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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Curried Lentils and Vegetables

In my continuing quest to find uses for lentils, I couldn't miss out on a curried main dish. This one is especially fast if you have the lentils pre-cooked. Just chop some vegetables and saute long enough to get them cooked through while you are getting the table set and putting a little fruit together for a light side. It doesn't even heat up the kitchen very much on a warm summer evening.

Look to at the flexibility seen in the Variations. This means it's perfect for using up some of those produce odds and ends in the refrigerator or for just pulling out whatever vegetables you have in the freezer.

1 to 2 T canola oil
1 medium to large onion, chopped
14 oz butternut squash, cut in app 1" cubes (may substitute 3 medium carrots, sliced)
1 stalk celery, diced
1 diced jalapeno (seeded and white membranes cut out if you want this less spicy)
1 to 2 c shredded cabbage (about 2-3 oz)
ginger root, about an inch square after peeling--cut in two or three pieces--OR 1 t ground ginger, to taste
4 to 5 garlic cloves, coarsely cut
1 1/2 t curry powder
3/4 t turmeric
1/2 t cumin
2 1/2 c cooked brown lentils, including liquid (about 1 c before cooking)
1 to 2 c water
1/2 c applesauce (optional)
2 to 4 c fresh spinach or other greens, chopped coarsely
cayenne pepper and salt to taste

1.  Saute the onion, squash, celery, cabbage, and jalapeno pepper in the oil over medium high heat, stirring occasionally. 

2.  Grate the ginger root and mince the garlic cloves. One quick way to do this is to use a small processor/chopper if you have one, with a few teaspoons of water. 


3.  When the onions begin to turn golden and the squash is just tender, stir in the garlic, ginger, curry powder, turmeric, and cumin. Allow to cook for just a few minutes, enough to bring out the fragrance of the spices, and then add the lentils, water, and applesauce. 

4.  When the mixture has returned to a boil, add the spinach, cover the pan, and continue to cook for just a few minutes, until the spinach is just wilted. Taste for seasonings and adjust accordingly. Makes 4 main dish servings.


Suggested serving:

Top with yogurt (or cottage cheese, as pictured), chopped cilantro, and hot sauce. This is a wonderful meal with naan or any flat bread, but it also pairs well with rice. 


Fast, fast, fast:  Use about half of a 12 oz package of frozen bell pepper and onion strips, skip the celery, and use either frozen diced squash or frozen sliced carrots. 

Other vegetables that can be added/subbed in:  frozen peas, fresh pea pods, broccoli or cauliflower, zucchini, even corn. 

The applesauce can be omitted and 3 to 4 tablespoons of chopped sundried tomatoes or a cup or so of diced fresh grape tomatoes can be added.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Applesauce Brownies--A "Starter Recipe" for Pre-schoolers!

As much as possible, I try to post only "original" recipes here, those dishes that I have created from scratch or have changed significantly enough to call them my own.

Today, I am bringing you a recipe so simple you can find hundreds of copies in any basic web search. I think I have even seen it on the back of a brownie mix label. Why add just one more blog entry for these simple treats? After all, these chocolate bar cookies...
  • are only slightly less unhealthy than brownies made with the original mix directions.
  • do include a mix, with all the preservatives, etc., that implies.

On the other hand, this "recipe" may be a way for even the busiest of households to introduce pre-schoolers to prepare a dish entirely on their own, from assembling the ingredients all the way to handing over the filled pan over to whoever will handle the heat of the oven steps. While you are doing this, you can even talk about why we might want to try to substitute healthier ingredients whenever possible in all our cooking and baking.

A simple "recipe" like this is also good to have handy for the time when you have a last minute need for a quick dessert. While I know that most of us live lives where few friends or family just casually "drop in" with little or no advance notice, wouldn't it be nice to know that you could call someone on a whim and ask them over for coffee, tea, etc. and freshly baked brownies?

To be sure, we must admit that brownies, whether made from scratch or from a mix, are inherently not "healthy." They are treats that should be for special occasions, not seen as daily fare. Understanding that we will be consuming mostly "empty calories" with every bite might allow us to accept the presence of additives here that we would forego in any other part of a well-balanced meal. As for flavor, many of today's mixes are at least as good as the majority of from scratch recipes--and the applesauce in this recipe gives added depth and moisture too.

