Thursday, October 28, 2010

Treats for Tricksters

While I’ll never show disrespect for a fun-size candy bar, I think it’s time to make a homemade treat for all the part-time devils, ghouls, zombies and Snookis roaming around this time of year. I actually love to make candy, so when the cheerfully messy part of my brain said, “Let’s make a batch of Mom’s caramel corn for Halloween,” the less motivated part went along with surprisingly little reluctance. (I guess I’m going as multiple personality disorder for Halloween.)

While I know I was hanging around the kitchen when Mom was making this caramel corn, I don’t think I ever participated in the process. In fact, as good of a cook as my mom is, I learned very little cooking from her. (She said I wasn’t interested. Whatever!) Most of what I remember learning in my parents’ kitchen I learned from Dad, who doesn’t cook. He taught me how to make eggs over easy, a jug of Kool Aid, and popcorn.

There wasn’t a fancy popcorn popper in our house. Dad made popcorn on the stove in a warped and battered kettle that had started its life as the bottom of a double boiler. He would heat the popcorn (just enough to cover the bottom of the kettle) in vegetable oil (just enough to cover the bottom of the kettle), shaking it gently until one or two of the kernels popped. He then put on the copper-colored lid and shook that kettle so vigorously that tiny sparks flickered between its lumpy, blackened bottom and the burner.

Things would get exciting if the popcorn would start to overachieve and he had to hold the lid on to keep the pot from overflowing. The popped corn would then get dumped into a big, white Tupperware bowl. If no one was on a diet (which was rare), a couple tablespoons of margarine would go into the still-hot kettle to melt and then get poured over the popcorn. Dad would apply salt, holding the shaker about two and a half feet above the bowl (so he could see the grains better as they sprinkled down) and stir it all with a butter knife, holding one big hand over the top of the popcorn to keep it from jumping out of the bowl. Our family of four would then gather around the bowl, usually on the living room floor, and watch network television.

Yes, Dad is the stuff when it comes to homemade popcorn. But this isn’t a treatise on popcorn. As important as good, well-popped corn is to this recipe, it’s really all about the sweet, buttery caramel coating. Brown sugar, butter (mom used margarine, but I never buy that anymore), dark corn syrup, and a bit of salt are boiled together, then joined by baking soda and a splash of vanilla. Baking soda is an important addition to hard candies that you want to be able to chew without breaking teeth. I use it to make perfectly crunchy peanut brittle as well.

The hot caramel syrup is poured over popcorn, which is something best done very carefully, since this is very hot stuff. An apron might not be enough protection. You’re best armed with a bit of strength and coordination as well. I wouldn’t even mock you if you wore safety goggles. Anyway, the coated corn is baked in a low oven, and when it cools, which, thankfully, doesn’t take very long, it is a sweet and crunchy treat that you’ll have to break down and share because the batch is so huge.

I don’t know why this stuff is so good… What am I saying? It’s popcorn slathered in butter and sugar. What could not be good about that? It’s buttery and sweet, with a bit of darkness from the molasses in the brown sugar and dark corn syrup. If you use the right amount of popcorn, the coating is light and crispy, just right for fluffy, fresh popcorn.

This caramel corn is good. Really good. Really, really good. I’m thinking there are plenty of ghosts, monsters and aliens, princesses, cartoon characters and “reality” TV stars, and even a naughty nurse or two who would gladly exchange even the nastiest tricks for this delicious treat.

Caramel Corn
Recipe courtesy of my mom.

½ pound (2 sticks) butter
2 cups (about 500 ml) brown sugar
1 (5 ml) teaspoon salt
1 cup (about 250 ml) dark corn syrup (such as Karo brand)
1 teaspoon (5 ml) baking soda
1 teaspoon (5 ml) vanilla extract
6 quarts (about 6 liters) plain popped popcorn

1. Preheat oven to 200 F (about 95 C). Place the popcorn in a very large bowl with enough room to stir the popcorn. If you don’t have a large enough bowl (I don’t) divide the popcorn between two or more bowls. Set aside. Line two large rimmed baking sheets with aluminum foil. Cover the bottom and the rims with the foil. Spay the foil with nonstick cooking spray or brush evenly with vegetable oil. Set aside.

