Archive for the ‘Breakfast’ Category

The Christmas Dream

Pan d'oro

Pan d’oro

I don’t know if it is because of my propensity towards eating sardines before bedtime (a long story / another time), but I have noticed of late that I have been having some rather odd and perplexing dreams.

I am still pondering one that repeated a few nights ago wherein my subconscious spun a tale of spending Christmas with Mary, Mary Quite Contrary of nursery rhyme fame.

As fashioned by the festering chemical swirl of my cerebral cortex, Ms. Contrary was an exceedingly tedious young woman who made me long for a good, old-fashioned “Chinese food and movies” Christmas.

I bade her a Merry Christmas, only to be greeted by a bloated face held in a sour grimace as she informed me with a tap-tap-tap of her Rolex that we were still experiencing Christmas Eve; to whit, Christmas was nigh.

“Tut, tut” said I before remonstrating, “Be of good cheer else Father Christmas will not wriggle down your chimney to leave you gifts good and plain this holiday.”

Ms. Contrary would have none of it. “I’m a little old for Father Christmas don’t you think?” I could scarcely answer this apparently rhetorical question without suppressing a titter at the thought of the poor red and white velour-costumed, part-time Macy’s employee whose knees might be subjected to bearing the considerable heft of Ms. Contrary’s person should she choose that source to declare her holiday wishes.

In the hopes that a sympathetic soul might rescue me from this angry, vanilla-scented hillock in yoga pants, I stood on my tippy toes to try and catch a glimpse of other guests over her balustrade-like shoulder; alas, even fashionably late, I came to the suffocating realization that I was the first to arrive.

“Something smells delicious” I beamed, summoning every bit of sunshine I could muster.

“I made dinner” she glared. “When one invites people for dinner that usually means one serves dinner” she sassed with a twist of her head, spitting the last words at me.

“Ah!” I exclaimed, “I’ve brought dessert” and handed her my paper-wrapped, beribboned creation like a sacrifice being thrown into a roiling, steaming volcano.

With a drop of her shoulder she gave my creation a look similar to that which one would give a newly discovered rash.

“Ugh” she grunted. “You’re such a tool. I told you not to bring anything except wine.”

“Well you know I’m kind of a light weight when it comes to alcohol, and I do like to bake…” I started, before realizing that I had released the kraken.

“Are you saying I have a drinking problem? That I’m an alcoholic?”

“Oh not at all!” I squealed, attempting to back away from a cliff over which I had unwittingly placed one foot.

“Tell me you didn’t make those frosted cookies with the red and green sprinkles! Those are so grandma!”

“No, this isn’t cookies…”

“I knew it!” she boomed, stamping her large, but delicately shod foot. “A cake.”

“Actually it’s a Christmas bread.”

“You mean a Panetone?” she snorted with disgust. “I hate anything with that candied citron stuff. Oh no! Tell me it’s not a Stöllen!” she ranted, “I hate Stöllen.”

“None of those” I cowered, “It is a Pan d’oro.”

Wrenching it away from me with a dimpled paw, she quickly tore off the festive paper wrapping that had protected my masterpiece.

“For your information Mister Food Blogger, that’s a cake, not a bread. I hope you brought the powdered sugar to sprinkle over it.”

“But it’s called Pan d’oro which means bread of gold, and it’s made with yeast” I simpered before being reprimanded in the most severe way.

“It’s a cake, and I asked you to bring wine.  Anyway, you’re not getting dessert until you’ve had all seven fish courses. Get in there and start eating. March!

Wake me up in time for Christmas. Please.

Save Our Ship

Zwieback

good for what ails you

“You can’t set her on fire, you can’t sink her, and you can’t catch her.”

You’re reading a blog about baking, so your mind must be wondering: who on earth could this quote describe? Julia Child? No. The answer isn’t a “who”, it’s a “what”, although if you’re a sailor or naval-type you will debate the latter point.

The quote is attributed to William Francis Gibbs, the preeminent naval architect of his day, a man who designed over 5000 US Navy ships and the famous World War II “Liberty” ship fleet. So, which of those mighty battle ships was Gibbs describing? None. He was describing what I have always thought is the most beautiful ocean liner ever built, the s.s. United States.

It is not hyperbole to describe the United States as the culmination of Gibb’s life-long dreams, and, perhaps, the love of his life. (When asked which he loved more, the ship or his wife, his unblinking answer was, “The ship — a thousand times more.”)

Gibbs was many things: tough, profane, a self taught naval architect, and perhaps, as he has recently been labeled, the Steve Jobs of his day. That’s an apt description of Gibbs; the technological advances he built into the United States were true shipbuilding game changers.

A tough old salt he may have been, but it is worth noting that his firm employed women in key jobs, including the one who designed the propellers for the s.s. United States. (No small job by the way. The ship set records for speed that stand to this day, yet was noted for its lack of vibration, something that is usually caused by the propellers.)

After a couple of high profile ocean liner fires, he built the Unites States to the very highest standards of fire safety. Advertising for the ship often noted that the only wood on board was in the butcher’s blocks and the grand pianos. (Gibbs wanted aluminum pianos, but William Steinway proved that his wood pianos wouldn’t burn by inviting Gibbs to the Steinway factory, dousing a piano with gasoline and lighting a match. The piano smoldered a bit but didn’t burn, and Gibbs was satisfied.)

