Friday, October 31, 2008

It's a jungle in here: Of herb gardens and savory muffins

Herbs are so rewarding for a gardener of very little talent. The only way anything grows around here is of its own initiative. I put it in the ground, and then it's sink or swim time. But this year I sprinkled some plant food on the garden and the plants really were happy.

This week freezing temperatures hit here in Georgia, earlier, actually than average. Although I do love the crisp weather, it means the end of my little herb garden. Last year I dug up the herbs and brought them in for the winter but they were a pretty pathetic lot, and only one pot of oregano survived to be planted outside in the spring.

This year I decided to harvest the herbs, and let the perennials go dormant outside. (I'm hoping against hope that they come back next year.) I brought in the little pots of arugula, cilantro, and flat leaf parsley that I bought in September. And I cut all of the basil, oregano, thyme, and sage and stuck it in glass jars and vases.

Herb pots and vases of cut herbs join the three pre-existing unruly plants on my kitchen counter. The plant in the middle is a cutting from a Cuban Ivy plant that belonged to my grandmother Olga (1885-1973).
Faced with the bounty of the harvest, I got busy researching recipes for these herbs. First up was a recipe for Sweet Potato Muffins with Fresh Sage, that I'd seen on the Baking and Books blog. It uses a modest amount of sage, but the picture and the recipe intrigued me.

cook's notes

- Faced with the prospect of grating a hard sweet potato by hand, I suddenly remembered that my new food processor came with a shredder attachment. Boy, is that ever handy! I shredded the sweet potato and the cheese in no time.

- I added 1/8 tsp finely ground black pepper.

- The batter was really thick, so I added a couple tablespoons of plain yogurt. I could have added more buttermilk, but I had a lot of yogurt on hand.

- I made 12 minis and 6 med/lg muffins.

- Turning up the heat 4 minutes before the muffins were done was not going to work on the first bake-through of this recipe, so I skipped that.

mini muffins with a mini sage sprig

the verdict

I love a good savory muffin or bread. And I loved the idea of these muffins. But they didn't deliver that fantastic cheesy/sagey experience I was expecting.

I enjoyed the first muffin, warm from the oven with a pat of butter. But they are missing something. They absolutely don't work without the butter. Or without being warmed. I gave my brother half a muffin over lunch and he agreed. In fact he didn't want the other half.

I think they would be fine split, toasted, and piled with something, sort of sandwich style. Otherwise they are a bit bland and lacking. If I were to make them again, I think I'd add some grated onion. And maybe some bacon! (of course!) Also I think I'd substitute some rolled oats for some of the flour.

I do like the sweet potato in the muffin - it looks great, boosts the nutritional profile, and adds a subtle sweet-potato-ness. If I don't make this recipe again, I'll try adding some grated sweet potato to a different savory muffin recipe.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Eat Your Veggies! Farmland Vegetable Pie

I included yellow squash in my veggie order last week, trying to catch the last of the summer produce. I figured that I'd find something to do with it once it arrived. Some quick research turned up a few appealing possibilities, but I finally settled on this recipe from August's Gourmet - a vegetable pie that features yellow squash. (I've also included the recipe with my notes at the end of this post.) I had all of the ingredients, with the exception of okra. Most of the online reviewers substituted green beans for the okra, but one lone cook opined, "your loss if you leave it out." So, I bought some.

I mostly think okra is slimy and nasty, but my husband loves it. He's not such a big fan of yellow squash, so I figured that if I was making him eat the squash, I'd eat okra. It would either be "something for everyone to like" or "something for everyone to dislike!"

You bet I cut that okra into really small pieces!
cook's notes:

- I only had a pound of squash, so I made up the difference with green beans.

- I used gruyere for some of the cheese because nothing says "savory melted cheese" quite like gruyere.

- I sprinkled some extra cornmeal and also some flour to absorb juices as the pie cooked. It still bubbled over.

- The recipe advises 45 minutes of active preparation time, and 2 hours start to finish. Lies, all lies! I started cooking this around 5:00 pm and pulled it out of the oven at 8:15 pm. We ate it without waiting for it to cool the recommended 15 minutes.

- Cooking this pie meant lots and lots of chopping, and many different steps. Plus, I got every bowl, pot, pan, utensil, and countertop in the kitchen dirty (3 bowls, 2 colanders, 3 pans, food processor, knives, measuring cups, grater, etc., etc., etc.) While the pie baked I did have time to hack away at the mountain of dishes.

- The crust was not very pie-like but more like a thin, firm cornbread layer - it had a hollow sound when I tapped the top. I'm not sure if this is how it was supposed to turn out or if I over-processed it (possible) or over-handled it (I was pretty careful about that), or that I'd included some whole wheat pastry flour (maybe). It tasted good though.

- Although the recipe said to let it cool at least 15 minutes, we dug right in. It was 8:15 and we just weren't going to wait another minute for dinner. I'm not sure the waiting would matter. I served it accompanied by... a glass of wine. It was late, I didn't want to prepare one more thing, and I reasoned that the pie had everything anyway: carbs, protein, and nearly every vegetable known to man.

the verdict:

Luckily, all the effort was worth it. We loved this. There was a ton left over, so we ate it for the rest of the week! I did manage to add some salad for the leftover days.

All the flavors melded together and nothing dominated. The cup of basil seemed like so much when I stirred it in, but along with the cooked + raw scallions it gave a great taste. I'd definitely add the full amount of eggs next time. They were great in there and help make it a "one pot" meal. A spinach salad with some citrus would be great on the side.

What I really like is how unusual this recipe is. In a million years, with a million typewriters, I'd never be able to think up this combination of ingredients and steps. It was a total change from what I usually cook. And it was so delicious!

for next time:

- The green beans were a great addition/ substitution for part of the squash. They should be added to the saute pan a few minutes before the squash and okra, though, because they take longer to cook.

- Cooking this was a lengthy process, so I won't be making it frequently. But it's great to have in the repertory. It makes a pretty huge pie, which was almost a problem for the 2 of us. Three dinners of the same thing in a week can be problematical around here (and I didn't think it would freeze well fully-cooked). So, next time I'd make 1/2 or 2/3 recipe. Or invite company to join us!

- Doing the recipe in stages in advance would help spread out the work on this recipe. Chopping ingredients, cooking the veggies, shredding the cheese, boiling the eggs, making and chilling the dough, could all be done early.

- I'd be tempted to cut out the crust and bake this casserole-style with a buttermilk-cornbread- biscuit type topping, but my husband really enjoyed the crust just as it was.

