Sunday, January 30, 2011

Easy Orange Breakfast Cake

I once heard talent defined as being able to do something easily that takes the average person a great deal of effort. The list of talents I wished I possessed is far too long to list.  Suffice it to say, one of them is music. Strangely enough, I love music and think I have rather good taste in music as a listener. But I have a strange affliction. I am tone DUMB.  Not tone deaf, tone dumb. (I thank the British comedian Stephen Fry for identifying this particular ‘condition’ of mine). In other words, I can hear the fact I’m off-key but am woefully unable to correct myself.  When I’ve tried to play a musical instrument, I can hear that I’m slightly behind the beat and flat as a pancake (okay, flat as the first sacrificial pancake you make before moving on to making the real pancakes for brunch). Yet I can’t seem to correct myself.  

I think that music is partially a genetic gift, so there aren’t many people I can blame for my tone dumbness. My mother, perhaps, given that she is even more off-key than myself when singing?  Or perhaps my grade school music teacher, Mrs. M?

But I can’t be too harsh to dear old Mrs. M.  Mrs. M was instrumental in inspiring my love of British literature. Not because she talked about it or was much of a reader.  But because if I hadn’t had Mrs. M as a instructor, I would never have loved Jane Eyre and Richard III quite so much. How else could I have understood how young Jane felt when the headmaster made her stand before the whole school of charity children with a sign around her neck, proclaiming ‘I am a liar?’  Or when Richard looked at the young heir to the throne of England and said, beguilingly: “So wise so young, they say do never live long." 

If Shakespeare had wanted to write a tragedy about a grade school music class rather than the war for the English throne, Mrs. M. would have been the star.  One of Mrs. M’s legs was slightly shorter than the other, and she walked with a limp.  I have had other teachers before and since who have had physical afflictions—my sixth grade teacher had a severely curved spine, one of my college professors had a stutter—but their personal charisma was such that I forgot about any small supposed imperfections, about a week into my classes. Mrs. M, however, constantly told and retold the story of how she had been playing on a kitchen counter as a child and had fallen.  The moral of this story was not how strange and terrible accidents could happen even to the innocent, but what would happen to all of us if we disobeyed our parents and teachers.

We caroled the refrain “bluebird/bluebird/in and out the window” over and over until the words had no meaning to us, and were just tones to bleat out to Mrs. M’s piano. “Oh, Joh-nny I am ti-red.” Mrs. M could hear an off-key voice in the back of the room, even if you sang in a whisper. If you tried to mouth the words, Mrs. M would correct the way your lips moved.  When we sang: “Lincoln was our Pres-I-Dent/ Many years ago,” Mrs. M would screech “Enunciate!  Enunciate! It is LEEN-CON!  Smile when you say LEEN-CON!”  We had to sing a song about Lincoln, individually before the class, and when each student did so to Mrs. M’s satisfaction he or she would get a penny, bearing the proud face of the 16th president. Those students who did not pass had to sing the song again, standing beside Mrs. M’s piano, day after day, until they finally were approved to get the penny.

Guess who was the one girl who never got a penny from Mrs. M? 

Christmas was always pronounced ‘CHRIST-Mass.’ (“Even if you were Jewish,” a friend of mine remembered, many years later.  “ESPECIALLY if you were Jewish.) Students who didn’t pronounce Christmas as such were severely rebuked. This didn’t bother me, because I loved Christmas carols—what I didn’t love was playing the mini xylophone—a requirement of the class—and the flutophone. The flutophone—a white and red plastic clarinet—was my nemesis.  I hated the taste of the thing—the cheap plastic was rank with old spit—and not even young Wolfgang Amadeus himself could have made tooting out “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” on the flutophone sound tuneful.

You see, I do love music and know what sounds good—I just can’t make the sounds myself. So it was painful to be constantly off and to know that even the people who were musically talented in the class sounded dreadful on the glorified toy whistle we were all forced to play.

One day, Mrs. M asked me to stay after class.

“If you can’t play ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’ CORRECTLY, you won’t pass the class.”

I stared at her, mouth slightly open because my lips hurt so much from blowing the flutophone.

“If you can’t learn to play this song—this song about OUR COUNTRY,” said Mrs. M, “you’ll be left back. And won’t you feel stupid, being left back and having to repeat second grade?”

Kind of like a television show, where someone’s mind turns into an echo chamber, the word ‘stupid’ resounded in my ears. 

“Being left back with all of the first grade babies,” said Mrs. M.  “So you need to get some extra help.  You need to apply yourself.”

