Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Going Nuts... and Crackers, Too!

I've taken a breather from holiday baking since Thanksgiving, as you may have noticed. Frankly, I've been too tired to do much! But tonight, I couldn't take it any more... I had to get back into the kitchen.

Instead of working on the next batch of cookies, I decided to shift to a couple of simpler projects, both equally enjoyed by my friends.

First, I made a batch of rosemary walnuts, one of my favorite spiced nuts (and easily the favorite of the fair Titania, too).

Spiced with rosemary, sage, salt, and paprika, these walnuts are coated with a mixture of butter and oil for a simple but richly-flavored snack. A few people will get little bags of these tucked into their goodie boxes, but this is one treat I do intend to hold back -- just a small portion! -- for myself.

Next, I pulled out the recipe for cheddar crackers, found somewhere online a few years back. For this snack, I was able to use mostly local ingredients: butter, shredded cheddar, whole wheat flour, and dried thyme.

After a bit of mixing with my wooden spoon (see, I still can't remember to use the new mixer!), I worked the dough together with my hands and shaped it into a long round log.

I tucked the dough into the fridge to chill while I baked the walnuts, and once those were done, I pulled the dough back out, sliced it, and baked the crackers. (I really ought to remember to make the log smaller next time... these are BIG crackers.)

Two more items to check off the holiday baking spreadsheet! I'm making good progress and hope to ship boxes out next weekend (friends from afar, take note!).

And that's two fewer things to drive me nuts.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Ideas Are Brewing

I spent three mornings over the holiday weekend (Thursday through Saturday) working at the Inn, enjoying cooking with friends and learning a few new things to get ready for my solo stint between Christmas and New Year's. The more I work with both the Innkeeper and the Bistro Chef, the more ideas I get for possible breakfast dishes later on.

And the more I work at the Inn, the more I see little ways that I can help out. Both of my friends look for ways to provide good food in an economical manner, and they both know how to revive dishes or individual ingredients for a second round to get the most out of them. For examples, pears can be bought for a fruit salad, and leftover pears can then be sauteed and carmelized for a French toast topping. (And once they're cooked, they can last a little longer in the refrigerator.)

We also save leftover brewed coffee, storing it in the refrigerator to use for iced coffee later on. Of course, right now there aren't many takers for iced coffee. So I looked at the quart container of coffee placed in the fridge Thursday and thought about how we could use it up before it had to be dumped.

And then... inspiration struck! (Don't worry, it didn't do much damage.) Coming from my background as a baking fanatic, I thought that the coffee could replace water in baking some sort of yeast bread.

So I persuaded the Innkeeper to let me take the coffee home and experiment. She readily agreed, and this morning I started making a variation on cinnamon rolls.

I warmed the coffee and stirred in honey before mixing it with the yeast, and then I added the usual flour, dry milk, and salt as well as some cocoa powder and espresso powder. After that, I threw in the eggs and oil needed for the sweet dough, and I whirled it all together in that super-duper new mixer. (Local ingredients: honey, whole wheat flour, dry milk, eggs.)

It rose very quickly, so I barely had time to whip up the filling of butter, honey, and spices before it was time to roll out the dough.

Now, I admit, I went a little overboard here. I doubled the amount of butter called for in the filling, thinking that the original amount wouldn't spread over all the dough. Boy, was I wrong! I ended up with so much luscious filling that as I rolled up the dough, it oozed out the side and made it difficult to keep a tight roll. Messy work!

As you can see, the combination of too much filling and a loose roll meant that my mocha rolls ended up more like mocha "roses" with the petals unfolding slowly. I didn't worry too much, though, as all that extra filling was bound to make the rolls all the more decadent and sweet.

The results were reassuring: this batch might look a little sloppy, but the taste was spot on, with a rich mocha flavor accented with just the right amount of spice. I invited the Innkeeper to stop by to pick up some to take home, and her quick sample of my experiment caused her eyes to widen in wonder and delight. Needless to say, I have her approval to make another pan full of mocha rolls to tuck into the freezer at the Inn for future use... as well as her approval to use the leftover coffee any time I want!

Because you never know when more ideas will start brewing...

Mocha Cinnamon Rolls

My favorite cinnamon roll recipe comes from the whole-grain baking book Uprisings: it always results in a tender dough with just the right amount of spice and sweetness. It's also easily adapted for other purposes, as I discovered today. Don't knead this dough too hard or add too much flour, and you'll end up with a sweet roll that simply melts in your mouth. (Oh, and don't eat more than one at a time... they are dangerously rich!)

2 T active dry yeast
1 1/3 c warm coffee
1/4 c honey
2 1/2 c unbleached flour
2 c whole wheat flour
1/3 c nonfat dry milk
1/4 c cocoa powder
1 T espresso powder
1 tsp salt
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 c vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla

6 T unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 c honey
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cardamom

In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in warm coffee. Stir in honey and allow to proof. Sift together dry ingredients and add to coffee mixture in two or three additions. Add eggs, oil, and vanilla, and mix. Add flour if needed to make a sticky dough.

Turn dough onto floured counter and knead until smooth and elastic. This dough will be very tender, so do not knead too much flour into it. Cover dough with a clean towel and allow to rise until double, about 30 minutes.

Cream together butter and honey. Add cinnamon and cardamom to make a spreadable filling.

Using a floured rolling pin, roll dough into a large rectangle approximately 1/4" to 1/2" thick. Spread with filling, leaving a strip about 1" wide uncovered at one narrow end. Roll from the other narrow end, creating a spiral log and trying to keep the dough tightly rolled. Press uncovered end into the log, sealing the dough.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease a 9 x 13" baking pan. Slice log into 12 wide slices. Arrange rolls in prepared pan. Allow to proof slightly while oven heats. Bake at 350 F for 20-25 minutes, until rolls are fully baked. (Because the filling is the same color as the dough, it may look like some of the dough isn't fully cooked; be aware of the difference.)

