Category Archives: Baked Goods

Breads, cakes, pastries, cookies, etc.

CRANBERRY VANILLA COFFEECAKE

I don’t buy the theory that everything happens for a reason.

crumb cake slice cut out

After watching my father go from perfectly fine to totally incapacitated in the course of three weeks, after witnessing some of the best people I know be unable to conceive and carry a healthy baby, after being privy to the pretty hellish family backgrounds of some of my students, I’m extremely resistant to the line of thinking that asserts “there’s some good reason for this totally shitty thing that’s happening.”  In my world, shitty things just sometimes happen.

I do, however, believe that if something shitty should happen, you might as well find an angle on the situation from which you can learn something, be grateful for something, grow, and/or laugh.

So.  As you might imagine, I’m not very good at standing around and not doing things.  Not good at going to Costco with my best friend and letting her put everything in my cart and load everything into my car.  Not good at letting Jill do the cooking.  Not good at standing around at a Halloween party, unable to pour drinks.

I’m going to back to the doctor today, but I have to say the experience of the last few days has made me grateful and thoughtful.  I see now how accustomed I am to assessing my value via the things I can do: baking, helping, fixing, mailing packages, cleaning, grading, writing letters, blogging (which I’m doing anyway—shhhh!)

What I’ve been forced to realize is that, even if I never contributed another action in my life, I would still be loved.  I’d be valued and of importance.  I’d be useful simply for being myself.

And that’s a pretty big thing to get.

CRANBERRY VANILLA COFFEECAKE
ever-so-slightly adapted from Gourmet, December 2008

If your hands are in even slightly better shape than mine, MAKE THIS CAKE.  The food processor & stand mixer do most of the work, and this cake tastes like fall, nostalgia, home, & butter all rolled into one.  Fresh cranberries are readily available these days, but if you must, you can substitute thawed, frozen ones.

Because I prefer my breakfast cakes a bit tart, I’ve dialed back the sugar by a quarter cup from the original recipe and added a bit of lemon zest.  Feel free to go for a sweeter version if you’d like.

cake ingredients: crumb cake slice 2

½ a vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 ½ cups sugar
1 cup cranberries
2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
¾ tsp. salt
1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
½ cup whole milk
zest of one lemon

oven: 375°
pan: 9-inch round cake pan (I used a spring form)

Butter the pan & line the bottom of it with a round of parchment paper.  Butter the parchment, too.  Trust me.  It’s easier this way.

Use your food processor to make vanilla sugar: scrape the insides of the vanilla bean* into the bowl of the food processor along with the sugar.  Pulse to combine.

Remove vanilla sugar from bowl & reserve ¼ cup for the topping.  Pulse the cranberries with another ¼ cup of vanilla sugar until finely chopped.

To make the cake batter, whisk together the flour, baking powder, & salt.  Beat together the butter & remaining vanilla sugar (1 cup) until pale and fluffy.

Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Scrape down the bowl, then add the flour mixture & milk alternately.  Begin & end with the flour!

Stir in the lemon zest; be careful not to over-mix.

To assemble the cake, spread half of the batter in the pan (don’t worry if it looks a little thin).  Because the cranberries tend to give off a lot of water, use a slotted spoon to remove them from the food processor & spread them in a circle over the batter, leaving a slight border.

Top the cake layers with the remaining half of the batter (again, don’t worry if it looks thin!)  Top with the crumble—see below—and bake for 45-55 minutes.  The cake will pull away from the pan & become light brown.  If using a regular cake pan, cool at least 25 minutes before turning out the cake.  With a spring form pan, wait 15-20.

*Don’t throw away that vanilla bean half!  Save it for flavoring purposes, the simplest of which is to store it in a jam jar with some extra sugar, which you can then add to your coffee, tea, baked goods, etc.

crumble topping:

¼ cup vanilla sugar (see above)
1 T flour
1 T unsalted butter, softened

Blend the ingredients with your fingers & scatter over the top of the cake.

Cake will keep, well-wrapped, in the refrigerator for a week.

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BACON SCONES: CHEDDAR/SCALLION & MAPLE/PECAN

First off, a disclaimer: if the quality of today’s pictures seems a bit wobbly to you, that’s because I took them.  Instead of the badass Sonya.

sonya at work

{Badass Sonya is going to be real mad that I’m posting this picture of her being a badass but she’ll just have to get over it.}

I’ve never, ever been a photographer or anything close.  I knew when I started this blog that I would need serious help in the picture-taking department, and luckily Sonya was up for the job.  She has, in fact, gone above and beyond what I ever imagined; I must say that the success of BJG hinges largely on her extraordinary talent.

In an effort to cultivate that talent, Sonya and I participated in a very fun food photography workshop with photography rock star Penny de los Santos.  I decided to tag along, despite my non-photographer status, because I figured I would be able to learn how I can assist Sonya is taking the quality of BJG photographs to the proverbial “next level.”

In fact, I did learn a lot about how great food photography gets made and had the pleasure of getting to meet and chat with Penny in person.  (She then so generously visited us here at BJG and even left us a comment on the “About” page!  Did I “squee” when I saw her comment?  Maybe.)  But the coolest thing that happened was: I got behind a camera myself and took some pictures!

frenchie fries

You know, as adults, we generally spend our time doing things we are good at doing.  We’ve chosen our careers that way, culled our hobbies down the ones which best suit us.  We are choosy with our time so why devote any of it to an unfamiliar endeavor?  Not to mention, it’s hella scary to try something I have no idea how to do.  I am so accustomed to being competent and on top of things, it’s such a huge function of my identity.  So I was more than just a little confronted by the act of picking up a camera and photographing some food.

