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 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.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Lowfat brownies: All good things come to those who wait...

Much of what I ate during the late 1980s and early 1990s could only be tenuously described as 'food' and better classified as what Michael Pollan calls 'edible food-like substances.'

I recall slurping down strawberry-flavored Slim Fast, chewing on the McLean, eating Healthy Choice French Bread pizzas 'cheese first,' and many, many slices of Weight Watchers cookie dough-flavored desserts. I consumed Tasti-D-Lite as if it was a food group. Not coincidentally, like many people who survived on low-calorie snacks, my weight climbed the more diet foods I consumed--because the more I ate them, the less satisfied I felt. (And there is even some scientific evidence that eating artificial sweeteners can slow down your metabolism, which confirms what I always suspected, when my weight refused to budge even when I wasn't overeating due to a aspartame-fused craving).

 I have never begun a diet in January (I find the cold winter so depressing that just going through the motions of life can be dispiriting on some days). But as an adult, I am always trying to eat more healthfully--plus pretty much all of my friends are on 'New Year's Resolution' diets right now, even those with the metabolisms of jackrabbits.  So a lowfat, diet-friendly treat seemed called for.

These brownies are extremely low in fat, and even a generous 'cut' of the pan yielding 8 servings will give you a brownie of approximately 250 calories.  Even more importantly, they contain no artificial ingredients.

I could say 'omg! These are exactly like the fudgy, crusty brownies you make with three eggs and a stick of butter' but that would be a lie. They are quite intensely chocolatey, however, and are nice as a snack, with some lowfat Greek or soy yogurt, or even a cup of coffee in the morning.  And make sure to take note of the warning at the end of the recipe....patience is required. With dieting, with all acts of self-improvement, and when making lowfat brownies...

Lowfat, natural brownies


4 squares of unsweetened chocolate (such as Baker's)
3/4 of a cup of unsweetened applesauce (the finer the puree the better--you can use Mott's but unsweetened baby applesauce works even better, since it's usually more finely strained)
1 cup of sugar (I guess, if you're really determined, you could use Splenda, but I wouldn't worry about it too much)
2 eggs (Use 2 regular eggs, not egg whites)
1 cup white whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon to 1 1/2 teaspoons of vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt


1.Preheat oven to 350F.  Line a 9 or 8-inch square or round pan with parchment or foil.

2. Melt chocolate in the microwave or over a simmering pot of water using a bain-marie. The chocolate doesn't have to be liquid, but it should be soft.  Mix in the applesauce with the melted chocolate, then fold in the sugar, beaten eggs, flour, vanilla and salt.

3. Bake for 30 minutes, until still slightly 'underdone' in the center.

4. Cool for an hour--resist the temptation to dig in! Chill OVERNIGHT in the refrigerator.

I stress the OVERNIGHT component very strongly.  A general tip for ALL lowfat baking--quite often, the baked goods are much, much better the day after, especially when chilled. I've heard various explanations for this, but it does seem, based upon my experience, that the flavors have a chance to 'settle' a bit, and the flour is better able to absorb the ingredients.

When I tasted these after 1 hour of cooling and 1 hour of chilling, I thought they were just 'okay' but after an overnight chill, I though they were quite good. And I even tasted one or two 'leftovers' from the freezer, and thought that this gave them an additional, nice fudge-like consistency and flavor.

Waiting also has a dietary advantage, because it means if you make the brownies properly, you're not allowed to stuff them in your mouth as soon as they come out of the oven. As we all know, as soon as you start to 'even off' that pan of freshly-baked brownies, you start to make little rationalizations like 'how many calories could that crusty bit in the corner REALLY be'....

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Dairy-free Brownies

“In theory I could change a tire.”   

How many members of the Swarthmore debate team does it take to change a flat tire? I don’t know, but I do remember how, back in my college debating days, there was a legendary story about how a team from one of the most prestigious liberal art schools in the nation had a ‘blow out,’ and stared at the collapsed, ragged surface of the tire in a confused and muddled heap of misery. One team member, a philosophy major if I recall correctly, explained how, while he had never done so in practice, he did understand the theoretical process behind tire-changing.

When I was getting my master's at Harvard Divinity School, my professor of comparative  religion told a story of a very esteemed academic colleague of his who went to Japan to study Zen with a great, master teacher. This academic was given a koan to meditate upon, a fairly common practice. Koans are a kind of spiritual mental puzzle in Zen practice, along the lines of: 

A monk once asked master Chao-chou, "Does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?"
Chao-chou said, "Mu"

The professor thought for about a  half hour and proudly went to the Zen master and explained the koan, all the while thinking well, that was easy.

Thwack! The Zen master hit the professor--like the man was a schoolboy from a Dickensian novel--using the keisaku the master always carried to rouse people when their attention wandered during meditation.

“If you want to think like that, go back to the academy!” he said.

What does this have to do with New Year’s Resolutions?  No matter what you resolve, I think for a resolution to be meaningful, it has to involve action. I have some life resolutions—they were not made on New Year’s—and they do not have a focused end date. But what matters more than the goal itself is the small steps I take to reach that goal.

I’ve made some progress in 2010. Of course, I am hoping for a Great Leap Forward in 2011. A flash of insight?  Not really. I'm hoping for publication and a stronger and more coordinated body, yes.  But these grand resolutions are meaningless unless I set weekly goals to send out queries and buy some heavier weights.  And hit the pavement, stable, and yoga studio.  Although I’m still wimpy enough to be glad that my yoga has no ‘attention stick’ in the back closets.  Mu, indeed!

Oh yes, and despite going to HDS, I’m still pretty low on the Enlightenment totem pole, so don’t even ask me to explain that koan.  

So I’m not a Zen master, nor do I play one on TV, but I do make fairly decent brownies. These brownies  use unsweetened chocolate without milk solids. They are dairy-free if you use a vegan substitute rather than butter for the ‘lipid’ component. 

Dairy-Free (Got Mu?) Brownies


4 ounces (4 squares) of unsweetened chocolate (I used Baker’s unsweetened chocolate squares)
¾ of a cup (6 tablespoons or 1 and ½ sticks) vegan, non-dairy butter replacement, such as Earth Balance
1 cup white whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon salt
3 eggs (why this recipe isn’t vegan)
2 cups of granulated sugar
1 teaspoon of vanilla


1.      Preheat the oven to 350F. Prepare a 9x9 square or round pan, lining it with foil or parchment paper.

2.      Heat and combine the chocolate and fake butter (of course, you can use real butter if that’s what you prefer and don't care about the recipe being dairy free) over a bain-marie or in a microwave. Despite being Queen of the Microwave, I usually use the bain-maire.

3.      Sift the flour with the salt. Beat the eggs in a separate bowl. Add the eggs, sugar, and vanilla to the flour and stir. Add the chocolate and butter mixture and stir.

4.      Bake for 30 minutes. Center should still be slightly wet. Cool for at least an hour. Chill for an hour to fully set. Serve at room temperature.

 Note: Unsweetened Baker's chocolate is made at a facility that does process dairy, so if you're highly allergic, you might need to use a different brand.

Also, dear readers: I'm interested in any 'vegan-izing' suggestions to replace the eggs--I've tried using flax and fruit purees in brownies and wasn't happy with the results.