Eat while warm, and enjoy!

Makes 12 large luscious rolls

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Home for Thanksgiving

The big feast day has come and almost completely gone already... it's been a long one. The planned dinner with My Wonderful Parents along with The Absent-Minded Professor, The Southern Belle, and My Adorable Nephews got scaled back last week due to the Chef Mother's lingering infection, so I'll dine with MWP tomorrow or Saturday and enjoy a smaller, non-holiday sort of meal.

Today, though, ended up being about food and community from beginning to end.

I started the morning with work at the Inn, helping the Bistro Chef serve a full house of friends gathered for the holiday. We started with a fruit cup of sliced oranges, whipped cream, and dried cranberries poached in port wine and balsamic vinegar (as luscious as it sounds). He then made French toast, served with carmelized apples and pears, and sausage links. The guests looked very happy, so we left them to their own devices for the day (they intended to take over the Inn's kitchen for their dinner preparations).

Once back at home, I hurled myself into my own Thanksgiving dinner preparations. And if, having read my recent Ethicurean article, you're curious what I settled on, I planned to take three items to my friends' table:

--Gratin dauphinois (shown here in the prep stage, with layers of local potatoes, butter, local garlic, and cheese)

--Local green beans sauteed with local garlic, one of the last tomatoes from the farmers' market, dried local thyme, salt, pepper, and a smidgen of balsamic vinegar

--One of my favorite breads, a pain aux noix with local whole wheat flour, local dry milk, molasses, and walnuts (among other ingredients)

My friends had my favorite classics on the table, too: his mom's cornbread stuffing, her sweet potato souffle, a perfect cranberry-orange relish, pumpkin pie, and cranberry cake with an orange sauce. (Oh yeah, and a turkey. Whatever.) My guess is that we didn't manage a wholly 100-Mile Thanksgiving, though my contributions came close... and we had a good, thoughtful discussion of local foods over the course of the evening.

We ate well and enjoyed spending a long evening together, including almost an hour of uninterrupted conversation once the boys went to bed. I've come to cherish them as my second "family" since I've spent holidays with them for so many years when my parents were away, and though I'll be glad to spend time with My Wonderful Parents later in the weekend, I'm thrilled that we can keep this other tradition alive.

Home has so many layers of meaning: the place where we were born, the place where we live, the place we inhabit when we're with family and with those who feel like family. I'm especially grateful that this year for Thanksgiving, I'll have Thanksgiving "at home" in many of those ways.

Hope you've all enjoyed a good day, a good meal, and a good sense of home!


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Balancing Act

I love this time of year.

Perhaps you think that's because I'm still a child at heart, longing for the magic and surprise of Christmas Day and looking forward to all the presents. Or perhaps you may think it's because I love baking so much that a month or more of constant cooking gives me a real happiness kick.

I admit, those are both partly true (though I would point out that I don't expect and don't need very much in the way of presents any more). I do love the wonder and joy of the holidays and the glorious impulse to share generously.

But there's more to it than that. I've learned over the years that given my tendency to do so much during the last month or two of the year, this is also a prime time to encourage myself to slow down and to find moments of stillness. I know it seems completely contradictory! But even though I've committed myself to a great deal of activity, I make the time to sit in the peace of an evening, pull a blanket close, and turn inward just a little.

Ancient cultures looked at this season as one for pulling back, huddling close to a fire, and waiting for the days to lengthen and the sunlight to return for another year and another cycle of life. I think there's something to be said for experiencing that even now, even if it's only an interior journey, and this time of year finds me reviewing my journals and looking back at where I've been over the course of the year... and where I want to go next.

It's tricky, balancing that holiday frenzy of doing with this being in preparation for the New Year. For me, though, it's necessary. So I hope you'll forgive this philosophical foray as we head into the holiday weekend.

Tomorrow marks the third anniversary of giving away my car, and in just two weeks, this blog will also celebrate its third anniversary. Both dates, seemingly unrelated, signaled the beginning of an intertwining path that combined my love of food with a deepening awareness of environmental problems and potential solutions. The more I've learned about either one, the more I've seen connections with the other, and keeping my mind well fed has led to my understanding better what it takes to keep my body fed.

I find I'm becoming a more dedicated locavore (the word of the year, according to Oxford University Press), learning to find more food sources in my immediate area as well as to make more of my foods (even "convenience" foods like pasta) myself. The more I've learned and tried, the more I want to try my hand at providing more of my own food. And the more I've done, the more confident I've felt in sharing what I've learned with others. (Thanks to the kind folks at The Ethicurean, especially the ever-supportive Bonnie, I've been given a wonderful opportunity to reach an even broader audience and to learn from even more people.)

But I'm also finding that it's getting nearly impossible for me to write about food without considering the implications of my choices on the world around me. It's not a bad thing, but it does add a layer of thought to how I approach everything I eat. I firmly believe that we are on course for a very different way of life, and as I find inspiration in how others out here on the "Interwebs" are meeting that challenge, I'm gradually seeing my own life change. It's not easy: too often I find myself getting depressed about the latest news or our seeming inability to do anything to change course, but I take heart from some of the thoughtful bloggers out there and remind myself that, as Sharon at Casaubon's Book puts it, I'm running a marathon, metaphorically speaking, and I have to pace myself.

That's why in the coming months you are likely to find some changes on this site. I hope to add a section of environmental links in the sidebar, pointing out some of the places where I find news and inspiration. I hope to come up with another list of goals for the coming year on this blog, challenging myself to try new techniques or to become more of an urban homesteader. I hope to make time for even more food preservation next year (once I've dug through my cookbooks to see what else I might make). And it's also quite likely that I'll be simplifying some of my cooking (though probably not all) and searching for even more local foods or substitutes.

