Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Peanut Butter Cupcakes with Peanut Butter Frosting: Oh, I love peanut butter...

I think I've finally discovered the source of my peanut butter obsession.

Every woman has a finite number of meals within her.  By the time my mother divorced my father, her meal quota had long been maxed out.  Keep in mind that my mother's idea of a meal, even during her 'cooking years,' usually consisted of cottage cheese for an appetizer, lettuce with a quartered tomato and a festive slice of cucumber laced with bottled dressing, some Green Giant veggies, and protein.  My mother's protein-based recipes were as follows:

1. Take chop (strip steak, lamb chop) or slab of meat (London Broil).  Shake one spritz of garlic salt on top. Broil until pink.

2. Take chicken.  Sprinkle paprika (or if very bold, a lashing of teriaki sauce).  Bake.

She had some occasional 'specials,' like corned beef on St. Patrick's Day, pot roast (which I found stringy), homemade French fries, a kasseri cheese melt and a particularly wonderful meat loaf.  But that is only because the best meat loaves are always made by the worst cooks--the less effort you expend upon them, the better they taste.

Needless to say, spaghetti was Ronzoni and Ragu (and that is Ragu with a capital letter, not 'ragu' in the Italian sense of a meat sauce).

When my mother divorced my father, like many women, she went on a diet.  The first thing she eliminated was all sweets and most starches. I was a tubby child, but I probably burned at least a few calories with my relentless screaming and cajoling to get a few, precious sweets in our shopping cart.

My mother soon stopped buying even the spices and sauces she had used when married, and gradually began microwaving the meat "because it saves time and is less messy."

In case you're wondering how I managed to stay chubby, despite this regime, it's pretty easy to explain--after wolfing down whatever Entenmann's doughnuts or Haagen-Dasz ice cream was at hand, until the next trip to Shop Rite, it would be me and a jar of peanut butter, a tub of cream cheese, and a jar of jam in front of Nickleodeon after school.  I'd bike two blocks home, but needless to say that was not nearly enough physical activity to burn off the hours of eating and watching You Can't Do That on Television and Turkey TV. My preferred vehicle for peanut butter delivery was cinnamon raisin bread.  I'd start by toasting the slices, but I also kind of liked using non-toasted and toasted slices for different combinations of toppings.  A foodie in training (sort of).

Clearly, it's better to eat one or two of what you really want, in moderation, which is the approach I still strive for with peanut butter.  (Although just once, you have to try cinnamon raisin bread with cream cheese and marmalade, or toasted cinnamon raisin bread with peanut butter and strawberry jam).

These cupcakes are tasty, rich and peanut butter-y.  It's not quite Christmas baking season for me (I need another week) and the kids are still in school, so have these with a nice, cold glass of milk while you work on your list to Santa. This year I'd like a KitchenAid Mixer, a food processor, a scanner, Adobe Photoshop, and some hardwood floors.  And a pony.


Peanut Butter Cupcakes with Peanut Butter Frosting

--makes 12 cupcakes--

Peanut Butter Cupcakes

Adapted from How Sweet It Is

1/4 cup room temperature, softened butter
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
3/4 cup white, granulated sugar
2 beaten, large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup milk (I used skim)
Roasted peanuts for garnish (optional)

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350F.  Line a muffin tin with 12 liners.
2. Cream butter and peanut butter with sugar.  Add eggs and vanilla.
3. Sift flour and baking powder.  Spoon dry mixture into the 'wet,' alternating with the milk.
4. Pour batter into tin, sprinkle tops with nuts if desired.

5. Bake for 20-25 minutes until a toothpick is extracted 'clean.'


Peanut Butter Frosting

Adapted from Epicurious


1 cup powdered sugar
3/4 cup creamy peanut butter
1/4 cup softened butter (half of a stick)
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
milk as needed (I used one tablespoon, you may need more)

1. Beat powdered sugar, peanut butter, butter, and vanilla until smooth
2. Add milk if needed until frosting is spreadable.

Autopsy shot





Friday, November 25, 2011

Happy Black Friday!

The first responsibility of a good food blogger to her readership is to post new recipes.

