‘Scratch’ applesauce

It’s a great thing that so many young cooks are taking up the “fresh and from scratch” cause. Some of the best recipes and tips I’ve found in food blogs have come from folks with far less “kitchen history” than my own. All that being said, I can’t for the life of me understand why more home cooks don’t make their own applesauce. It takes far less time than baking a batch of cookies. With a good mix of fall apples, the flavor (and color) will be far superior to anything you’ll find on a supermarket shelf. Probably cheaper, too.

My mother always made her own applesauce. I’ve done the same. In fact, it was one of my babies’ first solids foods. I use only fall apples and never add sugar. Mix up your apples and Mother Nature will provide all the sweetness that you need.

If you’re expecting a “recipe,” forget it—I don’t have one. But I will share the method with you.

Go to your local orchard or farm market. Everything tastes better when it’s local. Read the “best use” labels on the available varieties. Look for a sweet/tart flavor and apples that are well suited to cooking. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. My mix this time included Braeburn, Gala, Stayman, Cortland, and Jonathan. I would have liked Pink Lady for the color, but none were available that day at the farm market. (Note that mixing it up works well for pie or crisp, too.)

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You need two pieces of kitchen equipment: a big kettle with a lid and a food mill. Mine is a Mouli, but that wonderful, old-fashioned kitchen staple, the Foley, works equally well. Note that with both blenders and food processors, it’s too easy to reduce the applesauce to mush. Unless you’re making baby food, I don’t recommend them.

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Wash the apples. I core them, too, but if you’re using a food mill, you really don’t have to. If you’ve managed to find apples grown organically or with minimal intervention, don’t peel them—the skin will provide color and added flavor. You can halve or quarter them or even leave them whole. The only effect that bigger pieces will have is to lengthen the cooking time.

Put the apples in the kettle with a few inches of water. The goal is to prevent scorching without making the consistency watery. Cover and cook on low to medium heat, watching them carefully and  stirring several times to assure that nothing sticks. As you stir, you will see the apples begin to soften. Cooking time will vary depending on how full the pot is and how big your pieces are, but don’t “stew” them to the point of mush—they should keep their shape. I cooked about eight good-size apples; the total cooking time was less than 20 minutes.

When they’re done, let them cool a bit. Put your food mill over a bowl large enough to perch it securely and begin feeding spoonfuls of apples through. As you turn the mill, it will press the sauce through and leave the skins. Clean the skins from the mill periodically if you’re doing a large batch. This takes ten minutes or less.

Applesauce freezes beautifully. If you make a large batch, plan to enjoy some immediately, then cool and pack the reminder into freezer containers. I filled a large one for a family dinner and several smaller ones that are just the right size for the two of us. I also add applesauce to the Thanksgiving table for guests who don’t like cranberry sauce. I make that from scratch, too, and for me, it may be the best part of the dinner.

Santa, if you’re listening, here’s suggestion number two: Yankee Magazine editor Amy Traverso’s  The Apple Lover’s Cookbook.

 

The baguette experiment

It’s fall, and I’m back to making bread. I know I’m like a repeating decimal when it comes to the joys of home-baked bread, but few activities in the kitchen give me as much pleasure. l love the pungent smell of yeasty dough bubbling under the light at the back of the stove as much as the aroma the whole house seems to take on when there’s a loaf in the oven.

Not that it isn’t a fun and wonderful appliance, but there’s never been a bread machine in my kitchen. My KitchenAid is well worn after 20 years, but the dough hook is like new. I’d much rather mix with a dough whisk and knead by hand. Getting your hands in a ball of bread dough is a one-of-a-kind experience… it starts out all warm and sticky, and then, as you work it, becomes as smooth and soft as that proverbial baby’s bottom.

I’m no expert, for sure… just a home cook and baker. My end product is never perfectly beautiful—I leave perfection to the professionals—but is always made with love and is usually pretty darn good. Making bread is an adventure, every time, and you’re never 100% certain of where you’ll end up. For as much as any method or recipe can be pronounced “tried and true,” there’s always the possibility that something—undetected moisture in the flour, yeast that has lost a bit of its punch, or, heaven forbid, baker’s error—will throw you off your game. Delightfully, the opposite is equally true:  sometimes your results far exceed your expectations. Hence, this post.

