Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Irish Freckle Bread

I once heard it said that if you were to write an Irish cookbook, it would have two pages: a potato on one page and a tall glass of Guinness on the other. 

Obviously, that's not fair, especially in the New Ireland, given how many wonderful chefs that have been produced by the country, as well as all of the butter, milk, and meat products to come from the very fertile farming region.

However, in the case of my own Irish family, I have to say that the stereotype rings pretty true. My Irish great-grandmother was remembered for her frugality. She was able to make a rasher of bacon stretch to season an entire pot of cabbage. She lived until age ninety and had a pretty sparse diet.  Lots of vegetables, not a lot of meat, not many sweets. Although she did always keep a coffee can of solidified bacon drippings in the kitchen.

 When my maternal grandmother was healthy, she loved to entertain, but that usually meant presenting a 'smorgasbord' of cheeses, dried fruits, and cold cuts.  They were very good cheeses, dried fruits and cold cuts, but no cooking was involved.  My grandmother was the type of person who would very proudly defrost a Sara Lee cake right in front of you for dessert, or offer you candy or Breyer's ice cream. Or mention your weight. Or all three.

Incidentally: small rant.  For people who don't like to cook, I never understand why more of them don't 'smorgasborg' when entertaining.  No one recounts with horror being confronted with some nice cheese, cold cuts, and cut-up vegetables for a meal.  Everyone remembers the horrible tuna fish casserole with shredded wheat or the half-raw chicken, presented with the prideful words: "I don't like to cook, and even if it isn't good, at least it was done quickly.'

On the rare occasion when my grandmother did cook, she revealed her Irish roots. I remember being slightly terrified of 'shepherd's pie'--which to my eyes was a strangely bland yet horrid gloppy mass of stewed chicken, topped with mashed potatoes.  Or she'd cook pot roast with carrots and plain, bland stewed red bliss potatoes.  I wouldn't touch such stuff and my mother would glare at me. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were made for shepherd's pie days.  When we all went out to Perkins together, we were so much happier.

I never heard of Irish freckle bread until I read about it on the Internet.  It's easy to see how this quick bread originated--it makes use of leftover tea, and my great-grandmother would be proud of this refusal to waste anything.

Like all folk recipes, there are many different versions out there, including several that use yeast. The only requirement is that the bread contains dried fruit to 'freckle' the bread. 

This is my interpretation. I brewed some orange herbal tea, to give the bread some additional notes of flavor, and added a cinnamon sugar topping. I also, in deference to the spirit of frugality that is at the heart of the bread, only used raisins, given that the King Arthur version with dates, currants, prunes, as well as raisins and would have made this an incredibly expensive and therefore decidedly un-Irish bread in spirit.

It is worth noting that a similar technique of seeping dried fruit in water to add moisture to a bread is also used in date nut bread.

Orange Freckle Bread
--yields 12-18 slices--
1 cup of strong orange herbal tea
3 cups of raisins
2 cups of all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon of baking powder
1 cup dark brown sugar
1/ 2 teaspoon of salt
1 egg
1 teaspoon cinnamon + 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1.      Preheat oven to 325F.  Grease a 8-inch round cake pan.
2.      Pour the cooled tea over the raisins.
3.      Sift the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar together.  Pour the raisin-tea mixture into the dry, stir, incorporate the egg.
4.      Pour into the pan, top with the cinnamon sugar mixture.
5.      Bake for 1 hour 10 minutes, until a toothpick can be extracted clean.  Serve like a cake, in slices.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Mint Chocolate Chip Cookies

You know those awkward sorts of moments when you realize--hey, I went to elementary school with that person?  That person who was accused of...well, it is really not important. Suffice it to say that someone I knew as a child was recently accused of a terrible crime in the press. Drugs and guns were involved. You probably haven't read the story, since it's a relatively minor back-of-the-tabloid type of story.  But still.

My memories of the girl are mostly vague and visual.  I remember a sleepy-eyed, heavy-lipped, pale, freckled girl with long, dark hair.  Unlike most of us who were fashion victims with neon sweatshirts, crunchy sprayed curls, and nine million plastic bracelets on our wrists during the 80s, she was always more tastefully dressed in jewel-colored cowl-necked sweaters and black leggings.  She wore her hair straight. She had beautiful collar bones. She was not expensively dressed, but put together in a way that made you think, in retrospect, "hey, the 80s could come back as a fashion decade." She never got a bad perm.  She was nice to everyone and I don't remember her ever participating in the evil, cliquish politics of prepubescent girlhood.