This creates a dilemma around the holidays, given that the cardinal rule of special occasion cooking is thus: NEVER try a new recipe the day before an event.  So for Thanksgiving, I decided to bake three 'tried and tested' loaves, and to try only one new, but safe-ish pumpkin bread recipe as a compromise.


I made some of my foolproof buttery cornbread and sweet potato bread.


The pumpkin bread is in the foreground, and my easy molasses bread is strewn behind it.

I suppose that the Hollywood ending to my Thanksgiving tale of baking should be that my audience rolled on the floor in a cornbread-laced ecstasy.

But truly, my family has never 'done' Thanksgiving well. Thanksgiving is supposed to be this (overheard at my yoga studio): "I can't wait to have Aunt Tillie's stuffed mushrooms!  I only get to eat them once a year!"

My Thanksgiving memories are more random. Getting a chocolate turkey-shaped lollypop after leaving my favorite restaurant with my mom, dad, and grandmother as a child (only my grandmother ordered turkey, which I attribute to her heavy smoking).  I did, uncharacteristically order a traditional turkey dinner one year at another restaurant, the West End Manor (a darkly-lit Italian restaurant with red vinyl seats, Broadway tunes playing in the background, and smoky, from-scratch tomato sauce I couldn't appreciate at age seven). I didn't eat the turkey but I felt I had 'pulled one over on my mother' because the dinner contained sweet potatoes with marshmallows and real, crunchy cranberry sauce.  Like eating s'mores and pie, even before dessert! Eating out was way cooler than going to my aunt's or uncle's, which meant mandatory turkey and weird, hard Pepperidge Farm cookies rather than pies baked on-premises at the restaurant.

I also remember wearing a crushed brown velvet dress that made me feel both seasonal and beautiful one year to Thanksgiving dinner, and finally learning how to 'latch-hook' a rug from a kit while watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.  Of course, the rug's design was of a rainbow spiraling from a bright red heart.  I am a child of the 80s, after all.

I did ride earlier in the day on Thanksgiving, and I firmly believe that every day one rides is a good day. So, while you won't get any traditional, perfect Thanksgiving memories on this blog, I can offer this recipe for
pumpkin bread.

Of course, Thanksgiving is over and you may be pumpkin-ed out.  But you can always bake a loaf for a quick breakfast before you camp out in front of a Wall-Mart.  Or perhaps Wall Street, wherever your political proclivities may be.  Like I said, it's a very forgiving recipe.  Unlike the baker.

Although I am genuinely thankful that my problems are so minor and that my angst about my family is so mercifully trivial.

Pumpkin Bread


2 cups white granulated sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
3 large beaten eggs
1 15-ounce can of pumpkin
1 teaspoon vanilla

3 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup raisins

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Oil or butter and flour two 8x4 inch loaf pans
2. Mix sugar, oil, eggs, pumpkin and vanilla together. Sift flour, spices, salt, and baking powder. Spoon the dry mixture into the wet.  Fold in nuts and raisins.
3. Bake for approximately 1 hour until a toothpick can be extracted clean.  Cool for 10-15 minutes before removing from pans.

Monday, November 21, 2011

"Drop ‘em!” Cook's Illustrated Drop Biscuits



More years ago than I care to remember, when I was in my late teens, I was obsessed with Law & Order for about a year.  At the time, my life was a chaotic blur, and when I was depressed, one of the few things I enjoyed was propping myself up in front of the TV and watching L&O's neat sequence of scenes every night on the Arts & Entertainment network. Each act in the crime tragedy would be perfectly punctuated with the infamous 'da-dum' sound that mimics a cell door slamming shut.


I don't watch TV now, to be honest.  I haven't even seen a single episode of Glee, or CSI, or anything like that, not because I'm a snob, but because I'm trying to pack my life with activities that take me out into the world (riding, yoga, even baking) and I spend most of my work day staring at a screen, so 'ooh, more passive screen time!' is not my idea of leisure.

But I did love Law & Order. I loved its infinite predictability.  I loved how it would always open with two  hard-bitten cops who would make cynical jests about the dead victim, followed by the search (which always involved more brainwork than car chases), followed by the trial. The possible conviction of the defendant would always hinge upon a legal issue that was complicated enough to seem realistic but not so complicated a layperson couldn't understand it.  Usually, the case would revolve around a notorious crime ripped from the headlines, but the ending would be sufficiently different from real life that it would take the viewer by surprise--and presumably so Dick Wolf, the show's producer, couldn't get sued.

