12 November 2007

A good find

On my way to the grocery store last Saturday I decided to stop by Goodwill. Although I won't ever take Seth along on one of these treasure hunts, I can't resist them.

Sure, most of the time there's just a bunch of smelly junk someone else didn't want, so why would I? But sometimes you score, finding just the right thing for the right price. As I strolled down the aisle crowded with a disorganized mass of kitchen tools, I spotted a Bundt pan. It was in good shape, not a scratch on the nonstick coated inside. The outside of the pan was a pale avocado green -- the exact shade that was on my mom's hand mixer when I was a kid, and probably that of thousands of other kitchen appliances in the 1970s.

Cozy inside many of those avocado green ovens were Bundt cakes baking away in their deep circular shape with fluted edges. It was 1966 when the Bundt hit it big in this country. That's when a cake baked in a Nordic Ware Bundt pan won a Pillsbury baking contest. The Minnesota company created the pan in 1950, and in 1970 gave Pillsbury the right to use its trademark name in a cake mix.

So, an avocado green bundt pan made its way to my kitchen via Goodwill via some woman my mom's age cleaning out her cupboards, or something along those lines. And to make sure it didn't have the same fate in my kitchen, I made a Bundt cake last night.

I researched a few recipes online and settled on this one in part because it was right for the season, but also because it was the only one that I had all the ingredients for in my kitchen. As for the buttermilk, I soured my own with vinegar.

Here goes. It was delicious and dense.

Pumpkin Spice Bundt Cake with Buttermilk Icing, epicurious.com

For cake
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened, plus additional for greasing bundt pan
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour plus additional for dusting pan
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups canned solid-pack pumpkin (from a 15-oz can; not pie filling)
3/4 cup well-shaken buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs

For icing
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons well-shaken buttermilk
1 1/2 cups confectioners sugar

Special equipment: a 10-inch nonstick bundt pan (3 qt)


Make cake:
Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F. Butter bundt pan generously, then dust with flour, knocking out excess.

Whisk together flour (2 1/4 cups), baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, allspice, and salt in a bowl. Whisk together pumpkin, 3/4 cup buttermilk, and vanilla in another bowl.

Beat butter (1 1/2 sticks) and granulated sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes, then add eggs and beat 1 minute. Reduce speed to low and add flour and pumpkin mixtures alternately in batches, beginning and ending with flour mixture and mixing until batter is just smooth.

Spoon batter into pan, smoothing top, then bake until a wooden pick or skewer inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes. Cool cake in pan on a rack 15 minutes, then invert rack over cake and reinvert cake onto rack. Cool 10 minutes more.

Make icing:
While cake is cooling, whisk together buttermilk and confectioners sugar until smooth. Drizzle icing over warm cake, then cool cake completely. Icing will harden slightly.

Cooks' note:
Cake can be made 3 days ahead and kept in an airtight container at room temperature.

04 November 2007

(Not so) hidden treasures

Last week I read a newspaper story about the mommy cookbook rage of recipes that disguise healthy ingredients so the kiddos are none the wiser. The story explored the possibility that hiding foods could create lifelong bad habits instead of short-term dislikes.

I don't have kids, so my thoughts are merely that -- thoughts -- not tried and true kitchen practices.

Over a glass of wine last night several of my mom friends were discussing Jessica Seinfeld's recently released "Deceptively Delicious." Much to the other moms' surprise, Dina pulled out baggies of frozen pureed cauliflower, sweet potato and spinach ready to be slipped in her boys' food. The reaction was at first amazement and then a sigh, as we remembered Dina's attention to all things domestic. She has patience, creativity and dedication most of us will always envy when it comes to running a household.

She warmed up a leftover sweet potato pancake she'd made earlier in the day. The recipe was one of Seinfeld's. Luke, she says, rejected it. We, however, gobbled it up.

That recipe was fabulous and one worth repeating, not so much as a deceptive dish but instead as a delicious one. Other recipes from the book, however, are hard to swallow.

Although I can't help but balk at the idea of spinach in brownies or avocado in chocolate pudding, I, too, have gone down this path. As evidenced by an earlier post, I have used squash in mac and cheese, a dish I named Faux Cheese. I also shared a recipe for an avocado smoothie, which could likely land in a "Deceptive" book in this country but is a heavenly treat in other cultures.

I get it that as kids we have a variety of reasons to like and dislike certain foods. When I was little, I hated peas. I wasn't repulsed by all things green as Seth says he was; it was a texture thing for me. I hated the way peas popped in your mouth. Fortunately, though, I did not become a life-long pea-hater.

Sometimes adults are picky, too. The main customer in my kitchen -- Seth -- has his moments. But, in time, I've expanded both of our veggie-loving horizons. I respect the fact that he hates Brussels sprouts, and even though I love the taste of fresh Brussels sprouts quartered and sauted in olive oil and sea salt, I will not force him to eat them. Nor will I puree them and slip them into his dessert.

What I will do is look for vegetables he does like and find ways to prepare them that turn a ho-hum product into a tasty tidbit. Carrots are peeled, quartered, tossed in olive oil, salt and pepper and grilled. Peas, fresh mint and parm are tossed with pasta and olive oil for a great salad. Spinach or arugula take the place of less-nutritious iceberg lettuce on sandwiches.

I am a big believer in fresh, healthy ingredients making it to the dinner table. Food should taste good and be good for you. That is, after all, how nature intended it. Over time, though, our tastes buds have become confused. We've come to crave unhealthy foods, giving rise to the success of fast-food giants. We're no longer hard-wired to accept healthy foods easily. The solution is too complex for merely one cookbook to solve.