2. Combine the butter, brown sugar, salt and dark corn syrup in a medium size saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally as the butter melts. Bring to a full boil.

3. Boil for 5 minutes (no need to stir). Reduce the heat or remove the pan from the burner if the caramel threatens to boil over.

4. Remove from the heat and stir in the baking soda until completely blended.

Stir in the vanilla. The mixture may bubble vigorously when the vanilla is added, so be careful to avoid being splashed by the hot syrup.

5. Very carefully pour the hot caramel over the popcorn. Working quickly but carefully, stir to coat the popcorn as evenly as possible.

6. Transfer the coated popcorn to the prepared baking sheets. Place the sheets on racks in the upper third and lower third of the oven. Bake at 200 F (95 C) for 30 minutes, stirring and turning the caramel corn occasionally. Switch the positions of the pans, putting the one on the lower rack on the upper rack and vice versa. Continue baking for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

7. Remove from the oven and stir one more time. Cool in the pan on wire racks. Serve or transfer to an airtight container where it will keep for several days (but it will probably be eaten before then.)

Makes a generous 6 quarts (6 liters), or anywhere from 1 to 20 servings.

Another candy treat: Bittersweet Almond Amaretto Truffles

One year ago: Roasted Vegetables

Monday, October 25, 2010

Cranberry Vinaigrette

Around here there is a resurgence of local greens for salad after the hot growing season is over. The lettuces and such that were spring greens months ago get replanted and show up in our CSA box as fall greens. While I still love a nice salad with tomatoes and peppers and red wine vinaigrette or ranch dressing, for a seasonal spin, I like to put some fall ingredients in my side salad, such as apples, dried fruits and nuts.

To go with these fall salads, I recently tried a recipe for cranberry vinaigrette. The ingredients are simply whirled together in a blender until they make a pretty pink emulsion that, because of its resemblance to a lovely, fruity drink, was quickly christened “smoothie dressing” at a dinner I had recently with fun relatives. The vinaigrette is well-sweetened (I used maple syrup and turbinado sugar) and fruity, but has plenty of tart and savory notes from the sour end of the cranberries, cider vinegar, and Dijon mustard. It is thick and sticks well to just about any salad ingredient, and, while I made my batch several days ago, I have yet to see it begin to separate out of its well-emulsified state as dressings without stabilizers often can.

I really like this dressing with tender fall greens, apples, dried cranberries, nuts and milky ricotta salata cheese. Its sweetened cranberry nature compliments these flavors and textures well. I also think it would be a successful contrast for more robust flavors like bitter arugula, oranges, and pecorino or blue cheese. This recipe makes a lot of vinaigrette, so it looks like I’ll be able to try it in various combinations as long as the late-season greens keep coming. (We’re expecting some greenhouse offerings in our upcoming winter CSA share!)

Fresh cranberries are in the stores now, but you can make this with frozen cranberries as well. Frozen cranberries will be available for a long time, or I highly recommend buying double when you shop for fresh and freezing some yourself. (I think this vinaigrette would be especially attractive on the Christmas dinner table.) Because of their unusually high acid content, cranberries can last even a year or so if well-wrapped and frozen.

The greens will eventually run out, however, especially when the temperature plummets and the snows come, but that’s okay. I’ve got ideas for other uses of Cranberry Vinaigrette, such as dressing a grain salad, stirring it into roasted vegetables, marinating warm spaghetti squash….Hmmm, I think I’ll need to make another batch after all.

Cranberry Vinaigrette
Adapted with alterations from Midwest Living magazine

You can use regular fine sugar for the coarse sugar, but use a little less.

½ cup fresh or frozen cranberries (thaw if frozen)
¼ cup cider vinegar
1 small clove garlic
2 tablespoons minced yellow onion
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons maple syrup
3 tablespoons coarse sugar (I used turbinado sugar)
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Pinch black pepper

1. In the jar of a blender or food processor, combine the cranberries, vinegar and garlic. Blend until no longer chunky.

2. Add the remaining ingredients and blend until very smooth. Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator for at least a week (maybe longer.)

Makes about 1 ¾ cups.

