The Pursuit of Chocolate Chip Cookies

Having a really good cookie recipe on hand has always been a simple goal of mine. Yet I have to admit always been a little bit intimidated by baking because the results are so much more confined by what we know from the best of an eating life: a moist slice of layer cake, the flaky and buttery croissant, a fudge brownie, the perfect chewy chocolate chip cookie.That kind of perfection in a bite is daunting. It’s so much easier for me to fake my way into cooking with free form recipes, building flavors as I learn to master cooking profiles but covering my mistakes as I go. But baking, it’s one miss and you’re out, left with a pan of a buttery mess. (Yes, I will still eat that mess with ice cream but it’s not the same thing as a good end result.)

Finally though I discovered Baking Illustrated by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated. This new cookbook acquisition has quickly replaced the baking sections of my other beloved cookbooks. I’ve already mastered a great pastry crust, the small tweaks easily making it my favorite for both savory or sweet pies. And now  just this past snowy Thursday afternoon, we made the Baking Illustrated simple Thick and Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe; I’m still astounded by how  consistently great those cookies turned out to be. 

The recipe surprised me in two ways: First, the melting of butter, which makes the cookies softer for longer. Second, the technique to break the rounded quarter cup of cookie dough into two pieces and then placing the roughed edges up, smoothing the pieces back together on the sides. The result from this technique creates the most pleasing looking cookie top.

Thick and Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies

Adapted from Baking Illustrated

Ingredients:
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cool until just warm
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg plus one 1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1-1 1/2 cups baking chocolate, chopped into rough pieces by hand. I use Ghiradelli dark.

Directions:

1. Preheat the oven to 325. Put the racks on the upper and lower middle positions. Line two baking sheets with slipats or parchment paper.

2. Sift flour, baking soda, and salt together in a bowl. Set aside for now.

3. With an electric mixer, combine butter and sugars until combined. Beat in the egg, yolk, and vanilla. Add the dry to the wet ingredients, beating at a low speed until just combined. Stir in the chocolate.

4. Roll a scant 1/4 cup of cookie dough into a ball with your hands. Grip by the sides and pull horizontally. Put the rough, pulled apart sides up, rotating 90 degrees.  Bring the dough ball back together, pressing the sides gently but keeping the top rough sides untouched.  Place on cookie sheets 2 inches apart with rough part facing up.

5. Bake until the cookies are a light golden, with the edges hardening but the insides still soft, about 15-18 minutes, rotating the pans from top to bottom halfway through the cooking time. Cool on the cookie sheets.

 

The Great Christmas Cookie Hunt: Biscotti For All

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I’ve been making homemade Christmas gifts of the edible kind for several years now. It started out because I had no money for extravagant gifts right after graduating college. It continues today  because I think a little elbow grease and things made yourself are wonderful.

This year the gift package included biscotti, amaretti, and candied orange peels dipped in dark chocolate. It took several batches of amaretti to get them near close to what we were imagining. I say near because I’m unsure anyone can replicate those delicious italian almond macaroon cookies, the kind I can eat an entire tin of in one sitting accompanied by coffee. I’m always tempted to swing by the Chelsea Market Italian imports store just to pick up a tin.

I have pretty much perfected a biscotti recipe that works for me each year as a delicious gift. I know there is much debate whether butter or even eggs belong in a biscotti recipe. I ultimately decided it did because well, butter makes things taste great. These biscotti are soft, chewy, and crispy all at once which was exactly the kind of texture I was looking for. The butter is indispensable in creating this result. So whether or not this is an authentic biscotti I’ll leave for another discerning individual to proclaim. They do taste good, though.

These biscotti are deceptively easy but make a nice presentation which is essential for the homemade gift maker. The subtle flavor of almond is sophisticated if you ask me. I drizzle tempered chocolate on each cookie to get a little fancy. David Leibowitz guide to tempering chocolate is daunting at first but incredibly helpful when you want to venture out into the word of candy making.

Almond Biscotti

Adapted from Mark Bittman.

Ingredients:

4 tablespoons of unsalted butter, (plus a bit more for greasing a pan)

3/4 cup of sugar

3 eggs

1 teaspoon of almond extract

2 cups of all purpose flour, plus more for the pan

1 teaspoon of baking powder

pinch of salt

Mix ins:

1 to ½  cup of blanched almonds slivers

Toppings:

Tempered chocolate to drizzle or dip the cookie into.

