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Monday, August 29, 2011

Zucchini Part II--Dessert

My kids' paternal Great Grandma was a master cook and baker, and one of her "signature dishes" was Flop Cake. She never would say why she had given it this name, but no matter. She always baked the moist, almost brownie-like cake in a 9 X 13 pan, with a thick layer of fudge frosting over the top. Somehow, that frosting always came out just right.

Over the years, I have made the cake often, and the frosting even more times, as it has a wonderful flavor good for many other desserts. However, I have come to think that the "flop" in the name for the cake really was reserved for the frosting, as it can sometimes stubbornly refuse to set (but oh, what a wonderful fudge sauce that is) or it can turn to rock-hard fudge candy before the frosting is halfway spread. Even that, however, means you think you are getting a piece of candy along with your cake, so it's not all bad. And so I keep on making it, always with the hope that this time maybe things will work out to that perfect glossy perfection Grandma always seemed to achieve.

It so happens that we were celebrating a seventh birthday last week for one of my grandsons. It was clear that a chocolate cake with chocolate icing would be his choice, so I went searching for a dense chocolate cake--of course with zucchini--with the plan to use Grandma's fudge frosting as the topper. I'd even dig out the candy thermometer to go with the standard soft ball test--surely that would improve my chances at a just right texture.

Well, the cake was a great least in flavor and texture. The appearance? Hmmm...let's just say that it was really good we were eating on the deck and dusk was starting to fall by the time the cake came out. Not being able to see it too well was really quite an asset--maybe I should just include "serve as part of a dinner by candlelight" as part of the instructions.

I suspect that part of the recipe problem is that Grandma sometimes used a coffee cup or a tea cup for her measuring, so I will be doing some investigating on line to find more reliable proportions for the frosting. Meanwhile, I am presenting to you the recipes for both cake and frosting, since the flavors together were wonderful--and the cake was still so good three days on that guests ate heartily and then carried home the leftovers so they could savor every last crumb.

Zucchini Fudge Cake

1/2 c butter, softened
1/2 c canola oil
2 1/2 c sugar
4 eggs
2 t vanilla
1/2 to 3/4 c baking cocoa (you need at least half a cup, but I like the added chocolate-i-ness of the full three quarters of a cup)
3 c flour
2 t baking powder
1 t soda
1/3 c powdered nonfat dry milk (see NOTE 2)
3/4 c water
1 t cider vinegar
3 c grated zucchini
1 c coarsely chopped walnuts

1. Cream the butter, oil, and sugar together until very well mixed.

NOTE 1: When making cakes, the old-fashioned cooks knew that the secret to a really wonderful texture was to cream the butter or shortening with the sugar for several minutes, until the sugar is almost dissolved. I am blessed to have a stand mixer that has served me well for decades, so I can put the butter, oil, and sugar in the bowl and walk away to prepare the pan for baking or do other things while letting the mixer do its thing. If you have only a small hand-held mixer, do try to spend as much time on this step as you can, at least for special occasion cakes. You will be amazed at the difference it can make.

2. When the mixture is very light and fluffy, gradually beat in the eggs, vanilla, and cocoa powder. Continue to beat at medium speed until well mixed and uniform in color, about a minute or so more.

3. Add the vinegar to the water and dry milk powder and stir well.
NOTE 2: If you do not have dry milk powder, use 3/4 c milk instead of the water and dry milk. And of course, if you have buttermilk, you can use that and omit the vinegar.
4. Sift together the flour, baking powder and baking soda. Now, starting with about a third of the dry ingredients, add these alternately to the egg mixture with the milk.
NOTE 3: When you are asked to add wet and dry ingredients alternately like this, always start with a third of the dry ingredients, then half the wet, then the next third of the dry, followed by the rest of the wet and then the rest of the dry. Why? This ensures that the mixture will be mixed completely without a lot of over-beating or pockets of dry stuff in the batter when you go to put it in the pan. While it may seem like a lot of extra work, it really isn't, and, trust me, you will be much happier with the results if you use this method instead of dumping everything in all at once!
4. Grate the zucchini with a hand grater or in a processor or blender. The shreds do not have to be terribly fine. Do not drain the zucchini; just use it as is.

