Saturday, January 31, 2009

Heavenly Pairings: Honey and Lavender

Like most chefs, I sporadically become obsessed with certain ingredients and spend hours searching for recipes that call for them in the hope that I can spend lots of time building a mini-repertoire of baked goods that will fall under a single category. At the moment, I am in love with honey, thanks to my initiation into beekeeping, and lavender, thanks to its glorious fragrance. Actually, I am in love with these two edibles completely independent of one another, as each is capable of sitting as the foundation of entire cookbooks. And I have found a handful of honey cookbooks as well as a sampling of lavender cookbooks. But put together, honey and lavender combine into a perfect fusion of wholesome, flavorful, aromatic taste that make any bread, any cookie, any breakfast dish completely heavenly.

Now, honey as a food item is a given, but lavender? For a long time, I had been accustomed to the lavender scent in my candles and my body lotion, and it does have an inspired place in home and personal goods. But the first time that you open the oven door, and the same lavender aroma wafts out, you will realize – as I did – that lavender has just a valid place in the mixing bowl as it does in the aromatherapy lamp. I personally used culinary lavender from Purple Haze Lavender Farm here in Washington state.

And onto these lavender honey bunches: the oats are the third secret to the homey and slightly rustic feel of these cookies (I call them cookies even though they are baked in a muffin pan). All of the ingredients mesh together quite well, and the final treat is hearty and weighty, but without being overly heavy with the weight of butter or cream. If I lived in a farm house (on my ideal farm, complete with bees for honey, chickens for eggs, goats for cheese, cows for milk, and vegetables for my occasional foray into healthy eating), I could see myself standing in my kitchen overwhelmed with the floral scent of lavender and savoring every bite of these bunches.

Lavender Honey Bunches
3 cups quick oats
2 cups flaked coconut
1 cup unbleached flour
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/2 cup honey
1 teaspoon dried lavender
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Combine oats, coconut, and flour in a large mixing bowl. In a heavy sauce pan bring applesauce, honey, sugar and lavender to a boil. Pour over dry ingredients and mix well. Drop dough by the spoonful into muffin tins, making each one about 1-2 inches high. Bake for 12-15 minutes until lightly golden, being careful not to overbake. Cool in the tins for 15 minutes before removing.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A joint effort: Sweet Potato and Gruyère Soufflè

There are some activities that I prefer to do alone: I like to travel solo, I don't mind going to the movies by myself, and I most certainly bake alone. It's the product of my time spent in the kitchen that I enjoy sharing with others, but the act of baking, for me, has become a private quiet time when I allow myself to disengage from the world and focus entirely on the task at hand: the measuring, the mixing, the folding, the kneading, the watching. I've become so accustomed to my ritual, that I had forgotten what it can mean to cook with someone else in the kitchen; to create a dish together. Working side by side, passing utensils across the stove, starting and stopping the timers, talking about the boiling water or inquiring about the chopped onion, is nothing if not a bonding experience.

This past weekend, I not only worked with another cook in the kitchen, but found myself in another kitchen entirely, which I found to be refreshing. Maybe I didn't know where the saucepan or the cutting boards were, but a little collaboration goes a long way, especially when making a soufflè.

I had always considered soufflès to be a sweet dish, involving eggs and cheese and cream. Although I was not far off, I didn't consider the other realm of savory soufflès, and I'm so glad I finally did. My co-cook was actually the one who pushed the recipe in front of me, but it took barely an utterance to convince me to try it. I had my apron tied around my waist at the very mention of Gruyère.

What intimidated me, as I'm assuming worries many beginner chefs who come upon a soufflè recipe, is the idea that these dishes are time-consuming, laborious, and easy to royally screw up. I found none of these presumptions to be true. There was a certain amount of prep work for this soufflè, but having a companion by my side to help with some of the chopping and dicing helped quite a all truthfulness, I think he may have contributed slightly more to that effort, but I did my part with whisking and egg beating. In short, there is nothing to be frightened of in this recipe. And for the effort that goes into it, the result is beyond worth the time spent. It's difficult to put into words just how satisfying this dish turned out, how well the flavors blended together, how creamy and rich each mouthful was. True, we had the advantage of farm fresh San Juan eggs and local Pacific Northwest Gruyère, but the recipe itself is simply one that's perfectly crafted to produce a fine specimen of culinary art. And having the opportunity to sit down with the person I shared a kitchen with, to share each savory bite together...well, that was the sweetest thing of all.

