Thursday, September 27, 2012

Apple Pie Cornbread

Yesterday was Yom Kippur, and while I don't celebrate it, I have many sins to atone for regarding apples.

When I was in grade school, my mother gave me a Red Delicious apple almost every day, and I faithfully tossed out that apple with a 'thunk' in the wastebasket.  Then I'd see if I had the required .25 to buy ice cream. This isn't a 'blame mom' post.  My attitude towards apples was quite peculiar.  I enjoyed drawing apples, and I liked apple appliqu├ęs on my clothing. I loved it when the Picture Lady profiled the artist Cezanne for our class and made my own clumsy imitations of his still lifes of apples, pears, and other fruits I refused to eat. My bookbag had a pocket that looked like an apple. I found the appearance of apples quaint and charming. I just wasn't that into fruit unless it was wrapped in dough and covered with sugar spackling.  

Every apple dessert, whether pie or a doughnut, has a slightly different character depending on the personality of the cook.  Some are slightly dry, others have a lurid, gelatinous quality.  I loved all apple pastries--everything from the finest, from-scratch pies made at a local bakery to apple-filled powdered doughnuts to the deep-friend McDonald's hand pies. 

The lack of enthusiasm for the fruit was partially physical--I had trouble chewing apples. And apples were said to be medicinal. "An apple a day keeps the doctor away." That alone is a turn-off. They are the fruit equivalent of the guy your mom really wants you to date.  

Ironically, in my 20s, I would completely reverse my opinion on apples. For four straight years, I had the same breakfast: oatmeal, accompanied by a cut-up apple or two, softened to chunky applesauce texture in the microwave, topped with apple pie spice. 

This cornbread is a kind of a bridge between the tricked-out Hostess incarnation of apple pie and the raw fruit itself. It uses unsweetened applesauce and cut-up chunks of uncooked apple,so it's on the low-sugar end of the Great Apple Continuum of baked goods.  It would be perfect to serve with chili, or with chunks of cheddar cheese to someone who likes fruit but isn't much of a dessert person.

Plus, it blends two classic fall American treats: apple pie and cornbread.  And you can't get more American than that, unless you use the loaf as a football before you eat it.

Although I've always found the phrase "as American as motherhood and apple pie" to be peculiar because there are so many  cultures that have apple pie in their repertoire, while many other American desserts (s'mores, hummingbird cake, red velvet cake, pumpkin pie) are much more parochial in character.  But then again, the phrase also suggests that only Americans have mothers.

Apple Pie Cornbread


1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup cornmeal
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
4 teaspoons cinnamon sugar
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup oil
1/2 cup whole milk
3/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
1 teaspoon vanilla

1 chopped, cored and peeled very small apple (I used a Macintosh).



1. Preheat oven to 350F. Oil and/or line an 8X4 loaf pan with parchment.
2. Sift flour, cornmeal, baking soda and baking powder and spices together.
3. Mix honey, oil, milk, applesauce, and vanilla in another bowl.  Incorporate dry mixture into wet mixture.
4.  Pour 1/2 mixture into loaf pan, top with chopped apple. Pour the other 1/2 of the batter into the pan, then top with the rest of the fresh apple.
5. Bake for approximately 60-70 minutes until a toothpick can be extracted clean.  Make sure to 'test' in an area of the bread, not in a part with the apple!  Cool and serve.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Picky eaters

Flickr: bethany actually
I was recently talking with a friend of mine about getting more serious about cooking.  There was a class on cooking with apples I am thinking about taking and she said.  "I hate apples."

My first thought was: who hates apples?
Then I remembered that when I was a little kid, I didn't like apples very much.  I would eat the skin and then throw away the white part. Partially because I had a very small mouth and tiny teeth (no jokes please) and I had trouble biting into the fruit. I disliked bagels for the same reason: I couldn't chew them.