5. After the batter is well combined, fold in the grated zucchini and the walnuts. Stir just enough to be sure everything is evenly distributed.
NOTE 4: Though nuts are usually optional in recipes like this, I think they are important to include here if possible. The walnuts enhance the flavor but they also will mask any possible "texture" feel from the zucchini.
6. Turn the mixture into a well-oiled and floured Bundt pan or a 10 inch tube pan. If the latter is used, you may want to use part of the batter for six cup cakes so that the pan does not get too full. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to one hour, until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out just barely clean. For the moistest cake, you do not want to overbake.

7. Allow the cake to cool in the pan 5 to 10 minutes before inverting on a cake plate. Cool well before frosting.

And now, the frosting!

Flop Cake Fudge Frosting

1 1/2 c granulated sugar--NOT powdered
1/3 to 1/2 c baking cocoa
1/2 c milk
2 t cornstarch
2 t butter
1 t vanilla

1. Combine the sugar, cocoa, and cornstarch in a heavy saucepan and stir until well blended. Gradually stir in the milk and then begin heating the mixture over medium high heat. Bring to a boil, stirring often.

2. Cook until a few drops of the mixture form a soft ball in ice cold water ("soft ball stage") or until a candy thermometer registers 235 to 240 degrees.

3. Remove from heat and let cool, stirring occasionally. (Try not to scrape down the sides from here on out, as that can cause the entire mixture to get sugary instead of staying creamy.)

4. Stir in the butter and vanilla and beat for a few minutes until the mixture is glossy. Spread immediately on the cake.

Problem solvers:

If the frosting does start to harden too quickly, you might be able to get a little milk stirred in to make it spreadable. However, my experience has been that this sometimes just turns the frosting into syrup!

On the other hand, if you can't get the frosting to set at all, you can resign yourself to drizzling it over the cake and hope this "glaze" will eventually harden. You can also beat in some powdered sugar to thicken the frosting, though some of the pure fudge-i-ness will be lost. Or, you can always just turn it into fudge sauce; slice the cake, top with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream, and then drizzle the sauce over the top, as though that was what you meant all along!

As you can see in the picture below, I was unable to get the frosting spread on the cake before it started to harden into chunky fudge. Not very pretty, but the flavor was wonderful...Oh, and there wasn't a fleck of green to give the zucchini away!

(By the way, this still worked for a birthday cake just fine, with candles and a very happy little boy to have the chocolate cake he had asked for.)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Zucchini Part I--As a Main Dish

We have all heard the jokes about the orphaned bags of zucchini left on the doorstep overnight, but I had a very nice experience a week or so ago. There at the door were my master gardener neighbors, offering up a beautifully arranged basket of zucchini, yellow squash and cucumbers they were offering to share with the rest of us on the street.

Selecting a lavishly striped zucchini for my share, I added it to the yellow squash that are actually doing quite nicely in my own garden this year. Then, only a few days later, my daughter arrived from eastern Wisconsin with a large bag of more zucchini and cucumbers from her master gardener uncle. What a bounty!

A couple of years ago, I found the cookbook pictured above at a garage sale, a real bargain for only 50 cents. The cookbook is self-published--looking like a church cookbook with that same kind of plastic binding--with almost 300 pages of recipes for...zucchini. Yup, every single one of them includes zucchini. Sliced zucchini, grated zucchini, pureed zucchini, even zucchini juice. Main dishes, breads, salads, preserves, desserts, they're all there. Will I ever use all of them? Of course not. The zucchini juice section seems a little more work than I'm ready for, and the cake section seems to go over the top at times. Still, the book has been a great idea starter and a good supplement to some of the things I already do with these squashes.

