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seeded cracker breads

April 27th, 2014 | 1 Comment »

{{In the midst of radio silence on the blog, I’m re-posting this terrific Crackerbread recipe from last Spring,
along with a bittersweet story of my beloved rolling pin}}

I have a rolling pin in my kitchen that I suspect is older than I am. It belonged to my Mom, and when she passed, I wordlessly picked it up, a flood of childhood memories racing through me; winter afternoons in our kitchen, the laminate tabletop covered in flour and pie tins at the ready. My sisters and I, our eyes eager, would watch our Mom as she pressed, turned, rolled and spun that rolling pin over a disc of fragrant pie dough. The pin whizzed as she pushed, a thwack on the counter as it dropped back on the dough, amidst the crackle of wax paper and the gentle song of a heating oven.

 

Come in to my kitchen…

refrigerator pickles for a memory

August 10th, 2012 | 2 Comments »

Something glorious happened in Minnesota in the last week; that stifling, oppressive heat and humidity finally was swept away and in it’s place is cool, breezy sunshine, temperate nights and audible sighs of relief. A pair of jeans even made an appearance lately.

Now I do realize that August can still be hot and sticky, but I am really crossing my fingers that the worst of it is over. I enjoy my outdoor time, my biking and fresh air and I would really love to get back in to this without taking a bath in my own sweat.

And it is that time of year too, for pickling, for canning, for preserving. I haven’t leapt headfirst in to the preserving craze that a  lot of home cooks are on these days, but this year, faced with an abundance of cucumbers from our garden at the lake, I did tackle making refrigerator pickles and I’m so glad that I did. These pickles pack a punch of memory that I love with each crunchy, sweet-sour bite.

When I was very little and before my parents split, we spent a few summers enjoying a vacation at a resort near Detroit Lakes. It was a perfectly idyllic week for both parents and children, as this resort had all sorts of activities planned out, guaranteed to keep kids happy and occupied, while parents had their own time to sit and relax. Every morning, the staff would gather the kids right after breakfast, and some days, keep us busy until we arrived, breathless, grimy and sunburned back at the dining hall for dinner. Three squares a day were served, and at dinnertime, a relish plate was on every table that held carrot and celery sticks and tiny, sweet-sour pickles that I loved. The vegetables, inevitably, would absorb some of the pickle brine, so everything sort of tasted the same, but I loved nibbling off that plate and had no idea how much I missed that flavor until last Fall when my sister-in-law brought a jar of refrigerator pickles to a family gathering and I lifted one to my mouth for that first, long forgotten crunch.

It was like rapidly falling backwards in time to being 5 years old, reaching across the huge rectangle table in that massive dining hall, with floor to ceiling windows open to the summer breeze and surrounded by the last memories of my family completely intact. That sweet, salt, celery and mustard seed flavor had eluded me for a lifetime and I didn’t even know it until I tasted those pickles. I was flooded with memories, scents and nostalgia. I could smell the lake, our cabin, the cotton sheets we slept on, suntan lotion, the hot dry grass underfoot. I could see that resort in it’s entirety. I could recall the fun and laughter and the sheer exhaustion of falling asleep after a long, busy and exciting day. It was the last memories of perfection in life, before fracture, before pain and shouting and the upheaval of divorce. It was the end of one life and the beginning of another. But now, where life is happy and easy, where the love abounds, the flavor comes full circle. And I’ve made six quarts of these lovely little pickles, and we’re all enjoying them greatly.

There’s very little work involved in making these pickles, outside of stuffing the jars with cucumber slices. Our garden cucumbers from the lake were quite round and large by the time I got hold of them; with smaller cukes, the stuffing becomes much easier. Add in slices of onion and peppers, crushed cloves of garlic, slices of jalapeño for kick. I made my quarts with garlic and love the flavor. One 12-hour period in the refrigerator and you’re done.

 

Refrigerator Pickles

For the Brine:
1 c. white vinegar
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 T. kosher salt
1 t. celery seed
1 t. mustard seed

In a non-reactive pot, bring ingredients for brine to a boil, stirring well to help dissolve the sugar and salt. Place sliced cucumbers and any extra flavor additions in quart jar. Pour brine over, screw down the top and shake gently to distribute. Allow to cool slightly, then place in refrigerator for a minimum of 12 hours. Make sure you’re putting the jars in the refrigerator while they are still fairly warm. You should be able to hold them, but still feel the heat.

Give the jars a good shake the next day to redistribute the brine and slices. This recipe should make enough brine for 1-2 quarts.

 

RECIPE NOTES: I doubled this recipe for my first batch, which made three quarts, easily. The next batch, in which I had 12 huge cucumbers to use, I packed 4 quart jars, made a 5X batch and ended up with quite a bit of brine left.

Be sure you are really packing the jars well. These will shrink considerably while pickling.

For both batches I made, I used a small amount of brown sugar in place of the white. It gives the pickles a bit more deep flavor. It’s not necessary at all, just an option.

 

sugar cookie love

November 2nd, 2011 | 3 Comments »

It’s November, so that means one thing in the blogging world.

 

What’s on YOUR plate for November??

{{And you thought I meant Thanksgiving, didn’t you?}}

That’s my cute little badge for NaBloPoMo 2011, which is blog lingo for National Blog Posting Month. You post every day for a month. That’s all it is. It’s also National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, an epic adventure in which you write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. If I had the month free with zero obligations, I might give that one a shot. That’s a lot of words, isn’t it?

I’ve done NaBloPoMo twice; in 2008, when I highlighted a different food holiday each day for the month of November, and again last year, in 2010 when I culled through the 4-1/2 years of archived posts on my site and re-introduced some favorites. That’s my plan this year as well. There is A LOT of good content in my archives, recipes that are perfect for this time of year that no one finds anymore, plus with Just Write Tuesdays, I’ve got more than enough content to fill 30 days in a row. Piece o’ cake.

