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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Old Time Fruit and Chocolate Chip Bars

Decades ago, I had the opportunity to watch my kids' great-grandmother read through a little farm paper, The Farmer's Friend and Rural Reporter. Every week when it arrived in the mailbox, she would turn to the back, past the updates on crop conditions and market reports, to the pages designed just for farm wives like her. These were filled with recipes, gardening hints and food preservation suggestions, along with offers for dress and apron and little boy dungaree patterns.

Each week,  it was the recipes that most drew her in--and soon me as well. A new mother and housewife just out of my teens and still learning about cooking and baking,  I was building my own collection of clippings and hand-copied recipe cards, many from The Farmer's Friend too.

My adaptation of one of the earliest of these became a family favorite. As I made it today, with some clothes flapping on the line and the doors open to the sounds of spring, I was taken back to that comfortable old farmhouse with its cook stove and rocker in the corner of the kitchen.

Try the recipe as is or consider the microwaved alternate that I developed several years ago. Either way, this is a bar cookie that tastes far richer than it really is and can be made relatively inexpensively if you always keep an eye out for specials on things like raisins, brown sugar, etc.

Corn Flake Bars

1/2 c butter (I usually use a tablespoon or two less and still find it buttery enough)
1 c flour
1/4 c brown sugar, packed
1/4 c white sugar

2 eggs
1/4 c brown sugar, packed
1/4 c white sugar
1/2 c chopped dates
1 c coconut
1/2 c raisins OR chopped dried apricots OR dried cranberries
1/2 c semisweet or dark chocolate chips
2 1/2 to 3 c crushed cornflakes (see NOTE)

1.  Make the crust: Cut the butter into chunks and put into a 9 X 13 pan. Melt the butter in the oven while you preheat it to 325 degrees.
2.  When the butter is melted, stir the sugars and then the flour into the butter and mix with a fork until well blended. Use your fingers to spread the mixture evenly all across the pan. Set aside.
3.  Make the filling:  Combine the eggs and sugars and stir until well blended. Add the dates, coconut, raisins, and chocolate chips and mix well. Gradually add the cornflakes and stir until evenly blended.
4.  Spread the filling over the prepared crust, making sure it is as even as possible and that the edges are not thinner than the middle.
5.  Bake about 25 to 30 minutes until set in the middle. Be careful not to overbake. If you should see the edges getting a little hard, place strips of aluminum foil along the top edges of the pan.

6.  Remove from oven and let cool about 5 to 10 minutes. It is easiest to cut these while they are still warm--a plastic disposable knife often does the best job of cutting these.

NOTE:  Do not crush the cornflakes in a processor or blender, as either is likely to result in crumbs too fine for this recipe. Instead, fill a two cup measure with cornflakes and then use your hand to crush the flakes so they measure only one cup. Repeat as needed. (If you don't have a two cup measure, just do the same crushing to half the volume in a one cup or other measure.)

Microwave Variation:

Cut the recipe in half and prepare as above using a 9 inch round glass cake pan. Microwave at medium to medium high power (level 6 or 7)  for about 5 to 6 minutes, depending on your microwave. Then cook another 2 to 2 1/2 minutes on full power, until the center is just done.


A final note: As I was preparing this entry, I stumbled upon a reference to a "smart refrigerator." In contrast to Great Grandma's simple kitchen, here is a description of what the new refrigerator--already on the market, here is a little of what it can do:

The Smart Refrigerator Gets Smarter with the Enhanced Smart Manager*
Built around the company’s signature Linear Compressor, which comes with a 10-year manufacturer’s limited warranty, LG’s flagship smart French-door refrigerator is equipped with a full range of Smart ThinQ™ technologies. Key among them is Smart Manager, which transforms the refrigerator into a complete food management system. Consumers can use the refrigerator’s LCD panel or their smartphones to check the food items stored inside, as well as their location and expiration date. Using the Smart Manager's Freshness Tracker, users can also enter various food items, such as eggs, milk and vegetables, and check their suggested expiration dates. Additionally, the refrigerator recommends dishes that can be cooked using the ingredients available in the refrigerator.

You can read more about this Jetsons-come-true appliance at Today's Smartest Refrigerator. Next year: a refrigerator with its own blog!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Triple Fruit Upside Down Cake

Looking for a dessert or sweet coffee accompaniment that includes some of the rhubarb and strawberries so common this time of the year? Here is a cake/coffee cake/English style pudding that, along with some added apple, brings out the best of these spring fruits, with a cake layer that ends up being almost like a shortcake with the fruit baked in. 