Of course, as I relaxed into the afternoon and gave up the ridiculous notion that I immediately had to be a photography prodigy, I had fun.  And really came to respect just how difficult it is to do what Sonya, Penny, & other photographers do.

Don’t fret, we’ll still be featuring Sonya’s gorgeous work 98% of the time.  But every once in a while, I conjure up some out-of-the-ballpark-winner-of-a-dish and she’s not around to capture its image.  So, I’m going to try my hand at taking halfway decent photographs, for the blog and for my own pleasure.  After just a week of playing around with the camera, I’m feeling high from the exertion and joy that comes with expanding my skill set and stretching myself out of my comfort zone.

Speaking of which, sharing my answers to the Proust Questionnaire with, you know, the entire free world makes me more than a little nervous.  But you, my readers, have been beyond generous in your support and cheering on of BJG in the last five months that I just couldn’t turn down your requests.  I’m flattered by your interest and would love to see your own responses.

Last but not least: the food itself!  We’ve got some gorgeous, clear, sunny, cool days ahead of us down here in Texas and I know these scones would be a perfect addition to any weekend plans you may have.  Perfect for game-watching, either indoor or out, tailgating, sitting-out-in-the-backyard-ing, reading-in-a-chair-ing, picnicking, brunch-ing, or just general lazing about.

These scones are a riff on a recipe a friend passed along—I felt they would be a perfect “out in the field” hunting snack for Jill to take along and share with the guys.  We’ll see what they say about ‘em Sunday!

BACON SCONES: CHEDDAR/SCALLION & MAPLE/PECAN

The goodness of these scones would not be possible without the generosity and talent of two incredible individuals: Al Marcus of Grateful Bread here in Houston, who sells the most incredible maple bacon I have ever put in my mouth and Meg Maker, who has become a friend over the last few months via Twitter and is so kind-hearted that she responded to my maple-syrup lament with a care package with a giant jug of top-quality stuff.

With beautiful products like Al’s bacon and pure New Hampshire maple syrup, the scones almost cooked themselves!  Per Al’s recommendation, I cut my bacon thick, about a ½ inch, then placed the slices on a broiler pan in a cold oven.  I turned the oven to 400° and let the bacon cook up until the oven was preheated & just a few minutes longer.

baaaacon

I made a big “master bowl” of scone starter, then divided it in half to make one batch of sweet and one of savory.  If you’re only interested in one of these versions, feel free to cut the starter in half.

oven: 400°
pan: two baking sheets lined with parchment or well-greased

ingredients:

4 cups all-purpose flour
1 stick unsalted butter, cold & cut into pieces
10 T shortening
1 ½ T baking powder
1 ½ tsp. kosher salt or 1 tsp. table salt

Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl.  Cut the fat into the flour mixture until the dough resembles small-to-medium-sized pebbles.

Divide the starter evenly between two bowls.

CHEDDAR/SCALLION SCONES
: cheddar/scallion scones

ingredients:

2 slices (approx. 1 ½ oz.) bacon, cooked, cooled, & chopped
½ cup grated cheddar cheese*
¼ cup chopped scallions/green onions
½ cup buttermilk + extra for glaze.

On a floured surface, pat the dough out into a rough circle.  Cut into wedges and place on baking sheets.  Brush each scone with extra buttermilk as a glaze.

Bake 15-20 minutes, until the scones are light brown and firm to the touch.  Cool briefly before enjoying.

*I used a nice extra sharp and recommend splurging on good-quality cheese.

MAPLE/PECAN SCONES: maple/pecan scones

ingredients:

2 slices (approx. 1 ½ oz.) bacon, cooked, cooled, & chopped
1 cup pecans, chopped*
¼ cup half and half
¼ cup maple syrup + extra for glaze

Mix all ingredients into the starter, distributing add-ins evenly and being careful not to over-mix.  Dough will be very wet, so don’t freak out!

On a floured surface, pat the dough out into a rough circle.  Cut into wedges and place on baking sheets.  Brush each scone with extra maple as a glaze.

Bake 15-20 minutes, until the scones are light brown and firm to the touch.  Cool briefly before enjoying.  Serve with extra maple, butter, or jam.

*I didn’t pre-toast them and the scones were still delicious…but next time I think I will.

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BROWN SUGAR POUNDCAKE

I’m asking my students to answer an amended version of the Proust Questionnaire this week.  And I swear I can hear their brains working as they write.

brown sugar poundcake side view

Used by Vanity Fair magazine since 1993 as a “back page” feature, the Proust Questionnaire is so named because the famous French author believed that answering this set of questions revealed one’s true nature.

My eighth graders are at a particularly pointed place in their development and understanding of themselves; not kids anymore but not quite adults, they strain against the limits of what they know and what they want, what they are allowed to have versus what they feel, deeply.  Everything is changing for them all of the time, and there’s little they can control.

Hence the questionnaire.  This deep and difficult set of questions forces the respondent to become very clear about who they are and what they want.  While it seems like it should be easy—I should be an expert on the topic of myself, right?—for me and my students, these questions have forced us to think about who we are and who we want to be.

In answering these questions along with my kids, I’m disturbed a bit by how easy it is to forget that there is no one fixed way for me, Nishta Jaya Mehra, to be in the world.  I act as if “this is how I am” but my being wasn’t set by my birth; it’s constantly in flux, and I am in the one in control of that, even though it often feels like the circumstances are.

At once empowering and totally scary, this week in my class we are taking on the idea that we get to say who we are.  We get to change ourselves, experiment with our expression, make mistakes and clean them up.  We put ourselves out there in the world and hope for the best.