{{by the way, my sweet husband Mike made that sweet badge for me. He’s awesome that way.
And he accepts food for payment!! Hi honey!!}}

Today is about cookies, though. Sugar Cookies to be exact. It is, hands down, my all time favorite cookie and I don’t say that lightly. There are a lot of amazing cookies out there; chewy Oatmeal Raisin, decadent Chocolate Cookies, Pumpkin cookies with thick cream cheese frosting. There are no limits to what can be scooped up and baked on a sheet pan. But a good sugar cookie is one of life’s simplest pleasures; buttery, chewy and rich with vanilla, I can tell a sugar cookie made with love over a mass-produced butter-flavored fake any day of the week. My Sugar Cookies evoke sighs of joy, and eye rolls and ‘Mmmmmm’ responses from everyone who tries them. And it’s a well honed taste too, going back to my childhood, and a beloved bakery from the golden days of neighborhood bakeries, where a sugar cookie always waited for me. If you want to read the whole story, please go <HERE>

And if you just want the recipe, here it is.

 

Sugar Cookies


1 c. softened butter, no substitutes (reserve one of the wrappers)
1-1/2 c. white sugar  (plus more for rolling)
2 t. pure vanilla extract
1 egg
2-3/4 c. AP flour
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. baking powder

Heat the oven to 375° and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Place about 1/3 of a cup of white sugar on a small plate and set aside.

Cream butter and the 1-1/2 cups of sugar together until very light and fluffy. Add in egg and vanilla extract and blend thoroughly until smooth and creamy. You really can’t overmix at this point. You want a base that is smooth and creamy as it makes the end result stupendous. Stir together flour, baking soda and powder, and with mixer on low, gradually add to butter until fully incorporated and mixture is in large, somewhat dry chunks. It will not be a smooth batter, but granular, like pie crust. The dough should hold together when pressed between your fingertips. If it doesn’t, take the bowl off the mixing stand and turn the dough gently with your hands, pressing any loose flour in to the dough to incorporate. Chill the dough for 20-30 minutes before scooping. It’s a lot easier to work with that way.

Using a small scoop (I used a #60 sized) press dough tight into a ball and drop onto cookie sheet. With your butter wrapper, wipe the bottom of a smooth glass, then dip the glass onto the sugar you’ve set aside. Gently press down on the cookie dough, dipping the glass before each one. If any dough falls loose, lightly push the pieces into the sides of the cookie.

The cookies will bake up just fine if you don’t wish to flatten them; that’s just my preferred method. Bake for 8-10 minutes, reversing trays from front to back, and swapping top to bottom about halfway through. I’ve tried this with the convection feature on my oven and they browned too quickly so I don’t recommend that method.

I like to remove the cookies right way, on the parchment to a cooling rack. These are pretty sturdy once baked, and will slip off the parchment easily with a gentle nudge. You simply must eat at least a few of them warm. Of course, a glass of cold milk, or a nice cup of coffee or tea is an excellent accompaniment. The cookies will become firmer as they sit for a day or two.

 

KATE’S NOTES: I began using the super-fine baking sugar for all my baking needs and find that it makes for better creaming and a nicer crumb on the finished product. Most grocers carry it in the baking aisle, in a sturdy carton. It’s called ‘Bakers Sugar’ and it’s very, very fine grain. I used it in these cookies and they were even better than I recall.

The addition of a bit of nutmeg (about 1/2 a teaspoon) in the batter makes for wonderful flavor, or you can add ground nutmeg to the sugar used for rolling the cookies in. 

wait…. another cake?

October 28th, 2011 | 5 Comments »

Yes. Another cake. Don’t be surprised if I share even more cake with you over time, as I do love a good moist and tender cake.

And I’m partial to a Bundt cake, for nostalgia reasons. It’s pretty easy to work with, that shape. You get a nice substantial cake that is easy to slice and portion out and with the wealth of lovely artistic bundt pans available, you can make something that looks masterful with nary a hint of extra effort.

And besides, bundt cakes make me think of my Mom. And she would have loved this Nutmeg Cake.

Nutmeg Cake. Not Spice Cake, although that would be appropriate, but no, the predominant flavor of this cake is Nutmeg, also known as Myristica fragrans, a spice that elicited so much adoration and excitement that bloody wars were executed over it to protect it’s production, and Emperor Henry VI had the streets of Rome fumigated with it during his coronation. In the 14th Century, a half a kilogram of nutmeg cost as much as three sheep, or one cow. The Nutmeg tree belongs to the Evergreen family, and as everyone knows, it consists of not one but two spices, as the feathery outer layer is ground up for Mace, while the seed itself is the Nutmeg.

The fruit is light yellow with red and green markings, resembling an apricot or a large plum. As the fruit matures, the outer fleshy covering (which is candied or pickled as snacks in Malaysia) bursts to reveal the seed. The seed is covered with red membranes called an aril, the mace portion of the nutmeg. The nut is then dried for up to 2 months until the inner nut rattles inside the shell. It is then shelled to reveal the valuable egg-shaped nutmeat which is the edible nutmeg. Second-rate nuts are pressed for the oil, which is used in perfumes and in the food industry.

Nutmeg is easily ground from it’s whole form, using a microplane, and purists argue that this is the best and only way in which it should be used. Pre-ground Nutmeg can easily lose it’s flavor, and when you need only a small dose of the spice, grating it fresh is simple; a few passes over the microplane and you’re done. But this recipe calls for 5 teaspoons of Nutmeg. I’d be standing with that microplane in hand for an eternity if I tried to freshly grate all that spice. And for me, Penzey’s West Indies Ground Nutmeg is perfect to keep on hand.

I came across this recipe in a recent issue of Saveur magazine and immediately snipped it out. Although I do know that Nutmeg is not a universally liked spice, for me it’s been a favorite since I was a kid, sprinkling my applesauce with cinnamon and nutmeg. I love it’s quick warm bite, the flick of flavor on my tongue that resonates around.

