Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Book Your Thanksgiving Pies!

It's time to think about booking your holiday pies! Yes, the Pie Queen had some successful pie-baking for y'all last year, even working out of that tiny, tiny, freezer-less Oakland studio. This year, I have a bigger kitchen and a lot more space at my disposal, so the pie-making will be happier (for me) and even tastier (for you).

What kinds of pies would you like? Here's what PQ's considering, but there's lots more in the repertoire! In general, at this time of year, PQ doesn't want to freak out you (or your guests) by putting weird things into your apple pie. Especially for this very tradition-bound holiday. Then again, PQ has made, upon request, both cherry pie and key-lime pie for Thanksgiving, and a good time was had by all, so if you're longing for Meyer lemon meringue or chocolate silk instead, it can happen. All pies are possible!

Crusts are all-butter; fabulous butter-lard or vegan/nondairy upon request.

Classic Autumn Apple
Made with a mix of tart and sweet California apples, lightly sweetened and spiced. With or without raisins.

Pumpkin No Libby's here! Made with fresh, slow-roasted winter squash, eggs, cream, and spices. A custardy delight!

Sweet Potato A Southern favorite! Made with baked sweet potato, brown sugar, eggs, and cream.

Cranberry-Tangerine Something different! A PQ family fave: tangy, ruby-red, chilled cranberry-tangerine filling in a crunchy walnut crust. Perfect with fresh whipped cream!

Pecan More nuts, less goop! Finally, a pecan pie that doesn't curl your molars. Also available in Chocolate-Pecan.

Pear & Quince A luscious autumn treat.

And a non-pie offering: Cranberry-Walnut Tea Bread. An excellent, lightly sweetened loaf that's perfect toasted and buttered for T-day (or day-after-T-day) breakfast.

Pies are $22-$28 each, and can be baked in a disposable foil pan or in a reusable glass or metal pan (available for refundable deposit or a small additional fee.)

For more info and to set up an order, call me at 415-623-6212 or email at dixieday(at)aol(dot)(com).

*Dietary restrictions: I can't promise a strictly gluten-free or nut-free environment for those with serious allergies. But if you just have a common dietary-choice issue, like being vegan or wheat-free, well, PQ loves a challenge! I can make vegan, wheat-free, dairy-free and/or eggless crusts and fillings, as well as wheat-free crusts. Just ask!*

What's for Dinner? Bugs!

So I helped cook up a very nice Halloween dessert a few days ago, something sure to delight and horrify even the most implacable kid. The recipe? Take one big scoop of ghostly white vanilla ice cream. Pour on a bloody avalanche of ruby-red syrup made from prickly pear (the spiny, dark-red cactus fruit called tuna in Mexican markets), as bright as the outtakes of a Richard Ramirez flick. Then came the coup de grace, the thing to separate the mere Butterfingers-eaters from the true aficianados of the deep-down Halloween scare.

I'm talking, of course, about the worms. The caramelized mealworms, to be precise, crunchy and sweet but absolutely undisguised in their utter mealworm-ness. A bloody sundae topped with actual candied worms: does it get any spookier than that?

Mealworms, it seems, are the larval form of the Tenebrio molitor, the darkling beetle. They're common in California, where they were long part of the diet of native peoples in the region. They were the final creepy-crawly delight in a night of Edible Insects and Other Rare Delicacies at the Headlands Center for the Arts last week. The event, part of a well-publicized trend towards insect-eating was conceived and run by Monica Martinez, a Mexican artist who now runs a special-events company called Don Bugito, specializing in edible insects, and chef/bioartist Phil Ross, founder of CRITTER, a very vocal champion of entomophagy. To Martinez and Ross, eating insects isn't a novelty or a gross-out dare; instead, they see the long culinary history in many countries and cultures, where bugs may have started out as a subsistance food in places where any readily available source of fat and protein was prized, wriggly or not, but later became prized as delicacies. Several reporters were on hand during our two days of kitchen prep for this dinner, and both Martinez and Ross spoke with great sincerity about the deliciousness of the bugs they were roasting, frying, and pan-toasting. As anyone who has lived in a New York City apartment knows, insects are an abundant, green and renewable resource; they will be here, rubbing their six or eight legs together and feasting in the back of our cabinets long after factory-farming of bigger four-legged creatures has exhausted the resources of the planet. (Even bedbugs, scourge of urban living, are edible, Martinez insists.)