Still not knowing what to say, I chewed nervously on the flutophone.

I wasn’t left back, but I still loathe the taste of plastic in my mouth.

Many years later, when I was at Harvard Divinity School, getting my graduate degree with a concentration in religion and the arts, I literally stumbled into a class on religion and music with four other students. Unlike myself, who was getting an academic degree, all of the other students were going to be ordained and wanted to work as church organists. There were no other classes in my concentration that semester, however, so I had to take the subject. I was intimidated, to say the least. Yet because the class was a music history class and because of the support of my fellow students, I got an A.

During the semester, my professor took us to the church where she worked and played some of the songs we were studying on the organ. I still can’t play an instrument. But I still remember the way the music reverberated from the mighty instrument through my body, as if the music was playing me. The stained glass windows cast warm blue, purple, and yellow shadows on the hardwood floors and the faces of the saints concealed the sight of the muddy April Boston snow, and for a brief minute or two I thought, perhaps this is what it is like, to have the gift of music.

This is an easy cake that takes absolutely no talent to make and tastes much better than a flutophone. Although it quite moist--make sure you chill it overnight before serving it. It's best to make it in the evening, and eat it the next morning.

Easy Orange Breakfast Cake

Adapted from All Recipes

1 cup white whole wheat flour
1/ 2 teaspoon of baking powder
1 /4 teaspoon salt
3/ 4 cup unsweetened smooth applesauce
 3/ 4 cup turbinado sugar
3 beaten eggs
1 /2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon orange zest
1 /4 cup regular, skim, or almond milk
(Optional) 1 cup chopped walnuts or almonds

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Line a 9 inch cake pan with parchment.
  2. Sift flour, baking powder, salt
  3. Mix the applesauce and the sugar.  Add the cinnamon and orange zest, eggs, milk, and fold in the flour. Fold in the nuts, if you are incorporating them. (Dust them lightly with flour, to prevent sinking).
  4. Pour the batter into the pan. Bake for 40 minutes, until a toothpick can be extracted ‘clean.’
Glaze (optional)

 1/2 cup regular honey, orange blossom honey, or Lyle's Golden Syrup
1/ 4 cup water
1 tablespoon orange juice (squeezed from the orange you zested)

  1. Combine honey or syrup and water.  Bring to a boil.  Add orange juice.  Reduce heat and simmer for 1 minute. Pour on cooled cake. Spoon carefully--focus on the drier outside of the cake, rather than the moist interior.
  2. Cool cake overnight.
Note: You can also forgo the glaze and simply dust the cake with a light coating of powdered sugar.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Just really, really good raisin bran bread

Recently, I was forwarded a very nice article by my yoga studio, about the benefits of practicing yoga. However, I must admit that I did a double-take when I saw this phrase:

"Yoga has had a profound cleaning effect in me, within the physical plane it is very obvious, I learned to perform neti pot nose cleansings, to do stomach churnings, I can’t wait to have a colonic..." 

Okay, I'm totally with you about enjoying a sense of community, which I don't get when I work out alone. And I'm very thankful that I no longer get intense back spasms when I'm working at my computer. Maybe I'll even be able to get through a riding lesson one day without my 'tricky hip' pointing my toe in a weird, incomprehensible angle that confuses my horse.

But when it comes to the fact that someone has had a colonic irrigation, the phrase 'thank you for sharing' leaps to mind.  Trust me, I'm not saying I'm above the physical world, and maybe I've studied too much Victorian literature. But some things, I think, are best left to you and whatever weird health websites you Google when you experience digestive discomfort.

I realize I'm probably alone in these sentiments, given that so many cereal boxes proudly proclaim their massive fiber content. Go!  Have that hamburger, because only one bowl will completely purge you of all the toxins you ingest!
Flickr: theimpulsivebuy

How I miss the cartoon characters of my youth when I see cereal boxes such as this one!

I'm rather amused by blog posts featuring bran recipes. Some are absurdly spartan.(Does anyone really think that onion rings sprinkled with All Bran  taste just like the fried hoops of grease they sell in paper cups on the Boardwalk?). Others recipes begin with an introduction along the lines of 'well, I've been writing quite a bit about bacon, so I thought I'd make these raisin bran muffins with butter and sour cream.'

This is just a very good low-fat raisin bran recipe. It's not crazy decadent with cream and Plugra, and it's not made with twigs and psyllium husks. It's not the Master Cleanse. It doesn't make you think of that old Saturday Nigh Live sketch for Colon Blow (a mythical product that is beginning to resemble the modern marketing of cereal far too closely). It's just a nice, tasty way of getting your raisin bran fix without lots of high fructose corn syrup (ahem, Kellogg's) but doesn't make you feel as if you're engaged in penance, rather than eating pastry.