When I say I loved Law & Order, though, I mean only one particular incarnation of the show--when Chris Noth and Jerry Orbach played the detectives Mike Logan and Lennie Briscoe.  Is it possible for men to have chemistry in a completely non-sexual way?  Because they did. Mike was an emotional yet fiercely intelligent Irish cop who always wore a sexy leather jacket when it was cold.  Lennie was a recovered alcoholic with a grown daughter and a ethically flexible, worldly attitude.  There would be choice references to their personal life--an emotional expression on Noth's face during a crime, a meeting with Lenny and his daughter at the racetrack--just enough to tantalize the imagination, without revealing too much. Emotional striptease in the style of Gypsy Rose Lee.

Of course, because of Law & Order, I briefly thought I wanted to BE a lawyer.  But really, what I wanted was to PLAY a detective beside Chris Noth as an ACTOR.  I would be this kind of over-educated type who had become a detective after graduating from college.  He would rob me of my idealism, show me the ropes, but gradually come to respect my intelligence.  Then we would have hot sex together after a particularly trying night of investigating.

The first cooking show I ever watched with any regularity was a natural extension of my love of Law & Order.  It was called America's Test Kitchen, the television incarnation of the famously anal cooking magazine Cook's Illustrated.

Like Law & Order, America's Test Kitchen begins with a crime--the host, Christopher Kimball will show some sort of monstrous version of a popular dish, like a hideously heavy cake or a gooey lasagna.  Then, there are the investigatory sequences where he, and his trusted partner (usually an impish blonde woman who expresses great enthusiasm for butter) deconstruct the crime, and find the best ingredients for the dish.  Often, they explain the laborious process in the test kitchen of trying 9, 756 different recipes to arrive at the perfect consistency of frosting on the cake or getting crispy skin on fried chicken.  Expert witnesses are called in like their 'equipment guru' to give further insight (kind of like the culinary version of the forensic psychologists on Law & Order). Then, there is the trial, or the making of the dish, followed by the verdict when Kimball and Co. declare the recipe to be 'correct.'

There is much that is annoying about ATK--the idea that there is one 'best' way to make a recipe, the focus on national supermarket brand products, the fussiness of the techniques combined with a fear of 'fancy' food, spices and astringent flavors--however, for simple foods, like cookies and biscuits, their recipes are reliable.  They work.

This drop biscuit recipe, which, unlike many of the ATK recipes is available on the web for free (I avoid paying for their recipes by simply taking their books out of my local library). It is a good example of a recipe so easy you can't believe it comes out as well as it does.  With no rolling at all, it makes a flaky, tasty biscuit.  And I am assuming many of you right now are too stressed out about cooking a turkey to even think of rolling out biscuits and keeping the dough at the perfect temperature.

I am not going to reprint the recipe, out of food blogger etiquette, since I made it EXACTLY as written, for fear of being assassinated by Chris Kimball in my sleep. (Other than 'making' buttermilk by curdling skim milk with a tablespoon of white vinegar per cup of milk). After all, Logan and Briscoe are no longer on the job to find out the source of my early demise.   Just read it here. And make it.  And don't stress.


And have some butter.  Butter always makes you feel better.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Because it is butter, because it is my heart: Buttery 'New England-style' Cornbread





There are many bad reasons to choose a school, but as proud as I am to have graduated from Wesleyan University, I have to say that I used one of the worst 'deciding factors' of all time: Wesleyan offered singles to all of its incoming freshman (which were called 'frosh,' in appropriately gender-neutral language). I had no desire to share a room--I had been raised as an only child and was never complimented for playing well with others my own age.

However, had I not chosen a school that offered singles to its students, given my personality, the transitional stresses I experienced in my first year of college would likely have been far worse.

Although it could simply have been that Wesleyan knew the types of students it attracted all too well.