The s.s. United States was launched in 1951 and her career was heavily subsidized by the U.S. government until 1969 when the Nixon administration pulled the plug, sending her into a sudden and surprising retirement. Over the years she has changed hands many times, had her sleek mid-century interiors stripped away, and for the last seventeen years been tied up at a pier across from an Ikea in Philadelphia.

the s.s. United States: rusting,abandoned, but still beautiful

the s.s. United States: rusting,abandoned, but still beautiful

What’s amazing is that she still exists and hasn’t been sold off for scrap metal—yet. Now in the hands of a group that is trying to save the ship, she sits rusting, yet still as beautiful as ever. The group, the SS United States Conservancy, seeks to make her an integral part of a waterfront development, with New York, her former home, seemingly the favorite location. Personally I think she’d be very cool in New York City, docked next to the air craft carrier Intrepid, sporting her red, white, and blue smoke stacks, two sisters standing as testament to the highest examples of twentieth century American engineering and craftsmanship.

Unfortunately cobbling together the deal to recondition and place the ship in the right setting has been taking more time than the conservancy has money, so a trip to the scrap yard is a constant threat. (The conservancy reports they have only about two months in reserve for the ship’s current upkeep.)

In addition to the usual fundraising route, they have devised a very creative crowd-sourcing scheme—to which I am proud to say I have contributed. Save the United States is a great site where you can learn more about the ship and contribute to the conservancy by “buying” pieces of a virtual version of the ship. (I “own” fifty square inches of the First Class Observation Lounge. Please remove your shoes when passing through.)

Even if you don’t want to contribute, I recommend a visit to that site and to the conservancy’s main website, http://www.ssusc.org/ to learn about this great American creation.

You need not worry about getting seasick: it is a pretend ship, and I have baked an old seasickness remedy standby that was always available on ocean liners—including the United States.

Zwieback may be more familiar as a teething cookie for babies, but this mildly sweet, nutmeg infused toast is light as a feather, and its crunch can be intensely satisfying—and stomach settling. The recipe is available from the King Arthur Flour site. I recommend the full dose of nutmeg, but make sure to let the Zwieback cool thoroughly before eating or the nutmeg can be a little overwhelming. Try these dipped in some New England Clam Chowder. Or plain if you’re a little queasy.

And Bon Voyage!

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Discovering Chris (likes cake)

Apple Skillet Cake

Apple Skillet Cake

It was nice to get out of my apartment after being holed up waiting for Hurricane Sandy to have her way with us. I had a standing invitation to visit an elderly friend who just re-did his apartment and was having a few friends in so he could show it off.

Like so many New Yorkers Chris has lived in the same place for many years, and his views and location are—shall we say—extraordinary. The downside is that it is a sixth-floor walk up. It’s a climb. But Chris, having long ago retired (he was in the shipping business) never leaves his perch.

My goodness. For an elderly gent he’s the life of the party. He spent the entire time standing on his new coffee table.

Naturally I couldn’t show up empty handed. The question was: what shall I bring to a housewarming…or to be more accurate, a “redecoration-warming”?

It’s Fall. Every fall, this young(!) man’s fancy turns to apples.

That’s not entirely accurate. I should say my fancy turns to apple cake. A nice piece of apple cake just hits the spot for me on a chilly fall day. Hey, you can’t just eat chocolate all the time. (What the heck am I saying? Of course you can…)

I’ll admit that there are only so many ways to make apple cake. My ideal would be a cake that is not too sweet, not too heavy, that would have apples just tinted with a sting of cinnamon, and cooked through. Too many apple cakes end up with dull, undercooked apples. Don’t let this happen to you!

My standby trick for the latter problem is to cook—sauté—the apples first. Some people may object to this, after all, it is an extra step, and yet another pan to be washed, dried and put away. But I’m afraid I must insist.

Photobombing Chris

We couldn’t get him off the coffee table…

I kept thinking of all the big puffy apple pancakes I have made or been served over the years. You may have seen these referred to as “Dutch Babies” or “Dutch Apple Pancakes”. Kin to popovers, they owe their appeal to the high amount of eggs in the recipe that make the pancake puff so dramatically in the oven. The eggs, in turn, give the pancake a richness and heartiness that can be very satisfying.

Nice…but it’s not cake. And I want cake.

I do love my All-Clad skillets, and what better place to cook apples than there? While I’m at it, why not bake the cake in an nice shiny skillet and bring the whole thing as a gift to ol’ Chris?

I started off with three large apples cored, and thickly sliced. (I used a couple of Braeburns and a Cortland. I don’t think the variety matters all that much in this recipe.)

In the large skillet I slowly melted butter and sugar until I had a rough approximation of a light caramel sauce. Then I added the sliced apples and let the whole thing bubble until a lot of the liquid cooked away.

After removing from the heat, I made a very simple bowl and spoon cake batter (no mixer!). I poured it over the apples and spread it in an even layer. It seemed like there may not be enough batter to cover everything, but since the recipe calls for a healthy dose of baking powder, I knew that the heat of the oven would give it enough of a “whoosh” to cover everything.

I have to admit that I was experimenting: taking a little bit from this recipe and a little bit from that—not always a smart thing to do when baking. When you’re cooking on top of the stove you can taste as you go and adjust the seasonings as needed. Baking is a little like pottery: sometimes you really just don’t know what you’ll get until the timer beeps and you open the oven door.

In this case you get what seems like an unassuming cake in a pan…straight from the oven it almost looks like baked polenta. But then you turn it over and serve it apple-side-up, dusted with some confectioner’s sugar, and you have a gentle, homey snack, dessert, or even breakfast that would not have been out of place in a colonial tavern.