Just as natural is the desire for parents to provide good, healthy food for their children and families. By all means, make food healthy however your family will eat it. However, don't believe that all of the good tips are found in books.

Use your imagination, involve the kids when they're old enough and lead by example. Get creative and come up with dishes personalized to your family. There's no right or wrong. Cooking good foods doesn't have to be complicated, nor should it feel forced. And remember, just like any other cultural characteristic such as language, mannerisms or family dynamics, food tastes are learned through everyday experiences.

Banana Walnut Pancakes

These 'cakes get an extra nutritional boost with whole wheat flour, fruit and protein in the form of walnuts. To keep them super healthy, skip the butter and syrup and eat them sans utensils!

1 cup whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 beaten egg
1 1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons cooking oil
1 over-ripe banana, mashed *
1/4 cup chopped walnuts

Mix dry ingredients in a medium mixing bowl.

In another bowl combine beaten egg, milk, oil and mashed banana. Combine the dry and wet ingredients and stir just until combined. The batter will be lumpy.

Spoon batter onto a medium-hot griddle. Once several bubbles form, about two minutes, flip to finish cooking.

* See previous post for tips on ripened bananas.

03 November 2007

A dessert for non-bakers

I always used to say I'm not a baker. I said it so often, in fact, my friends offer to bring desserts to dinner parties because they know this. To be honest, though, it was merely a routine excuse.

It's true, I don't enjoy baking the same way I enjoy cooking. A cook is allowed to create as she goes, making adjustments here and there. It doesn't mean a cook will always be satisfied with her results, but with many dishes, she gets several attempts to rectify a wrong turn.

To be a baker takes patience and precision -- two qualities that do not come easy for me. A true baker understands the chemistry that a marrying of ingredients creates. She also typically sticks to recipes, not for a lack of creativity but a quest for consistency.

I would love to be a baker. I get by with some fluffy layered biscuits, and I stuck with the Battle of the Meringue Pie. But I ruined several dozen oatmeal cookies because I insisted on butter, not shortening, and my hot oven turned the dough to a soupy mess before they baked.

So, much to my surprise, I made a dessert recently that had friends asking for the recipe. I sheepishly acknowledged that I found it online. My friends didn't care, and perhaps, knowing my baking history, they pegged it as a recipe they could easily recreate themselves.

That, of course, is true. It was a bread pudding, perhaps one of the easiest desserts around. It doesn't present as beautifully as a layered dark chocolate cake or wine-poached pears, but the taste is just as delightful. Served warm from the oven, this Pumpkin Bread Pudding would make a great Thanksgiving Dinner dessert instead of the traditional pumpkin pie. The Banana Raisin Bread Pudding could be a welcome alternative to a holiday season packed with repeat desserts.

Bread puddings start with basic custards, and with a little imagination, they could be easily adapted to create other flavor profiles. Don't overlook the importance of starting with a delicious bread. Since not all breads are created equal, sample some first and look for breads that are soft, dense and tasty on their own. Sweet breads are an excellent choice, but skip any quick breads as they wouldn't stand up well to the custard. I made both of these recipes with challah, the traditional Jewish bread that has a soft, eggy texture similar to brioche. Julia Bakery in Vancouver makes an excellent challah -- I used the raisin challah for both recipes.

Banana Raisin Bread Pudding, Everyday Food

Butter, room temp, for baking dish
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
2 1/2 cups whole milk
12 ounces challah bread, cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks
3 bananas, sliced on the diagonal*
1/2 cup raisins

Preheat oven to 350 degrees with rack set in lower third. Butter a shallow 2-quart baking dish and set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, vanilla, salt and 1/2 sugar until combined; whisk in milk. Add bread, bananas and raisins. Toss gently to combine. Set aside to let bread absorb liquid, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Transfer mixture to baking dish; sprinkle with remaining tablespoon sugar. Bake until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 50 to 60 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes before serving.

* I substituted over-ripened frozen bananas instead. When my bananas go bad, (much to Seth's dismay) I throw them in the freezer where they turn black. To use, place one in the microwave, skin on. Microwave on high about 1 to 2 minutes, until inside is squishy when squeezed. With a knife, make one lengthwise cut to the skin and spoon out the soupy banana. This technique is great for an all-over banana flavor that I love to use in everything from pancakes to breads.

Pumpkin Bread Pudding, Bon Appetit

Bread pudding ingredients
2 cups half and half
1 15-ounce can pure pumpkin
1 cup (packed) plus 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
10 cups 1/2-inch cubes egg bread (about 10-ounces)
1/2 cup golden raisins

Caramel sauce ingredients
1 1/4 cups (packed) dark brown sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup whipping cream

Powdered sugar

For bread pudding: Preheat oven to 350°F. Whisk half and half, pumpkin, dark brown sugar, eggs, pumpkin pie spice, cinnamon and vanilla extract in large bowl to blend. Fold in bread cubes. Stir in golden raisins. Transfer mixture to 11x7-inch glass baking dish. Let stand 15 minutes. Bake pumpkin bread pudding until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare caramel sauce: Whisk brown sugar and butter in heavy medium saucepan over medium heat until butter melts. Whisk in cream and stir until sugar dissolves and sauce is smooth, about 3 minutes.

Sift powdered sugar over bread pudding. Serve warm with caramel sauce.