Saturday, January 29, 2011

Winter Soup Makeover

When I first made this soup back in the fall, it was to combine the compatible flavors of vegetables in our CSA box in a dish that was hearty, warming and delicious. I probably added the bacon because I was on a squash-and-bacon kick after eating this dish. It was quite successful and I was going to post it, but there were a few minor issues, one of which was that I realized the soup could really be seen as a winter makeover of White Bean Soup with Fresh Herbs.

It has become my habit to start seeing and writing recipes as variations on basic themes. (If you read enough food and cooking literature, you might start to see things this way, too.) I don’t suppose I’ll ever reach a Grand Unified Theory of recipes, but there was no point in writing up a completely independent white bean soup recipe just because I had added some seasonal ingredients. I looked at the soup again, compared the recipes, re-wrote it, and finally tested it recently with a butternut squash from our winter CSA share and a giant bunch of kale that I found at a local store. I think this time it was even better because I was thinking about it in a more streamlined fashion. The way was clearer to me.

Okay, so there was another reason the soup was better this time around. When I made it before, I stirred all the bacon into the pot of soup at the end. The result was flabby, water-logged bacon that contributed so poorly to the texture of the soup that I considered not making it again. It was even worse in the portion of the soup that I froze to eat later. Sometime between then and now, it occurred to me to just sprinkle crisp bacon on top of each serving of soup (not particularly enlightened, but I’m a bit slow sometimes), and the result was much, much more pleasant.

Since there’s usually just two of us eating, we never eat an entire pot of soup in one meal, so I reserved some of the bacon in the refrigerator and heated it up to serve on top of leftover soup. I only cooked 3 strips of bacon, though the soup serves 4 to 6, because I knew I would be freezing about half the soup. When I thaw out the soup and serve it again, I’ll just cook up some more bacon to garnish each serving. Sure, it’s a little more work than just heating up frozen soup, but the porky rubber that was floating in that frozen soup was something I’d gladly make a little effort to avoid.

Of course the soup could also be served without the bacon garnish. In fact, you could skip the bacon altogether, and use your favorite cooking oil in place of the rendered bacon fat to sauté your vegetables. The bacon really just plays back-up to the mild white beans, sweet squash, earthy kale and herbs. I used what herbs I could get in fresh form, that is, those that are still surviving the season by gleaning as much light as they can from the gloomy winter windowsill. I ended up with sprigs of sage and rosemary (the thyme was a casualty), but use what you can easily get, even dried herbs if that’s what’s available. Just use a small amount of the dried herbs and taste the soup as you go to see what more it may need.

And while you’re varying the soup, you could add some cooked grains to make a complete protein with the beans, use either vegetable or chicken stock, add some canned tomatoes to approach something like minestrone, use sweet potatoes in place of the squash, or put in whatever vegetables or meats you like. Need I go on? It’s likely that I will, but the next makeover of this soup will probably be looking forward to spring.

White Bean Soup with Bacon, Squash and Kale
I usually use lightly salted homemade broths, and add more salt to taste when making soup. Adjust the salt and other seasonings to your own taste. If you do not have fresh herbs, you can use dried, but consider using them sparingly.

You could use another kind of winter squash. I find butternut squash to be easiest to peel and chop.

6 strips thick-cut bacon
½ cup finely chopped onion
½ cup finely chopped carrot
½ cup finely chopped celery
1 teaspoons coarse salt, divided, or to taste
2 cups peeled and chopped (1-inch cubes) butternut squash
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
a few sprigs fresh herbs such as rosemary, sage, thyme, or whatever is available
1 dried bay leaf
4 cups vegetable broth (or chicken broth)
4 cups cooked or canned white beans, such as navy or Great Northern (drained and rinsed if canned)
4 cups chopped kale

1. Decide the number of servings you will need on the first day the soup is served. Select 1 to 1 ½ slices of bacon for each serving. Refrigerate the rest to cook and serve with leftovers. Place the bacon strips in a large pot over medium-low heat. Cook, turning often, until crisp. Remove the bacon from the pan. Set aside to drain and cool. Remove all but 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat from the pot.