If the best hasn’t come your way this week, might I suggest a poundcake?  Because while who I am is changing all of the time, my love for butter will never, ever die.

butter makes it better

BROWN-SUGAR POUNDCAKE

This recipe makes a LOT of batter; it filled not only my mom’s big ole bundt pan but also a few little mini-loaf pans on the side.  I’ll be you could halve this pretty easily, but the thing is—this cake is delicious.  You could freeze it, give it away, or just, you know, eat it.  I think it would be especially darling baked into wee little cupcakes or muffins!)

I made a very simple glaze of powdered sugar, milk, & vanilla, but the recipe came with a fancier glaze idea, which I’ve included below.  Haven’t tried it yet, so please let me know if ya’ll do.

ingredients: brown sugar pound cake top view

3 cups all-purpose flour
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup milk
1 ½ cups (3 sticks) butter, softened
1 one-pound box dark brown sugar (about 2 ¾ cups)
½ cup white sugar
5 eggs

oven: 325°
pan: original recipe calls for greasing & flouring a 10-inch tube pan or two 9 X 5-inch loaf pans, but I’m skeptical that all of this batter would fit into those configurations.  I recommend having some extra pans on hand!

Whisk the dry ingredients with a fork.  Combine the vanilla & milk in a separate bowl & set aside.

Beat the butter on its own until light and fluffy.  Add the brown sugar in three batches, then the white sugar all at once.  Scrape down the bowl & continue to beat well, adding the eggs one at a time.

You know what’s coming!  Alternately add the dry mixture (flour, etc.) and the wet ingredients (milk & vanilla) in several batches, starting & ending with the dry.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pans and bake.  Time will vary widely depending on the shape/size of your pans.  Cupcakes/muffins will take between 25-30 minutes, the loaf pans, 45-50.  My bundt baked for over an hour, until the cake tester revealed nice, moist crumbs on the inside.

Cool the cakes on a wire rack, giving larger cakes a generous amount of time.  Turn the cakes out and eat/glaze/wrap up.

QUICK CARAMEL GLAZE

½ cup (1 stick) butter
1 cup light-brown sugar
½ cup evaporated milk
4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1 tsp. vanilla

Melt the butter and brown sugar in a saucepan.  Cook for 2-3 minutes, then add the evaporated milk and let the icing come to a gentle boil.  Stir well.

Remove from heat, then add the confectioner’s sugar and vanilla.  Beat well, by hand or with a mixer, for a few minutes until the glaze thickens and looses some sheen.

Pour immediately over the cake or the glaze will harden.

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FEELIN’ KINDA SUNDAY: MOLASSES COOKIES

It’s raining in Memphis, and I may have to make these cookies today.

molasses cookies stacked

Since I work in a Jewish school, today was a half-day for Rosh Hashanah (L’Shana Tovah, ya’ll!), which I decided to take all the way off so I could fly home for a few days. As many of you know, I spent most of the summer here with my mom, writing, blogging, eating her amazing food, and few weeks ago, I realized that I just couldn’t hold out until Thanksgiving to see her again. So here I am. This is a strictly “Mom-visit” weekend, which means I have kept my plans secret up until now so as to avoid the flurry-of-plan-making that inevitably occurs. There are many people I love here, many people I’d love to see, but Veena takes priority. With one exception: these boys.

boys

I’ve written previously about how my sense of family has much more to do with love, proximity, and knowing than about blood and marriage. That’s why I claim John and Henry, my dear friends Kate and Stephen’s twins, as mine even though I’m not related to them in any way, shape, or form. As John put it this summer, I’m their Nishta.

The story of how I came to be their Nishta has very much been on my mind of late. You see, Kate was my teacher in high school. She taught me World Religions as a junior, and my locker was fortuitously located across a narrow hallway from her office. I thought she was so, so cool and lovely and smart and kind and I did what some of my students do for me now, finding every possible reason to ask her a question, to linger after school, to bring her little gifts and notes and read the books that she suggested and work really hard in her class.

It’s a wonder to me, looking back on it, that I didn’t drive her totally nuts. Even more a wonder that we grew to be friends over time, via emails and letters and packages and long talks over chai. I got to know her husband Stephen, who is pretty fantastic in his own right; I got to play fairy godmother for one very magical summer, a role I reprise every time I’m in town. I cannot overestimate the space that her generosity takes up in the file cabinet of memories from that time of my life. Her attention and encouragement, which I know from experience require heaps of patience, gave me a great deal of space and comfort.

Kate can and should be credited with many things: planting the seed for me to be a Religious Studies major, dismantling my irrational fear of poetry, gifting me a first-edition Annie Dillard, and sending me off to college with the excellent advice: “Drink the beer while it’s still cold.” And so I show my gratefulness to the world by reversing the roles, sitting behind my desk while students fill my room after school, reaching out for handfuls of snacks, advice, hugs, love.

As for Kate, well, there’s really no way to adequately thank her and her family for allowing me so intimately into their lives. I mostly just show up with love, joy, and gratitude, as I will tonight when my mom and I go over for dinner. There will probably also be some molasses cookies in tow, and hopefully they will manage to say all of the things that language feels inadequate for.

molasses cookies with milk

MOLASSES COOKIES

These are taken from an NPR story my mom sent me years ago. I had been trying to perfect a recipe for molasses cookies, but quickly discarded my own efforts because this is really the only recipe you need. I’ve bumped up the spice quotient because, well, I’m brown. I like spice!

Plan ahead to make sure you’ll have adequate chilling time for the dough, which you can leave overnight if need be. Also be sure to watch the cookies carefully in the oven—they’ll still seem mushy to you when you take them out, but will firm up when cooling, leaving a perfectly chewy cookie behind. They won’t last long, I guar-an-tee.

ingredients: molasses cookies before baking

3/4 cup melted butter

1/4 cup molasses (grease your measuring cup with baking spray before pouring, it will save you clean-up trouble!)

