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Salted Caramels: Happy Valentine’s Day!

My crafty and creative older daughter started her class Valentine’s project early this year, knowing even without my prompting that burnout can set in quickly once the novelty of fancy paper, glitter and flashy pens wears off. In addition to the lovely cards, she also settled on the lofty goal of making homemade candy.

Salted caramels seemed easiest to tackle though I have to admit I was skeptical, given previous experience that resulted in a lovely sauce instead of a cute candy. Using a different recipe, she made her first attempt last week. Unfortunately, that turned into teeth-cracking toffee.

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Coconut Macaroons (Dipped in Chocolate)

I’ve gotten in a habit of keeping unsweetened coconut flakes around as a pantry staple. It’s perfect for elevating simple cut-up fruit to “dessert” status, for spiking banana bread batter, sprinkling on yogurt and granola, you get the point. But its most important use is as a main ingredient in these delectable macaroons. I promise that even without taking it all the way to chocolate-dipped (which we almost never do), you won’t be able to put these down. Even my non-coconut loving friends can attest to how awesome these are!

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Baking Ups and Downs: Apple Marzipan Galette

Though I only bake cakes, tarts and pies a handful of times in any given year, the perfectionist in me inevitably takes over the minute the oven is warming up. So each Thanksgiving, never quite satisfied with the previous year’s results, I up the ante and vow to try something new.

From a culinary standpoint, the best thing to emerge from my Thanksgiving efforts this year is knowing how to make graham crackers from scratch. This is a fun trick to add to the repertoire. Turns out, homemade graham crackers are remarkably easy and taste far better from scratch then store-bought. But the reason for the graham cracker experiment in the first place? I’ve had problems the past few years with homemade pie crusts. Despite following strict directions provided by reliable sources like Smitten Kitchen and David Lebovitz, I seem to have no luck with the the hand-blended, all-butter crusts they favor, which leave melty, buttery oven messes and crunchy, crackly pastry. Far from perfection.

Luckily, a few days after the holiday, I decided to make this apple marzipan galette (which I haven’t been able to get out of my head since eating it at a friend’s house over a year ago) using a slightly adapted version of Ina Garten’s pastry crust. Remember that saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?” Well, that couldn’t be more apt in this case. I used this pastry crust recipe for years with great success but the combo of shortening and food processor seemed passe and a bit fussy compared to the all-butter version. The galette turned out gorgeous and delicious, with a wonderfully flaky crust. I will never stray again! Even if I will have more tools to clean up.

Incidentally, pumpkin pie might just be out next year, in favor of this incredibly easy version of apple “pie.” Unless one of you has a favorite recipe you might be willing to send my way?

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What are you making for Thanksgiving this year?

The countdown to Thanksgiving is in full effect at our house, with both girls looking forward to what has become perhaps their favorite holiday of the year. Perhaps it is the ritual, the expectation of certain foods, the mellow family vibe, or the vacation from school. All of the above is most likely.

We do a potluck Thanksgiving with Jonah’s family, which means we’re off the hook for the turkey but deeply involved in all matters related to dessert, stuffing and cranberry sauce. We like to stick with the standards but this year, I’m taking things a new direction.

Instead of apple pie, I’m making David Lebovitz’s heavenly apple marzipan galette.

Pumpkin pie will likely become a tart this year, with this homemade graham cracker crust. I’m also be tempted to substitute creme fraiche for a part of the heavy cream that typically goes into the custard.

This stuffing is drawing my attention as a great base, with  handfuls of wild mushrooms, mushroom stock and fresh herbs as additions.

For cranberry sauce, I never stray too far from this classic Saveur recipe. Jalapeños have traditionally been excluded but who knows how I’ll feel next week?

Share your ideas and favorites!

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Healthy, Delicious Banana Bread: Look No Further

I don’t know about your fruit bowl, but ours is regularly and inevitably graced with several overripe bananas at any given time. We are a household of picky banana eaters. Once they are past perfect, they are summarily ignored.

