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Not exactly salad weather

January 27th, 2009 | 3 Comments »

And how I got from hot steaming soup to a cool salad I have no idea, but  I can’t throw off the desire to recreate something I see on a website, even if the weather outside is more comfort food appropriate than salad worthy.

I wish I could remember where I originally saw the photo of this Orzo salad with yellow pepper, kalamata olives and feta cheese because it would be nice to give due credit. Regardless, with a party to attend it was the perfect excuse to give it a whirl even if the temperatures outside plummeted to sub-zero once again.

I’m really glad I did.

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The original recipe called for orzo and israeli couscous- double pasta whammy- and although it probably would have tasted fine, it was too much in the carb department. As I browsed the grocer’s aisle in search of some type of substitute and appearing about as aimless as possible to all those frantic cart pushers around me, I finally spied, way on a top shelf and really obscure, a package of Kashi Original 7-Grain Rice Pilaf.

I am, admittedly, always willing to buy just about anything from Kashi, even without scrutinizing the label, the ingredients or even the expiration date like I tend to do. It’s one of the few items in a grocery store that I know is good quality. What I liked about this ‘pilaf’ if you can even go so far as to call it that, was that it was nothing more than a simple vacuum packed assortment of cooked whole grains. That’s it. No sodium laden, preservative choked flavor packet to add, no un-pronounceable ingredients, nothing but cooked grains. A quick turn in the microwave and they were ready to eat, or to be tossed into any preparation, mixed to your own liking. I love the idea of whole grain pilafs; the mix of nutty and healthy grains can compliment any dish, but since most of them require widely fluctuating cook times, it’s hard to think of putting them together myself without a whole lot of work. I do imagine though, that the work and effort would be totally worth it.

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I did add some extra wheatberries to this dish. I love their chewy goodness and the added nutritional aspect of them. They are really simple to keep on hand to add to any number of preparations, especially pilafs.  Eating Well magazine has the goods on cooking wheatberries. This is how I do it. Then I package them in one cup increments and freeze them. They break apart very easily once frozen and have a long shelf life. I add them to pasta dishes, pilafs, soups, oatmeal, breads…..the list is endless.

This is one of those dishes that tastes better once the flavors have a chance to get to know each other really well. I mixed it on a Saturday for a Sunday party and the sampling while I prepped didn’t impress me at all. By the time it was served the next day it was a lot better.

And I’m certain it will taste much more appropriate in July. It’s kind of  nice to get ahead of myself on summer foods!

Orzo and 7-Grain Salad

1/2# cooked orzo pasta
1 pkg Kashi original 7-Grain rice pilaf
1/2 c. cooked wheatberries
1 yellow pepper, diced
1 4-oz can artichoke hearts, chopped
1/2 c. kalamata olives, chopped
1 3-oz pkg feta cheese
italian style vinaigrette
Salt and pepper

Prepare pilaf according to package directions. Stir all ingredients together in bowl and add about 1/3 c. dressing to coat. Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Cover and refrigerate overnight or for several hours. Before serving, stir thoroughly and taste for seasoning. Add more dressing, salt and pepper if needed.

KATE’S NOTES:

I ran out of kalamata olives and to add more of that tangy flavor, I stirred some olive tapenade into the dish. This could easily sub for the olives. Go the extra mile and make your own vinaigrette, or use a good quality bottled option. The possibilities for extra additions to this are endless.

Guys got game in the kitchen

January 18th, 2009 | 10 Comments »

Yesterday was a wonderful day all around. The weather broke above zero for the first time all week- and actually made it to +22 degrees!!- and my guys took over the kitchen to make tasty treats and an amazing dinner.

First Mike made Chili Lime baked tortilla chips, a recipe he found in the current Eating Well magazine. It’s simple to prepare which is exactly what he likes.

Mix the juice of half a lime with 1/2 t. chili powder.  Spray tortillas with oil on both sides, then brush tortillas on one side with the chili-lime mix.

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Cut tortillas into wedges

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Place on cookie sheet and sprinkle with sea salt. Bake them until crispy at 375 degrees. Then enjoy them any way you want. We had fresh guacamole on hand from our Friday Night Nachos.