1 egg

1 cup sugar, plus extra for dipping

2 cups flour

2 tsp. baking soda

1 ½ tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. cloves

1 tsp. ground ginger

½ tsp. salt

Combine the melted butter, sugar, molasses and egg in a large bowl. Mix thoroughly before sifting the dry ingredients into the same bowl and mixing again. Chill dough at least two hours.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375°.

Shape dough into 1-inch balls, then roll them sugar. Place them on a greased cookie sheet VERY FAR APART—they will spread a lot! Flatten each one with a fork, making a cross-hatch pattern to encourage the cookies (can cookies be encouraged?) to promote even spreading.

Bake for 8-10 minutes until flat and dark brown. Cool on racks, as the cookies will be very delicate until they’ve cooled a bit. Perfect with a glass of milk or milk-substitute!

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HOMEMADE GRANOLA

The summer of 2006 was a big one for me.  It’s the pivot point in my life that I would point to, if asked, and say “That’s the summer that changed everything.”

granola spices

It was the summer between the two years I spent in Arizona for graduate school.  It was the summer I traveled to India for the first time in over a decade.  It was the summer I spent more time with my parents than I had since I lived in their house.  It was the summer my twin godsons were born, the summer I spent living with them & their parents, an extra pair of hands in the diaper-changing rotation, offering bottles and lullabies to tiny six-week-olds.  It was a magical, luminous summer that haunts and carries me because it suddenly, at the end, became the summer that my father died.

Before everything changed, I began the quest to make exceptional granola because I was spending my days with two regular granola-eaters: my mama, and Stephen, the twins’ dad.  Both of them purchased boxed versions which seemed bland and sad.  I was convinced that I could do better.  Turns out, I can.  And you can too.

Granola is infinitely adaptable in terms of the fruits, nuts, spices, and flavorings involved; since that summer, I’ve made a dozen varieties, customizing one blend for a friend who loves dried cherries with cashews, packing others full of dried pineapple and toasted coconut.

What I’ve learned is that there are a few principles or guidelines that, when applied, insure that your homemade granola will kick store bought granola’s ass:

a)    Always pre-toast any nuts you are using.  They’ll add much more flavor and hold up better in milk, yogurt, etc.

b)    If you’re using dried fruit, add it at the very end of baking or it will dry out.  If the fruit you’re using seems extra-dry, pre-soak it in a few tablespoons of fruit juice or even water to re-constitute.

c)    Spice the granola beyond what seems like a reasonable amount.  Whenever someone asks to watch me make my granola, I illicit a “Wow, that’s a lot!” when tossing in heaps of cinnamon, ground ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom.  Of course, I get a second “Wow, this is good!” that proves my point—spice so that you can see the color of the oats change.

d)    When combining the dry ingredients with the liquid, make certain every bit of granola becomes wet before you bake it.  If you need to extend your liquid, try a fruit juice, such as apple, which adds flavor but not fat.

I suppose granola has become, for me, a relic from a wild, lightning-strike kind of summer, a connection to that strange bridge of time where two lives were starting and one was ending, a creation that feels almost like an act of faith.  One of my last memories of my dad is as he came downstairs from his traditional, epic, Saturday-afternoon baths, which always followed his traditional, epic, Saturday-afternoon naps.

Once she heard the water drain upstairs, my father singing along to old Indian music, my mother would put the teakettle on for afternoon tea.  I had just taken my first batch of granola out of the oven.  My father, who loved all things related to food (hi, genetics) but never falsely praised anything I did, especially anything I cooked, walked into the kitchen, grabbed a hot handful, chomped around and said, “Hey Nito, this is pretty good.”

granola, ready to be eaten

Indeed it is.

BASIC GRANOLA FORMULA

I’m calling it a “formula” and not a “recipe” for a reason; use what you like or what you have around.  Play with flavor combinations!  Whatever you do, I guarantee it will taste better than anything that comes in a box.  If you’d like more hard-and-fast measurements, please see my two flavor combinations below*

dry ingredients:

4 cups old-fashioned oats (do NOT use quick-cooking)

¾ cup steel-cut oats (you could easily leave these out and simply increase the amount of old-fashioned oats to 4 ½ cups)

¾ to 1 cup toasted, unsalted nuts (if you only have salted on-hand, don’t add additional salt to the granola)

¼ cup each wheat germ & flaxseed meal (you can find these in the bulk aisles of health food stores & conventional groceries have also started carrying the Bob’s Red Mill versions of these products, but again, they’re not deal breakers)

generous amounts of good-quality spices in any combination you like

1 tsp. salt

liquid ingredients:

5-6 T unsalted butter

½ cup canola or similarly mild-flavored oil (I’ve used safflower in the past)

½ cup brown sugar OR maple syrup

vanilla or other flavoring such as orange, almond, etc. (quantity will vary from 1 tsp- 2 T depending on the potency of flavoring)

oven: 325° to start

pan: two foil-lined, sprayed baking sheets (this will make your life so much easier when cleanup rolls around)

method:

Combine dry ingredients in a very large bowl.  Melt the butter in a small saucepan; remove from heat, then add the rest of the liquid ingredients and whisk together.

Using a spatula, pour the liquid mixture into the dry ingredients and fold it all together, taking the time to ensure that each piece has been coated.

Spread the granola out in thin layers on the baking sheets.  Depending on the size of your baking sheets, you may need to bake in two batches.  Do not pile granola on the baking sheets or it won’t cook evenly!

Bake for 20 minutes at 325°, then turn the oven down to 300° and remove the baking sheets from the oven to stir the granola with a wooden spoon or spatula, just to bring the browner edge pieces into the middle and the center stuff out to the edge.

