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. 

 

A Few of My Favorite Things

When it comes to tasty baking combinations, these days it’s hard to beat buckwheat groats, tahini, and honey. And here we have a cookie with all three—plus a surprise crunch factor thrown in for entertainment value!

This idea comes from a gluten-free cookie re-engineered from Gluten Free Girl – an excellent site for all things gluten-free.  These soft, moist, fiber rich cookies are the perfect purveyor for any of your favorite additions: perhaps a handful of trail mix or a combo of dried fruit, seeds & nuts, and/or white or dark chocolate.

In this case, the star is roasted buckwheat groats, well known for its characteristically earthy, nutty taste. I’m partial to its toasty/tobacco flavor that’s reminiscent of cooler seasons. Buckwheat’s hard outer hull must be removed for it to become fully edible. Since it has no gluten, buckwheat flour is often used as a substitute for wheat flour.

Although it is frequently associated with grains, buckwheat is a seed related to sorrel and rhubarb. That’s welcome news since seeds are literally jam-packed with minerals and antioxidants. Once toasted the buckwheat groats are called kasha. If the roasted variety is too strong, try the milder, unroasted buckwheat as a delicious rice substitute.

Even though these cookies are effortless to whip up, they do require a little advance planning. Allow a 30-minute soak for the groats to achieve their iconic texture, and one-hour chill time to firm-up the dough before baking.

So fond am I of these cookies, I have taken to making two different sizes. In a 10”x10” pan I portion out nine large 3-tablespoon/scoops—large enough for on-the-run happy meals.  In an 11” round pan, I layout approximately ten rounded tablespoon-sized cookies—ideal for a mid-morning or afternoon snack.  Or, for a slightly more logical solution you could make about 20 cookies, but that’s just how I roll…

All-Occasion Buckwheat Cookies

Greatly reworked from a gluten free concept, 3:30PM Cookies at Gluten-free Girl.

Ingredients
¾ cup buckwheat groats
1 tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp nutmeg or ½ tsp ground ginger
¼ cup coconut oil, melted
¼ cup tahini
½ cup honey
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup spelt or whole wheat flour
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
¾ tsp salt
1 egg, beaten
¾ cup favorite fruit/nut mix (or ¼ cup each nuts/seeds, dried cranberries, white chocolate)

Instructions

  1. To soak the buckwheat groats: melt the coconut oil in microwave for 30-40 seconds. Stir in the tahini to combine, then add the honey.  In a small mixing bowl, measure ¾ cup groats along with the cinnamon and nutmeg or ginger. Pour the warm coconut oil mixture over the groats. Stir well and let soak for at least 30 minutes.
  2. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk the dry ingredients together.  Pour the soaked buckwheat mixture over it. Add the egg and stir with a spatula to combine. Add the trail mix and blend.
  3. Cover and chill at least 1 hour.
  4. Preheat oven to 350°. Line a baking sheet with parchment or silpat.
  5. Using 3 Tbsp scoop, place 9 on baking sheet. Shape into flat cylinders. Bake 17-18 minutes until golden brown and set on edges.
  6. Cool for 10 minutes on baking sheet, then move to wire rack to cool completely. Repeat making 1 pan of smaller rounded tablespoon cookies. Yield: @ 20 2-1/2 to 3” cookies.

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.

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.

Shades of Van Gogh

I bought a jar of tahini the other day and cannot leave it alone.  It should be sold with a warning label.

I am hooked. I put tahini on or in everything, and it keeps tasting better.  I write these words as I eye my latest showstopper. I am worried because I may polish this cheesecake off before the sun comes up.

It all began with my musing over the possibilities of a tahini cheesecake.    Mmmm.      That’s when the not-so-obvious addition of turmeric registered.  Now that’s intriguing.  Yes, turmeric interests me, too.  I want to explore its rumored health advantages, its lovely color, its mysterious flavor…  But, wait! Why not throw in a gingersnap and date crust and see what happens?