The five-course tasting meal that Martinez and Ross came up with featured bugs (some brought in from Mexico, others local) in every course. There were no giant scorpions to saw through; this was not knife-and-fork eating. The insects--crickets, wax-moth larvae, fly eggs--were used more as garnish and flavorings than solid entrees. In fact, a few of the artists in attendance wished the insects had been more in evidence. What's the point of a bug dinner if you're not crunching down on wings and antennae? The plates were daintily sized, too, just a few bites per course. ("We're going out for a burger later," one artist whispered to me as she toyed with the last few mealworms on her plate.)

For anyone that was feeling a little squeamish, though, drink pairings came with every course, from worm-salted Mezcal Factoria del Santos to wash down the lake-fly fritters to honey wine spritzers with the wax-moth larvae and corn custards.

And while the $50-a-plate attendees may have the more elegant experience most enthusiastic bug eaters turned out to be the squadron of servers and volunteers who came out to help, many connected to Martinez through her work at La Cocina. (Don Bugito is part of La Cocina's small-business incubator program, receiving mentorship, business advice, and reduced kitchen-use rates.) Working hard for free throughout the evening, they got their reward at the end of the night, when all the extra food was piled on platters in the middle of the kitchen. No dainty portions here: the mostly-twentysomethings grabbed plates and dug in, popping Tecates and piling their plates high with avocado, corn, and zucchini speckled with escamoles fried in brown butter and tomatillo-jicama-cricket salad, munching with the same enthusiasm they'd bring to a super carnitas burrito from El Farolito. Scary? No way.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Plants of Pleasure, Plants of Pain

Perhaps in honor of the Folsom Street Fair, the PQ led this walk on the wild side yesterday as part of the Headlands Center for the Arts' Desire Trails program, a series of 9 different nature walks led by Bay Area artists and scholars. Our purpose? To explore the literary, mythical, culinary, and nefarious possibilities of the Headlands’ edible and dangerous plants.

The thirteen of us (plus 2 dogs) walked along a section of the Coastal Trail starting at the parking lot of the Visitors’ Center, down to Rodeo Beach and back, traversing coastal scrub, salt-marsh wetlands, and ocean beach.

Our first plant, growing right by the trailhead, was immediately recognizable by its licorice scent, feathery fronds, and umbrella-shaped clusters of chrome-yellow flowers. It often stands 6’ tall or higher, and you probably think of it as nothing more than a stringy weed that grows happily in trash-strewn vacant lots. To the ancient Greeks, however, this plant, wild fennel, was sacred, revered as the fire-bearer. Wrote the playwright Aeschylus of his protagonist in Prometheus Bound, “For I am he who hunted at the source of fire, and stole it, packed in pith of a dry fennel stalk.”

Prometheus was known in Greek myth as the Titan who snatched a live coal from the sun’s burning chariot and brought it back to earth in defiance of Zeus, who had decreed that only the gods could possess fire. (For this rebellion, he was chained to a mountain rock in the Caucasus with an eagle perpetually eating his liver. Bummer.) A walker on the tour had a more prosaic (but equally important) reason to revere fennel: it was, she said, a good remedy for flatulence, surely a concern for the people of the Mediterranean, whose often austere diet relied on dried beans and pulses as an important source of protein.

Right now, our wild fennel is blooming and producing a lot of edible yellow pollen with an herbal/licorice scent. This same pollen, imported from Italy, is sold for high prices in fancy gourmet shops back East, and is used as a finishing sprinkle over salads, pastas, and fish dishes. How lucky we are, living where it’s free for the shaking! Soon, these flowers will be producing small, flat, greenish-brown seeds with the same distinctive scent and flavor. As Patience Grey tells us in her excellent, scholarly Mediterranean memoir/cookbook, Honey from a Weed, the seeds are used in Naples to flavor taralli, hard, ring-shaped biscuits served with wine, as well as in a famous Tuscan salame, la finocchiona. The fronds and sheaths (stems) are used in soups, as a bed for fish dishes, and with snails, pork and wild boar throughout Greece, Italy, and Catalonia.

