Friday, May 29, 2009

Peach Bread . . . with Nectarines? (What's wrong with this picture? Nothing!)

Can peaches and nectarines fraternize successfully? Is one more deserving of respect than the other? My opinion? "Yes" to the former, and a resounding "no" to the latter.

There are those among us who cringe at the velveteen-like fuzz of the peach, the same way we recoil at fingernails on a chalkboard (my mother was one of these--she hated touching the fuzz), while others turn up their nose at the poor smooth-skinned nectarine. We always hear the phrase "peaches and cream," but never "nectarines and cream". . . why is that?

Did you know, though, that the nectarine is not a cross between a peach and a plum? That's the old wives' tale I'd always heard growing up. And, experts believe that peaches and nectarines in all likelihood have a "parallel history." Apparently, the two fruits share the same seed heritage. Agricultural scholars inform us that peach/nectarine seeds made their way to Persia from China, then travelled on to Greece and Rome. From there they meandered into the balmier areas of Europe, as seeds, not unlike people, are wont to do. We have the Spaniards to thank for bringing peach/nectarine trees and seeds to the New World via none other than Christopher Columbus. At some point in the 1500's, the trees were recorded as growing in Mexico. And Mexico, as we all know, is snuggled right next to America. Fraternization? Oh, I think so.

So, with that historical foundation firmly established, I feel justified at this point in telling you that this morning I used the fruit of both to make a hearty loaf of what I'll refer to simply as peach bread. I didn't have enough pieces of either fruit on their own for the whole loaf. But that was fine, because once peeled, cut up, and tossed in my bowl, the two fruits yielded the perfect amount, and they mingled together most harmoniously.

Unless you have remarkable children who are dietarily enlightened, this quick bread will probably hold more appeal for the adults in your household. It's not very sweet, and it contains not only a good portion of whole wheat flour but also oatmeal. And, while my intention is not to shock, I feel compelled to inform you that it contains . . . no butter or heavy cream! Just a modest amount of canola/vegetable oil. (You okay? Take a deep breath . . . and another . . . I know I'm venturing outside of the usual Jane's Sweets comfort zone here.)

This recipe is very much like one in the King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking cookbook called Peach Oatmeal Bread. The differences in my version are the inclusion of a small portion of AP flour, and 25 percent less whole wheat flour; larger-sized chunks of not just peach, but also nectarine, than their recipe calls for; and, more almond extract. I've renamed the recipe Whole Wheat Peach Bread because the flavor of the whole wheat is very evident, and the oatmeal flavor is secondary. I've also simplified the directions a bit without leaving out anything crucial.

I've baked this bread a couple of times before. The first time my fruit was so wet and juicy that the whole loaf, though deliciously flavored, was simply way too moist. The second time I overcompensated, trying to avoid a repeat of the first loaf, and that one came out too dry; I overbaked it and I'd used relatively dry fresh fruit. This time, I tried for a happy medium and I think it worked out well. Though, as I said, this bread contains no butter, it is very tasty if eaten warm with a little butter on it. (It's great toasted with butter on it, in fact.)

Whole Wheat Peach Bread

2 cups peeled, sliced peaches and/or nectarines, cut into 1/2 inch chunks, drained in a strainer if very juicy

1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
3/4 cup unbleached bread flour
1/2 cup AP flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg (use less if you're not wild about nutmeg; a little goes a long way)
1 cup old-fashioned, or quick, rolled oats

2 large eggs
1 cup milk (2% or whole--either is fine)
1/4 cup vegetable/canola oil
1 tsp. almond extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9" x 5" loaf pan.

Stir together all the dry ingredients--except the oats!-- in a large mixing bowl until well combined.

Now add in the oats to the combined dry ingredients, mix well. Toss in the peaches/nectarine chunks.

Stir to completely coat the peaches.

In a separate small bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, oil, and almond extract.

