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Snack Attack: Lemon-Vanilla Applesauce

Wednesday, September 22, 2010@ 5:38 PM

For as long as I can recall, this has been one of my slightly guilty snack pleasures (guilty only because I have passed it on to my kids): applesauce, with a dollop of sour cream, and Ritz crackers to dip.

I know where this began: Sunday mornings, in the church nursery, snack time. In my memory, we always, always had Ritz crackers and applesauce. Surely there was some variation, but this is the only snack to stick with me, sparking cozy memories of the mildly musty house on the church grounds, where we giddyupped our rocking horses in the old dining room.

At some long-lost point, I added sour cream to the mix, and then this snack fired on all my cravings cylinders: slightly sweet, creamy and salty. My only modification to it in the past 30 years has been to swap out the sour cream in favor of Greek yogurt, so now I can feel almost virtuous when I eat.

I hoped all summer to make some zapplesauce (applesauce made with those baseball-bat overgrown zucchini), but I had a total zucchini failure, much to my kids’ disappointment. We’re all happy to have my first fall batch of applesauce on the shelves, and I’ve gone right back to this snack (OK, it was lunch today).

Applesauce doesn’t have to be anything more than apples cooked to a mush and crushed a bit. But I can rarely resist adding other flavors. My first taste some years ago of  a Honeycrisp apple that we picked in Hendersonville, N.C., told my tongue this was a perfect match for vanilla, and I still think Honeycrisps work best in this combo. But taste for yourself: We’ve started an annual apple tasting, because the farmers’ market each year adds more varieties, and I can never keep straight which we like best.

When you use vanilla, have a heavy hand: I almost always pour in more than a recipe calls for. For applesauce, I add it to taste, knowing that the flavor becomes less intense as it cools. Often I spark this further by adding lemon, either cooking a little zest in with the apples or just squeezing in some lemon juice at the end.

I do always add a little sugar, but again, do this to taste, and re-check it if serving cold. I like to add just as little as I can get away with, but some apples simply need a bit more.

I always have two questions when I start in on my sauce: To peel or not? And blender or not?

If I don’t peel my apples first, I get the pectin and nutrients from the skin into my sauce . . . but because I can’t often find organic apples, I know I’m likely getting some pesticides, too. Also, this means putting the sauce through a food mill or strainer (I use the attachment on my KitchenAid mixer). I usually end up peeling and coring the apples first, and putting the sauce into the blender for a perfectly smooth result. (If I’m after a chunky applesauce, I just press with my potato masher on the cooked apples, still in the pot.

How else can you flavor your applesauce? Try brown sugar, a strong honey, maple syrup or cranberries cooked with the apples until they burst. And check out your spice drawer: Cinnamon, of course, but also cardamom, a pinch of nutmeg or allspice. If you still have herbs growing, try lemon verbena, lemon basil, cinnamon basil, a touch of orange mint, even rosemary, lemon thyme or winter savory (don’t chop the rosemary, thyme or savory into the final sauce; instead, place one small herb branch in with the apples while they cook, then remove before pureeing). Get fancy with those flavors: No matter what, this will always be pure comfort food to take you back to the nursery.

Recipe: Lemon-Vanilla Applesauce

Lemon-Vanilla Applesauce

Wednesday, September 22, 2010@ 5:35 PM

Cook’s notes: It’s a little silly to call this a recipe, as it’s really just a method. If not having proportions spelled out makes you nervous in a recipe, this is the perfect spot to kick your confidence up. Unless you scorch the apples (and of course, you won’t), you really can’t mess this up. Of course, if you want plain applesauce, or just vanilla applesauce, leave out the lemon and/or vanilla. Note that if you want chunky applesauce, you’ll want to start with peeled apples.

The method:

For peeled apples: Peel and core as many apples as you like (I suggest at least 4, but you can do as many as will fit in your pot). Cut apples into quarters or eighths and place in a saucepan with just enough water to cover the bottom of the pan. Add grated lemon zest — about 1 lemon per 8 apples. Set the pan on medium heat and cover. As soon as you hear things begin to bubble, check the apples every few minutes, adding more water if it all cooks away (if your apples are very juicy, they will need barely any water — you just want to avoid the water cooking off and causing your apples, and any sugary liquid they have given up, to scorch).