Was I a picky eater?  I remember every mealtime being a struggle. My parents ate out a lot and there were countless meals which ended with me playing with my food, waiting for dessert. My parents expected me to leap from the womb fully formed, with an adult palate, eating salad, broiled steak, and fish and rejecting dessert as they did. Instead, I loved hot dogs, chicken nuggets, birthday cake (with extra flowers made of frosting), pancakes, and ice cream sandwiches.  The less the item resembled food in its raw and natural state, the more I wanted it.  Although I didn't have a particularly large appetite as a small child, I don't think I willingly ingested anything green until I was thirteen (and that was a green, er, apple). Not counting chocolate chip mint ice cream, of course.  I'm not even a big fan of mint chocolate, but sugar was sugar.

Picky?  I happily devoured liverwurst and provolone cheese, two foods that most adults won't touch. I adored fruitcake. I didn't like potatoes or pasta because I found them too bland, not too spicy. Back then I thought of a picky eater as the little skinny girl who went to a video game party with saltines and peanut butter because she wouldn't eat pizza.

Regarding what 'makes' a picky eater, I can say with some authority that the best way to generate a debate on a food discussion board is to post something about having to 'feed' one, and you'll be subject to 728 posts about how awful parents are who have picky eaters and how the posters were 'forced' to finish everything on their plates. 

Well, as I said, I got apples and creamed spinach as afterschool snacks and my mom didn't even keep sugar in the cupboard, but I still ended up with a weight problem at age ten, and it was well after graduate school that I discovered "hey, I feel much less crappy if I eat something besides cupcakes and candy all day."

Now I'm a health nut and literally every single food I consume on an average day I would have refused to have smelled as a child.

I have read that very young children will select a naturally balanced diet if left 'alone' but most scientific literature seems to suggest that we evolved as a species to have a strong preference for sweetness. It makes sense: poisons tend to be bitter, so evolution would favor people who like sweet things as kids. Their ancestors were more likely to spit out the poisoned berries than chow down on them.

I'm no scientist, but I did study literature, and in an era well before the evolution of the Happy Meal kids loved sugar.  Read this excerpt from one 1798 manual about how to 'manage' servants:

"Now, Master," said a fond nurse to her favorite boy, after having given him sugared bread and butter for supper, "now master, kiss me...when mistress asks you what you have had for supper, you'll say, bread and butter, for you have had bread and butter." to its spoiling his teeth, he does not care about his teeth, and he sees no immediate change in them: therefore he concludes that his mother's orders are capricious, and his nurse loves him better than his mother does...The taste for sugared bread and butter is soon over but servants have it in their power to excite other tastes with premature and factious enthusiasm.

Flickr: Iban
So, kids have been loving sugar for a long time and parents have been worried that servants/schools/babysitters/advertisers have been pumping up their kids with sugar for a long time.  However, I do note that this 18th century person seemed to think the taste for sugar on bread would go away. But there are more and more adults I encounter who like sugar in their barbeque sauce, sugary coffee drinks, and sugary stir-fried sauces even on their vegetables (presuming they eat vegetables at all). One of the main 'problems' with picky eating is not that it is immoral (I think the idea that you have to clean your plate at every dinner party is pretty silly) but that most picky eaters tend to fixate on chicken nuggets and ice cream, not broiled fish and broccoli.

I'm really not sure where I stand on the picky eater debate.  I've known parents who are serious foodies whose kids eat about three foods (all of them white) and kids with relatively unadventurous parents who will eat garlicky hummus. Preference, like so many aspects of the human character, is a weird synergy of nature, parental nurture, and the larger social environment.

But if so much of this is nature, what did kids eat before chicken nuggets were born?  Before refined sugar on white bread and butter was available to shut kids up in the nursery?  Surely they must have eaten something?

Pain in the ass that I was as a kid, I will say that the fact that even the junk food I ate like fried clams and eclairs often came from pretty good fish shacks and local bakeries. I did develop a palate that helped me when I decided to become a healthy eater later on, as opposed to one boy I recently met who only liked Chips Ahoy cookies and wouldn't eat homemade chocolate chip cookies because they tasted 'weird.'