Directions:

1. Preheat the oven to 375.  Cream the butter and sugar until fluffy.  Slowly add the eggs, one at a time, beating the until well blended. Add the almond extract.

2. Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in another bowl. Add the dry ingredients to the dough slowly, beating until just mixed. Add a little milk if needed to adjust the dough if too dry.

3. Fold in the almonds.

4. On a greased and floured baking sheet, flouring your hands lightly, turn out into the dough into a blob in the middle of baking dish. Gently shape with lightly floured hands outward until the shape is a rough rectangle that a long and fat but flat on the top. The dough won’t be smooth and the shape won’t be perfect but you want a dough that almost reaches the length of the cookie sheet and that is about a 3 inches wide.

5. Bake the log until it is golden and beginning to show cracks on top, around 20 to 30 minutes. (watch to make sure it doesn’t burn.) Cool the log out of the oven for a few minutes. Lower the oven temperature to 250.

6. Once the log is cooled, cut 1/2 inch slices at a slight diagonal starting at one end of the log. The slight diagonal will make the biscotti longer as you cut towards the center. Lay each down on a cookie sheet with the cut side down.

7. Cook the slices 15-20 minutes at 250, turning once, to dry each side equally. Cool on a wire rack.

8. You can now decorate with tempered melted chocolate, let dry, and then store in an airtight container.

An Ode to Allston, MA with a Bowl of Homemade Pho Ga

 

The Allston neighborhood of Boston–which I happen to live right near though not in–is more often than not ridiculed as a college slum. It is affectionately called Allston Rock City because of its music scene and do it yourself house shows and Allston Rat City, well, because there sure are a lot of rats come trash day.

I will concede that there are more than a lot of college kids in the heart of Allston. Harvard Avenue, the main drag filled with food, bars, and cheap furniture stores, fills up on  most nights with college kids in every direction. The trolley or T  that runs out to the neighborhood is notoriously slow and glutted with students. Then there’s the crowding into apartments and subsequent waste that accumulates every time a semester or lease ends. On September first it’s even called Allston Christmas since on every corner a mountainous pile of futons, cheap lamps, and discarded couches grows dangerously high in a mere 24-hour period as college kids either move out, move in, or simply start new somewhere else in the city. (Be wary of taking something you find on the street. There are rules to Allston.)

But despite all this, I have to admit it I actually love Allston, because below the surface, there is so much culinary flavor and cheap eats, how could I not come to love the place?  There are at least two shabu shabu restaurants, the kind that serve big portions for low prices, blocks away from each other. There is middle eastern, sushi, Korean BBQ and Fried chicken, Salvadorean, VEgan pizza, and Nepalese to name a few and bars with more craft beer than is humanly possible to try (two of which were named by Draft Magazine as part of the 100 best beer bars in America!)  I dislike the constant ragging on Allston as a college-this or college-that because it obscures the fact that thriving immigrant communities live and make Allston interesting too.  At a point making fun of and trashing the neighborhood as a result of it’s college reputation seems to close to trashing on the other people that live there.

The crowning jewel of my love for Allston is the Super 88 grocery store and food court (or is a Hong Kong supermarket now? The sign still hasn’t changed.) It’s part pan-asian supermarket and part pan-asian food court. Mostly, it is all awesome. In the food court side, you’ve got everything from Hong Kong style dim sum to Northern Indian take out to Koream bimbimbap. My favorite is the Vietnamese counter, where you can get massive bowls of pho bo and pho ga for under 10 dollars. If you feel inspired by the tastes of the food court the grocery store has everything under the sun you may need to recreate the cuisines of Asia. I’ve spent so many lazy sundays in the Super 88, waiting out the harsh Boston winters with bowsl of pho or tracking down that final ingredients for a new recipe. Galangal ginger! Purple basil! Thai chilies! Oh my.

So when I finally decided to a try making a version of pho ga at home, Vietnamese chick noodle soup in my over simplification of this immensely popular national dish, it seemed only right to dedicate the effort to Allston in all it’s rough-and-tumble glory. Firstly, because my love of pho is born of my time at the Super 88, my Allston go-to. Secondly, because I’m always thankful to I can hop on a bus and appreciate the little extras the neighborhood has, experiencing it underneath the empty stereotypes. And lastly because homemade pho seems a perfect way to honor a section of the city where everything comes crashing at once, from college kids to rock shows in basements to hardworking immigrants to cheap eats from all over the world. It’s not about making the most authentic pho, or finding the best in the city, its just about the process.