Lucky for us, Jonah has taken up the cause by perfecting this fantastic banana bread recipe over the last few years. Chock full of healthy ingredients, low in sugar, absolutely moist and delicious, it is always a treat and perfect for an afternoon snack. Try it out – it never lasts long around our house!

Of course what I appreciate most is how quick and easy this recipe is. In no time, these:

mixed with a few ingredients, including:

become:

You combine with:

And end up with this!

Preparation

Prep time: 15 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter OR 1/4 cup butter plus 1/4 cup applesauce
  • 1 cup mashed bananas ( 2 ripe bananas)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup whole yogurt
  • 1.5 cups whole wheat flour (or split between whole wheat and white flour)
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 cup chocolate chips
  • 1/2 walnuts (optional)
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened coconut flakes
  • Optional: 1/4 cup flax seeds, 1/2-1 cup diced apples

Preheat oven to 350°. Combine dry ingredients (flour, baking soda and salt) into a medium-sized bowl, sifting if desired. Using a mixer, cream butter, applesauce (if using) and sugar until well blended. Add eggs one at a time, then vanilla and bananas. Add dry ingredients and yogurt in batches, about 1/3 of each at a time. Be careful not to overmix! Now throw in whatever combination of “mix-ins” you like – this is where the chocolate chips, nuts, coconut, flax seeds, etc., come in. Mix gently and transfer into buttered bread pan.

Bake for about 1 hour, with a serious caveat: check using a toothpick at the 50 minute mark, as it is often done early. The bread is ready if the toothpick comes out very slightly moist, but it shouldn’t have any batter sticking to it. Be sure not to over-bake, it will dry out the banana bread and compromise the result.

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Whole Wheat Chocolate Chip Cookie Update

I must have made an accidental error the first time I made these cookies (I suspect a reduction in the amount of flour) because I’ve never been able to replicate in later attempts the chewy, gooey cookies with delicate crispy edges from that day. Instead, the original recipe left us with something akin to tasty biscuits. Passable, certainly, but delicious? Not in my book.

When I saw Ava and Jonah pulling out the mixer today in preparation for another cookie-making session, I decided it was time to tinker. I created a new recipe making fewer cookies (the earlier version created on overwhelming amount of batter but you can of course double this one) and resulting in the crispy/chewy combo we love.

You can find the amended recipe on the original post.

Let me know what you think!

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Balsamic-Roasted Figs with Fresh Goat Cheese

Fruit is simply stunning this time of year, and in Northern California we are particularly blessed in this regard. But the fleeting and dramatic appearance of figs always captures my attention. This year, it was Talia who happened to spot the baskets of of dark purple mission figs at the market and requested a sample. One bite and she was sold. An unexpected and quite pleasant surprise.

On the way home, I had the brilliant idea of resurrecting our old dinner party favorite that lost its status around the time we became parents and stopped throwing adult dinner parties. Fast forward eight years, and it turns out that balsamic vinegar and goat cheese are still beloved in our house. I thought the girls would enjoy trying both on top of roasted figs, which make for an excellent appetizer, compliment to meat, or dessert.

Turns out, the challenge with figs is that like most fruit, their texture transforms upon baking. The softer, melty version was not appealing. The girls preferred raw. Oh, well. In my infinite maturity, I say is was worth a try – plus, that leaves more for me!

Preparation

One basket of figs serves about 3-4. Extras are always appreciated since they disappear quickly.

Preheat oven (or toaster oven if an option) to 425°.

Wash and dry a basket or two of mission figs. Remove stems and slice the fruit in half, lengthwise. Line fog halves on a  baking sheet. Place teaspoon-sized dollops of fresh goat cheese (chevre) on top of fig halves, then generously drizzle with balsamic vinegar.


Bake for about 15 minutes, or until balsamic becomes syrup. Transfer to plates and serve. Or perhaps you’ll eat them right off the pan!