2. Raise the heat to medium. Add onion, carrot, celery and ½ teaspoon salt. Saute about 5 minutes or until the onion is translucent and the carrot and celery are beginning to become tender. Add the squash and sauté another 5 minutes, or until the squash begins to soften and the vegetables begin to brown, stirring occasionally. Stir in the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook 1 minute more.

3. Tie the herb sprigs and bay leaf together with kitchen twine. Add this bundle and the chicken broth to the pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and boil gently for about 30-40 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.

4. Stir in the beans and kale, and cook, stirring occasionally 10 minutes more. Remove the herb bundle. Taste for salt and add more if desired. Crumble the reserved bacon and sprinkle some on each serving.

Makes 4-6 servings.

Other recipes like this one: White Bean Soup with Fresh herbs, Sausage and Spinach Soup

One year ago: Roasted Red Pepper, Garlic and Onion Dip

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Pears and Cardamom

I’ve had a mini-obsession with the combination of pears and cardamom since trying a cardamom-pear scone at a local coffee shop something like a year ago. That generous dose of cardamom was fresher and spicier than any taste of the stuff I’d had before, and I knew I had to have more. Earlier this month, I made a sweet bread laced with cardamom, and I decided that would be a great foundation for a dish featuring the ubiquitous winter pear.

French toast was going to be the way to go and I wanted to add sautéed pears to it. I didn’t just want a sauce and I certainly didn’t want to perform the delicate operation of cutting into a thick slice of bread in order to stuff it with something gooey, especially first thing in the morning. Instead, I made a sort of French toast casserole, which, to the discerning eye, will look suspiciously like bread pudding. I assembled the whole thing the night before I wanted to bake it, then could just bake it in the morning, which is hardly a delicate operation at all, even for a non-morning person like me.

I sautéed the pears in brown sugar, cinnamon, cardamom and a little lemon juice, then layered them between thick slices of my cardamom bread. You certainly use other breads to make this, but I think a soft, rich bread, such as Challah or Brioche, would be nice. For the custard, I consulted several recipes and even Ratio by Michael Ruhlman, and think I came up with a decent proportion of eggs to milk. The resulting dish is quite moist and not too eggy, a little sweet, but not cloying. And the cardamom-pear combo? Still a dynamic duo if you ask me. And this milieu is another good place for them to shine together. If I make this again, I might try adding even more pears.

I made a small-ish batch of this dish, since I wasn’t going to be feeding a crowd, but I think it could be doubled and baked in a larger baking dish (say 13” x 9”). It’s a great way to make a weekend brunch ahead of time, and the leftovers are pretty good reheated in the microwave a day or two later. If you don’t want to do pears, apples would probably work as well, but would probably need to be sautéed longer to make them tender. Other fruits might also be good when they are in season. If you hate cardamom, leave it out and double the cinnamon, or try a little nutmeg. If you hate bread, you’re going to have to eat something else for breakfast.

French Toast Casserole with Cardamom and Pears
This dish is not overly-sweet, so you can serve it with maple syrup if desired (I did).

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
3 medium-sized pears, peeled and sliced about ¼ -inch thick
4 tablespoons brown sugar, divided
½ teaspoon cinnamon, divided
½ teaspoon cardamom, preferably freshly ground, divided
1 tablespoon lemon juice

10-12 ounces rich, slightly sweet, day-old (or slightly older) bread, such as Finnish Cardamom Bread, challah or brioche, thickly sliced (or enough for two layers of your baking dish)

3 large eggs
1 ½ cups milk (I used low-fat. Full-fat is probably even better.)
1 teaspoon vanilla

1. Melt the 1 tablespoon butter in a medium-size skillet over medium heat. Add the pears and two tablespoons brown sugar. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the pears are tender and the liquid around them is thickened. Add ¼ teaspoon cinnamon, ¼ teaspoon cardamom, and lemon juice. Cook and gently stir until the liquid is thick. Remove from the heat and cool.

2. Butter an 8-inch square baking dish (or coat it with cooking spray). Place half of the bread on the bottom of the baking dish, overlapping slightly if necessary. Arrange half of the pear mixture on top of the bread. Layer the remaining bread on top of the pears.

3. In a medium-size bowl, beat together the eggs and milk with a whisk. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons brown sugar, remaining ¼ teaspoon cinnamon, remaining ¼ teaspoon cardamom and vanilla and beat until combined.

