Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Amazing Spiced Pumpkin Bread


Guys, I've always been straight up with you, right? This thing we have here, you and you and you and me, it's a relationship based on trust, right? So trust me now when I tell you - this is the pumpkin bread dreams are made of.

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I won't beat around the bush - if you're not fond of pumpkin-based sweets, try to fast forward yourself to about Christmas, when it's cold for real and chocolate is the only answer. But if you crave that subtle, golden sweetness that pumpkin brings to desserts, if you love the way it makes quickbreads taste undeniably - but not overwhelmingly - of fall and hearth, of gently falling leaves and crisp blue skies, this is the pumpkin bread for you.

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I felt a bit like a witch mixing up this bread. It really doesn't take very long, but the spirit of Halloween was in me, with the orange batter and all, and I kind of prolonged the pleasure by singing "double double toil and trouble" while stirring. I also pretended that the toasted walnuts and dates were eye of newt and [unmentionable] part of frog... that got me some reeeeally weird looks from A. You would think he'd be used to it by now! Seriously, though, please please make this bread. It's soft, it's moist, it's fragrant and goes amazingly with a cup of tea or coffee. And, as an added bonus, it's dairy free. I mean, it just doesn't get any better than this.

Spiced Pumpkin Bread
adapted very lightly from Bon Appetit, Nov. 1995
(makes two loaves)

1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
3 large eggs, room temperature
16 oz. pumpkin puree
3 cups all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts, toasted (optional)
1 cup coarsely chopped pitted dates

Preheat oven to 350°F. Prepare two 9x5x3-inch loaf pans.

Whisk the sugars and oil in large bowl to blend. Make sure to get at all the clumps of sugar. Whisk in eggs and then pumpkin puree until the batter is uniform and all the ingredients are thoroughly combined.

In another bowl, whisk flour, spices, baking soda, baking powder and salt to combine. Stir into pumpkin mixture in 2 additions, folding only until the flour disappears. Stir in chopped dates and walnuts.

Divide batter equally between prepared pans. Bake until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 1 hour 10 minutes. Transfer to racks and cool 10 minutes (this is an important step because the bread is too soft to cut right out of the oven and will break - ask me how I know). Turn loaves out onto racks and cool completely. (You can eat one loaf and freeze the other - I generally slice the bread and then triple wrap in plastic wrap. That way, I can just toast the slices and it's ready to go).

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Pumpkin-Cranberry Biscotti


Books are kind of like people, don't you think? You can tell right away if you're going to be friends with one or if you'll have a brief conversation and go your separate ways. So it was with this book - as soon as I picked it up,* I could tell that it was going to be one of my favorites. By the end, I felt like I had met Frank and Jerome and had sat with them in the kitchen of their New York cafe as they took out trays upon trays of delicious tarts, biscotti and Madeleines. I've made many recipes from this book, always with great ease and great success, encouraged by the warm tone and the friendly, quick humor on every page.

Pumpkin Biscotti

The recipes in this book are thoughtful, inventive and yet inviting and unpretentious. In fact, you get the feeling that the authors put together a list of their very favorite things to make at home and opened it to the rest of us. These pumpkin biscotti are no exception - they are simply wonderful - wonderful! If you like pumpkin desserts (and oh, I do), you will LOVE these, I promise. Crunchy, spicy, packed with golden raisins, cranberries and toasted pecans, oh goodness, I can't even really express how happy these made me. And the generous proportions of this recipe ensure that your family and friends will be very happy as well, should you choose to share (which, by the way, you totally should - these biscotti will make you many, many new friends!). Happy fall, everyone!


*Disclaimer because some people might misunderstand: I bought this book at a bookstore, just like everyone else. I was not asked nor paid to do a review of this book, but I wanted to share it with you because it has become one of my favorite books to reach for lately.