I'm not planning on shifting my style of writing to one of gloom and doom or one of preachiness. Heaven knows it took me long enough to open my eyes and to start learning, and I surely don't have all the answers. In fact, Dear Readers, I have long valued your thoughtful commentary and hope that you will continue to share your own ideas to keep me challenged. I'm just trying to change my world by changing myself, and I hope that you'll see positive changes reflected in this space.

My lovely friend, the faithful Persephone, surprised me with a precious little card today containing the Theodore Roethke poem "The Waking," which contained a line all too familiar and appropriate: "I learn by going where I have to go." So I'm taking another step on this journey into a wonderful unknown, hoping to find more connections in my life and to make this passion for good food representative of my own thinking, believing, and living.

As we head into the holiday weekend, I hope that you will find some quiet corner of a day to stop -- to give thanks, to enjoy what is given to you to enjoy, to connect with someone -- to live fully. That's what I'll be trying to do in between the baking and the rest of the holiday frenzy, and if I don't make it back here to blog about it all for a few days, you'll know why.

Whether you've been reading this little site since the beginning or are a new guest -- whether I've had the privilege to meet you, the honor of calling you "friend," or the simple delight of exchanging comments with you -- thank you. I am grateful for your presence in my life and in this little online kitchen.

Good things are simmering, and you're invited to the table. Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Pizza on Earth

After wrapping up my kitchen experiments for my latest Ethicurean article and churning out another little bit of holiday baking, I could turn my attention today to feeding myself for the week.

And yes, after nearly a week of looking at my Christmas present perched on the countertop, I finally used it.

I started off the day by making my cinnamon nut crumble muffins, whipping up the batter in no time flat in my new mixer. Of course, I misread the recipe and stuffed all the batter into 12 muffin tins instead of 18, so they overflowed a little and turned out entirely un-photogenic. That's OK, though... they still tasted great.

By late afternoon, I was ready to tackle a yeast dough in the mixer and decided to make pizza crust.

I started mixing the dough with the flat beater, but by the time I had added all the flour, I switched over to the dough hook in order to give it a quick knead.

Once I had stretched out the dough on the oiled baking stone, I topped it with half a pint of my homemade pizza sauce, one thawed package of frozen broccoli, and some shredded mozzarella... all local. (Already, all that hard work late this summer is coming in handy!)

While the pizza baked and cooled, I enjoyed a quiet hour, winding down from all the activity of the weekend and gradually getting more and more hungry.

Finally, I could cut the pizza into eighths and eat a couple slices without fear of burning the roof of my mouth. How good it tasted! The pizza sauce tasted different from the sauce I used to buy at the grocery store, but how satisfying it was to know where I found all the vegetables contained in it.

Since broccoli pizza is one of my comfort meals, especially in the cold months, I'm glad to know that a little advance work is going to make it so much easier to enjoy fresh homemade pizza this winter.

Yes, that will definitely contribute to my peace of mind... or is that pizza mind???


Saturday, November 17, 2007

You Butternut Pout, You Butternut Cry

Over a decade ago, when I first moved back to Ohio, I decided to invite My Wonderful Parents to Thanksgiving dinner at my new apartment.

Before you think me too good a daughter, though, I should explain: I was determined to serve my meat-eating parents a decidedly vegetarian Thanksgiving meal that bore no resemblance to our traditional menu. It was a bold move, but they accepted the challenge with courage and open minds. (They also planned a traditional turkey dinner for themselves the following night.)

I started off the meal with small puff pastry tarts for appetizers -- some filled with diced pears and crumbled blue cheese and a drizzle of raspberry jam thinned into sauce, and some filled with a mushroom and pine nut saute. It's a good thing I began on the right foot, because my main course, a vegan squash sauce laded over fettucine, definitely fell short of their idea of a holiday entree. Oh, they ate it, all right, and they said lovely things about it, but even I could see that it just wasn't the same.

I tucked the recipe away, thinking that maybe at some non-holiday time I might revisit it, but I never did. Until this weekend.

One last butternut squash lingered from the farmers' market, begging to be used up in some lush harvest dish, and since the faithful Persephone had agreed to come to dinner this evening, I decided to pull out the recipe and give it another go... with a few needed tweaks.

After steaming the squash and pureeing it with milk, I sauteed the remaining vegetables -- celery, leek, carrot, garlic, and parsnip, all local -- with some local rosemary and a few other spices. Once the whole mixture had cooked down and become deliciously fragrant, I added a little twist.

The black kale I've been growing on my window seat has taken off lately with the cold weather, and I picked several leaves to rinse, tear, and toss into the saute along with a dash of homemade black raspberry cider vinegar. After it had cooked down a bit, I added the squash puree and let the whole sauce simmer and develop.

Once Persephone arrived, I cooked the pasta -- my homemade spelt pasta made to stretch a little further with the addition of some locally made garlic-parsley fettucine -- and ladled the sauce on top. Being as much of a squash fan as I am, she tucked right in and started humming with contentment.

While I probably wouldn't attempt to serve this revised version to my parents, I'm glad to know that just a few simple changes made it worth trying again. And what a way to use the last fresh butternut squash from the market!

Squash Sauce Over Fettucine

This recipe originally came from a vegan cookbook called Friendly Foods, but since I'm no longer attempting to eat a vegan diet, I've adapted it freely. In fact, I think it might be worth trying again sometime with Indian spices or by adding a Southwestern twist... maybe next year!