And it isn’t just for desserts, really. A few pinches of fresh ground nutmeg makes a wonderful addition to any dish with squash in it. It’s necessary for Spaetzle and can elevate a simple cream sauce on pasta to ultra-gastronomic levels. Add a dash of nutmeg to a fruit crisp, sprinkle it in smoothies, grate some on top of your oatmeal or other hot cereal (especially if you add blueberries- there is something so delightful about blueberries and nutmeg together) and of course, with cinnamon, cloves and allspice you get none other than perfect pumpkin pie flavor.

 

This cake made two appearances in my life in the exact same week. Two cakes, for two occasions. The first one was just the old standard “I Found A Recipe That I Can’t Wait To Try” deal, and the fact that it turned out so incredibly moist and oh so tender, and it was so darn easy to make that I quickly hit ‘Repeat’ and made another one for a ladies only gathering at our lake home. To be able to take a cake recipe and feed it to eight discriminating palates knowing that every one of them would adore it is a big feather in my cap. I loved watching their faces as they took that first bite. These ladies know their food.

And I know my nutmeg.  So tell me …. do YOU like nutmeg??

 

Nutmeg Cake

3 cups flour
5 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
12 tbsp. unsalted butter, chilled
2 cups packed light brown sugar
1 1/2 cups sour cream
1 cup milk
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts (optional)

Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting

Preheat oven to 350°. Spray a standard bundt pan with cooking spray. You can also use a 9×13 baking pan.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, nutmeg, baking powder, cinnamon, baking soda and salt. Cut the butter into cubes and add to the dry mixture. With a pastry blender (or two forks, or for a load of fun, your hands) cut the butter in to the flour mixture until it’s about the size of peas or smaller. Add the brown sugar and walnuts (if using) and blend with a fork.

In a large measuring cup, whisk together the sour cream, milk and eggs until very creamy. Add to the flour/butter mixture and gently fold together with a rubber spatula, carefully scraping the bottom of the bowl, until the batter is smooth and completely blended. It will be fairly thick. Pour batter into prepared pan. Run a knife through the batter to remove any air pockets, or you can gently drop the pan on the counter a few times for the same result.

Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 40-50 minutes for a bundt pan, 25-35 for a 9×13. Allow to cool for 20-30 minutes in the pan (if using a bundt pan) then run a knife around the edges to loosen and turn over on to a plate.

This cake is phenomenal when served warm.

 

original recipe from Saveur magazine, here with modifications.

seeking banana bread perfection

February 10th, 2011 | 4 Comments »

All right, all right…. you don’t want to talk about Winter anymore. I get it. How about we talk Banana Bread?

I grew up with regular and repeated doses of good banana bread. How about you? In our house, Mom would watch those bananas closely, and as soon as a few of them turned to the perfect spotty stage of brown, she would snatch them from the basket, peel them and put them on waxed paper, then mash them to mush with a fork for her golden fragrant loaves of banana bread. With walnuts. Which I hated, and yet, the banana bread was so glorious and perfect that I would carefully pick out the icky nuts and eat the rest. My favorite was the top of each slice, the softest part that often got so moist and tender. I always saved it for last.

I never varied from that banana bread recipe I had. Whenever bananas in my first kitchen made it further than a bowl of cereal, or an afternoon snack smeared with peanut butter, I would do as Mom did, peel them down, mash them with a fork and make a loaf of banana bread. But, as I could now do as an adult, with my own hand mixer, a container for flour and sugar in my cupboard that was always full, with the familiar can of baking powder next to them, I would leave out those gross nuts. My banana bread was spartan. All it needed was banana. Sometimes a smear of soft butter would coat the slice, or maybe peanut butter went on the bread too. But I never needed a reason to stray from the recipe that I’d known all my life. It was banana bread perfection and it was Mom and it was all I needed. When she died, making a loaf of her banana bread was like evoking her memory in my kitchen, with my heart breaking again, through each press of a fork into the banana, turning the flesh to the proper level of mashed for the recipe. Then each bite of her bread would send my very adult mind reeling backwards into the kitchen of childhood, the sunny window, the deeply patterned blue carpet and my Mom, happily peeling spotty brown bananas, the old familiar bread pan on the counter next to her.

I’m not sure what happened the last time I made Mom’s Banana bread recipe, but the first bite put me off quite a bit. It tasted…. I don’t know, odd. Fake, I guess. I was really kind of shocked by the flavor. I’d grown up with this recipe; I’d made it dozens of times since I was a kid and here I was, by leaps and bounds an adult and quite the responsible one too, with a good job, a home and a child and yet, I looked at the slice of banana bread in my hand and it didn’t fit anywhere with the life that I’d found. It didn’t even bring Mom’s face to mind, her laughing smile and the way she would grab my shoulders and squeeze me just a little, making a delighted teeny squeak of her love for me. My mouth, my taste and my opinion had grown right alongside my life, and this recipe didn’t do it for me anymore. Part of me was crushed. It was the familiar flavor of a life that was now gone, and it was failing to bring to me the comfort I was seeking, comfort away from a world of bills, deadlines, a hectic job and single parenting. I didn’t get rid of the recipe because that might feel a little like experiencing Mom’s death all over again. But I haven’t made that particular version for a long, long time.

Ever since then, I’ve been on the lookout for the next best Banana Bread recipe. When the bananas in my house get past their prime, I simply place them in the freezer and wait it out. I search the wide range of recipes available for one that might take me home again, a feeling of nostalgia, of banana bread perfection, a slice that might elicit that memorable squeak of love I recall. At one point, I think I had 10 frozen bananas in there, and part of me mourns the loss of that constant. I have looked over dozens of recipes and rejected most of them; too much fat, too much oil, wayyyyyy too much sugar and in almost all of them, not enough Mom. So I keep searching, finding a few gems here and there to sample in my own sunny kitchen, with it’s warped old bread pans. And the bananas meanwhile, well, they tend to pile up in the freezer, silently waiting to succumb to a fork, a whisk and a hot oven to be baked into a memory that will sustain me through the years ahead.