The two foolish girls who did voluntarily select a double in Butterfield C, the name of my first dorm, literally almost tore themselves apart in a titanic clash of opposites. Picture a moody, withdrawn urban hipster thrust into the same living quarters as a wholesome drama major, still breaking in her new Doc Martens the first week of school.

The tormented Shu Mei would take twelve hours to get up the courage to write eight tortured words for a paper due the next day, and rage at her roommate.

One night, she actually put on her roommate's clothes, and went running down the hall, imitating the girl, shrieking: "I'm Carrie!  Look at me!  I'm soooo cool in my flannel!  I'm so fucking happy all of the fucking time!  So fucking happy!" Shu Mei was nice to me because of my inoffensively moody and self-hating aura, although the fact that she sometimes heard Broadway music coming from my closed, single door meant that she could never really trust me.

The one thing I didn't miss at college, was home-cooked meals.  Everyone complained, but I found the cafeteria food to be much better than what I was used to at home. And many days, that first year, what got me out of bed was not the hunger for knowledge, but the hunger for the buttery corn muffins--and the oatmeal and bran muffins--waiting for me at the cafeteria.  I would stash as many  muffins as I could in a hidden Tupperware container, along with handfuls of individually wrapped packets of butter and often eat the muffins for lunch or a snack, when my carb-stoked blood sugar was crashing.

It's said that we usually make poorer nutritional choices when we eat alone, and in my experience that is certainly true.  In company, I would never have selected crusty-topped corn muffins with several pats of butter as my entree. Alone, I would open up the softened packet and press the muffin to the butter to coat its surface and dive right into an ecstasy of saturated yellow fat...although I also liked eating muffins with cold butter, too.  At that point, however, you are pretty much freebasing butter because you need several pats to cover the whole muffin. 

But it was good that I was alone, because that meant I was not rooming with Carrie or Shu Mei.

Good cornbread is like eating pure butter or sunshine, even without any additional spread. However, this cornbread is so good, I strongly suggest you consume it with others.  In fact, I suggest a crowd, at Thanksgiving, to limit your consumption to sociable levels. It is a true New England-style cornbread--light and fluffy, rather than dense and designed to sop up chili like Texas-style cornbread.

If you eat it alone, you might be too tempted.....



Not to leave well enough alone and to butter....
And to butter...to your solitary heart's contentment...

Buttery 'New-England-style' Cornbread

Ingredients

Adapted from All Recipes

2/3 cups melted butter
1 cup white, granulated sugar
3 beaten large eggs
1 2/3 cups of whole milk
2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup white cornmeal
5 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 400F. Although I usually say to use parchment, for this recipe I oiled a 9X13 pan, so the cornbread would have a nice 'crust.'
2. Incorporate the butter, sugar, eggs and milk in a bowl.
3. Sift the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt. Spoon the sifted mixture into the 'wet' ingredients, stirring until the batter is incorporated (it's okay if the batter is slightly lumpy).
4. Pour the batter into the oiled pan.  Bake for 22-25 minutes until a toothpick can be withdrawn 'clean.'  Cut and serve. 

Extra butter is suggested but optional.


Sunday, November 13, 2011

So big on chocolate: Three Musketeers Cupcakes

 "I love French food."

"You've never really had French food," said my mother.  She explained that the French liked to use odd and cheap cuts of meat with special sauces and marinades to make them flavorful.  She also told me about snails, frog's legs ("which supposedly taste like chicken") and sweetbreads ("which aren't what they sound like.")

She pointed out that the only non-desserts I consumed with any willingness were hot dogs, McNuggets, and pizza.  And the occasional slice of pepperoni, liverwurst, or provolone cheese.

"But I love chocolate mousse," I protested. It was true.  I could live on the stuff.  And eclairs.

 As a kid, pretty much my only 'healthy' preference was the fact that I liked Three Musketeers bars, which are slightly less fattening thanks to their whipped chocolate center. I also developed a fondness for Flyte bars in the UK, which has a similar texture.

Perhaps I burned some calories, running around my living room, pretending to be the men on the wrapper of Three Musketeers bars. 

I never had normal crushes on actors. Oh, how I wanted to be loved by Errol Flynn, as he fought Basil Rathbone to the death in The Adventures of Robin Hood, one of the old movies I loved to watch as  I sat on my parent's couch in the weekend.  I also kind of had a crush on Basil Rathbone too, which is even stranger.