1 medium butternut squash, peeled, diced, and steamed
1 c milk
1 T flour
2 T olive oil
1/2 c thinly sliced celery
1/2 c diced carrots
1/4 c diced parsnips
1 c diced onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp dried rosemary
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 c chopped kale
1 T vinegar (I used my black raspberry cider vinegar; balsamic also good)
6 c cooked pasta

Blend the steamed squash with the milk and the flour until smooth. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Saute the celery, carrots, parsnips, onions, garlic, and seasonings for about 5 minutes. Toss in the kale and allow to steam briefly. Add the vinegar and continue to saute for another 3 minutes. Add the squash mixture and continue cooking, stirring constantly until the sauce has thickened.

Spoon the sauce over the cooked pasta. Serve warm.

Serves 4 to 6

Here Comes the Sunshine

I'm still just picking away at the early stages of holiday baking this weekend, but since I saved an orange from a meeting late last week, I thought I'd go ahead and make the first batch of sunshine cookies.

This year, I have every intention of using more local ingredients in these cookies, though I can't replace everything yet. I pulled out whole wheat flour, butter, egg, and maple sugar, along with that freegan orange and other ingredients, and right after lunch, I started mixing up ingredients.

I won't bore you with the details: since I've made these cookies for two years already, I think I've covered them pretty well. But suffice it to say that as I worked, I thought about all the friends who have begged for these cookies ever since I came up with the recipe.

In the midst of my rolling, cutting, and baking, the locksmith stopped by to re-key the locks in the building to a master key, and he commented favorably on the aroma in the apartment, amazed that I would be starting my holiday baking so early.

Since he had to huff up and down two steep flights of stairs a couple of times to work on my lock -- with braces on both legs, he said -- I thought that surely I could share a couple of cookies with him.

And as I've found with previous batches of sunshine cookies, just offering one of these orange and ginger-laden morsels brings the sunshine out for everyone. He beamed, thanked me, and trudged back down the stairs, his day brightened... and mine, too!

To those friends who are expecting some of these treats in their holiday boxes, let me reassure you that you will still get your fair share.

The sunshine is here to stay!

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Life of Pie

Thanksgiving is coming on fast, and I'm trying to pull together my last recipes and items for an upcoming article over at The Ethicurean. But it's been yet another busy week, and my last experiments have had to wait until the weekend.

After baking off almost the last of the local pumpkins last weekend, I tucked the pulp in the refrigerator to save for a pie. It's been a few years since I made a pumpkin pie, but I knew that this time around I wanted to try something a little different.

See, in my family we often had both pumpkin pie and pecan pie at the end of the Thanksgiving feast. And while pecan pie is my all-time favorite, I couldn't pass up the pumpkin pie because that was my chance for whipped cream. (Who puts whipped cream on pecan pie? It's just not right.)

So instead of choosing between the two this year, I decided to combine them. Thanks to the King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking book (and yes, it's becoming one of my main go-to baking books), I found a way to do it.

I started by making a crumbly crust, reminiscent of a graham cracker crust, with toasted oats and pecans ground together with maple sugar, cinnamon, a dash of salt and orange peel, and melted butter.

While the crust baked, I whipped up a filling from the baked pumpkin pulp pureed with eggs, half and half, maple syrup, spices, and a bit of vanilla.

Really, it looked and smelled like the best pumpkin batter I've made in a long, long time. I poured it into the cooled crust, and since I had a little bit left over, I greased a pottery ramekin and poured the rest into that for a bit of pumpkin custard.

Less than an hour later, I was practically hanging on the oven door, waiting to pull out this beauty:

Since the pie needed to cool -- and I wanted to save it for company tomorrow night -- I indulged in the custard for my dessert, adding a dollop of maple sugar-sweetened cream yogurt on top.

What a satisfying experiment! And what made it even more satisfying was tasting all the local ingredients: pumpkin, eggs, milk, butter, maple syrup, maple sugar, and oats.

I have to go back and sort through the recipes, add my changes, and type it up, but you'll find it over at The Ethicurean next week.

But there's no guarantee how much longer you'll find the pie at my place... it might disappear soon!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Party Mixer

My Wonderful Parents are sneaky.

Last week, they told me that my Christmas present would be arriving early and that it would be delivered to the shop below my apartment. Naturally, a frisson of excitement resulted from hearing this news, and I pondered the possibilities.

Though my parents no longer reside in Florida, I had some hopes that they had arranged with friends or called Indian River themselves to have a box of fresh oranges sent to me for the holiday season. (I do love fresh citrus at this grey time of year!)

When My Dear Papa stopped by yesterday to pick me up for a visit with the Chef Mother, he met me downstairs, where he pointed out that my box had arrived.

I walked over, looking cautiously around the counter, and discovered... oranges.

Nope. No citrus for me. But lest you think me disappointed, I would hasten to add that my present did actually have everything to do with food. Allow me to introduce you to my brand new 4 1/2-quart KitchenAid stand mixer!

Isn't it a beautiful monster? I've never had a stand mixer before, and I've always done very well with sheer arm power. But given my extensive baking plans for the holidays, My Wonderful Parents decided that I might just need a little help. (And hey, it was on sale!)

This is almost exactly like the big mixer the Chef Mother brought home from work the summer I took my 4-H bread project for the second year and I needed to churn out many different bread doughs. (You can see the dough hook in the lower right.) So you can bet that I'll be breaking it in (not literally, of course) soon as I step up my holiday baking plans.

I'm all in favor of using low-power kitchen equipment and prefer to do most things by hand, but I'm pretty sure that come December 25, I'm going to be very thankful for this machine.

So let the baking party begin! I'm ready!

Baguette Lady

I seem to be really forgetful these days. My mind rambles a lot, probably because I've got way too much running through it.

So it's no surprise that I can't remember when I last made bread. If I can't even pinpoint a date, it's at least two weeks back, and chances are, I probably haven't even made bread proper since before my vacation/business trip last month.

That must explain, then, my urge to bake bread during this time off.

