The Case of Sinking Grapes

Who doesn’t like grapes?  In most markets we are lucky to have fresh, juicy grapes available year round. So, in the dark days of winter, an attractive bowl of grapes set out on a counter can be a nourishing and welcome site.  

courtesy Pixabay

For easy snacking, I like to rinse, drain, and cut up large bunches and place smaller portions in a covered container.  Stored in the fridge, the grapes are reach-in ready and will hold for a week or longer.   

We tend to overlook grapes as a handy option in baked desserts. Here’s a happy idea that makes perfect sense: a lemon-scented cake laced with polenta and grapes. What’s not to like?  Polenta provides flavor and structure and the grapes add entertaining pockets of sweet juiciness.

Bonus: Tiny test corners

But what to do about those errant grapes that stubbornly sink to the bottom of the cake?  Trust Martha Stewart to come up with a clever solution for the irritating dilemma of sinking grapes. She begins by scattering only half of the grapes on top of the batter before placing it in oven.  When the cake is partially set, the remaining grapes are strewn about the top and baked until golden brown.   

Remember to use seedless grapes—red is pretty, but any color that strikes your fancy will work.

Serve the cake warm with a light dusting of confections’ sugar and perhaps a dollop of whipped cream.  Should you have left-overs, the cake will hold well for two or three days at room temperature.  After that, store what’s left in the fridge. 

Polenta-Grape Cake

Inspired by Martha Stewart’s Olive Oil Cake with Red Grapes

Ingredients

  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup polenta or coarsely ground cornmeal
  • 1-1/2 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp coriander
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 2 tsp grated lemon zest
  • ½ cup olive oil or a combo with melted coconut oil
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 2 cups red or green grapes, washed and dried

Directions

  1. Line an 8” round or square pan with parchment and then spray with baking spray.   Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  2. Combine the dry ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.
  3. In a larger mixing bowl, beat the eggs until light. Gradually add the sugar and lemon zest, beating until fluffy. 
  4. Slowly beat in the oil. In 3 additions mix in the flour alternately with the milk and 2 portions of the dry ingredients, ending with dry mixture. 
  5. Spoon the batter into the baking dish. Scatter ½ of the grapes over the top and bake for 15 minutes. Remove and top the cake with the remaining grapes, bake 25 minutes longer.  Cool in pan on rack for 15 minutes then turn out and cut into portions.  Dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve. If desired accompany with ice cream or sweetened whipped cream.  Serves 6-8. 

 

Honey Spiced Cakes

If you are a fan of pain d’epices, the classic French sweet bread made with honey and spice, then here’s a version that will make your head spin. Part of the appeal of the pain d’epices loaf is that it is designed to improve with age. However, once you’ve had a bite of one, it’s unlikely that will ever happen.

These smaller, personal sized cakes receive their distinct identity from an enticing blend of spices featuring aniseed and compounded with rye flour.  The healthy dose of honey adds enough richness and moisture to make it hard to believe they contain not a whit of butter or oil.

This particular Spanish twist comes by way of David Lebovitz and his great blog of the same name.  The cakes are one of a fascinating collection from  Chef Daniel Olivella in his new cookbook, Catalan Food: Culture and Flavors from the Mediterranean.  Olivella, born in Spain, shares his grandmother’s thrifty sweet cakes originally made with stale bread saturated in red wine. Daniel now lives in Austin, Texas where he operates Barlata Tapas Bar.

Rather than red wine syrup, David chose to roll his variation in sugar and then dip the tops in a cider syrup.  I passed on all that, since mine were plenty moist and sweet from the honey.   I also used smaller silicone molds, which hold about ¼ cup when filled, and less than a standard muffin cup.

For a final touch of sparkle,  I lightly dipped the baby cake tops in turbinado sugar crystals—and called it good!

Honey Spiced Cakes

Inspired by David Lebovitz’s adaptation of Daniel Olivella’s version in Catalan Food: Culture and Flavors from the Mediterranean.

