Monday, November 26, 2012

Rum-Spiked Date Bars

“Why is the rum gone?” – Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
No, in this post’s title I’m not talking about establishments of questionable character peopled by patrons of equally questionable character and their companions for the evening in whom they hope to induce a state of inebriation and consequent personal benefit. I don’t even know anything about those things. Really. And until recently I knew almost as little about the crumbly yet gooey cut-out-of-a-pan-in-a-rectangular-fashion cookie known as date bars.

I can’t remember how long ago I made these bars. Two weeks? Could it be three? It was well before Thanksgiving, anyway, but it seems reasonably appropriate to tell you about them now as I’m thinking about letting my Squash Certificate expire and renewing my seasonal License to Cookie.

This is my little spin on a classic date bar recipe as I found it in Bon Appetit Desserts by Barbara Fairchild. This was kind of a bold move for me, since I’m not really that “into” alcohol. (How many times have I said that on these pages, only to allow a good recipe to make a liar out of me?) I even passed over the golden colored dark rum in the cupboard and reached for the more intensely flavored black spiced rum. To ensure that the rum flavor did not boil away as I cooked and infused the dates, and armed with the success of these eggnog muffins, I added a splash of rum extract as well.

It’s hard for me to say just how much the rum extract achieved in terms of flavor in the case of these bars. The black spiced rum I used (Kraken brand…can I admit I bought it for the label?) gave the date layer a darkly rich and pleasantly bitter tone, and, since I didn’t test the recipe without the extract, I’m not sure which source of rum flavor was the dominant one. Much like someone who has enjoyed enough rum, however, I don’t really care.

This is not to say that these bars are all about the rum, however. They are delightfully sweet and gooey with a delicious caramel flavor contributed by the dates and by the brown sugar in the surrounding buttery crust and topping layers. Those crust and topping layers, which have a fabulous taste and texture themselves, seemed to be too crumbly to hold together when I pressed them into the pan, but there’s enough butter in the mix (yum!) to hold the dry ingredients together as they bake and the date layer is sticky enough to help keep things in place.

In addition to just leaving the rum out (see headnote in the recipe below) I think this recipe could go in many different directions with some simple substitutions and/or additions. How about orange liqueur with the dates and some orange zest in the crust, for example? Or what about a dried apricot version with amaretto? Could this go on long enough that I could be content with simply making all the various versions of these bars that I could think of, eschewing any other type of cookie? …Don’t count on it!

Date Bars with Spiced Rum
If you wish to make these without the rum, you can replace it with an equal amount of water and replace the rum extract with additional vanilla extract.

1 ½ cups chopped pitted dates
1 cup water
½ cup black spiced rum (I used Kraken brand), or rum of your choice
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 cup old-fashioned oats
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon rum extract

1. Combine the dates, water and rum in a medium-size saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and boil gently until the dates are very soft and the mixture is thick and syrupy. This should take about 15 minutes, but rely on texture more than time. Remove from the heat and cool completely.

2. Preheat oven to 350 F. Prepare an 8-inch square baking pan by spraying it with nonstick spray or smearing it with butter.

3. In the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, brown sugar, oats, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, baking soda, and salt. Pulse a few times to combine well. Add the cut-up butter and pulse several times until the mixture is just starting to form moist clumps. Make sure the butter gets evenly distributed by stopping the processor and stirring the bottom of the mixture to the top if necessary.

4. Press about half of the flour mixture firmly into the bottom of the prepared baking pan to form a crust layer. Stir the rum and vanilla extracts into the cooled date mixture and spread the date mixture over the top of the crust layer. Top with the remaining flour mixture and press gently into place.

5. Bake until the edges are brown and the center is set, about 40-45 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool completely on a wire rack. Cut into squares to serve.

Makes 16-20 servings.

Another recipe like this one: Graham Cracker Almond Bars

Monday, November 19, 2012

Thanksgiving Thoughts

There’s really a great deal to be thankful for. Really. There is. But, I’m not the type to drape my words in honey comb, waxing sappily over how wonderful the world really is. Sometimes gratitude simply means seeing what’s really important and recognizing its importance. Sometimes I’m simply grateful for the fact that there’s little of material value that I truly need or even want. Sometimes what I’m most grateful for is that I have not had to be institutionalized this year...yet.

Let’s face it, the days are darker and colder (although not much; this is a warm November here) and one thing or another is bound to unduly stress us out. Whether we like it or not, by Thanksgiving the end of the year is barreling over the river, through the woods and up our own driveways, threatening to taunt us with what might have been. I hate that. So I kick it in the teeth!!

We need a break, a release, a chance to cut loose. A celebration, if you will. A big dinner, if you dare! We humans are resourceful, resilient, relentless. We will survive because we invented holidays! Since we also need food to survive, let’s have celebrations about having enough food and include lots of food! Sure, we’ll share it with everyone who shows up. We’re not greedy, we’re grateful!