Other recipes like this one: Maple Walnut Vinaigrette, Pomegranate Molasses Vinaigrette

One year ago: Pizza

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Taste of Green: Chard Soup

I tried this recipe for chard soup with cilantro some time ago when I was too busy or lazy or tired (or all three) to record the experience or take any photos. I was so pleasantly surprised by its bright and tangy flavor, however, that I was immediately impatient for another bunch of chard from the CSA so I could try it again. Not only was my impatience eventually rewarded with a small bunch of chard in our final summer/fall share box (don’t worry, there’s a winter share, too) but also with a lovely bunch of cilantro and several sturdy leeks. There were even a few red potatoes left over from a previous week’s box.

This soup is adapted from a recipe in Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. I basically combined some of the suggested variations and added some lime juice to compliment the cilantro. The original calls for more chard than I had, but my results were still very good. In the recipe below, I offer a range for the amounts of chard (by volume) that I think would probably work. If you have a bumper crop of chard, you might be able to hide even more in this soup.

While I usually like to use an immersion blender for pureed soups like this one, the fibrous nature of the greens makes it a more suitable candidate for the counter-top blender. The immersion blender leaves some leafy pieces behind, which is okay since they are very tender after cooking, but the big blender results in a more silky-smooth soup. Stir some sour cream (mixed with some of the soup to temper it a little) into that puree and you have a creamy, tangy spoonful that will also coat a dunked chunk of rustic bread quite nicely.

I’m finding it difficult to describe the flavor of this soup without using silly foody words like “ethereal,” or “haunting,” or “yummy.” All of the zest and tang from the sour cream, cilantro and lime juice changes the dark, earthy grassiness of the chard into a rounded and creamy flavor. The cilantro contributes a lot in some way, but I can’t say the soup really tastes like cilantro. Perhaps you cilantro loathers might give this a try(?) Then again, I love cilantro, so might not be the best person to suggest such a thing.

It may not be easy to describe the flavor of this soup in meaningful terms, but I will say that if I could choose the taste of the color green, it would be the flavor of Chard Soup with Cilantro and Lime.

Chard Soup with Cilantro and Lime
Adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison

You could use a medium-size chopped yellow onion in place of the leeks.

2 tablespoons butter
2 medium leeks, white part only, sliced and well-washed
3 medium red potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
1 ½ teaspoons coarse (kosher) salt, plus more to taste
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
7 cups water, divided
8-10 cups chard, stems removed, chopped
1 cup cilantro leaves and tender stems, chopped
juice of 1 lime
1/3 cup sour cream

1. Melt the butter over medium heat in a Dutch oven or other large pot. Add the leeks, potatoes and salt and cook, stirring occasionally, 8 minutes or until just beginning to brown.

2. Stir in pepper and paprika. Add ½ cup water. Cook about 1 minute, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan.

3. Add the chard and cilantro. Cook a few minutes or until the greens have wilted down, stirring occasionally.

4. Add remaining 6 ½ cups water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, partially cover and gently boil 20-30 minutes or until potatoes are very soft.

5. Remove the soup from the heat and allow to cool slightly. Puree in batches in a blender until all of the soup is smooth. Return to a pot on the burner and stir in the lime juice.

6. In a measuring cup or small bowl, mix together the sour cream and about ½ cup of the pureed soup until smooth. Stir the sour cream mixture into the soup until well blended. Re-warm the soup over low heat if necessary. Taste for salt and add more if desired.

Makes about 6 servings. Leftovers will keep for a few days in the refrigerator. The color may become dull.

Another Swiss chard recipe: Chard Tart with Feta Cheese and Olives

Monday, October 18, 2010

Put it in a Pie

Lately, I’ve found myself attracted particularly to a certain arch-genre of recipes, no matter what kind of cookbook I’m browsing. Whatever ethnicity, lifestyle or philosophy lent its recipes to the pages, I’m always stopping to savor recipes for pies, tarts, turnovers, dumplings and the like. Whatever way you’ve come up with to wrap ingredients, sweet or savory, in pastry or bread and bake it until golden brown, I’m interested.

A few years ago, I tried a recipe published in the newsletter of our CSA for a winter squash empanada with leeks and sage. It was another, creative use of the mounds of lovely squash we get this time of year, and the fall leeks and sage fit in quite well. This year, I changed a few things and actually managed to write down the details to create an updated recipe.

