Archive for October, 2008

Pumpkin Bread

[Also published on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.]

October is the official start of pumpkin bread season in our house. While other families wait for the December holidays to kick into gear before making this quick bread, our patience is limited. As soon as the pumpkins start appearing on porches for Halloween, everyone in my house knows pumpkin bread isn’t far behind. The smell of baking bread with a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg wafting through the house is our clarion call for Fall.

Pumpkin bread is one of those recipes that is distinctly American (as is the pumpkin itself). I recently came upon a recipe that was originally published in 1846 and then reprinted in The New York Times in 1914. The recipe, and the article itself, were fascinating. I was surprised that the ingredients list was far different than what is traditionally used today. Instead of making a batter with eggs, sugar and flour, the recipe produces a risen bread and uses corn meal — or Indian meal — along with yeast, salt and, of course, pumpkin.

When I found the recipe online, I couldn’t stop looking at the little slip of scanned in paper. I was captivated by the idea of women making this bread in their kitchens (and I’m sure they were mostly women) and started pondering how the concept of pumpkin bread could have changed so drastically in the last hundred years.

Recipes are like little time capsules. The ingredients say so much about the era and place in which they were used and published. We use white flour and refined sugar today simply because our current economy makes these “staples” cheap and accessible. But when Alice B. Tregaskis — the author of the recipe in the Times — made her pumpkin bread, her staples were different. There was no driving to a local mega mart or Whole Foods to purchase processed white flour and canned pumpkin, even in New York City. Home cooks would create their own pumpkin purees and use corn meal ground locally or at home. These were items that were available on a seasonal and local level only.

I couldn’t help but wonder who Alice B. Tregaskis was and what cookbook she was using for the recipe. The one thing that seemed clear was that if she was writing in recipes to the NY Times in 1914, she was sort of a food blogger in her own time.

So in honor of Alice B. Tragaskis, here’s my own pumpkin bread recipe.

Pumpkin Bread

Makes one loaf or 12 muffins

Ingredients

2 cups of flour

1/2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1/4 tsp nutmeg

1/4 tsp ground ginger

1/2 cup softened butter

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla

1 cup pureed pumpkin

2 Tbsp milk

1/2 cup walnuts or pecans

Preparation

  1. Mix all dry ingredients in a large bowl.
  2. Beat butter and sugar until creamy.
  3. Add in eggs and vanilla and cream thoroughly.
  4. Add pumpkin to egg and butter mixture.
  5. Incorporate dry ingredients into wet mixture, but don’t overmix.
  6. Gently add in nuts.
  7. Pour batter into a 9 by 5 by 3-inch loaf pan or a muffin pan that have been buttered or oiled.
  8. Bake for 40 minutes if making one loaf, or 20 minutes if making muffins.

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Caramel Apples

[Also published on KQED’s Bay Area Bites]

When I mentioned to a few friends that I was making caramel apples, I got the same response every time. “Yum! Can I have some?” Caramel apples are one of those treats both kids and adults love. There’s something about sweet and sticky caramel coated over a crisp and slightly tart apple that is truly a match made in heaven. These treats are great all year long, but fall seems an especially perfect time for to indulge. Maybe it’s because apples are in season, or perhaps it’s the promise of more sticky sweets on Halloween, but October has always seemed like the ideal time to make candy apples.

I hadn’t made caramel apples in years, but when I saw one apple priced at $22.50 in the Williams Sonoma catalog (yes… $22.50 for one apple!), I knew I had to make a batch. From what I could remember, making caramel apples was easy and fun. And, in these times of failing 401Ks and plunging stock markets, it’s nice to also pay less than $1 for each one.

After conducting a little Internet research, I learned that many people prefer using melted caramel candy instead of homemade caramel. According to Sara Moulton, of the Food Network’s “Sara’s Secrets” and also of Gourmet Magazine, melted store-bought caramel stays firm and also creates a consistency that is tender to bite into, while homemade caramel has a tendency to become hard. It also turns out that using pre-made caramel makes the entire process ridiculously easy.

With this in mind, I bought a couple of packs of caramels, apples, and skewers (to hold the apples, although you could just as easily use popsicle sticks). I chose small granny smith apples as I wanted each treat to be firm and slightly tart, while also being a manageable size (i.e., not enormous, which would lead to half of it getting thrown out or a major child sugar rush). Along with these items I also picked up some nuts because I love nuts on my candied apples.

