CHOCOLATE DOESN’T BELONG IN MUFFINS? TRY THESE BANANA CHOCO/CHIP DELIGHTS!

That would be me—the lady who says that chocolate has no business floating around in muffins (which I have mostly considered to be breakfast or coffee-break/teatime fare). If you’re a Baby Boomer like me, you might recall the old Bill Cosby routine wherein Cosby is making breakfast for his kids and they want chocolate cake, so that’s what he’s gonna give ’em! Our son Adrian loved that skit (might even have heard it live at the Proctor’s when we took him to see the comedian perform – can’t recall which routines included in the act!), What made it funny was the fact that, two or three decades ago, no one considered chocolate as appropriate on any kind of early morning menu. Who but a father who was not used to pulling together a real meal would even consider dishing it out to his kids? I tend to think chocolate started to sneak into the rise ‘n’ shine food group with the intro by Dunkin’ Donuts’ of their Boston Cream filled donuts. Even I wasn’t immune to those…

But getting back to my kitchen, where three bananas dangled from the “banana hook” on my kitchen counter, already more ripe than I prefer unless mixed into something bake-worthy. And I wanted to make just one more thing to bring to that chili/bake sale at Kristen’s workplace. So I scanned the dessert/baking cookbook shelves and wound up pulling down the Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts by the Moosewood Collective (Clarkson Potter Publishers/Random House, 1997), probably because I have a special love for Moosewood, which I’ve written about on this blog. (I’m not the only Moosewood lover either. Check out a seven-page article, “40 Years of Moosewood!” by Jamie Stringfellow in the November/December 2012 issue of Spirituality & Health magazine, in which it is noted that Bon Appétit named the restaurant as “one of the 13 most influential restaurants of the 20th century.”)

In the long run, the muffins I created changed out or added something like six or seven new or slightly revised ingredients, so it’s not their recipe at all. It was the inspiration that I needed, however, and it worked. If you need a run-through of differences: butter instead of oil; added yogurt; split brown sugar between light and dark; reduced flour amount and added almond meal; added cinnamon; cut vanilla extract in half to add in almond extract; added mini-chocolate chips.

These were heavenly. Bill and I split one. One was packed into the thermal bag with Kristen’s chili & cornbread lunch & cookies (necessary because, otherwise, she is so busy with aspects of the sale/raffle, sometimes all the food is sold before she gets any lunch!). That left eight for the sale. Don’t know who bought them, but I’d be willing to bet they didn’t last long!

MARILYN’S BANANA CHOCO-CHIP MUFFINS
Yields 10 large Muffins

Ingredients

  • ½ cup butter, softened
  • 2½ tablespoons plain Greek yogurt (I used 2%)
  • 1 cup brown sugar (I used a combo of light & dark brown sugars)
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 large ripe bananas, mashed
  • 1½ cup unbleached all purpose flour
  • ¾ cup almond meal
  • 1 teaspoon Roasted Saigon cinnamon (plain ol’ cinnamon will work too)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt (table salt or fine-ground sea salt)
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • ½ to ¾ cup mini semisweet chocolate chips

Process

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Grease jumbo muffin tin or insert paper liners.
  3. In a large bowl, beat butter, yogurt, sugar, eggs and bananas until well blended.
  4. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, almond meal, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda and salt. (If tiniest bit of almond meal doesn’t go through sifter – we’re talking something like no more than “a pinch” – it’s okay to turn sifter over and dump into bowl.)
  5. Fold dry ingredients into wet, using quick strokes and being careful not to overmix.
  6. Gently stir in extracts.
  7. Fold in chocolate chips.
  8. Spoon batter into prepared muffin tin.
  9. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until cake tester or butter knife comes out clean when inserted into muffin.
  10. Turn muffins out of tin within first five minutes of removal from oven. Cool on a rack.
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LUCIOUS LEMON RICOTTA PANCAKES

This is the second recipe in which I used the Homemade Ricotta made per my recent joining of the From Scratch Club on GoodReads. We’re reading/cooking/baking from The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying and Start Making by Alana Chernila, a book I highly recommend. My last blogpost, Comfort Pasta with Ricotta, Nutmeg and Peas was the other dish I conjured up, based on a recipe in a cookbook I’ve owned for years. Both were heaven to the tongue.

I found this recipe in a relatively new (to me) cookbook, Baking by Flavor by Lisa Yockelson (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2002), a volume awarded the IACP Cookbook Award in 2002, which I just learned is an honor given by the International Association of Culinary Professionals to “the authors, publishers, and other contributors behind the best of cookbooks published each year.” Because I love lemon-anything, it caught my attention immediately. As usual, I made a few changes to suit my needs, desires and tastes.

When the kids were growing up, pancakes weren’t on our everyday breakfast menu. It took time to make them, even from a box (and our box was Bisquick, which we found to be better than specifically-pancake/waffle mixes). Life was too hectic to get into time-consuming morning feasts like pancakes, eggs/omelets, French toast and other more elaborate first-thing-in-the-morning endeavors on weekdays. Those were weekend fare, so long as we weren’t driving children all over creation to too-early activities on a Saturday or Sunday! So pancakes were treats, and they remain so.

These Lemon Ricotta Pancakes surpass anything from those days. Bill and I scarfed them down over two days (fresh and heated-up leftovers), savoring every bite, knowing our son wouldn’t be interested anyway. He’d much rather make his own Bisquick batch whenever he feels like it. His loss.

Try ’em—you’ll love ’em.

