PEANUT BUTTER/ALMOND BUTTER COOKIES

I know it’s kind of cheesy, but I love the idea of a Bucket List.

Much as the name makes me cringe (is it just me, or does it sound a little crass?) the idea of composing one has lingered with me for the last few months.  I started writing one this summer, at a lunchtime table with a glass of wine in New York, inspired I know by the wonder of that trip and the feeling of aliveness that comes when we exist in our own skin, somewhere else, for a while.

I tucked the six-or-seven-line list into a letter I was mailing to a friend, who responded with a list of his own in kind; few better ways to get to the substance of a person than that.  And really, few better ways to get to the substance of myself.  What is it that I care about?  Do I really want to do that, or am I just saying it because it sounds good?  The act of writing these things down builds something, generates an energy, creates a realness and substance:

*    See my mom hold her grandchild
*    Take Jill to India
*    Write a really great play
*    Attend an opera at the MET
*    Bake a wedding cake for one of my friends
*    Keep a basil plant alive

See, not everything on one’s Life To-Do list has to be deadly significant.  I think the joy comes in imagining the experiences, no matter how small, that would bring one satisfaction and pleasure.  The one item I’ve crossed off, “Make pasta from scratch”,  required just a day’s worth of planning and was a great deal of fun, though I’d like to now amend that item to read “Make really good pasta from scratch.”

Last week, I asked my students to start their own lists.  And I’d love to hear what you fine people would put on yours.


PEANUT BUTTER/ALMOND BUTTER COOKIES

adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Necessity, as they say, is the parent of invention, and so when I found myself one day without enough peanut butter to complete a peanut butter cookie recipe, I fudged with almond butter.  The results were delicious, and so–viola!

ingredients:

½ cup butter, softened
½ cup peanut butter
½ cup almond butter
½ cup brown sugar
¾ cup white sugar, plus a little extra for rolling
1 egg
1 T milk
1 tsp. vanilla
1 ¼ cup flour
¾ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt

optional but delicious add-ins:  1 cup chocolate chunks or chips
½ cup chopped, roasted peanuts

oven: 350˚

Combine the butters in the bowl of a stand mixer, blending well before adding both sugars.  When the mixture is smooth, crack in the egg and blend again.  Stir in the milk and vanilla.

Whisk the dry ingredients together, then add to the wet.  Stir in chocolate and/or peanuts.

Form the dough into half-inch balls, then roll in white sugar before baking on well-greased or parchment-covered baking sheets, 10-12 minutes.  Do not over bake!  I promise they’re done.

VADOUVAN SPICED CASHEWS

Is it just me or is the cashew underutilized?  Underrated?  Downright neglected, I say, which is a shame, given how delicious they can be.

I had never heard of Vadouvan spice before encountering this recipe and I’m still not sure how to pronounce it, though I am now aware that it’s a delicious fusion of French and Indian flavors, always involving garlic and shallots, a position I wholeheartedly support and that goes excellently well with the aforementioned nut.

You may need to head to the Indian grocery store or a gourmet grocery to get some of the spices listed here, but getting your hands on the ingredients is really the hardest part of the recipe.  If you keep the ingredients on hand, as I plan to, and grind a double-batch of the spice mix, you’ll be minutes away from a rather addictive and happy-hour-suited snack.

Here in Houston, we’re lucky to be smack in the middle of a season that lends itself perfectly to patio sitting and al fresco dining, which frankly we feel we have earned since we suffered through a long, hot, and humid summer. So I’m betting I’ll bust out these cashews as sophisticated patio-sitting fare many times over.

SPICED CASHEWS

source: David Grossman, chef at Branchwater Tavern here in Houston

My friend Ben, who receives the majority of my kitchen leftovers, would like you to know that these cashews will give you wicked garlic breath.  But he also says that they are worth it.

ingredients:

1 cup raw cashews

1 shallot, peeled & very thinly sliced*

4 garlic cloves, peeled & very thinly sliced*

2-3 T Vadouvan spice (see below)

½ tsp. salt

Fry the garlic & shallots in a bit of vegetable oil over medium-high heat until brown & crisp.  Remove & let them drain on a paper towel.

In the same pan, over medium heat, cook the cashews, stirring constantly, until golden brown.  Drain these as well, then toss with the Vadouvan spice & top with fried garlic & shallots.