Pumpkin Cranberry Biscotti Recipe
Once Upon a Tart
Note: I used 1 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp nutmeg, 1/4 tsp ground cloves
Note 2: This recipe requires a little more effort than the traditional biscotti, but I'm telling you, it's so totally worth it.
(Makes about 25 biscotti - I got a bit more)

4 1/2 cups flour (495g)
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted and cooled to room temperature (120g)
3 large eggs, at room temperature, separated
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar (230g)
3/4 cup pumpkin puree, packed tightly (183g)
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup pecans, lightly toasted and chopped (150g)
1/2 cup fresh cranberries (75g)
1/3 cup golden raisins (50g)
4 tbsp of turbinado sugar (my addition, optional)

Position one of your oven racks in the center. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, spices, baking powder and salt.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the egg whites on high speed until they form stiff peaks. With the mixer still on high, beat in about half the sugar until the egg whites are glossy. Transfer them to another bowl.

In the same bowl of the stand mixer, beat the egg yolks and the remaining half of the sugar on high speed until the eggs are pale and frothy and the sugar dissolves. Stir in pumpkin puree and vanilla to blend.

Gently fold in the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture. Also gently, stir in the melted (and cooled) butter, nuts, cranberries and raisins.

Gradually stir in the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients until the dough comes together into a sticky ball. For into two logs (flour your hands because the dough will be sticky) about 3" x 10". If you wet your fingers a little, you'll be able to smooth out the surface of the dough should you so wish to. Sprinkle each log with about two tablespoons of turbinado sugar, if using.

Bake for about 50 minutes, until the tops are golden brown and feel firm to the touch. Cool on wire racks for at least 30 minutes (this is important - if you don't cool the biscotti, they will crumble like crazy). Place the logs on a cutting board and cut into 1/2 inch slices with a long and sharp serrated knife. Do not use a sawing motion, but make decisive downward strokes.

Line the slices on the baking sheet and bake for another 25-30 minutes, until they are crisp and golden brown throughout. Allow to cool completely before eating (this is kind of hard to do, with the amazing smell and all, but believe me, they do taste better that way).

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Apple Pie, Straight Up


I've come to the conclusion that apple pie is all about subtlety. There's a basic ratio of apples to sugar to spices to crust, but these simple numbers tell you nothing at all of the flavors, smells and textures you can create with just a flick of a measuring cup. For this - my first apple pie - I wanted the flavors to be mine, just the way I like them. I wanted the crust to be flaky, tender and interesting. I wanted the apples to have that perfect balance of tart and sweet. I wanted the filling to be a little spicy, fork-tender and just a little gooey. Most of all, I wanted that smell, the apple pie, autumn leaves, refuge from the chill, begging for some ice cream smell that I dreamt would float out of the windows and make us so so happy.

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Oh, I was so excited when I took this pie out of the oven. "Look," I said to A., "it looks and smells just like real apple pie!" He laughed, but he knew what I meant. Not having grown up in this country, it's always been a struggle to accept the best parts of American culture while keeping our own identity intact. Being able to re-create a dish that is so intrinsic to this part of the world (that over the years has become our very beloved home) while putting my own personal touches to it gave me a wonderful sense of completeness, of finally merging my two worlds into one (deliciously warm and spicy) whole.


Apple Pie

Crust (one double-crust pie)
3 cups all purpose flour
2 sticks (8 oz) butter, very cold
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons ice water
1 tablespoon cider vinegar*
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
1-2 tablespoons turbinado sugar for topping

*Helene, who is a reader and a wonderful baker, tipped me off that adding cider vinegar helps relax the dough for the rolling

Filling (for a deep dish pie)
1.5 lb Granny Smith apples (for tartness)
1.5 lb Golden Delicious apples (for sweetness)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar (to make it a little gooey - if you don't like that, use all granulated sugar)
3-4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
dash of ground cloves
2 tbsp cold butter, cut into little pieces

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People - do not be afraid of a pie crust. It's really not that bad. There's no secret to it - just be prepared and work quickly. Here's what I want you to do:

1. Take out the butter and cut each stick into 16 little cubes. Put them in the freezer for at least 5 minutes.

2. Whisk the flour, sugar, salt and cinnamon together in a large bowl. Take a glass, fill it with water and put some ice in there to make it extra cold.