Farmland Vegetable Pie

For filling:
1 1/2 pounds yellow squash, cut into 1-inch pieces (1 lb)
1 bunch scallions, chopped, keeping greens separate
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil (2T. olive oil + 1 tsp bacon drippings of course)
1/4 pound okra, trimmed and sliced (3 oz)
5 oz green beans, trimmed in 1” lengths
1 pound yellow tomatoes, seeded and chopped (red)
1/2 cup corn kernels (from 1 ear)
1 1/2 cups coarsely grated Havarti or Muenster cheese (4 1/2 ounces) (1 oz havarti + 1.5 oz muenster + 1 oz gruyere)
1 cup chopped basil
1 tablespoon cornmeal (not stone-ground) (I used a bit more and some flour too)
4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and chopped (I used 2 but will use 4 next time)

For crust:
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour (1 c. all-purpose + ¾ c. whole wheat pastry flour)
1/2 cup cornmeal
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 stick cold unsalted butter, 1/2-inch cubes
3/4 cup whole milk plus additional for brushing (1/2 c. 2% + ¼ c. buttermilk – did not need all of the milk)

Make filling:
1. Place a heavy baking sheet on middle rack of oven, then preheat oven to 400°F.
2. Toss squash with 1 teaspoon salt, then drain in a colander 30 minutes. Pat squash dry.
3. Cook scallions (except greens) and garlic in oil with 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until golden, 4 to 6 minutes. Add squash and okra and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are crisp-tender, 7 to 9 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in tomatoes. (add beans a few minutes earlier, while garlic and scallions are still cooking)
4. Transfer to a large bowl, then toss with corn, cheese, basil, cornmeal, and scallion greens. Season with salt and pepper. (I added extra cornmeal and even sprinkled on some flour to keep the filling from getting watery. I transferred it to the bowl with a slotted spoon, leaving the juice behind)

Make crust and bake pie:
1. Pulse dry ingredients with butter in a food processor until mixture resembles coarse meal with some roughly pea-size butter lumps. Transfer to a bowl and stir in milk until mixture just forms a dough.
2. Gather dough into a ball (I then divided the dough in two, and formed 2 disks) and chill, wrapped in plastic wrap, 5 minutes (I put it in the freezer - I don't think 5 minutes in the fridge gets much chilling done).
3. Roll out 1 piece of dough on a well-floured surface with a floured rolling pin into a 13-inch round. Transfer to a 9-inch glass pie plate, leaving overhang.
4. Spread eggs evenly in crust and season with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Add vegetable filling, mounding slightly in middle.
5. Roll out remaining dough in same manner and place over filling. Trim, leaving a 1/2-inch overhang. Press edges of crust together. Fold overhang under and crimp edge all around.
6. Brush crust with additional milk, then cut 3 steam vents.
7. Bake until crust is golden and filling is bubbling, 50 minutes to 1 hour. (45 minutes, including 20 min at convect setting.) Cool at least 15 minutes before slicing. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Honestly, could you do this in 45 minutes of prep time? No, me either.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

{TWD} Chocolate cupcakes with mocha filling

The assignment for this week's TWD was "Chocolate-Chocolate Cupcakes*" on pages 215-217 of Dorie Greenspan's book Baking From My Home to Yours, chosen by Clara of I Heart Food4Thought. See that little "*" up above? Here's the footnote for the selection: "*Clara mentioned that it might be fun to decorate your cupcakes for Halloween." This baking group is filled with amazing, creative, and even over-the-top bakers. If you want to see some spook-tacular Halloween cupcake creations, check out the blogs of the other 200-odd TWD bakers. And if you don't have Dorie's book, you can find the recipe on Clara's post.

I knew that I wasn't going to go all-out on Halloween-themed cupcakes, so I picked up some decorative accents in Halloween colors at Marshalls and Cost Plus World Market. A bigger worry came up when I read this week's Problems & Questions post. Lots of bakers were ending up with dry cupcakes - and ones that weren't very chocolaty.

This led to a dilemma for me. Philosophically I am in the make-it-as-written school. This is Dorie's book and I want to see how her recipes taste. But often I just can't resist the temptation to make the recipes a wee bit healthier. And in this case, I really didn't want to spend (a) time, (b) good chocolate, and (c) my weekly sweets allotment on dry cupcakes. So I tried to come up with a compromise: stay close to the spirit of Dorie's recipe while making a few tiny changes that would keep the cupcakes moist and chocolaty.

cook's notes:

the cupcakes

- rather than have a leftover egg white, I used the following equivalent for 1 egg + 1 egg yolk:
1 egg + 1/8 c Eggbeaters

- To boost the chocolate flavor, I used the following:
a heaping 1/4 c cocoa (Scharffen Berger)
2.25 oz bittersweet chocolate (Valrhona Noir Amer 71%)
1 tsp espresso powder dissolved in 1 tsp hot water

- To increase moistness, I added (in addition to the buttermilk in the recipe):
1/2 T Lyles Golden Syrup
1 heaping T Greek Yogurt

- I used 4.5 oz for my cup of flour.

- To diminish the chance of overcooking:
I baked them at 340 degrees for 20 minutes

- I used silicone cupcake "papers" which are a dream to work with. They don't require greasing, can be filled separately, and because they are flexible the cupcakes pop right out. I weighed each one individually to ensure the cupcakes would be the same size.

- The cupcakes were springy and moist when I pulled them from the oven. They were rounded but the tops had cracked significantly.

- The recipe made 12 small cupcakes.

the ganache glaze

- I used Valrhona and Callebaut Bittersweet

- The ganache came together plenty thick, almost frosting-like. It was not difficult to spread, and there was the perfect amount for 12 cupcakes.

the filling

- I filled 6 with mocha filling and left 6 plain. The filled ones were topped with chocolate covered sunflower seeds, and the plain ones with orange fruit drops.

- I had never used a pasty bag, but luckily my daughter J.D.E left hers in my kitchen while she's abroad this year.

- When I was filling the cupcakes I could feel them about to crack. I've only sampled one, but there wasn't a lot of filling in that one, and it wasn't down far enough, I think. Clearly, I will need more practice before I figure out the filling technique, especially on small cupcakes like these.

Milk Chocolate Mocha Filling (adapted from this recipe - thank you, Google!)