Some recipes called for using milk or cream, but I stuck with the Brach’s package recipe, which included only the caramels and some water. Although I was tempted to cook the caramels on the stove, I ended up melting them in the microwave because I was concerned a hot pot could potentially burn one of the kids while they were coating the apples. The result was melted caramel that had a nice creamy consistency in a bowl that was easy to tilt and handle.

My daughters and their friend were only too happy to help out — or rather take over — the task and they did a great job with very little adult assistance or supervision. It turned into a great craft/cooking session with lots of laughing and finger licking. The project was also much more cost effective than the Williams Sonoma apples. All the ingredients cost about $15 and we ended up with 16 caramel apples — some plain and others decorated with nuts and chocolate. For full disclosure, I must mention that the Williams Sonoma apple is two pounds and looks perfect, but that still seemed like a lot of money for one apple, especially as I could care less how it looks. But high cost or not, making homemade caramel apples is just way more fun than ordering them and waiting for the mail to arrive. I definitely need to turn this into a yearly event.

Homemade Caramel Apples

(Makes 4 – 8 candy apples)

Ingredients

4 large or 8 small Granny Smith Apples

1 14 oz package of caramels

2 Tbsp water

4 – 8 thick wood skewers or popsicle sticks

Nuts (optional)

Melted chocolate (optional)

Preparation

  1. Wash and dry apples and remove the stems.
  2. Set a skewer or popsicle stick into each one, through the stem hole, being sure to poke them down at least halfway through the fruit.
  3. Set nuts in a bowl and place in your work area, if using.
  4. Line a 9 x 13 baking sheet with waxed paper that has been sprayed with oil (oil side up) and place in your work area.
  5. Remove the wrappers from the caramels and then place in a microwave-safe bowl with the water.
  6. Note: You can also heat the caramels and water on the stove. Just place them in a pot and slowly heat on low.
  7. Heat caramels and water for two to three minutes, stirring every minute to help incorporate the candy with the water and to check for readiness.
  8. Once the caramel’s consistency is like chocolate syrup, you’re ready to stop heating it and dip your apples.
  9. Place the bowl of caramel on your work station and start dipping in your apples, holding the sticks and tilting the bowl. Use a spoon to help cover the apple with caramel if needed. If the caramel starts to clump or become too thick, just microwave for another 20 seconds and stir.
  10. Dip the caramel-coated apple in your nuts (if using). Be sure to do this directly after dipping the apples in the caramel and before they begin to set.
  11. Drizzle on melted chocolate if desired.
  12. Place apples on the oiled wax paper when finished.
  13. Set apples in the refrigerator for at least 15 minutes and serve.

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Apple Cake

I am lucky enough to have an apple tree in my backyard. Unfortunately, it has been diagnosed with fire blight, so I think this may be its last year. The aborist says it can’t be saved, which makes me want to weep. Our beloved apple tree was already misshapen from years of neglect before we bought our house, but it now additionally has broken branches and peeling park. Overall, it looks pretty shabby. But I don’t care how it looks. I adore the fruit it bears.

The apples from my tree aren’t anything like what you get at a store.  They are unique and part of an age when heirloom varieties grew in abundance.  I never have it sprayed, so the cores may sometimes house a happy little worm, but the meat is beautiful, organic and tastes fantastic. Our apples are crisp and delicious right off the tree while also holding up well when cooked or baked. The thought of going to buy a replacement tree makes me depressed. I like the old scruffy tree we have.


One of the best things about having an apple tree is being able to go in my own backyard to pick apples to make a cake. I have quite a weakness for apple cake, especially when the apples are crisp and sweet. So, in honor of my tree and the many apples it has bestowed upon us for apple slices, apple tarts, apple butter, and, yes, apple cakes, I’d like to share my recipe.  As you’ll see, the cake is full of apples, but don’t be alarmed that it looks like there are more apple pieces than batter. The abundance of apples makes the cake wonderfully moist. The apples also bake nicely into the batter so they don’t detract from the cakiness of the texture. With a hint of cinnamon and some toasted walnuts, it’s perfect for dessert, brunch, tea, or an afternoon snack. It’s also easy and quick to make.


I am still hoping for a botanical miracle that will save our tree. Maybe I’m feeling sentimental because it’s dying, but I’ve always seen it as a sentry of sorts in our backyard, marking the passing of time: blooming in the spring, bulging with fruit in the summer, dropping golden leaves in autumn, and standing bare and empty in winter. And then it does it all over again, or at least it did.

So in honor of my apple tree, here’s the recipe. I hope you like it as much as we have over the years.