You might be used to a different treatment of the dough and cooking procedure for a more authentic empanada, but I grew up in America’s pasty heartland, and the pastry in this recipe, which was more like a pie crust, put it into familiar territory for me. You can call this a pasty or a hand pie or a pocket full of pie, or whatever you like, but since the flavors are at least a little Southwestern USA, I’ll still call it an empanada as the original authors did. I also added a bit of seasoning to the crust, along with some cider vinegar, which takes it further out of the Cornish (or U.P. of Michigan) pasty category. I suppose the added Parmesan cheese (I prefer freshly-grated Parmiggiano-Reggiano), takes it out of all firmly-defined categories entirely.

The filling for these empanadas is partially cooked before being wrapped in crust, ensuring that you’ll have tender squash before charred crust. Partially cooking the squash also makes it easier to peel and chop. All the steps in the recipe definitely take at least their fair share time from your schedule, but they can be done in stages, some of them ahead of time, and the baked empanadas can be frozen to be reheated on another day when you don’t have as much time to cook.

I really like the sweet squash (I used a carnival squash, but you could use any sweet winter squash) with the aromatic, slightly garlicky leeks, and the sage adds a pleasant, earthy background. I suppose one could insert a treatise on umami as provided by the Parmesan cheese, but I won’t go there. It tastes really good in the pie, and that’s enough. You could use a different cheese if you want, such as an aged Gouda, Manchego, or even cheddar or Monterey Jack. I really don’t feel that there is any authenticity that needs to be obeyed in this recipe. You could use it as a model for any good ingredients that go well enough together to mix them up and put them in a pie.

Winter Squash and Leek Empanadas with Sage
Adapted from Featherstone Farm Newsletter

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
5 tablespoons (plus more as needed) ice water

1 medium winter squash (about 1 ½ - 2 pounds untrimmed)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large leek, thinly sliced
½ teaspoon coarse salt
3 garlic cloves, minced
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon chopped sage leaves
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

1. To make the pastry, combine the flours, cumin, chili powder and ½ teaspoon salt in a medium-size bowl. Stir or whisk to combine well. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender or knives or with your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

2. Add the cider vinegar and ice water and mix with a fork to moisten the flour mixture. Add more water as needed to gather the mixture into a ball that just holds together. Form the dough into a disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill for at least 30 minutes. (You can do this ahead or prepare the filling while the pastry is chilling.)

3. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Cut the squash in half and scoop out the seeds. Place the squash cut side down on a baking sheet. Bake at 350 F until the squash is soft, but not completely cooked, about 30-40 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool until easy to handle.

4. Peel the squash and cut into 1-1 ½-inch cubes. Set aside in a large bowl.

5. Place the sliced leeks in a bowl or sink full of cold water. Swish the slices around to remove all traces of dirt. Place in a colander and rinse well. Drain and set aside.

6. Preheat oven to 400 F. Heat the oil in a medium-size skillet over medium heat. Add the leeks and ½ teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring frequently until soft, but not yet browning, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute more. Stir in the black pepper, red pepper flakes and sage leaves. Remove from heat.

7. Add the leek mixture and Parmesan cheese to the squash and stir to combine. Set aside. (The filling can be made ahead to this point, covered and refrigerated for a day or so.)

8. Unwrap the pastry dough and cut into 4 equal pieces. On a well-floured surface, roll the dough into an oval about 1/8-inch thick.

9. Divide the filling into 4 portions. Place one portion onto one half of the dough oval, leaving at least ½ inch border. Fold the other half of the oval over the filling. Seal the halves together by folding and pinching together, being careful not to stretch the dough.

10. Transfer to a lined baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough sections and filling.

11. Bake at 400 F for about 25 minutes or until the crust is browned and crispy. Cool slightly and serve or cool completely, wrap well and freeze in a freezer safe container or freezer bag.

Makes 4 large servings.

