Sunday, March 29, 2015

Old School Dessert: Pineapple Upside Down Cake

I had forgotten how much I like pineapple upside down cake until I came across this recipe. My first recollection of eating PUD cake was during my parent's card club soirees. As a kid with a budding interest in food, I would sneak out of my room to the kitchen where I would eye the buffet, set with food we didn't normally eat. Tiny sandwiches, meatballs, and other savory appetizers next to a fancy lime sherbet punch served in pretty glasses. And then that cake. Glistening pineapple studded with bright red cherries. Like a jeweled, exotic dessert! I'm pretty sure those card club nights shaped my young world view of food.

This particular recipe takes me right back to that childhood memory. A tender cake with not-too-sweet topping. I'm not a fan of maraschino cherries, so I replaced them with pecan halves. Feel free to use either, both or omit. This cake would be just as tasty with the pineapple alone.

Combine topping ingredients in a medium saucepan. Boil
until a candy thermometer registers 235-240 degrees. 

Place topping in cake pan. Top with pineapple slices. Set aside.

Use the same pan to mix up the cake batter. No need to clean!
Place batter on top of filling and bake.

Bake cake until golden brown. Let cool in pan 10 minutes.
Run a spatula around the edge to loosen.

Place serving platter over cake in pan. Holding the
platter and cake pan, flip cake over. Remove pan.

Cake can be served with ice cream or whipped
cream. I like it without the extras.

Pineapple Upside Down Cake
Adapted from King Arthur Flour
Yield: 8-10 servings

20-ounce can pineapple rings, well drained, juice reserved
1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup pineapple juice, reserved from rings 
maraschino cherries or pecan halves, optional

1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 3/4 cups self-rising flour
1/2 cup pineapple juice, reserved from rings

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 9" cake pan.

Make the sauce: In a medium saucepan, melt the butter and whisk in the brown sugar and pineapple juice until well blended. Cook over low heat until the sugar is completely dissolved. Increase the heat and boil until the mixture thickens a little, and the temperature reaches 235°F to 240°F (soft-ball stage). Depending on pan size, this will take between 3 and 5 minutes. If you don't have a thermometer, drop a bit of the syrup into a glass of cold water; it will form a soft, flexible ball when it's reached the proper temperature. 

Pour the sauce into the prepared pan. Set your saucepan aside; don't wash it, you'll be using it again. Arrange the drained pineapple slices in the pan. Place a maraschino cherry or pecan half into the middle of each pineapple slice, if desired. Set aside.

Make the cake: Place the butter for the cake into the saucepan. Swirl the butter around to melt it, and mix in any remaining sugar syrup; don't worry if it has some lumps. Whisk in the sugar and vanilla. Add the eggs one at a time, whisking well after each addition. Add the flour and pineapple juice to the mixture. Whisk until fairly smooth. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake the cake for 35 to 40 minutes, until evenly browned. Cool cake in the pan for 10 minutes. Run a spatula around the edges to loosen, and turn it out onto a serving plate. Serve warm, or at room temperature, with whipped cream or ice cream, if desired.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

My Favorite Seeds

We start most of our garden produce from seed. Not indoors, but direct sowing some seeds as soon as we can get in the garden. Our attempts at indoor starting usually ends with non-germinating seeds, dead plants from a lack of water or, if they survive, spindly, leggy plants. Best to let Mother Nature take control.

Cold hardy greens, peas, radishes and spring onions are planted in March. Many of the other seeds we'll plant in May, just prior to the frost free date. Tomatoes and peppers are purchased as starts at our local greenhouse and planted after all danger of frost.

Below are a couple of my favorite plants we grow from seed. Many aren't available as starts or some seeds can only be found in catalogs. I have to give a shout-out to Johnny's Select Seeds. They're our seed purveyor of choice, with a huge selection for both gardeners and market growers.

Best spring sight! We'll direct sow these into the garden - some as early as March.

I've noticed some greenhouses now carry tomatillo starts. When we first started growing, they were a rarity. Tomatillos are super easy to grow and very prolific. Be aware: if left in the garden or added to the compost, seeds can winter over. We use tomatillos to make green salsa, which in addition to being a tasty dip with tortilla chips, is a great topper for chicken enchiladas.