*Use a mandoline if you have one.

for the Vadouvan spice:

1 T cumin seeds

1 T fresh curry leaves or 1 tsp. dried

1 tsp. fenugreek seed

1 tsp. mustard seeds

1 tsp. ground cardamom

¾ tsp. turmeric

½ tsp. grated nutmeg

½ tsp. Kashmiri chili powder*

½ tsp. ground cloves

In a dry pan, toast the fenugreek, cumin and mustard seeds. Let cool & then combine with all other spices in a spice grinder and grind.

* If you can’t find this one, substitute ½ paprika & ½ cayenne

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ALMOND-ORANGE TEA CAKES

I’d like to make an exhortation, if you’ll indulge me.

Go have the conversation nobody wants to have; talk to the people in your life about how you do and do not want to die.  Get them to do the same for you.  Be clear, even if it’s painful.  Put it in writing and get that writing notarized.  Make sure everyone knows where the papers are.  Please.  Do it right now.

These things are hard to think about, or talk about, or plan for.  But I speak from experience when I say that they are among the greatest gifts you can give your family, even as you vehemently hope they will never have to use them.  Because four years ago, I did.

I miss my dad; I don’t think that’s ever going away.  But I also know that my mother and I were able to make the medical decisions that he would have wanted us to make.  We did not have to guess, or wonder.  And while there is much else painful about the way I lost my dad, that certainty is a clear patch of bright relief.

So there you have it—the only piece of advice I’ll ever dispense on this blog.  It is what seemed right, more than anything else, on this day.

Subhash Chander Mehra
April 27, 1942 – July 22, 2006


ALMOND ORANGE TEA CAKES

adapted from a recipe I clipped from Martha Stewart Living years ago

This may have been my dad’s favorite thing that I make.  These little cakes are decadent (hello butter!), a little fussy (you can omit the candied orange peel, but I wouldn’t), and go perfectly with a cup of tea, all qualities my dad valued.

1 2/3 cup powdered sugar, plus more for garnish
1 cup almonds, toasted
¾ cup unsalted butter, melted
½ cup flour
6 egg whites, slightly beaten
zest of 2 oranges, chopped fine
1 T orange blossom water, also called orange flower water (optional)
¼ tsp. salt

oven: 450˚
pans: mini loaf pans or ramekins, buttered & stored in the freezer

Grind the almonds to a near-paste in the food processor.  Turn out into a large bowl, then stir in powdered sugar, flour, salt, & zest.  Whisk in egg whites, then slowly stir in the melted butter and orange blossom water (if using).

Pour batter into pans, then place on a baking sheet for easy transfer.  Bake until the dough just begins to rise, about ten minutes.  Reduce the oven to 400˚ and continue to bake another 8-10 minutes or until the cakes brown.  Turn the oven off but leave the cakes in for another 10 minutes.  (I know this seems like a crazy method, but it works. Trust me.)

Cool the cakes on a rack, then turn out and serve warm or at room temperature, with a dusting of powdered sugar and/or strips of candied orange peel (recipe follows).

CANDIED ORANGE PEEL

zest of 3-4 oranges
sugar
water

Cover the zest with water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil.  Once boiling, drain the zest in a colander and repeat the boiling process.  Do this a total of three times, to remove the bitterness from the pith.

Rise out the saucepan, then add 1 ½ cups of water and 1 cup of sugar.  Bring to a boil, letting the sugar dissolve to make a simple syrup.  Add the zest and let the strips of orange simmer in the syrup until they become translucent.

Cool, then store the zest in the fridge, with or without the syrup.  I like to use the latter in cocktails, especially margaritas or Cosmopolitans.

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GRANOLA BARS

I’m in Chicago for the weekend.  It’s cold here, but not too cold, grey and foggy instead of sunny, and I’m here because my friend Katie texted me a few months ago and said “bitch, when are you coming to visit me?”  Yes, I believe those were her exact words.

Katie and I first met as high schoolers at a school program called Close Up in Washington, D.C.  She was there from Michigan, me from Tennessee.  We started talking the first night in the lobby of the hotel where our groups were staying, and she wound up loaning me her giant CD collection and trying to explain that strange Yankee card game, Euchre.  The next day, we sat next to each other on the bus, and by the end of the five-day trip, she handed me a postcard with the Jefferson Memorial (her favorite) on the front and a note that included “I love you” on the back.