Finally, there is a cost factor to consider. Brownie mixes are often loss leaders at many chains, especially around "baking holidays" like Valentine's Day and Christmas. If you were to do a cost comparison with a favorite brownie recipe, it is very unlikely that you could match the price of the mix. In most cases, substituting applesauce for the oil in the mix instructions will reduce the cost a bit further.

So I now present a "kitchen-tested by 5 year old" recipe for applesauce brownies. Next time you see brownie mix on sale, pick up a box, make sure you have applesauce in the house, and then think of who you could call to share them with you; you'll be glad you did.

Applesauce Brownies

1 standard size brownie mix, enough for a 9 X 13 pan
2 eggs
2/3 c unsweetened applesauce (if you don't have unsweetened, the other will do--just be aware your dessert will be REALLY sweet)
1/4 c water
broken or chopped walnuts (optional)

Preparation:  Turn the oven to 350 degrees as you begin to make the brownies. These go together so quickly, you don't want to have to wait until the oven is hot to put the pan in. If you are using a glass pan, you may want to heat only to 325.

Whether you use a cooking spray or oil for preparing the pan, be sure the sides as well as the bottom of the pan are well-coated.

1.  Pour mix into bowl and then add all the other ingredients, except walnuts.

2.  Combine all the ingredients and then beat with a wood spoon or cooking fork about 50 times, or just until the mixture is well blended and there are no lumps of dry mix.

3.  Pour the batter into a well-oiled 9 X 13 pan. Sprinkle walnuts evenly over the top and bake at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes, until just done.

To test, press the center lightly; if it springs back, it is done. You also should watch the edges of the brownies. If they start to pull away from the sides of the pan, they are also getting done. You don't want to overbake brownies.

4.  Allow the brownies to cool about 15 to 20 minutes before cutting. Makes 24 to 32, depending on the size you want to cut them into.

Variations and notes:

Why nuts only on top? While you can mix the walnuts into the batter, spreading them on top allows for several things:
  • If you have anyone in the household who doesn't like nuts (as is the case with many young children), you can spread nuts over only part of the batter, leaving one end "plain" for non-nut-eaters. 
  • This will usually reduce the amount of nuts used, a way to economize if cost is a serious consideration. 
  • While brownies are often served without frosting, placing the nuts on top gives a little bit more "finished" appearance to the un-iced bars.

Chocolate chips and/or mini-marshmallows could also be sprinkled over the top instead of or with the walnuts. If using marshmallows, press them lightly into the batter.

For a less rich bar with even a little more positive nutritive value, stir in a half cup or so of quick (NOT instant) oats with the other ingredients.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Chocolate Peanut Butter "Icebox" Cookies--AND Quick Ice Cream Sandwiches

Cookbooks from a century or so ago usually included "icebox cookies" in their desserts section. These were generally quite rich cookies that could be stirred up in the evening, formed into a roll, and chilled until the next day--probably when the woodstove was being heated up to bake the day's bread as well.

Today of course we have the refrigerated cookie doughs chilling at the grocery store, waiting for you to bring them home, slice, and bake. But why not go back to the "good old days" and make some "from scratch." The following recipe is really very simple. While one member of the family is clearing away the dishes after dinner, another could be stirring up a batch of these, all the while you are both carrying on a conversation about the events of the day. Family dinners are a wonderful time to be together, but the clean up time in the kitchen can be just as much fun--really!

I found a really good buy on some dark chocolate peanut butter a few weeks ago and thought this might be a good way to use it. For me, this is a product too sweet to substitute for plain peanut butter on a sandwich, but then, I'm not a big fan of Nutella either. (And, on a side note, most of the name brand peanut butters have begun to be sweetened far more than necessary.)

As noted at the end of the recipe, you can substitute "ordinary" peanut butter if you can't find this chocolate version. My guess is that you could also sub in Nutella for the chocolate peanut butter, but I haven't tried that.

Whichever version you try, I think you'll enjoy the convenience of having this dough stirred up and ready to go for your family or stashed in the freezer for unexpected guests.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Icebox Cookies

1/3 c butter, softened
1/3 c chocolate peanut butter
3/4 c sugar
2 T baking cocoa
1 egg
3/4 t vanilla
2 T water
scant 2 c flour (this means that you will probably have about 1 7/8 c flour--err on the side of too little rather than too much!)
2 t baking powder

1.   Combine the butter and peanut butter and beat until smooth with a wood spoon. Stir in the sugar, cocoa, and egg and mix thoroughly. Add the vanilla and water and combine all into a smooth mixture.