We've been growing red broom corn for several seasons (best corn shocks ever). Broom corn is a variety of sorghum that is traditionally used to make brooms. I have friends who feed the seed heads to their hogs, but we just use it for fall decorations. The stalks are tall and strong and stand up to wind better than traditional shocks. FYI - the seed heads attract birds. Can't wait to mix the varieties this year!

Radishes are a sign the gardening season is open as they're usually the first food we harvest. D'avignons are long and slender with a crispy, not-to-peppery bite. I especially like them on vegetable platters as they're more functional than globe radishes when it comes to dipping and they're prettier. I hear the French enjoy them sliced lengthwise and spread with butter. In our house, we use them as a quick fresh side, a crunchy, spicy addition to a salad or roasted to enhance their sweetness. 

We grow lots of eating pumpkins which I process into pulp and use in baking throughout the year. I have a couple favorites, including this Long Island Cheese pumpkin. They're easy to grow and reliable. Just a few fruits is enough to keep you in pumpkin pie all year. I grow them alongside the Musquee de Provence (or fairytale) variety, which can be seen here. Both have a superior flavor and together make a fantastic pie, bread, cake, etc. And I enjoy watching them grow.

Sunflowers are so easy to grow and some newer varieties produce blooms all summer. I like how they look in the garden as well as my dinner table. Multi-colored Ring of Fire and Strawberry Blond are my favorite but sunflowers come in dozens of varieties from lemon yellow to almost black. I've often thought we should tear up a 1/2 acre and just fill it with sunflowers! Maybe next year.

What are you growing from seed?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Blueberry Crumb Cake

Spring is finally here and while I can't get in the gardens yet (it's a muddy mess) I can celebrate warmer temps by baking up a spring treat. I recently purchased a few Meyer lemons. Sweeter than traditional lemons, Meyer lemons are a cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange. They're available for a limited time (at least on Ohio) so I always try to grab a bag when they're in season.

I still have a few summer blueberries in the freezer. Each spring I inventory the freezer and try to use up last year's meat and produce in preparation for the summer and fall harvest. Lemons and blueberries pair well and I browsed several recipes that incorporated both. And then I came across Ina Garten's Blueberry Crumb Cake.

I modified the recipe slightly, substituting Meyer lemon zest for regular lemon zest and used my frozen, rather than fresh berries. This was the first time I made the cake and it turned out well. Sweet, tangy and tender with a nice crumb topping.

A Meyer lemon (left) is a cross between a lemon and mandarin
orange. It's sweeter than a regular lemon (right).

Blueberries freeze beautifully. No need to thaw before adding to the batter.

Finishing touch: powdered sugar atop the crumb.

Fine, tender crumb studded with blueberries and topped with a sweet craggy streusel 

Blueberry Crumb Cake
Adapted from Ina Garten

For the streusel:
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

For the cake:
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature (3/4 stick)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon grated Meyer or regular lemon zest
2/3 cup sour cream
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries: If using frozen, do not thaw
Confectioners' sugar for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 9-inch round baking pan.

For the streusel:
Combine the granulated sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a bowl. Stir in the melted butter and then the flour. Mix well and set aside.

For the cake:
Cream the butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on high speed for 4 to 5 minutes, until light. Reduce the speed to low and add the eggs, one at a time, then add the vanilla, lemon zest, and sour cream. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. With the mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture to the batter until just combined. Fold in the blueberries with a spatula.

Spread the batter evenly in the prepared pan. Sprinkle topping evenly over the batter. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool completely and serve sprinkled with confectioners' sugar.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Fig Cookies

I didn't eat a fig until I was an adult. I think I may have first enjoyed them on pizza. I was hooked. I now keep a stash in my pantry and use them in both sweet and savory dishes including baked goods, appetizers, pizza, spreads, etc. We even tried to grow figs. Unfortunately, the tree perished in the great polar vortex of 2014. But that's a story for a different blog.

These cookies are the homemade version of the commercial fig cookies. I especially like them because they're loaded with figs. They also have a bit of whole grain flour along with 2 grams each of protein and fiber. In my book, that's a good enough reason to enjoy them for breakfast along with a bit of greek yogurt.