The bulbous, fleshy vegetable that we buy as fennel at the farmers’ market or grocery store is in the same family, but bred specifically for its edible bulb. It is deliberately “blanched” during the growing process (covered with soil or mulch) to keep it white and tender, much like celery and endive.

It’s hard to walk anywhere in the Headlands without running into poison oak, a most pernicious native plant. It’s not related to the oak (it gets its name from the oak-like shape of its leaves), and it’s not, technically, poisonous. About 85% of people are allergic to urushiol, a compound produced in the leaves (also found in the leaves and fruit skins of the mango, and in the leaves and fruit of the cashew plant). It’s the body’s own allergic reaction to contact with this oil that produces the painful, oozing skin rash unhappily familiar to many hikers. Animals are generally not allergic, but if they roll around in it, they can rub the oils off on you or your clothing. Euell Gibbons, the father of foraging, once wrote that he’d heard of a fellow nature-lover taking a homeopathic approach to poison oak, eating a minute quantity of the plant every day until he was desensitized. As you might expect, PQ wouldn’t recommend this approach.

What’s this 5’ tall plant, lurking in the shadow of a gloomy cypress tree? It looks like a giant Queen Anne’s lace or a carrot gone wild, with white umbrella-shaped flower clusters, ferny leaves, and a smooth, hollow stalk speckled with red. Rub the leaves (which look a lot like carrot tops) and you’ll smell an unpleasantly musty, “mousy” odor. It’s in the same plant family, Apicaea, as our friend fennel, sharing botanical similarities with carrot, parsley, dill, cilantro, and celery. But beware, one of these things is not like the others! The blood-red spots on the stalk are the giveaway: this is poison hemlock, and every part (root, stem, leaves, flowers, seeds) of the plant is poisonous.

Wrote Keats in his Ode to a Nightingale, “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense/As though of hemlock I had drunk,” which is a pretty good description of this plant’s effect. Unlike many other vegetable alkaloids, whose effects can generally be summed up by “dizziness, confusion, vomiting, convulsions, and death,” hemlock produces just such a drowsy numbness as Keats described. Weakness and heaviness move from the legs upward, and if the dose is great enough, death follows from respiratory paralysis. It has a similar effect as nicotine, stimulating then depressing the nervous system.

Socrates, of course, was hemlock’s most famous victim, forced to drink a fatal decoction in 399 B.C. for the crime of “corrupting the youth of Athens” (including his student Plato) with his philosophical teachings.

Nearby, winding among the poison oak and blackberry vines is another killer, deadly nightshade, also known as devil’s cherry or belladonna. Just like hemlock, it shares a plant family, Solanaceae, with many well-loved edibles native to the Americas, including tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and peppers. (Tobacco, whose active ingredient, nicotine, is one of the most toxic plant substances known, also belongs to this family.) It has small, hanging purple or white flowers and shiny green fruits that ripen to eggplant-black in autumn. Birds enjoy them, but the effects on people can range from rapid heartbeat, seizures, hallucinations, and convulsions to death if the dose is large enough.

The active ingredient is atropine, named after Atropos, the last of the 3 Fates, envisioned by the Greeks as the death-bringer who snipped the thread of life. (Atropine does have its medicinal uses as an antidote to other poisons.) One of its effects is a drastic dilation of the pupils; supposedly, it was used as an eyedrop by women in both Ancient Egypt and Renaissance Italy to give a mysterious, dark-eyed look, hence the name “belladonna,” Italian for “beautiful woman.”

Time for a tea break! Emerging from the shade of the cypress and eucalyptus trees (planted as windbreaks around this once-treeless area), we found ourselves climbing up a drier, windswept hillside. The plants here are tougher, often with thick leaves and woody stems, built to withstand both drying winds and the fog-born dampness that can encourage fungus and mildew.

But tough can still be pretty. One of the loveliest of coastal plants is found here, Rosa californica, our wild rose. Five flat bright-pink petals surround a golden center with a sweet, characteristic rose scent. In Britain, the wild rose is known by its French-derived name, eglantine, familiar from the description of Titania’s flower-strewn bower in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Says the sprite Puck to his master Oberon,“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, where ox-lips and the nodding violet grows, quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, with sweet musk-roses and with eglantine/There sleeps Titania sometimes of the night, lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight.