And I have been "doing." Here and in the next couple of posts, I'll be sharing some old and new ways that I have found to use up these free foods--and you can't get much more frugal than free, can you!

For starters, let's go with lasagna. While this includes browning the zucchini in olive oil, the recipe itself is still a little lighter than most because of the "missing" pasta, use of fat free yogurt instead of ricotta, and the absence of meat. I've been making my adaptation of a recipe from Jane Brody's Good Food Book for over 25 years, and it still makes people happy when it is served. It's especially good when we have these giant zucchinis from the garden, though smaller ones available other times of the year can also be used.

Zucchini Lasagna
Enough for a 9 X 13 or 11 or 12 inch square pan

2 large or 3 to 4 medium zucchini--the zucchini will shrink a little while sauteeing so be sure you have enough!
2 to 3 T flour
3 T corn meal
salt or seasoning salt--about 1/4 to 1/3 t
olive or canola oil
2 c nonfat plain yogurt
2 eggs
1/2 t garlic powder
Italian seasoning and/or oregano to taste
1 can or jar, 26 to 28 ounces, spaghetti sauce
8 oz tomato sauce
additional herbs (I like a little basil and additional oregano) or garlic powder as desired
8 ounces grated mozzarella or "Italian blend" cheese
approximately 1/2 c grated Parmesan cheese

1. Slice the zucchini lengthwise into quarter inch thick slices. If desired, sprinkle lightly with salt and place in a colander for about 20 to 30 minutes. Before dipping in the flour mixture in step 2, squeeze them lightly to extract more liquid. (This is not a required step, but it does help make them brown more quickly and evenly.)

2. In a large frying pan, heat just enough oil to thinly cover the bottom. Meanwhile, combine the flour, cornmeal, and salt in a flat dish. Dip the zucchini slices in the flour mixture, coating each side well. When the oil is just shimmering, put the zucchini slices in and cook over medium high heat, turning to brown both sides. You will need to work in batches, so take the first slices out and put them on a platter lined with a paper towel. Add a bit of oil to the pan as needed and continue sauteeing the slices until they are all just golden. Do not overcook or they will be too soft to handle easily.

3. Combine the yogurt, eggs, garlic powder, oregano, and Italian seasoning and mix well. In a separate container, combine the spaghetti sauce, tomato sauce and any additional herbs or seasonings as desired.

4. Now the layering begins! Spread a small amount of the tomato mixture over the bottom of the pan, covering it thoroughly. Then cover this with a third of the zucchini slices, pressing them close together so the bottom of the pan is well covered. Spread with half the yogurt mixture and then about a third of the remaining tomato sauce. Sprinkle with a third of the mozzarella cheese.

Repeat the layers--another third of the zucchini, the rest of the yogurt, another third of the tomato sauce, and a third of the mozzarella. Complete the layering with one more layer of zucchini covered with the rest of the tomato sauce and then the remaining mozzarella. The final topping is the Parmesan, spread evenly over the entire dish.

5. Bake the lasagna in a 350 degree oven about 45 minutes, until the mixture is bubbly and the top is golden. If it seems to be getting too brown too quickly, you can cover it loosely with foil for the last 15 minutes or so.

6. As with all lasagnas, allow this to sit for 15 to 20 minutes after taking it out of the oven so that it will cut and serve more easily. This easily serves 8 people. Leftovers reheat well in the microwave or can be frozen.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Fruit Crisps

My raspberries are currently on hiatus, having finished their July efforts a little less productively than most years but once again full of blossoms and “baby berries.” The hordes of bees humming all around are a wonderful sight. I sometimes think these berry bushes read the calendar better than I, since turning the page from July to August almost invariably means that all remaining red or even pink berries miraculously disappear. Then, Labor Day weekend arrives and ripening berries again appear, gracing the yard and my table from then until frost.
Even though there are no fresh berries available right now, I have two large raspberry crisps in the oven, ready to take to a dinner this evening. Anticipating another good crop, it seemed like a good time to clear out the last of the 2010 packages. That’s the lovely thing about fruit crisps: they are as good made from frozen fruit as fresh, so they can be enjoyed year round.