LEMON RICOTTA PANCAKES FROM SCRATCH
Yield: supposedly, 27 pancakes – but ours were larger, for a smaller yield

Ingredients

  • 1 cup unsifted, unbleached all-purpose flour (original recipe calls for bleached; I only buy unbleached)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • pinch of salt
  • dash of nutmeg and/or cinnamon (totally my addition- totally optional)
  • ¾ cup whole-milk ricotta cheese (mine was homemade)
  • 3 tablespoons sugar (book calls for granulated; I use organic evaporated cane juice sugar – same texture as granulated)
  • 1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest (lemon-love-me probably made that at “generous” teaspoonful!)
  • 2 large eggs, slightly beaten with a whisk (original recipe doesn’t call for whisked eggs; this is my move so the whisk part is optional)
  • ¾ cup milk (I used 2%, but whole is fine; buttermilk would also work to add more tang)
  • 4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to tepid
  • ½ teaspoon pure lemon extract
  • butter, for the grill (book calls for clarified butter, but I used regular unsalted)
  • fresh fruit, for topping (optional – my idea, not the cookbook author’s)
  • confectioners’ sugar, for sprinkling on pancakes

Process

  1. Sift flour, baking powder, salt, nutmeg (if using) and cinnamon (if using) into medium-sized bowl.
  2. Blend ricotta, sugar, lemon zest and eggs in small bowl, using wooden spoon or paddle.
  3. Blend milk, melted butter and lemon extract into ricotta mixture.
  4. Blend ricotta mixture into the sifted flour ingredients, stirring until it becomes an evenly textured batter (use wooden spoon or paddle). Batter will be moderately thick.
  5. Place 2-tablespoon scoops (or use a little more, if preferred) of batter onto a hot griddle greased with butter; cook for about 1 minute or until undersides are golden and bubbles appear on surface. Flip over with a spatula and continue cooking for about another minute (until golden brown on bottom).
  6. Serve with fresh fruit topping, if desired.
  7. Sift confectioners’ sugar atop pancakes (and fruit, if serving), also if desired. I can imagine whipped cream instead of the confectioners’ sugar – but only the real stuff, not what comes frozen in a plastic tub!

Brown Sugar Banana Bread & “Back in the Day” with Uncle Arch

I didn’t need another cookbook. But then I was in the grocery store earlier this week, scanning through the cooking magazines. I’d already bought (or received via subscription), and read or perused, all my favorites for the month; so I was hoping that some articles or recipes in a less-familiar (to me) mag would catch my eye enough to warrant a closer read at home. A large illustration in Taste of the South did just that – it was the cover of The Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook: More Than 100 Recipes from the Best Little Bakery in the South.

I knew I’d seen it at Barne’s & Noble, maybe even opened it up to a few pages. How could I not? Its authors, Savannah bakery owners Cheryl Day and Griffith Day, adorn the cover. They stand in front of shelves painted a bright blue stationed against an old brick wall painted white, its tiers holding all sorts of bakery paraphernalia and a few cakes. Everything about them is down-home looking, casual and comfortable. He sports tan big-pocketed shorts, a beige/brown plaid shirt and sneakers. She’s in an old-fashioned, red-polka-dots-on-white, short-sleeved dress, with a bit of a dainty feathered or flowered adornment atop her curly-topped head, and dark ballerina-type shoes. A blue apron that I wouldn’t necessarily accessorize with that outfit seems to work exactly right for Cheryl. She balances, waitress-style, a tray of what look like extra-huge cookies. And they aren’t just smiling – they’re laughing!

As I read a bit of the Q&A-formatted article, which highlights the cookbook, a few other things heightened my interest. Number One: their bakery/café is located in Savannah, Georgia, a city I’ve only enjoyed once but could grow to love. Unfortunately, we were driving north from Florida, from visiting various relatives, so we couldn’t stay longer than two overnights – and it happened to be a cold January for the South in 2009 (ok, comparatively speaking, it wasn’t so cold since our adult kids had been through a couple of not-so-great snowstorms during our absence). Still, we toured parts of the city (gorgeous architecture, great history) and managed to stumble across Food Network celebrity Paula Deen’s restaurant, The Lady and Sons. We’d already eaten a yummy lunch at a little café downtown and didn’t plan to go inside, but the hostess happened to mention that we could Just Do Dessert – and that they happened to bake the best pecan pie in the South. Bill had to test out that boast since he loves pecan pie. We did coffee with our pies, Bill nodding happily through his perfect pecan snack, as well as scarfing down what I couldn’t finish of the huge portion of key lime pie I’d ordered!

I also loved the description of the Back in the Day bakery. Homey, a neighborhood place where people gather, a true community deliberately sought by its founders. It doesn’t sound like just southern hospitality – it smacks of “the olden days” when such places existed in neighborhoods everywhere in this country, when fast-food and chain restaurants hadn’t taken over our eating habits and computer screens weren’t our primary source of social networking.

And the recipes! Reviewing the recipe for Chocolate Heaven Cake in Taste of the South convinced me that this cookbook deserved a closer viewing, and that’s just what I did next time I was in a bookstore. I bought it. And the very next day, before I’d even checked out any recipes beyond their Brown Sugar Banana Bread on page 45, I was spending the morning (yesterday) baking the absolute best banana bread I’d ever made, maybe the best I’d ever even tasted! (Of course, I did slightly modify Back in the Day’s bread, creating my own rendition – because that’s what I do, that’s creativity.) I sent three slices over to our daughter Kristen’s apartment for her to enjoy when she got home from work (via Bill, when he went out to run errands), along with some chicken soup made the day before. That evening, she let us know that she’d devoured two of the three slices and gave it a rating of “awesome.”

There’s also something about the expression, Back in the Day…, that got to me. Cheryl Day and Griffith Day didn’t, as you might think, choose it for its nostalgic twist. They liked a different “twist” about it – the play on their last name! Well, we share the last name, but I hadn’t looked at the authors’ names on the book until I read about how they picked it out. I was lost in the nostalgia instead.