Keats, too, praised the beauty of the “pastoral eglantine.” For culinary purposes, however, we want not the flower but its plump, shiny, seed-bearing fruit, the rose hip. Dry, seedy, and tart, rosehips are not the most tasty of fruits, but they are powerhouses of nutrition, higher in Vitamin C, iron, and phosphorus than oranges. It dries well and could be pounded together with dried deer meat and fat to make pemmican, a staple travelling food for many native peoples. Now, it’s most commonly used in tea, often in combination with the tropical hibiscus flower, which has a similar bright-red color and tart, fruity taste. Rose hips can also be used to make jelly. Out of the bag of treats came teacups and a teapot, and we enjoyed some hot rosehip/hibiscus tea with an ocean view.

As we walked over the hay-strewn path (why hay? Only the Park Service knows), the tang in the air went from the characteristic coastal-scrub scent of fennel, sage and sweet Annie to the cool brine of kelp and ocean waves. Descending along the path down to Rodeo Beach, we were suddenly surrounded by acres of iceplant, a South African native (also known as sea fig) that was brought in to reduce erosion along the railroads and is now a pernicious invasive. It is edible, although not very palatable raw, as a few of the braver among us discovered. In “How to Cook a Wolf,” California food writer M.F.K. Fisher described how a beach-dwelling friend with no money but a love of feeding her friends supplied her larder by flitting along the cliffs, coming back to serve up odd but alluring salads of iceplant and crumbled seaweeds. Perhaps Fisher’s friend had a secret recipe; maybe pickling might help, or peeling. But as an out-of-hand snack, astringent iceplant would be low on anyone’s list.

Still, it would be worth it to study the many seaweeds that wash up in the cove here. Rich in minerals, these sea plants were once an important part of native diets. (The roots and tuber-like rhizomes of the cattails in the nearby lagoon are also a rich food source; crushed and soaked in water, their starch precipitates out and can be used as a paste or dried into flour.) Seaweed can simmered in broth, dried as a crunchy snack, or used in salads

Walking back, we hoped to find some late-ripening blackberries. We discovered only a few (birds and hikers having taken the rest) but enjoyed a snack of tiny homemade blackberry tarts instead, with a honey-and-sour-cream filling under the juicy fruit. Appetites whetted, we made it back just in time for a Mess Hall brunch of fresh-squeezed orange juice; Morell’s bread and butter; Sonoma goat cheese; La Quercia prosciutto; Castelvetrano green olives marinated in lemon, rosemary, savory, and thyme; Spanish-style baked eggs with potatoes, spring onions, dry Jack cheese, and heirloom tomatoes; green salad with figs; and apple-walnut spice cake.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Up at the Headlands

Where has the Pie Queen been? Up in Marin, enjoying the donuts at Donut Alley, cruising the Pink Pearl apples at the Point Reyes Farmers' Market, eating meat at Cochon 555's Heritage Fire (best t-shirt slogan: Bacon Gives Me a Lardon), and cooking, cooking, cooking up at the Headlands Center for the Arts, where I'm part of the kitchen staff, now through December, entrusted with feeding the artists in residence who are doing their thing out on this fogbound beautiful place just across the Golden Gate Bridge.

The three of us, plus whatever artists and interns wander into the kitchen to give us a hand, have been making a lot of gorgeous food these last few weeks (I started officially in late July, after 2 years of frequent volunteering). Just about everything is made from scratch, even things I've never really thought you could make from scratch (macaroni! hot dogs! bloody marys!) Bacon is cured and smoked, sausage is ground, pickles are lacto-fermented--you get the drill. You want mayonnaise, you get out the eggs and oil, lemon and mustard and salt. Fresh herbs grow outside the kitchen door. There's an ice cream maker in weekly rotation, gravlax of local king salmon under salt, sugar, and fennel fronds in the fridge, a sheet tray of black plums ripening for jam and 3 bags of rumpled, bug-tunnelled windfall Gravensteins marked for apple butter.