I could tell that Chris was thrilled, although he wouldn’t let on, being the stone-faced hombre he is. His apartment is beautiful, but as I wandered around I questioned whether he’d actually ever use the shiny, new skillet that the cake came in.

He doesn’t have much of a kitchen.

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Click here for the recipe for Apple Skillet Cake

Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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Donate to the American Red Cross to support Hurricane Sandy relief. Please.

Crumbs and the Single Girl

Banana Bread

Banana Bread…schmear of cream cheese optional

Several days ago I started writing the blog posting you are currently reading. As you’ll see, it’s a riff on Cosmopolitan Magazine. I had written a few paragraphs when I happened to look up from my computer and saw on my TV, “Helen Gurley Brown, 1922-2012”.

I was startled on so many levels. Startled at the timing of choosing this week to write about “her” magazine; startled at her age—90—when I really had no idea how old she was; startled at the loss of one of those folks who seemed so ubiquitous here in New York.

Listen, New York is like that: blink and your neighborhood changes. The Plaza Hotel is now a condo. H&H Bagels? Gone. Broadway Nut Shoppe? Gone. Now Helen Gurley Brown? What’s next? Who’s next?

In person Helen Gurley Brown was hard to miss. I waited on her many years ago. She was tiny. Her extremely high forehead betrayed a propensity towards proud, public, plastic surgery. She also had a very benign energy. Back in my days as a waiter I waited on some scary monsters. She was not one of them.

To her friends she was notoriously cheap. Yet, she donated $18 million to Columbia University’s School of Journalism.

I never really read Cosmo. Sure, over the years I may have picked it up and flipped through it, but I never actually read it. Last week I was waiting for the dermatologist and had a choice: Cosmo or Psoriasis Monthly. I’m not into rash porn so I picked up Cosmo. My goodness, there’s a whole world there about which I knew nothing.

Although she had long since handed over the reins to other Editors-in Chief, to my inexperienced eye the magazine appeared to have retained her infamous, singular vision. My previously uninformed impression of the magazine was that it would be full of young women propelled solely by a flake or two of Special K and a few sips of Crystal Light. The reality was that I found a section dedicated to food and drink.

This pleased me greatly. Even though under the guiding hand of Helen Gurley Brown Cosmopolitan became a guidebook for navigating the minefield of finding and balancing “HIM” and a career, I have found that one of the great unspoken keys to any young woman’s success is having a way with food. Forgive me, I am about to rant, but nonetheless here it goes: I’m sick of people (including members of my own family) who visibly and loudly wrinkle or turn up their nose at making something in the kitchen.

The only thing you know how to make is reservations, you say? Sorry. Where’s my sense of humor? It would be the depths of poor manners for me to not laugh, however please be advised that I am laughing at you not with you.

As surely as Helen Gurley Brown had a singular vision to guide young women, I too have one. Go in the kitchen and cook something for someone. Put yourself out there. “Cast thine crumbs upon the water and they come back a thousandfold.” (That’s not me, that’s from Ecclesiastes…)

To those who insist they can’t, that they’re hopeless, I say take a page out of Helen Gurley Brown: those who can’t should fake it.

Uhhh, where did your mind go? I’m still talking about food.  It is perfectly acceptable to not be able to cook well, as long as you have really and truly tried.

Go ahead and serve someone else’s food as your own, although I warn you that this is a dangerous game. Don’t try to pass off store-bought as you own for it is too easy to be caught. But if you have a friend who can cook, conspire with them. A few of their goodies in your freezer can go a long way.

But in the meantime, I say give it your best shot. Find a recipe or two that seem “doable.” Invest in a few simple pieces of quality kitchen equipment. (Use caution buying the utensils sold hanging from a peg above the meat department. Some are fine, some are not.) Learn what a ladle is. (Yes, I had to explain what a ladle is to a member of my own family. A shameful moment. A ladle!)

I’ve taken the liberty of creating a casual recipe that you can attempt. While Banana Nut Bread is usually a device for using up overripe bananas, it’s really a humble, casual cake. This version isn’t too sweet. Make this recipe and bring it to your office with an “Oh that? Yeah, I did a little baking this weekend” attitude. Make another one and keep it in your freezer (it’ll keep there, tightly wrapped, for about three months) and you’ll be ready for anything.

I can’t help but to speculate how Cosmo’s editors would “tease” the recipe on the magazine’s cover:

“What’s he really thinking when he eats your Banana Bread?”

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Here’s the recipe for Banana Nut Bread

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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7 tweets you should never use

The Good News Is They’re Fresh

Crunch-topped Corn Muffins

Crunch-topped Corn Muffins

I bake at least once a week. The evidence is that I usually write about it on this blog. The upside is that any skill, be it golf, tennis, dance, or archery (!) is honed by this kind of repeated activity. Practice, practice, practice…

The downside is that you may find yourself becoming complacent about your ever increasing level of skill. Or is it arrogant? Invincible, eh?

Runners can experience physical setbacks—shin splints, and various muscle aches or injuries come to mind. These kinds of injuries can often be a good reminder to check your technique, or even just to slow down a bit.

But bakers really don’t run the hazard of more than an occasional minor burn. In my case though, I sustained a minor psychic burn that reminded me that I wasn’t listening to my own advice, or that my advice was contradictory.