4. Pour the egg mixture over the mixture in the pan. Press down slightly on the top layer of bread. Arrange the remaining pear mixture on top of the bread. Cover the dish with aluminum foil and refrigerate overnight (or at least 4 hours).

5. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 F. Bake, covered, at 350 F for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake, uncovered, for 20-30 minutes more, or until the custard is set. It should be moist but no longer runny. Cool on a wire rack for at least 10 minutes.

Makes 4-6 servings. Refrigerate leftovers for a day or two and reheat in the microwave.

Other recipes like this one: Apple Cinnamon Pancakes, Triple Ginger Peach Shortcakes, Apple Turnovers with Dried Fruit

One year ago: Slow Cooker Pulled Pork

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sausage and Vegetables

I love the whole process of roasting vegetables.  It cleans out the refrigerator or other vegetable storage container. It warms the kitchen on these numbingly cold days.  It results in a nutritious side dish with lots of vitamins and fiber.  It’s incredibly easy.  Oh yeah, don’t let me forget the most important part: it makes delicious, delicious food.

Lately, instead of trying to come up with an appropriate protein to serve alongside my vegetables, I’ve upgraded the roasted vegetable side dish to a one-pan main dish by adding sausage.  Just put some sausage in the pan with the vegetables and roast them all together.  Everyone gets along just fine.  It’s just that easy.

I prefer spicy, uncooked and uncured sausage links, such as the spicy chicken Italian sausage from Trader Joe’s that I used most recently.  I like the way a bit of the spicy flavor of the sausage mingles with the vegetables, but this is much more subtle when a lean sausage is used rather than one that can render plenty of flavorful fat to contribute to the vegetables during the roasting process.  Either way, the sausage gets browned and a little crusty, just how I like it.  And if it overcooks? Well, I tend to enjoy a well-browned and gnarly hunk of sausage just fine, thank you.  What you’re really concerned about is undercooking, anyway.  Just make sure that your sausage is appropriately cooked through before serving it. If you use a fully-cooked sausage, just add it later in the roasting process to prevent overcooking.

Since I’ve been eating this stuff on weekend afternoons while watching the end of the football season, I have also found it necessary to serve this with a dipping sauce.  Football and dip just go too well together to pass up this garnishing opportunity.  Lots of dips will work, but I’ve been making an aioli (garlic mayonnaise) with parsley that almost upstages the beautiful vegetables and sausage.  It’s quite simple to make (you need something to do while waiting for the oven’s work to be done anyway), involving just mayonnaise, garlic-salt paste, and a bit of parsley.  I use homemade whole egg mayonnaise, using this recipe from Delicious Days, but if you don’t care to make your own, you could use a good store-bought mayonnaise.  If the taste isn’t where you want it, try adding some lemon juice.

Pretty much all of the winter storage vegetables will work to make this dish.  Most recently, I made it with butternut squash, turnips, parsnips, carrots and potatoes.  If you, or someone you love, doesn’t “do” these sweet, bitter and hardy vegetables, the dish is great with just potatoes and sausage.  And you can use whatever dip you like, too.  Heck, try it with ketchup for all I care.  Just don’t miss out on this easy, warming and flavorful one-pan meal.

Roasted Winter Vegetables and Sausage

If you use a fully-cooked sausage, add it later in the cooking process, say after the first 20 minutes, to keep it from becoming hopelessly overcooked.

6 cups fall/winter storage vegetables (such as potatoes, carrots, rutabaga, parsnips, winter squash), peeled if appropriate, and cut into 1-2 inch cubes

¼ cup olive oil
1 ½ teaspoons coarse (kosher) salt, or to taste
a few grinds of freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
3 links (10-12 ounces) sausage (I prefer spicy sausage) with casing

1. Preheat oven to 400 F. In a large bowl, combine the vegetables with the olive oil, salt and pepper. Stir together to coat the vegetables well with the oil.

2. Place the vegetables in a large roasting pan or a sheet pan. Cut the sausage into about 2-inch pieces. Add the sausage to the vegetables in the pan.