Add dried fruit at this point, if using, and place the baking sheets back in the oven on opposite racks from the first round of baking (moving the previous top sheet to the bottom and the bottom sheet to top).  Bake for an additional 5-10 minutes, until granola is light golden brown and incredibly fragrant.

Cool on racks before storing in an airtight container for up to several weeks.  It’s delicious with fresh fruit, milk or soymilk, on top of yogurt or ice cream!

*These are the variations I made most recently; I actually measured what I did so I could share with you here!  Both versions turned out lovely, though the first is definitely more traditional, the latter more exotic.

CRANBERRY-ALMOND-VANILLA GRANOLA

1 cup toasted, chopped almonds
1 cup dried cranberries
½ cup brown sugar
2 T vanilla extract (doubling the amount make the flavor more pronounced)
2 T cinnamon
1 ½ tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. cloves

CHERRY-PECAN-COCONUT GRANOLA

1 cup toasted, chopped pecans
1 cup dried cherries, chopped
1 cup dried coconut, dry-toasted in a skillet (if you use sweetened, cut the maple syrup in half)
½ cup maple syrup
1 T orange flower water, also called orange blossom water*
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 ½ tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. ground cardamom
1 tsp. nutmeg

*This is a potentially tricky ingredient; I had it in my pantry from a recent trip to a Middle Eastern grocery.  If you don’t want to go out and get it, but still want the orange flavor, you could use 1 tsp of orange extract or a squeeze half an orange into the liquid ingredients.

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CHEWY AMARETTI COOKIES

Sometimes, a little fuss is in order.

amaretti cookies

Though our general philosophy here at Blue Jean Gourmet is that food does not need to be fussy to be delicious, there are occasions (and recipes and people) for which a little fuss is not such a bad thing.  If you are making the fuss for a reason, it ceases to be fuss and starts to be care or love or desire or enthusiasm.  And those are all good things.

Last week, Jill met my extended family for the first time.  They’re not technically my family, as we’re not related by blood, but the aunties and uncles I grew up with in Memphis are mine, and I am theirs.  They’re all brave immigrants, like my parents, who came to this country from India and somehow figured out how to raise children (sassy, first-generation children) in a completely foreign land.

As you can imagine, the whole l-e-s-b-i-a-n thing has been sort of a hard road for all of us; hard enough, and then really just not on the radar in the Indian community at all.  But since my father died three years ago, things have shifted.  I’m older; Jill and I have been together longer.  My mother, in her generosity and determination to build a great adult relationship with me, has met me more than halfway.  And my community has followed.

We had what my friends and I jokingly called a “sip and see,” usually thrown in the South when a baby is born and everyone comes to inspect him/her and drink punch.  Instead of a baby, we had (a very nervous) Jill.  And instead of punch, we had sparkling shiraz, fruit sodas, cheese & crackers, spinach dip, fruit, homemade chocolate-covered strawberries, and these cookies.

These amaretti, unlike the also delicious but crunchy kind you may be used to, are light, airy, and almost evaporate in your mouth when served plain.  An equally good but richer option is to “glue” them together with some jam or melted chocolate.

In case you were wondering, Jill was charming and gracious, as she always is.  I think my aunties and uncles saw at least a sliver of what I see in her, and they were gracious and lovingly inquisitive back.  When I closed the door after our last guest, I found myself moved to tears because two parts of my life had finally come together, parts I long thought would always be separate.  Certainly an occasion worth making a little fuss over.

CHEWY AMARETTI COOKIES
adapted from Gourmet magazine, January 2009

ingredients:

7 oz. almond paste (not marzipan)
1 cup sugar
2 large egg whites, at room temperature for 30 minutes
¼ cup almonds, toasted

oven: 300°
pan: baking sheet
special equipment: food processor, parchment paper & a pastry bag (or just use a large Ziploc bag instead, like me)

Line the baking sheets with parchment paper; please don’t try to substitute anything else as it won’t work and you’ll regret it, I promise.

Pulse the almond paste with the sugar in your food processor until it has broken up & looks crumbly; add almonds & egg whites and process until the mixture is smooth.

Pile the mixture into your pastry bag or Ziploc bag; if the latter, cut off one corner of the bag and squeeze rounds onto the parchment.  Cookies work best if they are less than an inch round; place them just as far apart on the sheets.

amaretti on parchment

Bake until the cookies are golden & puffed, about 15 minutes.  Cool on a rack, then peel off of the parchment.

optional: Sandwich the cookies together, two at a time, using any number of fillings; melted chocolate, raspberry or strawberry jam, Nutella, etc.

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BUTTERMILK BISCUITS & ZIPLOC-BAG OMELETS

I love breakfast.  A nice, leisurely, tummy-stuffing, weekend breakfast (or maybe brunch, depending upon your sleeping habits).  There’s really just nothing like it; something savory with something sweet, a big steaming mug of coffee, the scrape of fork against plate where the syrup was.  Sigh.  Now I’ve gone and made myself hungry.

biscuit & omelet

Going out for breakfast or brunch is one of my favorite indulgences; I have favored spots in every city I’ve lived in.  I dream about the huevos rancheros at Baby Barnaby’s & the cheese grits at Brother Juniper’s, but when push comes to shove, I’m actually much more likely to make a big breakfast for myself.

No changing out of your pajamas, no standing in line with your stomach growling, no having to hear “Actually, we’re out of bacon.”

Having friends over for brunch can be a really economical way to entertain, much cheaper than throwing a dinner party.  Plus, everybody loves breakfast!  It’s comfort food at its best.  Throw in some mimosas or Bloody Marys and everyone’s happy.