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These are blue corn tortillas we had on hand. Use any soft tortilla type you wish. They are not burnt, as Griffin observed; that’s the chili-lime mix coloring the chip brown. They were fresh, crispy and just tart enough from the lime.

And for dinner, Griffin wanted his favorite Chicken Enchiladas. He’s made this dish for us before so I settled down in the kitchen to observe and direct. I really didn’t need to do much more. This guy is  a chip off the block, I’ll tell you!

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Enchiladas don’t really photograph that well, especially in winter light so there’s no finished product picture to show you. They were stellar, however. And Griffin was really proud of the effort and the result. We were too. I’ve been trying to get him to take over cooking more often. I guess I just need to motivate him with the right meals.

Here’s how we make enchiladas:

1 pkg boneless chicken breasts, diced (or of choice)
1 red pepper, seeded and diced
1 medium onion, diced
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1 15-oz can drained and rinsed black beans
1 15-oz can hominy, drained (0r about 2/3 c. frozen corn kernels)
2 15-oz cans enchilada sauce of choice- we use Carlita brand
Shredded cheese
Flour tortillas

Saute onion and pepper in skillet until soft, add garlic and cook, stirring for about a minute. Remove to bowl and stir in hominy. Add chicken to pan and cook, stirring, until pink is gone, about 3-5 minutes. Add vegetables back to pan and half of one of the cans of sauce, stir to mix all together. Cook for about 5 minutes.

Spray a 9×13 pan with cooking spray. Lay one tortilla in pan and scoop about 3/4 c. of filling into center. Top with a sprinkle of shredded cheese. Roll up so seam side is down. Repeat until pan is full- ours hold six, and we use an 8×8 pan to hold three more. That’s about the extent of our filling. Pour enchilada sauce over top and cover with cheese.

Bake at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes or until cheese is melted and sauce bubbly.

KATE’S NOTES:
I added a shredded zucchini to the vegetable mix once it was added back to the pan with the chicken.  This recipe is fine meat-less as well, and the vegetables can be substituted with others if you wish. I have also done this recipe with just beans, brown rice and vegetables with excellent results.

Know Gnocchi?

January 16th, 2009 | 5 Comments »

Don’t know gnocchi??- say no-keee or nyawk-eee…. may I suggest taking the time to get to know these delicious, quick and wonderful little pillows of potato dough.

You can make gnocchi from scratch and recipes are all over the Internets to those who choose to undertake the project. I made gnocchi absolutely eons ago, long before anyone even knew what blogging or the internet was, or even, really what gnocchi was. I don’t think they were all that good. I wasn’t all that good then either. So let’s fast forward.

I’ve read over recipe after recipe for handmade gnocchi and quite frankly, I’m not that interested in making them from scratch. It’s one of those labor-intensive recipes that seems easy enough but can be fraught with problems. I love to cook without issues, besides, when the grocer carries a perfectly acceptable brand of shelf-stable gnocchi that tastes wonderful and is a snap to put together for a meal, for what reason would I sweat over a bowl of floured cooked potato if I don’t have to? Right. I’m glad you agree.

The current issue of Eating Well magazine, my most favorite of all the food publications out there, had a very eye-catching recipe for gnocchi and I just had to try it. I knew it wouldn’t appeal to the little carnivore, but quite frankly, this was one of those meals I wanted no matter what. With plenty of leftovers in the fridge, it worked out fine.

Gnocchi is made from cooked potato that is mixed with flour, usually semolina, and sometimes bread crumbs. Gnocchi comes from the word nocchio, loosely translating to ‘knot in the wood’ and has been a traditional Italian offering since the time of the Romans. It is available in all it’s regional forms throughout Italy, although the potato version is considered to be the most recent, ever since the introduction of the potato to Europe in the 16th century.

Behold the gnocchi……from this

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To this…..

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In about 20 minutes.

And it was all I could do not to eat all of it. This is definitely on the repeat list for us. It was amazingly good.