Right to left: Aunt Pat (in back), Aunt Dot w/cuz Diane on lap, Grandma Boyd, Uncle Doug (standing), Aunt Pat’s mom & brother, maybe brother’s wife, Uncle Arch (far right)

Back in the Daytweaks memories of the past, of long-gone simpler times. This morning, for example, having spent a good deal of yesterday finishing the two-page “bio” of my Uncle Doug for the “Honor a Vet” ceremony mentioned in my last blogpost, family was on my mind – and for some reason the expression made me think of my Uncle Arch, who wasbriefly mentioned in yesterday’s writing. I imagined him beginning one of his stories with Back in the day..., continuing on with a tale that might be factual, or bear a tidbit of fact, but surely was spun into a fantasy of his own making.

Everyone loved Uncle Arch (real name Archibald, but he’d never tell you that!). He was funny and fun-loving, generous, and quite handsome (as were all the Boyd boys). He could also be unpredictable. My father decided early in his acquaintance with this brother-in-law that he probably ought not to go drinking with him too often – leastwise not unless they were on foot. Mom told me that the first time they did that, “Arch was driving and your father found himself on the road to Kingston or Poughkeepsie or some point far south of Albany, never getting home until the wee hours of the morning!” Dad didn’t drive, so he had no choice but to go along.Two of my funniest memories of my uncle:

Front: Aunt Ann, Uncle Arch; my mom, Dolly. Back: Uncle Doug, Aunt Pat, Aunt Naomi, Walt. (Sometime in the late 1980s?)

When my Aunt Naomi was surprised with a 60th birthday party by her four adult children many years back, Uncle Arch wasn’t present during the “surprising” part but showed up about an hour late. Everyone was saying, “Where’s Arch? Isn’t he coming?” By this time in her life, Aunt Naomi’s husband (Uncle Corley) has passed away but I can’t remember if she was already seeing Walt yet (they would marry sometime later). What I do recall is that there were several people present who did not know Uncle Arch, or not as well as we did, and some of them were Walt’s relatives – so when he walked into the hall, wearing all black duds with a priest’s collar at his neck, many didn’t know he wasn’t some Catholic Father come to bless Naomi! He walked about for a little while, making the sign of the cross and some sorts of holy conversation while those who knew him were in stitches, some with eyes watering from laughter. He definitely livened up the place.

Our yard circa 1989. Brother George, cousin David (sole surviving son of Uncle Arch), Uncle Arch, George’s first wife Sharon, George & Sharon’s son Matt.

Another time – on a visit to their home in Perth, NY (outside Amsterdam) – Bill, our two kids and my mother made the 40-minute trip to see Aunt Ann and Uncle Arch. Adrian, our son, was at that early teen stage where he preferred to be with his friends at home rather than “old” family people, so normally he’d rather not join us when we attended many family events. But he loved Uncle Arch in the same way and for the same reasons my brothers, cousins and I always did. You never knew what to expect from him, but it would often be fun. As we sat in the yard in front of their A-frame, talking about the vegetable garden, Adrian fiddling with an antique wooden mousetrap that my uncle had found somewhere and brought home (totally not humane as it had a trap door that dropped the poor creature to a drowning demise), something about the conversation caught Ade’s attention. Maybe Uncle Arch was testing to see if Ade was listening when he mentioned weird noises out back at night, near the garden. Pretty soon, noting Adrian caught up in the tale, he embellished the story with a spaceship, flashing lights, aliens and an invitation to go for a ride. At that point, we all knew he was BSing us. Adrian grinned back at his great-uncle’s shit-eating grin (you know, like that grin Steve McQueen would flash in The Great Escape, as he strut back into the POW camp, his escape attempt foiled by the Nazis?). Give Uncle Arch a prompt like, It was a dark and stormy night… and off he’d go!

That was Uncle Arch, joke-teller, house painter, Navy war veteran, movie-star good looks, lover of beer and stories. My favorite. Who might’ve started a story with Back in the day… and, on occasions when he pondered some sad or horrific event, would simply say, It don’t make..., leaving off that last word, sense… because sometimes it just doesn’t sense. Especially not the loss of two sons before they even reached middle-age (one murdered, one struck by a car), nor the disabling of their third son and last surviving child. Yet his love of life never faltered, nor his and Aunt Ann’s generous and loving care of their last-surviving son and their grandchildren. Aunt Ann still lives in that A-frame with several of them.

So here’s what I did differently from Back in the Day’s version of banana cake (It was a warm and cozy kitchen… can be your prompt for today):

To start with, I don’t own the prescribed 9” x 5” loaf pan. In my overcrowded baking pans & equipment space (a pull-out shelf over the wall oven, which I don’t dare pull out for fear of several metal objects clattering to the floor below), I could locate a much larger loaf pan (its length measures 9½ inches), a smaller one, and several mini-loafers. I chose the smaller one, 8½” x 4½” x 2¾”, and then buttered up a small ramekin to fill along with the loaf pan (which very nicely provided me with a “sampler” to share with Bill while the larger one cooled). The recipe below, however, is written for the 9 x 5 pan since that’s the amount of batter it will make.

I didn’t put my oven rack on in the bottom of one-third of the oven; I just forgot. It was in the center. Perhaps that might be why my loaf took a little longer to bake. Or not.

The next revision was out of necessity: it turned out I only had ½ cup of light brown sugar but, luckily, an unopened bag of brown sugar sat in the same plastic container on the lazy-susan under the counter. I adjusted the ¾ cup in the original recipe to reflect what I already had.

I love that the original recipe uses mace, an ingredient that I’d found difficult to locate in larger markets around here for a while (all of a sudden, at least Hannaford carries small containers of it now!) – but I reduced the mace, cutting it in half, and then added nutmeg to the mix.