Although, I was talking with another friend of mine last night...she worked at a daycare center in a low-income area when she was in college.  The children received a hot lunch, often food like Salisbury steak, live, and slimy, badly-cooked okra and collard greens. If they were lucky, they'd get a slice of white bread with some processed cheese microwaved--not broiled--on top of it.

It was often the only meal they ate all day and they always cleaned their plates. 

I'd love to hear your thoughts about picky eating: Are you a picky eater?  Were you a picky eater?  What about your kids?  Who has the strangest 'picky eating preferences' of your circle of friends?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Browned butter banana cornbread

Certain flavor combinations feel so intuitive it seems as if they have always existed, as if they were never invented. Like peanut butter and chocolate, despite the speculation of so many Reece's Peanut Butter Cup commercials. Even if you aren't a fan of the combination, getting a bag full of Halloween candy without some sort of peanut butter-flavored treat in it seems somehow wrong.

While some food inventions, like the ice cream cone, can be traced back to a specific event, most do not and simply become a reflexive habit. Where is the maple syrup for my pancakes?

You walk into an ice cream parlor and expect to see some kind of a hot fudge and vanilla combination and feel unsettled at its absence. I don't even like whipped cream, but I accept the pairing with strawberries as inevitably.

However, look with the eyes of an outsider on these 'intuitive flavor combinations' and you begin to understand how relative and culturally-bound taste can be.  I once read a rant by the British humorist Stephen Fry which isn't online, unfortunately, but goes along the lines of: Why the fuck to Americans put cinnamon in everything? I am the biggest Anglophile, faux British, Shakespeare-quoting person on the planet, yet when I read that, my brain nearly exploded. WHAT DO YOU MEAN CINNAMON DOESN'T TASTE GOOD IN EVERYTHING?

And I still have not reconciled myself to prawn and steak-flavored crisps, despite living in England for nearly two years.

I felt the same unsettling sensation when I learned that some entire regions of the country prefer mayonnaise to ketchup on hamburgers.

But, product of my upbringing that I am, I must admit that I don't get certain flavor combinations that everyone else accepts in the U.S.  Like tuna melt. Tuna is cold. Mayo tastes good cold. Mayo is creamy.  Yet why slather on a warm slice of creamy melted cheese to turn the tuna lukewarm, while the lovely cheese hardens because of the coldness of the tuna?

Over the years, I also developed some 'natural' flavor pairings of my own which no one would consider natural but myself, but just 'feel' right.  As a child, I adored chicken salad on cinnamon (sorry Stephen) raisin bread.  I now love eating full-fat Greek yogurt topped with crunchy roasted cauliflower and that feels like the most natural thing in the world.

And recently, I thought--why not do an unholy merger of the two Great American quick breads of banana and corn together? Banana bread is sweet.  Cornbread is sweet.  Both have a kind of buttery flavor to them.  Both quick breads are simple and similar to make in terms of their preparation.

Continuing the buttery theme, I also decided to brown the butter, to enhance the caramel-y, nutty, unctuous flavor of the bread.

This bread is so easy, I urge everyone to give it a try.  It would be wonderful with pork, a meat which is often enhanced with sweet-flavored sides, as well as for breakfast. Chili would be another nice pairing, given that you might already but bananas, chocolate, and corn in your chili.

Hopefully, the merging of the flavors will feel as natural to you as it does to me.

Note: There are no eggs in this recipe, intentionally.

Browned Butter Banana Cornbread


1/4 cup (1/2 a stick) butter
2 large mashed, overripe bananas (approximately 1 cup)
1/4 cup honey
1/2 cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda


1. Brown the butter slowly on medium-to-low heat (err on the side of being too low) until the butter begins to foam.  Remove from burner.