Yes, she was nice.  I remember very little specific about that 'niceness,' though. I remember her mother used to work for a local university, and my mother said she was jealous because she said that meant your kids could go to college there for free but she liked her mother very much all the same. She was the only girl to get skim milk in kindergarten, when we ordered our little containers of warm milk that would sit for hours on a shelf until we consumed them through tiny straws.  Her mother used to send her with a salad to lunch in fifth grade with the dressing in a separate container and bacon bits in another as well as normal-type food. The girl liked salad as well as the junk food the rest of us inhaled. I thought that was cool, although not cool enough to ask for a salad myself, only the bacon bits to put on the few veggies I was forced to consume at home.

She may have come to one of my early birthday parties.  I am pretty sure she liked the color purple. She was good at math.  She wore a beret at one point, a raspberry-colored one like the Prince song, I think. Oh, and I also sort of remember that we once did a craft in second grade involving poking an orange with a needle and sticking cloves into the flesh, and some of the boys thought it would be witty to painlessly stick the needles beneath their fingers, walk around and freak the other kids out by making monster noises, and she was the only girl who would give that a try.  But she stopped when the teacher noticed what they were doing.

Of these scattered memories, the only thing that is perhaps of any significance is that she was nice.

In fiction, everything is foreshadowing and there are no insignificant details.  Someone kicks a dog in the first page of a novel and turns out to be a villain in the end.  Or, there is a deliberate reversal of your expectations and the poignant pluckiness of the main character seems tragic, foolish, and fragile.

In life, we read back into anecdotes when we hear about what sounds like a fitting end to a narrative--the gain and loss of one's reputation--but in my memories, there is none of that in my memories.  Just a nice, pretty little girl with a kind of precocious sophistication and charm, who was never mean, and always had good things to say about other people.

I have no intelligent comments about the accusations--I haven't had a conversation with her since I could get a cheap ticket to go to the movies, based on my age--I just feel a sense of sadness, regardless of how it plays out.

On a more positive note, these cookies have something unexpected in them.  But I am giving you a hint in the picture, like hanging a gun on the wall that will go off in the last act.

These are mint chocolate cookies...seasoned with mint tea.  Yes, mint tea. There are surprises everywhere--good and bad.

 I found the recipe through NPR.   I made them with only a few minor modifications.

Mint Chocolate Chip Cookies

--yields 24 cookies--


1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon Mint Medley (or other mint) loose tea

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (I used Hershey's Special Dark)
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted melted butter
2 beaten eggs

1 tablespoon strongly brewed Mint Medley (or other mint) tea

1/2 cup bittersweet chocolate chips


1. Sift flour, sugars, tea, baking powder, salt, and dry tea.
2. Mix butter, cocoa, eggs, and liquid tea.  Fold dry into wet mixture. Add chips.
3. Chill mixture for at least an hour, preferably more.
4. Preheat oven to 350F. Line two baking sheets with parchment. Scoop cookies in 1-inch balls onto sheets.  Cookies will not spread much.  Bake for 10 minutes.  Cookies will look underdone.  Remove from sheets after cooling for 10 minutes.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Dry-roasted almonds (or cashews)

One of my favorite snacks is Wegmans Roasted Mixed Nuts.  It has no peanuts, plenty of cashews, and just the right balance of macadamia nuts, almonds, and walnuts...with a few Brazil nuts and hazelnuts to liven things up, texturally. It's a snack that is low in carbs and high in heart-healthy fats.

The nuts are salted and roasted in (I quote from the package): "peanut, sunflower, soybean and/or sunflower seed oils."  I don't have high blood pressure or eat processed foods, so I don't care about the salt, but I began to wonder: should I care about the vegetable oils?   It always seems like the super-duper health conscious people I know eat raw almonds.   Am I a poser because I eat the generic form of Planters? There is a woman in my yoga class who came back to practicing one week after knee replacement surgery and is popping handstands.  She said she roasted lots of vegetables for the week she was 'out' and couldn't shop.  I think she eats a handful of beans and one hard-boiled egg for dinner and probably doesn't eat nuts at all but I am pretty sure that if she does eat nuts she eats six raw almonds like medicine.