Once I’d mashed up the bananas, I decided to zip a bit of lemon juice on them to stave off the browning while I followed through on the rest of the prep work of gathering together my ingredients (in case you didn’t already know, this is called mis en place).

Back in the Day uses vanilla extract, which would be perfectly fine, but I decided to add vanilla powder instead. I figured the little bit of lemon juice would balance out the loss of a teaspoon of the liquid extract. I hoped adding of lemon, an acidic ingredient, wouldn’t throw off the balance of overall ingredients required for good baking results.

I opted not to add an optional brown sugar sprinkling on top. Good decision – it was plenty sweet enough!

THE VERY BEST BROWN SUGAR BANANA BREAD EVER
Yields One (1) 9-inch loaf

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup light brown sugar
  • ¼ cup dark brown sugar
  • ¾ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon fine sea salt (or table salt will do)
  • ½ teaspoon ground mace
  • ½ teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon Roasted Saigon Cinnamon (regular cinnamon is okay; I use Roasted Saigon variation because of deeper, richer flavor)
  • ¼ cups pecans, toasted then chopped (If you’ve never toasted nuts before, here’s a basic how-to for all three methods; I like either stovetop or oven method.)
  • 1 ½ cups well-mashed, ripe bananas (I had 2 very ripe and 2 just-over-the-green stage of the fruit, about medium sized, that worked out well.)
  • a squirt or two of lemon juice
  • ¼ cup sour cream
  • 2 large eggs
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla powder

Process:

  1. Lightly grease a 9” x 5” loaf pan with butter or vegetable oil spray. Line the bottom with parchment paper.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, brown sugars, baking soda, salt, mace, nutmeg, cinnamon and pecans. Set aside.
  3. In a medium bowl, mix together the mashed bananas, sour cream eggs, butter and vanilla powder with a wooden spoon.
  4. Fold the banana mixture into the flour mix until just combined.
  5. Scrape the batter into the prepared loaf pan, spreading evenly across the top.
  6. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until loaf is golden brown and a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. (NOTE: I don’t own a 9” x 5” loaf pan, as noted above – using the smaller pan, plus a ramekin, might have caused my longer baking time, which was something like 70 minutes – or maybe it was my changes to the recipes. Doesn’t matter to me cuz the bread was supreme!)
  7. Cool loaf in its pan for 5 to 10 minutes; then transfer to a wire rack (although I just put it on its platter, which I placed on a rack).

Can’t wait to bake that Chocolate Heaven Cake – but it will become cupcakes, maybe even for the WomanWords (my writing collective) 15-Year Birthday. I should be toting cupcakes to the Caffe Lena Open Mic in Saratoga Springs, NY on April 4, 2012, where WW will be featured. Readers will be Judith Prest, Kristen Day, Lesley Tabor, Leslie Neustadt, Mary Armao McCarthy, Kittie Bintz, Kelly de la Rocha and myself. Doors open at 7 p.m. – come join us if you’re nearby and free!

Uncles, World War II: front – David; back, left – Archibald; back, right – Douglas

“MEN LOVE THIS,” LAURA SAID: ROASTED ITALIAN SAUSAGES & VEGETABLES; plus, what to do with the leftovers…

For this blogpost, I’m heading right for the food-witchy stuff – but not like you’d think. I’m not getting into the symbolism, at least not right away. I wanted to honor a special woman, a dear friend and former co-worker who’s always with me even though she passed away years ago. She was a “foodie” before the term was fashionable in this country. And what has this to do with witchy-ness? Well, as I was contemplating how to introduce the recipe, I remembered that I’d written the following short essay a couple years ago, although I couldn’t have told you the specifics of its content before re-visiting it today…  and, wow, this was before KitchenCauldron was even a flash in my brain:

**********

Laura

     “My kids say I must be a witch.” My dark-haired coworker grinned at me as we enjoyed a rare lunch away from the office. I already knew this would take some time because Laura Kurner was the slowest diner with whom I’d ever noshed. She savored every bite, often listing aloud ingredients detected in a particularly delicious dish. Now it sounded like some intriguing talk could delay us further.

     “Why is that?” I asked, expecting to hear about rebellious reactions to parental discipline.

     “Well, I seem to know things, they think, before other people do. Probably just women’s intuition.”

     It’s been over forty years since that conversation and well over two decades since cancer took my friend from this earth, yet I still ponder its content. I’ve come to believe that, at least for me, Laura’s witchy aura translates into a metaphor of a cauldron: cauldron equals cookware, and everything connected with kitchen activities.

     Laura and I sat across from each other at one of my first permanent state jobs – she, the widowed mother of three older children; me, the college dropout not sure where life would take me. Close to my mother’s age, she couldn’t be more different than Mom. This short-haired, big-hipped woman (“better for child-bearing” she boasted) possessed the most infectious laugh I’d ever heard, and I heard it often. But this wasn’t the only difference.

     Mom’s cooking was good basic stuff (she got raves over her creamy mashed potatoes and everyone loved Dolly’s rendition of her Polish mother-in-law’s stuffed cabbage). But Laura’s culinary craft felt magical to me. My mother’s repertoire of spices pretty much encompassed things like salt, pepper, chili powder, garlic salt, factory-mixed poultry seasoning and sometimes cinnamon and nutmeg. Laura, on the other hand, uttered exotic terms like tarragon, rosemary and cilantro. Since she was Italian, basil, oregano and olive oil also rated high on her list of essentials. “You have to try out the spices,” she’d tell me. “Taste them, let your tongue get acquainted.” Then, I was assured, I’d begin to know them, understand which ones enhanced which foods.