I like you just the way you are Allston, rats and all. (Okay, maybe fewer rats would be better for everyone…)

Quick Homemade Pho Ga

Adapted from: Steamy Kitchen & Chez Us

Serves 4-6

For the Broth:

1/2 white onion
1 3 inch chunk of ginger, peeled
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
3 star anise pods
fennel seeds, 1 tablespoon
1 cinnamon stick
8 cups of chicken broth
1 small bunch of cilantro, washed
1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce (or to taste)
2-3 cups of water

Main:
1 whole skinless and boneless chicken breast. Mine was around 1.5 pounds of breast meat.
1 lb of noodles

Toppings:

mint, roughly torn
basil, roughly torn
scallions, sliced
quarters of lime
bean sprouts
thinly sliced red onions
Sriracha
Hoisin sauce

Directions:

1.  In a broil safe pan (like a cast iron skillet) brown the peeled ginger and onion until beginning to blacken, around 10 minutes. Peel away any burnt areas.

2. Toast the coriander seeds, the anise pods, fennel seeds, and cinnamon stick in a deep stock pot until just fragrant. Be careful not to burn.

3. Add the chicken broth, onion, ginger, 1 small bunch of cilantro (stem and leaves), and the fish sauce to the stock pot with the toasted spices. Bring to boil. Add the chicken breast. Reduce to just below a boil. Poach the chicken for around 20 minutes until cooked. Remove and shred.

4. While the chicken is poaching cook the rice noodles according to the package.

5. The Pho Ga stock may have reduced now by some. Taste and adjust for taste. You may want to add another 2-3 cups of water. Once ready, remove from heat.

6. Strain the chicken broth in a fine mesh colander. I found lining the colander with a paper towel helped catch any small spices that may have broken down while simmering.

7. Divide the broth into bowls. Add noodles, shredded chicken, and then top to your fancy.

8. Store leftovers in separate containers so you can quickly reassemble for another meal!

White Bean, Butternut Squash and Kale Soup

Clearly I haven’t been blogging much lately. I have been still creating a lot good eats–like fig and cashew granola and apple-squash curry soup–but the blog has become a wee bit dusty in the meantime. Sometimes you just need a break from things though.

I learned something fundamental last night that inspired me to post: freshly grated Parmesan makes all vegetable soups better. See, I had the creative bug last night, urging me to make a gigantic mess in the kitchen. I wanted soup. I wanted to clean out tons of vegetables from the crisper bin to make a huge cast iron pot full of it. My second soup of the season. Since I didn’t have ham, bacon, or sausage to deepen the  flavor I turned to the Parmesan wedge. It did just the trick.

This is just the kind of no-frills soup that I can see transitioning from fall to winter. It is hearty with butternut squash roasted beforehand in olive oil and creamy white beans. The standard vegetable broth is heightened with Parmesan and dried herbs. Kale, usually a bitter green, is softened by all the other flavors.

I had a second dinner of soup last night. I could get used to ten o’clock bowls of soup, topped with cheese.

White Bean, Butternut Squash and Kale Soup
Serves 6

Ingredients:

3 cups of butternut squash, peeled and sliced into chunks
2 tablespoon olive oil
1 celery stick
1 carrot stick
1/2 white onion
4 cups vegetable stock and 2 cups water
1 can of white beans, rinsed
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 teaspoon dried thyme
6 cups of packed, chopped kale
1 dried bay leaf
1/2 lemon, juiced
2 tablespoons grated fresh Parmesan, (more for serving)
1 tablespoon of pesto (more for serving)

Directions:

1. Toss butternut squash chunks with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Roast on 350 for 18-20 minutes, tossing a few times to ensure even cooking/browning.

2. While squash is roasting, mince the celery, carrot, and onion. Prepare other ingredients to have ready.

3. Near end of roasting add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to big soup pot. Heat to medium high. Add in celery, carrot, onion. Cook for 5-7 minutes until soft.

4. Add in white beans. Season with salt and pepper. Add rosemary, thyme, and bay leaf.

5. Add roasted butternut squash, broth, water and bring to a boil. Slowly add in cups of kale, wilting each in the boiling soup before adding the next. Squeeze lemon juice over pot.

6. Bring down to a low simmer and cook for 10-20 minutes, to let the flavors combine.

7. Remove bay leaf. Add parmesan and pesto after finishing simmering, swirling them into the soup. Salt and pepper now if more is needed. Serve with more parm and pesto with each bowl.The flavors of this soup improve after a day in the fridge!