1. Chop 1 oz. milk chocolate (I used a I used a Chocopologie mocha-coffee milk chocolate bar)
2. Dissolve 1/2 tsp espresso powder in 2 T hot water
3. Pour espresso over the milk chocolate and stir until chocolate is melted.
4. Stir in 1/2 T heavy cream
5. Set chocolate mixture aside to cool
6. Cream 2 oz (1/2 stick) room temperature unsalted butter
7. Add 1/2 cup powdered confectioner's sugar to the butter, and cream together with spoon until smooth
8. Add cooled chocolate mixture to butter mixture and stir until incorporated.
This makes enough for 9-12 cupcakes.

the verdict

I know there's a rather sizeable cupcake bandwagon riding around out there, but I've never been on it. Believe it or not, I think these are the first cupcakes I've ever made that weren't from a box mix!

I like the way the cupcakes turned out. They were REALLY, REALLY good. They were (thankfully) not dry, but had a fine, dense, moist crumb. They were not overly sweet, but had a deep dark flavor from the bittersweet chocolate and the coffee. They absolutely demanded a glass of milk.

The only one that I've eaten was a filled one. The mocha filling is a great complement to the cupcake and the ganache. The biggest surprise is how good the sunflower seeds are one these - they add a great crunchy note without introducing a separate flavor per se (unlike nuts). It's actually a good thing that these are so small, because a little goes a LONG way. I ate half of one when I was frosting and photographing them, and the other half several hours later after dinner. Really, half was almost too much.

I am pleased to have (a) found a delicious filling, and (b) survived my first attempt at filling cupcakes with a pastry bag.

The rest of the cupcakes are in the freezer. I hope to bring them to book club this Thursday or next. If not, they are going to work with my husband. I do want to sample a plain one first, though.

For portable, tasty and cute finger food treats, it's hard to beat these cupcakes. Happy Halloween, y'all!

{Update, 10/30/08:
I pulled the cupcakes out of the freezer for my book group this evening, and they were FAR BETTER than the day I made them. The crumb had softened although it was still quite tight. The flavor was mellower and richer. Everybody loved them; the mocha filled ones were the best, and the choc sunflower seeds added a great crunch. I might actually consider making these again!}

Monday, October 27, 2008

Monday morning wins!

Here's a nice way to start the week: Michelle of Sweet Sensations has given my blog the Premio Arte y Pico Award*. I enjoy Michelle's blog because she's always cooking up delicious food - sweet and savory - and sharing her kitchen with friends and family. Thanks so much for thinking of me, Michelle!

I'll pass the award to the following blogs. Each of them makes for a fabulous read, so grab a cup of tea and check them all out!

Prudy of Prudence Pennywise
Michelle of Flourchild
Tealady of Tea and Scones
Jacque of Daisy Lane Cakes
Laura of She's Cooking Now

Oh, and I've posted the rules below, but it matters not to me if you pass this award or not. I just want you to know how cool I think your blog is.

*Here's the scoop on the award, and its rules:

"This award was created in Uruguay by a fellow blogger who makes dolls exclusively from recycled materials. Her blog can be reached by clicking here. The rules for this award include the following: Pick 5 blogs that you consider deserve this award, creativity, design, interesting material, and also contributes to the blogger community, no matter of language.
  1. Advertise name of the author and also a link to his or her blog to be visited by everyone
  2. Each award-winner, has to show the award and put the name and link to the blog that has given her or him the award itself.
  3. Award-winner and the one who has given the prize has to show the link of “Arte y pico” blog, so everyone will know the origin of this award.
  4. Share these rules."
I also received a blog award from Amanda at Amanda's Cooking, a blogger who cooks up lots of cool food and shares her honest assessements. Thanks to her, I'm scratching Black Bean Brownies off my "to bake" list! And thanks for the award, Amanda.

This award doesn't seem to have attached rules, so I'll pass it to three wonderful (food, of course) blogs:
Mary of The Food Librarian
Pamela of Cookies With Boys
Amy Ruth of Amy Ruth Bakes

Sunday, October 26, 2008

{Cooking Light Night} Halibut with Bacon and Mushrooms

Isn't it funny that once you become obsessed with something, you tend to see it everywhere? Ever since my love affair with with Benton bacon lardons began, bacon recipes seem to jump out at me at every turn. (Not to mention the recipes where I say, "Hmm, that would be even better with a few lardons.")

This week I replenished my supply of lardons, so I was good to go when I spotted this recipe from Cooking Light in the Sept 2007 magazine. It always gives me a kick to make a "light" recipe that uses verboten ingredients like bacon and bacon drippings (thanks, Cathy, for the awesome vocabulary word!) And this recipe called for fresh thyme, so my little herb garden came into play.

I wasn't sure how the bacon/onion/mushroom thing would go with the halibut thing. A few of the online reviews thought the elements didn't mesh, but I was hoping my taste buds would disagree. As an aside, I love how the Cooking Light recipes are online, so no matter where I run across the recipe I can type it in and find lots of tips and feedback from the reviewers.

cook's notes:

- I used precooked bacon lardons, and drippings, both from the freezer - had no idea how much to use. It seemed weird that the recipe would use all of the drippings from 4 slices of bacon. I added about 1-2 T drippings to my pan, and estimated that 4 oz of cooked lardons would equal the 4 slices of bacon.

- At 3-4 minutes, the mushrooms gave off their liquid. I decided I wanted the mushrooms golden, so scraped out the onions and cooked until the liquid evaporated and the mushrooms were browned. In the future I'd cook the mushrooms with the thyme and add the onions towards the end.

- I skipped the rice and served the fish with salt potatoes and steamed green beans. Rice and fish just didn't sound that appealing to me.

- Although the recipe is in the "Superfast" "20 Minutes" section of the magazine, I didn't find it quick - there were several steps. Luckily only one pan. If I hadn't started with cooked bacon, it would have taken even longer. No way this was a 20 minute recipe.

the verdict:

Our reactions to this recipe were a bit mixed. My husband LOVED it, but I just was not bowled over. My fish got a bit tough simmering on the stovetop. The bacon was fine with the onions and mushrooms (although the lardons really didn't get a chance to shine), but I thought they were a bit jarring with the fish. Hubby didn't see that problem at all. He also said he would have liked this with rice. Unfortunately for him, I don't see myself making this recipe again, when I have these favorite ways to prepare halibut:

Roasted Halibut with a Walnut Crust
Panko Crusted Halibut with Chile Cilantro Aioli
Roasted Halibut with Sage

Friday, October 24, 2008

Not for the faint-of-salt

My box of veggies had a pound of lovely fingerling potatoes last week, perfect for trying a new recipe. I had a few in mind, but decided to see if Alton Brown's Perfect Fingerling Potatoes could live up to their title. Reading closer, I saw that salt crystals were supposed to form as the potatoes were resting on a drying rack. Many reviews concluded that these were too salty, but one reviewer mentioned that they were like potatoes she had eaten in Syracuse. Ooh, this was a recipe for Salt Potatoes, which I'd eaten at a fair in August in Central New York!