I’m still looking for that ultimate, that perfect banana bread, and I find that I’m really enjoying the experiments I’m coming across. This current one I’ve found is really quite good, in a clever and surprising way. What appeals to me about this particular recipe is that it includes crushed graham crackers crumbs in the base. This gives it a texture that’s a bit more crunchy than you would expect, and the taste of the graham crackers is really pronounced if you share the slice with a steaming cup of coffee. It’s perfect together, like banana and chocolate, like mothers and baking; with the familiarity of ritual, an old trusted bread pan and a freezer full of fruit at the ready.

Banana Chocolate Chip Bread

1-2/3 c. graham cracker crumbs (approx. one standard package from a box)
1-1/2 c. whole wheat flour
1/2 c. natural cane sugar (you can use regular granulated too)
1 T. baking powder
1/2 t. sea salt
3 medium bananas (i like to mash two of them fully, then leave the third in chunks for texture)
1/2 c. milk (any kind will do- I like vanilla soy, and almond would be wonderful)
3 T. canola oil (or get crazy and use olive oil- it tastes wonderful)
2 eggs, lightly beaten
6-oz semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350°. Spray a standard 9×5 loaf pan with cooking spray.

Place graham cracker crumbs, flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a bowl, and whisk well to combine.

In a large measuring cup, add bananas, oil, milk and eggs. Beat lightly with a fork to combine, then add to flour mixture. With a rubber spatula, carefully stir together until just blended with some streaks of flour remaining. Add in the chocolate chips and combine until mixture is fully incorporated. Scrape into prepared pan and bake for 50-60 minutes, or until top springs back when lightly touched and toothpick test comes out clean.

Allow to cool in pan for 30 minutes, then remove to wire rack to cool completely.

Need some other inspiration for banana baking? Try these:

Applesauce Banana Bread

Banana Poppyseed Bread

Peanut Butter Banana Bread

Whole Wheat Banana Pancakes

front step memories

April 16th, 2010 | 16 Comments »

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been having these ‘front step moments’ lately, where memories are popping up from all ages of my lifetime that occurred on our front staircase. For some reason, the moving picture of my life has many frames that are wrapped around concrete and steps that led to streets, friends houses and adventures. So many of them intertwined with food too.

Who didn’t take their peanut butter sandwich outside as a child to eat on the back steps? There was your Mom, inside the house just a few feet away and your backyard in front of you, while you nibbled your lunch, sipping milk to wash the peanut butter from your tongue. Maybe the neighbor girl joined you and you shared your meal. Then you always ran off to play, leaving the remains of a sandwich, maybe a carrot stick or lone potato chip as fair game for the dog to snatch up. But only if they were quicker than your Mom.

Blessed or otherwise, I saw a lot of different front steps in my young lifetime. My first memories, ever, occurred at the top of this long flight of stairs in South Minneapolis.

(that’s not trash littering the yard; it’s petals from a huge Star Magnolia behind me)

Nearly 40 years later, I’m floored to near tears by the fact that the railing pictured is the exact same one we used to slide down as children. My spot to sit and watch my young world go by was on the top step leaning against that railing. It was there, nibbling on my lunch one afternoon that I was jumped from behind by a Black Lab. I was terrified, screaming and wildly thrashing against that surprise assault when our feisty Dachshund, Schnapps came barreling out of nowhere to fling himself at the marauder, then chased that huge dog down the street, barking frantically, nipping at it’s heels. Schnapps was my protector. And he sat on those steps a lot with me.

Then we moved, briefly, to this set of front steps.

With this playground spread out before us.

This was a fantasy world at our young feet. We knew each trail, each bank of that creek as intimately as our own yard. We caught crawfish, dug worms, watched the current and climbed trees. When tired and thirsty, we’d run into the house and rummage for cookies, sipping Kool-Aid or lemonade, resting and catching our breath before heading back outside to find more beauty, gulp down the air and run until we were worn to the bone. How simple life could be if time was only defined through cold drinks, cookies and the sound of laughter and wind in the trees.

My front steps now aren’t that wondrous, but they’re tucked back against our house and sort of hidden in their own way. I’ve always enjoyed sitting outside on them; for the most part, not many people who pass by even know I am there so I can watch and observe and speculate on the world going by without disturbance. Our current neighborhood is made for walking, so there is always a parade of people, of dogs, kids on bikes and rollerblades, young families with strollers that sift through the evening breezes, quietly chatting with each other.

I can enjoy a glass of wine on these steps, chatting with The Teen, or sitting peacefully with a cat. We’ve been known to sit on these steps while thunder groans overhead and the tree in the yard bends in the furious wind. The storm siren can be going off, barely a block away and we won’t be able to hear each other speak, but the joy of watching that storm, the shiver of experiencing nature’s blast right in front of us keeps us there until drenching rain chases us both inside. My boy and I love a good thunderstorm.

So much of my days when I was very young were a mix of fresh air, sunshine, neighborhood kids and homemade treats. There were Dreamsicles, Freeze Pops and trying to fall asleep in the summer heat. My childhood, as many others, is full of these memories, and delicious tidbits that slipped between our fingers just as fast as we could lift them to our lips.

One of my most favorite treat as a young girl, and still to this day was my Mom’s Peanut Butter Fingers.