     One late fall afternoon Laura, another coworker and I were enjoying an after-work drink at a local piano bar half-a-block from my new apartment. Glancing out the window, I noticed two guys crossing Washington Avenue, headed toward The Lamp Post. “That’s Dave,” I said, pointing to the straight-haired one on the left, no-hipped with a slight swagger. Both Laura and Nancy knew I still had a crush on Dave, who’d dated me once or twice. “And the other guy, the curly-haired one with freckles, is Sam, real name Bill.” Sam and Dave were best friends.

     Staring out the window as the two approached, Laura squinted her eyes at these two young men she’d never met but had heard snippets about for months. Before they came through the front door, she turned to me and said, “Forget that Dave. He’s a little arrogant. Marry the other one. Sam.” She proceeded to tell me to invite him to dinner that night and dictated the entire menu: Italian sausage, peppers, onions, potatoes. “Men love this meal,” she instructed. “Wine is good,” she said, “but you probably don’t want to sleep with him this time. Let him wonder…”

     A couple years later, upon returning from our honeymoon, one of our first visits as a married couple to someone’s home was to Laura’s in Coxsackie, NY. While we chatted away about what we’d seen and done on Cape Cod and how the new apartment was shaping up, Laura created a scrumptious feast. Our spur-of-the-moment arrival didn’t phase her a bit. She pulled a small roast from the freezer and introduced us to the pressure cooker (this was before microwaves graced 95% of American kitchens). In what seemed like no time, we were chowing down and offering up compliment after compliment.

     I treasure the few recipes I have from Laura, although I’ve never had courage enough to try a pressure cooker. More important than actual recipes, however, was another gift. Her kitchen was a place of joy, of adventure. I will never be a gourmet chef or master baker but, thanks to Good Witch Laura, I know things. My newly renovated kitchen boasts a whole cabinet of spices, and I know how to use them. And if there’s one I’m not sure about adding, I consult my shelves of cookbooks… or I can taste them, get to know them intimately, add them to my cauldron of kitchen spells.
**********

Just last year, while reading a novel titled Feeding Christine by Barbara Chepaitis (Bantam Books, 2000), I learned about an Italian “Witch of the Epiphany” named La Befana – and of course I had to research her further. At the time, I was creating what I called “Goddess Journal Entries” and sharing them with several friends via e-mail. I knew Befana would show up as an entry because I was intrigued. The internet offered much info, including a site eminating from Abruzzo, Italy – where Befana is quite “real” to the children who might receive her gifts on the eve of the Epiphany in early January.

Through my searches, I discovered that artist/writer Tomie dePaola wrote a children’s book called The Legend of Old Befana (Voyager Books, Harcourt Inc., 1980), and I ordered it from Amazon.com (then I ordered a couple more, for the grandnieces for Christmas). In it, as La Befana finally gets ready to seek out the Christ child (having earlier turned down an invitation to travel with the Three Wise Men because she was too busy sweeping – according to other sources I found, she sweeps in the new year). She decides to bake cookies to take along as a gift for the new babe.

Of course there’s more to the story, but perhaps you’ll buy dePaola’s book or take it out of the library (under the pretense of wanting to read it to a child, of course). My point here is that the legend of Befana joins both Pagan and Christian traditions. In fact, in some places in Italy both Santa Claus and La Befana appear at the same festivals. And always there are cookies. But when he’s not “on the road” delivering gifts on December 24th, maybe Befana roasts him some sausages with vegetables, á la Laura Kurner, insisting that he partake of “What Men Love” before he turns to “What Everybody Loves,” which would be the sweets.

ROASTED ITALIAN SAUSAGE AND VEGETABLES, LAURA’S WAY
Serves 4 to 6 or, in our case, serves 2, with great leftovers for a couple days, a couple ways

Ingredients

  • 5 to 8 good Italian sausages, depending upon how many you think you’ll consume (I prefer sweet sausages, but the hot stuff might be your preference)
  • dried spices:
    1 tablespoon parsley
    1 tablespoon basil
    1 teaspoon oregano
    dash of salt (optional)
  • 3 to 4 medium potatoes, skins on, cut into chunks about 1½ to 2 inches in size, soaked in water for about 15-20 minutes (while you’re getting the other veggies prepped!)
  • 1 basket of baby bella mushrooms, about 20 to 25 small ’shrooms (you can use white button mushroom variety, but bellas have so much more flavor!)
  • 3 to 4 bell peppers, various colors (red, yellow, orange, green), seeded, cut into large chunks (each of my 3 peppers were cut into 3 section)
  • 3 to 4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into long pieces approximately the same in size
  • 2 large onions, skins removed, cut in half vertically, then each half cut into 3 large chunks
  • 1 zucchini, halved horizontally, then halved the other “horizontal” way as well; then cut each segment into lengths about 3 inches or so long.
  • olive oil: 1- 2 tablespoons to coat the pan; about 2 or 3 tablespoons to drizzle over vegetables before going into oven (I drizzle straight from the bottle)
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped (optional, but a plus)
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped (optional, but a plus)

Process

  1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Brush a small amount of olive oil over the entire inside-bottom of a large roasting pan.
  3. Place the sausage in the pan, spread apart to allow for vegetables to surround them.
  4. Add the dry spices and salt, if using it, to a large zip-lock plastic bag and shake them to mix.
  5. Drain water from potatoes and put them into the zip-lock bag, zipping it shut. Shake the potatoes until spices appear to have “stuck” to all chunks, at least to some degree.
  6. Distribute potatoes around the sausages in the roasting pan.
  7. Distribute peppers, carrots and onions throughout the roasting pan.
  8. At this point, you can choose to add the zucchini as well, although you have the option of waiting for about half-an-hour before doing so since they might soften beyond your taste preference if put in at the start of roasting time. (I add them at the beginning because I’m always afraid I’ll forget to put them in later!)
  9. Drizzle olive oil lightly over everything in the pan.
  10. If there’s any spice left in that zip-lock bag, top veggies with it. Then sprinkle the freshly chopped parsley and basil atop of it all.
  11. Roast until sausage is cooked thoroughly and fork pokes easily into potatoes. (This usually takes about an hour-and-a-quarter to an hour-and-a-half.)  A couple times during the process, open oven and stir sausage and vegetables around, to promote even cooking.
  12. Great served with applesauce on the side. And maybe Italian bread.