Tahini Date Cheesecake whole (1)

I hit the kitchen and gather up what’s on hand: Greek yogurt and Neufchatel cheese.  Ah, yes.  Elegant, nuanced… a bit of honey for sweetener is spot on.  Into the pressure cooker it all goes for 30 minutes.  That’s it.

Well, what can I say?  The filling’s golden color is worthy of a Van Gogh painting.

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The flavor is subtle—yet profound. It evokes the question, “Is it really that good?” Perhaps another bite… or two.

Ah, yes, it is certainly good for me. I have no shame.  Call the doctor.

Tahini-Turmeric Cheesecake with Ginger-Date Crust

Inspired by cheesecake from:  http://flavorrd.com/2016/07/instant-pot-greek-yogurt-cheesecake/

Ingredients
Crumb crust
1 cup ginger snaps, fine crumb
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
½ cup dates, chopped
Filling
4 oz. cream cheese, regular or Neufchatel, softened
1/3 cup tahini
½ teaspoon turmeric, toasted
1/4 cup honey
1 teaspoon vanilla
Pinch sea salt
1 1/2 cups whole or 2% Greek yogurt
2 large eggs, beaten

Directions

  1. Spray a 7” springform pan with non-stick spray and line bottom with parchment.
  2. For the crust: crush the cookies into fine crumbs, using either a food processor or a ziploc bag and rolling pin. Stir in the melted butter. When well combined add the dates and stir to distribute evenly. Press the mixture onto the bottom of a 7-inch springform pan, pressing firmly and spreading the crust about halfway up the sides of the pan (the bottom of a drinking glass works well for this job).
  3. For the filling: toast the turmeric in a small bowl in the microwave about one minute, until aromatic. In mixing bowl, beat the cream cheese until light.  Whip in the tahini, then the turmeric honey, vanilla and sea salt until well combined. Add Greek yogurt and whip until smooth.  , sugar and vanilla in a large bowl, and whip together until very smooth. Then add the eggs, mixing until just combined.
  4. Pour the filling into the springform pan, being careful to fully cover the crust around the edges (if any crumbs are exposed, they can become soggy from the moisture in the pressure cooker).
  5. Place a trivet rack into the pressure cooker, and pour in 1 cup of water. Place the cheesecake on top of the trivet and close the lid. Set the valve to sealing position, and cook on high pressure for 30 minutes. When done, turn off cooker and let stand for 5 minutes without disturbing, then release pressure.
  6. Open the lid and use the trivet handles to lift out the pan. If water has settled on top of the cheesecake, gently blot any excess with a paper towel.
  7. Allow the cheesecake to cool on a rack at room temperature for 1-2 hours, then transfer it to the refrigerator to chill completely (at least 4 hours). Serves: 1 to 8.

Behind the Curve?

Cream of tartar is one of those odd little pantry ingredients that many of us haven’t a clue what it really does. Beyond stabilizing egg whites when making meringue, what really is its value?

While contemplating a slew of Snickerdoodle recipes recently I was stumped that many included cream of tartar as an essential ingredient. Turns out cream of tartar is an acid that causes a reaction when combined with baking soda. The leavening effect results in soft, chewy, addictive, cookies that you simply cannot leave alone.snickerdoodle (1)

In some circles Snickerdoodles are viewed as an American institution. With such lofty status no wonder they are added to commercial ice cream, as if frosting on a cake.

Their powdery cinnamon-sugar finish makes them iconic, too, so don’t omit.  Since many recipes are quite lavish on that count, the following amount of cinnamon may seem wimpy by serious aficionados.  From my limited perspective they are balanced and need nothing more than a cup of tea or a glass of milk.

Snickerdoodles

Inspired by Lil’ Luna’s Snickerdoodles

Ingredients
1 cup butter (softened)
1½ cups sugar
2 eggs
2 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
Cinnamon-sugar
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350° F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or silpat.
  2. Sift together flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt.
  3. In a mixing bowl beat the butter until light, slowly add the sugar and beat until fluffy. Mix in the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition.
  4. Stir the dry ingredients into the butter mixture and mix well.
  5. In 1 tablespoon scoops, roll the dough into balls, then roll each into the cinnamon-sugar mixture. Place 2 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheet.
  6. Bake for 8-10 minutes at 350 degrees, until the edges just begin to brown slightly. Carefully remove to rack to cool. They will be fragile, but firm up as they cool.  Yield: about 48 cookies.