Asked to bring bread to a harvest party last month, I decided to make baguettes. This bold stroke was uncharacteristically risky on my part, but I’d just gotten back from our annual pilgrimage to the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Store in Norwich, Vermont, with a specially designed baguette pan and KAF French-Style Flour. To increase the yield for the party, as well as to experiment a bit, I made two batches of slow-rise dough, one using the recipe on the French-Style Flour package, and the second using a KAF recipe made entirely with all-purpose flour.

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The loaves made only with all-purpose flour. Note that they are puffier.

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The loaves made with the French Style Flour, which for me most approximated a true baguette.

I was absolutely thrilled with the results, and so were the guests. I couldn’t imagine that these crusty loaves, with a lovely open crumb,  were produced in my own kitchen, and with so little effort. Both recipes turned out well, but if I were forced to vote for one, it would be the baguettes made with the French-Style Flour; for me, they were un vrai petit gout de France. The only change I’d make next would be to slightly reduce the salt, which is simply a matter of personal taste. Most of the magic, however, was probably in that marvelous pan, which allows the heat to circulate all around the loaves.

So many things have made home bread baking easier these days. Specialty flours and better quality yeast (SAF is my go-to, always), baking stones and cloches, a myriad of well-researched techniques, and innovations like the KAF baguette pan— all of these have built my confidence and continue to improve my results. A failure once in a while—and we can all claim them—isn’t much of a loss. Just learn and move on…and if you have questions, call the KAF Baker’s Hotline. It’s a treasure.

By the way, KAF makes this same pan for Italian loaves. Santa, are you listening????

 

What I did this summer

I’ve been erratic about writing these last few months. That tendency, to be erratic, is probably one reason why I’m never likely to write the Great American Novel. Serious writers, in my experience, are highly disciplined and highly routinized—and that’s never been quite my cup of tea.

First of all, I probably ate too much ice cream, at Leo’s in Carlisle, PA. But if you had a taste of this luscious stuff, you probably would have indulged too much, too.

Save for a single weekend getaway—a reunion with some dear friends in Annapolis— we’ve spent summer at home. Considering that time with our precious Miss Puppy turned out to be so limited, I am very glad that we were home with her. Still, going into fall, everything feels a bit… fractured… which is a good word to describe today’s post.

I’ve been reading steadily, but after Frances Mayes’ masterful Women in Sunlight, everything has fallen short and—excepting my foray into Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie stories—has seemed way too sad. Thus, I’m really looking forward to Adriana Trigiani’s newest, Tony’s Wife, due in November. If you don’t know her writing, and you love a beautifully told story that is poignant and warm and always rings true—just as she does—you’ll want to put it on your reading list. See my previous post about her and her website, adrianatrigiani.com, where you can also read about the wonderful, life-changing Origin Project.

In the garden, the extraordinary amounts of rain have resulted in huge growth spurts for our shrubs and trees. For the first time in years, thanks to my daughter, we have tomato plants. I’ve rediscovered their unique scent and decided that, fo me, it’s the quintessential smell of summer.

 

There was quality time with kids, grands, cousins, and girlfriends—long walks, a picnic, visits to nearby gardens (one the work of fairies, as you can see in the cover photo), and an alpaca farm.

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For entertainment, we finished the six seasons of Republic of Doyle. I can’t tell you how much we enjoyed this tightly written, sometimes hysterically funny nail-biter. The Doyles are father-son private investigators who get themselves and their entire family into all sorts of hair-rising trouble. The series was shot on location in Newfoundland, with fabulous ensemble acting headlined by Allan Hawco and Sean McGinley. All six seasons are available on Netflix although you can catch the first four on Acorn. Another winning Acorn series is Rake, starring Richard Roxburghan Australian series about a brilliant criminal defense attorney who is, to say the least, his own worst enemy. You will laugh copiously at this one. Both shows, by the way, have great soundtracks, and—like many other out-of-country programming—are better by leaps and bounds than 90% of typical US TV offerings.

In the kitchen, I’ve been determined to get out of my comfort zone. My next-door-neighbor Jamie joined me to try this zucchini galette, a King Arthur Flour recipe you’ll find here. It was a huge hit and went together in a flash.

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And that’s what I did this summer.

Just a note… I have always provided links to books via Amazon because it’s convenient and worldwide. After this post, however, I will be concentrating more on direct links to author pages and independent booksellers. Amazon has gotten way too big for my taste.  I’d rather support the writers themselves, or the “little shop around the corner”.  