3. Bake at 400 F for 45 minutes to 1 hour, stirring occasionally with a spatula to prevent sticking. Check to make sure the vegetables and sausage (especially the sausage) are cooked completely. Serve plain or with dipping sauce, such as Garlic Parsley Aioli (recipe follows).

Makes 4 servings

Garlic-Parsley Aioli

1 garlic clove
¼ teaspoon (or more) coarse salt plus more to taste
1 cup mayonnaise
pepper to taste
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
lemon juice to taste (optional)

1. Make a smooth paste with the garlic and salt. Stir the garlic-salt paste into the mayonnaise. Stir in the parsley. Add lemon juice to taste if desired and adjust seasonings. Chill until ready to serve.

Makes 1 cup

Other recipes like these: Roasted Vegetables; Roasted Cauliflower, Chickpeas and Olives; Cilantro Cream Dipping Sauce; Lime Herb Dipping Sauce

One year ago: Pumpkin Oatmeal Quick Bread with Dates and Pecans

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Garlic-Salt Paste

There are several techniques and recipes that I go to again and again.  Some of them, such as pie crusts, broths and an indispensable garlic-salt paste, are buried in posts as part of recipes for dishes that are the real stars.  If I link to these posts to refer you to a technique, you may have to sift through the rest of the post to find what you are looking for.  In order to alleviate some of that annoyance, as well as save myself the trouble of re-posting a set of directions or ingredients over and over again, I think I’ll start making a few posts that feature those techniques or recipes directly so I can link to them when I need to.  I think I’ll start right now.  I think I’ll start with garlic-salt paste.

This is a recipe and technique that I learned watching various Food Network hosts prepare such things as sauces and dressings. It’s a great way to use garlic to flavor something like an aioli or vinaigrette without having chunks of garlic marring its delicacy. I like to whisk it into a salad dressing or stir it into a sour cream or mayonnaise-based dipping sauce.

To make this paste, garlic is finely chopped, then mixed with coarse salt (I use kosher salt) and pressed and crushed with the flat of a chef’s knife. The salt draws out the liquid in the garlic while its abrasive qualities crush up the pulp. You work it and work it until a paste is formed that is smooth enough to mix well into liquid or creamy ingredients. The garlic is tamed a bit by the process, but only, I believe, in that it can be distributed better in your dish. You’ll still be eating raw garlic, and garlic-breath protocols will still be standard procedure.

This technique may take a little practice if you’re not already best friends with a chef’s knife, or some other knife with a wide blade. You will need a wide, flat implement to crush the garlic. A cutting board with a surface that is not completely smooth will also be helpful as it gives the garlic paste some traction and helps the salt abrade the pulp into a paste. (Just be sure to clean the board very well after using it this way.) You might also be able to make this in a mortar and pestle, but I haven’t had much success, or perhaps much patience with getting that to work.

This is something relatively simple that’s worth learning especially if you’re ready to wow your friends and family with a homemade salad dressing or dipping sauce with a little extra flair. It can be made in any amount you need, but I wouldn’t recommend storing the completed paste for more than a day or two. I typically throw together a garlic paste just as I need it, since it only takes a minute or two to make once you get the hang of it.

Garlic-Salt Paste

Fresh, juicy garlic cloves and coarse salt work best for this technique.
garlic clove(s)
coarse (such as kosher) salt (about ¼- ½ teaspoon per clove garlic)

1. Mince the garlic.

2. Add the salt to the minced garlic and chop the mixture to incorporate the salt

3.  Press the garlic-salt mixture into the cutting board with the flat of a knife with a wide blade.  Press and crush the garlic and salt together, extracting the garlic juice and abrading the pulp.  Use the edge of the knife to scrape up the pulp and juice and push it all together again. Continue to press, crush and scrape until a paste is formed.  The paste should be relatively smooth with no immediately visible chunks of garlic.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Breakfast in the Tropics

Here in Minnesota, we are firmly entrenched in that bleak time between celebrating the birth of a new year and anticipating spring. The landscape looks like a black and white photo. Not like an Ansel Adams, but with too much white. Way too much white. White up to here. One needs a hardy constitution and a good attitude to get through the winter. Or a vacation somewhere warm.

