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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Cranberry Applesauce Mini Muffins/Cakes

In this time of holiday gatherings, office potlucks, and a desire to share home-baked gifts, finding recipes that are fast, relatively inexpensive, and even just a little healthy (or at least less unhealthy) can be a challenge.

Enter mini-muffins.

These bite-sized morsels are especially good for times when we want to try all the foods on offer at the buffet and can easily over-indulge as a result. Using unsweetened applesauce and reducing the amount of fat in the original recipe ups the nutrition, as does the inclusion of lots of cranberries and walnuts. The added step of dipping each one in melted butter and sugar and cinnamon does add some calories but lifts these little bites into the dessert category.

They also stretch the budget at a time when spending on gifts and trappings of the season take priority. I found cranberries marked down the week after Thanksgiving--a common occurrence most years--so that helped reduce the overall cost of the recipe. The original recipe was for a single loaf of a basic cranberry bread that would have yielded no more than 16 or so slices. Making mini-muffins results in almost 5 dozen of these little nuggets, yet another way to stretch the budget. 

Best of all, these are easy to make yet make a lovely addition to any tray of mixed cookies and candies. The blend of tart fruit and sugary topping is a good counter point to the many super sweet choices that can become overwhelming.

A processor is the best tool for chopping the cranberries, though a blender could also work. After they are chopped, the batter comes together very quickly. Even the final step of dipping each little muffin in the butter and sugar and cinnamon is a pretty easy task. Best of all: you should have some of both the butter and sugar and cinnamon left after dipping--just right for making some cinnamon toast for breakfast tomorrow morning!

Applesauce Cranberry Muffins

3/4 c sugar
1/3 c canola oil
1 egg
1 t vanilla
1 1/2 c unsweetened applesauce
 2 c flour
1 t baking powder
1 t baking soda
1 t  cinnamon
1/2 t nutmeg
2 c fresh or frozen cranberries, chopped
1 cup walnuts, chopped


1/2 c butter, melted
1 c sugar
2 to 3 t cinnamon, to taste

1.  Put the cranberries in a blender or food processor and process until well chopped. Set aside.

2.  Combine the sugar, oil, egg, vanilla, and applesauce and beat well.

3.  Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and nutmeg and stir into the applesauce mixture. Stir just until completely blended.

4.  Fold in the cranberries and walnuts.

5.  Prepare mini-muffin pans by oiling well or spraying with a product like Pam. (Even non-stick pans will benefit from this step.)

6.  Spoon the batter into the pans and bake at 350 degrees for about 13 to 15 minutes. Allow the cakes to cool in the pans about 5 minutes before turning on to a cooling rack.

7.  While the muffins are baking, prepare the topping. Place the melted butter in one bowl and combine the sugar and cinnamon in another. 

8.  Place each mini-cake top down into the butter and then into the sugar cinnamon mix.  


 This recipe makes about 5 dozen mini-muffins/mini-cakes.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Upside Down Apple Pumpkin Cake

Over the years, I watched the Pillsbury Bake-off reward bigger and bigger prizes, often for what seemed like easier and easier dishes to make.

It would be fun, I thought, to have a recipe that would just get me to the final bake-off, a room full of cooks and mocked up kitchens, chaotic and fragrant and, well, just plain fun.

As the contest's emphasis on mixes grew, I decided to try a recipe that would be a "can't fail" entry. From the first time I baked my "million dollar cake" recipe, it was a hit with everyone who tasted it. I even got serious enough about this that I laughingly said I wouldn't share the recipe until I was sure it was/wasn't going to make it.

The testing was done, the recipe had been tried over and over, and I was ready for that year's bake-off. Not having seen any paper entry forms as in years past, I checked the Pillsbury site and discovered they were now running the contest only every two years, so I would have to wait. I continued to make the cake for various gatherings and meals and continued to hear compliments and, yes, of course you need to submit this!

So I waited. Finally, it was time to get my entry in. Imagine, then,  my chagrin when I discovered that Pillsbury cake mixes were no longer eligible products for the contest!


A little research and here is what I learned (as summarized on everyone's favorite research site, Wikepedia):
"Pillsbury is a brand name used by Minneapolis-based General Mills and Orrville, Ohio-based J.M. Smucker Company. Historically, the Pillsbury Company, also based in Minneapolis, was a rival company to General Mills and was one of the world's largest producers of grain and other foodstuffs until it was bought out by General Mills in 2001. Antitrust law required General Mills to sell off some of the products. General Mills kept the rights to refrigerated and frozen Pillsbury products, while dry baking products and frosting are now sold by Smucker under license."
So, Pillsbury cake mixes are not really "Pillsbury" products at all. Or rather, the "Pillsbury bake-off" is really the General Mills (ie, Betty Crocker!) bake-off. Really!?!

Whatever the corporate decisions, what this meant was that my wonderful million dollar cake would never make the grade as an entrant in this high power contest. 

I wasn't exactly crushed, but it did take the fun out of making the cake for awhile. Then, when I was stirring it up for an event this week, I realized that I had not even included the recipe here on my blog. What a strange omission, since the cake really does fit into the frugal, fast, and fun criteria:
  • Frugal? This is the season to get the best buys on apples and canned pumpkin (or for making your own pumpkin puree from the last of the Halloween pumpkin decorations). 
  • Fast? If you don't spend too much time agonizing over the arrangement of the apple slices, the cake goes together pretty quickly, and there is no need for making frosting. 
  • Fun? It really is fun to make this relatively easy dessert that turns out so beautifully. In fact, this could be a great cake to make with children--and they may have a lot more patience in getting the apples arranged just so. 
So here it is, just in time for the last of the "harvest" kinds of desserts before we fully move into Christmas cookies and breads, is the recipe. A couple of hints:
  • Though you start out with a cake mix made for just a 9 X 13 pan, you will want to use the larger pan size(s) to emphasize the apple part of the cake. Using round pans gives an especially elegant way to arrange the apples.
  • I prefer to use glass pans, just because I can see, in step 6, when the apples have completely dropped off the pan and onto the tray.

