Archive for August, 2009


One of the things I love most about baking is the chance to merge technical expertise with art.  Faced with a failed dessert, I’m sure I rival the most tormented artist.  I clatter dirty dishes in the sink, dump the ruined parts into the garbage, raise fists to the sky, and denounce the entire cursed enterprise.

When things go well, on the other hand, it’s sublime.  We don’t get that many opportunities in daily life to create something beautiful, and baking occasionally offers that opportunity.

It wasn’t until I started whipping the egg whites for my meringue that I recognized my own investment in this pie.  The cover photo of the Baked cookbook flitted through my mind and I got a little thrill.  Have you seen those two little meringue pies on the cover?  I’ve never, ever made anything so beautiful, and I never expected to in this lifetime.  But these pies gave me a shot.

The recipe presented three layers of technical challenge  — crust, cooked filling, meringue.  The first two I’ve managed many times before: graham cracker crust might be a little crumbly, but I knew it would hold; cooked filling always runs the chance of being soupy or curdled, but I always err on the side of soupy, so if it’s really bad, we have a frozen pie.  But the meringue.  I wanted peaks and swirls and waves, but I’d never tried it before.  I only had the Baked cover photo to guide me.

As soon as the whipped egg whites and sugar reached the consistency of firm peaks, I glopped large spoonfuls onto the pie.  Once I had a good base of meringue, I dipped the point of my spoon into the meringue base and pulled up and out to create the spikes.  This had to be done quickly, before the meringue set.  If the meringue stiffened, I added extra dollops from the bowl to give it new life.  For three intense minutes, the rest of the world faded away.  I was as focused as a surgeon.

The results were nearly perfect.  The graham cracker crust was a tiny bit crumbly (hence my photo with the tart pan intact), but the lime cream filling and the airy meringue were just right. Each time I opened my refrigerator, as the pie chilled, I was startled anew at its beauty.  Wedged between a container of vanilla yogurt and a leftover slice of pizza, it stood regal and proud.  I’m sure to have more crumbly biscuits, leaden loaves, and all manner of baking failures in my future, but for this day, I was happy.

Thanks to Lori of Tender Crumb for choosing this lime cream meringue pie.  You can find the recipe on her site or on pp. 337-39 of Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours.

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Foster’s Market, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is an institution.  Since my parents live nearby, we’ve started a tradition of going to Foster’s for breakfast on Sunday mornings.  We love their herb biscuits with bacon, egg, and cheese; pancakes with fruit toppings; biscuits and gravy; bear claws; bread pudding; and lots more.

Sara Foster has written three cookbooks and they’re all excellent.  This recipe for lemon curry roasted chicken offers a great variation on a classic Sunday night supper, and the exotic, perfumed curry paste comes together in minutes.  Be absolutely sure to serve this with rice, or mashed potatoes, or some kind of bread, because you’ll want something to sop up all the delicious gravy from the bottom of the pan.

Lemon-curry roasted chicken

Adapted from Fresh Every Day by Sara Foster

1 3- to 3 1/2-pound chicken

2 lemons, halved

1 apple, halved and cored

2 cinnamon sticks

3 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 cup curry powder

1 tablespoon light brown sugar

1 tablespoon sea salt

2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

Leaves from 6 to 7 fresh thyme or lemon thyme sprigs (about 2 tablespoons)

1 cup chicken broth

1/2 cup dry white wine

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

2.  Remove the giblets and loose fat from the cavity of the chicken.  Rinse the chicken inside and out and pat it dry with paper towels.  Place the chicken, breast side up, on a roasting rack set inside a large roasting pan or ovenproof skillet.  Squeeze the juice from the lemons over the chicken and inside the cavity.  Place 2 of the squeezed lemon halves, the apple halves, and cinnamon sticks in the cavity of the chicken and place the remaining lemon halves in the bottom of the pan.

3.  Stir the olive oil, curry powder, brown sugar, salt, pepper, and thyme together in a small bowl to make a paste.  massage the paste into the skin of the chicken and let the chicken sit 20 to 30 minutes at room temperature to marinate before cooking.

4.  Pour the broth and wine around the chicken and roast for 1 hour 20 minutes to 1 hour 25 minutes, basting frequently, until the juices run clear when the chicken is pierced with a knife in the thickest part of the thigh or an instant-read thermometer inserted into that point registers 170 to 175 degrees F.  Add a cupful of water or wine to the pan if it gets dry.  Let the chicken rest for 10 to 15 minutes before carving.

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All I needed was an apple and a jar of applesauce.  Trips to the grocery store don’t get any easier than that.  Dash in, grab, go.  But as I approached the produce section, I could feel that creeping sense of dread.  Here we go again.