In an effort to become a perfectly healthy specimen, and hoping that if I eat the right combination of foods I will magically run a 7 minute mile and become a brilliant horseback rider, I bought some raw almonds.  And because I am weak, some raw cashews as well.   Cashews are unfashionable, but I love them.

They tasted like stones.

Then I remembered that the 'raw nut' advocates I know are also the people who say things like: "I went on this low-fat, low-protein juice cleanse and I didn't lose any weight and totally broke out and I'm feeling weirdly shaky...yet I can just feel myself getting rid of my TOXINS."

Desperate for something to do with my new rock collection, I consulted Chef Google and found this recipe for roasted almonds from Elana's Pantry.

It was like magic.  Twelve minutes at 350F and inedible pebbles were transformed into crispy, toasty tasty nuts.

Needless to say, I won't be going raw any time soon, but I like the idea of toasting my own nuts and look forward to more 'toasty' experiments in the future.

There are many toasted nut recipes on the Internet, including some made in the microwave. My main criticism of Elana's recipe is that, despite her counseling the reader to salt the almonds afterward, not a single grain of coarse sea salt adhered to the surface of my newly-toasted nuts.  So, for unsalted dry-roasted nuts this technique is fine, but for salted nuts, I wouldn't recommend it.

Dry-Roasted Almonds (or Cashews)


10-12 ounces of  raw almonds, cashews, or other raw nut


1. Preheat oven to 350F.  Spread aluminum foil onto a cookie sheet.  Scatter nuts evenly on the foil.

2. Roast for 10-12 minutes.  Remove from oven.  Cool for approximately one hour.  Store in an air-tight container.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Cashew Butter and Jam Rice Krispie Treats

I read far too many food blogs and nutrition-oriented material on the web and I'm often reminded of George Carlin's monologue about driving. The one in which he says that there is no one who is EVER going at the 'correct'  speed--except you. Everyone going faster than you is a maniac.  Everyone going slower than you is an idiot.

Similarly with food--everyone who prides him or herself on being a home cook seems to have certain limits that seem obvious to everyone but themselves as to what constitutes 'home-cooked food.'

For some, cake mix is verboten but it's okay to use white hamburger buns so long as you make the tuna salad and the tomato soup.  Packaged cookies=one step away from Sandra Lee, unless they are pulverized into a cheesecake crust, in which all of their processed qualities mysteriously leach out into the food processor and make using the cookies okay. (Yes, I recently made my own, but I didn't make my own marshmallows for the s'mores which some of them metamorphosized into and I know some people who wouldn't dream of using *gasp* store-bought marshmallows).

In food, the analogy is as follows....

Everyone who eats more packaged food than you do and take-out=idiot. 

Everyone who insists on their food to be from scratch/healthy/of a certain expensive brand=maniac.

While I'm a pretty neurotically healthy eater I admit I have my own rules, too.  I would never ingest a Chicken McNugget--ever--while some foodie friends of mine take pride in their ability to 'appreciate' the fries at McDonald's.  However, I know other foodies think I should burn my digital camera because I love picking up an organic rotisserie chicken for dinner. For me, that is okay because it's just plain chicken, with no additives, even if I didn't turn on the oven.

So, my particular brand of Carlinesque thinking is that when I see people getting bad fast food or buying cheap white bread I think 'idiot.'  But when I'm at my yoga studio and someone tries to explain to me how they are 'vegan and 75 percent raw and how we are NATURALLY made to eat all raw foods' (despite the fact that eating raw takes so much expensive equipment), well my eyes start to glaze over and I start to think 'maniac.'

So perhaps I am the idiot (although the reason you think I am likely depends upon your own food barometer of normalcy).

To get away from all of this nonsense sometimes you just need to make a batch of Rice Krispie Treats and call it an evening.

But I have a deep, dark confession that I was hesitant to air in public until this time.

I love cashew butter more than peanut butter.

There, I said it! Of course, I adore peanut butter and have sung its praises on many occasions.  But cashew butter for me is the nut butter that is truly in the territory of 'I could eat the entire jar over the course of the entire day with a spoon.'  I know it sounds very food snobbish, particularly since I buy an organic brand of said nut butter.

Still, I urge you to give it a try.  Anything you can do with peanut butter, you can do with cashew butter.  Only it has an added smokiness and nuance that is even more complex than the best natural peanut butters possess.