We are really such unlikely friends; I was the geekiest sixteen-year-old known to man, she was loud, sarcastic, a partier, the center of social attention.  For the longest time I was convinced that she was actually too cool to be friends with me and eventually she would figure that out and ditch our long-distance correspondence.  But the thing about Katie is that there are so many layers to her brash persona: fierce loyalty to family and friends, voracious reading habits, impatience for all things superficial, and her boundless generosity.

I like to think that I was able to see those things back then, when others couldn’t, or didn’t, and that she saw me—the, as it turns out, a little brash and mouthy and daring myself—underneath the suiting of a hopelessly self-conscious and sheltered sophomore. Katie wasted no time drawing me out of my shell.  She’s my delightfully corrupting influence. When Katie’s mom heard that I was coming to visit this weekend, she told her daughter, “Could you please not dye or tattoo or pierce anything this time around?”

This week marks our eleven-year friend-versary—in that time, we’ve probably spent less than two months in the other’s actual physical company.  But space and time don’t seem to matter for us; no matter how long it’s been, we always just pick right up where we left off.

HOMEMADE GRANOLA BARS


If historical trends are any indication, I’ll need to compensate for questionably healthy eating choices after spending a weekend with Katie.  Oh, yep, in fact, she’s banging around the kitchen right now, making pancakes.  Granola bars + serious gym time are going to be in order.

The folks at Superior Nuts were kind enough to send me some of their beautifully packaged sliced almonds and jumbo apricots, so I used them, but you could substitute any kind of nut or dried fruit.  I’m convinced that adding flavorings like cinnamon and nutmeg go a long way to putting these granola bars in a different stratosphere than the cardboard-replica-versions you so often find.
ingredients:

2 cups old-fashioned oats
1 cup sliced almonds
1 cup shredded, unsweetened coconut*
¼ cup golden flax meal
¼ cup wheat germ

*If you use sweetened, omit the brown sugar below.

oven: 350˚

Stir all ingredients together in a large bowl.  Spread out on two foil-lined baking sheets.  Toast for 10-15 minutes, stirring at least once, until the mixture has been lightly browned.

Return to the bowl and stir in:

1 cup dried fruit, chopped
½ tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. nutmeg
pinch of salt

For the wet ingredients, whisk the following together in a small saucepan over low heat:

½ cup honey
3 T butter
3 T brown sugar (optional)
1 tsp. vanilla

Pour the mixture into the bowl and stir to combine.  Be sure that all of the dry ingredients are well coated.  For thicker granola bars, use a square pan.  Thinner, a rectangle.  Line your pan of choice with parchment paper.

Drop the oven temperature down to 325˚.

Press the granola mixture into the pan, using your fingers to get an even layer and pressing down hard.  Use the back of a metal bowl or small water glass to smooth out the top.

Bake the bars for 10 minutes, just to help them harden.  Cool thoroughly (at least two hours) before lifting the parchment-lined bars out of the pan.  Cut into desired size using a sawing motion with a sharp serrated knife.  Store in an airtight container for up to a week.

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CINNAMON ROLLS

You, like Jill, may be one of those people who is mystified by my love for this:

Yes, that’s right, I am a Von Trapper, a girl who counts Christopher Plummer among her first crushes, who knows every word to every song and squeals unabashedly when the camera first opens onto the Viennese countryside.

I can’t rightly say how many times I have seen “The Sound of Music,” but I do know that every time I go back to it, I discover something new.  Like the first time I was old enough to understand that my beloved Captain Von Trapp wasn’t just a handsome military widower who could sing and dance BUT ALSO a radical who resisted the Anschluss and stood behind his political convictions.

Or the first time I realized I had outgrown any affection for the cheesy gazebo scene (“sixteen going on seventeen”) between Liesl and Rolf in favor of the cheesy gazebo scene (“must have done something good”) between Maria and the Captain.  Or this most recent encounter, in which I decided that there was maybe something to this “favorite things” business after all.

Cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudels
Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles
Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings
These are a few of my favorite things

Or my version:

Babies with Afros and top-shelf margaritas
Rothko and Rilke and freshly-made pitas
Baristas who flirt with a glint in their eyes
These are the things that help me get by

So I’m not meant to be a songwriter–the sentiment still holds. Perhaps it’s ridiculous, but I think that conjuring up the memory or thought of things you like best can actually be rather useful.  Or you can actually conjure up some cinnamon rolls in real life.

Your favorites?

CINNAMON ROLLS

Cinnamon rolls from scratch do not a quick breakfast make.  Patience, grasshopper.  They are SO worth it.