Cook until the apples are completely soft and fall apart if you press on them gently. Mash with a potato masher or fork for chunky applesauce. For smooth sauce, transfer apples with a slotted spoon to a blender and puree until smooth. Be careful! The apples are hot, so be sure the lid is on securely, and cover it with a towel. Run the blender on slow speed to start. If the sauce seems very thick, add a little of the liquid remaining in the saucepan. Add a little sugar or other sweetener (brown sugar, maple syrup, honey) and a teaspoon of vanilla to start for every 8 apples. Taste and add vanilla and sweetener as needed, and freshly squeezed lemon juice as needed. If you don’t serve it warm, taste again after the applesauce has cooled and adjust flavorings as needed.

For unpeeled apples: Cut apples (I suggest at least 4, but you can do as many as will fit in your pot) into quarters or eighths, coring them if you like. Coring isn’t necessary, as you’ll be putting the sauce through a food mill or strainer anyway. Place in a saucepan with just a little water in the bottom. Add grated lemon zest — about 1 lemon per 8 apples. Set the pan on medium heat and cover. As soon as you hear things begin to bubble, check the apples every few minutes, adding a little more water if it all cooks away (if your apples are very juicy, they will need barely any water — you just want to avoid the water cooking away and causing your apples, and any sugary liquid they have given up, to scorch).

Cook until the apples are completely soft and fall apart if you press on them gently; the skins will also be coming off. Transfer the apples with a slotted spoon to a food mill and puree, or press through a coarse strainer. If the sauce seems very thick, add a little of the liquid remaining in the saucepan. Add a little sugar or other sweetener (brown sugar, maple syrup, honey) and a teaspoon of vanilla to start for every 8 apples. Taste and add vanilla and sweetener as needed, and freshly squeezed lemon juice as needed. If you don’t serve it warm, taste again after the applesauce has cooled and adjust flavorings as needed.

Related column: Snack Attack: Lemon-Vanilla Applesauce

Here in North Carolina, we’re suffering through endless dry days. For the past week, though, my kitchen has been one huge steam bath.

It’s been canning central since I hit the farmers’ market last Friday, buying 40 pounds of apples, a case of peaches and about 60 pounds of tomatoes. My plan to can throughout the summer never quite came through; given the heat, my family didn’t complain. But I knew it was nearly now-or-never for tomatoes, and I just couldn’t pass up those $10 “ice cream peaches” that looked ripe enough for ice cream but still plenty firm.

And we’ve hit that time of year that I always find a little disorienting, when I’m buying late-summer melons at the same time as the kids beg for the first fall box of apples. One jar of applesauce got greedily gobbled up the day I made it, because kids were starting to tire of watermelon (how can that be?).

So now my back aches, but what a wonderful feeling to see that pantry shelf packed tight with jars of tomatoes, applesauce, peach jam and Aunt Althea’s Christmas pickles (made from my own cucumbers, the one veggie the critters ignore), plus pear marmalade tested for a book review, and a few jars of blueberry-peach sauce. I’m not much into the trendy canning recipes circulating these days (really, how many jars of jam or pickles can one person use?); I just want my standards that get me through the winter.

Standards set, I still had several bowls of peeled peaches to go, even after making a half-gallon of lavender-peach ice cream.

What luck: The day before, I’d looked at those pantry shelves and realized I really didn’t need to hoard my jars of cranberry mincemeat anymore, so I made a mincemeat version of apple slab bars (basically, a flat mincemeat pie in a 9-by-13-inch pan). And because I never make just two rounds of pie dough at a time, I had two more pie disks waiting in the fridge.

So, attempting to live up to my desired title of Pie Mom, I sliced 5 cups of peaches, sprinkled them with 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, tossed them with a mixture of 5 tablespoons of flour, 3/4 cup sugar and a pinch of salt, and spread them in a 9-inch pie plate lined with dough. But the dish didn’t look full enough to me, so I tossed on several large handfuls (maybe 1 1/2 cups?) of blueberries I’d frozen earlier this summer, and gently mixed them in with my hand. On went another dough round, roughly pinched together and crimped. Just for fun, I cut out a few hearts for vents, and brushed the top of the pie with a little cream. I baked it for 25 minutes at 425 degrees on the bottom shelf (that shelf is lined with quarry tiles, for when I bake bread–it also helps to crisp the bottom crust of a pie), then moved it up to the middle shelf, lowered the temperature to 375 degrees, and let it go for about 35 minutes more, til golden and bubbly.

It should be noted that I’m going for the title of Pie Mom, not Pie Wife, because I have a husband who is, inexplicably, a bit indifferent to the charms of pie. When he headed back into the kitchen for another sliver, muttering “this pie is delicious,” while my son looked too happy to speak, I have to say, my back miraculously stopped aching.