I've got a number of bread recipes I want to try before Christmas, just to get myself into the holiday spirit, and when I pulled out the recipe for a Greek celebration bread (from The Bread Baker's Apprentice) this weekend, I discovered that it required that I make poolish, a pre-ferment of flour, water, and yeast to start the dough.

The recipe for poolish, though, made more pre-ferment than was needed in the Greek recipe, so I had to find another recipe to use it up. In flipping through the rest of the book, I found that I could use it in baguettes, so I decided on that as a simple solution to my dilemma.

I mixed up the dough early this morning and let it rise in my cool kitchen while I walked up the hill for a local-foods meeting and for a visit to the Chef Mother (who's back in the hospital for a blessedly brief stay). By the time I returned home, the dough was ready to be punched down for a second rise.

Once it was done fermenting, I shaped the dough into two medium-sized baguettes (though given the breadth of my loaves, I suppose technically they're more batards than baguettes... but that's just being picky!).

While the loaves proofed, I mixed the dough for the Greek bread, and soon I was ready to slide the baguettes into a hot, steamy oven for a quick bake. Twenty minutes later, I had two golden loaves with a crisp, steaming crust:

Heavenly! I almost feel as though I should head out on a bicycle with one of these tucked in my basket, cycling down a tree-lined lane for a picnic. (It's actually warm enough outside today for that!) Instead, I may share one loaf with my Wonderful Parents or with friends, and the rest I'll devour on my own.

And though I may forget when I've last made bread before this, I never forget the divine smell of the fresh bread and how wonderful it makes me feel!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Let's Bake a Deal!

Daunted by the complexity of my holiday baking spreadsheet, I decided to take a couple days' vacation this week in order to tackle a bit of advance baking as well as to catch up on my regular cooking.

Having tucked three batches of cookies into the freezer over the past two weeks, I thought it was time to switch over to a cookie that would keep well without freezing or refrigeration: biscotti.

For the past few years, after experimenting with several varieties of biscotti, I've kept my holiday quota to two recipes: cranberry-orange and ginger-pecan. This year, in my attempt to use more local products in my holiday baking, I'm dropping the cranberry-orange in favor of something using the cherries I dried early this summer. But the ginger-pecan, despite featuring two non-local flavors, stays in the repertoire because it's my favorite.

I'm happy to report, though, that aside from the ginger and the pecans, I could use several other local ingredients: oats, flour, butter, and eggs. Admittedly, that doesn't sound like a lot out of a long list of ingredients, but as these four items make up a large portion of the dough, it's probably better than it sounds.

I mixed the dough and shaped it into two flat "logs," giving them each plenty of room to spread as they baked, and I slid the pan into the oven for the first baking.

When the biscotti loaves came out of the oven after the first baking, I needed to run out for a bit, so I set the pan on the stovetop to cool. The recipe calls for 20 minutes of cooling before the second baking, but I think they got over an hour this time around, which seemed to make them easier to slice for that second round. (I'll have to remember that for next time.)

When I returned home, though, I fired up the oven once more and finished baking the biscotti, now cut in long slender wedges.

Aside from the crumbs (which I always claim as the reward for my labors), I packed all of the cooled biscotti in my cookie jar and an extra tin. I'll save these morsels for the round of packages I'll send out in early December, and I hope to save a few for friends to enjoy closer to Christmas. And if none last that long, well, I'll just have to make more.

And I think my friends would agree... that's a pretty good deal for us all.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

How Do You Spelt Relief?

When November decides to settle in for its annual visit here in northern Ohio, it often brings melancholy weather: heavy gray skies unrelieved by sunshine, rain (or colder forms of precipitation... not that we don't need it, but still), and wind. Not every November day is like this, of course. On some days, the sunshine and blue skies provide the perfect lighting and backdrop for a colorful stage strewn with falling leaves.

But on days like today, when the world outside feels depressing and uninviting to almost anyone, you need a little something to relieve your spirits and to give you reason to carry on.

For me, that "little something" often revolves around food. (Are you surprised?) If I can brighten my day with a warm kitchen filled with sweet or spicy aromas that result in something tasty and comforting, then the weather doesn't bother me so much.

Since I knew I'd have a long weekend at home, I jotted down a long list of dishes I wanted to cook or bake during my time off. I've already made another dent in my holiday baking with the first batch of chocolate charms, I've baked two pumpkins for later use, and I've made a batch of pasta ribbons. But I also wanted to take this time to try something new.

Since I got hooked on spelt flour earlier this year, thanks to the combined influences of the King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking book and the warm presence of the Spelt Baker at the farmers' market throughout the season, I've wanted to incorporate more spelt into my cooking. I've enjoyed the faintly nutty taste it brings to baked goods and the tenderness it adds to doughs. And when the Spelt Baker brought unmilled spelt berries to the market, I realized that I had just found a potential local replacement for rice.

I discussed the possibilities with the Spelt Baker, who reassured me that I could easily cook the spelt berries like rice with a 2 to 1 ratio of water to spelt berries, and I had a vision of making something akin to risotto with almost all local ingredients at long last.

With the weather being so dismal today, it seemed like the perfect time to try a hearty spelt "risotto" that showcased some of the last farmers' market produce: spinach (still looking and tasting great after three weeks), parsnips, red onion, garlic, rosemary, and pumpkin seeds.

I started cooking it much like a risotto, by sauteing the aromatic parts of the dish along with the spices. After that, I added the parsnips and the spelt berries, stirring to coat them with the olive oil, and then I poured in the homemade vegetable stock.

But instead of the small additions of liquid and endless stirring found in a risotto, I poured in the liquid all at once, brought it to a boil, and then turned the heat down and let it simmer, checking every 10-15 minutes since I didn't know how long the spelt would need to cook.