Much later, when I was in the UK, I took a course in stage fighting and discovered that actually using those weapons, even in pretense, is far, far more difficult than eating a candy bar. In a spectacular, humiliating finale, I did pass the final exam (a staged combat) but was so inept that my partner did not pass. In other words, my lack of coordination made someone look even worse than he actually was at swordplay.

At some point, I would like to take another crack at the rapier and dagger.  Until then, I will simply have to find ways to make use of left-over Halloween Three Musketeers candy.

An interesting factoid before you bake: Three Musketeers got their name not because the creator was a great Alexander Dumas fan (although why wouldn't he be) but because the original bars came in three flavors per bar (vanilla, chocolate, strawberry). The vanilla and strawberry was phased-out during wartime rationing, although now the bars come in multiple flavors again. I wonder why Mars doesn't bring back a vintage version of the candy bar, incidentally.

Three Musketeers Cupcakes


Ingredients

1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
2 large, beaten eggs
1 1/4 cups of full fat Greek yogurt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cups unsweetened cocoa powder (I used Hershey's Dark)
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup dark chocolate chips
12-18 refrigerated mini Three Musketeers bars

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Line a muffin tin 12-18 cupcake liners.
2. Blend the oil, eggs, yogurt, and vanilla. Sift the flower, cocoa, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together.
3. Incorporate the wet mixture into the dry.  Fold in the chocolate chips.
4. Fill the muffin tins with the batter. Cut the mini candy bars in half, and put each half, cut side up, into each muffin tin.
5. Bake until a toothpick can be extracted clean, approximately 30-35 minutes.  The timing will be affected by the size muffin tin you choose to use.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Butternut squash bread contains neither butter nor nuts (discuss)



When I saw this recipe for squash tea bread from Eating Well, I immediately did a double-take.  Having lived in the UK for nearly two years, hearing the word 'squash' immediately conjured up a different association with 'tea.'





Namely, a fruity, rather overly-sweet drink.  A bit like Hi-C or Capri Sun for those of you who have never lived across the pond. Squash for tea?  That would be like drinking Hawaiian Punch from fine china!

To add to the confusion, tea  in the UK can be a drink, a light meal of cakes, sandwiches, and tea (think 'high tea') or a synonym for dinner itself, at least in the Midlands and the North of England where I lived for most of my time there, before moving to London.

So was this bread made with orange soda and hot tea?  Was this an orange soda bread for high tea? Or was it a bread designed to be eaten with the meal known as 'tea?'  Tea the meal, or tea as in 'tea and cucumber sandwiches with biscuits?'

A quick glance of the recipe discerned that it was a butternut squash quick bread recipe designed to be eaten at tea-time.  

Although there is still linguistic confusion--butternut squash contains neither butter nor nuts...just imagine how lovely it would be if you could pick off a fruit or vegetable from a vine, slice it open and find oozing, melted butter or peanut butter within...

And don't even get me started on how for many years while reading National Velvet, I was unimpressed by the heroine's fondness for Mars Bars (I never liked them), only to discover that in England, Mars Bars are a totally different and more delicious concoction--more like a Milky Way.

The distinctions between the names of UK and American candy are very perplexing.  For example, Smarties are nondescript, horrible discs of sweet nothingness in the US--the 'coal' of the trick-or-treat bag.

But in the UK, they are discs of lovely, chocolatey goodness far superior to M&Ms.

I have no more words, as words often confuse more than they illuminate when it comes to food (as any reader of local restaurant reviews can tell you).  Here is the bread I made, not the Eating Well version....an ultra-dense, almost pate-like quick bread.

Ingredients

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1 teaspoon cinnamon

2 cups butternut squash puree (I used canned)
2 large beaten eggs
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup honey

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350F.  Oil and line a 8X4 inch pan with parchment.
2. Sift the flour, baking soda, sugar, salt and spices together
3. Mix the squash, eggs, oil, and honey.  Gradually incorporate the dry mixture.
4. Bake for 60-75 minutes, until a toothpick can be extracted 'clean.'