Just really good, low-fat, high-fiber but not crazy high-fiber raisin bran bread


1 large, beaten egg
1/4 cup brown sugar or turbinado sugar
1 cup mashed, overripe banana (approximately one large banana)
1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/4 cup honey or golden syrup

1 cup white whole wheat or whole wheat flour
1 cup unprocessed bran (I used Hodgson's Mill)

1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup golden raisins

1. Grease or line with parchment an 8x8 round or square pan or 12 muffin liners
2. Preheat oven to 400F
3. Mix sugar into the egg, fold in the mashed banana and applesauce, followed by the honey or golden syrup
4. Sift the flour, bran, baking soda, and cinnamon together. Fold the dry mixture into the wet mixture.
5. Lightly flour both kinds of raisins, to prevent sinking (this is especially important if you are using a muffin tin).
6. Fold in the raisins.
7. Bake for 15-20 minutes until the top is crackly, but the bread is still soft and springy to the touch.
8. Cool. If using a pan, cut into 8-12 slices.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Chocolate brownie cookies good for winter Sundays...

Those Winter Sundays
Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueback cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?
Robert Hayden

This poem has always reminded me, not of my father, but my mother. After my mother got divorced, despite her desire to start a new life, she seemed to fall back into her old one—caring for my anxious, asthmatic grandmother, as well as for my younger self. For many years, her life was shaped by an austere, monkish routine. She’d rise, many hours before dawn in the winter and do ‘Jane’ (the Jane Fonda workout). She’d still be weary from getting up many times during the night to rub the back of my grandmother, who was afraid to be alone for more than a few hours. Sometimes my grandmother would still call an ambulance, when my mother was resting, because my grandmother was afraid she was dying, as her lungs ached for breath. Then my mother would feed my grandmother breakfast (a slice of Entenmann's raspberry swirl danish and instant coffee), pack her own lunch (plain rye toast, an apple, an egg) and go to work. Upon arriving home, my mother would do the chores that needed to be done (everything from scrubbing the bathroom floor to cleaning out the gutters) and continue to tend to my grandmother.   

This regime often made my mother, to put it mildly, pretty stressed out, and she was always a very anxious person by nature, even at the best of times. However, now I can and do appreciate why she felt that way, better than when I was a child and an adolescent.

Where was I, during this time? I have to admit that I protected myself somewhat—I tried to be out of the house as much as possible, and even though my mother asked for help, I was afraid of getting sucked into the vortex of my grandmother’s seemingly infinite needs. And it’s hard for me to completely reproach myself, given how easily I’d observed it was to lose your sense of self-worth, living as a caretaker. As an adolescent, my identity was still fragile and I was afraid that if I helped my mother too much with my grandmother (other than basic, routine stuff like doing dishes), I would  become like my mother—and even looking back, I’m afraid those fears weren’t totally unfounded. I listened to my mother get up in the night every few hours, all those years, and console my grandmother, but I never joined them.

When my mother died from lung cancer, a number of the people she worked with--as well as my aunt and uncle--approached me and told me that she was so “good,” to always put others first. And because grief is often perverse and angry, I would think ‘why do we always praise women, if they don’t do things for themselves, and try to enjoy life?’  I wondered how much the anxiety of care-giving contributed to my mother's illness (there was no previous history of cancer in my family) and my grandmother’s smoking habit.

We often speak of women ‘doing things for themselves’ in terms of chocolate and shopping, but the idea of women doing things for themselves, like taking time to pursue goals that are important to them is far more frightening and challenging.  I think the idea frightened my mother, which is why she fell back into the role of care-giving.

I often think, although my relationship with my mother grew stronger, as I grew older: “we would have had much better times together, had she taken more time for herself.”

So I made these chocolate cookies for others during the holiday season and still nurture the personal aspirations within me that are--hard to believe, I know--even better than chocolate.

Well, I did save a few cookies for myself.
Adapted from Currents magazine

The cookies are to the right, accompanied by Snickerdoodles to the left
Chocolate Brownie-style cookies

These cookies are almost like a ‘brownie’ made as a ‘cookie’ although the  magazine in which I found the original recipe calls them ‘chocolate truffle’ cookies.