 

 

 

Martha Pearl to the rescue

When I volunteer to “bring something,” my contribution is invariably an “old chestnut” whose outcome is never subject to question. For July 4th, a chocolate cake seemed the logical all-American choice. Given a miserable heat wave and the three loads of wash in progress, you’d think I would simply have thrown together my go-to, never fail “easiest chocolate cake.” But in a wave of what I can only characterize as heat-induced madness, I didn’t. I found a similar recipe in my Canadian Living: The Ultimate Cookbook—which had never disappointed me—and went for it, fully confident that it would be perfect and delicious.

Dumb.

I can’t blame the recipe because I took liberties with it. Forgetting that chocolate cakes are typically sturdier, I used the Southern-style soft wheat flour on hand, whose selling point, delicacy, is probably the polar opposite of the texture I would have gotten otherwise. Still apparently in that heat-induced fog, I sifted instead of whisked.

Dumber.

The batter was gorgeous, but the cake split in the last five minutes of baking. Meanwhile, despite having the AC at full tilt, the whole house felt dense and muggy. I took the cake out, confident that I could cover the veritable gorge sufficiently with icing.

Dumbest.

The cake was supposed to be cooled for 10 minutes, then inverted on a rack to cool completely, and inverted again on the serving platter to ice. I wouldn’t normally do this for a picnic–I would just leave it in the cake pan—but I wanted it to look nice and thought I’d give it a go.

I think you know what came next: the deconstructed chocolate cake, a messy plate full of crumbs and broken pieces. There was a time when I might have burst into tears, but at this point in life, I have finally learned the virtue of keeping calm and carrying on, as the saying goes. Plus, I knew I could rely on Martha Pearl.

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My Mother’s Southern Kitchen was the first cookbook of the southern collection that I started back when Nathalie Dupree had a southern cooking show on the then-new Food Network. James Villas’ book is a loving compendium of his mother Martha Pearl’s recipes, the best of which is her coffee cake. I threw it together in no time at all, as I’d done a week or so ago for a neighborhood event. This time, I knew that the soft-wheat southern flour would be perfect. I substituted buttermilk for whole milk, and threw in some fresh blueberries instead of walnuts. I suppose you could also use butter instead of shortening, but shortening does something lovejly for the texture, so I never mess with it.

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Martha Pearl’s coffee cake has a cinnamon streusel topping. 

The coffee cake was a hit, as I knew it would be. Unless you leave something out, it’s one of those perfect old chestnut, never-fail cakes—as Villas describes in the narrative. We’re munching on the deconstruction today, while I look for ways to “repurpose” it. I’ll update you if I find something.

All is good.

On meatloaf… yes, meatloaf

Truthfully, of my 100+-volume cookbook collection, there are only a few I actually use with regularity, primarily for baking.  I’m not precise or patient enough to use recipes for everyday cooking.  But one that I do use is The Roseto Cuisine Cookbook. I love this modest but mighty cookbook, last mentioned in my Easter bread post,  for more reasons than I can count.

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Today, it’s all about the meatloaf. I realize that the weather is getting warmer at last, and that heartier fare is not on our minds so much this time of year. But meatloaf is a great thing to throw in the oven while you laze on the porch with an apero, as the Italians call it. Plus, it makes fabulous sandwiches, hot or cold.

My mother’s meatloaf was beef and pork, two eggs, a splash each of milk and Worcestershire sauce, about two tablespoons of ketchup, salt , and, of course, breadcrumbs (the kind you make from the ends of bread,  left to dry out on the counter for a day or so), salt and just a pinch of pepper. She glazed the top with stripes of ketchup, which caramelized nicely to add a slightly sweet tang.

Over the years I’ve tried a few meatloaf recipes which, at the time, I thought might be more interest.  72 Market Street Meatloaf, named for the Venice, California, restaurant where it was a staple, is a much more refined meatloaf worthy of a special dinner; but the ingredient list is as long as your arm and you won’t put it, or the wine-and-shallots sauce designed to accompany it, together in five minutes. Ina Garten’s meatloaf isn’t bad either. It reminds me more of the meatloaf I grew up with.

Given the choice, however, my favorite meatloaf in recent years is the Italian-style Polpettone**, in the The Roseto Cuisine Cookbook.