3. Take out and get ready your pastry cutter, rolling pin, a pastry scraper and a tablespoon for the ice water.

4. Drop the butter pieces into the big bowl with the flour, and working quickly, cut the butter into the flour until there are large pieces and small pieces. The smallest pieces should be about the size of a pea and the largest the size of a pecan.

5. Dribble about 3 tablespoons of ice water and 1 tablespoon of cider vinegar into the flour mixture and toss it gently with your fingers until the dough stays together when pinched (there will still be dry patches, that's ok). Add more water if you need to, in 1 tbsp increments. Do this quickly so the butter doesn't get a chance to melt. Pop the bowl into the freezer for 5 minutes and take a coffee break.

6. Dump the contents of your bowl onto a large counter, flour your rolling pin and pass it back and forth over the barely-together dough. What this does is flatten out the butter and coat it with the flour so that you ensure flakiness and tenderness. Using a pastry scraper, turn over the mixture so you get to roll the butter that's on the bottom as well as what was on top.

7. Gather the dough into a ball, divide in two, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.

8. Make the filling - peel and core the apples and slice into 1/4 inch slices (I like my slices pretty thin so they become very tender and don't slide out). In a large bowl, toss with the sugars, spices, vanilla, lemon juice and flour. Turn to coat and let stand for 15 minutes, mixing several times to soften the apples. When you're ready to fill the pie, drain about half of the juices.

9. Preheat the oven to 425F, arrange a rack in the bottom third of the oven, butter a pie plate.

10. Take the dough out of the refrigerator, let it rest for 5-10 minutes to become pliable and roll out each piece between two sheets of plastic or parchment paper (I can't tell you how HUGE a fan I am of this method - no sticking, no mess, ahhh). After rolling, I like to put the crusts into the freezer for 2-3 minutes so that they are easier to transfer. Transfer one of the crusts to a buttered pie plate and prick it a few times with a fork.

11. Fill the pie with the apple filling (below), dot with the two tablespoons of cold butter and cover with the second crust. Crimp the edges together. Cut a few steam vents and sprinkle with turbinado sugar.

12. Bake on 425F for 30 minutes; then, slide a baking sheet under the pie pan to catch the juices, turn the heat down to 350F and bake for another 30-45 minutes until the crust has browned and the juices are bubbling (I found this method in Joy of Cooking and the combination of temperatures, as well as baking in the lower third of the oven, produces a perfectly baked, non-soggy crust).

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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Apple & Ricotta Tartlets


My mom has been making homemade ricotta since I was a little girl. It evokes for me the scents of our small kitchen and the feel of her linen apron against my cheek as the soft, fresh whiteness of the cheese magically turned into tarts, fritters and other such delicacies that I adored. When I moved out on my own, I had this crazy idea that I should learn how to do it myself, but then I decided to take the easy way out and punted back to my mom, and she still makes ricotta for me any time I like. What can I say, I'm a spoiled kid!

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To tell you the truth, what I love doing best is just eating it straight from the little glass bowl that I usually get in my goodie bag, but this time, mom outdid herself and the bowl was so large that I was practically forced to use it in other ways. There's only so much ricotta and honey on toast that a girl can take, you know.

I decided to create a little afternoon snack - to go with a cup of tea, perhaps - and since the cooler weather inevitably brings out my inner Brit, I wanted it to be a dainty confection, as fun to make as it is to eat. After I took these out of the oven, I thanked my lucky stars that I was afternoon-tea-ing by myself today because no way would I have shared any of these with anyone else. Ok, maybe I would have shared with my mom, but that's it! The tender, delicate apples cupped a custard-like nugget of sweet ricotta, and the smell of it all, of apple orchards and afternoons in my mom's kitchen, almost sent me into another world. Instead of life being like a bowl of cherries, I'd much rather that it be like these wonderful little tartlets - you know exactly what you're going to get, and it's going to be delicious.