Once most of the liquid was absorbed, I laid torn spinach leaves on top to steam, and at the end I stirred them in along with a little squeeze of fresh orange juice.

Aside from the olive oil, spices, and orange juice, the entire dish came from local farms. And once I had the chance to sample the finished dish, I felt the happy relief of finding something new to add to my pantry and to my cooking rotation. The cooked spelt berries look like my homemade fried brown rice, but they have the same faintly nutty taste as the flour and serve as a solid but unassuming backdrop to the flavorful vegetables and spices I used. The spelt is more chewy than rice, but it worked well with the other flavors and textures in this dish.

I'm thrilled now that I decided to bring home two bags of spelt berries from the market this fall, but I suspect that since I now have a better idea how to cook them, it won't be long before I'll need to call the Spelt Baker and purchase more.

Spelt and Autumn Vegetable Not-Really-Risotto

There's no rice here and no fussy stirring, but the resulting chewiness of cooked spelt berries makes a lovely substitute for risotto. You can easily vary the vegetables and spices in this recipe to showcase other autumn vegetables.

1 T extra virgin olive oil
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/4 tsp dried rosemary
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp salt
2 medium parsnips, peeled and sliced on the diagonal
1 c spelt berries, rinsed
2 c vegetable stock
1 c spinach leaves, rinsed and torn
1 tsp fresh orange juice
toasted pumpkin seeds for garnish (optional)

In a heavy saucepan over medium-low heat, saute the onion until it turns translucent. Add garlic, rosemary, and spices, and saute for another minute or two. Add parsnips and spelt berries, stirring to coat with oil. Pour in vegetable stock, turn up the heat, bring to a boil, and then turn heat down to simmer. Simmer 30-45 minutes, depending on how low you turn down the heat.

When most of the liquid has been absorbed, lay the spinach leaves on top and allow to steam. When all the liquid has evaporated, stir the spinach into the spelt mixture along with the orange juice.

Serve garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds (or other nuts, if desired).

Serves 2

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Sometimes a Sandwich Is Just a Sandwich

I'm still trying to adjust to the time change, but I find that by the time I get home from work, the sky is already starting to lose a little light, and with it vanishes some of my energy.

Frankly, I just haven't wanted to cook much in the evening this week. The trouble is, I didn't get a whole lot made over the weekend to keep me going, so I have to do something.

Tonight was another chilly, grey evening, and all I wanted was comfort food. I wanted pasta, but I didn't have any more in the pantry (I really ought to make some this weekend). Then I wanted hash browns, but as I'd already had potatoes in my lunch, that didn't seem the most sensible solution.

I decided to stop at the neighborhood bakery for a loaf of their focaccia -- which, let's face it, is really just white bread with olive oil in it, not flatbread. (It's still pretty darn good, though.) Because at least with bread, I could have toast or a sandwich of some sort.

See, that's one of the problems of becoming a dedicated local-foods advocate. The more I try to incorporate local foods thoroughly into my cooking and eating, the harder it is for me to "cheat" and use something non-local in a conscious way. I mean, I'm not trying to be a real hard-line stickler about it, but I'm trying to keep myself mindful about what I eat.

But come on, a loaf of bread from the local bakery isn't the end of the world. It's not my homemade bread, it's probably not made with local ingredients, but it's made by a locally-owned business. So I have to remind myself that there are different degrees of localism and different ways to "chew the right thing."

Once I got home, I cut two thick slices of bread, toasted them thoroughly (both sides), and topped them with: slices of a very ripe local tomato, lots of basil leaves (also local), a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese, a drizzle of olive oil, and a dash of black pepper.

Maybe it's fall outside, making me long for the cozy warmth of toast, but I could enjoy a last taste of summer in these open-faced sandwiches, and I could feel good about keeping some local character in my dinner.

Come the weekend, I'm sure I'll be able to fill the refrigerator with more ready-to-heat meals made with local ingredients to get me through next week and more gloomy weather.

But for tonight, well... why get all in a fuss because I couldn't have an all-local meal? It tasted great, it filled me up, and I did what I could. Maybe I needed the reminder: dinner doesn't always have to be political and high-minded.

Sometimes a sandwich is just a sandwich.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Cold Weather Makes Me Tiffin Up

I run through my mental checklist before walking to work in the morning:

--Pull on wool socks and hiking boots? Check.
--Tug a hat (or two) on my head? Check and double check.
--Wrap a scarf snugly around my neck? Check.
--Pull on the fleecy jacket? Check.
--Don my lined gloves? Definite check.

Yep, it's official. November is here, bringing frosty mornings and cold breezes that chill me to the bone. And while I can start the day with a warm breakfast and a big mug of hot coffee (or sometimes tea), it doesn't hide the fact that that cold air stiffens me up and makes my joints and muscles ache on the hike to work.

The cold weather also means it's time to start thinking about hot lunches, so I have to spend extra time on the weekends preparing big pots of soup or stew or other goodies that are easily packed and warmed up during the week.

Happily, that task has gotten a little easier, at least on the travel end. Let me introduce you to my new lunch "box" -- a stainless steel tiffin such as those used in India (legendarily in
Mumbai), China, and doubtless other countries to transport hot meals to office workers during the day.

My tiffin was an unexpected gift from the Innkeeper, who had two and decided I should have one, and it has proven to be an excellent substitute for the array of plastic containers and cloth and paper totes I had used before. With this three-tiered tiffin, I can carry a two- or even three-course lunch and a snack for my morning coffee, then swing it home in the afternoon, wash it up lickety-split, and be ready for the next day's lunch. Supplying my work day with home-cooked (and largely local, hooray!) food got so much easier with just this one little change.

And the bonus? Because it's made entirely of metal, I can set the tiffin on top of the register in my office and, like a slow cooker, it reheats my meal with no additional effort. Hot lunch heaven!