The cake itself is very basic and quick to stir up but it is quite tender. It is much easier to cut and serve if it is allowed to sit for several hours or overnight. If you do want to enjoy it warm, you may want to serve it in flat bowls, somewhat like a pudding. Ice cream, of course, is a wonderful addition, melting gently into the tender cake. Warm or cold, this will be a great treat for your family or friends.

Rhubarb Apple and Strawberry Upside Down Cake

Fruit Layer
1/4 c butter
1 c chopped rhubarb
1 1/2 c red skinned apple, cored and chopped but not peeled (2 medium apples)
1 c diced strawberries
2/3 c sugar
1 t cinnamon

1/4 c butter, softened
1/4 c canola oil
1 1/4 c sugar
3 eggs
1 t vanilla
2 c flour
2 t baking powder
2/3 c milk

1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt the butter for the fruit layer in the bottom of a 9 X 13 (or 1l inch square) pan while the oven is heating.
2.  Stir the fruits, sugar, and cinnamon into the melted butter and spread evenly in the pan. Set aside.
3.  Beat together the butter, oil, vanilla, and sugar until well creamed. Stir in the eggs one by one, beating well after each addition.
4.  Sift the flour and baking powder together and add alternately to the butter and sugar mixture with the milk. Beat until smooth after each addition.
5.  Spread the batter evenly over the fruit, making sure it reaches to the edges of the pan.
6.  Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center (only through the cake part, not into the fruit) comes out clean.

7.  Remove from oven and let sit in the pan for only 2 to 3 minutes before inverting on the tray or plate on which the cake will be served. Use a silicon scraper to remove any of the topping that has stuck to the pan and spread evenly over the hot cake.  (Do this quickly, as the topping begins to harden as it cools, making it harder to spread.)


Have you ever wondered about...
"Adding dry and wet ingredients alternately?"

Many cake and some coffee cake or quick bread recipes may include instructions to add the sifted flour and other dry ingredients "alternately" with milk or whatever liquid is in the recipe. If you see this in the instructions, here is what you need to do:

Sift about a third of the dry ingredients into the batter to this point. Stir and then add about half of the liquid. Repeat with another third of the dry ingredients, then the rest of the liquid and finally the rest of the dry ingredients.  Dry, wet, dry, wet, dry.  It's a pretty easy process to remember and you don't have to be really exact about doing this. The reason for following this process is to be sure that the mixture is evenly and well mixed without over-beating.

Some added thoughts:

While the fruit layer could be topped with a cake layer made from a white or yellow cake mix, this "made from scratch" recipe is really quite simple to make and is less sweet (and artifically flavored), allowing the fruit flavors to really predominate. However, if that's all you have time for, you can give that a shot instead.

Be warned:  The cake as a whole is not a picture perfect layer cake kind of dessert. You could probably take time to cut the fruits in larger pieces and arrange them carefully, like the old-fashioned pineapple upside down cakes many of us grew up with. However, the smaller pieces of fruit allow a much better blending of flavors. Once it is cut and put on plates, it shows off its fruit and cake layers nicely even without that extra picky step. 


Cuts into this when served...

(and don't forget the ice cream or whipped topping!)

Monday, May 7, 2012

No Pectin Strawberry Rhubarb Jam

Spring in the Midwestern garden seems to just require doing things with rhubarb. It's a little early for local strawberries up here in Minnesota, but there are still specials that I can't resist, and my rhubarb seems to peak earlier than that of many of my neighbors, so time to sit on the deck and prepare some fruit for a lovely batch of jam. 

In my search for a no pectin recipe to use for the fairly ubiquitous strawberry rhubarb jam, I found huge variations in amount of sugar, in proportionate amounts of the two fruits, and lots of inexact ingredient lists (five stalks of rhubarb? really? just how much is that?)

The final results of my experimentation were amazingly easy and something  even this lukewarm-to-rhubarb person found especially tasty. Now, there just needs to be some homemade bread to spread this on...a good way to spend some rainy days forecast for later in the week!

First, the fruit.

  I have found the easiest way to stem the strawberries is this: After having washed the berries well, put them in a colander and individually twist off the leaves. Then take a small paring knife, cut out the hard stem core that is left and cut the berries into relatively small pieces. This will maximize the surface that will be infused with (and infusing) the sugar and rhubarb.
Then the rhubarb. This too is washed and diced. I was taking care to measure each of these items as I went, but you could easily put the berries and then the rhubarb directly into the deep kettle you will be cooking the mixture in.