You may be like me, however, waiting out the season with no room on your to-do list (not to mention means in the bank account) for a tropical excursion. In that case, a rejuvenating boost from some tropical flavors might just have to do. That’s why I made these Coconut Pineapple Pancakes. That, and because I had half a cup of coconut milk left from the can I opened to make this soup, and Harry was out of town, so I could put as much coconut in my breakfast as I wanted without him having to find something else to eat. (For those of you playing along at home, he still hates coconut.)

It was when trying to decide what other liquid to use to make a full batch of pancakes that it occurred to me to use the can of crushed pineapple I had sitting in the back of the cupboard. (It came to me as if in a sweet and balmy tropical dream.) I used an egg as well, but didn’t add any other fat, since the coconut milk has some of its own, and the pineapple was going to make things pretty moist already. I also didn’t add any sugar, allowing the crushed pineapple, which was packed in syrup, to bring its own sweetness. I also stirred in some sweetened shredded coconut, one of my favorite foods in the universe, tropical or otherwise.

This dish was one of those lucky occasions when I actually guessed right on the liquid and dry ingredient proportions and came up with something quite good. This made me really happy, since the measurements were very convenient (1 can crushed pineapple, the remnant of a can of coconut milk when 1 cup was already used). They are more dense and moist than well-made, fluffy buttermilk pancakes, but not heavy, leaden or soggy. I cooked them slightly slower than I usually cook pancakes, sensing that the fruit was making them pretty dense, so they could have time to cook on the inside before getting too dark on the outside.

And the flavor? Well, I wish I could say they were a tropical island on a plate, but I’ve never been to a tropical island, so I can’t be sure. They do taste wonderful, however, especially to a coconut-lover like me. The pineapple and coconut go as well together as I’ve come to expect, and their flavors are prominent in every bite, especially, somehow, if there is plenty of butter accompanying that bite. Did this breakfast whisk me off to an exotic tropical paradise? I’ll have to assume so. It made me almost as happy, anyway.

Coconut Pineapple Pancakes
If the pancakes do not seem to be cooking thoroughly, reduce the heat and cook them more slowly, or place them in a warm oven to cook through completely.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 egg
½ cup light coconut milk
1 (8.5 ounce) can crushed pineapple
½ cup shredded coconut (I used sweetened)

1. Preheat an electric griddle or frying pan to 325 F, or preheat a frying pan or griddle on the stove on a little below medium heat. Preheat the oven to about 200 F to keep the pancakes warm before serving.

2. In a medium-size bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Whisk together to combine.

3. In another medium-size bowl, combine the egg and coconut milk. Whisk to beat the egg and combine the ingredients well. Stir in the crushed pineapple.

4. Pour the egg mixture into the flour mixture and stir until just combined. Stir in the shredded coconut.

5. Scoop ¼ to 1/3 cup batter for each pancake and drop onto the preheated pan. Cook until the bottom is browned and bubbles begin to surface on the top of the pancake. Flip the pancakes with a spatula and cook until the second side is brown and the edges appear dry. Hold finished pancakes in the oven until ready to serve. Serve with butter and maple syrup

Makes about 8 3”-4” pancakes. Leftovers can be refrigerated and rewarmed, but they will not have quite as nice a texture.

Other recipes like this one: Double Banana Walnut Pancakes, Apple Cinnamon Pancakes, Coconut Cranberry Quick Bread

One year ago: Spaghetti Squash Salad with Greek Flavors

Friday, January 14, 2011

Sweet and Spicy Soup

The winter shares of our CSA have been loaded with lovely, sweet carrots.  It’s great not having to think of buying carrots when I go out shopping, since they keep so well in the refrigerator and they’re such a useful ingredient.  My supply was getting out of hand, however, and the bottom shelf of the refrigerator was beginning to look like Bugs Bunny’s stockpile for the Apocalypse.  I needed to use up some of those carrots.

Soup sounded like a great solution on these frigid January days.  There must be ten million carrot soup recipes out there in all kinds and varieties, and I was thinking of making this one, but I came across another interesting offering in the current issue of Vegetarian Times magazine.  This soup was loaded with curry powder and fresh ginger, enriched with coconut milk, and sweetened with, of all things, a banana.

