold of late winter, a preview of all the good sweet fruit that is just around the corner.

spring fruit crumble with strawberries, pineapple & rhubarb

Spring Fruit Crumble with Strawberries, Pineapple & Rhubarb

For the fruit:

  • 3 c. rhubarb, fresh or frozen, cut in 1/2 – 1″ pieces
  • 3 c. fresh pineapple, cut in chunks
  • 2 c. strawberries, fresh or frozen, halved or quartered if large
  • 2/3 c. sugar
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 2 T. cornstarch

For the crumble:

  • 1 c. flour
  • 3 T. brown sugar
  • 1 T. sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 6 T. unsalted butter, cut into 1/2″ cubes, at room temperature

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, salt, cinnamon and cornstarch. Add the fruit, starting with your least-juicy fruit, and toss until all the fruit is coated. If it’s all or primarily fresh fruit, you should notice the juices starting to come out. Pour the mixture into a 12″ pie plate or a large ovenproof dish.

To make the crumble, whisk together the flour, brown sugar, sugar and salt in a large mixing bowl. Add the cubes of butter and use a fork, pastry blender or your fingers to work the butter into the dry ingredients. Stop when the butter is well distributed, in pea-sized pieces. If you are using your fingers, be careful the heat of your hands doesn’t melt the butter.

Pour the crumble onto your prepared fruit and spread out evenly. Bake for 40-45 mins., until the fruit is bubbling and the topping is golden brown. If your mix includes apples or rhubarb, use a fork to make sure those harder fruits are tender. Cool slightly before serving warm, with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream, or plain. This crumble is also wonderful served cold with Greek yogurt, a decadent breakfast/brunch treat.

Leftovers will keep in the refrigerator for 3-4 days.

spring fruit crumble with ice cream

Texas sheet cake.

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American Cake by Anne Byrn

My husband bought me a copy of Anne Byrn’s American Cake for Christmas. A smart move on his part; I had previously browsed a library copy with a good amount of excitement and note-taking. His gift was both thoughtful and self-serving. In this cookbook are dozens of recipes ranging from bundt cakes, fruitcakes, and gingerbread to multi-layer tortes and tiered filled cakes. In addition to the stunning variety of shapes, flavors and regional favorites, American Cake provides a history lesson about the origins of each cake, why it was popular when created, and why the recipe endures. It is a carefully constructed, well-written and detailed book… and it’s about cake. I don’t own many dessert cookbooks, but it’s clear this will be one I consult often.

On Super Bowl Sunday, I made the New York Cheesecake to take to a party. It was easily 3″ tall, took almost three hours to set in my finicky oven, and was hands-down the most delicious cheesecake I’ve ever made. As I fussed with five (!) packages of cream cheese and fanned the smoke alarm during the initial 500 degree browning step, I guessed that would be the first and last time I would make the recipe… and as I ate my first slice, I also ate my words. The extra time and attention was completely worthwhile.

New York cheesecake from American Cake

This weekend we had a friend over for dinner and I decided that was a good excuse to try another recipe. I chose to make the Texas Sheath Cake, also known as a Texas Sheet Cake (the title I am more familiar with), which is a one-layer chocolate cake with a boiled frosting that goes on the cake right out of the oven. There is cinnamon and buttermilk in the recipe, giving the cake a distinct flavor and texture, and toasted pecans in the frosting. I have to say, with all due respect to my Nana’s beloved recipe, this is one of the finest chocolate cakes I have ever made or eaten. It has the flavor and consistency of a glazed chocolate donut: light and moist cake, a hardened, icing-like sheen to the frosting. The cinnamon is not immediately recognizable, but adds a certain dimension to the cake that is magical. I chickened out a little and only used half the amount of cinnamon called for, but will try the full teaspoon next time. Because we are not always fans of nuts in baked goods, I kept the pecans whole and studded the top of the cake, rather than mixing them into the frosting; I found them surprisingly important to cut the sweetness, add texture and complement the chocolate flavor. This is a phenomenal cake, one I will make often now that I realize how straightforward the process is– I had the impression a sheet cake was complicated and required strange techniques and ingredients, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. The author’s source for the recipe cites it as a go-to for birthdays, tailgates, picnics and casual entertaining. That gives me plenty of reasons to make it again!

With two recipes made and two glowing successes, I look forward to continuing to explore American Cake. I think I will try the Boston Cream Pie next; that’s a personal favorite from childhood, and I’ve been looking for a keeper recipe for years. I’m eager to see if Ms. Byrn’s recipe is The One. Then, Alaska Rhubarb Cake, or maybe Tres Leches Cake?, or perhaps Pineapple Upside-Down Cake? I am going to have so much fun with this book.

Texas sheet cake from American Cake

Texas Sheet Cake (from American Cake)

For the cake:

  • 2 sticks (16 T.) unsalted butter
  • 1 c. water
  • 4 T. cocoa (I used Hershey’s)
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 2 c. flour
  • 2 c. sugar
  • 1/2 c. buttermilk
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 – 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. vanilla

For the frosting:

  • 1 stick (8 T.) unsalted butter
  • 1/3 c. whole milk
  • 4 T. cocoa
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 3 3/4 c. confectioner’s sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1/2 – 1 c. pecans

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. On a baking sheet, toast the pecans for about 5-8 mins. Remove from the oven and cool while you make the cake. Increase the oven temperature to 375 degrees*. Lightly grease and flour a 11″ x 13″ metal baking pan (see note below) and set aside.

In a saucepan, melt two sticks of butter with water and 4 T. cocoa. When the butter has melted completely and the mixture is starting to boil, remove it from the heat.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar and 1/4 tsp. kosher salt. Pour the butter/cocoa mixture into the bowl and stir until smooth.

In a small bowl, mix together the buttermilk and baking soda. Add this mixture to the batter. Whisk the eggs to break up the yolks and add to the batter, with the vanilla. Stir everything together, until you don’t see dry flour. When the batter is evenly mixed, pour into the prepared pan. Bake for 20-25 mins., until the cake springs back when touched lightly.

About 5 mins. before the cake is done baking, start making the frosting. Put 1 stick of butter, 4 T. cocoa, milk and 1/4 tsp. kosher salt into a saucepan on medium-high heat. Bring the mixture to a boil, mixing often, and boil for about 3 mins. It might separate, and look terrible, but it will be okay in the end; just keep stirring so it doesn’t burn.

Sift the confectioner’s sugar into a mixing bowl. When the chocolate mixture has boiled, pour it carefully into the powdered sugar and mix until you have a shiny, thin frosting. Stir in 1 tsp. vanilla. If you want, you can chop the toasted pecans and add to the frosting now. Pour the frosting over the hot cake and spread to the edges of the pan. Top with pecans if you didn’t add them to the frosting. Allow the cake to cool at room temperature for at least an hour. Cut into squares to serve.

Leftover cake will keep in a covered container at room temperature for 3-5 days.

*The author calls for a 9″ x 13″ metal sheet pan and I do not have that size. I used a metal 11″ x 13″ pan. As such, knowing my batter would be thinner, I decreased the temperature from 400 degrees (from the book) to 375 degrees. If you have a 9″ x 13″ pan, set your oven to 400 degrees.