I guess I look to glean some sense of nostalgia whenever I make a beloved childhood cookie. How simple everything was then, the time of life that didn’t include numbers in bank account, property taxes, thinking about your child’s 16th birthday, insomnia and a host of other adult trappings that leave us longing for a simpler life. I bite into peaceful kid feelings when breaking through the solid chocolate crust of these beauties, and relish the memory of my Mom’s smile. Baking was her love language, and we sopped it up daily, never realizing how good we really had it. I still recall the first time at a friends house and she asked if I wanted a cookie. Enthusiastically I said yes, thinking of homemade chocolate chip, maybe a molasses cookie or my utmost favorite sugar cookies. She gave me an Oreo. Admittedly, I did like it -what kid didn’t like Oreos?- but it was the first exposure I had to the fact that not everyone had an endless supply of homemade treats at their disposal. I asked this friend what kind of cookies her Mom liked to bake and she looked at me blankly, then back at the Oreos. Oh, now that was a lesson to learn, all right.

Yes. I was blessed. And I continue to honor that upbringing in my own home, especially when the need for comfort and inner soothing become necessary. From what I see in the food blog world, baking is an obsession of many. That’s a wondrous thing to see, and indeed, to know in one’s lifetime. Fresh scratch treats have no comparison, in taste or in the way that they soothe, calm and bring ease to a often chaotic existence. The preciseness of baking is almost exactly opposite the freewheeling, often uncontrolled way that life has of tossing us around, leaving our souls feeling shaken. Peace to all-  through flour, sugar and a hot oven. Baking brings it’s own method of calm.

Today is my Mom’s birthday. Happy birthday, Mom. I sure do miss you. It’s no surprise to me that these memories are so strong right now.

Anyone want to join me on the steps for some cookies and a good chat??

Peanut Butter Fingers
origin unknown- some lifetime ago. This recipe is the first one under the ‘Desserts’ tab  in my indexed book of favorites. That’s how beloved it is.

Spray an 8×8 pan with cooking spray. Heat your oven to 350°.

Cream together:
1/2 c. butter
1/2 c. each brown and white sugar

Blend in:
1 unbeaten egg
1/2 c. smooth peanut butter (chunky is fine too, if it’s your thing)
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. sea salt

Stir in:
1 c. flour
1 c. quick cooking oats

Chocolate topping- 1 12-oz bag chocolate chips

Spread batter in prepared pan and bake for approximately 30 minutes, or until toothpick test is clean.  Remove pan from oven and sprinkle chips over the top. Allow to soften and then spread evenly to cover bars. Cool completely before cutting.

chocolate toll house bars

February 7th, 2010 | 12 Comments »

Mmm hmm….that’s right. Chocolate. Toll house. Bars. An unlikely sisterhood of fudgey brownie and the famous toll house recipe baked into a pan. I’m really a cookie lover at heart, but sometimes I just don’t want to scoop and bake repeatedly. Sometimes I just need to cream, stir, blend and fold myself into contentment, the end result being more easily achieved than what requires parchment, trays and repetitive movement. Take one recipe for your favorite version of a Toll House bar and stir some good cocoa powder into the dry goods. Take a bite and sigh with contentment. See? I would never steer you wrong.

I can bake. I love to bake. My lifeline to my guardian angel, my mother, lies in my mixer and flour container. With a spatula. I have no fonder memories of her than baking with her, the sunlight streaming in her kitchen window. I should recall her laugh, which was loud and shrieky, I mean, have you heard mine? She caused that, no doubt. My brother too. When he and I laugh together, people cover their ears. They wince. We get asked to be quiet in movie theaters, and we shock people. But her laugh, while amazing and warm was just a blue ribbon pinned on the strong and capable woman that she was, and that I strive to be. I may bend in the breezes, or twist against the savages of life, but no matter what happens, I am still the person she raised me to be, no more or less. With a spatula in hand. And cookies. They were her favorite. She made pies, bundt cakes (ooh, lime green ones sometimes. Eeek.) and she made bars too. But cookies were her specialty. Now I could do without the nuts that she loved, and to this day I haven’t been able to abide by the walnut, so overpowering was that in my youth and usually rancid if I am able to judge now. She put it in everything, and I picked them out of everything. If I was woe to forget to throw them away, the pile left behind would elicit one of her pretend indignant shrieks of “KATE!!!” because she just knew me that well. It was always me who carefully and diligently despised her walnuts. Or maybe my siblings were just better at remembering to dispose of the evidence.

One thing that Griffin does love to do is make cookies now and again. I like to keep everything on hand in case he gets a hankering for a homemade treat. The other day he was all set to make some Toll House bars when he discovered we didn’t have enough butter. With the saddest sigh that he could muster, he replaced all the ingredients he’d taken out and silently went upstairs. Mommy guilt overcame me. Although we had a few options available in the form of frozen commercial cookie dough, there is one thing that my teenager has inherited from me that sticks like glue: when he gets his mind on something he wants, he can’t settle for anything less. So the next day I went to the store and bought a lot of butter. Then when he was gone one night, I made a pan of bars and on a whim, added cocoa to the flour mixture.

My mom is probably smiling right about now.

Are there any alchemist secrets to baking? I’m really not one to ask, as for me baking is like looking at my right hand. It’s so much a part of me that I don’t recognize what might make it special. Or difficult. But plenty of people struggle with it. Baked goods fall flat, are dense and hard, they don’t rise enough or they balloon out of control. The fall when they come out of the oven. You know what? Mine do too. Even after a lifetime of experience, I can still often see fault in my bars. This pan, for instance, was so beautiful and fluffy when I pulled it out of the oven, and 20 minutes later, the center had collapsed like a mutual fund. It happens to me all the time but it never stops me from trying. They taste the same. And really, when I die, no one is going to be standing at my casket shaking their heads morosely and saying “Her bars always collapsed. It was so sad.”