2.   Sift or stir together the flour and baking powder and add to the peanut butter mixture. This works best if you stir in about half the flour mixture and mix until it is well blended before adding the rest of the flour and baking powder. The dough will be very stiff; don't worry!

NOTE: As in the picture, this dough is a little crumbly at first. That is okay. What you need to do is work with it like play dough, until it holds together.You do need to press firmly. If you don't, it may be more difficult to slice after chilling.

3.  Cut a piece of waxed paper or parchment paper about 18 to 20 inches long and lay on the counter. Pour the dough onto the paper and begin to shape it into a long log, keeping the circumference as even as possible from one end of the log to the other. Use the waxed paper to help in this whole process.

Lift the sides of the paper and use it to keep rolling the dough so that it becomes as circular as possible. Then wrap the dough completely with the waxed paper. It will be best to slip the roll into a plastic bag to keep the ends from drying out.

4.  Place the roll in the refrigerator at least several hours or overnight.

5.  Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and slice evenly into about 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick slices. The thinner they are, the crisper they will be, but you do want to make them as evenly thick as possible.

6.  Lay the slices on an ungreased baking sheet. As you can see in this "before and after" baking picture, the cookies do not spread a great deal, so they can be placed relatively close together.

7.  Bake for about 8 to 10 minutes until a cookie springs back when pressed lightly in the center.  Remove to a cooling rack. They will be quite tender while hot, so handle carefully.


Substitute regular peanut butter for the chocolate peanut butter and increase the amount of cocoa to 1/4 cup. Creamy peanut butter is best for this, as crunchy peanut butter will be harder to slice neatly.

If desired, you can tightly wrap the rolled up dough in a freezer bag and store in the freezer for up to a month or so. You do not have to thaw the dough to slice it--in fact, sometimes the frozen dough is easier to cut into very thin slices. Allow the sliced cookies to sit on the baking sheet for a few minutes to thaw before baking.

Quick Ice Cream Sandwich Cookies

These are also perfect for "mini" Ice Cream Sandwiches. You could make the cookie rolls larger in diameter, but keeping the cookies small makes these a nice size for the kids or for bite-sized desserts after a heavy meal.

 The recipe is more just a method:

Soften a pint or so of ice cream just enough to press into shape. Put a cookie, upside down, on a plate and spread a teaspoon to a tablespoon of ice cream, any flavor, evenly on the cookie. Immediately press a second cookie on top. Repeat for as many sandwiches as you want.

Immediately return the ice cream sandwiches to the freezer for an hour or so, until the ice cream is again firm. For an extra rich sandwich, you can dip the cookies in your favorite fudge sauce and roll in crushed peanuts.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Applesauce Jam Bars

When cleaning out my refrigerator recently, I discovered four partially finished jars of homemade jam. There were two jars of cherry jam, one of my own, just barely started, and another with just a little of my daughter-in-law's incredible spicy recipe--just enough for a breakfast of homemade toast with a PB&J topping. The other two jars were both my raspberry apple specialty (how do I do this, starting one before finishing the other?!?), so I poured those both into a single jar and reminded myself to use them soon.

I really needed to pare down the jam supply even further so started to look for jam bar cookie recipes, something I hadn't made for years. I was hoping to find something that didn't require lots and lots of jam yet would be the kind of cookie that would emphasize the fruity flavor.

That kind of recipe was hard to find, so I took ideas from a few that looked promising and made my own adaptions. The biggest change was to blend the jam with applesauce, toning down the sweetness while still allowing the fruit flavor to stay strong. I used my cherry jam, but any good jam would work just as well.

The result is a cookie that is less sweet than most and is something like a soft granola bar. It is important to press that first layer firmly, to be sure the cut bars don't crumble apart.

One bonus here: If you use oil or vegan margarine, these are completely vegan, something not always easy to find in cookies. Even if you use butter, you will have an egg-free, dairy-free recipe for anyone needing these special recipes.

Now I have gone from four jam jars to just one in my refrigerator, for the time being...but there is another jar of Amy's cherry jam just waiting to be opened...