Pour the liquid mixture into the dry mixture, and stir just to combine until the batter is evenly moistened all around. Do not overmix.

Pour the batter into your prepared pan.

Bake on the middle rack of the oven for about 50 minutes, then check the loaf. If a tester stuck in the middle comes out pretty wet, bake another 5 minutes or so and retest.

If the top is overbrowning, at any point in the baking process, cover it loosely with foil. How long you'll ultimately need to bake the loaf will depend in large part on how moist your fruit is, so take that factor well into account. When it's done, let it cool on a rack, in the pan, for at least 15 minutes. It's a dense, heavy loaf so it takes quite a while to cool. Turn it out onto the rack and consider letting it cool almost completely before you slice it.

Makes a nice addition to any breakfast or a good, healthy snack anytime of day. Hope you like it!

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Fail-Safe Oatmeal Cookies

Last week's post on my fail-safe chocolate chip cookie recipe made me think I should likewise share my fail-safe oatmeal cookie formula, so here it is! It's one of those recipes you can confidently customize with added ingredients as you see fit.

My sixteen-year old son likes these with raisins only--he's a minimalist with this kind of food. My twelve-year old son likes them best with big milk chocolate chips--he's not a big fan of raisins. I like them in just about any incarnation and so does the hubby. Today I made a big batch of dough and divided it up before putting in any of the add-ins. Then I made about two thirds of it into the boys' two favorite varieties, and to the remaining third portion I added raisins, toasted chopped pecans, and sweet shredded coconut. Yum.

This recipe makes a lot of cookie dough (you'll get dozens of cookies out of it). If your mixer bowl is not very large, you might want to halve the recipe or be ready to takeover and do the final mixing steps by hand.

Jane's Fail-Safe Oatmeal Cookies

(For a printable version of this recipe click here!)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
2 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs
2 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
A few drops of lemon extract (optional, but I think it helps brighten the flavor very subtly)
A few drops of almond extract (optional, but " ")
3 and 1/2 cups AP flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1 and 1/4 tsp. salt
1 and  1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
6 cups oats (quick or old-fashioned, either will work)
2 cups raisins, moistened if they are very dry (per recipe below)

Measure the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg into a medium bowl. Combine lightly with a fork or whisk and set aside.

Measure the oats into a medium bowl; set aside.

Measure the raisins into a bowl. Especially if you're using sun-dried raisins, I recommend you spread them out in the bottom of the bowl and cover them completely with warm water, or fruit juice. Let that soak for about ten minutes. Drain the raisins and gently squeeze them with paper towel to remove excess water. Set aside.

Measure out any additional ingredients you want to add in--like walnuts, pecans, coconut, or any type of chocolate chips--in whatever reasonable proportions you prefer, and set those aside.

Beat the sugars, butter, and shortening for no more than about two minutes at medium speed, until well mixed.

Add the eggs, one at a time, and then the vanilla, still at medium speed until well combined.

Slowly add in the flour mixture, on low speed until it's just blended.

Add in any raisins, nuts, chips, etc. mixing on the lowest speed (or by hand if your mixing bowl seems too full).

At this point, if I were you, I'd divide the dough into a few clumps, wrap each in plastic, and freeze or refrigerate them for at least an hour, until firm. Also, I recommend you chill your cookie sheets in the freezer or fridge for at least 15 minutes before using them.

Cover your cookie sheets with parchment and portion the cookie dough about two inches apart. If you want hefty cookies use a no. 24 scoop (that's about a three-tablespoon scoop). Or, just roll the dough into balls with your hands; make the balls about the size of big walnuts, working quickly so as not to warm the dough. If you want smaller cookies, feel free--just be sure to bake them for a shorter amount of time. For flatter cookies, versus a puffier and more rounded-on-top version, press them down a bit before baking--not too much.

Bake for at least 13 minutes, checking as needed to prevent over-browning. The longer you bake them, the crispier they'll be. I like to have partly chewy, versus completely crispy, oatmeal cookies so I always try to remember--not always successfully--to take them out before they get very dark.