We'll miss you, Dan and Matt!

Almond cake, where have you been all my life?

Several months ago, while at the grocery store buying cupcake sprinkles for Talia’s birthday, I spied the Odense almond paste in the baking section. For no particular reason, the pull was strong. We can home with a package of course, and promptly forgot about it.

Fast forward a couple of months, and let me present you with my latest baking discovery: almond cake! Moist and flavorful, pleasing for adults AND kids alike, it makes for the perfect dessert, not to mention morning coffee routine accomplice. My favorite part, aside from flavor of course? How very easy it is to make. There is virtually no prep involved, aside from making sure you remember to leave eggs and butter out on the counter to bring them to room temperature (quick fix: place cold eggs in hot water for a few minutes). This is also an excellent baking project to do with kids. The batter is fairly failproof, and older children could easily pull it off without adult supervision provided they are comfortable following basic directions and cracking eggs.

So pull out your food processors if you have them and bake one for your next summer BBQ. Or “winter” feast, if you live in San Francisco. And don’t forget to let me know what you think.

Preparation

Adapted from davidlebovitz.com

Prep time: 10 minutes;

Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Ingredients

  1. 7 oz almond paste, cut into pieces
  2. 1 1/3 cup sugar
  3. ¼ cup whole wheat flour
  4. 8-10 oz butter*, at room temperature, cubed
  5. ¾ cup white flour
  6. 1 ½ tsp baking powder
  7. ¾ teaspoon salt
  8. 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  9. 1 teaspoon almond extract
  10. 6 large eggs, at room temperature
  11. zest of one orange

* You can vary the butter content depending on your texture preference. Less butter makes for a slightly denser cake, more butter creates a richer version. Either works beautifully.

Preheat oven to 325º. Prepare a 9-10 inch in diameter, 2 inch deep cake pan** or springform pan by generously coating the interior with butter, dusting it with flour (excess flour should be shaken out) and lining the bottom with parchment paper (trim to the proper size). Yes, this seems like a bit of a pain, but you’ll thank me when you realize how much easier it is to remove the cake from the pan.

Cake pan, lined, dusted and ready to go!

Using a food processor (ideally) or a standing mixer with the paddle attachment, add the sugar, almond paste and the 1/4 cup of whole flour. Grind until the almond paste is completely broken up and the mix reaches a sandy texture.

Almond paste

Add the butter pieces to the almond-sugar mix, along with the vanilla and almond extracts. Process until the batter is very smooth and fluffy.

In a small bowl, combine the dry ingredients: the remaining 3/4 cup flour, baking powder and salt.

Add eggs, one at a time, to the batter. Process each egg until it is just incorporated into the batter. After the last egg is added, zest one orange into the batter.

Finally, add the dry ingredients to the batter, processing half way through. The goal is to just incorporate the dry ingredients, but not overmix. Pour batter into pan and bake for 60-65 minutes, making sure it is brown on top when done.

Using a knife, loosen the cake from the sides of the pan and cool in the pan. Turn upside and tap to release it from the pan. Don’t forget to remove the parchment paper before serving!

We'll miss you, Dan and Matt!

** This recipe is calibrated for a 9 or 10-inch pan that is at least 2 inches deep. Do measure – I had four cake pans in my house, all which apparently meant for layer cakes and therefore 1.5 inches deep. The smaller pan means you run the risk of the batter running over. I now own a new cake pan – did I mention I love this cake?

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Balsamic Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp

This evening, I’m meeting with a group of amazing women who work in various realms of the sustainable food movement. We meet for monthly potlucks, and needless to say, there is a serious intimidation factor as this a gathering of highly accomplished cooks.