Okay, enough about that, I know you’re thinking “what the heck is a Ziploc-bag omelet?”  It’s basically the best magic trick I know, making individual omelets in Ziploc bags.  Totally solves the problem of how to fix eggs for a group, since this person doesn’t like mushrooms and this child can’t stand onions.  Plus, it is SO much fun to do—great to do with kids, though we’ve definitely made them with all adults and they had a good time, too.

It’s not just the novelty, though; the omelets actually taste great, and without having to add any fat to cook them.  I’m sure someone out there is terrified by the thought of cooking food in plastic.  If that’s you, you probably shouldn’t try this.

Biscuits are also fun to do with kids—you’re going to get the counter messy anyway, so why not let them enjoy?  Two of my favorite kiddos in the world, Isabella & Antonio, whom I’ve known since they were each tiny babies, are always my biscuit souz chefs when I visit them or they visit me.  We use funky cookie-cutters (lobster or cactus-shaped biscuits, anyone?) to liven up things even more.

There are a million ways to make biscuits in this world; this happens to be my way. I’ve been experimenting with homemade biscuits for as long as I can remember and let me just say, these are really, really good.  I’m from Tennessee; I know a good biscuit when I meet one.

Have great weekend, ya’ll.  And eat something good for breakfast.

BUTTERMILK BISCUITS

ingredients: buttermilk biscuits

4 T each, butter & vegetable shortening (don’t soften the butter)
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 T baking powder
1 T sugar
1 tsp. salt
½ cup buttermilk

extra 2 T butter, melted

oven: 425°
pan: heavy baking sheet, jellyroll pan, or cast-iron skillet

Place the shortening and butter inside a large bowl.  Add in dry ingredients—flour, baking powder, sugar, & salt—and, using your fingers, smush (yes, that’s a technical term) until you have a crumbly mixture, with large pieces.  The pieces shouldn’t be too small or too uniform—just no big chunks of fat.

Pour in the buttermilk and mix very gently with your hands (try to remember to take your ring(s) off; I always forget!).  The mixture will seem wet and as if there’s no way it could ever become biscuits.  Do not panic and do not overmix.

Turn the loose mixture onto a heavily floured surface, coating the dough once with flour on both sides before patting it out very gently to about a half-inch thickness.  Even though the dough still may not look completely together, trust me.  That’s how you want them—if you work with the dough too much = hard biscuits.

Using a biscuit cutter (if you are a good Southerner & have one, unlike me) or an upside-down water glass, cut out biscuit rounds from the dough, placing them close together on your baking sheet or in your skillet/pan.

Cobble together scrap pieces to do a second, and if needed, third round of biscuit-cutting.  Brush the tops of the biscuits with half of the melted butter and place them in the oven.

Bake for 15-20 minutes; at about the 12 minute mark, your biscuits should have risen nicely but will look a little pale.  Brush with the remaining melted butter and finish baking.

Serve warm (of course) with more butter, honey, jam, sausage, pepper gravy, etc.  Or, if you are my father-in-law, ribbon cane syrup (ew).

ZIPLOC-BAG OMELETS
(thanks to our friends Vicky & Lois for sharing this years ago!)

This is so simple that I can’t even rightly call it a “recipe”—it’s more like a formula or a magic trick. Every time I do it I’m halfway afraid it isn’t going to work, but it always does!

ingredients:

eggs (2 per person, or perhaps just 1 for tiny eaters) add-ins
Ziploc bags (sandwich-size)
a Sharpie or permanent marker

any omelet add-ins you like:

shredded cheese (cheddar, fontina, mozzarella, Monterey jack)
crumbled/chopped meats (ham, sausage, bacon or a meatless substitute)
chopped veggies (peppers, mushrooms, onions, green onions, spinach, asparagus)*
seasonings (fresh or dried herbs such as basil or thyme, hot sauce, etc)
salt & pepper

First, get a tall pot of water (the kind you’d use to cook a big batch of pasta) filled with water and bring the water to a boil.

To assemble the omelets, first have everyone claim a Ziploc bag & write his/her name on it.  eggs in a bagThen, using a bowl to help the bag “stand up,” crack two eggs into each one.

Instruct everyone to seal their bags and then smush up the eggs with their fingers.  Kids, naturally, l-o-v-e this part, so they’ll happily manage this step for everyone.

Then, have everyone open their bags back up and throw in whatever accoutrement they desire—just make sure not to overload!  Think in finger-pinches, not handfuls.

Once everyone’s loaded up their omelet-to-be, seal the bag and mix it all up again.

One last step, and this is important (the kids may need help with this one).  Unseal the bag so you can force all of the ingredients down to the bottom, then press the air out through the top and re-seal.

You should have a concentrated band at the bottom of your bag, and no, it won’t look very appetizing, but don’t worry!  I promise you this will taste excellent.

Bring your pot of water down to a simmer—don’t use a rolling boil or your eggs (and bag) will overcook.  Drop the bags into the water, one at a time—they’ll kind of bob up at the top, but that’s why you pressed all of the ingredients down to the bottom. going in the water!

You may need to kick the heat back up on your burner to compensate for the addition of the bags, but at this point, set a timer for exactly thirteen minutes and go about your business.

When that timer goes off, carefully fish the bags out of the water and onto a kitchen towel.  To serve, simply open each bag (there will be steam, so watch little fingers) and slide the omelet onto a plate.  Enjoy!

*If you decide to use asparagus, I recommend pre-cooking it in a little water, either over the stove or in the microwave.

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BLUEBERRY BOY BAIT

I confess: I have been selfish too long. I have kept these adorable dog pictures all to myself, but fear not! Today I rectify my mistake.

Behold, our Peanut Butter Dog Treat Giveaway winners:

Ares

That’s Ares, Christy‘s sweet puppy!

buster

meet Buster

maple

and Maple!  Both Canadian pups who live with Cheryl of the Backseat Gourmet.