Let them cool on the pan for five minutes, then complete cooling on racks.

Now, go get a glass of milk, or a cup of coffee, or a nice glass of iced tea. Sit down, relax, and have a cookie.

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Speaking of Food Movies . . .

Yeah, I love to bake . . . but I also love watching movies.

In particular, I love movies that find ways to feature food in a beautiful way, as well as interesting food scenes in movies that otherwise have nothing at all to do with food. I've noticed that even in movies that fall into the latter category, often the most pivotal scenes occur while the characters are sharing a meal, are about to share one, or while someone is cooking. Examples abound. In The Godfather, for instance, food is not just sustenance. It's gangland fuel, and boy is it ubiquitous. First there's the wedding feast, which sets the stage for just about everything to come. Let's face it, the wedding feast scene entered the American vernacular a long time ago. How many times has my husband--apropos of nothing--smirked at me and, in the nasal voice of Michael Corleone speaking to his girlfriend Kay, remarked, "You like your lasagne?" or, "He's a very scary guy."

Or, remember the scene where Clemenza is showing Michael how to make spaghetti? I love it because it's so extraneous; it does nothing to advance the film, but it's the kind of little clip that stays in your memory. Miniscule, but somehow meaningful. "You start with a little oil, then fry some garlic. Throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, fry it and make sure it doesn't stick. You get it to a boil, you shove in all your sausage and meatballs. Add a little bit of wine. And a little bit of sugar. That's my trick." (And whenever I say, "That's my trick," to my husband--also apropos of nothing--he knows just what the reference is, bless his heart.) The Godfather is classic fodder for this kind of thing. Somebody is always shoving something starchy or bready into their mouth. (Come to think of it, a whole lot of shoving goes on in this movie, most of it the bad kind.) When you're a Corleone, even if death is just about staring you in the face, you know everything's probably gonna be okay because, hey, the bread basket never goes empty. It's a movie that can really make you hungry.

Another film I just love, that has nothing to do with food--except perhaps in the way its very scarcity is played up-- is Pollock. All about Jackson Pollock, the American abstract expressionist painter who made his name in the late forties and sealed his own sad fate in the fifties, the movie is a treasure trove of moments too stunning to forget. Visionary genius though Jackson may have been, he sure knew how to ruin a dinner party.

There's a scene near the start of the film where he's sitting at the table with his brother's family, his odd strait-laced mother, and his new, Bohemian, artist girlfriend Lee Krasner. They're eating a large meal. Lee whispers quietly to him, expressing a bit of shock at the overabundance of homey food that must have taken hours to prepare, "Did you people eat like this all the time?" As the scene progresses and the characters chat, it comes out that Jackson's soon going to be abandoned by his older brother and essentially forced to live on his own--a prospect that apparently terrifies him. He responds by becoming increasingly agitated. The volume of his voice rises along with the blaring music from the radio, and he begins frantically banging his fists and forearms on the table while clutching his utensils like a toddler. It's a disturbing scene but it sure serves to let you know the direction in which the story's headed (that would be to Crazy Town). And that's nothing compared to what he does to the elaborate Thanksgiving meal that's destroyed later on in the film; I won't describe that for you. You really have to see it for yourself.

What's my favorite film that does focus largely on food? That's easy. It's Big Night. I adore this movie. Why? Well, maybe because nothing completely horrible happens in it. There is no violence per se. No death. No sickness. It's just a quiet little story that somehow manages to illuminate the lusciousness of regular life, through relationships, through appetite, through the elemental process of touching food and preparing it for the people around you. The principal characters are two Italian brothers--one more Italian than the other--who are trying to make a go of it in their own tiny restaurant somewhere on the east coast. It takes place in the fifties and the clothing, the cars, the music all lend wonderfully to the atmosphere. You get a sense of the striving-for-sumptousness that went along with that particular sliver of 20th century America.

