20 December 2010

Carrot Cake for a birthday

carrot cake with cream cheese frosting
I'm a big believer in homemade birthday cakes. Unfortunately that doesn't always translate into the time to make them for my friends. When it does I have my usual concerns about making a cake that isn't pretty enough. Certainly no one is going to pay me for my decorating skills. But if I don't over-extend myself on the decorating I can produce an acceptable cake exterior.

Once you start slicing, the pretty doesn't matter anymore, but the flavor and texture of the cake matter with every forkful. This carrot cake was wonderful, flavorful, tender, and just sweet enough.  Cream cheese frosting is a natural with carrot cake, and this one is just right.  The recipe comes from BakeWise by Shirley O. Corriher, who you might recognize as the cheerful food scientist who makes appearances on Good Eats. Corriher uses the science of food to come up with recipes that work perfectly. It's a big book, and I haven't tried all of her recipes (not even close) but I do recommend the book, if only for this carrot cake and the Golden Cake made with the dissolved sugar method. You may never be willing to eat grocery store bakery cake again.

Corriher recommends pulsing the carrots in a food processor until they are very finely chopped. If I had a food processor I would definitely take that route. Finely grating carrots take a long time.  I had to make a couple of adjustments to the printed recipe mostly to leave out the toasted nuts due to allergies.  Below is the recipe as I made it.  If you love nuts in your carrot cake, check out the book for the real recipe.

photo by vcheeseman

Golden, Moist Carrot Cake
adapted from BakeWise by Shirley O. Corriher

For the Cake:

Non-stick cooking spray

2 ½ cups (291 g) self-rising flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 Tablespoon grated orange zest

3 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
2 cups (437 g) light brown sugar
1 cup canola oil
1 teaspoon vanilla

3 cups (329g) finely grated carrots, about 6 carrots

Arrange a shelf in the lower third of the oven, place a baking stone on it, and preheat the oven to 350 Fahrenheit.

Spray two 8”x2” round cake pans with non-stick spray and line with a parchment circle. Lightly spray the top of the parchment. (I used 9 inch pans because I don't have 8” pans. That made the very thin layers you see above. Next time I'll get 8” pans.)

Combine flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and orange zest in a large bowl and whisk thoroughly to combine.

In another bowl, stir together the whole eggs, egg yolks, and brown sugar. Stir in the oil, and vanilla. Make a hole in the center of the flour mixture and stir in the egg mixture a little at a time by hand. Stir in the carrots.

Pour the batter into the two pans, pouring back and forth as necessary to divide them evenly. Drop the pans, one at a time, onto the counter from a height of about 4 inches to remove any large air bubbles.

Place both pans in the oven on the stone. Bake about 30-35 minutes, until the center springs back when touched lightly (or the internal temperature reaches 209 Fahrenheit.)

Cool layers on a rack for 10 minutes, then invert the layers onto cooling racks sprayed with non-stick cooking spray. When completely cool, divide each layer in half horizontally to create 4 layers.

For the cream cheese frosting:

½ cup (4 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into 2-Tablespoon pieces
2 8-ounce packages cream cheese
4 cups (16 ounces) confectioners sugar (I used slightly less.)
1 Tablespoon pure vanilla extract

In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar until soft. Add the cream cheese and beat until blended and smooth. Blend in the sugar, and vanilla. Refrigerate until ready to use.

To frost a four layer cake, divide the frosting in half, and then divide one half in thirds. Use the thirds between the layers, and then half the frosting for the top and sides.

17 December 2010

Savory Bread Pudding

My kids are unpredictable. Restaurant portion sizes are unpredictable. Put them together and I end up with one whole, huge grilled cheese sandwich in my fridge. I have this aversion to throwing away food, especially if I paid someone to cook it for me, so the grilled cheese sits in my fridge for a few days. Grilled cheese is not a food which ages well. I had to do something.

That something turned out to be a super-simple savory bread pudding which used up the grilled cheese and two sausage links that were hiding out in my freezer, waiting to be forgotten. It's even pretty quick since it bakes a skillet already hot from the stove. It's adaptable to whatever crusty bread you might have lying around, and it will be great with or without those two lonely sausage links in your freezer.