Other recipes like this one: Winter Vegetable Galettes withCheddar, Mustard and Caramelized Onions, Quinoa Stuffed Squash

One year ago: Apple and Cranberry Crisp

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fall Colors

Although the weather got downright hot recently, initiating a revival of the herbs, flowers and cherry tomatoes in the container garden on our patio, autumn has settled into southeastern Minnesota. Harry and I went back to nearby Great River Bluffs State Park, where we went camping this summer, to view its scenes in the full color of this season. I’ve been fortunate enough to live most of my life in places that look like this in October, and I try to celebrate it and not take it for granted.

And what better way to celebrate something than to create a meal, or at least a dish, in its honor. Since the abundance of late-season harvest is also in full force and full color, I used those vegetables (most of them from our CSA) to make a salad reminiscent of that autumn afternoon spent hiking in that bright and sunny (and unseasonably warm) grandeur. There was a clipped recipe for a shaved vegetable salad with apple vinaigrette around here somewhere and that provided additional inspiration for this dish.

I used a combination of sweet and zingy vegetables and an apple to make this salad. I had red daikon and black (they’re creamy white on the inside) radishes to fill in the stronger end of the spectrum. Purple, orange and white carrots as well as part of a carnival squash balanced the zesty radishes with their sweetness. The vinaigrette, which contained a little fresh-pressed apple cider along with cider vinegar, helped bridge the gap between the contrasting vegetable flavors and bring them together. The sage with which I infused olive oil for the dressing lent and earthy background flavor that complimented the fall vegetables and apples so well.

It is important to either shave the vegetables thinly with a vegetable peeler or with a mandolin or similar tool. (You can cut them with a sharp knife if you’re more skilled than I am.) The strips need to be delicate and easily chewable, and I found that the squash, while quite tasty raw, is especially crunchy, and is best cut or shaved very, very thinly. I shaved the carrots with a peeler and used the thinnest setting on a V-Slicer for the other vegetables, and then cut the round pieces into strips.

If one takes a bit of time to prepare the vegetables for this salad so that the strips are elegant and uniform, the result is not only delicious, but also very pretty. I suppose it is also possible that if one used only the simplest of tools to slowly and mindfully shave the bitter and sweet vegetables into long, delicate strips symbolic of summer’s long, bittersweet descent into winter, one might achieve enlightenment. With views like this, however, one may have all the enlightenment one can handle.

Note: Harry took most of the photos of the fall colors in Great River Bluffs State Park

Shaved Vegetable Salad with Cider-Sage Vinaigrette
Based on a recipe in Cooking Light magazine.

Use a good blend of sweet and bitter or spicy vegetables for best results. I used apple, winter squash (be sure to shave very thinly), carrots, and radishes (red daikon and black). Other good additions might include rutabaga, turnip, and kohlrabi.

3 tablespoons (45 ml) extra virgin olive oil
about 10 large fresh sage leaves
about 4 cups (1 liter) shaved (with a vegetable peeler) or thinly sliced (with a mandolin) apples, root vegetables and winter squash (Peel the vegetables first. It is not necessary to peel the apple, but do remove the core.)
¼ cup (about 60 ml) thinly sliced red onion
2 tablespoons (30 ml) cider vinegar
1 tablespoon (15 ml) apple cider
½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) coarse salt, divided

1. In a small saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the sage leaves and let them sizzle for 1-2 minutes, or until they appear very slightly shriveled and crispy. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool. (You can prepare the vegetables while the oil cools.)

2. When the oil has cooled, remove the sage leaves. Chop or crumble them and set aside. Place the infused oil in a small bowl. Add the cider vinegar, cider and ¼ teaspoon (a little more than 1 ml) salt. Whisk vigorously until well combined.

3. Place the shaved vegetables and apple and the sliced red onion in a large bowl. Pour the vinaigrette over the vegetables. Sprinkle on the remaining salt as well. Toss well to coat the vegetables with the dressing. Sprinkle the crumbled sage leaves over the salad.

Makes 4-6 servings. Leftovers can be kept chilled for a few days.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Personal Pumpkin Pies

I am in no way advocating a dismissal of Grandmama’s Pumpkin Pie, or any other favorite family recipe for that classic fall dessert. But there may be a day when you need pumpkin pie, either to fulfill an obligation, help out a friend in need on short notice, or quench an incurable craving, and there just won’t be time for the real, homemade thing. That’s when these little treats will make your day.