Gnocchi In a Flash
adapted from the February Eating Well magazine
For the orginal recipe, go <HERE>

1 pkg shelf stable gnocchi
2-3 boneless chicken breasts, cut to strips
1 medium red pepper, cored and seeded, cut to strips
1 bunch spinach, washed and de-stemmed* (equal to a 10-oz bag)
1/4 c. canned diced tomato with italian seasonings
1/2 c. fresh mozzarella, cut into small dice
1/3 c. fresh grated parmesan cheese
Fresh basil to garnish

Season chicken breast strips with salt and pepper. Heat oil in 10-inch skillet, add chicken and cook, stirring occasionally, until strips are cooked through, about 5 minutes. Remove to bowl. Add red pepper and cook 3-5 minutes until tender. Add to chicken. Wipe out skillet with paper towel and add about a teaspoon of oil. When hot, add gnocchi and cook about 5 minutes until browned and slightly puffy. Add chicken and pepper to pan, and in bunches, add in spinach, stirring quickly until it’s all wilted. Toss in diced tomato and mozzarella cubes and shave some parmesan over the top. Stir to mix and allow to cook for 3 minutes or so until hot. Serve immediately topped with fresh basil.

KATE’S NOTES:
The chicken is completely optional in this. Truthfully, it was an attempt to get Griffin to try some. He did, but didn’t like it. The original recipe has no meat in it, but it does have white beans. And no red pepper. I think this version is stellar.

The original recipe called for the entire can of diced seasoned tomato. For whatever reason, I just spooned in a few tablespoons and it was perfect. The rest can be frozen in a baggie for another use.

*A word on fresh greens, like the spinach; I always buy greens by the head. I don’t buy the bags of them at all- too expensive and chemically washed, plus they just don’t last as long-  and some markets around me carry the ‘live’ lettuce heads with a root ball attached. They are cheap, mixed and wonderful. I clean the greens as soon as I can after getting them home and place them, wrapped in wet paper towels, in a plastic bag in the drawer of the fridge. They keep for up to a week for the more tender leaf varieties like spinach or field greens, and longer for heartier leaves like bok choy or romaine. Remove any wilted leaves if you notice them.

Nourishment

January 14th, 2009 | 4 Comments »

Thank you for the kind get-well wishes and emails. I appreciated them a lot.  Mercifully, the illness that swept in so quickly, leaving me flat on the couch for three days, left just as swiftly as it arrived. I suffered mostly a numbing fatigue and head congestion, lacking energy to do much of anything except stare out the window.

And read. I blame my current thought process on the book at hand, ‘ A Slice of Life- Contemporary Writers on Food’ that has followed me around lately. It was an ‘A-HA’ find at Half Price Books- oh, probably back in the Fall, before holiday stuff, before the chill of Winter set in, before the lethargy that inevitably follows Christmas and New Years. It got dropped into a magazine rack and forgotten. When I pulled it out it was covered in dust. So well I treat my belongings.

But then I opened it and got swept away. It all started to make sense to me with just a few pages, this nagging sense of why, and how. Why do we constantly search for the perfect meal, the best ingredient, the finest eating experience? How do we achieve it, and better yet, maintain and hold on to it? And what exactly are we looking for anyway?

Outside of the pages of that book, I began to find my answer in a slice of this tea bread and the comfort of a favored, but cracked tea cup.tea-bread-009

So it’s no secret to me that when I bake I feel like I am channeling my mother’s spirit, the one that would wake at dawn in the summer to bake cookies before the sun burned the air crisp and dry; this is simple for my mind to deduct, but there has always been something else that nags at me, and with the first bite of anything I make, I take from it several things. One- it’s comfort in the true sense of the word. Nothing touches us deeper than homebaked something, anything. We can eat a store-bought chocolate chip cookie, or nibble on a slice of bread from a plastic bag, but it really doesn’t touch us. It doesn’t soothe.  The second has always been far more elusive, and less attainable and finally I know what it is. It’s the taste of home, and I think for most of us, it’s the one missing element in everything we cook.