Million Dollar Upside Down Cake

1/2 c butter
3/4 c brown sugar
1 1/2 t cinnamon
approximately 1/2 to 1 c broken walnuts
4 to 5 medium apples, cored and sliced (about 12 slices from each apple)

1 yellow or white cake mix
2 eggs
2 c pumpkin puree (15 oz can)
1/3 c water
2 t cinnamon
1/2 to 1 t ginger, depending on how much you like ginger
1/2 t nutmeg

1.  Melt butter and stir in the brown sugar and 1 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon. Spread the mixture evenly in the bottom of a 12 X 15 cake pan (or two 7 X 11 pans or two 9" round cake pans).

2.  Arrange the apple slices in rows (or in a circular pattern for the round cake pans) over the butter/sugar mixture so they cover the pan with as few spaces as possible. Sprinkle the walnuts evenly over the top and set aside.

3.  Combine the cake mix and all remaining ingredients together, stirring with a mixer just to combine. Then beat for the length of time noted in the cake mix package directions. The batter will be quite thick.

4.  Drop spoonfuls of the batter evenly over the apples. Then use a spatula or knife to spread the batter evenly.
It is important to do this gently, to avoid moving the apples around and undoing all that careful work you put into arranging them so beautifully!

5.  Bake at 350 degrees (325 for a glass pan) for 35 to 40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

6.  Allow the cake to cool in the pan for about 5 minutes. Have a tray or serving plate ready.

Place this over the top of the pan and then quickly invert the pan and tray. The cake should easily drop on to the tray; leave the pan on top for a few minutes, perhaps even shaking slightly if a few of the apples continue to cling to the pan.

Hint:  As soon as the cake has dropped on to the tray and you remove the pan from on top, use a spatula to scrape off any of the caramel-y layer from the pan and spread it over the cake--this is way too good to leave in the pan!

 Serve the cake warm or cold.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Golden Clam Chowder

I love clam chowder, the white and creamy New England style, so the beginning of winter weather this weekend was a great time to make up a batch.

Now it happens that I also have lots of butternut squash and am always looking for ways to add this sweet, high vitamin and fiber ingredient to old standard recipes. Why not make that creamy chowder just a little richer, a little more colorful, and even a bit healthier?

Voila. Golden clam chowder.

I had found some bargains on seafood stock and canned clams so had the makings of a reasonably priced chowder. Add in the specials on evaporated milk, celery, potatoes, and onions in preparation for Thanksgiving feasts, and this became a pretty frugal and nutritious main dish.

With the over-eating many of us may be anticipating on Thanksgiving, an evening meal of chowder, applesauce, and crackers (oyster crackers, of course!) could be a good choice. Note the variations if you have pescatarians (vegetarian plus seafood diets) in the house or if you don't regularly have seafood stock on hand.

Golden Clam Chowder

  • 3 slices lean bacon, diced
  • 1 T canola oil  
  • 1 large onion, chopped--about 1 1/2 to 2 cups, depending on your taste
  • 3 large ribs of celery, sliced
  • 10 to 12 oz butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1/2 to 1 inch cubes
  • 1 1/4 lb diced potatoes--do not peel
  • 1 quart seafood stock
  • water
  • 1/3 c flour
  • 1 12 oz can fat free or regular evaporated milk
  • 12 oz canned clams, including liquid
  • salt and pepper to taste--start with about 1 t salt and 1/2 t freshly ground black or white pepper

1. Place the bacon in a large pot along with the oil. Add the onion, celery and squash and saute over low heat until the onions are golden and the squash is just starting to soften.

2.  Stir in the potatoes and about a cup or so of water along with half the stock. Cover and allow to simmer for at least 15 to 20 minutes, until the potatoes and squash are quite soft.

3.  Blend the flour and 1/2 c water (or milk) until smooth. Gradually stir into the chowder and continue stirring until the mixture begins to thicken.

4.  OPTIONAL STEP: If you prefer a very smooth, creamy chowder, put about half of the mixture in a food processor and blend until smooth. You may also use an old-fashioned potato masher. Return the processed mixture to the pot.

5.  Add the remaining stock, clams, and clam liquid and simmer for another 10 minutes or so.

6.  Reduce the heat and stir in the evaporated milk, along with water as needed to reach the desired thickness. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.

This is very good reheated. Note that, as with many creamy soups of this type, a thin film or "skin" may form on the surface. You can usually just beat this in without any problem. The quicker you cover and refrigerate any leftover soup, the less likely this is to occur.


Omit the bacon and use 3 to 4 tablespoons of canola oil.

If you don't have access to seafood stock, you can substitute vegetable or chicken stock (purchased or homemade) and use an additional 6 to 12 ounces of clams.

Add about 1/3 to 2/3 cup dry milk powder to the water you add in step 4 and mix well before stirring into the chowder.

12 to 16 oz of frozen corn may be added with the evaporated milk. If you really want to be non-traditional, you could also stir in 8 to 10 oz frozen chopped spinach or kale at this point as well.

For a gluten free chowder, omit the flour and increase the amount of potato by another 4 to 8 ounces, mashing the potatoes as in step 4, to achieve a chowder-y thickness.

If you really, really, really don't want to see those pieces of potato peeling in the chowder, you can peel the potatoes...but before you pick up that peeler, think of all the extra work and reduced nutrition!