Organic vs. conventional.  The question sits there, forcing me to reveal my moral fiber.  I fidget.  I look at the ground.  I weigh the price difference in my head.  I think of that article that says apples are the worst offenders when it comes to pesticides.  I think of my children biting into the apple.  I ponder my husband’s rollback at work (in case you haven’t heard of that one, it’s the opposite of a raise).  I recall scenes from Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  And I’m paralyzed.

I don’t have the same problem with meat.  I’m a recovered vegetarian.  It’s a condition that I have to manage, a bit like diabetes or alcoholism.  I still can’t stare at a whole chicken for too long before putting it in to roast.  I don’t eat anything too rare.  And I definitely can’t watch my dad drop lobsters into the pot.

When it comes to meat, I made a decision to buy organic or grass-fed or free range or whatever needed to happen to ensure that the animal wasn’t raised in a hell hole.  But I haven’t codified my attitude toward produce in the same way, and so I become a freak sideshow.  “Look, mommy, they have a living statue in Trader Joe’s!”  (At least if I spray painted my face silver and threw a hat down on the ground, I could earn enough change to afford the organic apples.  Now there’s a virtuous cycle.)

With a name like “applesauce bars,” I’m likely to choose organic.  The bars sound so wholesome, precisely the kind of thing you tuck into little Susie’s lunchbox.  And I suppose this implies that my favorite Apple Rum Raisin bread, fallen creature that it is with 1/2 cup of rum in the batter, deserves conventional apples?  This is not a tenable moral philosophy, and it’s fair to say The NY Times’ Randy Cohen, a.k.a. the Ethicist, will not be calling me for a consult anytime soon.

As for these bars, you could make them with one of Snow White’s poisoned apples and they would taste great.  The bars are soft, tender, with flavors of apple, spice, and a sweet brown sugar glaze.  I expected them to have a firmer texture, something my kids could carry around in one hand and eat without it falling apart.  But they’re tender like a piece of cake, which is lovely, albeit best eaten with a fork, or standing directly over the pan (my preferred method).

Thanks to Karen of Something Sweet for selecting these applesauce bars.  You can find the recipe on her site or on pp. 117-118 of Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours.

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Nancy of The Dogs Eat the Crumbs has long been one of my favorite Tuesdays with Dorie bloggers.  She’s smart, creative, funny, and her recipe reviews are always spot on.  Last month she celebrated her one year blogiversary and as part of the festivities she gave away a pair of vintage one pound loaf pans.  And I won!

Nancy recommended all kinds of wonderful recipes worthy of my shiny new pans, but one stood out: maple blackberry coffee cake.  I’m spending the summer in Maine, where the blackberries aren’t ready yet, but we are in prime wild blueberry season.  Once Nancy told me the pans were in the mail, I gathered all my ingredients in anticipation.  The package showed up, and I was chopping, mincing, and mixing the batter within minutes.

And let me tell you another thing about Nancy.  She’s reliable.  If she says a recipe is good, well, get in the kitchen and start cooking.  This coffee cake is splendid.  If you’re used to playing around with a coffee cake by substituting yogurt for sour cream or swapping almonds for pecans, or (go wild!) adding a vigorous grating of orange zest, well, get ready for this.

The recipe calls for maple syrup, berries (blueberries, huckleberries, blackberries, cranberries, or whatever you like), rolled oats, lemon zest, almonds, rosemary, and thyme.  The combination is complex, sweet, savory, and sublime.  A recipe worthy of my gorgeous new pans.


Thank you, Nancy, for such a wonderful gift.  I’ll think of you every time I bake with these, and I expect that will be just about every week.

Maple Blueberry Coffee Cake Recipe

Adapted from 101 Cookbooks

I used Nancy’s 1-pound loaf pan (size 10 1/4″ x 3 5/8″), but you could use an 8 or 9-inch cake or pie pan.  Just check as it’s baking as the cooking time will vary.  I’m not a fan of whole wheat flour (I know, I know….), so I substituted all-purpose unbleached flour.  If you have real maple syrup, by all means, use it in the cake and the topping.  If you have the fake stuff, use light brown sugar instead.