Transactional Analysis and the Relational Value of Steamed Pudding

It could be my New England roots, but I dearly love a good steamed pudding.  Deeply flavored, moist and dense, it touches my soul.  A steamed pudding speaks to me of  family hearths and seasonal traditions.

I had my heart set on a Persimmon Pudding, much like the one my sister-in-law, Jan makes.  Her well-balance cake has been in her family for generations, and bears all the ear markings of a time honored treasure. It is made in the Joy of Cooking mode of creaming the butter and sugar, then eggs and such are mixed in, followed by the dry ingredients, and finally, all other additives like nuts and raisins are stirred in.

Since persimmons have been readily available this year I was excited about the possibilities. I purchased a few good looking Hachiya and set them out to ripen.  Two weeks later, still hard as rocks, it looked like the persimmons would not be ripe for a couple more weeks—perhaps in time for Christmas!

With persimmons out of contention for the moment, it looked like pumpkin might be the next best option.  Besides, it’s Thanksgiving.  Why not give pumpkin its chance to shine?

Turns out, pumpkin works well as a replacement for persimmons, with a few minor adjustments.  Since persimmons can have a high acidity, baking soda is often used as a buffer. In this case, the baking soda was eliminated in lieu of baking powder for leavening.  And what is pumpkin without brown sugar? So, a little was added in lieu of granulated sugar. Everyone was happy and into the mold it went!

In Jan’s recipe, the pudding was steamed on the stovetop for 2 long hours.  Thanks to my trusty Instant Pot, the pressure cooker could reduce that cooking time by as much as 60-70%.  Given the numbers, I opted for 35 minutes, with an additional partial natural pressure release time of 5 minutes. Worse case, I reckoned I could return it to the pressure cooker if it was not set.

Once complete and out of the pressure cooker, I opened the mold and checked the contents.  It had raised, was a deep amber color, and the top looked quite moist, but that is not uncommon. I dabbed the excess moisture off with a paper towel, and moved it to a cooling rack.  In no time, the cake began to pull away from the sides—which I took as a very good sign.  It was holding its shape without a problem.  Given 10 minutes, it easily unmolded onto the rack for further cooling.  We have steamed pudding!

On this Thanksgiving, here’s wishing you all the joy of good food and good company.

Steamed Pumpkin Pudding

Inspired by Jan C’s family Persimmon Pudding

Ingredients
1/3 cup softened butter
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 egg
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon cinnamon
12 ounces, or 1 can pumpkin pulp, approximate
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped

Instructions

  1. In advance: coat a 6 cup baking mold well with butter or spray thoroughly with bakers non-stick spray.
  2. Plump the raisins and orange juice: in a small microwaveable bowl, cover with wrap, and heat for 40 seconds in the microwave; set aside to plump.
  3. Combine the flour through the cinnamon and set aside.
  4. Set up Instant Pot with a rack, pour in 3 cups water and begin to heat the water, set to Saute function.
  5. To prepare the pudding: in a mixing bowl, cream the butter and granulated sugar, then beat in the brown sugar. Add the egg and beat well.
  6. Mix the pumpkin and vanilla into the butter and egg mixture. Add the dry ingredients,  stir to combine. Add the raisins and nuts.
  7. Spread the batter into the mold, and cover with the lid if it fits in the pot, or lightly cover with foil. Set onto raised rack in the Instant Pot with water bath and seal the lid.
  8. Using Manual setting, adjust to Low Pressure and set timer to 35 minutes. When complete, allow Natural Release for 5 minutes and then use Quick Release.  Remove from Instant Pot and let cool about 20 minutes before unmolding.
  9. If time permits, make a day or two in advance to allow flavors to blend. Store well wrapped in the refrigerator.  Serve with custard sauce, a hard sauce or whipped cream.  Serves 6 or more.