Applesauce Jam Jars

2 c quick rolled oats (NOT instant)
1 c whole wheat or all purpose flour
1/2 c brown sugar
1/4 c melted butter OR canola oil
1/2 t salt--omit if using salted butter
1/2 c applesauce, preferably unsweetened

3/4 c jam of your choice, preferably homemade
1/3 c applesauce, preferably unsweetened

1.  Combine the oats, flour, brown sugar, and salt and stir with a fork until well blended.

2.  Pour in the 1/2 cup applesauce and butter or oil and stir until evenly combined.

3.  Press about half the mixture into a well-oiled 7 X 11 or 9 inch square pan. Be sure to press firmly.

4.  Combine the jam with the 1/3 cup applesauce and spread evenly over the crumb crust.

5.  Cover with the remaining dough and press lightly with your fingers.

6.  Bake at 325 degrees for about 25 to 30 minutes, until just beginning to turn light brown.

7.  If desired, when completely cool, sprinkle with a little powdered sugar.

Makes 24 to 36, depending on how you want to cut them.

An Easy Lemon Cake to Welcome Spring

According to T.S. Eliot, "April is the cruelest month," and this year that seemed to ring true, weather-wise. But now in May, the grass is bright green, the birds are singing, and it is time to lighten up our menus at least a little.

For me, spring is the time to bring out some lemon desserts, and this cake is super easy to put together. In fact, it is really at its best while still warm, so you could stir it up and have it baking while you eat. For some, adding a dollop of whipped cream is the best way to eat this, but it certainly is just as good without.

My guess is that this may best be eaten the first day or two because its fat content is lower than many cakes. However, I can't tell you if this is true, because it has never lasted more than a day here at my house.

First, the ReaLemon "controversy."

For some, the use of ReaLemon (or other brands of reconstituted lemon juice) is very close to heresy, and an unacceptable "processed food." However, there are several reasons why you shouldn't be afraid to use these lemon juices. I find two most compelling.

First, I have mentioned before that ReaLemon is really to be preferred when making jams and jellies, because this has a consistent acidity level. Fresh lemons can vary in acidity enough to cause problems in getting just the right "jell."

The second reason is really the primary reason why I always have a bottle of ReaLemon in my refrigerator: it's always in the refrigerator! Fresh lemons are too often too expensive for me to treat as a staple, so I have to remember to buy them if I want to make a special lemon dessert. Over the years, I have used ReaLemon to make lemon meringue pies, lemon square cookies, and this lemon cake and have always had people praise the lemony flavor.

So don't be afraid to use ReaLemon for this or many other recipes calling for lemon juice. Obviously, if you have access to fresh lemons at a reasonable price, go ahead and cook/bake with those too. Just don't forego the opportunity to have a great lemon dessert just because you don't have a "real lemon" on hand!

Oh, and what about lemon zest?

Fresh lemons have one thing ReaLemon doesn't have, peels. That distinctive lemon zest flavor could be missing here, but...did you know that lemon extract is made from the peeling, or zest, of lemons? As a result, you can get that deeper zest flavor by adding lemon extract in its place. How much? In general, it is recommended that you use half as much lemon extract as zest.

So go ahead and make this wonderful lemon cake and celebrate spring--whatever the source of your lemon juice.

Lemon Cake
1 c sugar
1/2 c butter, melted
2 eggs
1 T lemon juice
1/2 c milk
1/2 t lemon extract OR 1 t grated lemon rind
2 c flour
1 1/2 t baking powder

1/3 c lemon juice
1/3 c sugar

1.  Beat the first six ingredients together until smooth and completely blended.

2.  Sift or stir together the flour and baking powder and add to the liquid ingredients. Stir just until all the flour is incorporated into the liquid.

3.  Pour the batter into a well-oiled 9 X 13 pan or 11 inch square casserole dish. (Go ahead and use one of your nicest casserole dishes, as this is a cake best served right from the pan.)

4.  Bake at 350 for about 25 to 30 minutes. It will be done when the center springs back when lightly touched or when a toothpick inserted near the center comes out with no batter sticking to it.

5.  While the cake is baking, stir the lemon juice and sugar together for the Topping. Be sure it is completely mixed. As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, poke holes over the top with a toothpick or fork. Spread the lemon juice and sugar mixture over, covering the surface as evenly as possible.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Dark Rye Bread

Some time ago, I saw "whole grain" rye flour at a local grocery store and thought it might be fun to try my hand at rye bread. I have used rye flour in some multi-grain batches, but the flavor never really came through. Maybe this heartier version would be more like the rye bread I have bought in the past.
As I started to look for possible recipes to try, I discovered that what I was looking for was usually called "German Rye Bread." I wanted something deep brown and solid.