Savory Bread Pudding with Sausage, Cheddar and Apples

1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion
8 ounces italian sausage
2 small tart apples
6 ounces leftover grilled cheese sandwich, or crusty bread
5 eggs
2 cups milk
salt and pepper
3 ounces cheddar cheese

Place ovenproof skillet over medium heat and add oil.

Preheat the oven to 350 Fahrenheit

While pan is heating, chop onion. If your sausage is raw, remove it from the casing, and cook in the hot skillet, using the back of a spoon to crumble it. If the sausage is pre-cooked cut the links lengthwise into quarters, then slice thinly.

Add onions to the skillet. Stir to coat with the oil and allow to cook, stirring occaisionally until the onions become translucent. If sausage is precooked, add it now.

While the onions are cooking core and chop the apples and cube the cheese sandwiches. Add the apples and sandwich cubes to the skillet. Stir and allow to continue cooking.

Beat the eggs and then add milk, salt and pepper. Grate the cheese.

Remove the skillet from the heat. Sprinkle the cheese over the contents of the skillet. Pour the egg mixture over the cheese, making sure to saturate any bits of bread sticking up from the surface.

Place the skillet in the hot oven, and bake about 30 minutes until the center is set.

15 December 2010

Cheater's Polenta

No play-group lunches this week. My boys and I are stuck at home with what I thought was three cases of Coxsackie virus but might be something else. Regardless I've decided to keep us all home until we're not blistered/exhausted/super cranky all the time. (Not everyone has all of the listed symptoms, but we all have at least one of them. Well, not Husband. He's fine. Nothing wrong with him at all. Of course.)

But the show must go on, so here's a meal that's quick to the table if you put a bit of time in the night before. We ate it for breakfast, but it works any time of the day, it's a whole grain and it's versatile. Polenta can be served with any sauce you'd use for pasta, or simply as a side the same way you'd serve rice or potatoes.

If you have an Italian Nonna, she might have stirred her polenta in a special copper pot reserved for the purpose (so says my friend MF.) But I have no Nonna and no patience for things that require constant attention, so I use Madhur Jaffrey's method of baking the polenta instead. If you put it in the oven when your family sits down for dinner you can put it in the fridge by bedtime and then have it ready to go when you need to start dinner the next night.

2 cups stone ground corn meal
1 Tablespoon butter or olive oil, plus more for the dish
1 Tablespoon salt
3 cups cool water (from the tap is fine)
4 ½ cups water in a large pot

Set your 4 ½ cups water to boil.

Preheat oven to 400 Fahrenheit.

Butter or oil an 8”x8”x4” dish. (Note: a standard square pyrex is only 8”x8”x2”, so use something taller, or just a rectangular pyrex and cook for slightly less time. If your dish doesn't have an oven safe cover prepare a piece of aluminum foil.)

Put cornmeal into a medium bowl. Add cool water in ½ cup increments, stirring after each addition.

When water in pot comes to a boil, add salt and stir. Stir cornmeal mixture again, then add slowly to boiling water, stirring throughout. Return to a boil while stirring. As soon as the mixture begins to thicken, add the butter and then pour into the prepared baking dish. Smooth it out with the back of a spoon, cover and bake for 50 minutes.

You can serve it fresh out of the oven with a bit of butter and freshly-grated Parmesan, or allow to cool and then refrigerate overnight.

The next day remove the polenta from the refrigerator and place a large skillet over medium-high heat. Slice the polenta into rectangles. When the skillet is hot, add a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil. Once the oil begins to shimmer, arrange the polenta in a single layer in the pan, leaving a bit of room between slices. You might need to do more than one batch. Cook 1 to 2 minutes, until golden brown, on each side. Serve as you would any starch side, or garnished with your favorite pasta sauce.

13 December 2010

Visions of Gingerbread

I know, I know, it's visions of sugar plums.  In fact, The Night Before Christmas was the first book I ever "read" as a kid.   I had it memorized when I was four.   I might try to make real sugar plums, but these cookies are old-fashioned, too, so in my mind they all get lumped together.  

December is the month of sugar. Cookies and cakes and sweetened hot drinks are offered up everywhere you go. Newspapers and magazines and blogs all publish recipes for sweet things you are expected to bake and share (with your friends and neighbors who are also baking and sharing.) And I start to wonder, when did we start needing quite so many different kinds of cookies? Are they really necessary, all these toffee-coffee-choco-banana-mint thumbprint sandwiches (with lemon glaze!)?