My shabby tale starts innocently enough: I baked some corn muffins for a business meeting. Ah, the humble corn muffin…a simple morning treat, and, this time, my wake up call. You see, I decided that because the corn muffin was so straight forward that I would arrogantly put my own spin on it, kind of like a city slicker moving to the country and deciding he could build a better barn than the locals.

I’m so ashamed. Yes, I should have known better.

If you have ever read my recipes you know that I avoid using real butter in many things because it can upset my stomach. Advice #1: this is fine when the taste of butter will not be “front and center”. A good example of this would be butter cookies. If butter is in the title accept no substitutes. By the same token, I am not an absolutist about this. Even if I didn’t use butter in a recipe, you should feel free to use it. No judgmental gaze down my nose, I promise.

Well anyway, back to the corn muffins. I decided that I wanted to make a big, fluffy, kinda-sweet-but-not-too, Northeastern Corn Muffin, not to be confused with the savory, toasty Southern-style. The fluffy, sweet Corn Muffin is what I grew up eating; if you’re from New England, chances are your old Auntie or Grandmother used to buy these at Jordan Marsh or Dorothy Muriel’s (a/k/a Brigham’s). Here’s a rhetorical question you never hear Ina Garten pose: “How hard can that be?”

Ugh. You’d be surprised.

The truth is that Corn Muffin beauty is in the eye of the beholder / taster / dunker. I wanted to brighten them up a bit, avoid making them too damp, and therefore too heavy, and give them a touch of complexity. Most of those functional specs I achieved, but I made two fatal mistakes.

First, here’s what I did right. I started with a good basic muffin recipe that I’ve had for years. Anyone who bakes muffins knows that you start with a plain recipe and all the variations are due to what you add, whether you add fruit, nuts, crumb topping, or spices.  I added just a touch of grated orange zest which I thought would complement the sunny toasty flavor of the corn.

Where I went wrong was using the wrong amount of cornmeal so the muffins were a bit too grainy or crumbly. Even worse, I made the crumb topping without real butter. Uh-oh.

Yeah, sure, for most of the people the muffins—just out of the oven, mind you—were a treat. They liked them a lot. Loved them? That’s a stretch.

But there’s always one in every crowd. The one person whose opinion I know is truly important gave them a thumbs down. This wasn’t done in a malicious way, but with the knowledge that whether I recognized it or not I wanted—needed—to know the truth. She said, “Too dry, and whatever spray you used to keep them from sticking to the pan smells funny.”

I’m only human. So, it took me a while to make peace with her terse criticism. I hadn’t used any spray to keep them from sticking.

But some hours later I took the last surviving muffin home, opened the Tupperware, and put the muffin to my nose. It smelled…greasy. Damn if she wasn’t right on the money. Back to the drawing board.

The dryness of the muffin was a delicate problem. I knew the answer wasn’t more liquid; rather, it was reducing the cornmeal vs. flour ratio. The greasy smell needed a little thought, but not much. I just needed a light bulb moment to realize that I had made the crumb topping with my favorite butter substitute. Clearly it was the real turtle soup I craved, and not the mock. (For the uninitiated, the latter is a play on a Cole Porter song lyric. Jeez, don’t you ever listen to Tony Bennett?)

Two tablespoons of butter distributed amongst six muffins? Clearly my stomach had nothing to worry about, and using butter meant the muffins had a sweet, clean, corn smell: that corn muffin smell we all love.

Some times it pays to stop and smell the grease.

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Click here for the recipe for Crunch-top Corn Muffins

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

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Have you tweeted a food blog today?

If you’re reading this you may already be late

Breakfast on the run...

Breakfast on the run...

The brisk fall morning sight of children on their way to school makes me happy. No, it is not the prospect of learning or expanding one’s horizons that cheers me; it is the bald fact that I do not have to go to school anymore. I didn’t hate school, but I didn’t love it either.

Nah. Scratch that. I hated school.

I feel guilty admitting it, for I have a great respect for education. I’d probably be a better—or at least more attentive– student now than I was when I was a kid. I have a friend, a woman of “a certain age” who just got her Master’s Degree. She confided the same thing to me, including the fact that she was now a better student. My unscientific conclusion has always been that you can break school kids into the same basic categories as adults:

Category 1: the workaholic. My high school was loaded with them, including one annoying, “straight A” soul who would refuse to look at her tests as they were handed back with the big red grade on top. When the bell rang she would frantically exit to the hall, then perform ritual leaps of joy in celebration of her A+, like it was a big, freakin’ surprise. It’s several hundred years later and, yes, I’m still bitter and annoyed. (She now works for the I.R.S.)

Category 2: the rest of us. The “…For Dummies” series of instructional guides always manage to catch our eye. I don’t want to say that I was a bad student, but I recently flunked a vision test. Honestly, I can’t study a menu without breaking into flop sweat. (Ohhhh, I‘ve got a million of ‘em…)

I know that there are many of you out there who feel at home in this category.

The interesting thing is that being in one category as a kid doesn’t guarantee that you’ll end up in the same category as an adult. The workplace is littered with formerly indifferent students who now consistently take the later train home because they have “… just a little bit more to do.” I wish I’d been a better student, but as an adult part of me rejoices that I will never be labeled a workaholic. There’s so much other stuff to do…

Like you, I had a ten mile commute to school through forty inches of snow in one hundred degree heat. Uphill. Both ways. I would forestall my departure by eating a healthy breakfast. Our cook would have my pancakes, eggs, and bacon ready just the way I liked them, and I would…okay clearly I’ve gone off the rails here. I wrote the word “forestall” and everything went blurry.