It took me a few times to get the texture I wanted, so here are a few hints to try:
  • The dough generally seems more time to rise at each step than what you might be accustomed to with wheat and even other multi-grain breads, so allow plenty of time. I also find I like the texture best if I do punch down the dough an extra time in step 4.
  • While some of the sides I found on line talk about "folding" the dough rather than kneading, but I have had good success with kneading well. Try not to knead in too much flour. You can avoid this by adding just a little flour at a time. Stop kneading if the dough starts to have little "tears" in the side.
  • Recognize that the texture of the dough is going to be much more like play dough than the usual springy wheat bread, and that is okay. Note the hand prints on this dough ball:

  • Be sure to oil the dough when rising, as the dough can dry out quickly.
  • Slashing the dough here helps avoid "tears" on the sides of the loaves--plus it looks nicer.
  • While the caraway is optional, I happen to think that is part of the "real" rye bread experience.

Don't be put off by all these "hints. This really isn't all that hard to make , and it's a wonderful foil for all kinds of sandwiches. Well worth trying if you like making breads. It's a great way to vary your menus.

A couple more advantages:

This version is vegan too, so you can use this as the basis for your favorite no meat/dairy productions as well. Good for anyone with dairy or egg allergies too.

Dark Rye Bread

2 pkgs dry yeast
2 c warm water
¼ c brown sugar
2 T molasses
2 T vital wheat gluten
3 T cocoa powder
¼ c canola or other vegetable oil
2 t salt
1 T caraway seeds (optional)
3 ½ c whole grain rye flour
2 ½ to 3 ½ bread flour

1.         Combine all but the bread flour, beat well, and allow to sit until bubbly—about 20 minutes or so.
2.         Gradually add the bread flour until a soft dough is formed. Knead 8 to 10 minutes until smooth (it will feel like play dough). Place in oiled bowl, oil the top of the dough, and cover.
4.         Allow to raise at least an hour until doubled. If desired, punch down and let rise again. (It will probably look like this:)

5.         Divide in two pieces and shape into loaves. Slash tops and let raise another hour or so—probably won’t quite double.
6.         Bake at 376 about 25 minutes or until the crust is rich brown. You may want to lift one of the loaves off the pan to be sure the bottom is well browned.

Make into four smaller loaves--same length, just smaller diameter--for canapé style sandwiches. 

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Cranberry Applesauce Muffins

If you have ever read any of my posts here, you know that I am a) definitely not a professional food photographer and b) I am not "monetizing" the blog with any kind of promotion, either of ingredients or equipment.

What I do like to do with my little essays is present some recipes I've found pleasing to others that I hope readers will want to try. Along with the recipes I like to include some narrative that includes some "history" on when I started making the dish, a family story or other background comments I hope might be interesting. Sometimes I may also include some hints on how to make cooking and baking a little easier and/or less expensive.

All that said, today I would like to recommend and feature two "tools" that are pretty indispensable for me in my everyday cooking and baking. The muffin recipe that follows uses both pieces of equipment, with only measuring spoons and a mixing spoon to prepare the entire recipe.

First, a clear glass 1 quart measuring cup that doubles as a mixing bowl as well.

Those who know me know that I like to minimize the number of dishes that are going to be needing to be washed when I finish making something, and having to use many different measuring cups for a single recipe is especially not my favorite thing.  The nice thing about this large measuring cup/bowl is that many recipes can be adapted to just keep adding ingredients to the bowl rather than measuring each separately.

Today's mini-muffin recipe is especially easy to adapt to using only the measuring bowl. As you'll see in the recipe, I first layer in the cranberry sauce and applesauce and then pour the canola oil over:

3/4 cup cranberries + 1/4 cup applesauce + 1/4 cup canola oil = 1 1/4 cup total. (Though I realize now that the angle of the photo makes this look like 1 1/2 cups, it really is the right amount. As I said before, I am definitely not a pro at food photography!)

Then I add the eggs, brown sugar, and spices:


At this point, I beat everything together until well mixed. The clear glass helps me to see if I have any spots where some of the ingredients didn't get stirred in.

Now to the dry ingredients and the other "basic tool" that I have had for decades, literally! This, my friends who may be a little new to baking, is a flour sifter!