Note: Are you interested in taking a pie class? Keep an eye here for details if you’re in Orange or Alamance counties in North Carolina–I’ll be teaching a pie class next spring, and possibly a canning class next summer. And if you have a group of friends, or a church or other organization interested my teaching a class for them, contact me.

Recently Made: Blueberry-Peach Crisp

Thursday, September 2, 2010@ 11:32 AM

I often make variations on my standard recipes that don’t deserve a full column here, but seem worth noting; thus I’m going to periodically post as “recently made” blurb in the hopes of encouraging others to experiment. I rarely deem a recipe so perfect that I never mess with it again, and I frequently find myself with serious cravings but ingredients on hand that don’t quite match my recipes.

This week, I was coming to the end of the blueberries in the fridge. As usual, I’d overbought (a common problem for me at the farmers’ market). I also had peaches that I’d bought intending to make jam, but I plain ran out of time.

That time problem also meant no pie; pie really is easy, but just not quick enough for the first full week of school and after-school activities. Instead, I used my recipe for Apple Crisp, with these changes:

* I first filled the pan with peeled peach slices. To peel a peach, bring a pot of water to a boil, gently drop in several peaches at a time and boil for 20 to 30 seconds (or up to 1 minute, depending on the ripeness of your peaches). Transfer them to a bowl of ice water until cool enough to handle. The skins should slip right off.
* I gently tossed the peaches in about 2 tablespoons of flour, just to keep to the pan from getting too juicy.
* I covered the peaches with a layer of blueberries, and sprinkled it all with about 2 tablespoons of sugar. (You’ll have to judge this amount based on how sweet your fruit is.)
* I used the crisp topping as is, except I cut down slightly on the cinnamon and stirred in a large handful of coconut.

Photos of the crisp don’t do it justice, but it looks pretty (if rustic) with the yellow and blue together. We’ve been eating it, gently heated, for breakfast, with just a tiny bit of cream or half-and-half poured over the top. Serious comfort before another day of middle school!

Southern Vanilla Peach Cobbler

Wednesday, August 25, 2010@ 10:35 AM

Serves 6 to 8

Cook’s Notes: I love cobbler in all its forms, whether topped with pie dough or biscuits or batter, as in this traditional Southern version, which definitely wins for speed and ease. To peel peaches, bring a large pot of water to a boil and gently lower peaches in without crowding them. Boil for about 15 to 30 seconds (depending on how ripe they are); remove to a bowl of ice water. The skins should slip right off. If you don’t have a vanilla bean, you could use a tablespoon of vanilla extract instead; if you have vanilla sugar on hand, feel free to use it. After you scrape the bean, be sure to make some vanilla sugar by nestling the bean in a small jar of sugar; let it stand a week or so to perfume the sugar. Children love vanilla sugar in hot tea with lots of milk.

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup granulated sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt, preferably fine sea salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup milk (preferably any kind but skim)

4 cups (about 1 1/2 pounds) peeled, sliced ripe peaches

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put the butter in a 9-inch-square baking pan and let butter melt in the oven.

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, salt and baking powder. Use a paring knife to scrape the seeds out of the vanilla bean and into the flour mixture; whisk well. Whisk in vanilla extract and milk until smooth. Pour over melted butter; don’t stir. Spread the peaches over the batter.

Bake the cobbler for 1 hour, until the top is golden and set. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Related column: Back to School: Cheer-Me-Up Treats

Chocolate Chip-Orange Cookies

Wednesday, August 25, 2010@ 10:32 AM

Makes 2 dozen cookies

Cook’s Notes: These cookies may also be glazed with chocolate after baking (you could omit the chips if you like); melt about 4 ounces chocolate (semisweet or dark) with 1/3 cup heavy cream; dip the cookies in halfway and put on parchment paper to let the chocolate set (refrigerate them to speed this up).

Grated zest of 1 large orange (or remove the zest with a vegetable peeler, being sure to get just the top layer of the peel)

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened just enough that it retains an impression when pressed with a finger

1/2 teaspoon salt, preferably fine sea salt

1 1/2 teaspoons orange extract

1 large egg

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup chocolate chips (I like mini chips here, but regular are fine, and I do sometimes use more chips)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a food processor, whiz orange zest and 3/4 cup sugar until finely ground (you may skip this step, but it intensifies the orange flavor). In a large bowl, beat butter and orange-scented sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in salt, orange extract and egg. On low speed, beat in baking powder and flour until just combined. Mix in chocolate chips.

Scoop out 1-inch balls of dough (if dough is too soft to scoop, chill it briefly) and place 2 inches apart on parchment paper-lined baking sheets. Dip the bottom of a drinking glass in cold water, then in the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar. Press glass onto dough balls, flattening to 2 1/2-inch rounds. Dip glass in sugar before each cookie, rinsing in cold water as needed.