I’m talking about a recipe I tried recently from the blog Baking Bites. It’s for cupcakes that are made basically of pumpkin pie filling with just enough flour and leavening to make a bit of a crust on their outer edges. They are so easy, you have almost no excuses not to make them. Never baked anything before in your life? Try these. Had bad experiences baking in the past and are afraid to even approach your oven? Brave the kitchen again with these. Bored enough to be just loafing around on the Internet and lingering on this page? Make these now.

When these first cooled down to room temperature (or just above. I was impatient.), they were okay, as in just okay. I chilled them as suggested in the original recipe and everything changed. The cupcakes sink in the middle as they cool (which makes a nice little well for whipped cream) and when they’re chilled, they firm up into a sort of dumpling consistency that might even be considered on its way to cheesecake. They can easily be eaten out of hand, although a fork will help keep the whipped cream in check a bit if you decide to go that route.

Really, there’s nothing more to these little, baby, personal pumpkin pies than whisking together the wet ingredients, whisking together the dry ingredients (or sifting them if you want), whisking the wet and dry together, scooping them into papered muffin tins and baking. It takes much longer to cool and chill them than to mix and bake them. And if you’re not inclined to self-control, it will take even less time to eat them all. If you’re particularly inclined to self-control, or want to make these more than a day or two before you need them, they also freeze well.

Pumpkin Pie Cupcakes
Adapted from Baking Bites

2/3 cup all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon fine salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 large eggs
3/4 cup half and half
1 (15 ounce) can pumpkin, or 15 ounces homemade pumpkin puree
½ cup sugar
¼ cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Whisk together to mix well and ensure there are no lumps. Set aside.

2. In another medium bowl, beat the eggs with a whisk. Add the half and half and beat well. Add the pumpkin, sugar, brown sugar and vanilla extract. Whisk together until well-combined and very smooth.

3. Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture and whisk together until smooth.

4. Line a 12-cup muffin/cupcake pan with paper liners. Spoon about 1/3 cup batter into each lined cup. Bake at 350 F 20-25 minutes or until the top and edges appear well set. Remove from the oven and cool in the pan. They will sink in the middle as they cool. When the cupcakes are cool, cover and chill. Serve cold with sweetened whipped cream.

Makes 12 servings. Can be frozen by wrapping and sealing in a freezer bag or freezer-safe container.

Another recipe like this one: Grandmama’s Pumpkin Pie

One year ago: Chorizo and Chipotle Chili

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Time Management

It was a dark and foggy Wednesday morning, and I was up, really up and out of bed and in the kitchen, making breakfast. Actually, I should take you back to the beginning.

It all started with this post in a blog I just began reading. It featured a recipe entitled Spanakopita Scones. I had spinach that was threatening to give me a bad day, so I knew that if I was going to try this recipe, it would have to be soon. I thought the scones would be really great for breakfast. The problem, however, was simple: I’m not a morning person. The spinach was poised to give up its ghost before the weekend, and if I wanted these scones fresh and hot for breakfast, it would have to be on a weekday morning.

It wouldn’t take a master of deduction to figure out that there was no way I was going to make it out of bed at 5:30 am, not even for the cause of that pink and green lady known as The Messy Apron. But then it began to dawn on me that I could make up the various stages of the recipe the night before, chill them, and then put them together and bake the scones the next morning. As long as the liquid ingredients didn’t mingle with the baking powder too long before going into the oven, it should be okay. (The liquids would cause the leavening reaction to begin and the power of the baking powder would be spent before the scones could get into the oven.)

Since, as they always say, scones are best the day they’re made, I cut down the original recipe by half. We weren’t going to be able to eat a huge batch before they became mere shadows of their former selves. It also occurred to me that I could save even more time in the morning by using the food processor to do the hard labor (and the smaller batch would fit in the processor bowl.) I pulsed the mixture of dry ingredients with cold butter, then covered the processor bowl and refrigerated it. The early morning work would be a breeze.