And this year, I’m cooking! Here’s what I hope to get on the table…

Appetizers including Chex mix, raw vegetables and dip, crackers and cheese
Mashed Potatoes and Gravy
Wild Rice Casserole (provided by my aunt)
Roasted Squash Puree seasoned with warm spices
Cranberry Sauce
Pumpkin Pie

…wish me luck.

And I wish you a very Happy Thanksgiving. Give thanks, yes. Be grateful, yes. But most of all celebrate and be HAPPY!

Some of the rest of my true thoughts on Thanksgiving are summed up in this post from a couple years ago, and I weigh in a little more on the holidays in general in this post.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Pumpkin Alfredo

Are simple recipes boring? I suppose if you’re stuck cooking bland food for a picky eater (or, as I would call him/her, a big pain in the neck!) and would like to venture out into something more daring and complex, simple would indeed be boring. But simple can be fabulously delicious, too, especially if you make the effort (and, alas, spend the extra cash) to acquire high quality ingredients to fill a relatively short list of recipe requirements.

Take this Tortellini with Pumpkin Alfredo Sauce, for instance. It was promoted as a kid’s meal in the October issue of Food Network Magazine, probably because of its mac-and-cheese-like qualities, sneaky healthiness in the form of added pumpkin, and the fact that busy parents could throw it together pretty quickly. If you have a trusted brand of packaged pasta, know where you can get good quality canned pumpkin and heavy cream, and can shell out the dough for a hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano, this dish can be elevated from a quick-and-convenient-get-it-on-the-table-before-everybody-gets-cranky weeknight supper to something quite decadent and delicious. The fact that it still happens to be quick and easy to get on the table before everybody gets cranky is just an added bonus.

I’ll admit that I used canned pumpkin when I tried this recipe. The convenience was too alluring. And the squash I tried to cook and puree just turned out too dry and lumpy and chunky to be used here. I hate to admit it, but most of the time the canned pumpkin I buy actually tastes at least as good as the homemade pumpkin and squash purees on which I spend so much time. You win some, you lose some.

This recipe is definitely a winner, and, as has happened a lot lately, I’m almost as pleased by how easy it is as I am by how good it tastes. Almost. The rich and creamy sauce spiked with slightly sweet and earthy pumpkin would be hard to beat with anything, easy or difficult, simple or complex, convenient or downright pain in the neck.


Tortellini with Pumpkin Alfredo Sauce
Adapted from Food Network Magazine

Other filled pastas or plain noodles would be just fine with this sauce in place of the cheese tortellini.

18-20 ounces cheese tortellini (fresh or frozen)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 tablespoons finely minced onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup pumpkin or winter squash puree (canned is fine)
1 ¼ cups heavy cream
about 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ cup grated parmesan cheese, preferably Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
finely chopped parsley and additional parmesan for garnish, if desired

1. Cook the tortellini in a large pot of boiling salted water according to package directions. Drain, reserving about ½ cup of the cooking water, and keep warm.

2. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally until soft and just beginning to brown, about 3-5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook about 1 minute more.

3. Add the pumpkin and cook about 1 minute more, stirring frequently. Add the cream and stir until smooth. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and boil gently for about 5 minutes or until the cream begins to thicken.

4. Stir in the nutmeg,  parmesan cheese and black pepper. Taste for salt and adjust as needed. Stir in the cooked tortellini and cook just until well coated and heated through. Add some of the reserved cooking water if the sauce seems too thick. Serve with parsley garnish and additional parmesan cheese if desired.

Makes about 4 servings.


Friday, November 9, 2012

Pumpkin Cranberry Muffins

These Pumpkin Cranberry Muffins are my most recent seasonal contribution to the Saturday morning baking category. Sure, when I have a Saturday free, I’d like to be able to make quiche or a French toast casserole or some kind of egg and bread strata. Instead, my feeble brain has had to be content with simple quick breads like Apple Cinnamon Coffeecake or, of course, muffins.

These particular little simple quick breads are quite delicious. The tart, juicy cranberries cut through the sweet pumpkin and spice for something a little different. It seemed like a fabulous idea to combine these two favorite late-fall ingredients so I stashed away the recipe when I came across it. Well, ahem, it took me just a little time to get around to trying it. Okay, maybe more than a little time. Like, the coupon on the bottom of the page on which the recipe is printed expired in January…2009!

Aaaaaanyway, I can now say without further delay that these muffins are delicious. They’re also almost as foolproof as they are tasty. I can attest to this because it was only after I had distributed the muffin batter into my muffin pan that I realized that I forgot to put in the pumpkin. I quickly scraped the batter back into a bowl, stirred in the pumpkin, cleaned out the pan, and tried again with good enough results that nobody would know I had goofed. (This is why my Saturday mornings have to be simple!)


I don’t use paper liners when I make muffins, preferring to just spray the pan well with cooking spray. I reserve liners for cupcakes (which I almost never make). So, if my muffin doesn’t have a paper liner, then it’s not cake, right? That’s one of the major differences between cake and breakfast, right? That’s what I keep telling myself. I think I’ll also keep telling myself to make some more of these muffins.


