The Unplanned Blog

As I sit here on the cusp of a new decade, I’m staring at a blank screen reflecting on the past 10 years.  This blog was in its infancy 10 years ago, a mere experiment.  I considered it more of a journal where it could record my adventures in food and tinker with an alternate form of writing.

Early on, my goal was to post 4 blogs a month… and for the most part I’ve stayed true to that.  There have been times when I could not see the point and had nothing to say, but somehow I found something to write.  It regularly amazes me that we are still at it, 10 years later!

Isn’t that the whole point, though? Oftentimes we don’t have a real plan, we just begin. Then, something drives us; we keep going, and life unfolds in beautiful ways. Culinary Distractions, the unplanned blog, has allowed me the joy of casting my discoveries and words out into the world and releasing them.

I’ve been happy not monetizing and for the most part, remaining add-free. However, in the coming year I suspect there will be positive happenings and changes worth including here.

To all who visit this silly space, thank you for stopping. Thank you for your support and kind words.  They are never expected and pure frosting on the cake!

Here’s a sweet thank you and big New Year wishes.

Grape Clafoutis

Clafoutis is a favorite on this blog and the goofy grape idea has been rattling in my head for some time—it’s fun and really does work!

What a perfect time to share…  Happy New Year!

Grape Clafoutis  

Ingredients
butter for baking dish
3 cups seedless grapes, such as Scarlotta grapes
⅔ cup milk, warm
1 Tbsp butter
3 large eggs, room temperature
⅓ cup sugar
⅓ cup all purpose flour
¼ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp almond extract
½ tsp lemon zest
¼ cup almonds, slivers
1 Tbsp granulated sugar

Instructions

  1. Butter an oven proof shallow 9″ casserole dish, quiche dish, or pie plate.
  2. Warm the milk and the butter together. In a medium bowl, whisk eggs and sugar until frothy, sprinkle in flour, nutmeg, extract, zest, and whisk until smooth. Gradually add warm milk mixture, whisking until well combined. Let stand 30 minutes at room temperature.
  3. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350-375°F. Distribute the fruit evenly in the baking dish.  Pour the batter over the fruit. Scatter almonds on top and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for 40-45 minutes, until puffed and brown. Rotate dish as needed to brown evenly.
  4. Serve warm or room temperature. If desired dust with confectioners’ sugar; or add a spoonful of ice cream or sweetened whipped cream.  Cover and chill for storage.  Serves 6

Brunch Beauty

This holiday season I’ve gone crazy with fresh Homemade Ricotta.  Now that I have perfected the process, I’m looking for ways to use it and haven’t been disappointed with the range of spreads, dips and desserts that it delivers.

Here’s a brunch idea I’ve used for years and tweaked this Christmas.  It begins with a tasty and impressive French toast which can be cooked to order or made ahead for all to enjoy together.

French Toast Tower, Ricotta Cream, Berries

At its heart is a luscious Ricotta Cream, reminiscent of a cannoli filling, teamed up with plenty of fresh berries.  The scrumptious cream begins with a good quality ricotta cheese whisked with a bit of sugar or honey and flavored with fresh grated orange.

Despite its simplicity, the cream is incredibly versatile. You could include grated chocolate, pistachios or almonds, but they tend to get lost here.  Instead, add them on top with a flourish.

For bread, I’ve had surprising success with a bake-at-home sourdough batard sliced and soaked—without pre-baking. But any dense, day-old bread such as challah will work; one which absorbs and holds the soaking custard.  You’ll probably have extra dipping liquid, for more toast and taller towers…

Once all the bread is toasted a quick heat in the oven results in a lighter, crisper French toast. Let everyone personalize their toast with an assortment of toppings.

French Toast Tower with Ricotta Cream and Berries

Ingredients
8 slices ¾” thick, dense day-old bread
2 Tbsp melted butter
Soaking Custard
4 eggs
1 cups milk
1 Tbsp sugar
Pinch salt
½ tsp vanilla
Ricotta Cream (see below)
12-ounces strawberries or other berries, trimmed, sliced and sweetened with 2 Tbsp sugar
Toppings: chopped semisweet chocolate, or chopped toasted nuts;  ¼ cup confectioners’ sugar, honey or maple syrup

Instructions

  1. Ahead, make Ricotta Cream, slice and sweeten berries with sugar. Line 2 baking sheets with foil.  Preheat oven to 375°F.
  2. In a wide bowl for dipping, whisk the eggs with milk, sugar, and flavorings.  Lightly dip both sides of bread slices in the egg mixture and place on a baking sheet and repeat with all slices.
  3. Heat a wide flat skillet or griddle over medium heat and brush with butter. Place soaked bread onto hot surface and cook until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes.  Flip and brown the second side, 2 to 3 minutes longer.  Place on baking sheet, cover with foil and repeat. Prior to serving, place French toast in oven for 5-10 minutes, until heated and still moist.  Dust with confectioners’ sugar.
  4. To serve:  spread French toast with Ricotta Cream, top with fresh berries. Add another toast layer if desired, more berries, and dust with confectioners’ sugar, drizzle with syrup or honey.  Serves 4