This is not to say that we can’t find comfort in the foods we eat, the meals we prepare for others, but what is it, with Christmas still within a memory’s grasp, that makes us want to recreate ‘the meals we used to know’? Why is it so important for people to sit down- let’s say at holiday time- to a meal of familiar foods, the same tastes and textures we grew up with? Isn’t anyone interested in something new? No. We’re interested in being home.

In each bite, each dish we make or cookie baked or cake decorated, aren’t we just a wee bit eager to find that one spot in us that tells us, without a doubt, that we’re home again? Isn’t it why we search high and low for the perfect cookie recipe, try a dozen methods of roasting chicken, bake loaf after loaf of banana bread in a futile search for a missing ingredient that we’re never going to find? This is why home-cooking has become such an explosive and highly demanded part of our lives, why we gather at the table with eager eyes; it isn’t so much the food, it’s what the food can bring to us that nothing else can.

Take that banana bread, the reason for this post. My mother made banana bread all the time. I can picture our kitchen- it was small and so very dated- dulled yellow walls and a deeply blue and green carpet- carpet! in the kitchen!- the dishwasher we had to attach to the faucet, the jar of bacon grease on the stove. I can recall leaning on the counter, the southern window at my back, nibbling away at a slice of her banana bread, a small pile of unwanted walnuts growing on the counter next to my elbow. I loved her banana bread; she purposefully would buy too many bananas so that she could make it. It was perfectly flecked with banana, it smelled wonderful and she beamed with every loaf. I even have her recipe, yellowed as those walls, frail and old, crinkling at the edges. But I make the loaves and it doesn’t taste the same. I’m at my own kitchen counter with the bright southern light, my dishwasher tucked under the counter, no bacon grease in sight. But the recipe is the same and shouldn’t it taste like I remember? It never does. Something is always missing. It’s not the essence of those despised walnuts, or the scene out the window of my youth. It isn’t a method of her own that I never learned. It’s her kitchen; it’s her warmth and love, the very scent of home. We can have our own places we call home, and they feel that way to us the moment we step in the door. We turn out the lights and know, by heart and finger touch, just how to walk through the rooms. But what we make in our own kitchens, even with a treasured recipe, never seems to taste exactly like we remember.  An old friend once extolled the merits of the Italian foods she ate while working on that continent, and her extreme disappointment, upon opening a small bottle of olive oil that she brought home, a favored flavor while “on the boot” to find that, in her words “It tasted just like any old olive oil. It wasn’t anything like I remembered.” Of course not. She wasn’t in Italy. The banana bread is the same thing; it’s the exact same recipe I ate when I was young, but I’m eating it on another continent, a figurative place that’s a whole lifetime away from what I remember. It’s the tea cup in our lives, with the crack that makes it imperfect, one we can’t throw out.

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Growing up, our meals weren’t stellar. My mom wasn’t that great of a cook; she could cook, but it wasn’t creative, nor with an eye towards health. I have no fondness for much from my childhood, except an occasional meat loaf, or my own grown up version of Tuna Pasta. I still recall vividly a recipe I made two years ago that reminded me so much of an over-served childhood meal that I simply couldn’t eat it. There is no love lost for my food memories as a kid, what I eat now is all my doing, my likes and for my health.  Griffin has many favorites that I make, one being his absolute beloved Curry Chicken. This was on the menu last night and I made sure that the quantity was large enough for him to load up on without depriving the rest of us. To see his eyes as he leapt down the stairs, and his eager dance around the stove, lifting the spoon, taking in the scent, I had to think to myself that somewhere in his future, he’s going to pull out what he needs for his favorite meal, in a kitchen of his own, maybe with an eager child waiting. He’ll have the same turmeric-stained spoon, the reliable straight side skillet to use, the same method and recipe, and with his first bite, will he lift his head, his mind wondering ‘Hey, what’s this missing?’

Applesauce Banana Bread

· 4 Bananas — ripe
· 1/2 c. Sugar
· 3/4 c. Applesauce
· 1 T. Vanilla Extract
· 2 Eggs
· 1 T. Baking Soda
· 1 T. Baking Powder
· 1 t. Salt
· 2 c. AP Flour


Preheat oven to
350 F. Place bananas in a large bowl and mash with fork. Stir in sugar and let stand for 15 minutes.
Add applesauce, vanilla and eggs, mix well. Stir dry ingredients together, add to banana mix and blend only until incorporated. Pour into standard loaf pan coated with nonstick cooking spray. Bake for 45 minutes, or until a wooden toothpick inserted in the center of the loaf comes out clean. Remove from oven and let stand 10 minutes before removing from pan. Cool on wire rack.

