Quick Fix

Summer’s here.  Finally.  The rain has given way to sunshine, and I’m trying to spend time outdoors.   I say trying because now that my teaching year has ended, I’m ever-tempted to fill some of my newly-found free-time experimenting with certain elaborate recipes I didn’t have time for during the school year.  I need to remind myself why I avoided them while busy with work —  if I don’t pay attention, summer will make way to cold, dark days before I know it, and I’ll have missed my opportunity to play outside.

Aside from keeping me indoors, these baking projects tend to overwhelm us with sweets.  Last week, when I felt inspired to make a Salted Caramel Chocolate Tart, we called for reinforcements.  I sent a text to several friends:  “Bike riding at Market Place parking lot.  I’m bringing dessert.”  We loaded our kids and their bikes into the car, along with our tart that needed sharing.

The kids made wide loops around the parking lot while the adults discreetly ate dessert.   When the time to leave arrived too quickly for the kids’ liking, we lured them off their bikes with promises of another biking rendezvous the next week.

Yesterday morning, even though I’d hinted at bringing another baking experiment to our biking date that evening, I decided to pack lunches and head to the beach with the girls.  We spent the morning playing in the sand and water with friends.

In the afternoon, instead of tackling a new, uncharted baking project in the few hours I had left, I decided to bake one of my childhood favorites — my mom’s Blond Brownies.

These chewy, chocolate-studded bars taste like caramel.  And the ease with which a handful of simple ingredients transform into rich brownie goodness makes them more than a little dangerous.  I never tire of them, so I should only bake them when friends can help make them disappear as quickly as possible.

I mixed the batter in the saucepan I used for melting the butter, and in no time, I scraped the thick mixture into a baking pan, topped it with chocolate chips, and tucked the pan into then the oven.  This left me with plenty of time to read in my hammock while Tessa napped and Eliza swam at the pool with friends.

The gorgeous weather held out for our bike riding date in town.  The kids did their crazy loops around the empty parking lot with only a few crashes and and spills.  And there were no scrapes or bruises that a bit of brownie couldn’t fix.

Here’s to long summer days and short  baking projects.

Blond Brownies

Adapted from Ginny Cowden’s recipe.  Makes about 24 brownies.

1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter (3/4 cups), melted
2 1/3 cups brown sugar, packed
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
12 ounces chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350° F.  Butter and flour a 9 x 13-inch baking pan;  set aside.  Melt butter in a medium saucepan.  Stir in brown sugar and salt.  Remove from heat and stir in eggs  and vanilla.  Mix well.  Add flour, baking powder, and baking soda.  Stir until combined.  Scrape batter into prepared pan and spread it as evenly as you can (it will be very thick).  Sprinkle chocolate chips on the top.   Bake for 35 to 40 minutes.  Cool in pan before slicing.

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Daily Bread

Last August I embarked on a lunch box challenge:  I set out to bake bread each week of the school year for my daughter’s peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Our final (and extra, thanks to snow days) week of school just came to a close, finishing of a 41-week marathon of freshly baked bread.  I shirked my duties only once — the week I made two crazy cakes (one / two) and two recipes of Thanksgiving rolls.  Thankfully, my friend Sharalyn offered to bake for me, so Eliza still had homemade bread in her lunch box for the three school days that week.

My baking quest led our family to try all kinds of bread, some that I wrote about, like French Bread, Sour Dough, Potato Bread, Fennel Bread, Cornmeal Graham Bread, Spinach Bread, as well as some others that I just haven’t gotten around to writing about yet, like Peanut Butter Bread, Honey Whole Wheat, and Whole Grain Maple Bread.

Aside from hearing my daughter rave about my bread, the best part of this weekly challenge has been finding myself back in the bread baking habit.  It takes less time and effort to bake bread than you might think, especially when you do it often.

Eliza’s favorite is one that we created together.   It’s a cross between the French loaves that got this whole weekly ritual going and the Seeded Bagels she loves so much.

One evening, after greedily devouring the poppy, sesame, and fennel seeds scattered under the rack of cooling bagels, Eliza asked me to make some bread with seeds inside.

I’ve baked this bread for five weeks in a row, and she still requests it if I ask her what kind of bread she wants.   Tessa, who refuses to eat seeded bagels, loves this bread, too.  Go figure.

And so, now that I’ve made it through the school year, will I keep baking all summer long?   Will I tackle the lunchbox challenge again next year?

Why not?  Once you get used to having fresh bread, it’s hard to turn back. And now that I’m in the habit again, I’d hate to break it.

Seed Bread

Makes two 5-by 8-inch loaves.

2 cups warm water (105º to 115º F)
1 1/2 tablespoons active dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
3 cups bread flour
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons cornmeal
1/3 cup mixed seeds (sesame, black sesame, poppy, flax, fennel, etc.)
2-3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

Pour the water in the bowl of a heavy-duty standing mixer.  Sprinkle the yeast and sugar over the surface of the water.  Stir until combined.  Let stand at room temperature until dissolved and foamy, about 10 minutes.