Store these cookies in an airtight container, or freeze for longer storage. I find the flavor improves if they're allowed to sit overnight. The filling mellows and the crust softens and becomes more tender.

Combine dough ingredients, cover and refrigerate for two hours.

Combine filling ingredients, cook for 3-5 minutes and
set aside to cool.The filling will be very thick.
Roll refrigerated dough to 14 x 16-inch rectangle.

Cut dough into four 4-inch wide strips. Spread
filling down the center of each strip.

Lift sides of each strip and place over filling.
Don't worry if the dough cracks - it will come together as it bakes.

Cut each strip in half cross wise. Place on a baking sheet and cut
each strip into 1-inch pieces. Don't separate the cookies.

Allow the cookies to cool slightly on the baking sheet before separating. Remove to a cooling rack.

Fig Cookies
From The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion

1/2 cup shortening
1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder

1 lb dried figs, stems removed
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 cup water
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1 Tbsp orange juice

Make the dough:
In a large bowl, beat together shortening, sugar, eggs, and vanilla until creamy. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flours, baking soda, salt, and baking powder. Add flour mixture to wet ingredients, beating until blended. Cover and refrigerate 2 hours. In the meantime, prepare the filling.

Make the filling:
Grind the figs in a food processor until a sticky, cohesive mass forms. Combine figs, sugar, water and juices in a medium saucepan stirring to distribute ingredients. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until the mixture becomes very thick, 3 to 5 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Make the cookies:
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Remove dough from refrigerator and roll on a lightly floured surface into  14 x 16-inch rectangle. Cut dough into 4 strips, each measuring 4 x 14 inches. Spoon filling evenly down the center of each strip. Lift sides of each strip over filling and press to seal. Cut each strip in half crosswise, making a total of eight 7-inch strips. Place strips seam side down, leaving 3 inches between strips, on a parchment lined baking sheet. Cut each strip into seven 1-inch pieces, but don't separate them. Bake for 13 to 15 minutes until they're puffed and firm to the touch. Cool for several minutes on the baking sheet before separating and cooling completely on racks.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Maple Syrup Making

The beginning of spring always signals maple syrup season for me. Growing up, our family would gather at the family farm to help my grandfather's brother make syrup. Although I was young, I can still recall the warmth of the sugar shack and the smell of smoky wood combined with the sugary sap. At the time I might have been more impressed with the draft horses Uncle Paul used to collect the sap, but today when I see a shack with steam billowing out the top, I appreciate the care, effort, time and resources to make delicious syrup. And I usually pull the car over to se if they're selling yet!

Although my family no longer makes syrup, I still enjoy watching the process. Recently the hub and I visited the Maple Syrup Festival at Malabar Farm State Park near Mansfield, Ohio.

If you're unfamiliar with how syrup is made, sap is collected from sugar maple trees by drilling taps into the trees. The sap starts with a 2 percent sugar content and is slowly boiled down until it reaches a 66 percent sugar content. It takes roughly 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of real maple syrup.

Collection methods and evaporators have evolved over the years. My Uncle Paul used galvanized metal buckets hung over the tap to collect the sap. He'd hitch the horses to a sled and drive through the woodlot stopping at each tree to dump the bucket into a large container on the sled which he then dumped into a wood burning evaporator. Many producers today use plastic tubing strung from each tree to a collection vat that can be located at the shack. Evaporators come in a variety of sizes, depending on the number of taps and are are fueled with wood or gas.

Maple syrup season doesn't last long. The sap runs only in early spring when nighttime temperatures are below freezing and daytime temps warm to 40 degrees or above. Be sure to get it while it's available!

Lots of tap options!

A bucket hangs on a tap. The cover helps keep debris out of the sap.

Newer collection methods include plastic tubing transporting the sap to a collection container,

The plastic tubing delivers the sap to the collection barrel.

Tell tale sign sap is boiling: smoke/steam exiting from the shack vent.

Inside the sugar shack the sap is deposited into the evaporator where it's boiled
 into syrup. Sugar content is measured with a hydrometer.

The hub made some new friends.

Be sure to look for "Pure Maple Syrup" on the label. Can't wait for Sunday brunch!