Ingredients
For the cakes
1 cup honey
1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup rye flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground aniseed
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 cup whole or low fat milk
2 large eggs, at room temperature
Optional syrup
1/2 cup sparkling apple cider, hard or non-alcoholic
1/2 cup, plus 1/4 cup granulated sugar
Finish variation:  1/3 cup turbinado sugar

Instructions

  1. To make the cakes, preheat the oven to 350ºF. Use small silicone cups or line a muffin tin with 12 cupcake liners.
  2. In a small bowl, whisk together the honey and brown sugar. If your honey is super thick, you may wish to warm it slightly before mixing.
  3. Sift together the all-purpose and rye flour with the baking powder, cinnamon, aniseed, nutmeg or ginger, and cloves, into a large bowl. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and add the milk and eggs, stirring until partially combined. Add the honey mixture and stir until everything is well-combined.
  4. Divide the batter into the cups; each should be about two-thirds full. Bake until the cakes are barely set in the center and the tops are lightly browned 25-30 minutes. Let cool completely.
  5. Prepare the optional syrup while the cakes are cooking and cooling: bring the cider and 1/2 cup granulated sugar to a boil in a small saucepan or skillet, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.
  6. To finish: put the remaining 1/4 cup sugar in a small bowl. Remove the cakes from the muffin cups and roll each in the sugar, coating the sides. Dip the tops of each cake in the syrup after you roll each one, and set them on a serving plate.
  7. Alternatively, simply dip the tops in turbinado sugar.

To serve:  Chef Olivella suggests serving with remaining syrup and a bit of crème fraiche, but as a snacking cake they are good on their own.  Store in airtight container at room temperature 4-5 days.  Yield:  about 12 cakes.

Irish [Scotch] Eggs

For a casual brunch following St. Paddy’s Day, I opted to configure some of my fabulous corned beef hash into a riff on Scotch Eggs.

Often eaten as a cold snack, Scotch Eggs are hard cooked eggs wrapped in sausage and deep fried.   As such, my version included just enough of the corned beef hash to tidily encase a hard cooked egg. It was then treated to a gentle sauté in a thin layer of vegetable oil until hot and crispy.

Since I had hard cooked eggs ready to go, this treat took no time at all.  My yolks were more cooked than I normally prefer— the perfect enhancement would be a slightly moist yolk.

Once I had a grip on the egg preparation this was a fairly effortless undertaking. The lively plates consisted of the highly entertaining Irish Scotch Eggs along with a mild mustard sauce, pickled onions, radishes, sharp cheddar cheese and warm soda bread slathered with cranberry apple jam.  Irish Eggs,  Scotch Eggs, Irish-Scotch Eggs… enjoy and call them whatever makes you happy!

Irish [Scotch] Eggs

Ingredients (per serving)
½ cup heaping, Corned Beef Hash (see blog recipe)
1 hard cooked egg, peeled
1/3 cup flour (approx.) lightly seasoned with salt and paprika for dredging
2 tablespoons vegetable oil for pan
Accompaniments:  mustard sauce (see below), pickled onions, cheddar cheese, radishes

 Directions

  1. Heat a skillet with oil over medium-high heat.
  2. Place flour in wide bowl and lightly dust the egg with flour.
  3. Mound hash in palm of hand and make an egg-sized indentation in the center. Insert the hard cooked egg into the center and mold the hash around the egg to completely encase it. Lightly moisten hands with water if it becomes sticky.
  4. Carefully dust the exterior with flour and place egg in hot pan. As the surface begins to take on color, roll it over slightly with spatula, continue until entire surface is crisp and lightly browned, 7 to 10 minutes.  Serve with accompaniments of choice.

Light Mustard Sauce: combine ¼ cup sour cream and ¼ cup mayonnaise, blend in 1 tablespoon deli mustard, or to taste.

Marbled Tea Eggs, pretty tasty

Since Easter is rolling around the corner, now’s the time to take advantage of the crates of eggs stacked at the market, and get ready for the big holiday weekend.

Beyond colorful dyed eggs, here’s a creative and tasty variation for beautifying hard cooked eggs. In China, marbled tea eggs have been around for centuries. The concept is quite simple.  Simmer a flavorful marinade of soy, oolong tea, cinnamon, star anise, and perhaps a bit of orange.  Our marinade incorporates the heavy smokiness of lapsang souchong tea, but any oolong will do. Using the back of a spoon, crack the shells of hard cooked eggs into a series of spider webs, then soak them in the marinade.

The original marble tea eggs in China were simmered in a marinade for quite a while, then left to soak even longer. These days less tough and stinky eggs can be crafted with a brief simmer in the soy blend, then refrigerated in the marinade for a mere day or two.

Half the fun is the final egg peel unveiling the outcome of this process. It is always a surprise, perfected by practice. The soy marinade saturates via the egg cracks, artfully coloring and flavoring the eggs. For darker marbling and more pronounced flavor, allow a couple of days.  Pretty and tasty.