Sweet Potato and Gruyère Soufflè



1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
1 cup finely chopped onion
1 large garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
1 cup coarsely grated Gruyère (about 3 ounces)
2 cups mashed cooked sweet potatoes (about 1 1/2 pounds)
4 large eggs, separated


1. Butter a 1 1/2-quart soufflé dish and dust it with 1/4 cup of the Parmesan.
2. In a large heavy saucepan cook the onion and the garlic with salt and pepper to taste in the butter over moderately low heat, stirring, until the onion is softened, stir in the flour, and cook the roux, stirring, for 3 minutes. Add the milk in a stream, whisking, and simmer the mixture, whisking, until it is thickened. Remove the pan from the heat, whisk in the Gruyère, whisking until the cheese is melted, and whisk in the sweet potatoes and the egg yolks, 1 at a time.
3. In a bowl with an electric mixer beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they just hold stiff peaks, whisk one fourth of them into the sweet potato mixture to lighten it, and fold in the remaining whites gently but thoroughly.
4. Pour the mixture into the prepared soufflé dish, sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup Parmesan over it, and bake the soufflé in the middle of a preheated 375°F. oven for 45 to 50 minutes, or until it is puffed and golden. Serve the soufflé immediately.

“I'll pass on that sugar-filled morsel of heaven.”

Maybe most people who don't have the sweet tooth that I have don't use that precise phrase when turning down a dessert I've made, but that's what I hear when I encounter that bizzare type of person with the taste buds that I simply do not understand. I've heard it all before: “I'm not a big fan of desserts;” “Thanks, but sugar doesn't really do it for me;” “Sorry, but I'm not much for chocolate.” When someone explains to me that they would actually much rather make a cheese pizza than a cookie pizza for dinner, or that the souffle recipe they are trying is savory and not sweet, I politely smile and nod. My mind, though, races attempting to come up with some sort of comprehension of what it must be to walk in this persons' shoes: how does one not salivate while walking past a candy store or not spend twenty minutes deciding which pastry to order at the bakery? Well, I suppose there are many out there who look at me and wonder what, exactly, is my stomach's chocolate chip cookie capacity (answer: there is no maximum capacity for chocolate chip cookies).

Of course we all have our individual tastes, and thank goodness for that. Because of the variety of our cravings, there exist a wealth of specialized cookbooks, multiple culinary magazines, an endless listing of restaurants, and someone to make a wholesome meal of quinoa with Moroccan Winter Squash and carrot stew, while I finish it off with oatmeal cookies.

I've recently been presented with the challenge of baking something for someone who doesn't really care for sweet stuff (especially not the the degree that I do), but I was relieved to hear that he does have at least a couple of favorites that I can create from my packed baking cupboard. These cookies are, in my opinion, closer to a snack bar than a cookie, but that does not mean that they're flavorless or dull. Baking Illustrated did a wonderful job of coming up with this recipe which, to my surprise, omits cinnamon and bulks up the amount of brown sugar and oats. These last two elements, along with the nutmeg, really give the cookies a wholesome, hearty dimension. Even with the sugar amounts, these cookies are hardly sweet at all, and that could simply be remedied by a couple of stir-ins at the end: milk chocolate chips, raisins, coconut. But as given, this oatmeal cookie recipe is perfect for the baffling individual who does not prefer mountains of chocolate mixed with butter and cream and more chocolate.

Oatmeal Cookies

1 ½ c. all-purpose flour
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. nutmeg
½ tsp. salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 c. light brown sugar
1 c. granulated sugar
2 large eggs
3 c. old-fashioned rolled oats

Adjust oven racks to low and middle positions and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Whisk flour, baking powder, nutmeg and salt together in a medium bowl.
With an electric mixer, beat the butter on medium speed until creamy. Add the sugars, beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in eggs, one at a time.

Stir dry ingredients into the butter-sugar mixture with a wooden spoon. Stir in oats.
Roll the dough into 2-inch balls and place on ungreased baking sheets, spacing about two inches apart.

Bake until the cookie edges turn golden brown, 22-25 minutes, rotating the baking sheet front to back and top to bottom halfway through the baking time.
Let cookies cool on the baking sheet for 2 minutes then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Celebrating with Sea Salt Caramel Brownies

It was my intention, with writing this blog, to stay away from opinions on all matters excluding those that are baking related, including politics. I feel that those who know me are aware of my political leanings, and I'm hardly the type to grab a soapbox to stand upon, shouting out my views on the state of the world.

That being said, I am quite excited to celebrate Inauguration Day. And how does one celebrate? If you are like many Seattlites I've been talking with over the past week, you will be taking a half day from work, going to a party, or finding a coffee shop or bar that will be broadcasting the event. If you are a baker like me, you will find a way to create a dessert based on Obama's favorite chocolate: Fran's sea salt caramel.