Probably the most important thing a flour sifter does is make sure that those "concentrated" ingredients like baking soda, baking powder, spices, and even cocoa are evenly distributed throughout the flour. I know that many, many people no longer have one of these, and you can get by without one. If the recipe says "sift together...," then you can just put all those ingredients in a large bowl and stir well with a fork to be sure that everything is evenly mixed. If you ever make the mistake of not thoroughly sifting or stirring in the baking soda, I can tell you from sad experience that you may get very uneven rising--and some bites will not taste good at all!

Wait, you may say. If it is so important to sift the spices along with the flour, why do I suggest adding them with the wet ingredients here?

When I am doing a lot of baking, I don't always wash my sifter between every recipe! If the only things going into the sifter are flour, baking soda, and/or baking powder, there is no problem with just reusing the sifter without washing. If I don't want to use the same spices in consecutive recipes, there could be a residue left in the sifter from one to the next. Thus, I long ago learned that spices can  be evenly mixed in with a very liquid set of ingredients, and my sifter would be left for only those more basic ingredients. So for this recipe, I have used my somewhat unorthodox method. If this sounds heretical to you, do feel free to sift those spices in with the flour.

Now, finally, on to the recipe.

If you are like most people I know, cranberry relish is a very seasonal dish, so you might well have a can of cranberry sauce left over from Thanksgiving or Christmas. Instead of having that linger on the shelf until next fall, this is a good way to use it up.

Cranberry Applesauce Mini Muffins

3/4 c cranberry sauce--the "whole berry" kind if you are using canned
1/4 c unsweetened applesauce, preferably homemade!
1/4 c canola oil
2 eggs
1/3 c brown sugar
1 t cinnamon
1/2 t nutmeg
1/2 t ginger
1 1/2 c flour--either unbleached, whole wheat, or a mixture of the two
1 t baking soda
1/2 t baking powder

1.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and use non-stick cooking spray to prepare enough mini muffin pans for 36 muffins. Be sure to cover each litle cup completely to avoid any sticking!

2.  Put the first 8 ingredients in a clear glass quart measure or other large bowl, in the order listed. Beat until thoroughly mixed.

3.  Sift the flour, soda, and baking powder together (or mix with a fork in a second bowl). Pour over the liquid ingredients and stir gently with a fork just until blended. Try not to over-mix.

4.  Spoon the batter into the greased pans. Bake at 350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes, until the muffins are nicely browned and spring back if touched lightly.

5.  Remove from oven and loosen from pans as soon as possible. Cool.

Makes 36 mini muffins.

If you prefer to make regular size muffins, this recipe will make about 12. Bake at 350 for approximately 16 to 20 minutes.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Pumpkin Apple Bread

Perhaps we are far enough away from the pumpkin spice madness to try one more pumpkin recipe. This could be helpful if you still have a little pumpkin--canned or homemade--left from all that holiday baking. These also make good take alongs for any New Year's Eve party you may be invited to. Not quite so sweet as all those cookies and maybe even a little "healthy" with all the fruit.

This is in the category of "quick breads" and really does come together quickly, especially if you have a processor or immersion blender to quickly chop the apples.

Pumpkin Apple Bread

1 c pumpkin puree
1/3 c canola oil
1 c sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 c flour—may substitute whole wheat flour for up to half a cup of the flour
1 1/4 t baking soda
1 t cinnamon
1/2 t nutmeg
1/4 t cloves
1/4 t allspice
2 c (packed) cored, but not peeled apples, finely diced (about 2 large or 3 medium)
1/2 to 1 c chopped walnuts (optional)
1/2 to 1 c chopped dates (optional)

1.  Beat together the pumpkin, oil, sugar and eggs.
2.  When well-blended, gently add the sifted dry ingredients and mix until just blended.
3.  Fold in the apples and nuts and dates, if used.
4.  Pour into two well-oiled medium loaf pans, about 5 X 9. Bake at 350 degrees for about 25 to 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  
5.  Allow to sit in the pans for about 3 or 4 minutes and then turn on to racks to cool.

Wrap tightly and refrigerate if kept for more than a day or two. As with most breads of this type, these loaves slice much better the next day.