For the dough:

1 package yeast
¼ cup warmer-than-your-finger water

Pour the water into a large bowl, then sprinkle the yeast on top with a pinch of sugar.  Let it stand for a few minutes—if it doesn’t foam, try, try again.

Now you’ll need these things:

¼ cup whole milk
2 T butter

Microwave them together for 30 seconds or until the butter is melting and it’s all warm (but not hot).  Toss the warm dairy into the bowl with the yeast, then add the following:

3 ½-4 cups all-purpose flour, added 1 cup at a time
¼ cup sugar
½ tsp. salt

I like to hand-mix but you can use a dough hook.  Knead until springy but still soft (you may not use all of the flour).  Don’t over-knead; you want a dough that’s loosely hanging together.

Butter the bowl you were just using & let the dough rise there for at least 1 hour, or until doubled in size (may take 1 ½ hours).

For the filling:

1 cup butter, completely softened
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup chopped pecans
1 ½ T cinnamon

Whip all of the filling ingredients together with a fork or spoon until fluffy.  Roll the dough out into a large rectangle about ¼-inch thick.  Spread the filling gently atop the dough, going out to the edges on all but one of the long sides.  Leave a ½-inch border along that final edge so you have something to seal the roll with.

Roll the dough up into a log, starting with the edge opposite the border.  When you get to the border, wet the dough a bit, then pull it up and over the log and press down to seal.

Line a jellyroll or spring form pan with parchment (cleanup is a nightmare if you skip this step, trust me).  Using a serrated knife, cut the dough log into inch-thick rolls, placing them swirl side up in the pan.  Don’t space them too closely together, as they will expand.  Cover the pan with a damp towel and let the dough puff up again, about 30-45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 325˚.  Bake the cinnamon rolls for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown.

While they’re baking, whip up a simple icing: a whole lot of powdered sugar thinned with a little bit of liquid.  You can use just plain milk or milk  + some kind of flavoring (orange juice, vanilla, almond extract, etc.)

Once the rolls have cooled slightly, drizzle them generously with the icing.

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SUJI HALWA

This is kind of a strange food.  And I feel a little strange blogging about it because I’m not sure any of you will ever end up making it.

Actually, that’s not true; I know at least one of you will.  When I wrote about our big ole Diwali party in October, I mentioned that suji halwa was the featured dessert, fellow blogger Cheryl requested a recipe.  I tucked her request away in my messy mental filing cabinet and am just now getting around to fulfilling it.

Suji halwa isn’t just a slightly weird Indian food I grew up eating; it’s a sacred, slightly weird Indian food I grew up eating.  Basically a sweetened cream-of-wheat, suji halwa is flavored with cardamom, often studded with nuts.

It’s traditional in North Indian, where my people are from, to use suji halwa as prashad, an edible offering brought to temple or puja, blessed in God’s presence and redistributed to those present as nourishment, in both the literal and figurative sense.  As a kid, I looked forward to Tuesday mornings because my mother would rise extra early to make a batch of suji halwa, then bless it through her morning prayers and feed it to me for breakfast.

I don’t think it’s any accident that most all of the world’s religions have traditions and rituals related to food—communion, fellowship, transubstantiation—it’s all an effort to connect to the ineffable through one of our most basic and necessary acts, eating.  We consume, we are consumed, we become one, we are molecularly joined.

This week has brought with it little moments of joy and extended scenes of the most terrifying loss and sadness.  To keep a constant, even if it’s something as humble as a porridge, builds constancy and assurance that this spinning world is still an okay place to be, in spite of the despair that comes with it.

From Diwali 2009: my dear friend Dave & his sister Diane. She is among the missing in Haiti.

SUJI HALWA

If you have ever visited a Hindu or Sikh temple, it’s likely you’ve tasted this stuff yourself.  Everyone’s version is a little bit different—what I like about my mom’s (outside of perfectly fusing with hundreds of Tuesday morning memories, of course) is that it isn’t at all greasy and goes great with a cup of tea.  Try it as a dessert or with a piece of buttered toast for an indulgent breakfast.

This recipe is all about ratios, so you can double it easily.

For the simple syrup, sugar: water, 1:2.
For the overall dish, suji: sugar = 1 :1 + 2 T.

ingredients:

1 cup water
1 cup plus 2 T sugar
1 cup fine suji (semolina)*
½ cup chopped nuts—almonds, pistachios, and/or cashews (optional)
5 T canola oil
2 T butter
1-2 tsp. ground cardamom

First, make the simple syrup by dissolving the sugar into the water and bringing it to a boil.  Set aside.