So, yes, the artists here eat really, really well. It's a little mean to brag about how great the food is that we're making, because the typical weekday meals aren't open to the public. However, if you become a member ($30 yearly for students/artists, $50 and up otherwise), you'll get access to our quarterly members' dinners and other events, plus advance notice of public programs and other cool things, most of which come with dinner, brunch, or a more casual cafe meal attached. You can take a walk on Rodeo Beach, a hike through the hills, a skinny-dip on Black Sands Beach as part of your day, then come in and check out whatever groovy thing is happening in the studios and performance spaces. All this just 10 minutes from the Golden Gate Bridge, but it feels like a complete getaway into nature, far from the city. (But still just as fogbound as Ocean Beach, at least right now. Supposedly, fall is the gorgeous time here, as the summer fogs recede and the Indian-summer sunshine emerges.)

But since I'm here, I can give you a day-by-day peek into the kitchen at what we're doing and making here. Right now, we're winding down, with just a few more days of the summer session to go. Officially, the kitchen goes on hiatus until artists arrive for the fall session on Sept 19. What this means, of course, is time for fun kitchen projects, the leisurely putting by that's not so possible when dinner's shallots need chopping and half-a-dozen chatty artists are breezing in and out, making pots of coffee and rummaging in the fridge for a bowl of leftover Vietnamese duck in ginger-and-five-spice-broth to throw in the microwave for lunch.

On the Pie Queen's list of Things to Do, then:
Plum Jam
Apple Butter
Sauerkraut, to go with all the sausage that the other 2 guys like to make. Sauerkraut is one of those things, like homemade croissants, that doesn't seem worth making in small quantities, and can thus be a bit logistically daunting for a small kitchen. How much fermenting cabbage can a single person co-habitate with? Not a problem here. Bring on the crocks!
Bacon, same deal. I'm not much of a bacon eater, not having been brought up with it (the Jew thing), but it would certainly be cool to know how to make it, since there are way too many creepy additives in most commercial versions, and I know my friends would be very impressed if I picked up this skill. Which seems to consist mostly of giving a slab of pork belly the odd salt-and-sugar rub, followed by a few hours of smoker-tending.

I'd also like to try making the sourdough starter and bread from the recipe in Tartine Bread, which I finally broke down and bought after Chad's talk at Toby's Feed Barn a couple weeks ago. Who knows when I'll have daily access to a Alan-Scott-built wood-fired oven again, plus lots of room for rising and kneading and several bread-baking professionals on hand for consultation? If I can pull something reasonably artisan-loaf looking out of our wood oven, I'll be very pleased with myself.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Turnover Time!

Hello! Well, it's been a busy couple of months, writing & baking, housesitting and more. Today's job: taking over the kitchen of the Oakland Center for Spiritual Living for a few hours. No, I'm not part of their congregation, but my pal Molly is. Last month, I oversaw all the cooking for a Passover Seder she put on there, for 50+ people. It was the first Seder they'd held there, and was by all accounts a huge success. Since I volunteered my labor, I'm getting a little payback now in the form of free kitchen space and time to donate the PQ's baking skills to another worthy cause. Yes, it's the second benefit for Swamp Cabbage, and I'm making another massive batch of fruit turnovers to bring to the feast.

Last year, making that many little pastries in my shared Bernal kitchen was pretty much a nightmare and a huge mess. Working in a big kitchen, with an equally spacious fridge and freezer, should make everything much simpler. I'm going to make & chill the dough today. If possible, I'm planning on rolling out, cutting, and filling the turnovers tomorrow, and freezing them overnight. Saturday, they'll go straight from the freezer into the convection oven, which should blast them to a nice flakey golden brown.

I had promised, like last year, to make these turnovers from foraged fruit. Unfortunately, it's a bit early in the season in this neighborhood for tree fruit, especially after such a rainy spring. No one's apricots, plums, or peaches will be ripe at least for another month. Even out in Brentwood, the apricots are still not quite ripe enough. And my public calls for backyard rhubarb and berries have fallen on deaf ears. So it looks like I'll probably be "foraging" from Berkeley Bowl and the Friday Oakland farmers' market instead. There are, of course, plenty of lemons to be had around here, but the other 2 dessert makers have already staked their claim on citrus cheesecake and candied-lemon shortbread, so no lemons for me. I do have vast quantities of last summer's strawberry jam still hanging around, so I'm wondering if some of that can be incorporated in some way.