Ricotta Cream
2 cups homemade or good quality ricotta cheese
4 Tbsp granulated or confectioners’ sugar
1 tsp vanilla or ¼ tsp almond extract
2 tsp grated orange zest, or ½ tsp cinnamon
3 Tbsp chopped semisweet chocolate, or chopped toasted nuts (optional)

Whisk the ricotta, sugar, vanilla, and orange zest to lighten. Adjust flavors.
Add or garnish with chocolate and/or nuts if using. Chill the cream for 2 hours or longer to set and blend flavors. Can be done a day ahead.  Yield: 2 cups

Penchant for Pumpkin

There is little doubt that fall is underway in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.  As much as I have held out hope for more warm weather, temperatures this morning dropped to 45 degrees and there is talk that it will get close to freezing overnight.

On the bright side, fall weather gives me ample reason to get a jump on pumpkin season.  Earlier, I dashed to the store to stock up on cans of pumpkin pulp, should the mood strike.  And of course, it did.

I was not happy with my latest tapioca pudding made in the multicooker. As much as I tried to convince myself otherwise, the tapioca had turned unpleasantly gooey.  When you prefer a light creamy tapioca, this is not going to happen when it boils unmercifully under pressure.  Excessive heat breaks down the tapioca and turns it rubbery.

Thus, goaded on by my penchant for pumpkin, I was further compelled to launch into a deeper Tapioca Inquiry.  Armed with pumpkin and an abundance of small tapioca pearls, I was enthusiastically prepared to get to the bottom of this.

I revisited basic tapioca preparation and began by soaking it for 30 minutes to soften. This cuts overall cooking time, too. With that in mind, it doesn’t take long to prepare old-fashioned tapioca on the stove.  The main point is to not let it boil—but allow it to thicken and let the pearls swell.

A couple of eggs helps here.  Early on, the yolks are combined with milk to form a custard base and thicken with the tapioca. The pumpkin pulp and spices are added, and finally, the two egg whites are whipped until thick and folded into the pumpkin tapioca to further lighten it.  The pumpkin tapioca happens in less than a half hour.

It is good warm, cool, or chilled.  Sweet.

Pumpkin-Spiced Tapioca

Ingredients
⅓ cup small pearl tapioca (not quick tapioca)
¾ cup water
2 eggs, room temperature, divided
2¼ cups 2% milk, room temperature, divided
½ cup brown sugar
1 cup pumpkin pulp
1 tsp cinnamon, ½ tsp ginger,  ¼ tsp each salt, nutmeg, and allspice
1 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract

Directions

  1. In advance: soak pearl tapioca in ¾ cup water in 2½ quart pan or larger for 30 minutes to soften.
  2. In a 1 cup measure beat the egg yolks, whisk in the brown sugar until thick and dissolved, then whisk in ¼ cup milk.
  3. Place the pot over medium heat. With a spatula stir egg mixture into the soaking tapioca, then add 2 cups milk.
  4. Bring it to a simmer stirring to keep from sticking on bottom. Once steamy with bubbles beginning to form, reduce heat to low and cook gently for 5 minutes until it thickens and pearls swell.
  5. Combine the pumpkin, spices, salt and stir into the pot. Cook 5 minutes longer, stirring occasionally with spatula. Meanwhile, in a small mixing bowl beat the egg whites until foamy, slowly add the granulated sugar until thick and peaks form.
  6. Gently stir ½ cup of hot tapioca into the whipped whites to temper, then fold whites into the tapioca. Cook over low heat, folding and stirring with spatula to thoroughly combine the tapioca until it is hot and steamy, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla.  Serve warm or cool.  Cover and chill in refrigerator 3 hours and up to 3 days.  Serves 4 -6

Spoils of Summer

In my latest Imperfect Produce shipment I ordered nectarines. Maybe it’s their catchy name, but I’m still a little apprehensive prior to opening one of their boxes. But, as usual, everything was in great condition.

The two nectarines smelled sweet, they were big, heavy, and deeply burnished.  What a relief, because I had big plans for them.

A stone fruit galette has been drifting through my mind lately.  I’ve visualized a nicely browned, flaky crust encasing a mound of juicy ripe stone fruit.

In preparation, I had  picked up a few plums to round it out the fruit filling, just in case.  Now, everything was in place.

Actually, it was the pastry crust causing the distraction. For years I have been turned off by the idea of cooking with shortening or lard. Recently, I happened to read the label on a can of Crisco, All Vegetable Shortening—and noticed it has 50% less saturated fat than butter, no trans fats, and less calories than butter. Now, that’s interesting. But, it is still hydrogenated.