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour [I used all-purpose unbleached flour]
3 tablespoons rolled oats
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
scant 1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped
1/4 teaspoon fresh rosemary, chopped
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/3 cup maple syrup, room temperature
1 large egg, room temperature
zest of one lemon
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 cup buttermilk
1 1/3 cups fresh wild blueberries (or other berries), well picked over

1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour [I used all-purpose flour]
4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut 1/4-inch cubes
1/3 cup maple sugar (or brown sugar)
1/4 teaspoon fresh thyme
1/2 cup chopped pecans or almonds

special equipment: a 1-pound loaf pan

Preheat the oven to 350F degrees, rack in the middle. Butter a 1-pound loaf pan, and line with parchment paper. Alternately, you could just butter and flour the pan.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, oats, baking powder, baking soda, salt, thyme, and rosemary. Set aside. In a separate large bowl beat the butter with an electric mixer or by hand – until light and fluffy. Drizzle in the maple syrup and beat until well incorporated, scrape down the sides of the bowl a couple times along the way. Beat in the egg, lemon zest, and vanilla extract, scraping the sides again. Add half of the flour, stir just a bit, now add a splash of the buttermilk, stir again, but not too much. Add the rest of the flour and stir a bit, and now the rest of the buttermilk. Stir until everything barely comes together and then very gently fold in one cup of the blueberries. Scrape the batter evenly into the prepared pan and set aside.

To make the streusel topping, place the flour, butter, maple sugar, thyme and almonds in a food processor and pulse 20-30 times or until the topping is a bit beyond sandy/crumbly. It should be moist-looking – on its way to being slightly doughy. Crumble 2/3 of it over the cake batter, sprinkle the remaining 1/3 cup blueberries on top of that, and then add the last of the crumble. Barely pat in place with your fingertips.

Place the coffee cake in the oven and bake for 45 minutes or until the top is golden and a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Let the cake cool for five minutes and then remove it from the pan to cool on a rack (this way the cake won’t steam in the pan as it’s cooling).

Serves 12 – 16 modest slices.

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In western New York, where I grew up, it wasn’t easy to get out of bed in the wintertime.  To keep our heating bills down, my dad all but turned off the heat in the house overnight.  And no matter how full we stuffed the wood stove before bed, it wouldn’t last until morning.

When my brother Mike and I crawled out from under our electric blankets, we were not met by an aproned Mrs. Cleaver in the kitchen, a pitcher of fresh-squeezed orange juice in one hand and a spatula in the other, sing-songing “Would you prefer maple-fennel sausage or applewood smoked bacon with your pancakes?”  My parents both worked, and the bus came very early, so we got ready each morning on our own.

We always ate the same breakfast before school.  Peanut butter toast and chocolate milk.  My parents resorted to buying enormous 5-pound plastic tubs of cut-rate peanut butter decorated with galumphing circus elephants all along the base.

Breakfast became something of a ritual.  I would pour myself a cup of milk in a purple plastic cup and sprinkle it with chocolate Quik.  Meanwhile, I would toast the bread, spread peanut butter on top, then let the toast rest on top of the still-warm toaster until the peanut butter became shiny and slightly melted.  My brother and I timed it just right to prevent a traffic jam either in or on the toaster.  It was early, so we didn’t speak much — just the occasional “ten minutes until the bus” or “here’s your lunch money” — but we had this little peanut butter toast dance every morning.  When Mike went off to college, the ritual lost its charm and I slowly gravitated toward instant oatmeal and, finally, cold cereal.

In the past year, I’ve begun eating peanut butter toast and chocolate milk again.  I blame Sage, the nutrition and fitness guru in my running group.  She pointed me to an article that showed chocolate milk is good for recovery after a long run.  Apparently the combination of carbohydrate and protein facilitates muscle glycogen resynthesis.  Hey, we take very long runs.  We gotta fill the time somehow.

In any event, I bought some chocolate milk and it just didn’t seem right to drink it without the peanut butter toast.  And the tradition was reborn, twenty years later.  I’ve switched from Nestle’s Quik to Ovaltine, and I prefer my peanut butter on Anadama bread instead of Sunbeam white, but these are trifling details.  It’s still peanut butter toast with chocolate milk.  And I eat it almost every day.

If you glanced at the photo of my brownie buttons, you see where this is going.  I first made these for a bake sale last fall.  The brownies turned out fine, but the white chocolate topping wouldn’t reach the right consistency.  It was a thin, filmy glaze that called to mind not so much crisp linen as dishwater.  I needed a new frosting.

Needless to say, I have plenty of peanut butter on hand.  So I whipped up a small batch of my favorite peanut butter frosting to top each little button.  Not bad, not bad at all.

These buttons are dainty little treats, but when it comes to brownies, I’m just not the dainty type.  I missed the full-sized pan of still-warm-from-the-oven brownies that evoke my inner wolverine.  I like my desserts warm, a little sloppy, halfway falling apart because they haven’t yet cooled and firmed up.