4 ounces of unsweetened chocolate (I used Baker’s)
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips (divided use)
6 tablespoons of unsalted butter
3 large eggs
1 cup brown or white sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup white whole wheat or all-purpose flour
(Note: while not a gluten-free baker, the relative unimportance of flour in the structure of the cookie would make this recipe fairly easy to make gluten-free, using rice or another type of non-wheat flour)
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (I used regular Hershey's unsweetened)
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon sea salt

Waiting for the oven
  1. Melt all of the unsweetened chocolate and 1 cup of the unsweetened chocolate chips with the butter in a bain maire (or a microwave). Remove from heat when melted.
  2. Beat eggs, slowly adding sugar and vanilla.  Add to the chocolate and butter mixture.
  3. Sift the flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt. Add to the chocolate mix.  When fully blended and cool gradually stir into the second cup of chocolate chips. The idea is to fold them in gently, so that they are still intact.  (Note: For a color and flavor contrast, you could also use white chocolate, white 'colored' chocolate, or another type of chip such as peanut butter).
  4. Chill for an hour to overnight. (I chilled them for approximately four hours). The dough should be thick and the texture of soft clay.
  5. In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t chill them overnight, because I have a ‘dough eating issue.’ As in, when there is a big bowl of cookie dough in my refrigerator, I am incapable of NOT taking small ‘tastes’ of it.  If you don’t have my impulse control issues, chill overnight, if you like!
  6. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
  7. Now, here is the fun part—roll the dough into 24-30 little balls. If you’re feeling very decadent, you can roll them in powdered sugar, or colored powdered sugar if you’re making them for a holiday.
  8. Bake for 9-13 minutes. Err on the side of taking them out while they are still soft, unless you like crispy chocolate cookies. These cookies need to cool and harden thoroughly. But you’ve been eating the dough from the refrigerator, so I’m sure you can wait. 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Cinnamon Swirl Quick Bread

When I was ten years old, I went on strike for the first and last time in my life.  The Great Phonics Strike of 5th grade wasn’t a planned event. I had always disliked phonics in school, given that I had already come to school a Reader, and it seemed pointless to spend time drawing short and long vowel sounds over a,e, i, o, u when I already knew what the words were supposed to sound like. Patiently, I tolerated the subject until 5th grade, when my teacher  Mrs. J, seemed  bound and determined to get through the entire phonics workbook by Christmas break.  I forget exactly when I decided she had gone too far (Ten pages? Or was it only six in a night?)  However, soon I simply stopped bringing home the workbook.

“You’ll have to make it up,” she told me, when she saw that my workbook was blank yet again.  “Or else.”

“As long as I know how to read it, why do I have to do all of these boring drills?”

After several weeks, it gradually became clear to Mrs. J that even the most dedicated 5th grade student was not going to do 30 plus pages of make-up phonics homework. She demanded that I be pulled out of the AT (Academically Talented) program at my school until I had done every required phonics exercise correctly. Since this was the only class I remotely enjoyed, Mrs. J clearly had some dim sense of the little pull she had over my tiny, grade school psyche.  I asked my AT teacher to intervene.  She said she would talk to Mrs. J, but could promise me nothing.

“She really does have a bit of a mania about phonics,” admitted my AT teacher.

“I told you!” I said.

Then something truly catastrophic happened—a snow day. I say catastrophic, because I had been psyching myself up to say, at least do the phonics that was required for that day of school. However, the snow day convinced me that my deep, stubborn belief that that phonics was wrong had been confirmed by divine intervention.

A game of chicken with the weather followed for the next few weeks. I would pray for snow, and sometimes the snow would happen. I would be given a reprieve, and when we returned to school, quite often there wasn’t enough time for phonics.  Or there would be a delayed opening, compressing the day to the point when phonics would be bumped out of the schedule.

Later, this period would be instructive in college when studying how societies developed strange rituals and taboos designed to bring about good fortune. I determined that snow days were more likely when I carried my lucky gold horse key chain. When that talisman failed, I decided it was my lucky red turtleneck sweater. 

Then I decided it was if I read my favorite book of Greek myths before bed AND wore my red turtleneck and carried the key chain.  I am probably the only person in my age group ever to have prayed to Zeus. Unfortunately, it didn’t sink in that ancient Greece was a singularly poor place to turn to, in search of snow-friendly deities.

Eventually, my rituals failed me and Mrs. J informed me that she would NOT let me go to AT ANYMORE. A meltdown ensued that resulted in my parents being called in for a conference, and my being transferred to another teacher’s class for the rest of the year.  To Mr. F’s room, who assigned one page of phonics every few days or so.  And Mrs. J’s class was already so far into the phonics book, even before I staged my strike, I don’t remember doing phonics for the rest of the year.