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This recipe is close to perfect as is, but I understand that some of you may not eat veal or pork. You can skip either or both, but make sure that the fat content of your ground beef is generous. Italian-style chicken sausage might be a reasonable substitute; turkey sausage would probably be too dry. If you eat only ground turkey or ground chicken, my advice is to find a recipe designed for those products.

As you will see, the instructions say to mix everything together on a platter. I tried that, thinking it might be easier; but in the end found my giant stainless steel bowl works better. Wash up well—you absolutely MUST mix meat loaf with your hands.

Just as an aside, Roseto is in the Slate Belt of Eastern Pennsylvania. Adriana Trigiani has written about the town where her grandparents lived in several books. It is also the home of Ruggiero’s Market, where you can find Anna Marie Ruggiero’s marvelous cookbook. Or purchase it online here.

*Excepting Mom’s because to do otherwise would be heresy.

**Another version of Polpettone, a stuffed one, from Memorie de Angelina, an Italian food blog that I love (you will, too!), can be found here.

The easiest chocolate cake

The easiest chocolate cake, from my college roommate Suzie.

That’s my notation on Midnight Cake in my messy binder of recipes collected over decades from friends, magazines, newspapers, and various online sources.

I  lost track of Suzie, one of my short-term roomies, long ago; but this chocolate cake, otherwise known as “that black one with the coffee,” has remained a staple for I-will-not-say-how-many years. It’s a one-bowl method that goes together in a flash., You can use a 9×13 pan, fill two nine-inch layers, or make two dozen cupcakes.

The coffee creates another layer of flavor and gives the cake its deep, dark “midnight” color. It also provides that acidic touch that takes any cake from good to better yet, or maybe even over the top. Consider the classic French yogurt cake and the many recipes that call for buttermilk or sour cream, or just souring the milk with a teaspoon of lemon juice or vinegar.

On Easter Sunday, I was up early to get the cake made and out of the oven before church. Because I was still dragging  from the prior day’s Easter bread marathon, I knew I’d be at risk of forgetting something if I didn’t set out the ingredients first. Measuring and lining everything up before baking—called mise-en-place, or put in place—is another sheer-genius gift from the French culinary canonI first noticed all those ingredients lined up neatly on the work surface in the early days of Food TV. After my daughter, then a student at the Culinary Institute of America, reminded me of this useful habit, I went to a local kitchen store and bought a bunch of those cute little glass dishes. You can use this prep technique for anything—and I do—but since baking is chemistry, forgetting or mis-measuring can produce disastrous results. The risk of goofing definitely goes up when you’re extra busy or tired or prone to frequent interruptions (young mothers, take note!). I take everything from the pantry and fridge at once and set the eggs and milk aside to come to room temperature while I measure the dry ingredients. As each is measured out, with my mother’s oft-repeated advice to “clean up as you go along” ringing in my ears, its package returns to the pantry or fridge.

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Note that this recipe calls for sifting the dry ingredients, then adding everything else. I know that many home bakers argue that flour is pre-sifted. Sifting, however, isn’t just about the flour. Other both ingredients, like cocoa and baking powder, can get lumpy. Ergo, when a recipe says “sift,” I do as I’m told. By the way, any recommendations for a really good sifter are welcome. Since my last one conked out, I’ve been using a mesh sieve, which is a bit of a pain.

 

Midnight Cake
Preheat oven to 350; grease a 9×13 pan and dust it lightly with cocoa.

Sift together:
2 C flour
2 C sugar
¾ C cocoa (I use Dutch-process but any will work)
2 tsp soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt

Add:
2 eggs
½ C vegetable oil
1 C milk
1 tsp vanilla
1 C hot coffee

Bake for about 40 minutes.

Notes
1) The truth is that the “Whacky Cake,” a World War II relic that you make in the pan, without butter or eggs, is really the easiest chocolate cake. Or maybe the easiest and fastest cake of any sort. You can use coffee in place of or mixed with the milk or water to give it more zing. See the King Arthur cakepan cake recipes if you’ve never tried it. The problem with that this cake, however, is that it’s a smaller cake, so it won’t work if you need more than six servings.

2) A flavorful chocolate cake can stand on its own. I’ve often opted out of icing and just dusted this cake with powdered sugar.

3) Many recipes now recommend whisking the dry ingredients as an alternative to sifting. The reasoning behind this is that whisking will combine the dry ingredients effectively,  get rid of lumps, and  aerate the flour. If a recipe says “whisk,” I do so. But I don’t feel that whisking improves the texture of a cake as much as sifting. For more information, check this article on the Epicurous website. I’ve seen the same thing done with a food processor, but that seems like overkill and way too many pieces to clean up.