Whatever. I was armed with just enough information and incentive to move forward with my mission of making pastry without butter. That’s when the galette appeared.

On the pastry front, I have gone with the most basic possible. It is simply flour, ⅓ cup shortening (only), a pinch of salt, and ice water. It could not be easier, and with the well chilled shortening the pastry rolls out like a dream.

The fruit mixture includes a little brown sugar and spice. It is all tossed together and piled into the center of the free-formed pastry. Just enough pastry border is left to bring up over the fruit and contain it all into an attractive package.

Good news. Once cooled and set, the pasty cut nicely and the fruit set up juicy and delicious. Ah, the spoils of Summer!

Stone Fruit Galette

Ingredients
1 recipe Hand Formed Pastry
1½ pound stone fruit, pit and cut ½” slices: peaches, nectarines, plums (5-6 medium, 4-5 cups)
⅓ cup brown sugar
1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 Tbsp salted butter, cubed
1 egg yolk + 1 tsp water
1 Tbsp granulated sugar

Directions

  1. Prepare the pastry and chill at least 30 minutes and up to 2 days.
  2. For the filling: Combine cut up fruit with brown sugar. Coat with flour and spices.
  3. Roll out pastry on floured parchment into a 12” free formed round.
  4. Mound filling on pastry with slotted spoon, piling higher in the center leaving a 2” border. Bring the pastry up and fold over the fruit to contain it, but leave the center open.
  5. Dot bits of butter over the fruit. Brush the pastry with egg yolk beaten with 1 tsp water and sprinkle it with granulated sugar.
  6. Bake at 375°F for 35 minutes, until golden and bubbly. Rotate as needed to brown evenly. Cool on rack.

Hand Formed Pastry
(Suitable for 1- 9″ pie crust)
⅓ cup vegetable shortening, spread ½” thick, freeze 15 minutes
1 cup all-purpose flour
¼ tsp salt
3-4 Tbsp ice water

Whisk flour and salt in medium bowl.
Dice the cold shortening into 1/2″ cubes and cut into flour with 2 knives or pastry blender, until pieces are the size of small peas.
Add 3 Tbsp ice water and stir a fork until the flour is moistened and it begins to hold together.  Add a few more drops water to bottom of bowl if needed. Gather up dough and gently shape into 1 ball and flatten into a disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill up to 2 days.

A question of quinoa

I hope we have gotten past quinoa’s trendy phase and can settle down and fully accept it for how great it really is—stellar nutritional virtues and all.  Judging from most market shelves, quinoa has definitely secured a presence and has moved from novelty to staple status.

We know quinoa is incredibly versatile; its slight nuttiness blends well with just about anything. I’ve gotten in the habit of cooking up a batch and incorporating it in meals during the week.  It works in a salad, maybe a grain bowl, part of a dinner, and even for breakfast.

Another personal motive is to hold back enough for my precious Quinoa Bars, an old favorite. I’m always glad to have them in the fridge. There will be times in the course of a week that I’ll be in a wild rush, and know I can reach in and grab one without missing a  beat.

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Quinoa Fruit Bars

The moisture from the pre-cooked quinoa seems to keep these bars moist but not soggy—they hold very well without drying out after a few days, and the slight nuttiness blends well with the oat flakes and dried fruits. This last time, I went for a combo of dates and dried cranberries then topped them with bits of sliced candied oranges stashed away from a Trader Joe’s offering.

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There’s still a lot of discussion about rinsing quinoa to remove a natural bitter coating from the seeds. I buy mine in bulk and have no idea whether this has been done. I usually forget to rinse, but as or yet have not noticed any pervasive off taste.

So here is the latest “new and improved” version of Quinoa Fruit Bars. They are even easier to make and enjoy!

Quinoa Fruit Bars  

Ingredients

  • 2/3 cup all-purpose flour, or half whole wheat or other flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp each allspice and dried ginger
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 cup quick oats flakes
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/3 cup yogurt
  • 1/2 cup agave or honey
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup cooked white quinoa
  • 3/4 cup dried fruit: chopped dates, dried cranberries, raisins, apricots or candied ginger

Garnish: 1 Tbsp Demerara or other coarse sugar or candied fruit garnish

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line 8”x8″ pan with non-stick foil or spray with non-stick oil.
  2. In medium bowl whisk together flour, baking soda, spices and salt.  Mix in the oats. Add the dried fruit.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk the egg, then stir in yogurt, agave, vanilla, and cooked quinoa.
  4. With spatula, fold the dry ingredients into the wet just to incorporate.  Spread evenly into pan and sprinkle Demerara sugar over the top.
  5. Bake 30-35 minutes, until it begins to pull away from the sides of the pan and the top begins to brown.  Cool on rack and slice. Yield: 16-18 bars

One Mug, One Serving

As a follow up to the previous Small Batch, One Bowl, today’s post further down-sizes.