For the Chicken Curry recipe, the only one I use,  go HERE.




Spicy Couscous with Chickpeas

January 8th, 2009 | 6 Comments »

Not long ago, I spoke about taking baby steps towards chickpea appreciation.

I’m getting there. Slowly.

And also slowly, I’m foraging into my cookbook cupboard and removing a few under-appreciated and under-utilized books; books that hold glorious recipes that make me drop my head back on the chair in a sort of agony, due to my tastebuds sorrow over never having tried it, and how delicious does this look anyway?? And why do I have this book with the almost perfect spine and unstained pages? These bitter days of January, bright with sunlight and diamond sparkling snow are perfect for experimentation, for exploring the vast untapped knowledge in these books. Now that I am getting my cross country skis out regularly, it gives me a much needed energy boost and all that drive needs to go somewhere, doesn’t it?  Best get cooking, I say.

Well, hello there beautiful…..

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Couscous is about as much fun to say as it is to work with; what other product can you dump in boiling water and forget about, coming back to tender tiny little grains of perfection with zero fuss? What else can be fixed so quickly that you barely have time to chop up a few nuts, or grate some good asiago to mix into it for a stellar side dish? Let’s say couscous….. Cous…..cous.

And this dish turned out gorgeous, if I do say so myself. Brightly colored pepper and carrot nestled up to the rich green of cilantro and with a quick toss of chili garlic sauce, it became just a tiny breath of spice in the mouth, nothing 4-alarm, not a rush of sweat breaking on the brow but just a hint of the heady flavor of chilies. It’s like when you eat something and it evokes a memory that you can’t quite place. Fleeting. Perfect.

Yes, the chickpeas. Right.

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I liked the idea of mixing the chickpeas in the all that couscous goodness, the vegetables and bite of chili sauce, but I thought ‘Hey, y’know, they aren’t the right size!’ because it’s all about symmetry in my world- the towels folded edge to edge, the sheets and comforter hanging to the same length on both sides of the bed- symmetry, similar and even. Besides, when faced with a plate of food, especially something like this, it’s all about the teeny-weeny (it is couscous, after all) and so I blended the pepper and carrot in the food processor to mince them fine, whacked the nuts to pieces and took my chef knife to the chickpeas.

I then turned my kitchen into The Flying Chickpea Circus. Did I think at all that those little guys might be quite sprightly?

Oh, and the skins. Ew. That never occurred to me as I lifted my Wustof. I don’t like those skins. But it was time for chin up, marching forward to the finish line. Think symmetry; ignore the skins.

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In real time this only took about 15 minutes to pull together, of course, minus the chickpea chasing. I had the vegetables seared and waiting, the cilantro chopped, the nuts fragrant and toasted. A few quick tosses and my fork was present and accounted for, heading to my mouth. So delightful. I think the best part of this dish came later, at dinnertime, as I sat down to a steaming bowl of soup I realized that I wasn’t even that hungry. My small bowl of grains, legumes and vegetables had given me some serious sustenance, a bonus to any recipe.

More chickpea appreciation and a great dish to boot; this works perfectly as a good main course or as a side dish. Increase the chili garlic sauce for your own heat level. Watch for the flying chickpeas.

Spicy Couscous and Chickpeas
The Food and Mood Cookbook by Elizabeth Somer and Jeanette Williams.

1/2 c. chopped pepitas
2 c. chicken broth
2 c. whole wheat couscous
2 t. olive oil
1 medium red bell pepper, stemmed seeded and diced
1 medium carrot, peeled and diced
1 15-oz can chickpeas, rinsed well
1-3 T. chili garlic sauce
Fresh chopped cilantro

Toast pepitas in a hot skillet until fragrant, remove to dish. In same skillet, saute pepper and carrot in oil until soft, about 5 minutes. Set aside. Bring broth to a boil, add couscous and stir, then cover and remove from heat to absorb. In large bowl, combine couscous, chickpeas, pepper, carrot, pepitas and chili garlic sauce. Salt if desired. Top with cilantro.