Apple Cake

Makes 10 – 12 Servings

Ingredients
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
4 heaping cups peeled and chopped apples (about ¼ inch thick cubes)
½ cups toasted walnuts (optional)
¼ cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon


Preparation

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Butter or oil a bundt pan or a 9×13 baking dish.

3. Combine oil, eggs, vanilla and sugar in a large bowl.

4. In a separate bowl, mix together flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon

5. Add flour mixture to egg and sugar mixture, being careful not to overstir.

6. Add apples and nuts (if using) to the batter.

7. If using a bundt pan, sprinkle the final ¼ cup of brown sugar and ½ tsp cinnamon on the bottom of the greased bundt pan.

8. Pour batter into your pan, spreading evenly.

9. If using a 9×13 baking dish, sprinkle the ¼ cup of brown sugar and ½ tsp cinnamon evenly on top of the batter.

10. Bake for 35 – 40 minutes, or until you can pull a toothpick out clean.

11. Sprinkle with powdered sugar when cool.

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Nut and Fruit Steel-Cut Oatcakes and Strawberry Oat Squares

[Also published on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.]

Sunday mornings are special at my house. Instead of rushing around and trying to make breakfast for my daughters while finding homework or soccer shoes, I get to lounge around, reading the paper while my husband cooks up a pot of steel-cut oats. I live for Sunday mornings, with my hot cup of coffee and steaming bowl of oatmeal.

Because one batch of oats was never enough to feed the four of us, my husband started making two batches each Sunday. But two batches was just a bit too much for our crowd and I often ended up with about a cup of cooked oats leftover. With this little container of oaty goodness each weekend, I set out on a quest to find the perfect oat cake recipe. Remembering some lovely oatcakes I used to order at a little café when we lived on Nob Hill, I started experimenting.

After a few tries, I came up with a recipe that created great breakfast cakes: supple, yet still firm, with a hint of nuttiness, and just the right amount of fruit to add bits of sweetness to each bite. They are the perfect quick breakfast for a hungry child before school, and an antidote to a crazy Monday morning.

I’ve also added jam, instead of fruit and nuts, to create a Sunday dessert. The outcome is a pan of delicious oat squares filled with gooey strawberries. It’s a crowd pleaser for both kids and adults.

With either recipe, these oatcakes take only about five minutes to throw together. So now, in addition to benefiting from the treat of a lovingly cooked oatmeal breakfast on Sundays, I get the added perk of a nut and fruit oat cake on Monday mornings, or strawberry oat squares Sunday night. It’s a win/win/win situation.

Note: For a great recipe detailing how to make steel-cut oats, see Kim Laidlaw’s Steel-Cut My Oats. Trader Joe’s also sells cooked steel-cut oats in their freezer department. I tried them in my recipe and it turned out great. So, if you’re not interested in making your own pot of porridge, this is a great alternative.

Nut and Fruit Oat Cakes

Makes 9 servings

1 cup cooked steel-cut oats

3/4 stick of softened butter

1 egg

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup flour

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/4 tsp salt

1/4 cup cut up currants, prunes, raisins or dried apricots

1/4 cup chopped pecans, walnuts or almonds

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degree.
  2. Combine butter, sugar and egg and mix until combined. I use an electric mixer, but you can do this by hand.
  3. Add in the cooked oats, being sure to fully incorporate it into the mix.
  4. Mix the flour, baking soda and salt in a separate bowl and then add to the oat and butter mixture.
  5. Add in fruit and nuts and mix until just incorporated (but not too much or the batter will become rubbery).
  6. Spread the batter into a greased 8 x 8 pan.
  7. Bake for 20 minutes or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.
  8. Cool and serve.

Strawberry Oat Squares

Makes 9 servings

1 cup cooked steel-cut oats

3/4 stick of softened butter

1 egg

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup flour

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/4 tsp salt

1/2 cup strawberry or other fruit jam

2 Tbsp brown sugar

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degree.
  2. Combine butter, sugar and egg and mix until combined. I use an electric mixer, but you can do this by hand.
  3. Add in the cooked oats, being sure to fully incorporate it into the mix.
  4. Mix the flour, baking soda and salt in a separate bowl and then add to the oat and butter mixture.
  5. Spread half the batter into a greased 8 x 8 pan.
  6. Top with the jam, spreading it evenly over the batter.
  7. Spread the remaining batter over the jam.
  8. Sprinkle brown sugar on top.
  9. Bake for 20 minutes or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.
  10. Cool and serve.

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