Well, I didn’t happen to have a banana on hand, but I did have some other sweet fruits that also needed to be used up, so I opted for an apple.  I also had neglected to replenish my supply of fresh ginger, so I thought I’d try dried ground ginger, instead. (You may also have some left over after all that holiday baking.)  I had the coconut milk, since I had just stocked up on some, knowing Harry would be out of town and I could eat as many coconut flavored dishes as I wanted to.  Great. I could make this soup.  Sort of.

Good enough, as it turns out.  Although I’m somewhat curious about how the banana would have contributed, and I’m sure fresh ginger would be even better than ground dried ginger, I really like my version of this soup.  The kitchen smelled amazing as it was simmering away, with the scent of curry, ginger and spicy cayenne. The taste is very spicy (you could tone down or leave out the cayenne if you prefer), but under the fire is the unmistakable flavor of sweet carrots, and just a hint of coconut.  The apple seemed to have disappeared amidst the other flavors, but I’m sure its ability to keep the doctor away was more or less intact.

I’m definitely happy to have this sweet and spicy number to add to my collection of pureed vegetable soups that help keep me warm all winter.  A glance at the ingredients in all their vegan glory might just suggest that it will help keep me healthy all winter, too.  The coconut might even qualify as “safe” by Harry’s standards (he hates coconut, except moderate amounts of coconut milk in curries, etc.), but it’s definitely the carrots that make the best entrance into mealtime…and exit out of my refrigerator.

Spicy Carrot and Apple Soup with Coconut Milk
Modified from a recipe in Vegetarian Times January/February 2011

1 tablespoon canola oil (or other neutral tasting oil)
1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
1 teaspoon coarse salt, divided, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon curry powder
¼ teaspoon (or to taste) cayenne pepper
4 cups peeled and chopped or sliced carrots
1 medium to large apple, peeled and chopped (about 1 cup)
4 cups vegetable broth
1 cup coconut milk
1 tablespoon lemon juice

1.  Heat the oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat.  Add the onion and ½ teaspoon salt.  Cook about 5 minutes, stirring frequently.  Stir in the ginger, curry powder and cayenne pepper and cook about 1 minute more, stirring constantly.

2.  Add the carrots, apple and vegetable broth, and remaining ½ teaspoon salt.  Bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat, partially cover (leave a space where the lid is not covering the pot) and boil gently for 30-40 minutes or until the carrot is very tender.

3.  Remove the soup from the heat.  Puree completely with an immersion blender or in batches in a regular blender.  Stir in the coconut milk and lemon juice.  Rewarm if necessary.  Taste the soup and add more salt (or other seasonings) as desired.

Makes about 5-6 servings. Leftovers are good refrigerated for at least a few days.

Other recipes like this one: Cream of Carrot and Parsnip Soup, Winter Squash and Onion Curry with Yogurt Sauce

One year ago: Spaetzle with Cabbage, Bacon and Onions

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Finnish Biscuit

I’ve recently become a raging fan of cardamom.  I loved it in my iced chai lattes (from Panera) where it lent an exotic floral aura to the other sweet and spicy flavors, and so I put it in things like curry spice mixes, spiced ice cream, and Mulled Apple Cider. It wasn’t until I had the absolutely fabulous cardamom-pear scone at Blue Heron (a local coffee house, and so much more) that I began to appreciate its peppery nature in addition to its floral qualities (and its affinity for pears.)

Not only is cardamom a staple spice in eastern cuisines, but it also seems to be quite popular in Scandinavian and Finnish baking.  While the whole cardamom pods are fine for steeping, and I’ve even been known to grind up whole pods as part of a spice mix, it’s the dark little jewels inside the pods that are prized for baked goods.  Recently, I cracked open all of my remaining cardamom pods, a bit of a labor of love, and ground the seeds into a coarse powder for use in baking.  This is approximately what you get if you purchase a jar or box of ground cardamom, but it is oh so much better - spicier, more aromatic, more peppery, fresher - if you can grind whole seeds.