Homemade Creme Fraiche + Bacon/Corn Pizza with Creme Fraiche

When I visited Chicago over labor day weekend there was a pizza (not deep dish, though) that started my interest in creme fraiche. In the Andersonville neighborhood there was an itsy bitsy pizza shop, recommended by the friend we were staying with, called Great Lake. It is the kind of the place that has few seats and where the pizzas are made by the owner from scratch so they take upwards of an hour to craft. But guess what? The pizza was out of this world good. It was the crust, springy and bread-like, that made me understand all the hype. .  One of the pies we shared had a creme fraiche base topped with corn, bacon, and red onion. It tasted kinda like: “Damn! I wish I had thought of these flavors on a pizza before.” I knew I had to recreate the flavors at home.

A little investigation taught me that there is no need to buy creme fraiche. In science class fashion, you can make it yourself with a little effort and trust. Homemade creme fraiche means stirring a small amount of yogurt or buttermilk into heavy cream and letting it sit out of the fridge, covered, until thick. Magically the cultures  thicken the mixture, giving it a slightly sour tang, like a gentler relative of sour cream. I now have creme fraiche in the fridge, ready to use in savory and sweet dishes, just like that. First thing I did was reconstruct the pizza, though. I had to. It rocked.

Homemade Creme Fraiche

Makes 1 cup

Ingredients:
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons yogurt or buttermilk
a container or jar with a lid

Directions:

1.  Mix the cream and yogurt (or buttermilk) together in the container/jar. A whisk helps if using the yogurt.

2. Leave in warm area–ideally around 70 degrees–covered for up to 24 hours. Make sure the seal is good. If you don’t have a cover  you could use plastic wrap and a rubber band on the top of a washed out jar.

3. You will know the creme fraiche is ready when it is thick but still pourable plus it will be slightly sour. If it is not getting thicker try placing it in a warmer place like under a lamp or near a warm stove.

4. Store in the fridge for about week.

5. Besides pizza creme fraiche works in deserts, in pasta with ham/peas, on crepes, in soups, etc. Really anywhere a little richness can be used.

Of course here is the outline for the pizza I had. I’m not saying it was Great Lake quality because that pizza was just too good to replicate at home but the flavors are what I was looking for. The combination does not disappoint:

Bacon and Corn Pizza with Creme Fraiche

Serves around 2

Ingredients:
Pizza dough made by hand or buy some ready to bake at the store.
2 slices of bacon, cut into lardons/chunks
1 small red onion, sliced
1 cup of corn kernels (fresh or frozen)
1/2 cup creme fraiche
salt and freshly ground pepper

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 500. If you have a pizza stone put it in to preheat too.

2. In a skillet over medium high heat cook the bacon until almost crispy. Add in the onion and corn. Cook until just browned. Remove from heat.

3. Top pizza, either before going into the oven or after prebaking the crust, with creme fraiche and the bacon/corn/onion mixture.

4. Cook for 5-7 minutes until browned.

5. Sprinkle a liberal amount of salt and pepper when finished. This is key, trust me.

6. Eat away!

 

Blueberry Oatmeal Pancakes

Making pancakes on a weekend morning always feels fancy and lazy. It means taking out the flour and spilling it all over the red tiled flour without noticing for longer than a while. It means lingering with coffee that goes from hot to cold because I’m not getting up off the couch. It means watching Disney Channel TV shows on ABC because we don’t have cable. It means not taking a shower for a long, long time. Pancakes are a rebellion against the nine to five life. At least I think so.

For the longest time now I have been using the Mark Bittman everyday pancake recipe exactly–why mess with something that works? After sampling some oatmeal waffles, though, I began making a few changes to the standard recipe. Just adding some oatmeal, a little vanilla extract, and brown sugar turned the regular everyday pancake into something reminiscent of a baked good.

Now that the farmer’s market is full of pretty, colorful things I couldn’t resist blueberries for breakfast. I plopped around eight blueberries into each pancake as it bubbled on the skillet. They sizzled and exploded with color. The cinnamon and brown sugar make theses pancakes like muffins. The end result is a chewier pancake with bursting blueberries.