Here's a recent article I wrote for KQED about the upcoming Wild Game Feast (with ticket info). If it's anything like last year's, it should be a ton of fun and full of excellent eats & cool folks.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Wise Sons Pop-Up Deli

What you should do this Saturday morning, Jewish division:
-Go to shul
-Then go to SF's new pop-up deli, Wise Sons.

You can read about Wise Sons on KQED's Bay Area Bites column, which I wrote last week. My favorite comment on this, of course, came from my sis on Facebook, who wrote, "Your grandfather, may he rest in peace, he didn't eat at delis that popped up. He married a balaboosta and SHE cooked for him."

Too true. But should you not have a bubbe at home baking babka, you could do worse than to let Beckerman & Bloom do it for you. True, their pastrami is a little fatty for my taste, cut a little thick and not quite as tender as it could be. (I also like a lot more spice falling off the edges.) So, not Katz's, but then again, lemon trees here, not slush!

Anyway, I don't need to eat pastrami when they have such awesome, house-baked bialys loaded up with Acme smoked salmon from Brooklyn. You could do a smoked-fish throwdown between their "Ollie's Bialy" and the open-faced smoked-salmon sandwiches from Capt Mike's at the Ferry Plaza farmers' market, and everyone's mouths would be too busy happily chewing to pick one or the other.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Wheat-Free Muffins & Other Morning Treats

Somewhere inside me, and not really very far in, is a bright & shiny morning caterer waiting to launch. Honestly, I'm not that interested in making salmon pinwheels or chicken satay-on-a-stick. But muffins? Coffee cake? Waffles? Frittata squares? Yum, yum, fun. Bring me your bagels, your bialys, your Nova, capers, and a schmear yearning to be free!

I got my chance to do this out of PQ Castle last weekend, when the Ecological Farming Association (of Eco-Farm Conference fame) came to Oakland for a meeting. Mostly the EFA meets somewhere down near Santa Cruz, so it was a Big Deal for folks to come to the big bad city on this side of the Bay.

I find meetings in fluorescent-lit conference rooms only bearable if a lot of strong coffee and tasty treats are nearby, so I offered PQ's catering services in support of the good work EFA does. It was also a chance to show off what we can get at our local farmers' markets--all of the organic produce was bought at the Grand Lake farmers' market, plus gorgeous marigold-yellow eggs from Danny and Becky's backyard chickens in Rockridge.

So, on the menu: wheat-free Morning Joy muffins; savory cheddar-herb biscuits; asparagus frittata; strawberries and tangerines; PQ's Strawberry Beautiful preserves; a lovely donation of Marshall Farm's Fairmont honey, from the 4 hives they've got up on the roof of the swanky Fairmont Hotel now; and, since it was Purim on Sunday, a little plateful of apricot and prune hamantaschen.

The Morning Joy muffins were a spin on Nantucket Morning Glory muffins, which usually have pineapple and coconut in them. Wanting to stay local, I doctored up the Carrot Spice Muffins recipe from the excellent Streamliner Diner Cookbook (named for an adorable restaurant on Bainbridge Island near Seattle), adding grated apple, ginger, and cloves, reducing the amount of honey, and substituting rice and oat flours for regular white flour.

Now, normally I wouldn't put in what I consider a cupcake-worthy amount of butter into a morning muffin. But, I was baking these for strangers, and I also wasn't exactly sure if the oat & rice flours might bake up denser than usual. In the interest of not serving little hockey pucks, I used a full stick (4 oz, 8 tbsp) of butter, and I have to say, they were quite nice and not greasy at all. You could probably reduce the amount of butter quite easily to suit your own taste.

The biscuits came from a brunch recipe I picked up during a weekend cooking class I took at The Apple Farm in the Anderson Valley, about 3 hours from SF. A lovely, lovely place, and well worth a trip, especially during spring apple-blossom season. Made silver-dollar-size, these biscuits make a perfect cocktail snack or pre-dinner nibble.

Wheat-Free Morning Joy Muffins

Makes 10-12 muffins

1 cup oat flour
1 cup rice flour or barley flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp ginger
2 eggs
1 stick (4 oz or 8 tbsp) butter, melted
1/2 cup honey or maple syrup, or a combination
1 1/2 cups grated carrot
1 large apple, peeled and grated
1/2 cup raisins

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Lightly grease a 12-cup muffin pan, or line with paper liners.