I have been making apple and other fruit crisps for so many years now that I rarely pull out any kind of recipe. Instead, I think of the topping in terms of ratios—flexible ones at that—so I can just make as much crumble as I want for the particular amount of fruit or presentation. Sometimes, I reduce the amount of fat for a little more basic dessert but other times the crumb topping is just like a shortbread cookie with some oatmeal and nuts added in. If I have a lot of fruit and I will be serving the crisp with ice cream or whipped topping, I might make less of the crumble. Other times, there might be more crumbs as I try to stretch a limited amount of fruit to serve just a few more people. However I end up making it, there never seem to be complaints!

Perhaps more than a recipe then, today I offer some “guidelines.”

Fruit Crisp Topping

1 part butter (or up to half canola oil and the rest butter)—for a very buttery topping, increase the butter so it equals the sugar amount
1 1/2 parts sugar
2 parts flour
cinnamon, nutmeg, and/or allspice to taste
1 1/2 to 2 parts oatmeal—usually the quick (NOT instant) rather than “old-fashioned” though the latter can make an interesting texture
1 part chopped walnuts, almonds, or pecans (optional)
Soften the butter just enough so that it can be mixed into an evenly crumbly texture with the remaining ingredients. A large fork is usually the best for this. Start by mixing the butter, sugar, flour and spices, and then add the oatmeal and nuts after the rest of the mixture is evenly distributed.

If you translate the above so that one part equals one cup (1 c butter, 1 1/2 c sugar, etc.), you should end up with about 6 to 6 1/2 cups of crumbs, a pretty large amount.
Now, some added details...

How Much Fruit? How Much Topping?
How do I decide how much fruit and how much topping to use? Again, this can vary a great deal. One of the things my mother used to do when making fruit pies was to cut the fruit right into a pie pan of the same size that she would be using for the dessert. When it was full enough (which meant heaping up, because the fruit always cooks down), she would pour it into a mixing bowl and add in whatever sugar, flour or cornstarch, and spices she felt that amount needed. Maybe that’s where I learned my “inexact” approach to these desserts. Anyway, here are some approximations that should serve you very well.

For a 9-inch deep-dish pie pan or 8 or 9 inch square pan, use 3 to 4 cups of fruit and about 2 cups of crumbs. If you want to make a 9 X 13 or similar large pan of crisp, you will probably need 6 to 8 cups of fruit and 4 to 5 cups of crumbs.

In the picture above, you can see that I used a higher proportion of fruit to crumble than is probably typical, but I was being really extravagant with the berries. (Yes, if I were buying raspberries, this would not at all fit the "frugal" aim of the blog. Even at the very lowest prices I have seen in the past year, the cost of the fruit in these two crisps would easily surpass $20 or even $25. One more blessing of even a small garden and fruit area in the back yard.)

The amount of sugar (and possibly thickener like flour or cornstarch) will vary depending on the fruit. For a 9-inch deep-dish pie pan, you will want 1/2 to 1 cup of sugar, depending on the fruit. Berries usually need 1/2 to 3/4 of a cup of sugar, while peaches, nectarines, etc. might require only 1/2 cup, depending on how ripe they are. “Pie” cherries and anything with rhubarb usually need a full cup of sugar.

How can you tell if you have enough sugar? You taste it. Stir the fruit and sugar together well and then take a tiny amount of the fruit with some of the sugary coating and try it out, recognizing that there will be more blending of the flavors as the crisp cooks.

The greater the proportion of fruit to topping, the more thickener you are likely to need. Obviously too, the juicier the fruit, the more flour or cornstarch you’ll need. Here is where recipes can help if you haven’t made many of these kinds of desserts before. (Pie filling recipes work well for fruit crisps as well.) If you look at my January 31, 2011, entry below, you will also find a special way to make apple crisp, Tarte Tatin, that really moves this basic dessert to a whole new level.