Flickr: Like_the_Grand_Canyon
Eat it straight up first, but then use it to make some wonderful, salty not-too-sweet Cashew Krispies to perfectly balance your opposing foodie tendencies.

Of course, you can also make the Krispie treats (or Squares, if you are Canadian) with peanut butter.  Even almond butter.  But that would be a little crazy...

Cashew Butter and Jam Rice Krispie Treats 

--yields 9 large squares--


1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) of butter (salted or unsalted)
1/8 teaspoon salt (if using unsalted butter)
1/4 cup cashew butter
1 (10 ounce) package of marshmallows or 4 cups mini-marshmallows
5 cups Rice Krispies cereal
1/2 cup jam (I used ginger plum jam, but anything tart would work well)


1. Line a 8-inch square pan with parchment, leaving enough to overlap on the sides.

2. Butter a large saucepan to prevent burning. Brown butter on reduced heat. Add cashew butter.  Slowly add in the marshmallows, reducing the heat to low.  When melted, remove from heat and stir in cereal.  Mixture will be VERY sticky.

3. Mix until all of the cereal is coated.  Press half of mixture into the prepared pan.  With another sheet of parchment, press onto the surface of the treats to flatten.  Top with the jam. Top with the additional cereal mixture. Press firmly with the parchment again. 

4. Cool, remove from the pan and slice into nine squares.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Rice Krispie Treats: Dark chocolate salted pistachio

It didn't get much better in the 80s than finding a candy bar or a plastic treasure chest or a car in your cereal while doing the maze or the crossword puzzle on the back of the box.

 If there were cartoons playing in the background and I didn't have to go to school, I could linger a long time, watching the milk turn colors and waiting for the mailman to deliver Dyamite and Penny Power before I got out of my pink, green, and white flower-dotted pjs.

However, I always had one great cereal regret: I never got to make Rice Krispie treats.  Oh, I watched my friends make them, and ate them as snacks at Brownies.  But for some reason, my mother did not allow me to make them at home.  I think it seemed too much like 'making dessert' in a serious fashion and she would only go so far as allowing cookie and cake mixes.  Or she was afraid if I had cereal with pure marshmallows, she'd never get me to drink milk again and to eat the marginally healthier brown bits in my Lucky Charms.

On the rare occasion I've sampled processed food I used to consume frequently during that decade, I've often thought: 'you know, this doesn't taste as good as I remembered. Did they change the recipe or is it just me?' 

While my taste buds may have changed, at least when it comes to Rice Krispie treats, blogger Anna Ginsberg at Cookie Madness stumbled upon a fascinating fact...Kellogg's DID change the recipe! According to an old recipe pamphlet from the 80s, the original treats were made with four tablespoons of butter and only five cups of cereal, versus three tablespoons of butter and six cups of cereal in the current version.

So, if you have been saying: "why don't my Rice Krispie treats have that awesome, ooey-gooey moist quality I associate with the Rice Krispie treats of my youth," that is why.  The clever people at Kellogg found a way to get you to use up more cereal. 

The company must have realized that if everyone makes Rice Krispie treats with one cup of extra cereal, the company can make...well, lots more money!  (Obviously, that subscription to Penny Power was wasted). 

Anna has some other wonderful tips that have helped me ensure my Rice Krispie treats have that 'school bake sale on steroids' quality that we all covet. Brown the butter first to give it a nice, nutty texture.  Add a pinch of salt if using unsalted butter.  And use an 8-inch square pan so you can cut nice, high squares, rather than anemic, snack cake-sized rectangles, as will be yielded by a 9X11 pan.

Even kids who didn't grow up in the 1980s enjoying Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs for breakfast and who never sifted through a box of Cookie Crisp looking for the plastic toy will like these.  However, in deference to my generation's maturing palate, this is a 'grown up' version of Rice Krispie treats, with salted pistachios and dark chocolate chips to counteract the sweetness of the marshmallows.
After all, you can't recapture the past.  The current box of Rice Krispies has no toy inside.  Not even a puzzle on the back.

Cut out the pictures of future Olympic athletes ?  That's the prize?  Are you joking Kellogg?