Now, if ever a recipe was perfect for our family, this would be it. We tear through salt at record pace, especially my husband. He has clinically low blood pressure, though, so it's OK. A low sodium diet would be possibly the worst culinary sentence that could be passed on our household.

It had never occurred to me to make salt potatoes, just as I'd never make funnel cakes, or deep fried mars bars, or kettle corn, or any other "fair food" I've run across. But fortified by Alton Brown's claim of potato superiority, I dove right in.

cook's notes:

-This recipe is simple, a ton o' salt, some water, and potatoes. I halved everything for 1 pound of potatoes.

- I cut my potatoes because they were not "small" fingerlings

- I used some "ice cream rock salt" that I'd bought for my previous ice cream maker, of recent memory (before I realized that it was dearly departed).

- While the potatoes were simmering away, a salt crust kept forming on the sides of the pan. I brushed it down with a damp pastry brush, but this was largely for my own amusement. Don't worry about the quantity of salt on the sides; there will be plenty for the potatoes.

- Salt crystals did form as these potatoes sat on the rack. You can probably see them if you click on the photo below, and the top photo.

the verdict:

I served the fingerlings drizzled with a melted butter/cracked pepper mixture.
These potatoes were really salty. Duh. They were tasty, and brought back memories of sitting in the food tent in Bouckville. I think these might have been even saltier than those, and they had a nice crispy crust that the ones in New York had lost by swimming for a few hours in a lake of butter.

Besides our family, however, I don't know anyone else who loves salt enough to serve them these potatoes. Unless I run across some folk from Central New York who are homesick! These would be best eaten at lunchtime, because you will be thirsty for hours afterwards. I'd might try cutting the salt quantity by a quarter to a third next time.

I'm not sure I'd call these fingerlings "perfect" as Alton does, but we did really enjoy them.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Frost is on the Pumpkin

They’s something kindo’ harty-like about the atmusfere
When the heat of summer’s over and the coolin’ fall is here –
Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossums on the trees,
And the mumble of the hummin’-birds and buzzin’ of the bees;
But the air’s so appetizin’; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days
Is a pictur’ that no painter has the colorin’ to mock –
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.
-James Whitcomb Riley

I'm not what I'd call "creative" cook. Any more than I'm a creative writer. In both I'm more of an editor - I can do a decent job of correcting prose, and over the past 23 years of daily cooking, I've developed a working ability to read and change a recipe. Or combine a few different recipes. I don't have the knack for starting from scratch and whipping up a whole new dish. But this week was different!

Faced with a half can of pumpkin after making my TWD pumpkin muffins, I was inspired to make a batch of pumpkin frozen yogurt - with no recipe in sight - and this time it just turned out. My ice cream freezer is new*, and my previous attempts at frozen yogurt were spotty. But this yogurt was really tasty!

Pumpkin Rum Raisin Frozen Yogurt

1 cup pumpkin
6 oz sweetened condensed milk
1 cup 2% Greek yogurt
1/4 cup apple juice
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ginger
pinch cloves
pinch allspice
hand full of raisins
1/4 cup rum

Mix ingredients through the spices in a mixing bowl. Chill for an hour, then churn in an ice cream maker.

Heat the rum in the microwave and pour over the raisins in a small bowl. When the churning is nearly finished, add the raisins - and 2 tsp of the rum - into the ice cream maker.

the verdict:

This made for a very creamy pumpkin and spice frozen yogurt. We loved it! I'm wondering about using evaporated milk next time, and sweetening with maple or brown sugar. So many possibilities!

*The ice cream freezer saga may be posted at a future date. . .

23 years of sugar and spice

... and everything nice!

Special birthday greetings to my oldest daughter A.L.E., who is 23 today! Do you remember that crazy butterfly garden you received as a birthday present when you were 7?

This butterfly has been hanging around the front flower pots all morning. Blue dog went nose-to-nose with it, but of course my camera was off at that moment.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

{TWD} Pumpkin Muffins

The very best part of autumn is the coming of pumpkin season! Beginning in October, Einstein's Bagels sells their pumpkin bagels (along with pumpkin cream cheese and a pumpkin cupcake). And of course, the pumpkin pie is the star of Thanksgiving dinner (or at least it shares the stage with the dressing and gravy!)

About 15 years ago I found a pumpkin bread recipe in the New York Times (included at the end of this post.) It's become my standard, and is the second best pumpkin bread I've ever tasted. The best pumpkin bread is the "one that got away" - it was served at a big church gathering, and although I came close I never could quite track down the recipe. For me, really good pumpkin bread - or muffins - should be dark, moist, and dense, with lots of pumpkin and spice flavors.

For this week's TWD challenge, Kelly of Sounding My Barbaric Gulp chose a recipe for pumpkin muffins on p. 13 of Dorie Greenspan's book Baking From My Home to Yours . Dorie introduces the recipe (originally from Sarabeth Levine) with this claim: "The best pumpkin muffins in New York.... They're so good they ought to be the standard for all pumpkin muffins in the world." I couldn't wait to see if these would live up to Dorie's hype! (You can find the recipe in Kelly's post if you don't have the book)

cook's notes

In order to gauge these highly-praised muffins, I hewed to the recipe as closely as I could. There were lots of things I was sorely tempted to change, but made only these minor variations:

a) substituted 1/4 cup ground Elliot pecans for the chopped nuts
b) used equivalent amount of eggbeaters rather than eggs
c) replaced the golden raisins with currants plumped in boiling apple juice - I used the fruit for half the muffins and left the other half plain
d) stirred in half all purpose flour and half King Arthur white whole wheat flour
e) sprinkled roasted pepitas on the tops- what could be more perfect for pumpkin muffins than pumpkin seeds?

- I used silicone muffin pans. These need no paper liners and no additional butter to line the muffin cups.

- My muffins baked at 375 for 19 or 20 minutes

- Any extra pumpkin puree can be frozen for a future use.

the verdict

These muffins have a fluffy and light texture and a delicate flavor of pumpkin and spices. They were well cooked and moist. We liked them a lot. I made them on the first crisp day we've had this year, and they did a nice job of ushering in the autumn feeling.