Add 2 cups of the bread flour, salt, cornmeal, and mixed seeds.  Beat with the paddle attachment until smooth, about 2 to 3 minutes.  Add remaining bread flour and most of the all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until the dough clears the sides of the bowl.

Switch to the dough hook and knead for about 3 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and springy.  Knead briefly by hand on a lightly-floured counter top, if desired.

Place the dough in a large, lightly-greased bowl.  Turn once to coat the top and cover the bowl with plastic wrap.  Let rise until tripled in bulk, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.  If you have time, punch down the dough and let it rise again for about an hour.

Set oven to 450° F, and then turn out the dough on a lightly floured surface.  Divide dough in half, shaping each portion into a tight loaf, pinching the seams together.   Place loaves, seam-side down, in well-greased pans.  Sprinkle tops lightly with flour.  Cover loaves loosely with plastic wrap and let rise until the dough rises above the tops of the pans, about 30 to 40 minutes.

After placing loaves in the oven, reduce temperature to 400° F.   Bake until golden brown and the loaves sound hollow when tapped with your finger, about 30 to 35 minutes.   Turn loaves onto a cooling rack immediately.  Allow loaves to cool completely before slicing.

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Hoppy Birthday to Me

My husband rarely gets sick.  Last week, though, he could hardly crawl out of bed.  I tried not to panic and suggested that he visit the medical center.

“I’ll feel better soon,” he croaked at me.

When Saturday morning rolled around, he swore up and down that he felt well enough to make me a birthday cake.   Birthday cakes are a big deal in our family (click here, or here, or here to see what I mean).

Eliza and Tessa had their hearts set on creating a frog cake. Even completely healthy, I knew my husband felt a bit nervous about the project.  He always helps me when I’m decorating cakes, but he usually steps in once the process is well underway.

My friend Val, who knew he’d been sick all week, offered bake a cake for him.

“Let me check the freezer, and I’ll call you back,” I heard him tell her.

In a frosty mist, he pawed through ice cream, last summer’s blackberries, and frozen chicken,  finally unearthing some cakes I’d stuffed in there months ago — two different-sized domed cakes that proved too small for the dalmatian cake I made for Eliza’s last birthday, and one eight-inch round that I had left over from some other cake.

I felt skeptical as he called Val back.   He still looked miserable, but he was miserable on a mission.

“I’m fine,” he promised.

Eliza eyed the frozen blocks of chocolate cake and sketched a plan.

Tessa helped mix and color fondant.

That afternoon, interspersed with rests on the couch and obsessive hand-washing, an amazing frog — complete with flowering lily pad — emerged from those rapidly thawing cakes.

My family fashioned the perfect birthday cake for this frog-loving mama.   I almost couldn’t cut into it.

On Monday morning, my husband admitted that he still felt rotten.  He finally made himself a doctor’s appointment.

His diagnosis — pneumonia.

If  he can produce this kind of cake from a frozen miscellany while deathly ill, I may need to step aside.  I see more cake in his future.

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Getting Nutty

As I grabbed the jar of peanut butter from the grocery store shelf, Eliza asked if we could get the chunky kind instead.

I nearly dropped the jar from my hand.

For as long as can recall, my little peanut butter and jelly sandwich aficionado has always favored creamy peanut butter.  I prefer the  crunchy variety, but since she’s our prime peanut butter consumer, it always seemed fair to let her choose.

“Really?” I asked

“Really,” she replied.

Somewhere out in the world, Eliza had tried crunchy peanut butter again and decided that it tasted better, nuttier, and just plain yummier with jam.

Thank you, dear friend, whoever you are, for reintroducing chunky peanut butter to my daughter.  This just goes to show how important it is to mix things up every now and again.

The reappearance of chunky peanut butter in our pantry suddenly got me thinking about one of my favorite cookie recipes:  Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip.

For some reason, it had never occurred to me to mix up these cookies with creamy peanut butter.  In retrospect, this seems silly, especially since they get extra extra crunchy from the addition of coarsely chopped peanuts.  In any case, now that I had chunky peanut butter, I needed to eat some Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies.  Right away.

These cookies burst with super-peanutty flavor, smooth chocolate-richness, and an amazingly crunchy texture.    One bite sealed the crunchy peanut butter deal in our household for both Eliza and her younger sister Tessa;  I should have baked these cookies years ago.

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated The New Best Recipe Cookbook.  Makes about 36 cookies.

2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks), softened but still cool
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup extra-crunchy peanut butter
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup salted dry-roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

Adjust the oven racks to the upper- and lower-middle positions.  Heat oven to 350° F.  Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Combine flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl.  Whisk to combine and set aside.