The cocoa gives these familiar and comforting bars an added depth. While Toll House bars are nice and all, they really lack the pizazz of their more colorful and opulent baked counterparts. They’re reliable and sound but they’ve been left behind for everything sweet and dotted with sea salt, doused in browned butter, lavender essence and gold leaf. Oh Toll House, those new millenium treats smirk,  you are so 1975. Place them on a table with something exotic, and the poor plate will get skimmed over. Turn it into a delicate brownie-like, cakey and soft square, and it will stand apart. If nothing else, it will just make your mouth pretty happy. In a less expensive way. And we like that, don’t we?

Chocolate Toll House Bars
by Kate, adapted from the original recipe. My version is a little different so read it through. Some new tips are included.

2-1/4 c. AP flour (i used half whole wheat flour)
1 t. baking soda
1/2  t. sea salt (this is a personal preference; I don’t like the taste of iodized salt in my baked goods. use what is right for you)
1/4 c. cocoa powder
1 c. softened butter – NO substitutions (or at least don’t tell me about it)
1/2 c. EACH white sugar and brown sugar (firmly pack the brown)
2 eggs
1 t. pure vanilla extract
1/8 c. (or about 3 T. ) whole milk or cream (i used vanilla soymilk)
1  12-oz package Chocolate chips of choice (i use Ghiradelli semi sweets)

Preheat the oven to 350°. Spray a 9×13 pan with cooking spray. In a large measuring cup, whisk together all the dry ingredients.

In a large bowl, or a stand mixer, blend the soft butter and both sugars until fluffy and light. Be sure to really beat these well. The more air you incorporate into this, the fluffier your finished product. Beat it, scraping the bowl occasionally, for at least 5 minutes. Longer if you can.

Add the eggs, vanilla and milk. Blend well. Now remove the beaters and scrape them into the bowl.

Add all the flour at once, and with a stiff rubber spatula, begin gently folding it into the butter mixture. Remember to scrape across the bottom of the bowl and gently turn it over. Don’t stir it or you’ll deflate all that air you beat into the butter. Watch what you’re doing and when you’ve incorporated about half the flour, stop folding and add in the chocolate chips at this point. Continue to fold the remaining flour into the mixture, along with the chocolate chips. There will be a single magical moment when it all comes together in a beautiful glossy homogenized mass, and at this point, make sure there is no flour at the bottom of the bowl and then stop folding. Scrape it into the prepared pan and gently spread it to the edges. It’s fine if it doesn’t look perfect. Bake it for about 25 minutes, checking with a toothpick to determine if it’s done. Remove pan and allow to cool before cutting.

KATE’S NOTES:
I know that all recipes for these bars tell you to incorporate all the flour and then fold in the chips. Somehow this has worked for decades, but once you incorporate the flour, the more you stir and mix it, the tougher it will get and the bars will come out denser than you might expect. If you add the chips partway through the flour step, the finished product is lighter and you get more distribution of the chips. If you’re like me, you prefer your chip ratio to be even, not clumped up in some spots more than others. Even with the beating and gentle folding, these bars collapsed but they aren’t dense, just moist and fudgey.

This recipe calls for less sugar than any recipe you’ll find in print. With the addition of the milk, and of course those chocolate chips, there really isn’t the need for that much sugar. I’ve realized as I get older and experiment with baking that many, many recipes are too sweet, and cutting back sugar is always a good thing, isn’t it?

And yes, most recipes don’t call for milk to be added but if you follow this one, the additional cocoa needs to be balanced by a little more moisture, and the milk adds a nice touch, making them sweeter with a bit of richness. Experiment with what you have on hand. Flavored coffee creamers might be lovely to add a hint of something extra. And if they fall while they cool, no one will notice because they taste simply amazing. Especially for breakfast with some really dark coffee.

Merry Christmas to all….

December 24th, 2009 | 6 Comments »

Every year, with the boxes all around me and the tissue paper pushed back, I gaze at my life in ornaments and baubles and am in awe yet again at the wealth of memory and nostalgia that we place on the accepting branches of our chosen tree.


That gorgeous crocheted Santa, aptly named Lunar Santa, was made by my sister. It’s one of my most favorite ornaments. And I still have a handful or ornaments that my Grandma made for us. Every year when she came for Christmas, she would bring a box of her handmade treasures. They had tags on them, with our names in her perfect script. Several of mine still hold those tags, that memory of her permanently in ink. Some of the items on our tree were made by Griffin’s paternal Great-Grandmother too.

I love this faded and fragile paper Christmas tree, with Griffin’s tiny little face in the center. He made it in Kindergarten and I hope I never forget the look on his face when he brought it home to me. He swelled with pride when we placed it on our tree that year. Next to it, see that even more faded little paper chain? I made that in Kindergarten, thirty years earlier that the date on Griffin’s tree.

The year that Christmas almost wasn’t was when Griffin was three. It was a pretty hard time of my life and the ocean of sorrow that swirled around me left me almost broke and lacking much holiday spirit. A friend of mine refused to let me wallow, and said “You need to celebrate for your son’s sake.” They took me shopping and bought me a few ornaments, a tiny little tree and stand and a few groceries. Among the ornaments was a box of these old-fashioned styled glass baubles in all sorts of shapes and colors.


My family had some ornaments like this when I was very little and they reminded me of a better time of life, a time when we just had no clue as to the difficulties that lay ahead. Now, when I pull out the tin that lovingly holds this collection, not only do I remember some beloved childhood treasures, but I also recall the support and guidance of someone who gave selflessly to me at a critical time of need.

It really isn’t fully festive during our decorating time unless someone grabs the Santa-inspired tree skirt and dances around the house with it around their waist. Usually it’s me. This year it was Griffin and I almost collapsed from the hilarity. But shhhhh….don’t tell him I mentioned that here. He is 15, you know.

And me? I’m way beyond the need to shake the packages under the tree in a vague attempt to identify their contents, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel the urge every year when they start to accumulate.