The truth is I have only vague memories of eating breakfast when I was a kid. I know I did, but beyond the concept of a bowl of cereal the specifics are hazy. Wheaties? Cheerios? Cap’n Crunch? I’m really not sure. There may have been an experiment with instant Cream of Wheat, but that was short lived. We had a breakfast nook, but I think we used it to eat dinner and to watch my Dad’s 8mm home movies. Harrumph: a whole section of my life haphazardly executed.

Now I am much more deliberate about my breakfast choices. Will I get hungry too soon before lunch? Will it make me fat(ter)? Can I work and eat it at the same time? I look around and watch what others are eating for breakfast and notice with a great amount of apprehension that folks seem to be looking for one vital element in their breakfast: a kick start. Lordy, when did Coca Cola become the breakfast of champions?

No kick start for yours truly; if I wanted that I’d pay someone to slap me across the face a few times. (Don’t even try it.) Slow and steady is more my style. It works for me and I find that most mornings I am fully awake by 1 PM.

Still, I find my busy schedule sometimes doesn’t allow me to linger over breakfast. The question is: short of gruel-like instant oatmeal, what is a supercharged healthy breakfast that I can eat on the run? A chum swears by toast with a swipe or two of peanut butter. I need a bit more entertainment than that in the morning. I have devised my “best in show” breakfast on the run.

I almost resent the health benefits of oatmeal; Quaker oatmeal is practically advertised as an alternative to Lipitor. But I can put my crankiness aside long enough to include it as part of my breakfast. Thumbing through my beloved old copy of The New York Times Cook Book by Craig Claiborne I found a recipe for “Old-Fashioned Oatmeal Bread.” Oatmeal bread has always been a favorite of mine. Usually only mildly sweet, yet slightly dense, this recipe has a delicate crumb and a toasty crust.

Yes, I understand that the thought of baking bread gives most people pause. But if you are in possession of a Kitchen-Aid stand mixer bread making requires very little work and very little expertise. Yes the entire process takes several hours from bag of flour to loaf of bread, but most of that time you can do other things.

I also substituted almond butter for the peanut butter my chum uses. This was a choice dictated only by taste, and I also topped the almond butter with slices of green apple. The combination is almost pastry-like, but you can feel smug in the knowledge that the entire affair is very healthy. You can use any kind of apple you prefer, but I use green apple in the morning on the advice of a friend who is a singer. Green apples have an astringent quality that can help clear your throat of impurities.

That’s good news as a clear throat can help me maintain my phlegmatic demeanor through the rest of the day.

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Click here for the recipe for Old-Fashioned Oatmeal Bread.

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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Summer Morning Mourning

Upside Down Muffins

Upside Down Muffins

It has happened. The yearly rite of passage. The arrival of the first Christmas catalogue. This year Harry & David were the first to show their collective faces.  How restrained of them to wait until after Labor Day! (I’m sad to report that Oprah’s favorite Chicken Pie is no longer available.) Running alongside this arrival was the first cool weather of the fall. (Or is it the last cool weather of summer?) Every year when this happens I breathe a small sigh of relief: I survived the summer. I know there are people mourning the end of summer just now, so I’ll be quiet and respectful in my celebrations.

Somehow the heat and humidity of summer dampen my breakfast yearnings. I’m not sure if it is the cool mornings or that I have been watching too many episodes of Barefoot Contessa, but lately my mind has been on breakfast. Actually, some vague concept of “country breakfast.” I have no idea that means other than there is foliage in the background.

I should explain that while I love breakfast and consider it my favorite meal, my breakfast habits are a bit peculiar. Monday through Friday breakfast is broken into two acts. I wake up early and have a protein shake. That holds me until about 10:00 AM when I have breakfast #2: Two slices of seven grain toast (dry), coffee (black), Rice Krispies (no milk, and I wish they’d take out the High Fructose Corn Syrup too. Kellogg’s are you listening?). There may be a prune or two(!), or a banana thrown in there every now and then. My menu appears a bit ascetic, but what I lack in inspiration I make up for in consistency. (The latter is thanks to the prunes, and yes, I know what you’re thinking: cereal without milk? Started as a kid. I always thought the milk was intrusive.)

I only mention my normal breakfast habits to give you some context; it’s not all pancakes and waffles every day for me either, bub. But when I make a fuss over breakfast, I really make a fuss. I should also explain that in spite of having what can best be described as a Roaring Sweet Tooth, my breakfast yearnings don’t generally lean towards the icky sweet. I’ll take a pass on the Sticky Danish in favor of something more restrained with a little cinnamon, maybe some walnuts, and a little brown sugar. Catch my drift?

My avoidance of icky sweet in the morning includes muffins which tend to be dense, and either too dry or too moist, and too big. But I think this preference is related to my love for pancakes and waffles. They tend to be not-so-sweet, and even when I find myself surrounded by diner Formica at dinner time I forgo the Souvlaki in favor of a short stack.

Muffins, of course, are big business now. Muffin baskets are the coin of the realm at the moment for Hollywood “thank-yous”. Last year I wrote about the Jordan Marsh Blueberry muffin—legendary in New England. They were known for their sugar-crusted top, but truth be told these jumbos weren’t all that sweet on the inside. I don’t think I am alone in the belief that muffins are too sweet, and the popularity of muffin tops—the edible kind, not the kind that happens because of tight denim—bears this out.