Some of the food preparation scenes are positively meditative, if you're a food-o-phile. The restaurant's kitchen is spare and organized; it goes hand in hand with the older brother's culinary work, which is clean, inspired, and methodic. As a viewer, you can't not want to sample the dishes, having seen the labor and skill that went into them. You wish you could. It's almost enough-- just the "voluptuousness of looking" at the gorgeously prepared, utterly authentic Italian food. (Some famous poet used that phrase, which I've always loved, but I can't remember who the writer was. I'll let you know if I ever figure out who it was.) The film is by turns funny, sad, charming, poignant, but never conventionally action packed. Definitely worth watching.

So, here's my short list, in no particular order, of favorite movies that happen to have at least one or more great food-related scenes, even if the scenes are short and seem on the surface to be inconsequential to the story:
  • Eat Drink Man Woman (Exceptionally wonderful film, if you're into food and/or cooking; subtitled, just fyi.)
  • Waitress (If you love pie, you gotta see this one; not perfect, but still worth it.)
  • Diner (If you've never watched it, stop what you're doing right now and go get it.)
  • Avalon (Like Diner, this is another great Barry Levinson film, with many huge, loud, ethnic, family dinners.)
  • Girl With a Pearl Earring (Remember the way she meticulously arranges the brilliantly colored vegetables while Vermeer is watching? He knows immediately that he's stumbled upon no ordinary scullery maid.)
  • Chocolat (Not remotely a perfect film, but the chocolate scenes alone are worth the ride.)
  • Tess (That's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, of course, the 1979 version with Nastassia Kinski. Lasciviously fed to her by a predatory cad, she bites into a crimson strawberry with a look in her eyes that tells us she knows it's just been plucked from the Tree of Knowledge. And in another scene she dines on an enormous hunk of bread while resting in a hay field. A visually beautiful movie.)
What are your favorite food films? Comment, and let's talk about it!

P.S. Really looking forward to the movie based in part on Julie Powell's book Julie & Julia, opening in August '09--another good one to add to the list, hopefully!

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Berry Shortcake has Arrived . . . Is it Summer Yet?

Memorial Day weekend always calls for shortcake, with berries of one's choice.

And I'm not talking about those rubbery little yellow cakes, shaped like miniature swimming pools, that you can buy in a cellophane package at the grocery store. No ma'am. Those atrocities always seem to surface this time of year, conveniently stationed near the strawberries in the produce department. They're a pathetic and feeble excuse for a true shortcake. When you see them in the store just keep walking--don't look back. Didn't you have to eat enough of those as a kid? I know I did. (What do you suppose our mothers were thinking? Maybe the Apollo astronauts ate them in space?? I don't know . . . there had to be a reason. I know my mom could bake . . . maybe she was too tired to bake shortcake? Is that possible? Guess we'll never know.) Anyway, I digress, yet again. Forgive me.

I've tried quite a few shortcake recipes over the years, some quite good, some mediocre. This one is perfect if you're craving a shortcake that's not too biscuity, not at all sponge-cakey, but rather delicately sweet with a tender crumb. This is the golden ticket.

It hails from a book called In the Sweet Kitchen, by Regan Daley. I made these shortcakes today and served them with sliced ripe strawberries and big, juicy blackberries. The fruit had been tossed around, an hour or two earlier, with perhaps three spoonfuls of sugar. Topped it off with a generous, soft dollop of Chantilly cream (just a pretty name for whipped cream sweetened with sugar and vanilla).

The process for making these is almost identical to the process for making scones, and it's all easily done by hand. I doubled the recipe in the version you see below, and omitted the author's particular instructions for the fruit, as I think you should use any fresh fruit you like and prepare it as you prefer. I simplified and shortened her compilation instructions too, without deleting any critical steps or meaningful info.

Rich Old-Fashioned Strawberry Shortcakes

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a large cookie sheet (or two smaller sheets) with parchment.