Apples present a special problem, since some varieties will cook up with far more juice than others, so a recipe developed for something like Granny Smith apples might turn out very thin if Macintosh apples are used instead. So what are you supposed to do if you don’t know how your apples will cook up or what kind of apples were used in the recipe you are trying? Sometimes, trial and error. There are a lot of resources online that provide some information on specific varieties and what they are like after cooking, but, as noted below, sometimes you will just need to take your best guess and see what happens. As noted below, if you have the sweetness right, you can get by with a lot of variation in the ultimate consistency. I will admit to preferring juicy to “dry,” so I tend to keep the thickener amount on the light side if in doubt. 

Flour or cornstarch? Cornstarch provides a clearer, glossier sauce around the fruit, so that is usually my first choice. However, I find flour works just fine for apples and rhubarb and is perfectly acceptable for any fruits. (I used to use instant tapioca for some fruit fillings, but the expense and extra effort just doesn't seem necessary.)

Another wonderful thing about fruit crisps is their wonderful ability to turn mixtures of all kinds of fruits into a continuing variety of desserts. I live in a part of the country where fall apples are sometimes extremely low in cost, so I often mix these with more expensive fruits since the apples add fruitiness and sweetness while staying in the background of the blueberries, raspberries, etc. Rhubarb (still not at all my favorite!) is also a great stretcher if you have it available in your back yard (or your neighbor’s—these are the spring zucchini of garden sharers). Just think of all those strawberry rhubarb recipes you’ve seen. If you have a couple of peaches that are starting to get a spot or two, you can mix them with whatever berries you happen to have or with apples or even pears and come up with a whole new dessert.

Now that I have the fruit in the pan, the crumbs spread over the top, how do I bake it and for how long? Use a 350 degree oven and plan on baking the crisp for 30 to 55 minutes. Berries and other soft fruit will take the shortest time to bake. You will want the filling to be bubbly and, if you have apples, peaches, or other firm fruit, you should be able to insert a table knife into the center and feel that the fruit is thoroughly soft. Fruit crisps are wonderful right out of the oven, but can be served barely warm or cold as well.

Some “cures” for unexpected results:
If the dessert is “juicier” than you’d like:
Serve it in bowls, with ice cream. Though these desserts are really good warm (or even hot), chilling a runny crisp can sometimes thicken it up quite a bit, so that is an option too.
If the dessert is “too thick”:
Cut it in squares and dollop some whipped topping (or ice cream again) over the top. Serving with just plain cream drizzled over is an old fashioned way to serve desserts and can be ideal for a crisp that is just too thick. Sometimes, warming the pieces for a few seconds in the microwave can also make the dessert less firm.
If you discover the filling is not as sweet as you’d like:
Again, go with some ice cream or sweetened whipped cream. If you really missed your target, you could make a sugar syrup (1 cup sugar to 1/2 c water, boiled for about 5 minutes) and drizzle over the entire dessert. I think you’d have to have done something drastically off to need this however.
If you discover the filling is way over the top too sweet:
Try a Wisconsin approach and serve with some slices of good cheddar or similar cheese. You could also top with plain yogurt instead of ice cream or whipped topping.

Final thoughts:
Be flexible…and that is my advice for all manner of crisps. Sometimes you will end up with a dessert that needs to be served in bowls with a spoon and other times you might have a result that is dry enough it looks like a filled cookie bar. Unless you got the sweetness balance wrong somehow, you are likely to find that your dessert will be eagerly received, no matter the consistency…and you just smile when the compliments come in and let everyone assume that you meant it to be just as it came out.

The key to remember with fruit crisps is their wonderful variations and forgiveness of our little changes and missteps. They are also pretty quick to make, especially when compared with pies, and provide endlessly varied desserts as the seasons progress.