And that’s how I found myself on a weekday morning, making savory scones lickety-split before the fog lifted. All I had to do was add the wet ingredients (half and half and eggs) and the spinach-dill-feta cheese mixture, which I had also prepared the night before and chilled. I pulsed it all together, patted it out on the counter (gently, gently…I didn’t want to overwork the dough), and cut it into pretty fluted circles. I baked the scones, and then whipped up a batch scrambled eggs and a pan of fried kielbasa for the rest of a hearty breakfast.

I was guardedly optimistic about my time management skills, but the true test was in the taste. These scones were delicious: tender and moist with lots of dill on the forward edge, an earthy background of spinach, and plenty of soft pockets of feta cheese. All was right with the Wednesday morning.* The sun would come up and the fog would lift. The pink and green lady would get her due. And I had messed up the kitchen more before 9:00 am than most people do all day.

*Actually, in all the excitement, I forgot to make Harry’s lunch and had to throw something together as he was heading out the door.

Spinach and Feta Scones with Dill
Adapted from this recipe from Simmer Till Done

1 tablespoon olive oil
¼ cup finely-chopped onion
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon finely-minced garlic
2 ounces chopped spinach (about 1 ½ cups loosely packed)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
3 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
¼ teaspoon pepper
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg, preferably freshly-grated

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
3 ounces (6 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes

2 large eggs
½ cup half and half
egg wash (1 beaten egg mixed with 1 tablespoon water, milk, or cream), optional

1. Heat the olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and ¼ teaspoon salt. Saute 2-3 minutes or until the onions begin to brown, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and cook 30 seconds more. Add the spinach and cook, stirring frequently, 1-2 minutes or until the spinach is wilted and tender.

2. Place the spinach mixture in a sieve over the sink or a bowl and allow to drain and cool.

3. Combine the cooled spinach mixture, dill, feta cheese, pepper and nutmeg in a small bowl. Mix well. Set aside. (Or this can be made ahead. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.)

4. Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, sugar and Parmesan cheese in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse once or twice to mix together. Add the butter. Pulse until the butter is well-distributed in small, irregular pieces. (This can be made ahead. Cover the processor bowl and refrigerate until ready to use.)

5. (You can begin here on a second day, if desired.) Preheat oven to 400 F. Beat the eggs and half and half together in a bowl. Add to the processor bowl with the flour mixture. Pulse until only a few dry spots remain. Add the spinach mixture. Pulse just until evenly distributed. If the dough is bunching up too much to distribute evenly, distribute with your hands in the next step.

6. Turn out the wet dough onto a well-floured surface. Gently mix further if the spinach mixture needs to be distributed more evenly. Pat out to a 1-inch thickness. Cut with biscuit cutters or a knife into desired shapes (I used a 3-inch round biscuit cutter). Place the cut out dough on a lined or greased baking sheet. Brush the tops of each scone with egg wash if desired. (It will help make them golden brown.)

7. Bake at 400 F for 15 minutes or until the outsides of the scones are set into a delicate crust and they are golden brown on top. Cool on the pan about 2 minutes. Remove to a wire rack to continue cooling. Serve completely cooled or slightly warm.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Sunday Dessert: Apple Turnovers

As I was preparing the link at the right for Apple Recipes, I was horrified to find that I had only posted one recipe for an apple dessert last fall. I know I consumed roughly seven thousand pounds of unbelievably delicious, fresh, local apples in the months following the harvest. Where did all those fruits go?

It was time to remedy the lack in The Messy Apron archives and make an apple dessert. I wanted something relatively quick for a relatively lazy Sunday. I also wanted to try using the Easy Cream Cheese Pastry I had made in the spring for a morel mushroom tart as the pastry for a dessert. I figured apple turnovers might bake up quicker than a whole big pie, or, if I just made a few of them, I at least wouldn’t have to peel and chop so many apples.

For the apples, I wanted to try something like a sautéed apple recipe from Deborah Madison’s Seasonal Fruit Desserts. I thought that if I cooked the apples before tucking them into the pastry, they could give off their liquid, and then absorb other flavors, such as apple brandy, brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. I hoped they would then not make the crust soggy while baking.

I added raisins and dried cranberries to the apple mixture, allowing them to plump up in the apple brandy while the apples were cooking. They added a little more flavor, and some extra sweetness without using a lot of extra sugar. I used McIntosh apples that were fairly tart, so my little pies weren’t very sweet. (The thin glaze I put on them didn’t take them into the toothache range.) Macs also cook into a pretty soft filling.