Think of this small personal cake the next time the need hits for a minimal-mess-quick-fix.  You can’t go wrong with the satisfying combination of sweet ripe banana and quick hearty oats. If time permits finish it with a honey-oat topping.

Simply mix all the ingredients in a microwaveable mug and pop it into a microwave oven for 1½ minutes. It’s just that easy.

But wait!  If you haven’t used the microwave for baking before, there are a few things to keep in mind.  In small scale baking such as this, details matter and every second counts.

  • The microwave draws moisture out of food. 
    With our small cake, the size and ripeness of the banana become a key factor. To lighten the cake and provide additional liquid, use either one beaten egg white or 1 egg yolk plus 1-2 teaspoons liquid. When all ingredients have been combined, if the batter is quite heavy adjust by adding a dash at a time of additional liquid to reach a thick cake-like batter.
  • For the optional honey-oat topping Old fashioned oats provide an interesting nut-like quality. Because they are very dry, a bit of milk or water added to the oats will help to moisturize them before adding the honey.  (The honey will soak into the dry oats and become a sticky mess without moisturizing the oats first.)
  • For the cake to rise evenly, turn the cup once half way through baking.
    It is cooked when the cake begins to shrink away from the edges of the mug.
  • When done, let the cake rest for 5 minutes.
    The cake will continue to cook and release moisture.
  • Unmold by running a knife around the edge of the cake.
    If pretty is important, dress it up with a dusting of confectioners’ sugar, a dollop of whipped cream, or a drizzle of warmed local honey.
  • Enjoy!
    For breakfast, snacking, or individual dessert.

Banana Oat Mug Cake with Honey-Oat Topping

Inspired by Quaker Oats Banana Oat Mug Cake

Ingredients

  • 2 ½ tablespoons quick oats
  • 2 tablespoons AP flour
  • 1/4 tsp baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar, packed
  • ¼ tsp nutmeg
  • ½ ripe banana, well mashed
  • 1 egg white lightly beaten; or 1 egg yolk + 2 tsp milk, water or other liquid, lightly beaten
  • Topping
  • 1½ teaspoons old fashioned oats moistened with 1 tsp milk or other liquid
  • 1 teaspoon honey, agave or syrup
  • Pinch each cinnamon and salt

Instructions

  1. In microwaveable mug, blend together oats, flour, baking powder, sugar and nutmeg.
  2. Add the banana and egg white or egg yolk mixture and combine evenly to form a batter. If quite thick, thin with a dash of milk or water.  Scrape bottom and sides with a spatula.
  3. Combine the topping mixture and distribute over the top.
  4. Microwave on HIGH 80 to 90 seconds until risen and just firm to the touch. Half way through, stop and rotate the mug. Let stand 3 to 5 minutes to further cook and set up before serving.  Yield: 1 serving

Small Batch, One Bowl

My mom was an experienced cook, gifted with a natural sense of timing and flavors. For years her prize appliance was a stainless steel state-of-the-art Thermador range with grill top and convection oven. Later, she frequently preferred to fire up a huge countertop toaster oven instead.

A highly practical, early environmentalist, Mom viewed the larger oven as wasteful and inefficient for her smaller jobs.  On my visits I viewed this as odd—I figured that somehow her food would taste better cooked in the bigger, fancier unit.

Since we are our parent’s children, I eventually ‘evolved’ and came around to her way of thinking. I had shifted in my cooking, too.  I rarely needed big pans of food. (In fact, my current convection toaster oven is even smaller than hers.)

This caused a whole chain of events to occur. I was in the market for smaller pans and down-sized recipes.  I was on the look-out for one-bowl recipes with fewer ingredients, all which help move the process along.

My food portions went down, too:  it’s either that or eat the whole thing.  I learned about small batch baking:  food is ready fast.  I can be in and out of the kitchen with a plateful of goodies in very little time.

I knew I was on the right path when a small funky cookie jar happened across my path.

Although fewer cookies fill up the tiny jar in a hurry, typically a batch lasts well beyond a week or two.  Even better, cookies on display are a warm welcome for drop-in friends.

Tahini Cookies, Small Batch

Ingredients

  • ½ cup tahini
  • ½ cup light brown sugar, packed
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 cup sesame seeds

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 375° F.  Line a baking sheet with silpat or parchment.
  2. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together tahini and sugar.  Whisk in 1 egg to lighten, then stir in the vanilla and salt.
  3. Combine the flour and baking soda and stir into the mix, blending until smooth.
  4. Using tablespoon scoop, drop onto baking sheet. Sprinkle tops with sesame seeds.
  5. Bake 15-16 minutes until set and edges begin to brown. Transfer to rack to cool.  Yield 1½ dozen cookies.