Bake cookies for 12 to 15 minutes, until barely golden and set. Cool on a wire rack and store in an airtight container.

Related column: Back to School: Cheer-Me-Up Treats

Back to School: Cheer-Me-Up Treats

Wednesday, August 25, 2010@ 10:31 AM

Yes, that’s cheer me up — not my children.

I’ll never understand how parents can drop their kids off on the first day of school and not weep, or at least sniffle ingloriously. Maybe when mine are full-fledged teenagers, I’ll be happier about the end of summer and decidedly less spigot-like, but today, I am in mourning yet again.

I didn’t mean to go the whole summer without writing here. But I had two children who wanted two things: to spend time with me (no camps), and to take as many family trips as possible. I obliged. And now it’s all over.

The kids, though they really didn’t want summer to end, feel generally fine about this. One of them was about to burst with the pure excitement of going back to school, barely able to fall asleep last night but desperately wanting to, so today would come faster. The other, entering middle school, fears the workload to come but marched off resolutely.

And I drove away, feeling my face go prickly-heat red as I finally faced the reality of the day.

So, although I am sure my children will be delighted to come home to a treat, and although I will be thinking of them through much of the baking, these are all about me. Comfort food, I need you now.

Recipes: Southern Peach Cobbler, Chocolate Chip-Orange Cookies

In the midst of mad editing, I frequently fight the urge to just shut my computer and bake something. My brain gets twitchy, and especially once my children come home from school, I want nothing more than to head into the kitchen with them.

So it was that last week my daughter and I ended up together at the counter, but with the computer open, so she could bake a new recipe I’d seen online. Hypocrite alert: I really dislike it when bloggers just post other people’s recipes, maybe with a few notes about what it was like to try those recipes, but here I go, breaking my own rule against that, to point you to the “Zebra Cake” recipe at the King Arthur Flour website.

A fuzzy zebra cake ... but still cute

This is a blog I often check out for solid, basic recipes and some sweet surprises. The zebra cake’s surprise comes not in flavor but appearance, and it’s easy enough for a 7-year-old to do on her own. To create the pattern, you make a vanilla batter, set aside part of it, and flavor the rest with cocoa. Drop a dollop of vanilla batter in the center of a cake pan, top it with a dollop of cocoa batter, then a dollop of vanilla, and keep going until you have a bulls-eye pattern. When baked and cut, zebra stripes magically appear.

Truly a cute cake, and perfectly adequate in flavor and texture (I do plan to bump up the vanilla extract and add espresso powder to the chocolate batter next time); I want to use the same idea but make it as a sheet cake for a second-grade class party next week.

OK, so I broke my rule and wrote about someone else’s recipe–but I do have one of my own to offer. Because after that cake was done, it was a 7-year-old’s bedtime, and the cake still needed a frosting. On an ordinary day, I’d have made a Swiss meringue buttercream, by far my favorite. (I can’t tolerate the standard, gritty American frosting made from butter and/or shortening and confectioners’ sugar.) I was so weary, though, that I desperately thumbed through my files, looking for a time-saving shortcut. And there I found a note to myself, from who knows when or where, to try making a pseudo-buttercream from butter and marshmallow creme.

A jar of marshmallow creme in my pantry usually means just one thing: whoopie pies. You don’t want to look too hard at the creme’s ingredient list (though it is short, and you can pronounce everything on it, it’s hardly a nutrition knockout). But for the filling in whoopie pies, there just aren’t many good substitutions (I’ve tried!) . . . and for frosting, well, I think I found the creme’s true shining moment.

Reasoning that making a Swiss meringue buttercream means beating a warmed sugar-egg white mixture until it’s a billowy, pillowy marshmallow creme lookalike, then beating in butter, this pseudo-buttercream seemed promising. But what a surprise to find just how good it was, given that it came from just two ingredients–creamy, fluffy, easy to spread and pipe. And with a heavy dose of homemade vanilla, this had to the best flavor for the least work ever in a buttercream.

It’s not something I’d make every day, mind you; I’ll always be true to my Swiss love. But I know that from now on, a jar of marshmallow creme gets permanent lurking rights in my pantry.