 

Blueberry Oatmeal Pancakes
Adapted from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything

Serves 3-4

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup old fashioned oatmeal pulsed in a food processor to become flour
1/4 cup old fashioned oats
2 teaspoons  baking power
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup of washed blueberries
butter for a skillet

Directions:

1.  Combine all purpose flour, the oatmeal flour (created by processing old fashioned oats in a food processor), the old fashioned oats, baking powder, salt, brown sugar, and cinnamon in a bowl. Sift.

2. In another bowl combine the eggs, milk, and vanilla extract.

3. Combine the dry ingredients with the wet ingredients until almost smooth.

4. Heat a skillet on medium. Add some butter.  Add 1/4 cup of batter.  Drop around 8-10 blueberries into each pancake. Flip once lots of little bubbles appear. Cook until browned on both sides. Repeat. Add extra butter after each pancake if needed.

 

Cranberry and Walnut No Knead Bread

I was a bit slow this past week in reviewing a new cookbook, but Jim Lahey’s My Bread kept me busy with baking rather than reviewing.  I tried several of the book’s variations mostly with success and with one failure. The loaf featuring cranberries and walnuts pictured here worked out perfectly though; it was airy, light, crusty, and slightly cinnamon-y. It would be perfect for thanksgiving leftovers when turkey sandwiches abound.

There are endless variations of Lahey’s no-knead method in his first cookbook making it a real treat for anyone who loves the simple no knead method but craves a bit more in terms of flavor and expansion of the technique. Lahey’s recipe for artisan quality bread, originally published in 2006 by Mark Bittman, uses time rather than  hands do the kneading. It literally took the home baker by storm. Thus, the first section of Lahey’s book is dedicated to an in depth review, with beautiful illustrative images, of the original recipe for his signature holey, light, and glorious bread.  Even a new no knead bread-er could jump right in with Lahey’s introduction.

Lahey takes the no knead bread in new directions here too: with dried fruits, with freshly squeezed juices, beer, and with shapes and forms that still harness the heat and humidity of a covered cast iron pot to create a successful bread at home. He evens dedicates time to sandwich fillings such as roasted ham and artichoke confit, all inspired his Sullivan Street Bakery in New York City. It is safe to say that I wish I owned this book instead of just library-ing it.

My one failure occurred with the carrot and currant loaf that I had such high hopes for. The idea of using carrot juice drew me in the moment I read the recipe. Carrot juice instead of water? Genius! It worked for Martha Stewart too (clearly I must have made a mistake because Martha controls the culinary world with perfection.) My tinkering with the original recipe may have caused the failure. I swapped dates for the currants which seemed to inhibit the dough from rising. I can’t be sure yet what went wrong but I’d try it again to see if I could make it work. I may have simply added too little yeast.

I decided to blog about the cranberry and walnut version because it is a simple variation, making it a good recipe for both novices and no knead aficionados alike. This could be your very first no knead loaf or your 100th; you will still love the end result.  Brian and I both mix up the regular  bread several times a week to make sandwiches and to eat for breakfast. Toasted bread with jam is the ultimate breakfast We found the addition of dried fruit and nuts made a big difference. I’m thinking of baking a few boules of this recipe the night before we drive to upstate new york for thanksgiving as a gift for his family. I love gifting no knead bread because it always incites such awe (when in reality, it is a deceptively simple recipe.)

NOTE: Lahey provides ingredients in both weight and volume. I must admit that I do not weigh my flour. I know I should but I have found success with just careful scooping and really getting to know what dough should look like. So I provided the volume measure here.

Cranberry and Walnut No Knead Bread

From My Bread

Ingredients:

3 cups bread flour
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup roughly chopped walnuts
1 1/4 teaspoons table salt
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon yeast
pinch of freshly ground pepper
1 1/2 cups of water (at around 55-65 degrees)
cornmeal or wheat bran for dusting

supplies: 6-8 quart oven proof covered pot
Directions:

1. Mix the flour, cranberries, walnuts, salt, cinnamon, yeast, and pepper in large plastic mixing bowl. Remember the bread with double in size so accommodate for expansion when picking the bowl.

2. Add the water and mix either with hand or a wooden spoon until a shaggy ball of dough forms. If needed, add a bit more water or flour. It will not be a perfect ball of smooth dough though. It will be tacky and sticky but it should come together quickly in about 5 minutes.

3. Let the dough rise for 12-18 hours in a warm place, covered with plastic wrap or a non-terry cloth tea towel. It will be wet and porous after this first rise. It should more than double in size as well.