I’m very pleased to report that all three recipient pups very much enjoyed their treats and strongly encourage you to make some for the beloved canine(s) in your life.

Now onto people food! This one could actually easily be part of the Summer Classics Series, because hey? What’s more summery & classic than an baked good with blueberries in it?

The thing is, though, and one of the reasons I LOVE THIS RECIPE is that it tastes just as good with frozen berries. Yup, true story. Especially if you buy lots of blueberries now, when they are cheap & delicious, freeze ‘em yourself, and use them all the winter long for smoothies, jam, & well, this.

blueberry boy squares

It’s got a funny name, too, right? According to Cook’s Country magazine, the original recipe dates back to 1954, when fifteen-year-old Adrienne Powell submitted it to a Pillsbury Baking Contest. She won second place and ostensibly man suitors, since the recipe is named for its effectiveness in capturing teenage boys’ attention.

Dare I suggest that its swoon-inducing effects are not, in fact, limited to the teenage boy variety? I say, whomever you may be trying to bait, this may be the way to do it.

I consider this one of my ”go-to” recipes for when I need to bake something big & comforting on short notice. It’s been handed over to friends who had a baby, friends who lost a baby, a colleague who lost a parent, new neighbors who moved in down the street.

Eat it as breakfast or as dessert, or (my favorite) as an afternoon snack with tea. I guarantee it tastes better than any blueberry muffin you’ve ever had, and so easy to make. Blueberry Boy Bait…getting the job done since 1954.

BLUEBERRY BOY BAIT

If you’re using frozen berries, don’t thaw them first or their color will bleed unappetizingly into the cake.
for the cake: blueberry boy bait & crumbs

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 T baking powder

1 tsp. salt

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened

¾ cup packed light brown sugar

½ cup white sugar

3 large eggs

1 cup whole milk

½ cup blueberries

1 tsp. flour, for the berries

oven: 350°
pan: 13 x 9 inch, greased & floured

Whisk the first 3 ingredients together & set aside. In a mixer bowl, cream the butter & sugars together on high speed until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until just incorporated.

Reduce the speed to medium & alternately add the wet (milk) and dry (flour mixture) ingredients:

a third of the flour mixture
half of the milk
a third of the flour mixture
half of the milk
last third of the flour mixture

Don’t worry about exact amounts, the point is to alternate, producing a much smoother batter than if you added everything at once.

Toss the blueberries with the teaspoon of flour before folding them into the batter—this will help keep them from all sinking to the bottom of the cake. Spread the batter into baking pan.

for the topping:cinnamon sugar

½ cup blueberries

¼ cup granulated sugar

½ tsp. cinnamon (I often use a whole teaspoon because I am a cinnamon freak)

Scatter the blueberries on top of the batter. Combine the cinnamon & sugar and sprinkle that on top of everything else. Inhale. Mmm, cinnamon sugar. Smells good now, will smell even BETTER during & after baking. Get excited.

Bake until a toothpick comes out clean from the center of the cake, approximately 45-55 minutes. Cool in the pan before serving up the thick squares. Stores well in an airtight container for the better part of a week!

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BLACKBERRY UPSIDE-DOWN CAKE

I am a sucker for road-side produce.  You know, you’re driving along (especially this time of year), and suddenly you see a spray-painted piece of particle board, declaring “FRESH PICKED CORN” or “STRAWBERRIES” or “OKRA.”

blackberries in a bowl

Or, you know, “BLACKBERRIES.”  When I drove to San Antonio from Houston a few weeks ago, to visit my dear friend Arianne (of key-lime-pie loving fame), I stopped about 45 minutes outside of town to buy some insanely good peaches and these ripe, Rubenesque blackberries.

What I love about this cake is the way that it works equally well for dessert as it does for breakfast. Throw it in the oven at the start of dinner, and it will be warm and ready to serve by the time your meal is finished. Bake it Sunday night, set it next to the office coffee pot, and endear yourself to all of your coworkers on an otherwise grumpy Monday morning. It would also make a lovely housewarming gift, hey-you-just-had-a-baby offering, or potluck contribution.

Frankly, I think this cake is the main reason my friend John puts up with our old, incontinent dog for whom he and his wife Courtney (an important BJG taste-tester/inspiration/dish-washer) often dog-sit.  It may actually be the only reason he puts up with me, come to think of it.

The finished cake will keep, wrapped well in saran wrap & foil and refrigerated, for about a week.  But if John is any indication, there’s no way it’s going to last half that long.

blackberry upside-down cake

Special equipment & ingredients:

• A kitchen mixer is most helpful but not required—if you do try it by hand, make certain your butter is extra soft.
Parchment paper is one of the greatest inventions known to man, and well worth the $2.50 investment. Find it on the same aisle as Saran Wrap.
• If you grew up in the south like me, you are already familiar with the wonders buttermilk can do in pancakes, biscuits, waffles, & cornbread.  If you’ve never cooked with buttermilk before, I urge you to try it this time–a small bottle will run you less than $1.  If you must substitute, stir a bit of lemon juice into some regular milk & let it sit for a few minutes before using.

BLACKBERRY UPSIDE DOWN (AND RIGHT-SIDE-UP) CAKE
adapted from Gourmet Magazine’s “Everyday Meals”

pan: 8-inch round

oven: 400 degrees F

goes nicely with: a scoop of vanilla ice cream, homemade whipped cream*

ingredients:

2 cups fresh blackberries (use an extra ½ cup if you like lots of fruit) sugar-coated blackerries in pan

½  cup sugar, plus 2 Tablespoons extra for sprinkling

1 cup all-purpose flour

½  tsp. baking soda, NOT powder

¼ tsp. salt

½ stick unsalted butter, softened

1 large egg

1 tsp. vanilla

½ cup buttermilk (shake it before you pour!)