Using the paddle attachment, beat butter and sugars together in the bowl of an electric mixer.  Beat until light and fluffy, about three minutes, scraping down the sides several times.   Add peanut butter and beat until fully incorporated, and then add eggs, one at a time, and then the vanilla.  Working with about a cup at a time, gently mix in the dry ingredients.  Add peanuts and chocolate chips.  Stir gently until just incorporated.

Roll dough into 2-inch balls, placing them on prepared baking sheets spacing them at 2-inch intervals.  Press dough balls gently with a potato masher to create a pattern on the top, or use a dinner fork to create the traditional crosshatch pattern.

Bake for 6 minutes and then rotate baking sheets.  Continue to bake for 5 or 6 minutes more until the cookies are puffed and barely brown around the edges.  The cookies will not look fully baked.  Cool on baking sheets until cookies are fully set, about 5 minutes.  Transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

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Sweet Tart

Lemon Chess TartMy hand involuntarily reached for the book nestled on the “new” shelf in the kids’ section of our public library.   The three-letter title –Pie–told me all I needed to know;  if this novel featured pie, I wanted to read it.

I consider pie a perfect food, as does my daughter Eliza.  I knew immediately that we would enjoy reading this book together.

We devoured Sarah Weeks’ mystery in no time, savoring each suspenseful twist in a story set in a quiet town turned pie-crazy, wondering all along why the local pie queen Polly Portman bequeathed her secret pie crust recipe her seriously cantankerous cat.

Alice, the 11-year-old protagonist, inherits her aunt’s cat before he goes missing in a town full of suspects bent on perfecting pies.  As Alice navigates her grief and the mysterious events surrounding the cat’s disappearance, she learns about friendship, family, and self.

The book,  which I love for the story alone, won my heart with its pie recipes.  Each page-turning chapter begins with a recipe, complete with notations from Polly that reveal the generosity and spirit of the departed pie queen.

About half way through the book, Eliza paused long enough between chapters to ask when we could make a pie.   I’d been wondering if she’d ever ask.

Lemon Chess TartWe decided to start with the Lemon Chess Pie from chapter 8.  After we got going, I  realized that we’d chosen correctly;  aside from slicing two lemons, Eliza did everything, from zesting to juicing to measuring and mixing.

We needed to come up with a crust recipe since Polly’s secret instructions never appear in the book.  Because Eliza loves pine nuts, I suggested a nut crust with the addition of lemon zest since the filling didn’t require it.

This crust certainly looks nothing like what Polly Portman had in mind, but its nutty, slightly salty flavor complements the sweet tangy filling perfectly.

Lemon Chess TartI recommend both this book and this tart, especially if you have a small person in your life who loves sweets.   Eliza loved Pie so much that she decided to buy it for herself.  I’m pretty sure she’s read it at least four times on her own.

And she’s made the Lemon Chess dessert as many times as well. She’s only seven, but she already has a signature recipe.

Lemon Chess Tart

Pine Nut Crust

Make the crust first and let it chill while you prepare the filling.  This recipe will fill a 9-or 10-inch fluted tart pan.

1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
2 lemons, zested
1 1/4 cups flour
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick), plus 2 tablespoons butter, cut in slices
2 tablespoons ice water, plus more as needed, strained
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Whirl the first five ingredients in the bowl of a food processor until the pine nuts are chopped into smallish crumbs.  Add about 2 tablespoons butter and process until you no longer see chunks.  Add remaining butter and process briefly, leaving chunks the size of peanuts.  Working quickly, turn on the food processor and pour the ice water and vanilla through the feed tube, stopping before the dough comes together.  Pinch a bit of the dough between your fingers.  If it does not stick together, add a couple of teaspoons more water and whirl briefly.  Turn out the dough onto a large piece of plastic wrap.  Use the plastic wrap to help you create a large, flat disk:  fold the edges of the dough toward the center and press down to smooth out the roughness.   Refrigerate dough for at least 30 minutes.

Roll out dough into a circle to fit a 9-or 10-inch tart pan with about an inch of overhang all the way around the pan.  Transfer dough carefully into the tart pan, and then fold overhanging edge down inside the tart pan, pressing gently to help it adhere.  Prick the bottom of the crust five times with the tines of a fork.

Lemon Chess Filling

Adapted from the novel Pie.  Serves 8 to 10.

4 eggs
1  1/2 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons cornmeal
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup whole milk
2 lemons, juiced

In a large bowl, combine eggs, sugar, salt, cornmeal, melted butter, milk, and lemon juice.   Whisk by hand until sugar is dissolved.  Pour filling into unbaked tart shell.  Bake on the oven’s lower rack at 425° F for 10 minutes.  Reduce temperature to 350° F and bake until the center is set, about 25 to 30 minutes.  The cornmeal will form a thin crust on the top of the custard.   Serve at room temperature or chilled topped with a generous dollop of whipped cream.

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