Archive for the ‘Baking’ Category

Raisin Questions

Now, I don’t about where you live, but up here in Exile, Oregon, winter seems to have lost the last of its attitude and most of its punch. Oh, I guess it might still have one or two parting shots left to go, but it’s basically a has-been on the seasonal circuit. By now, winter is all bluff and no content – just one season waiting to surrender its post to the next.

Trouble is, spring is having none of it.

See, unlike the more glorious types of spring you’ll find in other parts of the country, our spring has never been much of a precocious upstart. No, you won’t catch our spring jumping in with the silly exuberance of some springs. Ours is more the edgy, moody type – intense one minute, indifferent the next. It prefers ‘maybe’ to mayhem, and it makes no sudden moves. Yes, it’s a tepid sort who sidles in and out like it can’t quite make up its mind, loitering with a little moue of resentment until summer shows up to take over the shift – all of which contributes to the ambiance of ambivalence that Exile is known for.

And yet for all spring’s lack of enthusiasm, there are tangible signs that it’s lurking in the vicinity. To begin with, there is the ant.

Now, I’m not talking about the thick, black ribbons of armored raiders that come marching in lockstep along the kitchen baseboard. Those will be by later, rest assured.

No, for now, all I’m talking about is the lone opportunist riding in on six legs and a hunch, just to see what’s cookin’ on the range. He may not be the harbinger of spring you were hoping for, but he’s the kind of harbinger you get in Exile. Yep, you know he’s up to something, but with his don’t-mind-me-I’m-just-lost routine, he doesn’t really look like the kind of dangerous outlaw you need to handle right away.

Yes, the ant is really more of a vague disappointment than an out-and-out tragedy – kind of like raisins.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering how we went from ants to raisins in the span of a single sentence. Easy – I just changed the subject. See, I wanted to talk about raisins in the first place, but you got me started on ants. So I just steered us back with the kind of awkward segue that is evidence of a public school education. Now don’t distract me again, or you won’t get your recipe.

So, like I was saying. In my opinion, raisins, like the ant, are really just a mild inconvenience as opposed to an all-out disaster. They’re not inedible, just forgettable.

Oh sure, I’ve been thoroughly disgusted by raisins a time or two. Like when I’ve discovered them masquerading as chocolate chips in cookies, or when they’ve shown up unannounced in cinnamon rolls or carrot cake.

For the most part, though, the raisin is just your average, dependable Mr. Nice Guy: soft, sweet, bland, predictable. Go ahead, admit it: you don’t love him, you just like him as a friend. He’s your mother’s choice – a safe date. I mean, you’re probably vaguely disappointed when he shows up, but he isn’t memorable enough to actually hate.

Well I don’t know about you, but I hate that.

Most people, however, seem to simply accept that raisins are part of the landscape – except in certain cases, of course, where they feel they’re required by constitutional law.

Like in bran muffins, for instance. Now I understand that raisins do serve a purpose here. For one thing, they break up the vast, bland plains of branniness so your saliva glands don’t become convinced that life is all work and no play.

But my question is, why not throw in cranberries, apricots, figs, chopped prunes, apples, or dried sour cherries instead? And what about adding walnuts, almonds, pecans, or heaven forbid, pistachios to the terrain – is that a crime too? Do we really want raisins, or have we just come to expect raisins? Because there’s a big difference. I mean, what good are all these options if we continue to believe that we have no choice? Is the concept of free will just an absurd abstraction under the constraints of breakfast, or something?

I think not. I think it’s high time we pwn our freedom, and we can begin by reclaiming the sorry bran muffin from its drab role as a digestive supplement. Dress it up, trick it out, make it dangerously good. Heck, don’t just sit there letting me and my recipe tell you what to do – throw some chocolate chips into the mix if it satisfies your soul.

Just don’t tell your mother I said you could do that. She’d kill me.

Wilma’s Morning Upstart Apricot-Walnut Bran Muffins

My apricots can take your Mr. Nice Guy raisins any day. So don’t cross them.

1 ½ cups wheat bran

1 cup buttermilk (or 4 tablespoons dried buttermilk powder plus 1 cup water)

⅔ cup dark brown sugar

⅓ cup vegetable oil (I use light olive oil or sunflower oil)

1 egg

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup whole wheat flour (or an equal amount of all-purpose flour)

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup apricots chopped into raisin-sized pieces (or any dried fruit – even the ubiquitous raisin, if you absolutely must)

½ cup chopped walnuts (or any other kind of nut)

  1. Preheat oven to 375°F and prepare 12-muffin pan by lining with paper muffin cups (preferred) or by greasing.
  2. Stir bran and buttermilk together and set aside for at 10 minutes, or so.
  3. Combine whole wheat flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, chopped apricots, and chopped walnuts.
  4. Add brown sugar, oil, egg, and vanilla to buttermilk-bran mixture, mixing until smooth.
  5. Add dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, and stir until just incorporated.
  6. Divide batter between muffin wells, filling to top or slightly above. HINT: An ice cream scoop is useful for this purpose.
  7. Bake 15-23 minutes, until golden brown on top.

Allow muffins to cool before removing from pan, especially if not using muffing papers. Good served warm with butter, or halved and toasted. These freeze well, so make a bunch.