2. Preheat oven to 350F. Grease a 8X4 loaf pan. (I also lined the bottom and sides with parchment paper).

3. Mix butter, bananas, honey, milk and vanilla together in one bowl, until well-blended.

4. Sift cornmeal, flour, baking powder, and baking soda together.  Spoon the dry mixture into the wet.

5. Pour into prepared pan. Bake for approximately 40 minutes until a toothpick can be extracted clean and the top has begun to brown.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Tarragon Shortbread Cookies

I know it's not fashionable, but my first exposure to tarragon came in the form of Miracle Whip, which I've heard is one of the dominant 'secret spices' in the infamous salad cream.

I grew up in a Miracle Whip household, despite the fact that just about every food blogger seems to view consuming Miracle Whip versus Hellman's Mayo as a kind of an Original Foodie Sin. I don't eat Miracle Whip any more, and I find the fact that my anti-sugar mother preferred Miracle Whip to mayo kind of odd.  Maybe because it is slightly lower in calories?  Regardless, Miracle Whip has high-fructose corn syrup and more sugar, so it's not a health food.

Tarragon, however, I just learned, as many reputed health benefits.  It has a very strong anise flavor and can overpower dishes in small quantities (as I recently discovered when I tried to use it on roasted turkey thighs in excess).  However, in small doses like in these simple shortbread cookies, it lends an interesting flavor that is both savory and sweet.

According to this source:

"An infusion prepared with the leaves of tarragon has been traditionally recommended to improve appetite, alleviate flatulence and colic, control menstruation, to provide relief from the pain caused by arthritis, gout and rheumatism as well as flush out worms from the body. It is said that when freshly collected tarragon leaves or roots are topically applied to cuts, sores and even teeth, they act as a local painkiller."

In terms of the associations I have with the herb, I suppose the vision of a young maiden who dallied with her tutor trying to bring on her monthly curse by eating tarragon is more romantic than my memories of making tuna and egg salad for a summer lunch with my mother. I can't vouch for the health benefits, but give tarragon a try, versus the more expected rosemary in shortbread.

Tarragon Shortbread Cookies

Adapted from Food52

--yields 1 dozen rounds or a 9-inch scored pan of cookies--


1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon finely chopped tarragon
1/2 cup (1 stick) of room temperature butter


1. Preheat oven to 350F.

2. Sift flour and salt together.  Rub sugar and tarragon together to release the oils of the herb, add and incorporate into flour mixture and sift with a fork until well mixed.

3. Cut in the butter to make a dough. 

4. To make round cookies, I scooped the cookie balls into a nonstick muffin tin.  Alternatively, as suggested in the original recipe, you can also press the dough into a greased 9-inch or square cake pan and prick with a fork.

3. Bake 10-15 minutes for the 'rounds' until the shortbread is golden, or 20-30 if cooking in a cake pan.  Score while still warm and cut when cool if using the pan.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Cashew Caramel Muffins

Recently, I was shopping in Target (a rare occurrence). Target is one of those stores in which I never see anything that I need but encounter everything that my eight-year-old self would have wanted instead.  Toys and Snoopy dishes, yes.  Cleansers cheaper than Wegmans and underwear in my size?  Not so much.

I spied these in the Halloween section:

They were .97.  Needless to say, I bought them, without much thought of how I was going to use them.  Now, I know what I am SUPPOSED to do with them--make caramel apples.  But I've never been much of a candy or caramel apple fan, although I should probably give them another 'go' at some point.  As a kid, I had abnormally tiny baby teeth, so I could barely bite into one (I disliked the toughness of bagels for the same reason).

When we made them in first grade, I took one difficult bite of mine while the other kids devoured theirs, thinking how much I would love to have my caramel on ice cream with cookies, rather than on a crummy old mealy Macintosh. Caramel apples seemed suspiciously like a way to make me eat fruit for dessert.  I tended to like caramel only if it was enveloped in chocolate and had no fruit to clutter it up. 