First, a word on these caramels: they exist on confectional level so far above the average chocolate, in taste, in originality, in quality, that to attempt to compare it to anything less than gourmet would be an abomination. Snobbish as that may sound, it's true: these caramels are unbelievable.

Eaten upside down, they deliver to the tongue an initial hit of salt (not the Morton's variety: real, course sea salt) mixed with a wonderfully creamy, sugary caramel, all of which mingle in the mouth taking moments to savor.

It was with this consumption method that I began to think of how I would make sea salted caramel brownies, so that they did not taste as though I had mis-measured the salt in the recipe. The brownie base itself is straightforward, but not commonplace: they are more cake-like and chocolatey without being too heavy. The caramel infuses the recipe with sweetness. And the sea salt gives the recipe depth of flavor.

What I did was, after greasing, sprinkle the sea salt over the bottom of the pan, then top it with the batter. I then gave the brownies another light sprinkling of sea salt before baking, and then topping with the caramel.

Another source of inspiration for these brownies is the salted caramel cupcake that is Cupcake Royale's flavor for the month of February (they rolled it out a bit early for the inauguration).

Both the cupcake and the brownies were, in my opinion, great successes: they both touched upon the idea of the glorious caramel confections while producing a terrific product, both of which stand alone as delicious creations that Obama would doubtlessly be proud of.

Sea Salt Caramel Brownies

1 3/4 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips, divided
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter or margarine, cut into pieces
3 large eggs
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 cup chopped nuts
12 caramels, unwrapped
1 tbsp. milk
2 tbsp. sea salt


Preheat oven to 350º F. Grease a 9x9 -inch baking pan.

Melt 1 cup chocolate chips and butter in large, heavy-duty saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly, until smooth. Remove from heat; stir in eggs. Add flour, sugar, vanilla extract and baking soda; stir well. Sprinkle about 1 tbsp. of sea salt into the prepared baking pan, then pour in batter; sprinkle with remaining chunks and nuts.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out slightly sticky.

Microwave caramels and milk in small, microwave-safe bowl on high (100%) power for 1 minute; stir. Microwave at additional 10- to 20-second intervals; stir until smooth. Drizzle over warm brownies. Cool in pan on wire rack. Cut into bars.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Honey quick bread for any occasion

With the non-traditional, non-9-5 work schedule I have going on at the moment, I find it difficult to get into a regular routine where I can say “I know I will be waking up on Tuesday at 7:00 a.m.” or “Thursday evenings I will go for a jog.” However, I don't necessarily consider this to be a bad thing. As long as I have everything written down on my calendar, keeping track of where I am supposed to be punching my time card, and at what time, is relatively simple. Also, the consistency of inconsistency keeps things interesting, and keeps me open. For example, tomorrow I have a bit of a later start, so I can take advantage of a leisurely morning to take a walk down to the water front. One downside of this lack of schedule is that I'm not always quite certain which meal I'll be eating where: do I need to pack a lunch? Pack a lunch and a snack? Will dinner be at home or in a break room?

This is why I'm finding it essential to have a supply of easy-to-reach food that I can pull from my pantry, that do not require refrigeration, and that are – of course – delicious. And it is for all of these reasons that I like quick breads; especially the wholesome whole wheat quick bread I made for myself early this week.

Much to my delight, this loaf contains no sugar, but is sweetened by honey. Why would I be delighted by a lack of sugar? Why, because now I'm trying to be slightly more mindful of my sugar intake, and if I make a breakfast out of Honey Whole Wheat Quick bread, I like to know that it's not as sugar-laden as a doughnut. And this bread is most definitely suitable to start the day with, as the oats help to give it a heartier quality and the cinnamon and honey give it a homey taste. On top of all this, I was pleased to find that the honey in my cupboard was actually Huckleberry honey, supplied by a farm in Montana. If you can find different flavored honeys, this is definitely a good recipe to try to experiment with.

Since the ingredient measurements are slightly on the small side, this recipe, as given, will not yield a full loaf pan of bread, which is why it can simply be placed on a baking sheet. Given the simplicity of the recipe, though, I'm sure it can easily be doubled. I didn't mind the yield, though: it seems like the perfect amount to keep me going when I'm not sure where else my next meal might be coming from.

Honey Whole Wheat Quick bread

1 cup rolled oats
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 1/2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup milk
½ tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
In a large bowl, combine oatmeal, flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt. In a separate bowl, dissolve honey in vegetable oil, then stir in the milk and vanilla extract. Combine both mixtures and stir until a soft dough is formed. Form the dough into a ball and place on a lightly oiled baking sheet.
Bake in preheated oven for about 20 minutes, or until bottom of loaf sounds hollow when tapped.