Read Full Post »

Now, I know that some of my more peevish, antsy followers are just about to start demanding recipes. I guess they want me to stick to the facts, ma’am, like this is Dragnet, or something.

And just how do you know this? you might be wondering. Because at least one out of the three of you has mentioned it to me, that’s how.

Well, just settle your horses, mister. You can’t hurry a good story along.  And as a matter of fact, I wasn’t through yet. The story of the Great Lemon Hubcap Calamity does NOT, in fact, end in failure like you might think.

 NO. There is a lesson to be learned here, but it is NOT that one screw-up means we’re doomed to total failure and should just go sit in the corner and cry — although, that’s just exactly what I did for about 25 years after the Easy-Bake Oven Incident. But don’t get me started on THAT or we’ll never make any headway.

So back to what I was saying: I think we left off last time by concluding that you can’t always turn your disasters around like Pollyanna Stewart so that you wind up having your cake and eating it too. That’s right, only people with rich friends can do that.

What you can do, however, is square your shoulders, take on the What-the-Hell attitude that Julia Child recommended, and launch straight into plan ‘B’. Of course, that only works if you’ve actually got a plan ‘B’ lined up, otherwise you’re pretty much hosed. Fortunately, I’ve got just the cake for you.

Well, looking back on it, the recipe that I had in mind for plan ‘B’ is probably the cake I should’ve baked in the first place. To begin with, this little cake is chocolate, and what could be better than that? It also happens to be plain looking on the outside with a complex, bittersweet character – kind of like me. Yes, plan ‘A’ would have been more like it, but I guess that’s all water under the floorboards by this time.

Now, before I go on (as I will do, Mr. Ants N. Yourpants, trust me), I want to make one thing clear: this cake is hardly “second-string.” Yes, it’s only slightly more trouble to make than one of Betty Crocker’s, but it tastes a hundred times better. So don’t be fooled into passing it by just because it’s uncomplicated. Simple is just one of its many virtues – albeit the one that makes it a good choice for plan ‘B’.

The way I see it, this cake is the Little Black Dress of the culinary collection. Spare and understated by itself, it can easily be accessorized to suit your tastes. Chocolate buttercream makes it lush and voluptuous. Cabernet chocolate glaze gives it a haughty, sophisticated air. Accompanied by a big pearl of vanilla ice cream, it’s a study in contrasts: chiaroscuro on a plate – and on your palate. It’s your choice.

Whatever you decide to do with it, this versatile, dependable little cake will come through for you. It’s not fussy and fractious like some cakes (ahem), and it doesn’t take a degree in culinary arts to make, either. Plus, it’s a cake that a lot of people can eat – from people trying to keep Kosher, to people with milk or egg allergies, to vegans, to people trying to reduce their cholesterol intake. Heck, if you make it with olive oil like I’ve suggested here, it’s practically good for you!

And, as if all that isn’t enough, the LBD Chocolate Cake has another virtue: It’s a great recipe to have on hand when you’ve run out of eggs because you typically forget to buy half the things you went to the store for. In fact, I’d even be willing to bet that most of you already have the necessary ingredients sitting in your cupboards right this minute. Like to see you beat that, Miss Betty ‘Needs-3-eggs’ Crocker!

And so with that, I’d better give you the recipe. (Yes, I know it’s about damn time, Mr. Hurryup N. Wait. Matter of fact, I’ve made a special index page called The Recipe Box just so you can cut right to the chase like you’re so fond of doing.)

In the immortal words of the French Chef herself,

The only stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a ‘What the hell’ attitude.

~ Julia Child

So be fearless and try it.

LBD Chocolate Cake

An Everyday Cake With Attitude

 ½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 heaping Tbs instant espresso powder

1 cup boiling water

1¼ cups all-purpose flour

1 cup dark brown sugar

1 tsp baking soda

½ tsp salt

⅓ cup oil (I prefer light olive oil, but any oil with a light taste will be fine)

1 Tbs vinegar (balsamic preferably, but any will work)

1 tsp vanilla

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Grease an 8 × 8 inch baking pan, or a 9-inch round cake pan.
  3. Combine cocoa and coffee powder in heat-proof bowl. Add 1 cup boiling water and stir.
  4. Cool this mixture to room temperature (HINT: speed this process by placing bowl in refrigerator or freezer).
  5. Combine flour, brown sugar, soda, and salt together, stirring well to thoroughly combine and remove lumps.
  6. When cocoa mixture has cooled to lukewarm, add to dry ingredients and mix until combined.
  7. Combine olive oil, vinegar, and vanilla together and add all at once to batter, stirring to combine.
  8. Working quickly, pour batter into oiled baking pan and place on middle rack of oven.
  9. Bake for 35 – 40 minutes, or until wooden toothpick comes out clean.
  10. Allow to cool to room temperature before slicing.

Cake can be glazed or iced, decorated with a dusting of powdered sugar or a dollop of whipped cream, or served plain paired with good vanilla ice cream (one of the best choices, if you ask me).



Read Full Post »

Rachel Laudan

A Historian's Take on Food and Food Politics

in vita esse

To be alive. Dispatches from the surface of the planet.

Kicking and Screaming into the Kitchen

and other thoughts on eating, cooking, living, loving, writing from an ex-circus sideshow performer turned elephant advocate and author