4) There’s no photo of the finished cake because I was in such a rush. I made cupcakes a few days ago—some for us, some for friends—but they disappeared before I could say “Cheese.” Best laid plans and all that.

Easter bread woes

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For all but a few of the last 20 or so years, I have faithfully used the same recipe for Easter bread, from my beloved Roseto Cookbook,* Anna Marie Ruggiero’s culinary homage to the life and times of the Italian immigrants, their children, and their children’s children, in a tiny town in the Slate Belt of Eastern Pennsylvania. Read Adriana Trigiani’s Queen of the Big Time and you will understand the community and the culture; use the cookbook and you will eat not lavishly but very well. Peasant food, la cucina povera, is always the best.

The Roseto Cookbook contains two recipes for Easter bread, or pane di Pasqua**.  I chose the second, because it seemed more direct. Recipe #2 always gave me great results, and even though it called for loaf pans, I was able to braid the loaves and insert the colored eggs for a more festive presentation. Recipe #1 always seemed too involved; it starts with a sponge that requires proofing time and three subsequent rises—one after kneading, one after the “punch down,” and the final for the formed loaves. In other words, an all day adventure.

This year, however, I wanted a bigger yield. Forgetting the lesson of roughly five years ago when I defected to a disappointing recipe on a popular Italian cooking website, I decided to try Recipe #1. Let me just say, to begin with, that it was no mean task to isolate four pounds of flour without having to weigh it all out on my teeny tiny kitchen scale. Flour, flour everywhere, and I hadn’t even gotten started yet.

The sponge frothed up nicely, but despite all the flour, the dough was very wet. Sweet dough is sticky, but this dough was trickier and wetter than I was accustomed to with good old reliable Recipe #2. It was also a LOT of dough to manage, and my awkwardness made me feel like a rank amateur. Eventually, though, it came together and successfully went through the next two rises. When it came time to shape the loaves, I worried that the dough would be too sticky and wet to shape the braids. But as the gluten developed it became a bit easier to work with. As long as I gave the dough a rest now and then, I was able to create the ropes and braid them, and to nestle the colored eggs in between.

One more rise and a few hours later, the loaves came out of the oven. They are BIG. No, they are HUGE. They are CLUNKY. They are too BROWN. There is nothing delicately pastel and Easter-y looking about them. There’s a split in one of the bigger loaves, and that egg I dipped in juice from a can of Wyman’s Wild Blueberries basically sank***. Although I’ve never been a picture-perfect baker, this is definitely not my best work.

Hubby graciously said he thought the four loaves looked great. When I grimaced, he said, “How do you want them to look?” “Not like that,” I muttered. This conversation was not unlike one we might have had if I’d come home from the salon unhappy with a haircut I’d just paid through the nose for. “But I think it looks great,” he would say, ostensibly trying to make me feel better but with a tentative quality in his voice, as if he were about to walk on hot coals.

There’s nothing really wrong with Recipe #1—this was a matter of my lack of skill in handling a huge quantity of sticky dough. Next year, please remind me that change for the sake of change isn’t always a good idea. In the time I spent today, I could easily have managed two batches of good old reliable Recipe #2. I might have ended up with less of mess, a better looking product, and some spare energy to make the cake I promised. All these things considered, though, it will taste fine.

I know that many of you wonder why I would go to so much trouble. I could certainly buy a picture-perfect loaf of Easter bread at the grocery store and no one around the table tomorrow would be likely to care, or even notice. But, of course, it’s not about the bread at all. As I made those not-so-perfect-looking loaves of Easter bread today, my mother, my grandmother, my Auntie Teresa, and my Auntie Anna were all right there with me. This is a tie that binds.

Wishing you and yours a blessed Easter… or a blessed Pesach. Easter bread, it turns out, is a lot like Challah.

* You can purchase this gem of a cookbook from Ruggiero’s Market in Roseto, PA. Anna Maria Ruggiero did the painting on the cover, too. http://www.ruggierosmarket.com/the-roseto-cuisine-cookbook.html

**  Easter bread is called by many other names from region to region—for example, in Calabrai, cuculi.

*** Nor were my “natural” dyes a huge success this year.  

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