Grape Puree Put to a Good Use

My daughter-in-law has been adding to her already busy schedule the making of grape juice and grape jelly, thanks to a proliferation of grapes ripening on their back yard fence. She cooked up a huge pot of grapes for her first batch and allowed them to drain through a colander. This yielded over a gallon of juice, but the pulp left in the colander looked too good to discard. Being a frugal cook after my own heart, she put this pulp through her food mill to strain out the seeds and skins and gave me over five cups of the result.


I first googled "grape puree recipes" and found mostly pie fillings. All looked good, but I really didn't want to get that elaborate with my experiment. Instead, I started in a similar direction and ended up with a dessert that was closer to a bar cookie than a fruit crisp, my original intent. Probably the only change that I will make with the remaining puree is to add a little more sugar, as these grapes were really quite tart.

Wild Grape Bars

2 c grape puree
2/3 c sugar
1/4 c cornstarch
1 t cinnamon
1/4 t mace

Crust and topping
1/3 c butter, softened
1/4 c oil (this could also have been made with 1/2 c butter, omitting the oil)
1/2 c sugar
1/2 c brown sugar
1 t cinnamon
1 1/4 c flour
1 1/2 c oatmeal
3/4 c chopped walnuts

1. Filling: In a very large microwave-safe bowl, stir the sugar, spices, and cornstarch together until the cornstarch is thoroughly mixed in. Gradually add the puree and stir until smooth. Place in microwave and cook for about 6 minutes at power level 5 (medium), stirring occasionally, until the mixture is bubbly and thickened. Set aside to cool slightly.

2. Crust: Cut sugars into the butter and oil until evenly mixed. Stir in the flour and cinnamon. Add the oatmeal and nuts and continue to stir until the mixture is evenly crumbly. (A large fork is the best tool for this mixing.)

3. Spread all but about a cup or so of the crumbs in the bottom of a 9 X 13 pan and press so that the crust is firm and even. Spread the filling over the crust and then sprinkle with the remaining crumbs.

4. Finish either in the oven or the microwave:

A. Cook in the microwave for about 20 minutes, at medium power, until bubbly around the edges. OR

B. Bake at 325 for 20 to 25 minutes, until the filling is bubbly and the top is slightly golden.

Alternative uses for the filling:

Add a little water to reach desired consistency, and use as a syrup for pancakes, over ice cream, etc.

Slice or chop a few apples into a pie pan, cover with the grape filling, and then add a crumbly top for a grape-apple crisp.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Riches from the Garden I - - Easy Pickles

This has been a summer of wonderful rains, lots of heat, overall good conditions for most gardeners around here. Unfortunately, I planted late and only a little and have been showing again that a green thumb is not part of my anatomy.

Still, thanks to many other gardeners I know, I have spent the afternoon making some quick refrigerator pickles along with a very experimental bar cookie/dessert idea using an unusual ingredient only gardeners are likely to have.

First the pickles. The next entry will provide the results of my dessert experiment.

My kids' Uncle Denny always has a huge garden, and he plants lots of cucumbers so that he has plenty for his famous refrigerator pickles. Thanks to his generosity, my house now smells of vinegar and dill, and two large containers of bright green pickles are ready for some time in the refrigerator.

Uncle Denny's Overnight Dills

1 c sugar
1 c vinegar (I prefer cider vinegar)
1/4 c salt--I have had no problem using iodized "table" salt, but you could be a purist and use pickling salt instead
2 c water
dill--as much as you have and want to use
cucumbers--this amount covered about 3 large (6 to 7 inch) cucumbers

Boil the sugar, vinegar, water, and salt together for a minute or two.

While the mixture is cooking, scrub the cucumbers and cut lengthwise into eighths or twelfths. Then cut each sliver into about 3 inch lengths. Layer the cucumbers in a large bowl with the dill and pour the boiling brine over, covering all with liquid. Cover tightly and refrigerate at least 24 hours.

This recipe is very similar to several that can be frozen, but Dennis has never frozen his. They do well for weeks in the refrigerator--if you can keep them from being eaten well before that.