Even now, I'm a bit suspicious about the wet apple to caramel ratio in caramel apples.

But still, the idea of easily-incorporated caramel in a baked good was intriguing.  Cashews were still on the brain from the blondies I posted about yesterday...and these quick, easy cashew butter and caramel muffins have a great balance of flavors: the salt from the cashew and the sweet vanilla and caramel taste from the baking bits. Of course, you could always use any nut butter (or peanut butter) as an alternative if you can't find cashew butter and add some chocolate chips if you need to have chocolate with your caramel.  Chopped apple as well, presumably you don't share my six-year-old self's prejudices...

Cashew Caramel Muffins

--yields 12 muffins--

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup oil
1 cup whole milk
2 beaten eggs
1/2 cup cashew butter

1/2 cup coarsely-chopped salted cashews
1 cup caramel baking bits


1. Preheat oven to 375F.  Line 12 muffin tin liners.
2. Sift flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.
3. Mix oil, eggs, milk, and cashew butter in another bowl. Incorporate dry into wet. Fold in chopped cashews and caramel bits.
4. Pour into liners. Bake for 15-20 minutes until a toothpick can be extracted 'clean.'  Cool and serve after removing from muffin tin.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Cashew Butter Blondies

 I used to think of blondies as the also-rans of the culinary world,  pale cousins of the brownie. Although I am not a pure chocoholic.  In fact, as a child I always demanded a balance between chocolate and other flavorings.  I liked cherry chocolate cakes rather than 'Death by Chocolate' concoctions.  I ordered vanilla soft serve with chocolate syrup or sprinkles. Later I learned to love vanilla ice cream swirled with peanut butter. I loved chocolate with many flavorings spanning from raspberry jelly to caramel, but never subscribed to the more-is-better chocolate philosophy of some of my peers.

Regarding the 'second best' issue, I think because I am a brunette I have always rooted for the underdog. I colored in the hair of all of the blonde princesses in my storybooks with brown magic markers.  I cheered on Tom in the Tom and Jerry cartoons, even though I am fond of mice. I pitied the Trix rabbit.  I secretly gloried in the evil schemes of Azrael and Gargamel as they plotted against the Smurfs. I even preferred Blueberry Muffin, Strawberry Shortcake's also-ran BFF, and Skipper to Barbie.

However, there was a part of me that longed for blondeness.  I dyed my hair every color of the rainbow in college, except blonde, because I knew that the double-processing would turn my hair to straw. Yet I wondered if blondes really did have more fun.

Of course, now I realize that there are many blondes who are far from insipid.  Alice of Alice in Wonderland. Jane Tennison of Prime Suspect.  And I no longer have the patience to be secretly jealous of women based on their hair color.

While it is unusual for blondes to be anything but Top Dogs in most spheres of life, blondies get short shrift in the culinary world.  So I've dressed up your standard blondies with some cashew butter and sea salt.  These smell fabulous and might even convert a few over to the idea that a good blondie can be as tasty as a good brownie. They are both salty and sweet.  More Jodi Foster than Marilyn Monroe in their blondness.

Cashew Butter Blondies

--yields 12 large or 24 snack-size blondies--


1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted and cooled
1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar
2 large, beaten eggs
4 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup cashew butter (room temperature to allow for easier mixing)
1/2 cup coarsely-chopped cashews

Coarse sea salt for topping


1. Preheat oven to 350F. Line an 8X8 pan with nonstick (or greased) foil, allowing foil to overhang to allow for easier removal.
2. Sift flour, baking powder, salt.
3. Mix butter, sugar, eggs, and vanilla.  Slowly add cashew butter until fully incorporated.
4. Fold in dry mixture.  When just blended, add 1/4 cup of the cashews.
5. Pour in pan.  Sprinkle remaining cashews on top.  Sprinkle coarse sea salt for garnish, as desired.
6. Bake for 30-35 minutes.  Cool for at least 2 hours until overnight before removing from the pan and cutting into squares.