This made me wonder: Were muffins always the blobs they are now?

I went to my bible of mid-twentieth century cooking, The New York Times Cookbook by the late Craig Claiborne, published in 1961. Old but still relevant, this book remains one of my touchstones in the kitchen. As I scanned the index in search of muffins my eye fell on the words, “Upside Down Muffins” which triggered the immediate response from the voice in my head, “What’s that?”

Yes, they are exactly what their name implies. You put something in the bottom of the muffin cup, then fill the rest of the muffin cup with batter and bake. Whatever is put in the bottom of the cup caramelizes as the muffins bake.

The other great find was the book’s basic muffin recipe. More like a simple quick bread, it is presented plain with a list of suggested add-ins, and seemed like the answer to my not-icky-sweet breakfast prayers. I have exchanged canola oil for the butter called for in the original recipe, and increased the sugar a bit just for these muffins. I took even greater liberties with the mixture that would be placed in the bottom of each cup. The book says to add butter and brown sugar to each cup. I made a mixture of brown sugar, butter substitute, cinnamon, cocoa powder, quick cooking oats, and walnuts and placed that in each cup. While the book doesn’t mention it, I lined the muffin tin with paper muffin cups, imagining the frustration I’d have if my mixture cooked to the pan.

The result is exactly what I wanted. The basic batter puffed up into little brown Everests, and my magic mixture was crumbly and sweet without being icky. Folks who enjoy dunking in their coffee will be very happy. (I was right about the paper liners too, as the upside down mixture sticks a bit. You’d likely need a crow bar to pry them out of an unlined tin.)

Now I just have to sit back and wait for the leaves to change color.

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Click here for my Upside Down Muffins.

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Don’t fill up on Tweets, dinner’s almost ready.

Bowl And Spoon

Blueberry Crunch Cake

Blueberry Crunch Cake

It often occurs to me that if I weren’t in the kitchen cooking or baking I would likely be fixing (okay, breaking) something mechanical. I’ve always been like that. Always fiddling with something, pushing its buttons, seeing how it works. I’m a “Popular Science” man in a “Bon Appétit” world. Truth is though, having watched chefs at close range I realize that the best of them are just gearheads in white coats. While they have huge respect for craft and technique, they also love trying out a new toy. Crème brulee blow torch anyone? (Don’t forget your safety goggles.)

It is only natural to become a bit reliant on these toys. When was the last time you didn’t plug in a toaster to make toast? Not the same thing, you say. Really?

I’m not being judgmental but merely pointing out that it is human nature to constantly seek out the right tool for any job. The Williams-Sonoma catalogue plays right to that strain of DNA. Sure, you could hammer that nail with the heel of your shoe, but why would you when there’s a great invention called a hammer? Granted, hammering with your shoe has its advantages, not the least of which is storage. When you’re done hammering you simply put the tool away by putting it back on your foot.

Hey. I think we’ve got a great idea for a new “as seen on TV” item here. The Shammer? The Shoemmer? We’ll work on it. Surely we can do better than “Pajama Jeans.”

I am the first to admit that I may have an over reliance on my Kitchen Aid stand mixer. If I could drive it like a car I probably would. I make no apologies for this; it is built like a Sherman tank and I have no doubt that even New York City cabbies would veer out of my way if they saw me driving around the city in it.

This, of course, begs the question: if my Kitchen Aid were somehow incapacitated could I still bake something decent? An even better question is: in a city full of folks just starting out, who have varying amounts of limited time, kitchen space, and equipment, can some decent scratch baking get done?

If you don’t live in Manhattan you may not realize some of the great oddities of everyday life here (I’m talking about the stuff that doesn’t get aired on Eyewitness News.) We live without things that people elsewhere take for granted. I know plenty of folks here who don’t have a real kitchen. Instead they have a couple of burners, and a below the counter fridge. They may have supplemented this with a toaster oven and perhaps a microwave. Almost none of us have a washer and dryer in our apartment, even in the fanciest of buildings. (This is the reason I hate doing laundry.)

Carrie Bradshaw may have been as hooked on her couture as I am on my All-Clad, but you never saw her lugging her dirty La Perlas and a jug of Tide down to the Laundromat. A glaring omission.

Cooking-wise, this reminds me of one of my great “pet –peeves.” My admiration for Ina Garten or Martha Stewart aside, the thing you never, ever see on TV cooking shows is the clean up. You think when the director yells, “Cut!” at the end of a taping that Martha rolls up her sleeves and starts washing the dishes? Uh-uh. That’s what the interns are for.

(Now THAT’S an idea for a TV show: “Battle of the Network Dishwashers.” Sorry folks. I’m keeping that one for myself.)

(That’s not to say that Martha can’t wash dishes. Something tells me that she can do it better, faster, and more efficiently than you and me put together. No I’m not scared of her. Much.)

I may be overly reliant on my Kitchen Aid, but I wasn’t born with it in my hands. Give me a big bowl and a wooden spoon. I’ll still get the job done. My mission? A small vocabulary of recipes that can be made in any kitchen with only the most basic ingredients and equipment. The payoff? Wholesome baking, from scratch, that you would be proud to share with friends, office-mates, family, or someone special (cue saxophone.)