As an adult, I don’t get snow days and I loathe snow’s disruption to my routine—and shoveling. However, I still remember the comfort of snow days—sitting in the wooden-paneled kitchen of my old house, eating blueberry Pop Tarts or buttered cinnamon toast and hot chocolate, hoping that the radio announcer would call my school’s name, first as delayed, then as closed (they always seemed to announce a delay first, then a closure, unless it was really bad). In the era of the Internet where closings are announced online, it’s hard to believe how much I enjoyed waiting for that announcement, almost as if my school was briefly famous—but I vividly recall the blessed relief knowing that for at least one whole day, homework didn’t exist.

My mother never baked, but this is a tasty, wholesome cinnamon raisin bread that’s ideal for breakfast, even on a non-snow day. It involves no yeast, so it can be whipped up  quite quickly—far more quickly than 5th grade phonics homework.
Cinnamon Swirl Quick Bread


The bread

2 cups of white whole wheat, whole wheat, or all-purpose flour (I used white whole wheat)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/ 2 teaspoon salt
1 cup white or brown sugar
1 beaten egg
1 cup dairy or non-dairy milk (I used almond milk)
1/3 of a cup melted butter, non-dairy spread, oil, or applesauce (I used applesauce, to make the bread low-fat)

The swirl
1/3 cup white sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon (not cinnamon sugar)
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8x4 loaf pan with parchment paper
  2. Combine bread ingredients—flour, baking powder, salt, 1 cup of sugar, beaten egg, milk (of your choice) and fat or fat substitute of your choice
  3. Pour half of the batter into the pan.  Mix the 1/3 of a cup of white sugar and cinnamon together in a bowl, and pour half on top of the batter. Top with the remaining half of batter, then the remaining half of cinnamon and sugar.
4. Bake for 45-50 minutes, until a toothpick can be extracted cleanly.
5. Cool for at least an hour, until the sugar topping has hardened.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Low-fat Pumpkin Bread

(Or, Low-fat Pumpkin Bread, Son of Low-fat Lemon Loaf from the last blog post)

To celebrate my half-sister’s name day, I visited to my father’s house yesterday.  As part of my completely self-declared campaign to prove to the Greek side of my family that healthy food isn’t horrible, I bought this low-fat pumpkin bread as well as the previously blogged-about low-fat lemon loaf. 

I did so with some trepidation, given that I always feel that there is a bit of an etiquette conundrum when you give 'healthy' food as a gift or bring it to a person’s house. On one hand, it’s probably best to just leave it there and ‘let the food speak for itself.’ On the other hand, sometimes it’s hard to resist the temptation to editorialize: “Guess what!  A slice of this bread only has 150-170 calories per slice!  Pumpkin is one of the healthiest foods for you on the planet! It’s full of Vitamin A and fiber!”  When you say something like that, it makes it sound like you’re bringing medicine rather than an edible substance to the table.  On the other hand (yes, I have three hands in my mind, which explains my lack of coordination in the Real World), if you do make a healthier version of something and you’re silent, then sometimes there is a spiraling of comments at the table, along the lines of: “I can’t eat that!  Cake/bread/cookies/pie is so fattening!” And you can’t resist the urge to say: “Oh no…let me tell you what’s in it…”

Plus, I think there is the anxiety on the part of the cook that low-fat foods often taste different than their full-fat counterparts.  I will say that pumpkin bread is one of those foods where I tend to prefer lower fat varieties, versus the kinds made with butter and oil. Pumpkin is so naturally moist, additional ‘bells and whistles’ are relatively unnecessary.

1 1/ 2 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup canned pumpkin puree (do I need to tell you NOT to buy the canned, pre-seasoned pumpkin pie filling? Of course not!)
1/3 cup smooth applesauce
2 beaten, large eggs
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon (or to taste) pumpkin pie spice blend
1 cup of brown organic sugar
1 pinch of salt
1/ 2 cup of almond milk
1 cup walnuts, golden raisins, crasins, or pecans (Optional)


  1. Preheat oven to 350F.  Butter and/or line a 8 X4 loaf pan with parchment paper.
  2. Mix ingredients in a bowl until well-blended.  (Since no butter is being used, I don’t bother to cream the sugar with the ‘butter replacement’ of applesauce).
  3. Pour into the pan, and bake until a toothpick comes out clean (approximately 45-50 minutes).