I decided to bring one of my favorite springtime desserts to share – strawberry-rhubarb crisp. I’m generally a sucker for anything strawberry-rhubarb, and last year started experimenting with the addition of balsamic vinegar to this dynamic flavor duo. I was inspired by Bi-Rite Creamery’s fabulous balsamic strawberry ice cream; added balsamic to my strawberry-rhubarb jam (let me know in the comments if you’d like the recipe) and now, its made its way into the crisp. Try it at home – I bet you won’t be able to stop eating it once you start! And of course this is an easy kid favorite – a low sugar dessert with tons of flavor.

Preparation

Crisp Topping (use on a variety of fruit crisps)

Adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Deborah Madison

Put 6 tbsp of cold butter, cut into 1/2 inch chunks, into a bowl. Add 3/4 cup brown sugar, 2/3 cup whole wheat flour, 1/4 cup rolled oats, 1/4 cup chopped nuts (or 1/2 cup oats only), 1/4 tsp salt, 1/2 grated nutmeg and 1 teaspoon of cinnamon if you like (I opted out for this crisp.) Using your fingers or the paddle attachment on a stand-up mixer, work the butter with the rest of the ingredients so that each piece is coated and a coarse mixture forms (you shouldn’t see chunks of butter, about 2-3 minutes).

This makes enough for one 8×10 or so crisp. I usually double the recipe and freeze the extras – crisp topping is great to have on hand.

Balsamic Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp

Makes one 10×13 inch crisp

Preheat oven to 375°

Wash, dry and hull 4-6 pints of strawberries. Chop berries into quarters and add to shallow baking dish. Chop 8-10 rhubarb stalks into 1/2 inch pieces and add to berries. Combine with 3-4 tbsp of cornstarch (to thicken the juices) and 1/3 – 1/2 cup of sugar (depends on sweetness of strawberries. I like to use turbinado/raw sugar). Add in 2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar

Be sure all ingredients are well mixed and distributed throughout the baking dish. Top with crisp topping and bake for about 50 minutes.

I am waiting until the party to taste how it came out but it is extremely tempting to sneak a bite now!

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A Most Welcome Obsession: Whole Wheat Chocolate Chip Cookies

Recipe updated September 4, 2011

I fell in love with this chocolate chip cookies recipe from the Orangette blog the first time I made it and the second time, I’m fairly sure a lifelong commitment has been made. The whole wheat flour part totally compelled me. We’ve been adding more and more whole wheat flour to our baking repertoire, but I’ve never tried it to make cookies without at least some all-purpose flour mixed in. A friend asked this morning when I offered up the goodies, “Is there lots of butter in them?” and the answer is a resounding YES. LOTS of butter – which results in soft, chewy chocolaty melt-in-your-mouth cookies that I’ve never managed to create at home before.

Baking these with Talia made for a fun afternoon on a stay-at-home-sick day.

Preparation

Makes about 24 2-inch diameter cookies

  • 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
  • ½ tsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. baking soda
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 stick (4 oz.) unsalted butter at room temperature, cut into ½-inch cubes
  • 1/2 cup lightly packed dark brown sugar
  • 5 tbsp. white sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 cup bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 2/3 cup chopped walnuts or pecans if desired

Preheat oven to 350°. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpat mats, or  butter if no lining is available. Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt and mix together. Cream butter and sugars in a mixer until well combined – about 2 minutes. Add egg, beating well on low-medium speed. Beat in vanilla. Add flour mixture, 1/3 at a time, until just incorporated – be sure not to overmix. Add in chocolate and nuts and briefly mix on low speed. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula and give the batter a final hand-mixing to make sure the add-ins are well distributed.

Scoop 1 tbsp. sized mounds onto two cookie sheets. Refrigerating or freezing part of the dough is also a good option – I’m curious to see how they’ll taste after the dough matures for a day or two.  Be sure to give the dough scoops a lot of space – they spread quite a bit as they melt. Bake for 15-17 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through to ensure even baking. Cool for 1-2 minutes, then transfer to cooling rack. Be sure to try one warm! And by the way, the raw dough is darn good too.