I tend to seek order in my life: like my dad, I keep the bills in my wallet organized, twenties in the back, ones in the front; like my mom, I never recycle a magazine, no matter how old, until I’ve read it cover to cover. But in cooking, I mostly seek warmth. Maybe it’s the memory of those chilly pre-dawn breakfasts with my brother, silently noshing on warm peanut butter toast in the blue-black cold.  Old habits die hard.

Thanks to Jayma of Two Scientists Experimenting in the Kitchen for selecting these brownie buttons.  You can find the recipe on her site or on pp. 106-7 of Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours.

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My mom was flipping through an old issue of Food & Wine magazine (September 2007) when she discovered this rice salad recipe.  It calls for Arborio rice, but instead of preparing it as you would for risotto, with the endless stirring and ladeling, the rice is boiled like pasta. Simple.

Studded with olives, sweet cherry peppers, and capers, it’s the ideal accompaniment to Marcella Hazan’s recipe for marinated fish with salmoriglio sauce.  I added chopped fresh basil, dill, and mint. Give it a try!

Lemony rice-parsley salad

Adapted from Food & Wine

1 cup arborio rice
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 cup tightly packed flat-leaf parsley leaves, coarsely chopped (or cut back on the parsley and add fresh basil, mint, tarragon, etc.)
1/2 small sweet Italian frying pepper, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/3 cup oil-cured pitted black olives, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed and drained
1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Lemon wedges, for serving

1. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the rice and simmer over moderate heat until just tender, about 14 minutes. Drain thoroughly.

2. In a large bowl, toss the rice with the olive oil and lemon juice. Stir in the parsley, frying pepper, olives, capers and lemon zest and season with salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature with lemon wedges.  If you have fresh basil, mint, or tarragon readily available, use less parsley and throw some chopped herbs in there!  Just make sure the rice has cooled before adding the herbs or they’ll darken and wilt.

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“What can I bring?”  Such a simple question, but so fraught for us “high executive functioning”  (read: perfectionist and/or controlling) types.  What we bring to someone’s dinner party or backyard barbecue or children’s birthday celebration reflects a personal philosophy, whether we intend it to or not.

The Hickory Farms cheese ball vs. local goat cheese with lavender honey; a case of Bud Light vs. a six-pack of seasonal micro-brew; a store-bought sheet cake vs. oat bran and flax seed cupcakes with probiotic yogurt icing.  These offerings reveal a little bit about who we are, how we were raised, even our politics.

There’s a very funny scene at the beginning of Allison Pearson’s novel, I Don’t Know How She Does It, where the main character has been asked to bring “appropriate festive refreshments” to her daughter’s school Christmas party.  Fearful of being labeled the “Mummy Who Didn’t Make an Effort,” she smashes store-bought mince pies with a rolling pin in an attempt to pass them off as homemade.

At least she’s pragmatic.  My problem is I fall in love with a particular recipe and pragmatism flies out the window.  This spring, for example, I was tasked with making dessert for a dinner party that included three families, all with children under the age of five.  I chose a vanilla custard tart, with a graham cracker crust, layered with strawberries on top.  I’m not exactly sure what I thought my strawberry custard tart (with a fluted crust, no less) would say about me.  Probably something like, “I know we’re all sleep-deprived and juice-stained and our ‘dinner party’ will be punctuated by interrupted conversations, spills, falls, and the occasional crying jag, but we can still attain some level of meaningful adult interaction through this magnificent dessert.”

But I failed to consider the heat wave.  95 degrees + transporting a custard tart across town in the back of my car = formerly artful spiral of sliced strawberries now half-submerged and drowning in liquified custard.  It was pitiful.

Or there’s my favorite vanilla cupcake recipe with a crumb so tender it falls apart with even a hint of rough handling.  Why do I keep bringing these to 4-year-olds’ birthday parties?  The kids either lick off all the frosting and leave the gorgeous cupcake untouched.  Or they dig into the cupcake and leave a wreckage of crumbs all across the table and floor.  Like I said, not practical.

And so, the banana bundt cake offers form and function: a lovely flavor, a firm texture that means the cake can be carried around without leaving a Hansel and Gretel trail of crumbs, and a pretty lemon glaze.  It’s better the second day, so you don’t have to rush around baking at the last minute.  And the lemon glaze firms up, so you can wrap and transport without smushing the icing.

If you’re looking for an easy, tasty, practical dessert that travels well, this is it.  But if you’re at all like me, we both know there will be many more episodes with a fallen souffle or a capsized three-layer cake.  New recipes will come along — less tidy and sensible, more ambitious and sprawling — and I’ll be off in a new direction.

Thanks to Mary of The Food Librarian for choosing this classic banana bundt cake.  You can find the recipe on her site or on page 190 of Baking: From My Home to Yours.

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