I've wrapped up the muffins and they are in the freezer. On October 30 my book group is having a taste test of these muffins and pumpkin muffins made by one of the other members. I'll report back!

In the meantime, however, I must admit that I prefer my usual pumpkin bread/muffin recipe to Dorie's muffins. It is denser and more flavorful. It's also lower in fat, as it's oil not butter based. I usually reduce the oil, by substituting plain nonfat yogurt (or fat free sour cream, or applesauce) for part of it. Using the "lighter flavor" olive oil boosts the monounsaturated fat ("good" fat), making for a relatively guilt free - but just as delicious - bread.

The pumpkin-to-flour ratio in the two recipes is very similar, but there are significant differences in the other ingredients. Dorie's muffins have 50% more egg and a third more fat than those from "my" recipe. This is what makes hers fluffier and less intensely flavored and mine denser and more pumpkin-y. The spices in Dorie's lean more to cinnamon/ginger, and mine more to cinnamon/nutmeg/clove.

Hmm, I think I need to invite Dorie over for a few bites of my pumpkin bread.

This is the trusty recipe I've used for years:

Victoria's Pumpkin Bread
from ‘The Dairy Hollow House Cookbook’

2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
½ tsp ground cloves
¼ tsp ground ginger
dash allspice
6 cups unbleached white flour (can use half whole wheat pastry flour or white whole wheat)
1 c mild vegetable oil
½ cup yogurt (I often use ¾ c oil and ¾ c yogurt)
4 eggs or equivalent egg substitute
3 c sugar (can use part brown sugar)
2 ½ c. unsweetened pumpkin puree
1 c. chopped black walnuts (I never use nuts)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. In large bowl, sift together the cinnamon, baking powder, nutmeg, baking soda, salt, ground cloves, ground ginger, allspice and flour. Set aside

3. In a separate bowl, mix together the vegetable oil, yogurt, eggs, sugar and pumpkin. Mix until smooth.

4. Combine the two mixtures and beat until smooth. Fold in the walnuts.

5. Pour the batter into 3 8x4 or 9x5 inch loaf pans (no more than 2/3 up the pan)

6. Bake for around 1 hour, or until the loaves shrink away from the sides of the pan and have a hollow sound when tapped. Test for doneness after 45 minutes.

Monday, October 20, 2008

{Cooking Light Night} Pasta with Prosciutto and Parmesan

I was paging through my September 2007 Cooking Light Magazine and ran across this recipe for Cavatappi with Prosciutto and Parmesan. It was cited in the magazine as an example of the principle to "seek quality ingredients." Sounds like a good idea to me. The recipe uses small quantities of a few ingredients, so it's not too difficult to bust out the best olive oil in the pantry.

cook's notes

This recipe came together quickly - everything can be assembled in the time it takes for the pasta to cook.

- There was no cavatappi in my pasta drawer, but I happened to have exactly half a pound of Montebello organic Conchiglie that I'd picked up at Cost Plus World Market last week.

- I bought about half a pound of Bora proscuitto, sliced thin but not shaved. I trimmed the bands of fat, and then cut the remaining meat into medium/small pieces. I froze my extra meat in 1 oz packages for future use.

- The parmesan is easy to shave with a vegetable peeler.

- To save time later, you can freeze chopped italian parsley, and measure it straight from the freezer.

- It pays to use as high quality ingredients as you can for this dish, and it's fairly economical to do so because you use so little of each ingredient.

- If you wanted to make this vegetarian, you could probably substitute sliced sun dried tomatoes or black olives or sauteed mushrooms for the prosciutto.

- I was tempted to toss in some spinach or arugula (or even chard) at the end and let it wilt on top of the pasta, but I recently learned that my husband doesn't like greens mixed into his savory food. A side dish of cooked greens is his idea of heaven, and he loves salad (eating a mixing-bowl full every night at dinner) but doesn't like them in pastas or soups. Hmm, I learn something new about this man even after 27 years of marriage!

- This recipe says it makes four 1-cup servings, which imo is not enough for a full dinner. For us it served 2 as a dinner main course. My plate is pictured above, and my husband's had about 30% more. A big salad accompanied the pasta.

the verdict

This was a perfect quick weeknight supper. The simplicity of the recipe really allowed the ingredients to shine. It was a great vehicle for the "good" olive oil. And the prosciutto really added a special touch. The flavor combination is reminiscent of a pasta carbonara, but without the high calories from the egg and/or cream. We loved it so much that I will make it regularly.

btw, thanks again to CB of I Heart Food4Thought for giving permission to use her "Cooking Light Night" logo. I haven't yet been disappointed by a CL recipe!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Aww, thanks!

Tealady of Tea and Scones has given me a blog award! It's funny how receiving an award is a real shot in the arm. Anyway, I think the rules are to pass this on to 5 other blogs. So, I will tag:

1. Anne of Anne Strawberry
Anne is an accomplished cook and photographer. It's always a pleasure to visit her site and see what she's been up to!

2. Clara of I Heart Food 4 Thought
This blog has some delicious food and fantastic step-by-step photos. Clara invented Cooking Light Night, and I've really had a great time exploring the CL recipes.

3. Lady Baker of Lisa is a Baker
I love reading Lady Baker's posts for TWD. They are entertaining and enthusiastic. The marching band photo on her biscotti post just knocked me over!

4. Charity of Sweet Charity Pie
Charity cooks some amazing looking food. I've bookmarked many of them for a future time when I want to bake (and don't have tons of TWD baked goods on my counter and in my freezer!)

5. Steph of A Whisk and a Spoon
I'll have to say that Steph whips up (stirs up?) some of the most beautiful and tasty creations around. She's creative and talented, and I always enjoy her posts.

As far as I'm concerned, these awards are an expression of appreciation from me to the recipients. It matters not to me if you all pass them on or not!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

{Make it Quick} Roasted Halibut with Sage

I have a nice little herb garden, and for some reason I tend to neglect using the sage. This year I've been cooking with it a lot more, which is great because my husband and I both love sage's flavor. So much so that now sage has become one of my culinary obsessions.

On Tuesday I bought some halibut (which sadly is about to go out of season). I visited with my friend Google to look for a recipe combining halibut and sage. I ended up with this recipe for Roasted Halibut with Sage, from a fish blog called "Beyond Salmon."

Sorry for this dismal picture - dinner was late and I had two seconds to shoot something!
cook's notes

-The recipe calls for duck fat, but allows for a butter substitution for those of us pathetic cooks who don't have a ready supply of duck fat in the fridge. I used olive oil for the first step and butter for the finishing of the sauce.