In a high-sided, heavy-bottomed pan with a lid, melt the butter with the oil over medium heat.  If using nuts, toast them in the butter until fragrant.  Add the suji and stir to coat so that you no longer see butter or oil at the bottom of the pan.

Brown the suji over medium heat, stirring regularly.  This is going to take a little while, between 8-10 minutes.  Patience, my child, patience.  You will be rewarded with an incredibly fragrant aroma and light brown color if you persist.  Don’t rush this step—the finished product won’t taste so good if you do.

Once things are toasted to your satisfaction, remove the pan from the heat and add the simple syrup.  It’s going to get splattery, so have your lid ready!  Return the covered pot to low heat and stir occasionally, using the lid as your shield.

Once the splattering has died down, add the cardamom, crank the heat back up to medium and cook until the syrup has evaporated and the suji has thickened.  The finished product should be scoop-able but still tight enough to hold up a teaspoon.

Serve warm.  Allow to cool before transferring to re-sealable containers for refrigerator (a few weeks) or freezer (a few months) storage.

*You’ll probably need to head to the Indian grocery store for this one, order online, or find packaged semolina at a specialty (natural foods or gourmet) store.

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ALMOND COCONUT BARS

[Inspired by this blog, which you ought to check out.  Rachael’s writing is addictive & she’s rather swell in person, too.]

This post is a little behind.

Normally, I post on Fridays.
But that was not to be this week.  The confluence of
end-of-the-semester business,
start-of-holiday-season events,
and the regular to-do list
did me in.

Of course, I recognize
that the problem
of not posting your blog
on the day to which you (and your readers)
are accustomed
is a first-world problem.

I think all of my problems
(if you can really call them that) fall
into that category.  I am committed
to being cognizant of that
as close to
all-of-the-time
as possible.

It’s easy to lose perspective in this mad-cap world.

My parents’ anniversary was also this week.  Or would have been.  Or something.
Verb tenses get so messed up
when someone dies.

December 8, 1967.
That was a long time ago.
My mom was twenty.
My dad was twenty-five.

They were little.  Younger than I am now
and so good-looking.

Weren’t they just?  If they don’t look
very excited to you,
there’s a good reason for that.

It was only the third time
they had ever met.
I know, right?
Arranged marriage & whatnot.

There’s actually a very fascinating
longer version
of the story
in which my mom
rejected some other dude

(and thank goodness she did, or
somebody we know
would not be sitting here right now)

but I am saving the longer version
of the story
for my book.
So you’ll just have to wait for it.

There are a lot of things
I miss about my dad.

The scariest thing about losing someone
when you least expected it
is that you live in fear
of forgetting
what they looked like
and smelled like
and the sound of their voice
saying your name.

Luckily I have that.
In a forty-second clip
from our trip to India
which we took
a month before he died.

Sometimes I just listen to it
over and over again
and cry.

And then I usually cook something—
(that’s my solution to every problem, really)
something he would like
something he would want to eat
something he would be proud of me making.

These almond-coconut bars were his favorite.
He had a knack
for waking up from his nap
(he used to take the most epic naps)
just as these suckers
were ready to come out of the oven.

He liked to eat things
PIPING
hot.  I don’t know how he did it.

I wish he were here
to sneak some now
and say, “Don’t tell your mother”
while winking conspiratorially.

I keep waiting
for him to show up
even though I know
he won’t.

ALMOND COCONUT BARS

1 ½ cup graham cracker crumbs*
1/3 cup butter, softened
2 T sugar

1 egg
¾ cup light brown sugar
½ cup shredded coconut (recipe calls for sweet, if substituting unsweetened, bump up the sugar)
½ cup chopped almonds
¼ cup flour
1 T. cream or milk
1 tsp. vanilla

pan: 9 inch square
oven: 400˚

Combine the first three ingredients to make the crust—press into the bottom of the pan and bake for 5 minutes.

While the crust is browning, beat the egg until foamy, then beat in the brown sugar.  Stir in the remaining ingredients and spread the mixture over the hot graham cracker layer.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the center is firm to the touch.  One caveat: check the bars at the 15 minute mark.  Because ovens vary so much, the tops of your bars may brown before baking time is up.  If that’s the case, simply cover the pan with foil for the remainder of baking.