NEXT DAY:   Heat it up in the microwave, slicing sausage so it warms up thoroughly at about the same rate as the veggies.

DAY AFTER THAT (if there’s still some left):  We had no sausages left, but plenty of vegetables; so I decided to make a frittata with them (then figured I’d add some diced-up Polish ham too). Diced veggies up a bit smaller in some cases (like the potatoes), warmed them for about 10 minutes over medium heat in a large pan while prepping egg mixture. Beat up 6 eggs, adding dried parsley and a little pepper, as well as about a tablespoon of half-n-half. Poured it over warmed vegetables and let it cook for no more than a minute. Then put entire ovenproof pan into a PRE-HEATED (to 350 degrees) oven for about 15 minutes. Opened up oven, topped frittata with cheddar cheese slices, and closed oven for another minute or two – until cheese melted. Removed from oven and allowed to sit – while I took pictures! Served with sliced cantaloupe melon and blueberries, with a touch of raw sugar. And whatever “bread” on hand to toast (for us, I had one plain bagel and some rye). Incidentally, it tasted great with a little sour cream on top.

A Date with a Scone, A Scone with Dates… and Walnuts

Since adding the post titled “KitchenCauldron – Unplugged” (February 3, 2012) to this blog, in which I talk about the first time I tasted a scone, I’ve had scones on my mind. Maybe not obsessively, but with a clear intent to bake some soon. Turns out it’s very soon. Four days later. This morning.

I pulled out the little scone cookbook I mentioned in that blogpost (literally small, 5.6” x 5.5” with only 144 pages), Simply Scones: Quick and Easy Recipes for More than 70 Delicious Scones and Spreads by Leslie Weiner and Barbara Albright (St. Martin’s Press, 1988). Seeing the copyright date, I wondered if it was still in print. Turns out it is, and available on Amazon – for almost twice the price I paid for it way-back-when (now costs $9.95). Still, the plethora of only-scone recipes makes it worth it; it’s tiny but jam-packed (pun not intended on the fact that I like my scones warm, with butter and jam/preserves/fruit spread most of the time). Out of the many baking choices, the hyphenated word “date-nut” caught my eye and imagination. My revised version of the Weiner/Albright recipe follows but not, of course, without a slight digression or two.

Weiner/Albright decided to ask a few people, “since scones might not yet be a household word,” for their idea of what exactly a scone is. Some of the responses were quite funny, or just a vague notion (remember- it was 1988 and this country was clueless about lots of “foreign” cuisine, and people were not celebrity-chef-and-Food-Channel-crazy, as they can be now). I think my favorite answer that they heard was that they’re like “a puffy oatmeal cookie.” The authors did, fairly accurately as it turns out, predict that this confection would become more common in the U.S., although perhaps it hasn’t reached the height of “household word.” Stroll down the baking/spices aisle in most grocery chain stores, however, and you’re likely to find a boxed mix for scones, with a picture on the front (so folks nowadays might know at least what they look like). However, I doubt they’ll overcome muffins in popularity with breakfast or coffee klatch crowds, at least not any time soon.

Online at Webster’s Dictionary, the definition of this luscious cross between a muffin and quick bread (my definition) calls it, “a rich quick bread cut into usually triangular shapes and cooked on a griddle or baked on a sheet.” I guess that about covers it. I like that Simply Scones goes beyond Webster’s to tell readers that the word “scone” might come from one or some of many sources:

  • From the Dutch, schoonbrood: fine, white bread
  • From the Middle Dutch, schoon: bright, and broot: bread
  • From the Gaelic, sgonn: a shapeless mass or large mouthful
  • From the Middle Low German, schonbrot: fine bread
  • Or, the word may be based on the Scottish town of Scone.

I particularly like the “shapeless mass or large mouthful…” because it’s pretty shapeless when you’re handling that big blob of dough, before being molded into a circle.

Webster’s provides a link to the online Encyclopedia Britanica entry re scones, which informs that scones were, “[a] quick bread of British origin… made with leavened barley flour or oatmeal… rolled into a round shape and cut into quarters before baking on a griddle. The first scones were baked in cast iron pans hung in the kitchen fires of rural England and Wales. With the advent of Eastern trade, scones became an integral part of the fashionable ritual of “taking tea,” with which they are still served daily, hot and buttered, throughout Britain and many regions of its former empire.”

At the beginning of Simply Scones‘ recipe, the writers suggest topping the finished product with Citrus Curd or Citrus Butter (both recipes published in the book), but – hey – it was early in the morning and I wasn’t about to go for concocting one of them too! Instead, as the yummies approached their last five minutes in the oven, I asked Bill (who was awake by this time) which he preferred: apricot fruit spread or orange marmalade (we had both in the cabinet, as yet unopened). He opted for the marmalade, which turned out to be perfect (I enjoyed it too).