Use the bottom of your cake pan to trace two 9-inch circles on parchment paper. Cut out the circles and place them inside the pan (use a little butter if they won’t stay put). Lightly butter the sides of the pan and the top circle of parchment. Spoon in a bit of flour and shake to coat the pan.

Rinse & dry the berries.  Pour them into the cake pan; try to get them to fit in just one layer. If you’re feeling crafty, go ahead and arrange the berries into pretty concentric circles. If you’ve better things to do with your time, don’t worry, the cake’s still going to taste good! Sprinkle the blackberries with 2 Tablespoons of sugar; set pan aside.

For the batter: cream butter & sugar together until light & fluffy (if using a mixer, run on “high” for about two minutes). More gently mix in the egg & vanilla (switch speed to “low”) until the mixture just begins to come together.

Here, a classic baking technique: alternately adding the wet & dry ingredients. So in one measuring cup or bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, & salt. In another cup or bowl, measure out your buttermilk (shake it up first!). Now, you always want to start and finish with the dry ingredients. So your process will go like this:

a third of the flour mixture
half of the buttermilk
a third of the flour mixture
half of the buttermilk
a third of the flour mixture

Just eyeball the amounts—it doesn’t matter if you exactly halve the buttermilk or not—the important thing is just not to dump it all in at once. Don’t over mix! Stop mixing when the batter has just come together.

Using spatula or large spoon, drop even clumps of batter over the blackberries until they are all hidden. Bake the cake for approximately 30-35 minutes—I recommend you test the cake at minute 25 using a toothpick. You want the toothpick to come out of the center of the cake with a few crumbs clinging to it.

If your cake takes longer than 35 minutes, don’t panic. If the top (which is actually the bottom!) of the cake starts to look a little too brown, just carefully cover it with foil.

Remove cake from the oven and run a butter knife around the inside of the pan. Now you get to flip it! Set a big plate or platter on top of the cake pan. Using pot holders, grab the pan with the plate on top and flip it all in one motion (it’s like ripping off a Band-Aid–you gotta do it fast!)  The cake will release from the pan—peel the parchment rounds off the top and enjoy.

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SUMMER CLASSICS SERIES: GINGERSNAP-MASCARPONE TART

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there sure is a lot of pretty fruit out there—berries of all sorts, stone fruits like plums, nectarines, cherries, & peaches,  tropical goodies a la pineapples & mangoes—it’s actually rather (or rawther, as Eloise would say) hard to go wrong in the produce section this time of year.

So in the interest of cutting to the chase, allow me to present you with one of my favorite vehicles for enjoying summer fruit: the (virtually) bakeless tart.

peach tart with mascarpone filling

Ain’t it purty?  Tastes good, too.  What you see there is a crust made of crushed-up, storebought gingersnaps (and a little buttah, naturally), a filling comprised of mascarpone cheese, whipping cream, sugar, & vanilla, and a topping of virtually any fruit you like.

Super-versatile, straightforward, crowd-pleaser.  Oh, and you can make the crust & filling ahead, too.  People, get excited!

What works so well here, I think, is that the mascarpone brings a slightly unexpected flavor—much more subtle than American cream cheese, mascarpone is its Italian cousin which can be readily be found near the mozzarella & feta in even mainstream grocery stores’ deli cases.   By thickening and sweetening the cheese just a little, this filling becomes an excellent foil for the fruit, showing it off and offering it a creamy complement.

And the gingersnap crust?  Well, that just speaks for itself, right?

gingersnap crust

There are myriad variations on the theme here—instead of flavoring the mascarpone with vanilla, try an orange liquor or Kahlua or Amaretto.  If you just can’t abide gingersnaps, swap in another crunchy cookie, chocolate or vanilla.

Though sweet Texas peaches (oh, sweet Texas peaches) are pictured here, I recently made this tart topped with a mound of sliced strawberries which had been gently bathed in a little balsamic vinegar.  A lovely ending to a sweet summer’s dinner.

GINGERSNAP-MASCARPONE TART
serves 8-12

What’s pictured above is a double-recipe of filling, which actually yielded more than I needed to fill the tart.  So I cut it in half the second time around and found a more moderate amount of filling to be more to my liking.  Of course, feel free to do what you think you’ll like best!

pan: 9-inch tart pan w/ a removable bottom is ideal, but a 9-inch pie pan will work just fine

oven: 350°

crust:    1 (8 oz.) box crunchy gingersnaps (yielding 2 ½ cups of crumbs) gingersnaps

4 T unsalted butter, softened

Use a food processor, if you have it, to blitz the gingersnaps to smithereens, then add the butter and process until well combined.

To make the crust by hand, simply transfer the snaps to a Ziploc bag & break them up with a rolling pin or mallet.  (An excellent way to let out one’s frustrations!)   Mix in the softened butter by hand.

Once you have buttery crumbs, press them into the pan, being sure to work up the sides at least halfway.  Bake for just 5 minutes, to solidify the crust.  Cool.

filling:    1 (8 oz.) tub mascarpone cheese

½ cup powdered sugarwhipped mascarpone

½ cup heavy whipping cream

½ tsp. vanilla or other flavoring

Using a stand mixer, whip the cheese on medium until smooth.  Add powdered sugar, then the heavy cream.

It will take a few minutes for the cream to thicken the mixture—increase the speed as you go, until the consistency is similar to whipped frosting.

Mix in the vanilla or other flavoring, then spoon over the gingersnap crust, smoothing the surface.

At this point, you can cover the whole thing and store it in the fridge.  Just before serving, top with the fruit of your choice & enjoy!

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