- I didn't have any pan juices after taking the fish out of the oven, but just put the butter and wine in the dry pan and smooshed the sage around in it.

- My fish pieces broke when I was trying to transfer them out of the pan.

- Cod, monkfish, or striped bass can be used in place of the halibut.

the verdict

This was a simple, quick, and delicious way to prepare halibut AND to use some of my homegrown sage. My husband and I both loved it. The subtle taste of the fish was front and center complemented nicely by the sage/wine/butter/salt/pepper.

Fall Haul!!

Now I have proof that Fall is here! Well, not "here" exactly, because "here" it's an unseasonable 85 degrees and sunny. But the apple section at Whole Foods confirmed to me that it is indeed that wonderful time of year. There, in between the Gala and the Granny Smith, were Macoun apples and I bought about 15 pounds of them! This is just the best apple in the world, a New York State cross between Mackintosh and Jersey Black. Last year my book group did an apple taste test, and these won, the hands down favorite with everyone.

I buy as many as I can each fall, and keep them in the basement fridge. I've even been known to order box-loads from a New York orchard, but that can be tricky. The period of availability is very short, and the apples have to be shipped before New York experiences freezing temps, as they can't be mailed after that.

Luckily I've been able to find them at Whole Foods. Each fall for a limited time. So I'll be eating one of these every day, and maybe sparing a few for cooking also.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

{TWD} Rustic Almond Biscotti, plain and fancy

{This tiny mille fleur cup and plate were owned by my "maiden" Aunt Mid (Mildred). My cousin recently mailed them to me along with some lovely linens that were my grandmother's}
Finally I get to write a short-and-sweet post for Tuesdays With Dorie! Making the Lenox Almond Biscotti (chosen this week by Gretchen of Canela & Comino) was a straightforward and uneventful experience. No stovetop molten sugar was involved, thankfully!

I often bake the TWD challenges very early, usually before the helpful P&Q is posted. Since I was out of town last week, I baked them Sunday afternoon, and had the benefit of all th
e wonderful feedback and suggestions. Based on what I read, I refrigerated the dough so that the logs would not spread quite so much as they baked.

I knew that the biscotti would be a bit grainy from the cornmeal, so I decided to emphasize that and make mine rustic. I used ground almonds,
part whole wheat flour, and a bit of wheat germ.

cook's notes

I followed Dorie's recipe with the following minor adjustments:
- Used half AP flour and half King Arthur White Whole Wheat flour
- Reduced the cornmeal to 1/4 cup
- Omitted the sliced almonds and used 3/4 c. ground almonds (with a food processor, it's really really easy to make almond meal)
- Threw in a palm-full of wheat germ
- Added 1 tsp grapefruit zest with the wet ingredients
- Used 1/2 cup Eggbeaters instead of 2 eggs

Further notes:
- I stirred chopped sour cherries into half of the dough, leaving the other half plain.
- The dough was very sticky, but I don't know how much my alterations changed the texture.
- I formed skinny logs approximately 14" long
- I chilled logs for 1/2 hour on their baking sheet before popping them into the oven.
- My oven was set at 335 degrees on "convect bake"
- The biscotti were springy in about 18 minutes
- Once they cooled and were cut (3/4"wide), there were 29 biscotti. They were nicely domed, around 3 to 4 inches long
- The second bake was at 325 degrees, again convect, for another 18-ish minutes.
- I dipped the ends of a few of each flavor into melted Callebaut bittersweet chocolate. In the end there were 4 flavor variations (plain, plain with chocolate, cherry, cherry with chocolate).

The Verdict:
These were lovely biscotti. My husband gave the recipe a "10". His preference was the plain ones - although he did like the cherry. He likes basic flavors, well executed (vanilla ice cream is his favorite).

I'm not the world's biggest biscotti fan, but I did enjoy these, especially the cherry ones. They had a definite sandy texture from the cornmeal, ground almonds, whole wheat flour and wheat germ. And even so, these biscotti retained a certain delicacy of flavor. Their AQ (almond quotient) was very high- from the 1.5 tsp of almond extract and the 3/4 cup of ground almonds - and it was very good. I think the grapefruit zest added a freshness. The smell alone was worth the trouble of making these (not so troublesome, actually)!

The chocolate-dipped ones were fine but I preferred them naked. The biscotti would also have looked pretty with some sliced almonds on the tops. They made a good accompaniment to a cup of tea - or coffee. I like them dry, along side the tea, rather than dunked. They are pretty porous and dissolved pretty fast when dunked.

I plan to bring them to book group on Thursday.

You can find the biscotti recipe on pages 141-143 of Dorie Greenspan's book Baking From My Home to Yours or on Gretchen's post.

Next week's TWD challenge = Pumpkin Muffins, page 13. I'm psyched; I love, love, love pumpkin baked goods.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Macaroni and Cheese, Aged and Saged

If I can be said to have a "signature" dish, it would be my macaroni and cheese. I started with the basic Mueller's recipe and have altered it over the years. The resulting dish is cheesy near-perfection. I cook it for practically every family gathering, and it's loved by adults and children alike.

So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I decided to try a different pasta + cheese recipe. But my love affair with Benton bacon lardons, and my little patch of sage outside the front door made me sit up and take notice of two recipes:

1) Delia's Penne with Leeks and Bacon and
2) Classic Macaroni and Cheese with Smoked Bacon, Aged Cheddar, and Fresh Sage on the Food Network's site

After reading both recipes numerous times, I finally chose the Food Network one. Honestly, I should have just flipped a coin and saved myself some time. I made a few changes to the recipe and have a few more things that I'd change next time. My version of the recipe is at the end of this post.

I served the macaroni with steamed rattlesnake green beans from my weekly box o' produce.

cook's notes


- used fully precooked Benton bacon lardons. 2.5 oz (cooked weight) was the perfect amount in this recipe. That should work for any strongly-flavored bacon. For more mild bacon, 4-5 oz cooked would be about right.

- sauteed the onion in a tiny bit of olive oil, and added the bacon with the garlic.

- used 1 can of evaporated skim milk + enough skim milk to make 4 c. total

- used two different cheddars (because I didn't have enough of one kind in my fridge.) Half was Palatine sharp cheddar, a local cheddar that I brought back from Central New York, and half Seaside Cheddar, an aged cheese from England that I bought at Whole Foods. These were both very flavorful sharp cheeses.