4 cups AP flour (I used bleached)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 Tbsp. baking powder (yep, that does say two tablespoons)
1 tsp. salt
1 cup unsalted butter, cold and cut into small chunks
2 eggs, large, lightly beaten
1/2 cup whole milk
10 Tbsp. heavy cream

About 1 (or more) additional Tbsp. heavy cream, and 1 additional Tbsp. sugar, for brushing and sprinkling on the shortcakes before baking.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine all dry ingredients with a whisk.

Cut in the butter with a pastry blender (or use the two-knife method) until the pieces look no larger than, say, cranberries.

In a smaller bowl, lightly beat the eggs, then mix in the milk and the cream.

Pour the liquid mixture into the dry ingredients all at once and combine until the moisture seems more or less evenly distributed. (You can mix it with your hands if you prefer; it'll be real messy but it's kind of fun. Like making paper mache with your kids when they were little.)

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface (a chilled marble board works great).

Using your hands, gently press the dough into a big rectangle, perhaps 14 by 7 inches, with a thickness of about 3/4 inch.

Using the cutter of your choice (round, square, any fairly basic shape that's not too small) dipped in flour, cut the dough into as many pieces as it will yield. Scraps can be gathered together, pressed out again with your hands, and cut with the cutter.

Place the pieces on the parchment on your cookie sheet(s). Brush the tops lightly with heavy cream and sprinkle with granulated sugar.

Bake them on your oven's upper rack for approximately 12 minutes; check them and, if needed, put them back in for a minute or two more until golden and not too soft. Don't overbake if you can help it.

Cool the shortcakes on a wire rack. Serve them warm or cold, with your favorite fruit, cut up and sweetened.

Yummy with whipped cream on top, plain or sweetened.

Delicious any way you decide to try it!

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Fail-Safe Chocolate Chip Cookies

Is the scene described below one you can relate to?

The setting, a typical suburban galley kitchen in a 1940s era bungalow, anywhere in the Midwest. Time, the present, approximately 7:15 a.m on a Tuesday.

Enter a tall sixteen-year old boy, dressed for school and hauling a massive backpack. He rushes through the room. Suddenly he stops, turns abruptly to his mother, who is standing by the sink holding a sponge, and blurts out, "Mom, Mrs. (fill in the blank), the lady in charge of (fill in the blank), says we each need to bring some kind of 'baked good' to the (fill in the blank) ceremony tonight. She said, 'preferably homemade.' I forgot to tell you." Teenage boy glances cautiously at his mother, plants a peck on her cheek, dashes out the backdoor, and speeds away on his bike.

The mother, momentarily dazed, still in pink bathrobe with hair decidedly askew, pauses momentarily in her activities. Gazing vacantly ahead she recalls the countless times this very scenario has been played out in her household since she entered the ranks of maternity. Almost instantaneously the mother collects herself, resumes her activities, and smiles calmly. With ease she has determined what she'll bake--her most reliable chocolate chip cookies. Once again, mom has the situation under control, thanks to a recipe she knows to be completely FAIL-SAFE.

My point: Every parent needs at least one no-fail recipe for a cookie that has broad appeal, and that can be thrown together swiftly. I have one such recipe for chocolate chips, one for oatmeal raisin cookies, and one for peanut butter cookies--three old standbys. In a pinch, I can always pick any of these time-tested recipes and proceed without fear of catastrophic results or otherwise unpleasant anomalies. You probably have your own old-reliables, too.

The recipe below is a derivation, adaptation, or corruption (I'll let you choose your own noun) of one that came originally from a Gold Medal flour bag. I made a few changes because I didn't like how thin and crisp the cookies always seemed to come out, though I did like their flavor. I experimented with a few batches, finally settling on the following formula. What did I alter? The amount and type(s) of fat used, the amount of flour, and the choice of chocolate chips.