I think you can use almost any variety of apple for baking. It all depends on how you like your finished apples: still firm, soft but holding their shape, just short of applesauce. I think you could customize this filling to highlight the way you like apples best. You could also add other dried fruits, such as apricots or cherries.

The pastry turned out to be a good match for this filling. The little pies were crisp and sturdy without any cardboard quality whatsoever, and could be picked up and eaten without a fork. It isn’t the absolute flakiest pie crust I’ve ever made, but it’s so quick and easy to put together with a heavy-duty mixer that I don’t mind the slight compromise. The crust did get soft on the turnovers I put aside for Monday’s dessert, but they were still tasty, especially warmed a bit and served with some Ginger Spice Ice Cream.

Well, that’s got the number of apple desserts in the Apple Recipes file up to two. And I’ve got a lot more apples waiting in the wings, ready to star in a few more.

Easy Cream Cheese Pastry
Adapted from a recipe in Midwest Living Magazine

4 ounces cream cheese (I used the 1/3-less fat variety), at room temperature
4 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
¼ cup whole wheat pastry flour
½ cup all-purpose flour

1. Combine the cream cheese and butter in the bowl of a heavy duty mixer. Beat at medium speed until smooth and fluffy. (You may also be able to mix this crust together by hand. I haven’t tried it.)

2. Add the whole wheat pastry flour and all-purpose flour. Beat on low speed until all the flour is incorporated and the mixture comes together into a moist ball.

3. Form the dough into a disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 1 hour or freeze 15-20 minutes before using.

Makes enough dough for 4 turnovers

Apple Turnovers with Dried Fruit
Inspired by a recipe for sautéed apples in Seasonal Fruit Desserts by Deborah Madison.

Have the pastry chilling before beginning the filling. You can probably use apple cider in place of the brandy.

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 cups chopped apple (about 1-1 ½ inch cubes)
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg
¼ cup raisins
¼ cup sweetened dried cranberries (such as Craisins)
¼ cup apple brandy (such as Apple Jack or Calvados)
1 recipe Easy Cream Cheese Pastry, chilled (or other pastry of your choice)
1/3 cup powdered (confectioner’s) sugar
1 tablespoon apple juice or cider
egg wash (1 beaten egg mixed with 1 tablespoon water, milk or cream)

1. Melt the butter in a skillet (one that has a lid) over medium heat. Add the apples, and brown sugar. Shake the pan or stir gently to distribute the sugar and butter evenly and coat the apples. Cook just until the sugar is melted and dissolved into the butter and emerging apple juices, just a few minutes.

2. Add the cinnamon, nutmeg, raisins, dried cranberries, and apple brandy. Stir together.

3. Cover, reduce heat to low and cook 10 minutes or until the apples are very tender and the liquid is syrupy.

4. Uncover and cook a minute or so more, or until the liquid has reduced to nearly nothing. Remove from the heat.

5. Preheat oven to 400 F. Roll the pastry on a well-floured surface into an approximately 12-inch rectangle. Take some time to make straight edges. Cut the rectangle into 4 equal squares. Place the squares on a lined baking sheet.

6. Divide the apple mixture into 4 equal portions. Spoon one portion onto one diagonal half of each pastry square. Brush the edges of the squares with egg wash. Fold the unfilled side of each square over the filling to form a triangle and press to seal the edges. Crimp the edges together with a fork to seal well. Cut 2-3 small slits in the top of the dough (I used a kitchen shears to snip the holes). Brush the top of each turnover with egg wash.

7. Bake the turnovers at 400 F for 25 minutes or until golden brown. Place the pan on a wire rack to cool.

8. When the pastry has cooled (the inside can still be a little warm), combine the powdered sugar and apple juice in a small bowl. Whisk until very smooth. Drizzle some of the glaze over each turnover. Allow the glaze to dry before serving.

Makes 4 servings.

Other recipes like this one: Apple and Cranberry Crisp, Apple Cinnamon Pancakes

One year ago: Toasting and Skinning Hazelnuts and Guinness Hazelnut Quick Bread