Size changes:

For all sizes, bake at 325 degrees when using either glass pans or disposable aluminum pans, to avoid the crust getting too brown before the centers are done.
The recipe can be made in a single large bread loaf pan; allow about 35 to 40 minutes to bake.
"Mini" loaf pans can also be used with the recipe making about 6 or so. These should be baked for only about 20 to 22 minutes.
You can double this recipe and use three 5 X 9 pans for slightly higher loaves.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Butternut Squash Cake

The Monday after Thanksgiving, I stopped at my favorite orchard to pick up another bushel of apples for the apple-butter-making party we'd be having later in the week. While there, I thought I'd pick up another pumpkin or two, for a few cakes and other things. Unfortunately, that very morning they had decided to compost the few pumpkins they had left because there had not been any call for them after the holiday so no more pumpkins for me this year.  Since my "root cellar" garage has more than enough butternut squash for the season, that probably was just as well.

So today was the day to make squash cake. If that sounds bizarre to you, consider the great carrot cakes and pumpkin bars or muffins you have often enjoyed. Here's a great frugal secret: for many (most) of these desserts, you can easily interchange carrots, pumpkin, and butternut squash. Since all are relatively mild (especially the squash and pumpkin), the flavor differences will be very hard to detect.

Old-fashioned carrot cake is the kind of recipe least amenable to these substitutions, though you can shred raw pumpkin or squash chunks just as you would carrots. However, many years ago, I found a carrot cake recipe that used mashed, cooked carrots, and that has been a family favorite ever since. I most often baked it in a Bundt or angel food cake pan, but it also works well in a standard 9 X 12 pan, and that is how I prepared this squash cake today. Note the addition of a tiny amount of black pepper, not enough to really taste it but enough to add a little zest to the overall recipe.

The topping is my old standby, sometimes-it-hardens-and-sometimes-it-doesn't-fudge-frosting or, when it doesn't set, just fudge sauce. It's not really the recipe (many others in the family have used this repeatedly), it's me and my impatience with the cooking, cooling, and/or beating. No matter the final consistency, the flavor is wonderfully fudge-like, my favorite kind of chocolate.

I want to be upfront about my checkered history with the recipe. When I post recipes on this site, I check and double check to be sure they will turn out satisfactorily as given. Just be forewarned that this frosting may not reliably set up to a picture perfect finale. However, it is so very flavorful that I am including it, with the thought that most of you will probably do a lot better than I in getting it to set just right. Because, even if it doesn't, the flavor will be so good, you probably won't even notice.

Chocolate Butternut Squash Cake

2 c sugar
1 c butter or margarine, softened but not melted OR 1/2 c butter and 1/2 c canola oil
1/3 c baking cocoa
4 eggs
1 c cooked and pureed butternut squash
2 c flour
2 t baking powder
1 t cinnamon
1/4 t ground black pepper
1/2 c milk
1/2 c broken pecans or walnut pieces (optional)

1.  Cream the butter, cocoa,  and sugar together until very smooth. (A stand mixer is especially good for this.)
2.  Add the eggs one at a time, stirring well after each addition. Continue beating until the mixture is very light. (I once had a home economics teacher say that you should be able to take a bit of the batter between your fingers at this stage, and you won't be able to feel any graininess from the sugar, as it will all have dissolved. Not totally necessary, but this is the stage when you want to do most of the beating.)
3.  Gently stir in the squash puree, mixing until well blended.
4.  Sift the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and black pepper together. Add these dry ingredients to the egg mixture alternately with the milk, stirring well after each addition. Fold in the nuts if used.
5.  Pour the batter into a well-oiled and floured a 9 X 13 loaf OR 10 inch tube pan. (OR see NOTE below.)
6. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes for the 9 X 12 pan or 55 to 60 minutes for the tube pan. Allow the cake to cool for about 15 minutes before turning it out of the pan.

NOTE:  Combine about a tablespoon of flour and a teaspoon or so of cocoa and use this mixture to dust the pan instead of plain flour.

Chocolate Fudge Frosting

1 1/2 c sugar
1/4 c baking cocoa
2 t cornstarch
1/2 c milk
1 T butter
1 t vanilla

1.  Combine sugar, cocoa, and cornstarch in a large, heavy pan. Pour in the milk, and stir until well blended.
2.  Boil the mixture over medium heat, until it forms a soft ball in cold water. Stir occasionally to keep from sticking.
3.  Remove from heat and allow to sit (stirring occasionaly) until cool. One way to cool this quickly is to put some ice cubes or crushed ice in a very large bowl or pan and place the saucepan of frosting in the center. The main problem with this approach is that some water could splash into the frosting, almost certainly assuring that you will not be able to get the frosting to "set."
4.  Beat in the butter and vanilla and continue beating until the frosting is shiny and smooth. If you have a small electric beater, that can be a good tool at this point, as you will need to beat for a few minutes to really get the thickness you want. Spread immediately on the cake--usually easiest to do while the cake is still warm, but not hot.