- liked the vidalias in this dish. If they are not available, use another sweet variety of onion (walla walla, etc.) or leeks.

- used deep-ish 2 qt casserole dish and didn't need all of the cheese that the recipe calls for on top.

recommendations for next time
There are some easy ways to further reduce the hefty fat content of this dish:

- First prepare the sauce and set it aside briefly while the pasta is cooking.

- Drain the pasta and put it directly into the sauce. This cuts down on the olive oil/greasiness of the finished finished dish.

- Reduce the cheese by 1/3:
- - Put 2/3 cup cheddar and 2/3 cup parmesan in the topping, (just enough for a thin layer across the top of a deep 2 qt casserole.) This recipe would also work with some bread crumbs on top.
- - For the sauce, use about 9-10 oz. of shredded cheddar

I'd also double the sage and eliminate the Italian parsley

the verdict
the flavor of this macaroni and cheese was perfect. Well, the onion, bacon, and cheese were perfect. I wasn't able to taste the sage as much as I'd like. The sauce was a tiny bit oily. The olive oil can be reduced significantly, which I've reflected in the notes and the recipe below. That should help a lot.

My husband liked this better than my regular mac n cheese! With the onion/sage/bacon flavors, I don't think this would be as kid-friendly, however.

Here's the recipe as I'd make it next time:

Classic Macaroni and Cheese with Smoked Bacon, Aged Cheddar and Fresh Sage
(Derek Wagner, edited by Nancy E)


  • 2.5 ounces cooked chopped strongly flavored smoked bacon, or 4 ounces cooked regular bacon, chopped
  • Salt
  • 1 pound dried pasta (elbow macaroni, small shells or orecchiette)
  • Extra-virgin olive oil, as needed
  • 1 cup finely diced Vidalia onion
  • 2 tablespoons fresh minced garlic
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 can evaporated skim milk + skimmed milk to total 4 cups
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon mustard powder
  • 9-10 ounces grated aged sharp Cheddar, and 3-4 ounces grated Parmesan
  • 1 1/2 cups grated cheese: Cheddar and Parmesan (for topping)
  • Kosher salt
  • Cracked black pepper
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 3-4 tablespoons chopped fresh sage leaves, plus leaves for garnish
  • 0-1 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley, plus leaves for garnish

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Grease a 2 quart deep baking dish (or smaller individual dishes).

2. In a saucepan, on medium-high heat, saute onion with a light amount of olive oil until translucent.

3. Add the onion and cook until translucent then add the garlic and cooked bacon.

4. Dust with flour, whisk in milk, cream, nutmeg, and mustard powder. Bring to simmer stirring constantly for several minutes.

5. Whisk in 4 cups of Cheddar and half a cup of Parmesan. Stir until all the cheese is melted. Adjust the seasoning with salt, pepper and lemon juice. Reserve.

6. In a large pot of boiling, salted water, cook elbow macaroni until al dente, about 8 to 10 minutes. Drain.

7. Fold the pasta, sage and parsley into the reserved cheese sauce.

8. Place into baking dish. Top with remaining cheeses, place dish on baking tray, and place in the oven.

9. Bake until golden brown, about 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool about 5 minutes, garnish with parsley and sage leaves and serve!

{update: I'm posting my usual mac n cheese recipe below. It's not too different from the one above, but the sage, bacon, and onion of the other one makes it more 'grown up.' Also, one uses flour and the other cornstarch to thicken the sauce.}

Some of my favorite little people enjoying the mac n cheese at a party at our house several years ago.
Nancy's Macaroni and Cheese

16 oz small pasta shells, cooked al dente (approximately 10 minutes) or other pasta shape such as elbows
4 T. corn starch
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. dry mustard
1/8 tsp. ground white pepper
dash nutmeg
dash cayenne pepper
5 cups milk (combine 2% and evaporated skim milk)
4 T. butter
16 oz. (4 cups) shredded cheese (combine gruyere, sharp white cheddar, mild cheddar, jack)
1 oz. (1/4 c.) grated Parmesan cheese

1. In large saucepan, combine dry ingredients.

2. Stir in milk and whisk until smooth.

3. Add butter.

4. Bring to boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly to avoid scorching.

5. Boil sauce 1 minute, then remove from heat.

6. Reserve ½ cup cheese for topping, and stir remaining cheese into sauce until melted.

7. Add shells to cheese sauce and turn into greased 3 quart casserole.

8. Sprinkle with reserved cheese and extra parmesan.

9. Bake uncovered at 375 degrees for 25 minutes, or until hot and bubble with crust on top.

note: this recipe is wonderful to give away, as either a main dish or a side. At home we always serve it as a main with salad and a veggie.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Hand-mashed Mexican pintos

We have a lovely stash of tamales in the freezer, and I dole them out sparingly. The last time tamales were on the menu, I wanted an accompaniment, and first thought of a black bean salad. The pantry held no cans of black beans, unfortunately, but I did find a nice can of organic pinto beans. So I decided to devise a Mexican bean dish.

I'll have to admit that ordinarily I wouldn't cross the street for a refried bean. When I'm served refried beans in a Mexican restaurant, I leave them on the plate. They're just not that appetizing to me. Well, I will tolerate them in a dip or casserole, but that's about it. But it somehow seemed like a good idea to try my hand at making some.

Here's my very own version:

Nancy's Refried Beans:
- Drain 1 can of pinto beans.

- Alternatively, you could cook your own starting with 1 1/2 - 2 cups of dried beans. (That is, if you decide to make this dish more than 30 minutes before dinner time!) Reserve some of the cooking liquid if you get the chance.

- Brown 4 or 5 lardons* of Benton bacon (you knew I'd slide these in here, right?) or 1 slice of regular bacon, cut into pieces. Reserve the bacon, and wipe out the pan.
*(fancy word for cut up pieces of thick bacon. We happen to be mildly obsessed with lardons around here)

- Add a bit of olive oil to the same pan, and saute 1/2 c chopped onion until it begins to turn golden, about 7 minutes. Add 1 clove of garlic, chopped, and cook for another minute or so.

- Add the beans to the pan and mash lightly with a potato masher. Add water (or cooking liquid if you have any) as necessary to obtain desired consistency.

- Stir the lardons or bacon pieces into the beans.

- Heat thoroughly on the stove top, adding water as necessary.

- Once the beans are served, top them with a touch of shredded pepper jack cheese, chopped raw onion, and cilantro, if desired.

The Verdict:

These beans taste fantastic and were a perfect complement to the tamales. (I also served chips with salsa and guacamole.)

