Saturday, March 28, 2009

Not-So-Warm-Weather Lemon Cornmeal Cookies

Normally around this time of year, I like to start bringing out the Springtime recipes: those that involve citrus flavors, light whips, and creamy textures. Though it's still a bit early for the various fresh fruit cakes and cobblers and pies, there are other culinary ways to invite Spring into my kitchen. However, despite the fact that the first day of Spring was about one week ago, I'm having some difficulty feeling it around me. The air is still chilly, and the perpetually gray Seattle sky reminds me more of New England winters than the impending Pacific Northwest Spring. I've awoken to frost a couple of times in the past week (granted, it was very early in the morning), and I still have my scarf wrapped around my neck. On the other hand, there are other more visual signs of Spring that are evident all around: cherry blossoms are opening up, giving me a gorgeous burst of pink amongst the green when I look out my window. Daffodils are offering their sunny, yellow hue just about everywhere. And honestly, the cold cannot be that bad: I've seen purple crocus in the ground since late February.

So the temperature may be one thing, but the slow and steady blooming to life of the urban natural all around me is quite another. In this spirit, I wanted to try a Spring recipe, using one of my favorite warm weather flavors, lemon. These cornmeal cookies are from the pages of Cooking Light, but I could not discern anything light or Spring-like about them; the oils used make them a heavier, slightly greasy cookie, which I'm not at all partial to. The lemon taste, however, seems right to me, neither too overwhelming to be bitter, nor too slight. And the cornmeal does add an interesting texture which I believe adds to its density, but is precisely what makes the cookie a bit out of the ordinary.

Lemon Cornmeal Cookies

Yield: 2 dozen

1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup canola oil
1/4 cup light-colored corn syrup
2 teaspoons grated lemon rind
2 large egg whites
Cooking spray

1. Preheat oven to 350°.
2. Spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl, stirring with a whisk.
3. Place sugar and butter in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until well blended. Add oil, syrup, rind, and egg whites, beating until blended. Gradually add flour mixture to sugar mixture; beat well. Drop dough by level tablespoonfuls 1 inch apart on 2 baking sheets coated with cooking spray. Bake at 350° for 10 minutes or until edges are golden. Place baking sheet on a wire rack; cool completely.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Moving Forward with Apple Crumble

After working on this blog – and my cooking skills – for approximately one year, and for doing a substantial amount of baking before that, I feel that I've reached a high point of confidence in my tastes, my techniques, and my skills as a baker. I feel like a different baker than I did a year ago, and with each session I spend in the kitchen, I see myself growing a little more. Now, I rely much less on original recipes as they are printed in cookbooks or online, and I prefer to experiment, adding or subtracting elements as I imagine will create an even better dessert. I can eyeball most of my ingredients (although in baking, precision is essential, and this is generally a no-no). I also find that I can sweep through the kitchen with much more grace than I had had in the past, and still create something edible and satisfying.

Perhaps my next step could be to improve my cooking: I'm accustomed to putting together easily re-heatable meals that I can quickly bring in my bag for lunch, or what I call meal-snacks, which often consist of a few small pieces of food, like an apple along with a chunk of bread and a slice of cheese. Becoming a “real cook” could be somewhere in my future, but I'm having much more fun with the baking. Working with a hand mixer and a measuring cup is a form of meditation for me, and the very feeling of soft cookie dough or cupcake batter is calming. If I have a next step – and I believe I do – I would like to see how I can further share my baking with my friends and my community.

This past weekend I had the opportunity to put together an Apple Crumble for an impromptu potluck, and I did so at the host's house, as the main dish was cooking. The seemingly-small dish fed a medium-sized crowd that was already happily stuffed with lentil soup, souffle, and greens, and it seemed to be the perfect ending to a delicious meal: something not too sweet, not too heavy, and that could easily be eaten with the hands (by dessert, all of the forks had been used).
Given the chance to do this sort of baking on a weekly basis, I wouldn't be able to turn it down; tasting my Apple Crumble, which I adapted from a found recipe, was only slightly more enjoyable than baking it.

Apple Crumble


4 large Red Gala apples, cored and sliced
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 pinch salt
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground nutmeg
3/4 cup rolled oats


1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
2. Place the apples in an 8x8 inch baking dish. Pour the maple syrup over the apples. In a bowl, cream together the butter and brown sugar. Stir in the flour, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and oats. Sprinkle the oat mixture over the apples.
3. Bake in preheated oven 35 minutes, until golden and bubbly and apples are tender.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Peanut Butter Ball Perfection

As is evidenced repeatedly throughout my blog, I'm quite a fan of the pairing of chocolate and peanut butter. And why not? The sweet creamy chocolate and the salty creamy peanut butter work so well together, I would prefer the saying “They go together like peanut butter and chocolate” rather than “They match up like peanut butter and jelly.” Perhaps I'll start saying that to people, just to get a smirk or at the very least, an amused roll of the eye.
And lately I was at the wonderful vegan bakery near my house, The Flying Apron. Normally when I go there, it takes me several minutes to decide which baked good to try: some sound overly healthy, some show a listing of ingredients that I'm not sure will work together (to be fair, though, many times these types of recipes turn out the best), and others look much too delicious to be vegan. Though there are a few pastries that are my favorites, after this past trip to the bakery, I have a new one: Chocolate Covered Peanut Butter Balls. The one I ate there was actually quite monstrous, yet I managed to finish the whole thing. The best part, in my opinion, was how it did not taste overly sugary, or artificial in the least (which, of course, it was not).