Rice Krispie Treats: Dark Chocolate Salted Pistachio

--yields 9 large squares--


1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) of butter (salted or unsalted)
1/8 teaspoon salt (if using unsalted butter)
1 (10 ounce) package of marshmallows or 4 cups mini-marshmallows
5 cups Rice Krispies cereal
1/2 cup salted, shelled pistachios


1/4 cup pistachios
1/4 cup dark chocolate chips


1. Line a 8-inch square pan with parchment, leaving enough to overlap on the sides.

2. Butter a large saucepan to prevent burning. Brown butter on reduced heat.  Slowly add in the marshmallows, reducing the heat to low.  When melted, remove from heat and stir in cereal and the 1/2 cup of pistachios.(If you don't have a large enough pot, you can also pour the butter-marshmallow mixture into the cereal, but be aware that it will be sticky). 

3. Mix until all of the cereal is coated.  Press into the prepared pan.  With another sheet of parchment, press onto the surface of the treats to flatten.  Top with the nuts and chips.  Press firmly with the parchment again. 

4. Cool, remove from the pan and slice into nine squares.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Homemade graham crackers

There are so many varieties of graham cracker recipes on the web. Some involve rolling out the dough and using a pizza or cookie cutter to make squares.  The recipe I selected is more of an 'icebox' technique, in which the dough is patted out into rectangles, chilled, sliced and baked.  So if you're really anal and get upset if your graham crackers don't look precise and geometric, this recipe probably isn't for you.  However, if you like sturdy, crunchy cookies that don't crumble when you turn them into s'mores or slather them with peanut butter and jelly, this incarnation of the popular snack cookie from 101 Cookbooks might please you.

The Fourth of July is immanent, and while making an apple pie might seem more logical, it is one of those Linda Richman paradoxes that "nothing is as American as apple pie, yet apple pie is not American--discuss."

 I would say, instead, nothing is more American than graham crackers. The pious New Englander Sylvester Graham was a devout vegetarian and health food nut and developed the graham cracker as part of his austere dietary regime which was supposed to promote the health of the body and quell all sexual urges.  Graham was particularly obsessed with eradicating the scourges of meat, sweets, heavily spiced foods, and masturbation.  Needless to say, he probably wouldn't be the first person you'd want cater your barbeque, although you at least wouldn't have to worry what he'd do in the kitchen if you complained about the food.

However, over the years, the unsweetened graham cracker of his original conception (which probably tasted like packing material) was transformed through the wonder of industrial food processing and marketing into a quaint, sweet childhood staple.

Growing up, my first encounters with graham crackers were with the Girl Scouts. Graham crackers were one of those processed foods my mother never bought--for some reason, Ritz, Triscuits, and even Golden Grahams were okay, but graham crackers were not.

I never asked for them, anyway--they seemed to be associated with warm apple juice and Jell-O, the kinds of 'good for you but not good for you' kid snacks foisted upon me when you I really wanted a cupcake or a doughnut.  Later in life, I grew more fond of them, given that their quasi-health food status made it okay to eat them as a 'sandwich' with butter and honey or peanut butter and jelly.

As for s'mores--I have had precious few in my life.  I've never been a big marshmallow fan, and during my one trip to Girl Scout camp, I remember eating the Hershey's chocolate bars and incinerating the marshmallows on purpose until black and crunchy.

I still need to perfect my technique with making graham crackers (I apologize for the rustic appearance of the cookies, as it was my first venture).  I need to make more. So I think I will give s'mores another try. Have slather some peanut butter and on these and raise your glass of milk to Sylvester Graham, a true American original.

Graham Crackers

From 101 Cookbooks, with some slight adaptations

--yields 48 cookies--


2 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt

7 tablespoons butter, softened

1/3 cup honey
5 tablespoons 2% milk
2 tablespoons vanilla extract

3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1. Sift flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt in a bowl.  Add butter. Combine honey, milk, and vanilla in separate bowl and incorporate into the dry.  When it forms a dough ball, transfer onto a floured work surface and pat into a large, square rectangle on a floured table.  Chill 2 hours to overnight.

2.  Split chilled dough into two long rectangles and keep patting out until it forms two long, skinny rectangles.  If your dough was as sticky as mine, this may take awhile.

 3.  Chill again if necessary before slicing into cookies. Score the cookies in half and prick the halves with five pinpoints with a toothpick.  Kind of like dominoes.

 4. Sprinkle with cinnamon-sugar topping (there will be some left over).  Chill another 30-45 minutes before popping into a 350F preheated oven.

5. Bake for 25 minutes, rotating the baking sheets half-way through. Remove from the baking sheets after five minutes and cool completely.