I spent time weighing as well as measuring all the ingredients here and strongly support the use of weighing your ingredients for this recipe. There are just too many variables in how much you do or don't pack down the fruit. On the other hand, however, there is clearly some room for variability, as evidenced by the many web recipes, so don't get too hung up over not having quite as much rhubarb, etc.


After I had measured all the fruit, I mixed the rhubarb and strawberries with the sugar and lemon juice in a deep, heavy pot--make sure this mixture comes up to no more than a third to a half of the pan, since there will be a lot of boiling up and overflows are REALLY hard to clean up. (Plus, think of all that goodness you would be wasting if you let the jam spill onto the stove!)

Let the mixture sit perhaps 10 to 15 minutes while you get out some jars and lids and refill your coffee cup. The best way to get the jars hot (so they don't break when you put the boiling jam in) is to put about an inch or so of water in a metal cake pan and place over very low heat. Then put the jars in upside down and the lids around them. These continue to "simmer" until you are ready to fill then.

Now is also the time to put a couple of small china or glass plates in the freezer for testing the jelling stage later if you don't have a thermometer--or even if you do. I have to admit I still check the status of the jam this way, even with a thermometer.

Now you are ready to cook. Put the jam-to-be on the stove and heat over medium high, stirring down any sugar on the sides and making sure the mixture is not sticking. My mother had only a pretty lightweight aluminum pan in which she made jam, so she had to do a little more continuous stirring than I have to do with my more substantial stainless steel kettle. You will need to judge for yourself just how much continuous stirring your own equipment will require. You just want to avoid having the mixture stick and scorch and possibly have the entire batch ruined.

Keep the heat on medium high if you are not having trouble with sticking and then stir occasionally. If you have a candy thermometer, you can put it in the pan and cook until the temperature reaches 220 degrees. Otherwise, you will need to cook the mixture until it "sheets off the spoon."  Dip a (preferably wood) spoon into the mixture and then let it drip back into the pan. When the drops start to come together as they fall back down, you are seeing the "sheeting." When it reaches this stage, take out one of those chilled plates and put a teaspoon or so on the plate. Tilt the plate--is it still very runny or is it starting to take on the consistency of jam?

When you get that jelling (or 220 degrees), it is time to take the jam off the stove and pour into heated jars. (If you have a lot of foam, you can skim this off first and use it to give yourself or your family an early taste of your labors. Just don't throw it away!)

Frugal?  If you are not buying your rhubarb and the strawberries are your own or at a seasonable low price, the cost is far less than buying jam--and a lot lower in overall sugars. The cost is also much lower than for jams made with commercial pectin.

Fast?  Kind of. The preparation of the fruit is a little time-consuming, but the preparation really can be done in only 15 to 20 minutes. I would suggest you plan other things to do in the kitchen while the jam is cooking so you can just occasionally go over and give it a stir while doing other things. 

Fun?  How great it is to have some really good, really fresh tasting jam you can proudly say you made yourself...and this is really a pretty good place for kids (old enough to be around hot stoves!) to learn the rewards of making good food themselves.

Healthy?  The sugar content here is much lower than in most commercial jams and there is no high fructose corn syrup or any unpronounceable additive in the ingredients list. 

Strawberry Rhubarb Jam

1 1/2 lb rhubarb (about 5 1/2 cups chopped) 
2 lb strawberries (about 6 1/2 cups chopped)
2 lb (4 cups) sugar
2 T lemon juice

1.  Combine all ingredients in a large kettle. To maximize juice extraction, you may want to mash the mixture with a potato masher, but this is an optional step.  Set the mixture aside for 10 to 15 minutes.
2.  Heat the mixture to boiling over medium high heat, stirring often. Use a silicone spatula to wipe down the sides of the pan, to be sure all the sugar is mixed in and dissolved. 
3.  Continue cooking, stirring often, about 35 to 40 minutes, until the mixture reaches 220 degrees. You may also test for jelling by putting a small amount of the mixture on a chilled glass or china plate. The consistency of this sample should be about what you want your jam to have.
4.  As soon as the mixture has reached the appropriate thickness, remove from heat. If desired, skim any foam that might have formed.
5.  Ladle into hot jars immediately and cover tightly. Makes 4 to 5 pints.