4. After the first rise dust a work surface with flour and plop the dough down. Gently and drying not to degas and deflate the dough shape into a ball by folding the sides into the middle.

5. Spread a tea towel down and dust with cornmeal or wheat bran. Place the folded seam side down on the towel. Dust the top with more cornmeal or wheat bran. Fold the towel over to cover the ball of dough.

6. Let the dough rise for 2 hours in a warm location.

7. A half hour before the dough will have completed the second rise preheat the oven to 450 degrees and place an oven proof 6-8 quart covered pot into the oven to preheat as well.

8. When ready carefully open the heated pot. Use the towel to plop the dough, seam side up, into the pot. I just sort of unroll the towel and the dough naturally falls.

9. Cover and bake. However, the baking of no knead dough varies for me. Here is my advice: Basically, you want to bake the bread for set of time covered and then you want to uncover to bake again to ensure browning of the crust. Lahey suggests 30 minutes for the first period and another 15-20 for the next period.  I have had success with baking for 15 minutes, uncovering, and then baking for another 15 until the internal temperature is 200 degrees. If you don’t have a thermometer to check doneness you want the bread to be browned and hollow sounding when tapped. You will also hear little crackles when the bread is close to your ear. I would recommend baking covered for 15 minutes and then checking to see if the bread looks done but not browned. If it looks almost ready I’d take the cover off and bake another 15-20 minutes. If the bread is still doughy after the first 15 minutes continue baking for another 15 minutes covered to complete the full 30 minutes recommended by Lahey, and then remove the cover and bake until the bread is browned, 15 minutes more.

Root Beer and Maple Bacon Baked Beans

Why is it that rustic-looking dishes (ahem, I mean not photogenic dishes) are by far the best to create and enjoy?

Root beer baked beans with Vermont maple bacon almost wasn’t a dinner reality for me, but I am so glad it turned out to be in the end.  The saga started last Sunday. I had wanted to make this recipe since the night before, but I just didn’t want to drive, walk, or take the bus to the grocery store to make it happen.  I procrastinated with coffee by the glow of the computer. Then I decided in the late afternoon to power walk to the local Whole Foods, even if navigating the aisles on a Sunday is not my idea of fun.  I needed to go there no matter what, I realized, because the star ingredient for this recipe is New England Maine Root, which I can’t get anywhere else in my neighborhood.

I first tasted a Maine Root soda in – where else? – Portland, Maine. I ordered a blueberry soda with a burger. It was unexpectedly good, fizzy, and had just the right amount of blueberry. Maine Root sodas use only cane juice as a sweetener, a superior ingredient to high fructose corn syrup. Since that first taste, I’ve tried several other flavors at restaurants in the Boston area. They even have a pumpkin pie.

I found everything at the grocery store except the canned cannellini beans, which bizarrely were out of stock. A bean conspiracy, I bet. I dodged some lady arguing with a stock person about the canola oil to get to the bulk goods section. I considered buying dry beans, but with the evening approaching I decided against it. On the walk home I (of course!) ate some of what I bought at the store. My parents taught me well; you always snack on something after grocery shopping.

After sticking my head into every convenience store in case they had cannellini beans (they didn’t), I made it to another grocery store and found them.  I finally got started late in the evening. Drinking one of the root beers motivated me. I used the end of my batch of maple smoked bacon instead of the applewood smoked bacon called for in the original recipe.  The extra maple flavor was too good to resist. I added a few extra strips of bacon too.

And what was the result of all that grocery searching? Downright awesome baked beans for dinner. I love making dishes that are usually overlooked. Up until this recipe I believed all baked beans came from a can or that they were those delicious things that accompanied smoked meats at a barbecue restaurant. Now I’m even thinking they would go well with a southern-style Thanksgiving feast. The root beer gives a great sweet flavor reminiscent of a mild barbecue sauce, and the chili powder adds a subtle contrast. Plus, maple and molasses jive so well. Sop up the delicious thick sauce with some cornbread.

The real point of these beans was to enjoy the strange-sounding baked beans on toast.  I toasted fresh no-knead bread with a heaping spoon of baked beans and then melted some havarti cheese on top. I used to doubt the power of beans on toast. No longer.

Root Beer and Maple Bacon Baked Beans

Adapted from Epicurious (originally from Bon Appetit)

Makes 6-8 servings

Ingredients:
6 slices maple bacon, cut into small lardons (cubes)
3 cups onion, roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 15-ounce cans of cannellini beans, rinsed and patted dry (You could also use the equivalent in home cooked beans.)
1 1/2 cups artisanal root beer
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons dark molasses
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 1/2 teaspoons chili powder
salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place a large oven-proof pot on the stove over medium heat. Cook the bacon until crispy. Remove and blot with a paper towel.