Please don’t be turned off by the word “wholesome.” I don’t mean Donny Osmond (yeah, yeah, I know, “What’s wrong with Donny Osmond?” Nothing.) I mean good food, with healthy, recognizable ingredients. Wholesome. The other payoff is that limiting the equipment makes clean up easier and faster. I can’t guarantee that I’ll never use a mixer in this set of recipes, but if I do, you can use the hand-held kind. (A cheap, easily stored investment.)

For me, the downside of limiting ingredients is that there may be times when you lose a bit of complexity in the flavors. If that’s the case, I’ll mention a few options that you can add if you are feeling ambitious. There are a few expectations: you must have a big bowl, measuring spoons, measuring cups, and baking pans that fit your oven. That’s the price of admission. Oh, and that bowl? I prefer glass, but stainless steel is fine too, and get one bigger than you ever think you’ll use. You can also serve salad from it, or store other bowls in it. Mine is (I think) 6 to 8 quarts.  (Here’s a good example.) Why the fuss over the size of the bowl? Because to me there is nothing more aggravating than trying to stir something in a bowl and having it overflow. A big bowl means you can stir with abandon.

Every few weeks or so I’ll add to this list of recipes. This week’s recipe has an added bonus: it is actually three recipes, all from the same ingredients, with slight variations in the preparation.

With local blueberries so abundant during this time of year, I decided to start with a Basic Blueberry Crunch Cake. If you choose, you can use the same recipe to make muffins, but I prefer the cake, and you should feel free to serve it straight from the pan. The crunch topping is a very basic streusel, but with less butter, so the topping is looser. The cake is yummy, but I would have preferred the spiciness of some cinnamon, and maybe the springiness of a scraping or two of lemon zest. Twice the prescribed amount of vanilla extract wouldn’t be a bad change either. If you’re feeling ambitious, add about a teaspoon of cinnamon to the crunch topping, and a teaspoon of lemon zest to the cake batter when you’re mixing the sugar into the egg.

Besides the cake and muffins, you can use the same recipe to make blueberry pancakes.

By the way: I’ve already cheated. I used a rubber scraper to transfer the batter from the bowl to the cake pan. I could have used my hand, I guess, but c’mon.

Next mission: to see if I can get my Kitchen Aid to do my laundry.

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Click here for the recipe for Blueberry Crunch Cake.

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If Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche Call It Breakfast Pizza

Breakfast Pizza

Breakfast Pizza. Ties are optional.

Thank goodness for modern technology: It has created a whole new gift category. Back in my Father’s time, dads got golf equipment, fishing tackle, cologne, and the dreaded new tie. My Mom used to try to buy my Pop sweaters, but I’m not sure any of them ended up escaping Filenes’ returns department.

Dads still want golf and fishing stuff, but they no longer have to worry about questionable sweater choices. Modern technology means you can give Dad a little electronic device that he can take to the beach and get caught up on his reading or even watch baseball. Try that with a sweater. Amazon now sells more e-books than paper and cardboard books. Every Tom, Dick, and Harriet on the subway is reading the latest best seller on a Kindle. Yeah, but what’s in their sweater drawer?

Father’s Day also doesn’t seem to have the same sense of ceremony as Mother’s Day. On Mother’s Day you slap an orchid on Mom’s shoulder and take her out for a frilly salad. Father’s Day honorees would rather go fishing—or like my brother, golfing—and come home to a nap and a good steak. I’m painting with a very broad brush, yes, but that’s okay. Let’s make dad a good breakfast and send him on his way to spend the day the way he wants.

Not that this means that Mom has to bear the burden of cooking a complicated breakfast. Quiche might be a good choice. Mom can make it the day before and then gently reheat it the next morning.

I can’t bake or eat Quiche without thinking of that ‘80’s spoof on masculinity, “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche.” I wonder what fifty million Frenchmen thought when that book was published? I am also a huge fan of Hitchcock movies, so any mention of Quiche also causes my mind to stray to the scene in “To Catch A Thief” (the most glamorous movie ever made) where Cary Grant’s character offers a guest Quiche Lorraine, and explains that while his housekeeper’s hands have an especially tender touch with pastry dough, she also used them to silently strangle a Nazi general when she was in La Résistance (this is, after all, Hitchcock.)

Alas, in 2011, I‘d be willing to bet that the only real men out there who would take exception to eating Quiche are members of the Lipitor club. Maybe we can find something in the cupboard that even the Lipitor club can enjoy. For Father’s Day, why not borrow the concept of quiche, and literally change course—as in, breakfast is served, Pops!

Granted Quiche has an aura of expertise and advanced skill, but peel away the aura and what have you got? Egg pie. C’mon: you can handle that! Even better: for my version, no special equipment is required; all you need is a big bowl, a fork, a couple of knives (dull is fine), and a couple of hands (yours or someone else’s). I am not talking about some “back-of-the-Bisquik-box-recipe-cheesy-egg-bake.” No sir. This is Breakfast Pizza. Dad will like this, and the good news is that the kids help make it.

Breakfast Biscuit sandwiches are big business nowadays—with good reason: people like them. Truth be told this version of breakfast pizza owes a great deal to the biscuit sandwich. While quiche has a delicate pâte brisée crust, and pizza uses yeast dough, Breakfast Pizza uses a simple baking powder biscuit dough. Instead of rolling and cutting the dough, after an easy hand mix, you dump it into the cooking vessel—a skillet—and press it into the bottom with your hands. Tricky folks can feel free to use the bottom of a measuring cup.