A few additional thoughts for newer cooks:

How do I "sift" the dry ingredients together if I don't have an old-fashioned flour sifter?
The reason to do this sifting step is to be sure to get all the dry ingredients--especially the baking soda or baking powder in these recipes--completely mixed. You can duplicate the sifting action by combining the dry ingredients in a large bowl and mixing thoroughly. The best tool for this is actually just a plain fork from your table. If you notice any lumps (especially likely for the soda and baking powder at times), be sure to use the fork to completely break them up.

How do I know if the frosting has reached "soft ball" stage?
As I noted above, I may not be the best person to ask this, as I don't think I have always achieved it! However, here's a nice, scientific, site that provides perhaps more than you ever wanted to know about this.

This video actually shows what that "soft ball" should look like.

If you find yourself impatient in watching it (as I did!), that represents the same kind of impatience you'll probably need when waiting for the frosting to really be cooked enough.

Why do I need to do more than just oil the pan? 
 You will probably ask this question only once, before you try to turn a cake out of a pan in one piece! Sometimes, you may get lucky and be able to get a whole cake on to the plate, but much more often, only oiling the pan will result in a large chunk of the cake stuck to the bottom of the pan.

So, if the recipe directions tell you to oil and flour the pan--do it! The best way to accomplish this is to use a small spoon to shake a little flour over the pan. Then tap the pan and swirl it around to get the flour evenly applied. Add more flour as needed and then shake off any excess--you really don't want to have lumps of flour on the crust of your baked cake either.

I have added a NOTE to this recipe that suggests mixing flour and cocoa to use to dust the pan instead of plain flour. This is a relatively new hint for me, and I really, really recommend it for any chocolate cake. I had read about using cocoa instead of flour for doing the dusting, but I thought it might work to just use some of each. Sprinkling the two separately was hard to make the coating evenly distributed--as illustrated below. However, the cocoa did make a much more attractive crust than flour alone. Mixing just a little of both came out to be a really nice application.

Freezing Avocados

The day after the Super Bowl, I stopped in at my local Fareway and discovered they were clearing out some beautiful avocados for 25 cents each. (They also had big bunches of cilantro at 3 for $1 along with their usual good specials.)

Unable to pass up such a bargain, I brought home 12 large avocados and let them soften a few days. After I had made a few batches of guacamole and had enjoyed others in salads, I started to wonder if I could freeze the eight still sitting on the counter, now perfectly soft and ready to eat.

According to the California Avocado Board--who better to know--I could actually freeze these without making them into guacamole. Their instructions are here:

Reading through their site, including many of the comments that suggested variations, I decided to try this approach:

1.  Place a small amount of lemon juice in a shallow dish. I used ReaLemon straight from the refrigerator.
2.  Wash each avocado and cut in half. Remove but retain the pit.
3.  Put each half cut side down in the lemon juice. Add the pit and roll it around a bit to get lemon juice on most of the surface.
4.  Cut pieces of plastic wrap about 6 to 8 inches X he width of your wrap. Lay a piece of the wrap across the cut side of one half. Press the pit into the depression from which it came.
5.  Carefully fold the wrap back over the pit, taking care not to pull the wrap away from the first half.
6.  Place the other half back onto the side with the pit and press tightly. Press any overhanging plastic wrap around the sides of the avocado.
7.  Place the wrapped avocados in a freezer weight plastic bag and seal, pressing out as much air as possible. (I put the freezer bag into yet another heavy plastic bag, just to be sure.) Label and freeze immediately.

So, did it work?

Yes, decidedly so.  The last of these kept for several months, coming out of the freezer as well as any purchased frozen avocados. They were perfect for guacamole, avocado toast, etc. Though I didn't slice any of the thawed ones for a salad or other garnish, I believe they would have worked well in that way too, if sliced and served while still not quite thawed.

I have successfully repeated this approach, but they do take a bit more freezer space than just mashing the avocado and stirring in a little lemon or lime juice before packing into plastic bags and freezing them into compact, flat little packages. The secret to either approach is to be sure to package the avocado in an air-tight manner, to keep browning to a minimum.