I say NO! No we do not need all those concoctions and I'm going to take a stand, just as soon as I'm done eating this banana-peanut-butter-sandwich cookies. Mmmm...

Where was I? Oh, yes, simplicity! And nothing could be simpler than these gingerbread cookies which snap satisfyingly in the mouth and aren't overly sweet, making them a nice counter-point to hot apple cider or mulled wine. They even store well in a tightly-lidded tin, so you can make a big batch and take them wherever you go for a week or so. And if rolling out dough and using cookie cutters is too complex you can always shaped the dough into logs and slice it into rounds after it has been chilled. Clear off your counters and give them a try.

my cookies, someone else's picture

Gingerbread cookies

10 ounces all-purpose flour (plus more for rolling)
2 teaspoons ground ginger
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt

½ cup packed brown sugar
½ cup butter, softened
3 tablespoons dark molasses
1 large egg
Combine dry ingredients and mix thoroughly. Set aside.

Combine brown sugar, molasses, and butter. Beat at medium speed for two minutes. Add egg and beat on high until mixture lightens.

Add flour to sugar mixture and beat to combine. Dough will be sticky.

Divide dough into two pieces and flatten each piece into a disc about 8” in diameter. Wrap discs in waxed or parchment paper and place in the refrigerator to cool, at least 2 hours or overnight. (You can do this step several days ahead, in case you need more time to clear your counters.)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Remove one disc of dough from the refrigerator and place on a floured counter. The longer your dough has been allowed to rest the less sticky it will be, but it will still be a bit sticky regardless, so flour your countertop and your rolling pin liberally. Roll dough to 1/8” thickness and cut with your favorite cookie cutter. Place cookies on a greased cookie sheet and bake 8 minutes until just beginning to brown.

Cool completely on a wire rack. 

Come to my house and I will make cider and we'll talk while some number of small children and pets run around.  

10 December 2010

Something to try tomorrow morning.

I love maple syrup. Everyone else in my house loves maple syrup. But sometimes it's nice to switch things up. And if switching things up means we eat a little more fruit and a little less sugar? Well, that's nice, too.

This would probably work with any berry you happened to have bouncing around in your freezer. We always have blueberries in my freezer because a certain small person likes frozen blueberries on everything. If berries are in season, you can use fresh, but you'll want to add a bit of water (maybe ¼ cup) at the beginning and mash them a bit with a spoon to encourage them to give up some juice.


Blueberry Sauce for Pancakes (and whatever else you might want to make more blueberry.)

2 cups frozen blueberries
¼ cup maple syrup
1 Tablespoon all-purpose flour
¼ cup water

Put blueberries and maple syrup in a small saucepan over low heat. Cook uncovered until the berries release enough juice to swim freely.

Mix the flour and water together to form a slurry. Add the slurry to the berries and bring to a simmer until mixture thickens. Pour freely over yummy pancakes, or maybe pound cake, or ...

08 December 2010

What's for Lunch Wednesday: Quesadillas

Can someone better at photography than I am please explain why my sour cream is glowing? I promise it wasn't really glowing.

Black bean and cheddar quesadillas on whole wheat tortillas, served with salsa and sour cream. Beans were cooked as described here. Everything else was store-bought. This was more than enough for the four-year-old, the 18-month-old and the spare toddler. The container is Ziploc brand.

I don't pack many lunches these days. Older is only in school half-days and I'm at home during the day. Wednesdays are my only consistent lunch-packing days, as that's the lunchtime playgroup day. The lunches at playgroup vary widely, from nutritionally balanced to "Here, eat some raisins and goldfish." Honestly if I weren't posting lunches here I'd probably serve ravioli every week, and it's possible that the fruit wouldn't always be part of the plan. It's not that I don't serve my kids a variety of foods, it's that I don't always have great planning skills. (And by "great" I mean "baseline adequate.")

Long term, no one meal matters all that much. It's important to get kids in the habit of eating healthful foods every day, and it's important to offer a variety of foods, even if you think the kids won't eat them. The only way "strange" becomes "familiar" is through repetition. But it doesn't matter if any one meal, or even any one day, is balanced and complete. A varied diet over the course of a week will balance itself out. (So long as varied here means a variety of wholesome foods, not a variety of pretzels and oreos.)