2. Sift dry ingredients together in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, beat eggs, melted butter, and honey together.

3. Stir egg mixture gently into flour. Add carrots, apple, and raisins, and stir until mixture is just combined.

4. Spoon into muffin cups (you may not use all the cups) and fill about 3/4 full. Bake until just golden, checking to make sure a toothpick comes out clean.

5. Cool on a rack. Serve warm.

Apple Farm Cheddar Biscuits

2 cups all-purpose white (you can also use whole-wheat pastry flour)
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup cold butter (5 1/3 tbsp)
plenty of freshly ground pepper
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh rosemary (do not use dried! substitute fresh chives or parsley instead if you can't get fresh rosemary)
1 1/2 cups grated cheddar cheese
1 cup milk, light cream, or half-and-half

1. Preheat oven to 400F. Lightly grease a baking sheet, or line with parchment.

2. Sift dry ingredients into a large bowl. Cut in butter until pebbly. Toss in pepper, rosemary, and cheese. Drizzle in milk, tossing and mixing lightly to make a very moist dough.

3. Drop by spoonfuls onto baking sheet--each biscuit should be a nice peaky, rocky lump. Bake 15 minutes, until puffed and golden brown. Serve warm.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Irish Soda Bread, for St. Patrick's Day

Happy St. Patrick's Day! Here's a recipe I used just yesterday to make some very nice soda bread, based on the "Irish Wholemeal Soda Bread" recipe in Elizabeth David's majestic tome, English Bread and Yeast Cookery (yes, she deigns to give some Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and even French recipes, too). The egg is definitely an American touch but it helps make the bread a little fluffier/cakier.

Ms. D. suggests putting the soda-bread dough into a cake pan, putting the pan onto a cookie sheet, then upending a deep (7") cake pan, baking dish, or heavy ovenproof pot over the dough. This will trap both heat and moisture around the dough as it bakes, helping it to rise. The pan or pot is removed after 30 minutes, so that the bread can brown for a final 10 min. or so.

Soda bread was originally baked over turf fires in the hearth, usually in heavy cast-iron pots. For baking, the rounded lids were flipped over, so they fit into the top of the pot like a shallow dish; coals were then piled into the lid and the pot suspended by a hook over the fire, so that the bread was baked by radiant heat from all sides. Lacking a turf fire, you can imitate this by putting a heavy cast-iron (or enameled cast iron, like Le Crueset) pot into the oven to preheat for 10-15 minutes. Once the dough is ready, drop it into the pot and pop on the lid. Bake for 30 minutes, then remove the lid and let it bake another 10 min or so to brown. It's the same mini-brick-oven concept as used by the No-Knead Bread folks.

But, if you don't want to bother with this, a cast-iron skillet makes a very good baking pan, giving a good crust and helping the bread bake & brown well.

Personally, I love the taste of caraway seeds in soda bread, but you can leave them out if they're not your thing. Oh, and make sure your baking soda is reasonably fresh and hasn't been sitting over the stove for the past 5 years. It's CHEAP, and since you're probably going out to the store to get the buttermilk and caraway seeds anyway, spring for the buck or so and get a new kitchen-only box.

St. Patrick's Day Soda Bread

1 1/2 cups whole wheat or white flour, or a combination (I love the flavor and nuttiness of all whole wheat, but adjust to your taste; a non-wheat mix of oat and barley flours would probably also work well)
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar (optional)
2 tbsp butter, softened
1/3 cup raisins or currants
1 to 2 tbsp caraway seeds (optional)
1 egg
1/2 cup to 3/4 cup buttermilk
extra water and/or buttermilk, as needed

1. Preheat oven to 425F. Lightly grease a cast-iron skillet or 8" cake pan. Sift dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Rub in butter until mixture looks grainy/pebbly. Mix in raisins and caraway seeds, if using.

2. In a small bowl or measuring cup, beat egg and buttermilk together. Drizzle into dry mixture, stirring gently, until mixture comes together into a moist dough. If patches remain dry, add a little water or more buttermilk.

3. Pat mixture into a plump round. Slash a cross on top with a sharp knife. Put bread into prepared pan. Bake approx. 40 minutes, until golden brown. Best served warm or toasted.