Today's lunch, for example, included the remains of the paneer and potato mixture I had used to fill my buckwheat crepes the other night; a quick saute of Chinese cabbage and garlic with chili powder, cumin, and black sesame seeds; a couple of homemade baked doughnuts for my morning break (not shown); and a trio of buttery thin chai spice shortbread. Aside from having some sort of fruit dish, it's really a pretty well-balanced meal!

The individual tins are rather spacious: as you can see, I've barely covered the bottom of each, if at all. There's no way I can fill them up for lunchtime as I just can't eat that much, but I can easily see using my tiffin to transport contributions to a dinner party somewhere else.

I know that bento boxes are hitting the mainstream lunch circuit, and though I've been tempted to go that route before, I'm very well pleased with my tiffin, and I know I'm not the only one. Perhaps we'll start a trend!

Maybe everyone should tiffin up for the winter!

Monday, November 05, 2007

Roll Out the Apple

Though I've kept a journal over the years to record what I've served at memorable dinner parties (and there have been many), I've been particularly lax in remembering some of the smaller, less-heralded, but more important moments in my personal culinary history.

For example, around this time of year, conversation with the fair Titania will inevitably circle around to her swooning memory of the very first dish I served her at my home: lavender-sauteed apples.

Doesn't sound like much, does it? But as with the simple but elegant tarte tatin, sometimes simplicity is stunning. In this case, melted butter plus sugar plus lavender buds plus fresh crisp apple slices equals a rich, fragrant, delightful dessert.

It never registered with me that my dear friend's first visit to my humble kitchen was marked only by dessert. (You'd think I would have offered her a full meal!) But every fall, she slips into raptures over the memory of those apples, and I find I have to make some for myself just to conjure her company.

With leftover buckwheat crepes in the refrigerator after yesterday's feast, then, it seemed only fitting that I should indulge in a glorified version of this dish tonight. While the apples bubbles in the sweet butter on one burner, I reheated the crepes on the other. I whisked together a quick yogurt sauce (1/4 c plain yogurt and 1 T maple syrup), and once I had spread the apple slices in thick lines and rolled up the crepes, I smoothed the sauce on top and added a light sprinkling of bittersweet chocolate chips.

The lavender apples alone make a refreshing way to clear your palate after a meal, but this luscious variation hit the spot on a cold and blustery night with its sweet warmth, whole grain comfort, and creamy sauce.

I may not remember that first time, when the fair Titania, like Eve, was tempted by an apple. But I know that the next time she's around, I'll have to share this even more irresistible dessert with her.

Lavender Sauteed Apples

Originally found in Morning Glories, a lovely herb cookbook, this recipe has become almost second nature to me. Enjoy the apple slices on their own, topped with a little yogurt or ice cream, or rolled in warm crepes.

1-2 T unsalted butter
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp lavender buds
1 apple, peeled, cored, sliced

Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the sugar and lavender and stir to combine. Add the apple slices and cook, stirring occasionally, until apples soften.

Serves 1 but is easily doubled, tripled, etc.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

What a Long, Strange Crepe It's Been

Over the years, I've learned a lot about cooking. That seems obvious, but considering that over thirty years ago I was afraid to slide a pan into the oven because I was afraid of burning myself, I think I've traveled a long, long way.

And over the years, I've taken on some challenging tasks that I would snap my fingers at now. I've explored various exotic ethnic cuisines, rolled out paper-thin pasta, made pie crusts and croissants so light and flaky that even the Chef Mother couldn't top them, and baked flatbreads at blast-furnace temperatures that would have sent the younger me into my room, bawling.

But there are still some cooking techniques that intimidate me, and it's taking me a while to confront and overcome some of them.

Take crepes, for instance. I've loved them for years, but I'd never quite worked up the courage to make them on my own. Yes, I can make pancakes like a pro, but it's so much easier to flip a smaller, thicker cake than it is a thin sheet that covers the bottom of a skillet.

During one of my recent shifts at the Inn, though, the Innkeeper served crepes for breakfast and had me whisk together a second bowl of batter in case we ran out. We didn't, but she then wanted to cook and store the crepes for later use. Once she started cooking, though, she was interrupted by the guests, leaving me to stare in horror at the empty kitchen and the steaming skillet.

Well, I survived that trial by fire, managing to flip that crepe successfully and then finishing off the rest of the batter with very little ado. So I thought, why not try making crepes at home sometime?

The weather turned downright gloomy today, so instead of following my initial inclination to make a pasta dish or a pot of soup, I decided to make an Indian dish of paneer, potatoes, zucchini, spinach, jalapenos, and assorted spices that I could use to stuff buckwheat crepes.

After making a batch of fresh paneer, the rest of the filling fell together with little effort, and I was able to set it aside to cool while I took a break. When I returned, I whisked together the batter for the crepes, using local buckwheat and spelt flours, local maple sugar, and all local dairy (milk and butter) and eggs. I pulled out my trusty cast iron skillet and got down to work.

Whether it was due to the cast iron skillet, the different batter, or even the time change, I'm not sure, but I had difficulty in making the crepes as thin as they ought to be, though after the first crepe I had no trouble in flipping each one as they cooked.

Pretty soon, I'd scraped the last of the batter into the skillet and finished cooking the seventh crepe, so I decided to assemble my dinner. I added a generous scoop of filling to two crepes, rolled them up, and coated them with an easy tomato-mustard sauce.

I'd forgotten how satisfying crepes could be, especially when stuffed with plenty of good vegetables from the farmers' market, homemade cheese, and warming spices. Even though none of the elements of the meal turned out quite as I had hoped, they worked so well together that their imperfections seemed irrelevant.