And so I set out to use my freshly ground cardamom before it lost its flavor, and I decided to finally try to make a rich, slightly sweet, Finnish-style cardamom bread.  My mom grew up in a tiny town in northern Michigan that was largely populated by Finnish and Finnish-American folks (although her family is not Finnish).  There, and in other places in the northern U.S. with significant Finnish populations, this bread is known as “biscuit.”  I’ve also heard it referred to as “coffee bread.” Purists will call it pulla, its Finnish name, and, according to Beatrice Ojakangas in her Great Holiday Baking Book (this book appears to be out of print), it might be called nisu, which comes from the Finnish word for wheat. Pulla differs from “everyday” bread by being made with wheat flour, which was traditionally harder to come by and therefore worthy of celebration foods.

This bread definitely qualifies as celebration food, but, after making it once, I’d like it to become more “everyday” around here.  On its own, the dough is rich, sort of like challah, and a little sweet, but the cardamom makes it truly special.  There’s plenty of it in the mix and its flavor is not the least bit elusive.  It’s there, bold and unashamed, but working well with the sweetened richness of the bread, which is soft and fluffy in texture.  If you’re accustomed to lean or whole grain breads, this bread might just seem like a decadent dessert.  It’s just fabulous on its own alongside a cup of coffee or espresso or tea, lasts well when wrapped or covered, toasts nicely while still staying quite soft, and is not too darn shabby spread with a bit of jam or jelly.  I’m sure it would make a luxurious French toast.  I’ll have to try that next.

I made a big, fat, fluffy braided loaf (a little over 2 pounds or about 1 kilogram) with this recipe, which is lovely, but a bit difficult to store. I ended up wrapping it in plastic wrap and sealing it in my cake carrier.  You could probably make it into two smaller braided loaves with skinnier dough ropes, which is what I may do next time, or whatever shape suits your fancy.  Until then, I’m taking down this giant loaf by myself, proving that you don’t have to be the least bit Finnish, or even care whether it’s called biscuit, coffee bread, or pulla, to really enjoy a slice or two (or ten) of Finnish-style cardamom bread.

Finnish Cardamom Bread

Based on various recipes, including those from The Minnesota Ethnic Food Book by Anne R. Kaplan, Marjorie A. Hoover, and Willard B. Moore, and Beatrice Ojakangas’ Great Holiday Baking Book

2 ¼ teaspoons active dry yeast (1 envelope-style package)
¼ cup warm water (about 100-110 F)
½ cup sugar, divided
1 cup milk
¼ cup (½ stick) butter
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4 cups bread flour, divided
1 teaspoon ground cardamom seed (preferably freshly ground)
1 teaspoon fine salt
egg wash (egg beaten with a little milk or water), optional

1. In a large bowl, combine the yeast, water and 1 tablespoon of the sugar. Let stand 5 minutes or until foamy.

2. Meanwhile, add the butter and milk to a small saucepan. Warm over medium-low heat until the butter has almost completely melted, stirring occasionally to keep the milk from scorching on the bottom of the pan. Remove from the heat and aside.

3. Add the eggs, 2 cups flour, remaining sugar and the milk mixture to the yeast mixture in the bowl. Stir to combine well. Cover with a towel and let stand about 15 minutes. This will make a mini-starter that I find improves the flavor and yeast performance in most breads.

4. Stir in 1 cup flour, cardamom and salt. Flour a kneading surface with some of the remaining flour. Turn the dough out onto the floured surface and knead, adding as much of the remaining flour as needed to make a smooth, elastic dough that does not stick to your hands or the surface. (You may not need all of the flour.) This will take about 10 minutes. (Alternatively, you could knead the dough with the dough hook on a heavy-duty mixer at low to medium-low speed, for about 10 minutes).

5. Form the dough into a smooth ball.  Grease a clean, large bowl or spray it with cooking spray.  Place the dough ball in the bowl and grease or spray its top.  Place a piece of plastic wrap directly on the dough and cover the bowl with a towel.  Let stand about 1 hour. It should roughly double in size.

6. Gently punch down the dough and form it into a new ball.  Cover with the towel and let it stand 5 minutes.  Cut the dough into 3 equal portions (I used a scale to measure them).  Roll each portion into a ball.  Roll each ball into a rope about 12 inches long.  Braid the ropes together, pinching the ends together to seal them. (Alternatively, you could cut the dough into 6 portions, create skinnier ropes and braid three together to make smaller loaves, or form the dough into whatever shape you like.)