Pumpkin Cranberry Muffins
Adapted from an advertisement for Ziploc brand storage containers 

If you use frozen cranberries, there is no need to thaw them.

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons Pumpkin Pie Spice
¼ teaspoon fine salt
1 large egg
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
¼ cup milk
1 cup granulated sugar
¼ cup light brown sugar
1 cup pumpkin puree (I used canned)
1 cup fresh (or frozen) cranberries, chopped

1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Spray the cups of a 12-cup muffin pan with cooking spray (or line them with cupcake liners.)

2. In a medium-size bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, Pumpkin Pie Spice, and salt. Whisk together to combine well. Set aside.

3. In another medium-size bowl, lightly beat the egg. Add the cooled butter and whisk together to combine well. Add the sugar and brown sugar and whisk until smooth. Whisk in the pumpkin.

4. Pour the egg mixture into the flour mixture and stir together until just moistened. Stir in the cranberries.

5. Distribute the batter evenly in the muffin pan with each cup being about ¾ full. (I only got 11 muffins from this mixture.) Bake at 375 F for about 25 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out without any wet batter clinging to it.

6. Cool in the pan for about 5 minutes. Remove from the pan and cool on a wire rack. Cool completely or serve warm.

Makes 11-12 muffins. Freeze leftovers in a zip-top freezer bag.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Squash and Kale Frittata

I’m still in a rut of sorts, I guess. No post for days and days. I finally get something simple and seasonal and delicious on the table and it’s still more days and days until I can write it up. Still, for all its lateness and simplicity this frittata with butternut squash and kale is nothing to be ashamed of.

I based this on a recipe from Vegetarian Times magazine, but the original recipe had more eggs and sweet potatoes instead of squash. I pared the number of eggs to four, since I’ve had success making quick frittatas that way and I just didn’t have the energy to mess with things too much. I really think sweet potatoes and winter squash can be used almost interchangeably with some variation in cooking times and slight flavor changes. (Usually sweet potatoes are sweeter than squash in my experience.) The kale was a cinch to acquire, since there’s still some alive in my garden despite the many frosty nights.

After selecting my seasonal ingredients, I simply held to basic frittata theory and all was well. Once my onions, squash and kale were cooked, I poured over an egg mixture flavored with Dijon mustard. I like to partially cook the eggs in the pan, then put the pan under the broiler, but not right up to the broiler. I think I originally did this in hopes of causing less stress on my nonstick pan, but I like the way the frittata “bakes” a good distance from the broiler as well. Of course I wasn’t putting this in the oven at all until I sprinkled it with a generous portion of feta cheese.

You could really vary this simple dish many, many ways, even using leftover roasted vegetables or roasted vegetables and sausage or any kind of cooked greens. I was pleasantly surprised by the combination of flavors in this particular variation. Squash and kale, perhaps both being autumnal in nature, complement each other well. I added a chile pepper for extra punch, but you wouldn’t have to if you don’t like it. The subtle zing of the Dijon mustard is quite nice enough to enhance the dish without any added spice.

No, I’m not ashamed of this dish at all. For its somewhat rustic simplicity, it’s quite fabulously flavored, nourishing and satisfying. With any luck, this quick fix will get me out of the doldrums caused by workday weariness and darkening days so I can post about more good stuff more often!

Winter Squash and Kale Frittata with Feta
Based on a recipe in Vegetarian Times magazine

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 medium chile pepper, minced
12 ounces winter squash (I used butternut), peeled and cut into ½-inch pieces
¾ teaspoon coarse salt, divided
¼ teaspoon black pepper
4 large eggs
¼ cup milk
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
4 large curly kale leaves
½ cup crumbled feta cheese
1. Heat the oil in an oven-proof nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally for about 8 minutes, or until softened and beginning to brown. Add the minced chile pepper and cook about 1 minute more.

2. Add the squash, ½ teaspoon salt and pepper to the onion mixture. Cook, turning occasionally until the squash is softened, but still firm enough to hold its shape, about 20-25 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, in a medium-size bowl, combine the eggs, remaining ¼ teaspoon salt, milk and Dijon mustard. Whisk together until lightly beaten and well combined. Set aside.

4. Preheat the broiler and place a rack just above the middle of the oven. (I like to heat the frittata from above, but not place the pan so close to the broiler.) Remove the thick stems from the kale and discard. Finely chop the leaves. Add to the squash mixture when the squash is done. Cook until the kale is well-wilted, about 3-5 minutes.

5. Pour the egg mixture over the squash mixture, keeping the squash mixture in an even layer over the bottom of the pan. Cook, stirring just a little and gently, until the egg is set around the edges of the pan. The middle should still be runny. Evenly distribute the feta cheese over the top of the frittata.

6. Place the frittata in the oven and bake (with the broiler) for 8-10 minutes until the egg is firm throughout and the frittata is lightly golden brown on top. Remove from the oven and let stand at least 5 minutes before serving.

Makes 4-6 servings.