Here’s how I concocted my version of Date-Nut Scones, inspired by Weiner and Albright:

  • I replaced the all-purpose flour with white whole wheat.
  • Simply Scones lists ⅓ cup milk as an ingredient. I assumed they meant to use whole milk, which I don’t keep in our fridge, so I did a combo of 1% and Light Cream (which I did have), plus added a bit more cream because I was using vanilla powder rather than vanilla extract and didn’t want the scones to be overly dry for lack of that tiny bit of moisture.
  • I added a teaspoon of Roasted Saigon Cinnamon. Why not? I love it. It’s good for ya!
  • I assume the authors meant for bakers to use dried lemon peel,  but I zested a real lemon instead (reserving slices for later use in ice water, which is what I generally drink with meals since giving up Diet Decaf Coke).
  • I only had half of an 8-ounce bag of chopped pitted dates left (not the 8 oz. suggested) and that seemed plenty to me.
  • As for the walnuts, I used what I already had chopped from a previous recipe, which was a “scant” ½ cup rather than exactly that amount. Plenty.
  • I misread the recipe and sifted the flour mixture together, whereas the book said to stir the stuff. Oh well. I liked the result anyway, very much!
  • I would say that the egg/water wash, which was noted as “optional” in their recipe, would be pretty much required for me!

A witchy word (or two, or more) about cinnamon. Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Wicca in the Kitchen (Llewellyn Publications, 2003) lists its “energies” as “love, psychic awareness, money.” These are not reasons why I use so much of this spice in my cooking, baking and even a few hot beverages; I just happen to love it. But I could always use lots of any or all of those three things (actually, I seem to have plenty of love but wouldn’t mind a bit more of the $$$!). Cunningham also notes that, “Most cinnamon sold in the United States, no matter how it’s labeled, is actually cassia. Cassia is a dark spice, usually reddish brown, while true cinnamon is actually tan-colored.” He assures his readers, however, that “there’s virtually no difference between the taste and magical effects of cinnamon and cassia.”

If none of the above “magical” revelations draws you toward adding more of the stuff into your diet, how about this: yesterday I caught the end of Dr. Oz’s show and heard him say (before hubby continued on with his channel-surfing) something about cinnamon and that it only takes a teaspoon a day to make a difference. I’ve since found a pertinent Oz quote online (note that he is not directing anyone to Cinnabon for their daily dose…):

Here’s a tantalizing observation: Cinnamon (with an ‘m’ not a ‘b’) seems to have an insulin-like effect that helps enhance the satiety center in your brain (and also reduces blood sugar levels as well as cholesterol levels). Just a ½ teaspoon a day can have some effect. Sprinkle it in cereal or toast, or add it to a smoothie.

In The Kitchen Witch Companion: Simple and Sublime Culinary Magic (Citadel Press, 2005), Patricia Telesco talks about the symbolic meanings of several spices; for cinnamon, she lists “sacredness.” She also includes a recipe headed with the title Perfect Love “Cakes,” with the following explanation:

This Scottish quick bread called a scone very likely takes its name from the Stone of Destiny (or Scone), the place where the Scottish kings were once crowned. The original triangular scone was made with oats and griddle-baked. Since this recipe includes cheese (a love food) make your scones round like the magic circle and serve them as “cakes” after any ritual gathering.

The Love Cakes recipe itself sounds like something I’d like to try, its buttermilk and cheese an enticement. Plus, I once took a feminist thealogy course (no, it’s not a spelling error, “heal” is meant to be in the middle of that word!) called Cakes for the Queen of Heaven. Its name comes from the Book of Jeremiah in the Hebrew Bible, wherein God says to Jeremiah, “Do you not see what they do in the cities of Judah and in the Streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead the dough to make cakes to the Queen of Heaven and to pour out libations to other gods, in order to anger me!” (Jeremiah, 7:17-18)  The Queen of Heaven is the ancient goddess, the Feminine Divine, and the cakes were to honor her. [Come to think of it, I took Cakes twice, the first time in a co-ed class and Bill joined me at those sessions. The curriculum is designed for women but a number of guys at the Schenectady Unitarian Universalist church wanted to learn more about the topic too, so they set up a two-gender rendition. It was wonderful but years later, taking it with all women, an entirely different atmosphere reigned – one which I loved!]

Oh, and this is cool: To the left of the beginning of each set of directions within a recipe in The Kitchen Witch Companion, there’s a black cauldron symbol!

On to my scone recipe. Don’t be put off by what looks like a long process (lots of numbered steps) or lots of ingredients. I prefer, always, to split everything into separate steps, procedure-wise. I think it’s easier to keep track of where you are in the process (no matter how often you read the recipe beforehand!). In fact, the authors of Simply Scones managed to get their version onto one page plus six lines on the facing page – that’s how “simply” it can be presented!

DATE-NUT SCONES
Yield: 8 scones

Ingredients

  • 2 ¼ cups white whole wheat flour
  • 1/3 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • 2 ¼ teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon table salt (unless you have fine-ground sea salt)
  • ½ teaspoon Roasted Saigon Cinnamon (or regular Saigon Cinnamon, or regular Cinnamon)
  • ½ cup unsalted butter (1 stick), chilled
  • ⅓ cup whole milk, or ¼ cup 1% milk with enough Light Cream added to bring measuring up to ⅓ cup total of “milk” (I did the latter, for reasons explained above), PLUS another tablespoon of Light Cream if you intend to use vanilla powder rather than vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla powder (can substitute vanilla extract, but see above re milk ingredient)
  • ¼ teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 cup (4 oz.) chopped pitted dates
  • scant ½ cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 egg yolk mixed with ½ teaspoon water, for glaze

Process

  1. Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Lightly butter a 10-inch diameter circle in the center of a baking sheet (a pizza pan works great).
  3. In a large bowl, sift together flour, brown sugar, baking powder, cinnamon and salt.
  4. Cut butter into ½-inch cubes and distribute them over flour mixture.
  5. With a pastry blender or two knives used scissors-like (actually I use the pastry blender plus a butter knife), cut butter into the mix until the whole flour mixture looks like coarse crumbs.
  6. In a small bowl, stir milk, egg, vanilla and lemon zest, combining well.
  7. Add the milk mix to the flour mixture; stir to combine. Mixture will be a bit sticky so, for next step, you might want to “flour-up” your hands.
  8. Knead the dates and walnuts into the dough until they’re evenly distributed throughout.
  9. With still-floured hands, pat the dough into a 9-inch diameter circle in the center of your buttered baking sheet.
  10. Brush with the egg/water mixture.
  11. Cut into 8 wedges with a serrated knife (if you forget, don’t panic; I forgot to cut the triangles and did so when it first came out of the oven—no problem!).
  12. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes (mine took 25) until lightly browned and a cake tester or toothpick inserted into center comes out clean.
  13. Remove from oven to a wire rack and cool for 5 minutes. Recut into wedges, if necessary. At this point, you can move scones from sheet to a rack to cool completely, or serve.
  14. Serve with butter and preserves/jam/marmalade or however you please.
  15. Can be stored, after completely cooled, in an airtight container.

