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

Tinkering with Drinks

I switched to a small soda siphon a year or two ago and haven’t looked back. It fits perfectly in my refrigerator door, out of the way but readily available when I need it. The swap out has greatly reduced wasteful plastic,  glass bottles, and caused me to upgrade my beverage repertoire.

With the return of summer heat I’m back tinkering with drinks and the soda siphon is staying busy. I’m always looking for a new sipper, something refreshing and not too heavy. Fruit syrups are tasty but I’d prefer less sugar. Fresh juices are fun but they can quickly turn into dessert, too.

I very much like the citrusy-tart flavor of fresh pink grapefruit juice. It responds well when lightened up with a blast of sparkling soda, a dash of bitters, a pinch of salt, and some fresh mint or lime.  But, after a while, I needed a change.

And along carrots. I didn’t have to go out in search of carrots, there are usually a few stashed somewhere in the fridge. Carrots are good for snacking and good for you; they are rich in vitamin A, beta-carotene, and more. Yes, they are abundant and last well—you could call carrots a universal vegetable. Their mild flavor is adaptable in both sweet and savory dishes, giving them staple status in many of the world’s cuisines.

Turns out, carrots and grapefruit have a symbiotic relationship.

Shaving carrots into thin wide ribbons opens up their surface area and encourages the grapefruit juice to settle in and extract both their color and flavor. In less than an hour and without much effort, you’ll have an earthy, peach colored, mildly sweet-tart juice.

Conversely, the carrot curls absorb the citrus flavors; they make a tasty snack and a pretty garnish.

Serve this refreshing and healthy drink over ice, enliven it with a splash of soda or sparkling water, and garnish with fresh lime and carrot curls for munching.

Grapefruit-Carrot Sparkler

Ingredients

  • 1 medium carrot, peel and shave into thin wide ribbons with a vegetable peeler
  • 2 cups or more fresh pink grapefruit juice, to cover
  • soda or sparkling water

Finish:  ice, lime slices, carrot curls

Instructions

  1. For juice, place carrot ribbons in a container and cover with fresh grapefruit juice. Chill for an hour or longer.  Any remaining curls can be re-used 2 or 3 times.
  2. For the sparkler, place ice in an 8-ounce glass, half fill with grapefruit-carrot juice, top-off with soda or sparkling water, and stir well.  Garnish with carrot curls a squeeze of fresh lime.   Serves 1 or more

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.

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

Short and Sweet: Spiced Cran-Apple Jam

One of the benefits of living in Oregon is our availability to fresh, tart cranberries.  Oregon’s coastal region’s moist bogs provide ideal conditions for the spindly, low growing bushes to thrive.

courtesy oregon cranberry growers assn.

 

Their juicy tanginess makes an ideal foil in sauces, chutneys and other condiments, in salads, and for baking.  I like to stock up on cranberries when they are abundant, from October to December.

 

I recently came across a forgotten bag of berries stuffed in the recesses of the fridge that needed to be either frozen or used up.  Here’s my ten minute solution:  a sweet and sour cranberry-apple jam that falls somewhere between jam and chutney.

cran apple jam

 

The jam’s spicy-tart bite is a delicious wake-up on morning toast, as an edge with peanut butter in a sandwich, and even as a mild condiment with curries.

 

Nice to know it is laced with B, C and E vitamins, too.

 

Spiced Cranberry Apple Jam

Ingredients

  • 12-ounce bag fresh cranberries, rinsed and drained
  • 1 large Gala, Fuji, or Honey Crisp apple, peel, seed, chop
  • ½ cup apple cider
  • ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
  • ¾ cup brown sugar
  • Pinch sea salt
  •  ¼ tsp five-spice powder, or cinnamon stick
  • 1 vanilla pod, seeded, or 2 tsp vanilla extract

Directions

  1. In a medium pot, combine cranberries, apple, cider and vinegar, sugar, salt and five-spice and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. If using vanilla extract hold off until finish to add.
  2. Simmer over medium heat until cranberries begin to burst and jam thickens, 8-10 minutes. Just before removing from heat, stir in vanilla and simmer briefly. If desired, mash berries with a bean or potato masher, for more jam-like consistency
  3. Let cool, remove the vanilla pod. Transfer jam to a pint jar with the cinnamon stick if using.  Will hold in refrigerator 2 weeks or longer.  Yield:  2 cups

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.