KATE’S NOTES:
In the original recipe, the nuts listed are slivered almonds, which would be delicious in this. Toast them as well. The original recipe did not call for carrot, but it definitely improves the overall appearance and nutrition of the dish. Whole wheat couscous was my addition and I think the heartier flavor of the grain is a real boon. Thin the chili garlic sauce with a little water to make mixing more uniform. I subbed cilantro for parsley as I like it better.

Cherry Poppyseed Scones

January 4th, 2009 | 2 Comments »

By the time Christmas rolled around this year, I’d done so much baking that I was really fed up with it, and I kinda thought that I wouldn’t want to see any more butter or flour or sugar for a very long time. I was tired of the futziness, the precision, the exact timing to prevent burnt cookies- eww!- and especially the clean up.

Ok, so I lasted maybe a week. Maybe.

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But then I had a craving for a scone. And not for a ‘scone’ like a standard hockey puck offering from a coffee shop type of scone- a blob as dry and flavorless as sawdust and so bad that you might as well call it a STONE- no, I wanted a scone, people. I wanted light and airy, tender on the inside and slightly crusted on the outside. I wanted…..well, I wanted what’s in that photo, and wow, did it deliver.

The desire for such a breakfast delight actually came to me as I was falling asleep one night; I decided that I wanted to make fresh scones and the next morning it came back to the brain like a train hurtling at me top speed. I popped up off the couch, the morning sun blazing in on me, the cats and my steaming cup of coffee and strode purposefully into the kitchen, scones on the mind, digging out the perfect cookbook and turning, almost instinctively, to the recipe I needed. Sorry- it’s from that anonymous chef that I’m embarrassed to like- no love- and the cookbooks of his that I have. With some twists of my own, I had my scones, and they were perfect.

Dried Cherry Poppyseed Scones
anonymous Food Network chef

2 c. AP flour
1 T. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
2 T. sugar
3 T. poppyseeds
5 T. butter, cold
1 c. milk or cream
1 c. dried cherries

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Place parchment on a cookie sheet.  Place cherries in a heat proof bowl. Boil water to vigorous bubbles and pour just enough in the bowl to cover the cherries. Stir to combine and allow to sit, stirring occasionally until the water is tepid and the fruit soft. Drain the fruit, reserving the juice.

Sift together flour, baking powder, salt, sugar and poppyseeds. Using a pastry blender, cut in the butter until the mixture looks like coarse crumbs. You want to leave larger pieces of butter. Make a well in the center and add the milk, stir to just combine everything, making sure you scrape across the bottom of the bowl. Toss the drained fruit with just enough flour to coat them lightly, then add to the dough, stirring carefully until just incorporated.

Lightly flour your countertop and turn the dough out. With your hands, shape into a square, roughly about 10″x12″ or so. With a sharp knife, bench scraper or spatula, cut the square into four equal portions, then cut each portion in half, corner to corner, to form triangles. Carefully lift the triangles with a spatula onto your prepared sheet. Alternately, you can scoop the dough straight from the bowl to the cookie sheet. Bake for 15-18 minutes until lightly browned and fragrant. Allow to cool.

For a glaze, combine reserved juice with about 1 1/3 cups powdered sugar and a little melted butter. Drizzle over scones before serving.

KATE’S NOTES:
Even with my dairy intolerance, I prefer to use butter in my baked goods, and it doesn’t cause me as much misery as milk or cheese so I roll with it. I subbed vanilla soymilk for the cream with perfect results. The original recipe called for fresh blueberries but it’s January in Minnesota and that ain’t happening. Currants would also be delicious, or maybe chopped apricots, figs or even dates. The glaze I made was very thin, and it’s also totally optional. These taste slightly sweet, with that good baking powder biscuit-y kind of texture; light, fluffy and tender and utterly delicious.