7. Transfer the shaped dough to a greased or lined baking sheet. Cover with the towel and let stand about 1 hour, or until roughly double in size.

8. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Brush the risen loaf with egg wash if desired. Bake at 375 F 30-35 minutes or until the crust is dark brown and the bread passes your favorite test for doneness (such as an interior of 200 F). Cool completely on a wire rack.

Makes one large (2 ¼ pounds or 1 kilogram) loaf (or two smaller loaves if desired.)

Other recipes like this one: Baguette, Chocolate Orange Bread, Walnut Buttermilk Bread

One year ago: Potato and Celeriac Casserole with Baked Eggs

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Comfort Me with Cocoa

 Goodness knows there’s plenty to be anxious about at the beginning of a new year. An entire 12 months of who-knows-what can be quite intimidating in this crazy global village of ours, and there may even be a lot to be downright afraid of if we’re not careful. For instance, I don’t mind admitting that I’m a little terrified of House Speaker John Boehner’s gigantic new gavel, but that’s beyond the scope of this blog.

What’s making me particularly nervous these days, however, is that I’ve been traveling, visiting, eating in restaurants (too much fast food as well as some really good meals in great casual restaurants) and being fed by generous and talented hosts and hostesses. In short, in dealing with the enforced schedule changes of the holiday season, I haven’t been able to try new recipes or put together old favorites to share or to really even do much cooking at all. This really puts me off my game, makes me feel uneasy, and, worst of all, leaves me with nothing to post on The Messy Apron.

I know I’ll get back into the swing and will soon have something delicious and seasonal to post, such as an appropriately light and high-WFQ* dish to combat the effects of what I’m beginning to think of as C4 (Community Calories Consumed in the name of Christmas). Until then, however, I’ve got to get a grip and get organized, preferably with a soothing cup of steamy cocoa by my side. Everything seems to calm down a bit when warm milk is involved, and I probably don’t have to tell you about the mood magic that lightly sweetened chocolate can perform.

There are many ways to produce a cup of hot cocoa, even excluding the instant packets. I prefer a super-simple formula of one cup of milk, one tablespoon of sugar and one heaping tablespoon of cocoa powder. I typically use skim or 2% low fat milk, because those are what I usually have on hand, and I find that the rich flavor of whole milk can cancel out some of the chocolate flavor. I’ve been using an organic, fair-trade cocoa powder from Equal Exchange, but have also used other brands with good results. It stands to reason that the better the quality of the cocoa, the better the hot cocoa.

Usually, I use a contraption called a Cocoa-Latte, marketed by Back to Basics brand. It’s basically a heated blender that makes frothy cocoa and other hot drinks. This thing takes absolutely all of what little work there ever was out of making a cup of hot cocoa from scratch, but you can quite easily make cocoa on the stove, too. If you have an immersion blender, you can even make a frothier drink, whose tiny network of bubbles makes a nice little raft for floating a layer of whipped cream or marshmallows. You know you want whipped cream or marshmallows.

So here’s to a calm and lucky new year to you all.  Just make yourself a warming cup of cocoa on these cold nights to get you started, and perhaps drink it in your winter-celebrating (or eschewing) mug if you have one.  It may be past the season to toast you with champagne, so forgive me if I take a step back and a deep breath, and toast you with a comforting cup of soothing, chocolaty love instead.

*WFQ: Whole Food Quotient

Hot Cocoa

1 cup milk (I prefer skim or 2% milk)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon (heaping if desired) unsweetened cocoa powder
whipped cream or marshmallows (optional)

1. Heat the milk in a small saucepan over medium heat until hot and beginning to steam, but not to boiling. Stir occasionally to keep the milk from scorching on the bottom of the pan.

2. Reduce the heat to low and add the sugar and cocoa. Whisk to blend completely. To make a frothier drink, blend with an immersion blender for 15-30 seconds. Pour into a mug and top with whipped cream or marshmallows if desired (you know you want to).


Combine the whole lot in a Cocoa-Latte or similar appliance and mix and heat following manufacturer’s instructions.

Makes one serving. Recipe is easily doubled (at least).

Another recipe like this one: Mulled Apple Cider

One year ago: Red Cabbage Slaw with Apples and Cranberries