Inspired by the wondrous snack I had eaten, I spent the next afternoon putting together my own version of Peanut Butter Balls. I took some cues from the Flying Apron one I ate, some from a handful of recipes I found online, but mostly I just constructed a treat that I thought sounded amazing. And, I believe this is quite a sound recipe, one that can be tweaked to each individual's tastes. I like the addition of honey as a sweetener, as opposed to many I saw that called for Confectioner's sugar. Also, The most important thing to keep in mind is to cream the peanut butter on its own first; this makes for the lusciously smooth filling that completely compliments the hardened chocolate shell. Additionally, they simply look beautiful plated all together on a dessert tray.

Chocolate Covered Peanut Butter Balls


2 cups creamy peanut butter
½ cup honey
½ cup oats
¼ cup shredded coconut
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 tsp. vanilla extract


1. Using a hand mixer, cream the peanut butter about two minutes. Mix in the honey, oats, and coconut. 2. Form into 1 ½ inch balls and place on a piece of wax paper. Place in the refrigerator. While the balls are cooling, blend the chocolate chips and vanilla extract and melt either on the stove or in the microwave.
3. Remove the balls from the refrigerator and roll in the melted chocolate. Garnish with coconut and chill for at least one hour before serving.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Crunchy Granola

I think that Seattle has officially had its full effect on me: this weekend I made granola bars from scratch, and I have been hard pressed to think of a food that goes so well with what I have seen of Seattle: something wholesome, something that brings together a whole host of ingredients, something that one would be happy to sell at the local Farmer's Market. I think that these granola bars encompass all of these qualities, along with the most important: they are very delicious. The taste, along with the nutritional quality, make for a food that I am hard-pressed to find a comparable match for.
And even though there is a long list of ingredients, these granola bars are surprisingly simple to put together. And what comes from it is a large portion of a healthy snack or meal, depending on one's preference.

Crunchy Granola Bars

6 cups oats (quick or rolled)
½ cup vegetable oil
½ tsp. salt
¾ cup honey
¾ cup packed brown sugar
1 tbsp. vanilla extract
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. ground nutmeg
½ cup flaked coconut
½ cup creamy peanut butter
½ cup raisins
½ cup sunflower seeds or kernels


1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a 17x11 inch rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. Combine the oats, oil, and salt in a large bowl and mix until the oats are evenly coated. Transfer the mixture to a baking sheet and spread in an even layer. Toast until pale gold. Remove the oats and lower the temperature to 300 degrees F.
2. Combine the honey and brown sugar in a heavy saucepan over medium heat and cook, stirring frequently, until the sugar is dissolved, about 5 minutes. Stir in vanilla, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. 3. Combine with the oats mixture. Add the coconut, peanut butter, raisins, and sunflower seeds. Stir everything together with a spatula. Transfer the mixture to the prepared baking sheet and spread in an even layer, packing it in tightly. Bake until golden, approximately 45 minutes. Cool, in the baking sheet, on a wire rack for 10 minutes then cut into 2x3 inch bars with a chef's knife. Remove the foil from each bar and cool completely before wrapping and serving.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Potluck Chocolate Fudge

Although I know of many people who don't necessarily consider chocolate to be a part of a balanced diet, I have had a difficult time over the years finding anyone who does not like chocolate fudge. I'm sure these individuals do exist, but the fact that they seem to be few and far between is why, in my opinion, fudge has traditionally been such a go-to dessert. It's made in massive quantities and distributed as gifts during the holidays, it's a staple in the tourist shops of every major city, and it's what I thought would be a perfect addition to my monthly staff potluck.

As unusual, my week was a busy one, and when I was reminded of the potluck, I searched my brain for a simple and delicious dish I could put together with what I had already in my cupboard, and with a minimal amount of time spent actually cooking. For me, there simply is no picking up a box of bakery cookies (though there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing so). So I went on a brief search for fudge recipes, which actually could have taken longer than the actual preparation time of any of the ones I was looking at; the sheer quantity of fudge recipes floating around out there is a testament to this candy's popularity. I found countless varieties of peanut butter, maple, peppermint, marshmallow fudges, along with another subset of nutted fudges. Even the basic chocolate fudges could have been made with cocoa powder or baking chocolate, cream cheese or condensed milk.

Since I was hoping to avoid a trip to the grocery store, I chose a Hershey's recipe with a simple ingredient list. The preparation is a bit more involved and precise, and much more of what I consider “candy making” to be: after all, it calls for an actual candy thermometer! I do not own one of these, but I found that with careful attention, I was able to get by just fine without it.
And I'm glad that I tried to: the fudge turned out rich and ever-so chocolatey, and though a bit heavy, one piece is all it takes to enjoy the fullness of this fudge.

Cocoa Fudge


3 cups sugar
2/3 cup cocoa powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 cups milk
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract


1. Line 8-or 9-inch square pan with foil, extending foil over edges of pan. Butter foil.

2. Mix sugar, cocoa and salt in heavy 4-quart saucepan; stir in milk. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture comes to full rolling boil. Boil, without stirring, until mixture reaches 234°F on candy thermometer or until small amount of mixture dropped into very cold water, forms a soft ball which flattens when removed from water. (Bulb of candy thermometer should not rest on bottom of saucepan.)

3. Remove from heat. Add butter and vanilla. Do not stir. Cool at room temperature to 110°F (lukewarm). Beat with wooden spoon until fudge thickens and just begins to lose some of its gloss. Quickly spread into prepared pan; cool completely. Cut into squares. Store in tightly covered container at room temperature.