The plan was to have quesadillas for dinner last night. But I didn't get the black beans cooking early enough to pull that off. (Yes, I should know this about myself and keep some cooked beans in the freezer for emergencies, but I don't. See above re: "baseline adequate.") So the boys had ravioli and veggies for dinner and I made up quesadillas after bedtime so that I wouldn't have to deal with lunch today. It worked out well since I had a spare toddler at my house today, and trying to sort out lunches on top of sorting out toddlers might have been beyond me.

Don't forget to check out the other lunches this week.
Bento Lunch

06 December 2010

Stew that laughs at Winter's cold


Madhur Jaffery's World Vegetarian is a great resource when you have something vegetarian in your fridge or pantry and don't know what to do with it. I had a bunch of red beans left over from the vegetarian chili that I wanted to use for Sunday dinner. If you google “red beans” you end up with a lot of recipes for Louisiana style red beans and rice, which wasn't what I had in mind. This African stew was just the thing: easy and tasty.

The peanut-butter flavor isn't strong here, the peanut butter adds more creaminess than flavor. My peanut-butter-refusing four-year-old ate his portion without complaint. If you're dealing with allergies I think any mild nut or seed butter would work here.

You can use up beans you've already cooked, a mix of varieties would be fine, especially if you have pinto beans around. The original recipe calls for kidney beans, but I used small red beans. You can cook them just for the occasion, or you can use canned, so long as you rinse them thoroughly. I store my cooked beans without liquid, so, just as if I were using canned beans, I used a low-sodium vegetable broth whenever Jaffrey called for using the cooking liquid.

Leftovers for
Tomorrow's Lunch

Nigerian Red Kidney Bean Stew with a Peanut Sauce
adapted from Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian

1 ½ cups brown rice

4 cups cooked small red beans
(or cook 1 ½ cups dried beans with 2 teaspoons salt)
3 Tablespoons canola oil
1 medium onion
2 cloves garlic
1 small green bell pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 cup canned tomato sauce
¼ teaspoon cayenne
1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice
½ cup water
1 ½ Tablespoons smooth peanut butter
6 Tablespoons low-sodium vegetable broth, plus more for stew.
(if cooking beans from dried, use cooking liquid instead of broth)

If cooking beans from dried, begin about 2 hours before you want to eat.

Cook brown rice according to your preferred method.

In a wide, medium saucepan, heat oil over medium heat.

Finely chop onion. Mince Garlic. Seed and finely chop green pepper. Add vegetables to hot oil and stir, cooking until onions are just translucent.

Add the cumin and stir once. Add tomato sauce, cayenne, lemon juice and water. Stir and bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes.

Put peanut butter in a small bowl and slowly stir in 6 tablespoons of broth. Add this mixture to the beans.

When the tomato sauce has finished cooking add the beans. If you have cooked beans from dried, include the cooking liquid. If not, add enough broth to make stew desired consistency. Stir and bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer on low for 10 minutes.

Serve hot over rice.

04 December 2010

Toasted Oats: Changing my mind

The lovely and talented Justine left a suggestion on my post about cooking steel cut oats, so I had to try it. I always do what Justine tells me, because in addition to being lovely and talented she's very smart.

Toasted oats, people! You must toast your oats! MUST! Why? Because it makes them taste all toasty and nutty and yum and you will love it. Also, because if you follow my instructions you can wake up to a pot of oats which requires only enough heat to warm through and then it's done. No fuss, no muss.

The night before you want oatmeal for breakfast, measure out your water and put it on to boil. I use a ratio of 1 part oats to 3 parts water. I use an electric kettle and I really think everyone with electricity should own one, but a kettle on the stove will do as well.

Put a large pot over low heat. Toss in a pat of butter (or don't if you'd rather not. This will work either way.) to melt. Measure and add your oats. Add a pinch of salt. Stir gently to coat the oats in butter and to prevent burning.

Go ahead, put your face close to the pot and inhale deeply. It's a gorgeous, comforting smell. Just don't burn your nose. When your water is boiling and the oats begin to smell toasty, pour the water over the oats and put the lid on the pot. Turn off the heat.

Go to bed.

When you wake up in the morning, turn the heat on low again, and stir occasionally until the porridge is not too cold, not too hot, but just right. Eat right away so that some little blonde girl doesn't break into your house and eat it all up.



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