Toppings—besides the egg—are free choice. I stuck with items that are typically pizza in theme: peppers, tomatoes, cheese, and mushrooms. I even placed a few dabs of tomato sauce on top. Let what is fresh in your local market be your guide.

If Dad is a breakfast fiend, then make him happy by topping the pizza with some good organic turkey sausage, some diced potatoes, and mix a bit of thawed, frozen spinach in with the eggs (breakfast pizza is a great way of getting vegetables into the family tummy.)

The one I made in the photo above used four eggs—and serves four or five people. Even the most egg-shy folks can indulge. I made mine in a skillet, but that was only for looks. Feel free to use a pie plate, or any other pan you think will make an attractive presentation.

Happy Day, Dad!

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Click here for my recipe for “Breakfast Pizza

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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Roasted Onion Tart

Roasted Onion Tart in "Water-Whip" pastry

An Open Letter to Martha Stewart

Dear Martha

You are such a doll. I appreciate your supportive comments; just that fact that you take the time to read my blog on your iPad each week during your morning yoga, and that you’ve assigned it its own button on your home screen has me thrilled to kittens. To answer your question: yes, my blog is free for everyone, and for the time being I have no plans to charge a subscription fee. Let’s just say that my overhead is a bit lower than yours.

Just loving your magazine of late—it absolutely comes alive on the iPad. I’ve taken the liberty of making a few notes that I have forwarded via DM. Just think of them as a few idle thoughts that I know will help you to improve your magazine. (You’re welcome!)

Anyhoodle, it seems that you and I are about to butt heads (again!) I hope this won’t be as contentious as The Great Caesar Salad Battle of 2008, but I make no promises. I know that you are a bit of an absolutist, but please keep an open mind: even Julia Child tried McDonald’s once.

The lovely sampler you cross-stitched for me is framed and hanging in my kitchen. It serves as a constant reminder about pie crust and similar pastry, exhorting me to “make it cold and bake it hot.” Here’s the thing, though: I happened to come across an old cookbook that General Foods published in 1955 for their Spry brand vegetable shortening, a product that fell out of sight many years ago.

(You have no one to blame but yourself for this bit of kitchen archeology; you’re the one who encouraged me to get into collectables.)

I recognize that the ages-old technique for making pie crust has been to “cut” chunks of fat (lard, shortening, butter) into flour. Even for me that remains the ideal way to go. And as you so often remind us, the reason for working with cold ingredients and baking them in a hot oven is pure science: as the pastry bakes, the fat and liquid steam away, leaving a delicate, flaky pastry.

Ah, but some unknown home economist at General Foods had an idea to streamline the process. The “Water-Whip” pastry recipe was devised to take most of the guess work out of pastry. Harried housewives could whip some shortening with a bit of boiling water, and then add the flour, and they were done. No waiting for the dough to “rest.” No guessing if they’d added just the right amount of water.

Yes, the resulting dough was a little sticky, but the instructions were clear: roll the dough between two pieces of waxed paper. (To me, the most startling thing about the 1955 cook book is that there is not an electric mixer in sight. Every recipe is stirred by hand with a wooden spoon or fork. Can you imagine? Pioneering days: all that is missing are the covered wagons.)

In the past you and I have chuckled about my aversion to the old-fashioned vegetable shortenings, of which the late, lamented Spry was one. Was it you or Alexis who kept calling me “Fat-O-Phobe”? Well, no matter. They are loaded with hydrogenated fats and preservatives, so I won’t use them, I don’t care what you call me. (Sticks and stones…).

To be fair, vegetable shortening wasn’t really invented to be health food, was it? It was invented to be a convenient alternative to lard, and to have a longer shelf life. It was only in the past twenty or so years that we realized the hydrogenated oils and the trans-fats they contain are so bad.

Thankfully there are now some really good non-hydrogenated alternatives—I think even Crisco makes one. (Modern living! Yay!) I’m a fan of Earth Balance. I’m perhaps a bit more forgiving of whatever a product’s flaws may be. I remember reading an article a few years back where some woman said if she tasted a cookie made with margarine she would spit it out. I know! Tacky, right?

A few days ago I thought it would be fun to experiment with the old “Water-Whip” recipe with an eye toward adapting it to the twenty-first century. As mentioned, my choice of shortening is healthier. I also used my Kitchen-Aid stand mixer. Yes, it makes a somewhat sticky dough, but I knew ahead of time that I would not have patience for rolling it out between two pieces of waxed paper. I’ve tried that before with unhappy results. If I couldn’t roll it on a floured board then all bets would be off.

I’m happy to report that I enjoyed the results. The dough wasn’t that difficult to use with a dusting of enough flour to keep the dough from sticking to the board and the rolling pin, if you work fast, and roll only as much dough as you have room for: small counter or small kitchen = small crust. (Hey, I could put that on a sampler for you!)

Yes, yes, I know. It’s not really pie crust. It’s more of a savory shortbread. But baked into a Roasted Onion Tart it had the appropriate toasty, crumbly, tenderness. Rough and rustic? Yes. Polished and complete? Perhaps not. Delicious? Mmmm-hmmm.

Roasting the onions gave them a sugary sweetness that the slight saltiness of the “Water-Whip” crust showed off with aplomb. It would make a wonderful side dish with a green salad or as a selection in a summer breakfast buffet. (Can’t wait to visit you in Maine this summer. Remind me again when “black fly” season is?)

Hope you’ll try the crust. Ring me if you have questions.

XOXO

M

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Click here for my recipe for “Roasted Onion Tart.”

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

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