Marbled Tea Eggs

Ingredients
6-12 hard cooked eggs with shells intact, chilled (see below)
Marinade
1/2 cup soy sauce (I use a deep, rich mushroom soy sauce found at Asian markets)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 cups water, divided (more for the pot)
2 Lapsang souchong tea bags, oolong or other black tea
2 star anise, broken up
1 cinnamon stick
2 – 3” x ½” strips peel from mandarin or other thin skinned orange

Instructions

  1. Gently crack shells of hard cooked eggs all over with the back of a spoon to create webbing. Do not tap too hard.
  2. Prepare marinade
    Pour 1 cup boiling water over the tea bags and steep for 5-10 minutes.
    In a pan that will hold up the number of eggs in one layer, heat the soy sauce, salt, sugar to dissolve the salt and sugar. Add the brewed tea, additional 1 cup water, cinnamon stick, star anise, orange peel, and simmer gently 10-15 minutes to allow flavors to blend.
  3. Marbleize the eggs
    Gently lower the cracked hard cooked eggs in a single layer into the heated marinade and add enough water to barely cover the eggs and simmer gently for 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool in liquid (about 1 hour).
  4. Marinade the eggs
    Store the eggs and marinade in a covered container in the refrigerator, discarding cinnamon and other seasonings. Let marinate in refrigerator at least overnight. For darker marbling and more pronounced flavor allow up to 2 days.  Peel the eggs and serve. Yield: 6-12.
    Note: reserve the marinade; it can be re-used.

Lip Smacking Good: Boston Brown Bread

As mentioned in the previous post, when March approaches I get nostalgic. Much of this is brought on by St. Paddy’s Day, since I was raised outside of Boston.  I recall it as a hugely anticipated day-long event packed with celebrations, all culminating with aromatic corned beef, cabbage, and all the trimmings.

Another much loved food from those days is irreplaceable Boston Brown Bread, a must have accompaniment with famed Boston Baked Beans. Whenever I see a brown bread recipe, I automatically save it.  I’m not sure why I collect them, because there is nothing complicated about it:  just a basic bread using baking soda for leavener, with a combination of hearty flours like rye and wheat—and of course cornmeal.  Buttermilk is the standard liquid, and molasses is a key ingredient which supplies mild sweetness along with its signature flavor. Raisins or currants are negotiable.

Boston Brown Bread is a quirky boiled/steamed bread with a history that likely goes back centuries.  In more recent times, the practice of using a coffee can as a cooking mold has become linked with its now characteristic round shape.

I must confess until this March I had never made Boston Brown Bread.  I may have been caught up in its mystic, but the idea of boiling bread in a water bath for an hour just seemed a little too remote.

That is all pre-multi-cooker.  Now, I am so smitten by the Instant Pot’s flexibility that I seek out challenges—and what a ride it gave me this past weekend. Most certainly the IP was created for Boston Brown Bread.

This is inspired by Jasper White’s Boston Brown Bread recipe, which I have adapted to the PC.  The batter is divided between two 15 ounce pinto bean cans.  It’s a good idea not to fill the tins any more than 2/3 full to allow for rising space. Cover them with foil and secure with twine.  In 30 minutes,  the loaves are ‘baked’ and beautiful.

I will not gush, but will simply state that this is a bread worth investing in a multi-cooker.  It is just as good as I remembered!   Brown bread is great warmed in the morning, spread with butter or cream cheese.  It makes a great mid-day snack, an accompaniment to many entrees, and it is lip-smacking good as an ice cream sandwich.

Boston Brown Bread, PC

Adapted from Jasper White’s Boston Brown Bread

Ingredients
½ cup whole wheat flour
½ cup dark rye flour
½ cup medium grind corn meal
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup molasses or ¼ cup molasses + 2 tablespoons apple butter
1 cup buttermilk, or a half and half combo of milk + yogurt
½ cup raisins or currants
Accessories:  2 – 15-1/2 ounce cans top and labels removed and cleaned

Directions

  1. Grease the insides of two cans with butter or baker’s spray.
  2. In multi-cooker, insert trivet and pour in about 6 cups water.  Set pot to Saute or Simmer to begin heating the water.
  3. Combine the dry ingredients with a whisk in a mixing bowl.  Stir in the liquid, then fold in the raisins.
  4. Divide the batter between the molds. It should fill molds about 2/3s full.  Secure the tops with foil and tie with twine.
  5. Place the cans into the pot, adding more water if necessary to fill ½ way up the sides of the cans.  Do not fill the pot beyond maximum capacity mark.  Set to High Pressure and cook for 30 minutes.
  6. Allow bread to rest in pot with lid sealed for 10 minutes then slowly release pressure. Test for doneness:  a skewer inserted in center should come out clean.  Transfer molds to cooling rack and remove the foil covers.  Cool for about 45 minutes before unmolding.  Yield: 2 loaves.