Incidentally, I was sated with one of these scrumptious “heavenly cakes” – but Bill managed to ingest two of them. The dates and walnuts made for a slight crunchiness, truly fit for a god(dess).

Simple Breakfast, Simply Fun

Since today is a busy day – packing for a short retreat, plus hoping to get to a local Columbus Day festival (Italian food- my favorite!) – I’m posting early, hoping to get another one in later tonight. My goal for this new blog is to provide at least two recipes, or at least two food-related writings, per week. I won’t have wi-fi access for a few days, so this is where the week’s writing promise gets fulfilled. With any luck and a burst of energy, I might even get a bonus post in later tonight.

Breakfast. Love it. When I was a kid, manufacturers of Wheaties called their product “The Breakfast of Champions,” which of course made every google-eyed t.v. freak under 10 years old hound Mom into a trip to the A&P or Grand Union to buy a box. The power of commericials. Obviously the Wheaties folk were profit-oriented, but perhaps they did encourage children to munch on something other than what they might find in the cookie jar while their parents still snoozed in their bed (or beds— also according to television, couples did not share the same sleeping vehicle in those days!). And Wheaties, still around today, beats the bygosh out of those sugar-sopped cereals that line grocery store aisles. Still, when we can come up with a morning food that entices kids to the breakfast table, it’s a plus.

Egg-in-a-Nest might be that “plus.” It’s just plain fun. And easy to prepare. When I made it for Bill and me, he got a kick out of it. We’re big kids ourselves, Inner Child plastered all over Outer Adult.

It’s just possible that lots of readers have made the following recipe for their kids or grandkids, or that they’ve seen it somewhere but never got around to making it. I’d probably heard of it but it got buried beneath other mind-foggers until I came across it in The Amish Cook: Recollections and Recipes from an Old Order Amish Family by Elizabeth Coblentz with Kevin Williams (Ten Speed Press, 2002). I’ve long been intrigued by the Amish and their simple life, having read Sue Bender’s Plain and Simple: A Woman’s Journey to the Amish (HarperSanFrancisco, 1989) years ago, and so I bought Coblentz’s cookbook. Not only does it contain some terrific, down-to-earth recipes, the photographs of Amish country make it a treasure. Years later, there’s now a follow-up volume penned by one of the author’s daughters who took on the mantle of The Amish Cook after her mother passed away. Perhaps I’ll purchase that one someday too, if I can make room for it amongst my 300+ other cookbooks!

I’ve added two related websites about The Amish Cook to my Favorites list on the laptop: http://www.oasisnewsfeatures.com and http://record-eagle.com/amishcook. The latter site is where you might subscribe to the current Cook’s still-popular column.

And now for the recipe. Of course I’ve added my own twist, but it’s so simple there’s not much to twist!

EGG-IN-A-NEST BREAKFAST (Individual Serving)

Ingredients

  • 1 piece rye bread, or another type bread of choice
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 1 egg
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Preparation

 Using the top of a drinking glass, cut a circle in the middle of the bread. Reserve the cut-out circle.

Butter both the top of the bread with the hole in it and the circle cut-out, using one tablespoon of the butter. Melt the other tablespoon of butter in a small, nonstick skillet on medium heat.

Place both the bread-with-hole and the circle cut-out in the pan, UNbuttered side down. Lightly toast both. Remove the bread-with-hole to a plate, and turn over the circle to brown on its buttered side, removing it to the plate when it’s toasted (both sides will now be toasted).

Return the bread-with-hole to the skillet, placing it butterside-down. Let it fry for a few seconds; then break an egg into the hole. Salt and pepper egg to taste.

Fry egg until you are certain you can turn both the bread around (about a minute to minute-and-a-half).

Flip bread and egg over and continue to cook until egg is to desired doneness (I prefer mine over-easy).

Preparation

Using the top of a drinking glass, cut a circle in the middle of the bread. Reserve the cut-out circle.

Butter both the top of the bread with the hole in it and the circle cut-out, using one tablespoon of the butter. Melt the other tablespoon of butter in a small, nonstick skillet on medium heat.

Place both the bread-with-hole and the circle cut-out in the pan, UNbuttered side down. Lightly toast both. Remove the bread-with-hole to a plate, and turn over the circle to brown on its buttered side, removing it to the plate when it’s toasted (both sides will now be toasted).

A favorite pasttime- reading while eating at our Shaker (not Amish!) style table.

Return the bread-with-hole to the skillet, placing it butterside-down. Let it fry for a few seconds; then break an egg into the hole. Salt and pepper egg to taste.

Fry egg until you are certain you can turn both the bread around (about a minute to minute-and-a-half).

Flip bread and egg over and continue to cook until egg is to desired doneness (I prefer mine over-easy).

Remove egg-in-nest to plate, along with previously toasted circle cut-out, and feast! Especially good served along with a fruit side dish or garden-fresh sliced tomatoes with basil. 

 

Obviously, you can increase this recipe for more than one person but, if you find yourself enjoying a quiet morning alone, prop a good book in front of your plate and savor both story and simple deliciousness!