The original recipe called for one and a half cups of butter. Instead, I use one cup of butter, two tablespoons of shortening, and 3 ounces of cream cheese. Also, I use three types of chocolate chips, instead of just using all semisweet, in the following approximate proportions: 60 percent bittersweet, 20 percent milk chocolate, and 20 percent semisweet. I strongly recommend you try Ghirardelli bittersweet chips; they're a bit larger than regular chips, exceptionally smooth, and taste really good. Ghirardelli milk-chocolate chips are also far better than a brand like Nestle, trust me--not cloyingly sweet and not at all waxy. For the semisweet chips, I have no quarrel with Nestle. They seem to have a good handle on the semisweet, but in my humble opinion, not on any other variety of chips. (Nothing personal, Nestle.) And, finally, I add a little bit more flour than the original recipe calls for--two to four more tablespoons max, depending on how much the dough seems reasonably able to absorb. These cookies have a pleasing texture that's nice and chewy, not brittle, and not cakey.

I use a large (no. 24) ice-cream scoop when I'm portioning these out onto the cookie sheets. That makes for pretty generous-sized cookies. A single cookie at a time will probably satisfy the average craving. That is, of course, unless you're a highly-active teenage boy, in which case you can eat a few at one sitting. But while we're on the subject, if you are that teenage boy, please try to remember to thank your mom for making them, okay? She'll appreciate it.

Jane's Fail-Safe Chocolate Chip Cookies

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line cookie sheet(s) with parchment.

1 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 Tbsp. shortening
3 oz. cream cheese
1 1/4 cups light brown sugar, firmly packed
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
2 large eggs
4 cups and 2 Tbsp. AP flour, bleached (and up to 2 more additional Tbsp. in case the dough seems to require it)
2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
14 oz. bittersweet chocolate chips (a little over 2 cups)
5 oz. milk chocolate chips (a little over half a cup)
5 oz. semisweet chips (a little over half a cup)

In a large mixer bowl, beat the butter, shortening, cream cheese, and both sugars until light and fluffy, about three minutes on medium speed. Add in the eggs, and beat another minute or two.

Mix together the dry ingredients. On the mixer's slowest speed, add them gradually into the butter mixture, just until combined. Do not overmix. (If your mixer doesn't have a very low speed, do this part all by hand.) Add in the chips, again on the lowest speed or by hand, until combined.

Cover the dough and chill in the fridge or freezer until it's very cold. I like to divide this dough into three globs, wrap them in Saran wrap, flatten those packages just a bit into disks and put the disks directly onto a refrigerator shelf. This helps them get cold much more quickly. Or, you can put the dough packages in the freezer to chill at this point too, if you are in a hurry. I also highly recommend you slide your cookie sheets into your freezer to chill for a few minutes before you put the dough on them. I do this all the time. It's a big help when it comes to preventing the dreaded cookie-spread.

When the dough is quite cold use a large scoop (a no. 24 scoop holds about three tablespoons of dough) to portion them onto the cookie sheets. Leave a couple of inches between each cookie. Work quickly so your cookie sheets and the dough don't warm up. (Prep cold, bake hot. Prep cold, bake hot. Say that to yourself about a thousand times. It's apparently one of the great truths of successful cookie production.)

Bake them for about 9 minutes, then peek at them in the oven. Bake a few minutes longer if needed. When they're nicely golden, but not dark, take them out. The longer you bake them the more crispy, and less chewy, they'll turn out. Crispy is still tasty, but tender chewiness is really what we're going for here. Let the cookies rest on the hot sheets for at least five minutes, then remove them to racks to finish cooling, using a stiff spatula. Be sure to cool your pans completely before putting another batch of dough on them. You should be able to reuse your parchment a couple of times. Happy baking!

P.S. If you have any rock-solid recipes like this that you'd like to share, please comment and include your recipe(s)! I am always looking to add to the arsenal.

(To comment on this post, or to read any existing comments, please click on the word "COMMENTS" just below.)