By cooking the fat out of the bacon and discarding it, these beans are much healthier than the standard loaded-with-lard refried beans. The cheese added creaminess and the onions added fresh flavor and a crunchy texture to the dish.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

{Cooking Light Night} Oatmeal Peach Muffins

I'm not sure if this recipe technically qualifies for "Cooking Light Night", since it isn't a dinner, but it is from Cooking Light, and I baked it at night!

Mary Ann of Meet Me in the Kitchen posted some delicious-looking Pear-Oatmeal muffins last week. I bookmarked the recipe, which is on her post, hoping to make it sometime this fall. Then I cut into some white peaches I'd bought, I realized that they didn't have a full enough flavor for peach frozen yogurt that I'd planned to make with them. They were the approximate texture and flavor intensity of pears, so this recipe would be perfect for them. They were more pear-like than some pears I've had!

cook's notes:

- I used 1 cup of King Arthur White Whole Wheat, and 1 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour.

- I used lowfat cottage cheese, because I had some to use up.

- This recipe is a great way to use a little cardamom, just in case anyone happens to have some hanging around (!)

- I made 12 in my new silicone cupcake molds, and 6 in a medium-large muffin pan. They were a bit too full. There's a lot of leavening in this batter, so the muffins rise a good bit.

- I added about 1 tsp. of grapefruit zest. I would have added lemon, but I was down to my last lemon, and had a cut half grapefruit just hanging around in the fridge. I'd add more next time.

the verdict:
These muffins were soft, moist, and delicate. I like the combination of the buttermilk and the cottage cheese. The cardamom/allspice were nice but not overly spicy. I might increase the amount of these, and also increase the amount of citrus zest. The bland peaches I used were a perfect substitute for pears. The recipe was quick and tasty - I'll make these muffins again.

Thanks again to CB of I Heart Food4Thought for giving permission to use her "Cooking Light Night" logo. If you haven't tried this recipe, CB, it's really a great use for ripe fruit.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

{TWD} Brownie Cake with Caramel Brûlé

Subtitle: Continuing Adventures in caramelization

Last week, the "brûlée" part of creme brûlée (literally "burnt cream") totally eluded me, but this week "brûlé" found me even though I wasn't looking for it!

You know what they say about getting back on the horse? Well, I was still a little bit bruised from last week's mishap in the stove-top caramelization saddle, but 4 days later I got back up on that cooked-sugar steed for another TWD recipe.

But first, the cake -

-I made a few tiny changes:
a) Eggbeaters in place of the eggs
b) Lyles Golden Syrup instead of light corn syrup

- I followed a tip I read long ago: when making a chocolate cake, dust the pan with cocoa rather than flour; it prevents that whitish crust that can form on the edges of a chocolate cake when you dust with flour.

-My cake baked for 41 minutes at 325 degrees (my springform is a dark nonstick surface, so I lower the prescribed temperature).

Now for the caramel:

I did some reading about caramel. It still sounded tricky to me. David Lebovitz suggested having a bowl of ice water nearby in case of burns. Molten sugar is not only very hot, but it's very sticky. It adheres to the skin and just keeps burning.

So I set everything up and started heating the sugar/water/corn syrup mixture.

The sugar turned a lovely deep amber color, and I added the butter and cream.

It looked perfect, but I noticed a slightly scorched smell. And taste. Or so I thought. I really needed another opinion, but nobody was around except the dogs. And although the pooches were ready to oblige, I don't think their palates are discriminating enough. So I kept tasting the caramel, and finally lost all perspective. My conclusion: The caramel had character, a note of sophistication, really. In truth, I was tired of working with hot sugar, had no more cream, and not much time. So I used it.

Looking back on the cooking process, although the sugar never burned I think one little area (top left in the picture above) might have scorched (probably when I was shooting the picture!) and that flavor spread throughout the pan as I added the butter and cream. Although Dorie's directions said not to stir during caramelization, I wonder if swirling the pan might have helped it cook more evenly.

As an aside, I was definitely thankful for the bowl of ice water next to the stove, because my thumb was definitely scorched in the cooking process.

Assembly notes:

I don't know what it is about peanuts + chocolate. Dorie is a big proponent, but me? Not so much. The first time I heard that Snickers were the most popular candy bar, I thought, "Really? It has peanuts." (Now, I'll grant you that chocolate and peanut butter is a match made in heaven, but that's completely different.)

So peanuts were not an option. I decided to use salted macadamias instead, since they had worked well in my Chocolate Chunker cookies a few weeks ago. I was baking this cake for my book group, however, and one of the guys, JT, doesn't like nuts, so I decided to put some roughly chopped macadamias just in the center of the cake. For the outer portion of the cake, I used some toffee bits left over from the Banded Ice Cream Torte. JT could just push aside a few nuts from the center of his slice and enjoy the rest.

The Verdict:

This cake was very, very good, thank goodness! The cake part was not as dense as I was expecting. It did have a brownie flavor to it, but to me it also resembled devil's food cake.

Because I divided my toppings into rings, I had three separate taste combinations:
a) In the center section, the mellow buttery chopped macadamia nuts smoothed out the bitter notes in the caramel, and the salty crunch added a great counterpoint to the dense chocolate and sticky caramel.
b)The middle ring was plain caramel, which really spotlighted the textures of the cake layer and the topping. The two flavors combined in a pleasantly complex way.
c) The toffee pieces in the outer ring had a similar flavor to the caramel itself, and provided a nice crunchy texture.

The caramel itself had a pronounced flavor (that was not "burned"). The tasters at book club said that it was kind of a "coffee" taste. It reminded me of toffee - which made the dessert like a cake version of a Heath bar. Which is a very good thing. What's interesting is that both of the mix-ins had the effect of mellowing out the strong edges of my (scorched) caramel's flavor.

Ice cream or whipped cream may have been good with this cake, but I didn't have either one. Not that the cake needed anything else.

In sum, I don't really know if my caramel was "slightly scorched" or "strongly caramelized", but luckily we ended up liking the taste. It was an adult-type flavor. And the leftover caramel was pretty good eaten with a spoon right from the fridge!

The Caramel-Peanut-Topped Brownie Cake on pages 264 and 265 of Dorie Greenspan's book Baking From My Home to Yours was chosen by Tammy of Wee Treats by Tammy. You can find the recipe in Tammy's post, but I'd say buy the book!

{An aside: I'm out of blogging range this week - have set this post up in advance - and won't be reading any blogs or posting any comments. I'll catch up with everyone next week!}