Post Paddy’s Day

St Patrick’s Day is one of my favorite days of the year—it’s right up there with another food day, Thanksgiving. Mid-March, my east coast roots tend to surface and the need for corned beef rages!

Of course, it wouldn’t be worth getting out of bed if I wasn’t secure in the knowledge that corned beef and cabbage were planned for later in the day.

Over the years, I’ve gotten in the habit of making more than necessary so there will be leftovers. One of the spoils of the day is the assurance that corned beef hash is also right around the corner.

Hash hardly requires a recipe. I used to grind the corned beef and vegetables in a meat grinder; later the grinder was replaced with the food processor.

Now, I simply mince up the cooked beef, chop up some of the boiled potatoes, carrots, onions—and perhaps toss in a bit of cabbage. Then, I give it a good mash to bind it all together, and drop it into a skillet, either in one mass or in separate patties, and cook until hot and crispy.

Add an egg or two and it’s a beautiful thing.

Post St. Paddy’s Day Corned Beef Hash

Ingredients
2 cups cooked corned beef, minced
2 cups mixture of leftover chopped potatoes, carrots and onions
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon butter

Instructions

  1. Place the corned beef and vegetables in a mixing bowl and gently mash to form cohesive mass. There should still be plenty of texture.
  2. Heat 10-12” skillet over medium heat and form the hash into patties. Place in the pan and heat until crisp on bottom, about 5-7 minute. Turn and repeat on second side. Serve with eggs of choice. Yield: 4-6 servings.

In Your Dreams…

For those looking for a gooey chocolate dessert, here a sure fix that you can have on the table in less than 30 minutes, courtesy of the multi-cooker.

It goes by many aliases: Chocolate Lava Cake, Better than Sex Chocolate Cake, and others.  What they have in common is an inordinate amount of chocolate and butter held together with eggs and maybe a bit of binder. In other words, they have a cake-like exterior and an ooey-gooey center.

You could call this particular variation ‘conservative’.  It has a fair amount of firm, moist cake available to support the ooze that flows forth once cut into—rather than a total collapse swept up in a thick hot chocolate flood.

Although… describing it does sound pretty scintillating.

My point, this as a small, rich cake with warm ganache hidden within, rather than deftly draped over the exterior.  It is ‘suitable for all occasions’.

Either way, it’s a chocolate lover’s dream come true.

Molten Chocolate Cakes, Multi-Cooker

Ingredients
½ cup butter
3 eggs
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/3 cup flour
Pinch salt
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
Accompaniments:  powdered sugar, ice cream or sweetened whipped cream

Instructions

  1. Prepare 5 quart multi-cooker or larger:  pour 1 cup water into bottom of cooker.  Place a metallic trivet or steamer insert in bottom.
  2. Place the butter in a medium microwaveable bowl and partially melt the butter on 60% power. Brush the ramekins with a coating of the butter.  Add the chocolate chips and continue to heat for 1-2 minutes. Stir every 20 seconds until mixture is melted and smooth.
  3. Sift the powdered sugar over the chocolate and whisk to blend.
  4. Add the eggs, one at a time, whisking after each addition until thoroughly incorporated. Add the vanilla.
  5. Sift half of the flour plus a pinch of salt over the top of the mixture and fold in with a spatula.  Add the remainder of the flour and fold in just until blended.
  6. Divide the batter evenly among the 4 ramekins and place them on the trivet or steamer basket.
  7. Seal the lid and set to High Pressure for 9 minutes, with steam release knob to sealing position.
  8. When done, do a Quick Release and carefully release pressure.  When float valve is down open the lid and carefully remove the hot ramekins.  Cool briefly.
  9. To serve: invert the cakes and place bottom side up onto individual plates.  Serve warm with a dusting of confectioners’ sugar, ice cream, or sweetened whipped cream and any other desired garnishes.  Yield:  4 cakes.