And after such a filling meal, I had little desire for dessert aside from the smallest crepe rolled up with cinnamon sugar leftover from this morning's baking, plus a cup of chai.

I haven't quite perfected my crepe-making skills, but at least now I'm not afraid to try!

Doughnut Adjust Your Set

Back when I was very young, barely versed in the baking skills, I used to watch the Chef Mother in action. Though I don't remember us having anything truly fancy (aside from the wedding cakes she used to decorate), sometimes she would pull a new treat out of her hat. And one of the sweet treats that fascinated me the most was her recipe for doughnuts.

It wasn't as though I'd never seen doughnuts before. One of our favorite Saturday morning errands, in fact, was to stop at the local bakery for potato bread, cookies, and fresh glazed doughnuts or cream sticks. But store-bought doughnuts are radically different from what we had at home. The bakery's confections were light and yeasty and fairly crackling with a sugar glaze, whereas the Chef Mother's version had a moist cake-like texture and tasted best when rolled in cinnamon sugar.

Still, our homemade doughnuts passed through the deep-fryer, a small slow-cooker type of pot that sat on the countertop and scared the wits out of me. So I stood back and watched, wide-eyed, as the Chef Mother slipped the dough rings and centers (for we ate the "holes," too -- no waste!) into the bubbling oil and then snared them again, lifting them out to drain.

No doughnuts ever tasted as good (though the ones made by the college dining hall here come awfully close). But having a deep aversion to deep-frying, I never thought I would make them myself.

It wasn't until I spotted a doughnut baking pan in the Bakers' Catalogue that I realized that doughnuts could actually be baked. I didn't buy the pan, but I did start looking online for recipes to try, and this morning I finally decided to give it a go.

Choosing a recipe for baked spice doughnuts, I whipped up the dough, which turned out to be very similar to an enriched yeast bread dough (with warm milk, maple sugar, butter, and egg... all local). I kneaded it and then let it rise for a while before rolling it out and cutting out the doughnuts.

I guess that, in my many relocations over the years, I've lost the center part of my doughnut cutter, because all I could do was to cut out large circles without the inner circle. So I pulled my smallest liqueur glass into service, lip floured, and cut out the center holes with no further problems.

Having arranged the doughnuts and holes on the cookie sheet, I brushed them with butter and let them rise again, then brushed more butter on top and sprinkled them with a mixture of cinnamon and maple sugar before sliding them into the oven.

They smelled heavenly, but I admit that they turned out on the dry side. I know I overbaked the first pan, but even the doughnuts from the second pan were too dry. So I think I'll have to go back and either tweak this recipe or try a different one the next time I want homemade doughnuts.

Because now that I know how easy it is to make doughnuts without the dreaded deep-fryer, I know I'll have to try them again sometime!

Saturday, November 03, 2007

It's Beginning to Smell a Lot Like Christmas

Over the past couple of years, I have largely stopped giving presents at Christmas and Hanukkah (save for the books I give to my Adorable Nephews) and have focused my time, love, and effort on my holiday baking.

Whether it's baking pan after pan of baklava dripping with local honey, boxes of assorted cookies, loaves of bread fresh from the oven, or the occasional all-out feast for friends, I go a little overboard in my baking during the holiday season.

Knowing that I have plenty of work ahead of me, I usually try to get started on the baking in September or October so that I can stash a couple kinds of cookies in the freezer to ease the load later on. But this year, not only was I knee deep in canning jars until October, but I also had very little room left in the freezer!

When I sat down last weekend, then, to figure out my baking plans, it's no wonder that I needed to compile -- of all things! -- a spreadsheet to keep track of all the lucky recipients of all those cookies. And when I totted up the figures, I nearly fainted: almost 30 dozen cookies to bake, not to mention 6 to 8 dozen pieces (3-4 pans) of baklava, nearly half a dozen loaves of bread, and assorted other goodies.

Suffice it to say, I'd better get started!

This morning, then, I pulled out the first recipe: ginger-molasses cookies. I always think that these provide the perfect segue from fall baking to the scents and tastes of the holidays, and since they're the sturdiest cookies of the lot, they're the easiest to freeze and haul out later.

Since I'm making more of an effort this year to incorporate local ingredients in my holiday baking, I'm pleased to report that this cookie dough started with local whole wheat and spelt flours, local butter, a local egg, and local maple syrup. (And with all but the maple syrup, "local" means "from this county.")

It's such a fragrant cookie that I look forward to making it every year. The combination of ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, molasses, and maple syrup mingling with creamy butter and nutty flour never fails to give me that "homey" feeling. And really, I don't even mind the extra time it takes to divide all that dough into small lumps that I roll into small sugar-coated spheres:

Because once I slide the trays of cookies into the oven, and the kitchen fills with that spicy sweet perfume, I know exactly where I am in the framework of the year, and I'm ready for the holiday season to begin.

So many times, we "locavores" talk about eating in season and think only of produce: asparagus only in the spring, at its most tender, or tomatoes only in late summer, when they reach their full ripeness. But for me, eating seasonally also pertains to the recipes I turn to with each turning of the year's wheel. As spring shifts into summer, I want salads and fresh crisp vegetables with light pasta dishes, and as fall becomes crisper, I pull out the soup pot and start a loaf of bread.

And so it is with desserts. I could make these cookies at any time during the year since the staples can be stored for so long. But to me, fall is the only time worth making them. I might make a batch in September and enjoy them with the first cider of the year, but otherwise I wait and let them herald the beginning of the holidays and all the sweet treats that lie ahead.

Don't get me wrong: I'm very happy that there are still several weeks until Christmas arrives. But from the sweet scent of the air in my kitchen today, I know that it's time to start getting ready for the holidays and all the joy they bring.

And for the next few weeks, that's what I'll be doing -- baking for the holidays.