* Yes, you can buy them pre-made but they vaguely resemble sawdust.  If you have a food processor, it couldn’t be easier to make your own crumbs.  Second easiest: sealable plastic bag, rolling pin, energetic child.

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FEELIN’ KINDA SNOW DAY: PECAN TASSIES

It snowed.  Squee!


Blame my students, who came to school restless as all get-out, with visions of snowmen dancing in their heads.   Poor kids, you’ve got to understand—those of you who live in a northerly direction and are laughing at my picture, saying “You call that snow?”—we don’t see much winter around these parts.  So, I really can’t blame them for being so hysterical today, even though I was a total meanie and made them discuss To Kill a Mockingbird anyway.  Snow or no snow, we’re still having a test next week, punks!

[I call them “punks.”  They feign offense.  It’s funny.]

Of course, once we dismissed school early and released the squirrely kiddos to their parents, I got kinda excited about the snow myself.  Quick trip to the grocery store, rescue of the last of the garden lettuce, generous scatter of birdseed, haul of wood pile hearth-side, & sweater on the very cute dog.

Now Rebecca is here now for a snow slumber-party; yes that Rebecca, my freshman college roommate whose late mother was the motivation behind my recent haircut.   There are few more valuable things in the world, I think, than the presence of a friend who knows pretty much everything about you and loves you for all of it, not in spite of it.

Rebecca has been my confidant and cheerleader through bad relationship choices, the inception of my writing career, the days I first fell in love with Jill, and other milestones I’m less than proud of.  We have shared Pop Tarts in early-morning freshman Psychology class, an unfortunate amount of cheap vodka (with cinnamon Altoid chasers) one night in San Antonio, the burden of grief, and ridiculous amounts of candy.  I can be more all-out goofy with her than I can with almost anyone else; I have never known her to judge.  She is hella-talented, fiercely loyal, and deeply invested in compassion.

Oh and the girl can eat.  I’m talking put-away-serious-quantities-of-food-eat.  I love that quality in a woman.

This is all very nice, Nishta, you say, and I’m happy to hear you’re having such a lovely evening, but where is mah RECIPE, Blue Jean Gourmet?

Don’t fret.  It’s here, I promise.  Well, not here, exactly, but close by.  The nice folks at The Superior Nut Store asked me to share a favorite nutty recipe to feature on their blog. The Pecan Tassies I chose originally hail from my family’s annual holiday cookie plate, and proved their magic once again as they disappeared within minutes when I took a batch to work.

Need other ideas for your holiday baking?  I’ll be posting more goodies in the next two weeks, but don’t forget about: lemon squares, caramel corn, Chex mix, or these molasses cookies.

Last but not least, we have a little news!  Eating Our Words, the food blog of the Houston Press, gave last week’s Mexican Rice & “Grad School” Black Beans post a very kind shout-out.  Thanks so much to them, and to you, for your readership.

Stay warm, punks!

APPLE-SOUR CREAM MUFFINS

Sharing is good.  Despite what people always claim about only children, my mother contends that I was always eager to share.  Perhaps because I was so accustomed to playing alone, except when I conscripted one of my parents to take part in my favorite game—restaurant.  Prescient, no?

apple muffins on plate
In any case, I fancy myself a sharer.  I like to share books and music and hugs (but not half-hugs) and food and information, of which I sometimes share too much.  I’m going to grow up to become one of those old women who sidle up to you with a Southern accent and over-share treacherous details about their medical problems, aren’t I?  And then proceeds to the buffet, where she shoves rolls into her giant handbag for later?

In the meantime, allow me to share with you two new websites I’m mildly obsessed with slash grateful for the existence of:

1001 Rules for my Unborn Son

Spot-on, modern gentlemanly voice offering advice that my fourteen-year-old male students (who are a tough crowd to please) respect.  Author Walker Lamond has recently published a book of all one thousand and one rules, but the website counts up from #1 and is currently at #406.

unborn son
Some of my favorite rules include:

402. If you aren’t hungry enough to eat an apple, you’re not hungry.
383. Framing a poster does not make it valuable.
318. Don’t gloat. A good friend will do it for you.
241. Keep a well-stocked bar. (This last one works for daughters, too!)

The unborn son to whom the title refers is actually no longer unborn, as he came into the world shortly after the completion of the book.  Go spend your lunch break perusing this site; you’ll be touched and amused, I think.

And the Pursuit of Happiness

Artist and journalist Maira Kalman is proving that the internet can, in fact, be used tell beautiful stories.  Using mixed media for each entry, she narrates her personal exploration of an issue that, by the end, becomes magically relevant to us all.