Preservation Technique
Since this batch is going to be shared with others and used rather quickly in several other recipes, I am just going to keep it in my refrigerator. However, if you want to be able to keep your jam on the shelf instead of refrigerated, you will need to do the following:
1.  Be sure the jars and lids are made for canning and have been sterilized in boiling water
2.  The filled jars should be immediately put into a large pot of boiling water that will reach about an inch above the tops of the jars. 
3.  Process the (pint) jars for ten minutes after the water returns to a boil.  Half pint jelly jars can be processed for only 5 minutes. I would not recommend using larger jars if you are going to process them, as the longer time needed to keep them safe could also cause the jam to become overcooked.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Creamy Mexican Corn Soup


Lots of wonderful cilantro remains in the refrigerator, along with half a can of green chiles--perfect start for a creamy soup full of flavor and suitable for a nice vegetarian supper.

This is an adaption of a fresh corn soup and was made with super sweet farmers' market corn I had frozen last summer. If you are going to be using frozen corn from the store, you may want to add a tiny bit of sugar to make up for that great fresh from the garden flavor.

Creamy Mexican Corn Soup

16 oz frozen sweet corn, thawed (about 2 c packed)
1 c chopped onion
1 T butter
1 T canola oil
2 c chicken broth (OR vegetable broth for a vegetarian version)
1 c water
1 c nonfat dry milk powder (OR substitute 1 c milk for the water and dry milk powder)
3 T flour
1 c minced cilantro, leaves and stems
2 oz canned, diced green chiles
1 to 2 jalapenos, seeded and inner ribs removed, finely minced (see NOTE)
1 c grated cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese or a "Mexican 4 cheese" blend

salt to taste

1.  Place the sweet corn in a colander and drain, pressing down lightly if needed. RESERVE LIQUID!
2.  Heat the butter and oil over medium high heat in a large skillet. Saute the onion and drained corn until the onions are translucent and the corn has started to just begin to look toasted. Stir often. (This step adds a caramelized, slightly roasted flavor to the soup so shouldn't be skipped, even if it is a little extra work.)
3.  Stir in the flour and mix until the flour is completely dissolved in the mixture.
4.  Add the water and dry milk powder, stir until the powder is dissolved, and then stir in the broth and reserved corn liquid.
5.  Stir in the cilantro, chiles and jalapeno and continue stirring over medium to medium high heat, just until the mixture begins to bubble and thicken. Add a little milk or water if you prefer a thinner soup.

6.  Turn the heat to low and gently stir in the cheese. Taste for seasoning.

Suggested serving:  Top with more grated cheese, chopped cilantro, chopped red onion, and/or imitation bacon bits. Serve with tortilla chips or strips. (See below for home-made strips as shown in the photo above.)

Serves 4 to 6

NOTE   If you prefer a less spicy soup, use 4 oz chiles and omit the jalapenos.

VARIATION:  When you have access to fresh corn on the cob, use that and skip Step 1, proceeding straight to caramelizing the corn and onions.

Quick "Baked" Tortilla Strips or Chips

Brands of tortillas and microwaves both vary in the time this process will take, so you will need to watch these closely the first few times you make them. However, they are easy, quick, and usually much cheaper than packaged baked chips--and you can adjust for yourself the salt and other seasonings.

corn tortillas, about 1 to 2 per person

1.  Cut the tortillas in wedges or strips as desired. Kitchen shears work best for this, as you can cut a stack of four or five all at once.

2.  Spray a large microwave-safe plate or platter lightly with nonstick spray. Arrange the tortilla pieces evenly around the tray.

3.  Heat the strips on HIGH, using about one to one and a half minutes per tortilla. After a minute or so, turn the strips and rearrange to make sure they are cooking evenly.

4.  Continue heating on HIGH, until the strips are crisp and only just beginning to turn golden. DO NOT OVERCOOK.

Taco Shell Variation

Whole tortillas can also be prepared this way to approximate taco shells. Place a nonstick-sprayed glass bread loaf pan in the microwave and lay tortillas over the edges in an approximate taco shape. Heat on HIGH in the microwave and then lift from the pan (to be sure they aren't sticking) about a minute or two into the cooking.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Potato Pancakes as a Cinco de Mayo Entree? Really!

Happy 5th of May!

I took advantage of some Cinco de Mayo specials this week, so I had plenty of cilantro, fresh jalapenos, and red onions. My first plan for breakfast had been some kind of breakfast burrito, but I realized that some russet potatoes needed!