Recipe: Marshmallow Creme Buttercream

Marshmallow Creme Buttercream

Thursday, June 3, 2010@ 12:06 AM

Makes enough to cover a single-layer 9-inch cake; can be doubled

This is no high-falutin’ frosting, but it’ll make you proud (and relieved) in a pinch. This is barely a recipe; it’s certainly flexible enough that you can play fast and loose (up to a point) with quantities. I will note, for those of you tempted to experiment, that I tried melting a bag of marshmallows with a bit of corn syrup to try to approximate the marshmallow creme. The problem: When the melted marshmallows would have been easy to scoop into the beaten-up butter, they were too hot and would have melted the butter. By the time they were cool enough, they had stiffened up again, making it hard to scrape out of the bowl and into the butter. It was so messy that it’s not worth it unless you’re truly, awfully desperate, in which case, go for it, as it did taste good in the end. And that was just with vanilla extract; you could also try adding a bit of orange, lemon or peppermint extract (I did this with the melted-marshmallow version). Or play around; try adding coconut extract and some melted and cooled chocolate, or a little rum, Kahlua or raspberry liqueur.

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened

7 ounces, more or less, marshmallow creme (or Marshmallow Fluff)

2 teaspoons vanilla extract, or more to taste (more vanilla helps balance the very sweet marshmallow creme)

Pinch of salt

Beat the butter on medium-high speed until it’s light and fluffy. Scoop in the marshmallow creme and beat in, scraping down the sides of the bowl, until fluffy and well-mixed. Beat in vanilla and salt; taste and adjust vanilla.

Related column: For Fabulous Frosting, Butter, Meet Marshmallows

Strawberries Solve Everything

Saturday, May 22, 2010@ 4:11 PM

The scene: A mother, relaxing in the tub before diving into an all-day editing assignment. A father, reading the newspaper with two children nearby playing in their rooms, blissfully enjoying the first Saturday in a very long time with no homework and the rain-induced possibility of a day off from sports.

Bang bang bang bang bang! “Moooommmeeee! Mommy!”

“Honey, what is it? What’s wrong?”

(Through many sobs) “I left my room just for a minute and when I came back, my Carolina snow globe had fallen on the floor and now it’s broken!” (More sobs)

“Are you OK?”

“Yes!” (Sobs)

“Does Daddy know?”

“No, I just came straight here!”

“OK, could you go ask Daddy to help you clean it up? I’m sorry that it broke.”

“Okaaayyy…” (trailing sound of sobbing)

Now, the obvious question here, if you are not a mother, will be why on earth the sobbing girl decided to traverse two flights of stairs to tell the mother in the bath her problem, when a fully clothed father was just a room or two away. If you are a mother, the answer, of course, is equally obvious: Because you are the mother.

Mercifully, if it is May (or June, if you’re not a Southerner) and you’ve been paying attention, you will have strawberries in the house. After that snow globe is cleaned up and you’ve become decently attired, something strawberry will surely dry those tears.

We’ve been picking strawberries once a week for several weeks now, fairly gluttonously enjoying the true fruits of our labors. A great growing season has made for very easy picking, and we’ve been lucky to go on overcast days that keep us cool, at least til we get home and I heat up the kitchen.

As is our tradition, the supper for each night that we’ve picked berries  is strawberry shortcakes (see my recipe for cream shortcakes here). Then I freeze a bunch of berries for future smoothies and ice cream, and make freezer jam, strawberry tarts, strawberry cake, strawberry syrup for fizzy drinks, and supper salads heaped with strawberries and goat cheese.

And of course, at least once a season a good mother should melt some chocolate for dipping those strawberries straight, and if she sends her kids to school with a bag of berries in their lunchboxes, a tiny container of powdered sugar for dipping never hurts.

If you’re going to freeze berries, put them in a big bowl of water, swish them gently but well, leave them for a few minutes so all the grit falls to the bottom, and scoop them out onto towels. Let the berries air-dry for an hour or so, then slice off the stems and lay them in single layers on sheet pans and freeze overnight. Transfer them to airtight plastic bags.

If you’re going to make freezer jam, I recommend using the pink Sure-Jell box of pectin (it says “for less or no sugar needed recipes made with at least 25% less sugar than regular pectin recipes”). I’ve tried other packets that call for even less sugar, but they’re good only if you want strawberry syrup, not a jam that has any real set to it. The pink box, which can be hard to find, seems a reasonable compromise, using less sugar but still setting well. I make cooked jams from other fruit, but not strawberries jams; freezer jam tastes so much fresher.

And for an ending scene to the snow-globe drama?

Well, the tears stopped, all was cleaned up, and the sad girl got back to her work of making thank-you cards. But she threw in an extra:

As the scene fades to black, the camera focuses on the girl’s desk, where a little hand with chipped pink nail polish busily illustrates these words: “In memory of my snow globe.”

Recipe: Strawberry Syrup