Kalman manages to strike just the right tone, making herself into an Everyman, even though her talent clearly says otherwise.  Each time I experience her work, I learn something and I come away more hopeful than I arrived.

kalman blog

Of course, I’d like to share a recipe with you, too.  I tweeted about these muffins a few weeks ago and one of my followers (angeltread) requested that I post the recipe.  Since I was winging it the first time, I did a second run, got Sonya to take some pictures, and actually wrote down what went in them.  It helps, I know.

Given the deliciousness of apples at this time, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want to make these.  They give your kitchen that warm, fuzzy, happy autumn smell, too.  And have a streusel topping—did I mention that?

I know ya’ll have good stuff to share, too.  Other great website recommendations?  Exciting news?  Book suggestions?  Celebrity gossip?  Dancing baby videos?

APPLE-SOUR CREAM MUFFINS
makes 12-16 muffins

I know, you’re thinking, sour cream, whaaaat?  Trust me, though.  Keeps things nice and moist but also prevents the muffins from being too sweet.  It’s a muffin, not a cupcake.  There should be a difference!

For the version pictured here, I used Empire apples, which I love and had on hand, but I think this recipe would work equally well with Jonagold, Cortlandt, or Golden Delicious apples.

ingredients: apples in bowl

1 ¾ cup all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. ground allspice
½ tsp. nutmeg (freshly grated, if possible)
½ tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. salt

2 eggs
1 ½ cups packed light brown sugar
1 cup sour cream
½ stick unsalted butter, melted

2 small apples, peeled & diced
1 cup pecans or walnuts, toasted & chopped

streusel topping:

2 T brown sugar
1 ½ T unsalted butter, softened a bit
1 T flour
¼ tsp. each cinnamon, allspice, & nutmeg

pan: lined or well-greased muffin tin
oven: 400°

Preheat oven.  Stir together dry ingredients and set aside.

Whisk the eggs and brown sugar together before adding the butter.  Stir in the sour cream.  Fold in the dry ingredients, then stir in apple pieces & nuts.  Be careful not to over-mix!

Spoon the batter into the muffin cups so that each cup is three-quarters full.  Combine the streusel ingredients in a small bowl, mixing with your fingers to break up the butter into small bits.

Sprinkle a generous amount of streusel on top of each muffin before baking, 18-20 minutes.  Cool on a rack before removing the muffins.  Enjoy warm or store in an airtight container (though I’d recommend refrigerating these after a day).

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HOMEMADE GRANOLA

The summer of 2006 was a big one for me.  It’s the pivot point in my life that I would point to, if asked, and say “That’s the summer that changed everything.”

granola spices

It was the summer between the two years I spent in Arizona for graduate school.  It was the summer I traveled to India for the first time in over a decade.  It was the summer I spent more time with my parents than I had since I lived in their house.  It was the summer my twin godsons were born, the summer I spent living with them & their parents, an extra pair of hands in the diaper-changing rotation, offering bottles and lullabies to tiny six-week-olds.  It was a magical, luminous summer that haunts and carries me because it suddenly, at the end, became the summer that my father died.

Before everything changed, I began the quest to make exceptional granola because I was spending my days with two regular granola-eaters: my mama, and Stephen, the twins’ dad.  Both of them purchased boxed versions which seemed bland and sad.  I was convinced that I could do better.  Turns out, I can.  And you can too.

Granola is infinitely adaptable in terms of the fruits, nuts, spices, and flavorings involved; since that summer, I’ve made a dozen varieties, customizing one blend for a friend who loves dried cherries with cashews, packing others full of dried pineapple and toasted coconut.

What I’ve learned is that there are a few principles or guidelines that, when applied, insure that your homemade granola will kick store bought granola’s ass:

a)    Always pre-toast any nuts you are using.  They’ll add much more flavor and hold up better in milk, yogurt, etc.

b)    If you’re using dried fruit, add it at the very end of baking or it will dry out.  If the fruit you’re using seems extra-dry, pre-soak it in a few tablespoons of fruit juice or even water to re-constitute.

c)    Spice the granola beyond what seems like a reasonable amount.  Whenever someone asks to watch me make my granola, I illicit a “Wow, that’s a lot!” when tossing in heaps of cinnamon, ground ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom.  Of course, I get a second “Wow, this is good!” that proves my point—spice so that you can see the color of the oats change.

d)    When combining the dry ingredients with the liquid, make certain every bit of granola becomes wet before you bake it.  If you need to extend your liquid, try a fruit juice, such as apple, which adds flavor but not fat.