I hope that your Christmas is full of treasured people, whether it’s family, or the friends that feel like family. I hope there is delicious food, warm genuine smiles. I hope it is peaceful, because I sure know about celebrating Christmas when it’s the last thing you want to do. I hope snow is involved, if the climate allows, and twinkling lights fill your eyes. We’ll be staring at magical Christmas snow in amazing abundance this year. It is a VERY white Christmas.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Potato Salad Nostalgia

July 8th, 2009 | 7 Comments »

If you had asked me a week ago if I liked potato salad, I probably would have done some type of combination eye roll with a detestable smirk to show you in no uncertain terms how much I really can’t be bothered with all that cold potato with mayo and god knows what else kind of food that is everywhere this time of year.

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And oh, I would have been so wrong but really, give me a moment to get you up to speed on the saga of Potato Salad In My Life. I’m sure when I’m done you’ll understand the reason behind that particular face I was prone to making.

You see, Potato Salad was everywhere when I was a kid. Everywhere. My mom made it all the time -always the same way- for every picnic or family gathering we had, and in our extended family of grandparents, uncles, aunts and the 10 cousins, we gathered often. There was always potato salad. We always had a big hunk dumped on our plates and were expected to eat it. This was the 70′s. We were supposed to sup without question and usually when Mom was out of earshot, someone inevitably would make gagging noises and shove the mess aside, or maybe if it was a certain bespectacled scrawny little dark blonde girl, she would eat the hard-boiled eggs off her portion, maybe one piece of potato, but never a radish and then muck up the rest in an effort to look like she at least tried.  Who me? Well, yeah, probably.

Potato salad. Just the words conjure up images of gloppy yellowed blobs of indistinguishable potato, maybe a piece of celery or egg, certainly nothing that anyone ever leaps on in ecstasy, eyes sparkling for joy kind of way. Yet if there is one thing that makes for the most impassioned arguments or a hotly tested debate it’s the humble potato salad. People are nothing if not vocal about how it MUST be done; vinegar based or mayo, mustard or not, eggs- some say yuck, to others it’s a must- and celery, of course. Wax spuds or russets? Colored or not? Boiled, baked, roasted, grilled…..just doing an Internet search for ‘potato salad’ not only gets you forty-trillion recipes, but several lengthy and impassioned debates, some with plenty of CAPS!!! to indicate their point.

Gah. It’s a potato. And a salad.

But back to Mom’s, the salad that wouldn’t die. And can my sibs help me out here? Did Mom actually like the potato salad or did she just make it because everyone expected her to bring it? I seem to recall a lot of grumbling when it was being made (oh wait… that might have been me) and not a lot of excitement.

Then comes last week, the day that a not so unusual dish of potato salad landed on the counter at a pool party I attended, whereas I scooped up a small amount and raised the first bite to my mouth, utterly without any expectation, delight or joy at all and it positively bowled me over in how it brought back such a rush of memory that I could almost hear my Mom’s laughter again. Me, who got so sick of potato salad that I just about cringe when I even hear the words; me, who to this day, despite loving cold cooked potato with a simple sprinkle of salt never ever wants them mixed with mayo, I had to quick email my sister and ask her to help me remember how to make Mom’s Potato Salad because suddenly I had to have some or I might have had a little meltdown.

Me and meltdowns…..so not pretty. I do what I can to avoid them at all costs.

And talk about recipe karma…..Kris named the simple ingredients that she remembered- potato, radish, celery, cooked egg, mayo and Durkee’s Famous Sauce. Season with salt and pepper, please. That was it, and it was all available in my kitchen. Before the day was out I was staring at a bowl of perfect cooked potato dressed in a simple mix, with colorful radish and ca-runchy celery. I took a bite.

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moms potato salad 002

It was all I could do not to break down in tears right then. The wave of nostalgia that came over me was overwhelming; sweet and lovely but almost paralyzing in it’s sadness. I scorned this dish growing up, and crossed my blue eyes at my Mom so many times that I’m sure she never looked straight at me when she announced her intention to make this dish in order to NOT see me do that AGAIN, her precious #5 of 5, making faces at her. I mocked it, mushed it, stuck my tongue out at it and gagged at the very idea of it. Then I shunned it for decades, somehow convinced my life would be just fine, thank you very much, because I don’t want Potato Salad. I don’t like Potato Salad. Oh how very wrong I was. And how so very sorry I am that I was like that to her.

Now I’m sure that this won’t be my BFF for long. God knows I probably don’t have enough tears in me to continue making this all summer but it was so perfect and easy to pull from the fridge to serve alongside our BLT’S, or BLATZ as I likened to refer to the mile- high creation on my plate….  what’s that you ask? Why, it’s bacon, lettuce, avocado, tomato and grilled zucchini.  Delicious in it’s own right, but amazing next to this potato salad.

moms potato salad collage

Kate’s Mom’s Potato Salad

(weights and amounts are approximate- you will know best how much to use)

2# potato of choice, scrubbed with skin on
1-2 stalks of celery, sliced fine (amount depends on your love of the ca-RONCH factor)
4-6 radishes, scrubbed and sliced thin (again with the ca-RONCH deal)
2-3 hard boiled eggs, sliced
1/2 c. real mayo
1/4 c. Durkee’s Famous Sauce
Salt and Pepper to taste

Boil potatoes until a fork slips in easily. Time will be dependent on size and type. Drain, reserving some of the potato water and sprinkle with sea salt while still hot. Toss slightly and sprinkle on more salt. Allow to cool and dice or slice to your liking. Leave the skins on.

Mix potato, celery and radish in a large bowl. Combine the mayo and Durkees and drizzle about 1/8 c. (or 3 T.)  of the potato water into it, then whisk to emulsify. The starch in the potato water will help the dressing stick better. Pour half over the potato mix and stir gently to combine. Season with salt and pepper. Taste it. Add more dressing if you like it creamier, or more salt and pepper. Add the eggs and fold in gently. Serve at room temp or cover and chill thoroughly.