Potato pancakes have long been a favorite family special breakfast (as well as quick supper) so I decided to try mixing in cultural foods and found a very happy new combination. If you have a processor, this is exceptionally quick, but even doing the grating on an old-fashioned hand grater will not add a lot of time. This is truly a "one-dish meal," with protein, vegetables, and dairy all included, so it's a good way to start out a really busy day.

Potato Pancakes Ole

2 medium russet potatoes
1 large or 2 medium carrots
1/2 large red onion (yellow or white onions are also perfectly acceptable)
about 1 c cilantro, leaves and stems
1 to 2 t minced jalapeno peppers (optional--you can adjust heat, if using, by including or cutting out all seeds and interior white ribs)
1/4 c yellow cornmeal
2 T flour
1/2 c nonfat dry milk powder (optional)
seasoning salt to taste, probably only about 1/2 t
3 eggs
canola oil for frying

1.  Shred the potatoes, carrots, onions, and cilantro in a food processor. If hand-shredding, cut the cilantro with kitchen scissors into a fine blend.
2.  Combine the shredded vegetables with the jalapenos, dry milk powder, cornmeal, salt, and flour and stir to mix well.  Set aside for about 10 minutes. This will result in a small amount of liquid separating from the mixture. You have two choices:  Drain (and use the mixture as a flavor for chili or soups) or stir back into the rest of the ingredients and understand that you will need to stir the entire mixture occasionally as you begin to cook the pancakes. I prefer the latter option!
3.  Stir the eggs into the vegetables, making sure that the entire mixture is very well mixed.
4.  On medium high,  heat just enough oil in a cast iron skillet to lightly cover the bottom. When the oil begins to shimmer, it is time to begin spooning in about a tablespoon at a time of the pancake batter. Use a spoon or spatula to flatten the pancakes to about 1/3 inch or so thick. You will need to work in batches.
5.  When the bottom is well-browned (3 to 4 minutes), turn the pancakes and continue cooking until both sides are well-browned. Remove finished pancakes to a plate and cover lightly with a towel to keep warm. You can also keep them warm in a 250 degree oven; spread them in a single layer on a baking sheet without covering for maximum crispness.
6.  If necessary, add a little oil before cooking the next batch, giving it about 30 seconds or so to return to full heat. Finish sauteeing all the pancakes and serve with salsa, sour cream, yogurt, and/ or ketchup.

Makes 3 to 5 servings.


Be sure that you press down and spread the batter to be sure that the centers are fully cooked by the time the outer surfaces are nicely browned.
These are much easier to handle if you make the pancakes not more than 3 inches across.
Minced garlic could be added with the jalapenos and zucchini could be used in place of part of the potatoes. In this case, you probably will need to drain the juices in step 2.

And a final Cinco de Mayo idea that was a total surprise. I wanted to see what would happen if I sliced the oranges for the photo above on the same board (still not rinsed) on which I had just minced the jalapeno. It really gave a great kick to these oranges, something that might add that extra touch of spice to a tossed salad (romaine, spicy orange chunks, cucumber, and green pepper with a light dressing for example) or as a side with tacos or other Mexican main dishes.

While you can use the same method I did, rubbing the orange across a "pre-seasoned" board,  the following is a little more refined method.  Give it a try if you like your foods with a little dash.

Spicy Orange Garnish

jalapeno pepper

1. Slice a small jalapeno pepper lengthwise, to expose maximum cut edges.
2. Wash and thinly slice an orange or oranges. Lightly rub each slice across the jalapeno.

If you want to use the orange in a salad or other dish, you can peel the oranges prior to slicing. Merely sectioning the orange, however, will not allow the juices of the orange to pick up the spice of the jalapenos adequately.

 ...and one final caution

Oh, guess I need to be sure to add the caution that every hot pepper recipe needs to include--be careful when cutting these peppers, using plastic gloves if you are especially sensitive. And by all means, do NOT rub or even touch your eyes until you have washed your hands really, really well after working with hot peppers!

(No, two final cautions)

I used a cast iron skillet, with the oil heated before adding the batter to maximize browning. If you don't have such an old-fashioned pan, use a heavy skillet without non-stick coating, just adding a little more oil to keep from sticking. If you are going to use a pan with non-stick coating, do NOT preheat empty. You will have to give up a little of the brown crust with these pans, but that is much better than breathing in the fumes from heating an empty non-stick pan.