I suppose granola has become, for me, a relic from a wild, lightning-strike kind of summer, a connection to that strange bridge of time where two lives were starting and one was ending, a creation that feels almost like an act of faith.  One of my last memories of my dad is as he came downstairs from his traditional, epic, Saturday-afternoon baths, which always followed his traditional, epic, Saturday-afternoon naps.

Once she heard the water drain upstairs, my father singing along to old Indian music, my mother would put the teakettle on for afternoon tea.  I had just taken my first batch of granola out of the oven.  My father, who loved all things related to food (hi, genetics) but never falsely praised anything I did, especially anything I cooked, walked into the kitchen, grabbed a hot handful, chomped around and said, “Hey Nito, this is pretty good.”

granola, ready to be eaten

Indeed it is.

BASIC GRANOLA FORMULA

I’m calling it a “formula” and not a “recipe” for a reason; use what you like or what you have around.  Play with flavor combinations!  Whatever you do, I guarantee it will taste better than anything that comes in a box.  If you’d like more hard-and-fast measurements, please see my two flavor combinations below*

dry ingredients:

4 cups old-fashioned oats (do NOT use quick-cooking)

¾ cup steel-cut oats (you could easily leave these out and simply increase the amount of old-fashioned oats to 4 ½ cups)

¾ to 1 cup toasted, unsalted nuts (if you only have salted on-hand, don’t add additional salt to the granola)

¼ cup each wheat germ & flaxseed meal (you can find these in the bulk aisles of health food stores & conventional groceries have also started carrying the Bob’s Red Mill versions of these products, but again, they’re not deal breakers)

generous amounts of good-quality spices in any combination you like

1 tsp. salt

liquid ingredients:

5-6 T unsalted butter

½ cup canola or similarly mild-flavored oil (I’ve used safflower in the past)

½ cup brown sugar OR maple syrup

vanilla or other flavoring such as orange, almond, etc. (quantity will vary from 1 tsp- 2 T depending on the potency of flavoring)

oven: 325° to start

pan: two foil-lined, sprayed baking sheets (this will make your life so much easier when cleanup rolls around)

method:

Combine dry ingredients in a very large bowl.  Melt the butter in a small saucepan; remove from heat, then add the rest of the liquid ingredients and whisk together.

Using a spatula, pour the liquid mixture into the dry ingredients and fold it all together, taking the time to ensure that each piece has been coated.

Spread the granola out in thin layers on the baking sheets.  Depending on the size of your baking sheets, you may need to bake in two batches.  Do not pile granola on the baking sheets or it won’t cook evenly!

Bake for 20 minutes at 325°, then turn the oven down to 300° and remove the baking sheets from the oven to stir the granola with a wooden spoon or spatula, just to bring the browner edge pieces into the middle and the center stuff out to the edge.

Add dried fruit at this point, if using, and place the baking sheets back in the oven on opposite racks from the first round of baking (moving the previous top sheet to the bottom and the bottom sheet to top).  Bake for an additional 5-10 minutes, until granola is light golden brown and incredibly fragrant.

Cool on racks before storing in an airtight container for up to several weeks.  It’s delicious with fresh fruit, milk or soymilk, on top of yogurt or ice cream!

*These are the variations I made most recently; I actually measured what I did so I could share with you here!  Both versions turned out lovely, though the first is definitely more traditional, the latter more exotic.

CRANBERRY-ALMOND-VANILLA GRANOLA

1 cup toasted, chopped almonds
1 cup dried cranberries
½ cup brown sugar
2 T vanilla extract (doubling the amount make the flavor more pronounced)
2 T cinnamon
1 ½ tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. cloves

CHERRY-PECAN-COCONUT GRANOLA

1 cup toasted, chopped pecans
1 cup dried cherries, chopped
1 cup dried coconut, dry-toasted in a skillet (if you use sweetened, cut the maple syrup in half)
½ cup maple syrup
1 T orange flower water, also called orange blossom water*
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 ½ tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. ground cardamom
1 tsp. nutmeg

*This is a potentially tricky ingredient; I had it in my pantry from a recent trip to a Middle Eastern grocery.  If you don’t want to go out and get it, but still want the orange flavor, you could use 1 tsp of orange extract or a squeeze half an orange into the liquid ingredients.

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