KATE’S NOTES:
Why yes, you do spot bacon in the photos above. While the original recipe does not call for bacon, I had some on hand and added a crumbled piece to see how it would be. What can’t be improved with bacon? Wait, don’t answer that!

The bacon was OK, but not perfect. And I am aghast to say it, but it’s true. The salad just doesn’t need it, and it isn’t Mom’s Potato Salad any other way.

Comfort foods, but better

May 10th, 2009 | 5 Comments »

Life isn’t simple anymore. Not that this is a shock to anyone with an adult’s perspective. It seems that everything has gotten so much more complicated, and while we burst through life determining what path to take that is right for us, we are constantly faced with decisions and truths that require a ‘turn on a dime’ change of direction. It’s just not like when we were kids.

nostalgia

Of course, this isn’t a bad thing either. It’s nice to look at our past and see where we’ve ‘grown up’ even if, somewhere inside us, we still are surprised at the face that looks back from the mirror. I still can feel like I’m 12 again, or 24, or 30 and a brand new Mom. Of course I wish that I could still run barefoot from June to September, the sun hot on my skin and nothing more pressing in my day except where the next adventure would take root; I think about Kool-Aid, Popsicles and A&W Root Beer with a hard scoop of vanilla ice cream floating in it. I think about one-room air conditioners, the smell of bed linens fresh off the clothesline and how it seemed so perfect to take a peanut butter sandwich outside to the backyard for a picnic. And while all of this speaks more to the carefree days of childhood and what I find I can no longer freely indulge in, it’s more than just a nostalgic turn; I think I just yearn for a time when I was blissfully unaware that life existed outside the realms of my neighborhood. With all the gloom and doom present in our daily media, it’s no small feat to try and close it out. And while I can grasp my adulthood fully with both hands and move ahead with the changing world, there still are times that I want something that reminds me of simpler days.

Not too long ago I posted about finding plenty of nostalgia in a perusal of food blogs, and it got a conversation rolling with Jamie and Kristen about foods from our past. Kristen especially tickled me in a discourse we had over cream soups and some of the dishes we used to make with them, and part of what we talked about was that although these foods often have good memories attached to them, they aren’t all that healthy. Looking around me in the grocer, I had to wonder if it was possible to bring them back with less guilt, and possibly more flavor.

The ubiquitous Tuna Mushroom Pasta was a standard from my childhood; macaroni, canned mushrooms and tuna, cream of mushroom soup and a crush of potato chips over the top was a mainstay for dinner. No one really went “Ooooooh!!!” whenever it was presented, and I recall a time when I clearly told myself I would never eat it again. And in that representation, I never did.

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One good thing about following the flow of life is watching your food mature around you. I’m glad to be far away from the foods of my past, although it’s nice to think I can recreate them, but better. And more flavorful.

mushroom-tuna-and-pasta-012(Not exactly the Beauty Queen of Cuisine…..but oh so delicious!)

No one is chained to Campbells soups anymore; Amy’s Soups has a lovely creamy mushroom soup, Health Valley Organics makes a completely natural line of cream soups, and then there’s my favorite- this Portabello Mushroom soup from Imagine Natural Creations. When the desire strikes for a meal that not only satisfies my need for a little nostalgia, but also will bring smiles to both Mike and Griffin- who absolutely LOVES this dish- this is where I turn; better ingredients, and a more sophisticated method.

mushroom-tuna-and-pasta-001mushroom-tuna-and-pasta-004

Kate’s Mushroom Tuna Pasta

1# dry pasta, cooked to taste
1 pkg. Baby Bella mushrooms
1 large leek, split and washed, sliced very thin
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 yellow pepper, chopped
1-2 3-oz pkgs Tuna (or other tuna of choice)
1 16-oz container Imagine Portabello Mushroom soup (or equivalent)
1/2 c. frozen peas
Butter and olive oil for cooking
Worchestershire sauce (optional)

Other optional add-ins: Toasted seasoned bread crumbs and grated parmesan cheese.

In a medium sized skillet, warm approximately 2 T. olive oil and 2 T. butter  and add leek, cooking for about 15 minutes over medium heat, stirring regularly. When soft and beginning to brown in spots, add in yellow pepper and cook for 5 minutes. Stir in garlic, reduce heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally for about 5 minutes. Stir in peas, cover and keep over low heat.

In a separate pan, warm 4 T. of butter and 2 T. olive oil, add mushrooms and cook over medium-high heat, stirring regularly until mushrooms begin to release their liquid. If using, at this point add about 2 T. worchestershire sauce to mushrooms, along with a generous grind of black pepper. Stir to combine and continue to cook, allowing mushrooms to sear and brown.

Drain pasta, reserving about a half cup of pasta water, but don’t shake off excess. Return to pan and add in soup, tuna, the leek mixture and the mushrooms. Stir to combine. Add in some of the pasta water if the mix is thick. Season to taste with salt and more fresh ground black pepper.

KATE’S NOTES:
This method, while a bit futzy, produces a very flavorful end result. By no means is it carved in stone. I do heartily recommend a separate pan for cooking the mushrooms, solely for the flavor it will impart, but in a pinch you can cook all the vegetables together. Regular chopped onion is fine too, it seems lately I’m kind of on a leek fix. Skip the butter if it isn’t your thing.

mushroom tuna and pasta 008

My love for toasted bread crumbs knows no boundaries. I prefer Panko for this application, reserving the bread crumbs I make from scratch for use as a filler or bond. I mix about a cup of Panko with melted butter and some olive oil, then add in a multitude of dry seasonings such as dried basil, garlic and onion powder, fresh ground pepper, maybe some dried mustard and then heat them gently in a pan, stirring continually, until they are fragrant and browned. Be sure to remove them from the pan when they’re done or they will burn. They keep in the fridge for a while, although I’ve never determined exactly how long because I make up excuses to eat them.