Apple and Ricotta Tartlets
(makes about 8 servings)

8 oz fresh ricotta cheese
4 medium apples (I used Gala, but any firm variety will do)
4 tbsp sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 egg
butter for buttering muffin tin

Turn oven to 350F and butter well 8 cups in a standard-sized muffin tin. Peel the apples, cut them in half and remove the stem and the core. Then, slice the apples into as thin slices as you can manage - the thinner, the better. If the slices are too thick, they won't bend and you'll end up with a bunch of broken pieces which, although delicious, isn't what you're aiming for here.

In a small bowl, mix the ricotta with the egg, sugar and vanilla extract until everything is well incorporated.

Arrange the apple slices in overlapping circles inside the muffin cups. They will look like flowers with a large opening in the middle. Drop ricotta into the opening, doming it a little on the top.

Bake for about 30-35 min, until the apples are very tender and the filling is set and slightly puffed. Let cool for a few minutes and then gently remove with a fork or a small spatula. Serve warm.

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Friday, October 2, 2009

Saffron Tomato Soup


If I could change one thing about LA, it would be to give it more October. It's a golden month, a month of "mists and mellow fruitfulness," a brief but glorious respite between the oppresive heat of September and the November rains. It's a time of lacy shadows and leaves gently crunching underfoot, chilly nights, and mornings filled with the earthy smells of autumn. And soup - I always look forward to making soup during this month.

Like October, this soup is mellow and gentle, golden red and rich with vegetables and the fall, putting you in mind of curling up under cozy blankets and gathering wood for your fireplace. I make it all the time and use it as a base to build different flavors, depending on my mood. A. likes it with chicken, but I sometimes throw in black beans and corn for a southwestern flair; mussels seem particularly happy when snuggled together in this broth, and there have been several occasions when I've made it into a hacked version of a bouillabaisse. Most of the time, though, I like it just like I made it last night - simple, comforting, and filling my house with the warmth of autumn.

Saffron Tomato Soup

This is a very basic soup and sometimes, it feels kind of like cheating because it's so quick to make, but so very rich and flavorful. I don't buy canned food other than organic canned tomatoes, but if you don't want to use those, just dice 3-4 medium tomatoes and simmer in a little salted water until very soft, and use that instead. The combination of chicken and vegetable broths gives this soup an extra heartiness and saffron is the secret ingredient that adds a certain dimension, a goldenness and an aroma that's difficult to describe but noticeable if absent.

2 cups chicken broth (or 1 c. chicken broth, 1 c. white wine)
2 cups vegetable broth
32 oz can of organic, no-salt-added chopped tomatoes
1 large yellow onion, medium dice
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp dried thyme
2 pinches of dried saffron
1 lb mushrooms, sliced (optional)
4-5 chicken drumsticks (optional)

If using chicken drumsticks, wash, dry and season with salt and pepper the night before.

In a medium-sized pot, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil on medium heat. Dice the onion the way you like to eat it - I like mine medium diced for this soup, but some like it finely diced. Saute the onion for 3-5 minutes, until softened and translucent, but don't let it brown. Add crushed garlic and saute for another minute, until fragrant. (If using mushrooms, add them with garlic and saute just a little).

Add the chicken and vegetable broths (and wine, if using), and also add the tomatoes - I usually do not drain them. Pinch the dried saffron between your fingers, to break up the strains a little, and add to the soup. Toss in the dried thyme. If using chicken, also add it now.

Bring to a boil and then back down to a medium simmer, and simmer for about half an hour or until the chicken is tender and cooked all the way through. Adjust the seasoning and serve hot.

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