2. Cook the onions in the bacon grease until they are golden brown, about 5 to 8 minutes. Stir often to keep the onions from burning.

3. Add the garlic, and cook a minute more. Then add the beans, root beer, vinegar, molasses, mustard, and chili powder. Mix vigorously to scrape all the good bacon and onion bits from the bottom of the pot into the mixture. Add the cooked bacon. Salt and pepper to taste.

4. Bring to boil. Then move to preheated oven and cook uncovered for 30 minutes until the sauce thickens.

Roasted Apples and Delicata Squash with Thyme-Maple Marinade

I went apple picking a few weekends ago. It was the first time Brian had ever gone as well as the first time he had eaten  apple cider donuts. The last time I went apple picking was ages ago but it definitely was a rite of passage as a kid. I noticed a lot  of state license plates at the orchard though; I guess I never thought about how New Englandy the tradition was. It is funny to move home after college and find it all so interesting, like some strange anthropological study in your childhood. A study in food too, since there is so much more eating involved now than there was when I lived here in high school.

Brian managed to do all the picking. He has some strange an affinity for climbing trees and attempting to reach those untouchable apples,  the ones that stare at you all glistening in the sun while you settle for finding low limbed stragglers still good enough to eat. I don’t remember what kinds of apples he picked while up there, I just schlepped our bounty around while snapping photos of the almost barren apple trees. I also ate a lot of apples while meandering the orchard. But isn’t that a rule made to be broken?

Although the apple picking season has come and gone, I wanted to write about something I made with what we took home. Other than eating an apple two or three times during the work day, I really enjoyed sneaking apple slices into otherwise regular meals. It started with oatmeal, then moved to yogurt cake, then super hearty breakfast muffins, finally pancakes and now roasted with squash in a sweet and savory marinade.

Alongside the apples I roasted delicata squash from the same farm. I may or may not have picked the best apples for roasting, but I couldn’t care either way. The apples and squash were tossed in fresh sprigs of thyme, apple cider vinegar, maple syrup, olive oil, a few dried spices, and mashed garlic. Then the whole thing was roasted for nearly hour, smelling subtlety sweet and tempting me to poke around every so often with eagerness and a sharp fork. Spinach and sausage accompanied the dish on the side when finished.

This recipe by no means reinvents the wheel. I merely made it up while staring at the round squash considering the striations of its skin, whether to sauté or roast it, and how I could ultimately eat sausage with whatever I created. But I like celebrating the fall. It makes the looming winter, which is far off I tell myself, more palatable.

Roasted Apples and Delicata Squash with Thyme-Maple Marinade

Makes 4-6 servings, depending on size of portion

Ingredients:
1 pound delicata squash, sliced into thin half moons with the skin intact
2 apples, unpeeled, sliced and diced into thick chunks. Try to keep these a bit larger to hold up while roasting
1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons of maple syrup
1 clove of garlic, mashed

a pinch, around 1/8 of a teaspoon, of dried sage and rosemary

4-6 sprigs of fresh thyme

salt and pepper to taste

Directions:


1. You can eat the skin of delicata squash! I like this new found information.

2. Preheat the oven to 400

3. Place squash and apples in a large baking dish where they are evenly spread around.

4. In a separate bowl, mix apple cider vinegar, olive oil and maple syrup. Add the garlic clove and the pinch of dried rosemary and sage. Mix again.

5. Drizzle marinade over squash and apples. Toss a few times to ensure an evening coating.

6. Place sprigs of thyme over the squash and apples.

7. Roast until tender, around 1 hour. Check often though, because ovens vary widely in actual temperature. I also rotated the pan a few times to ensure even heating because my older oven seems to not always cook so evenly.

8. When finished, salt and pepper to taste.

Sweet Potato, Chickpea and Collard Greens Soup

There is this soup from Smitten Kitchen that never leaves my mind, especially once it gets cold outside. It features spicy sausage and sweet potatoes. The end result is a delightful but rustic cross between a pureed soup and a hearty stew. And I just love the smoky flavor imparted by the sausage, which is first browned and then removed so that all the deliciousness can be transferred to the onions and garlic to make the soup base.

All my love aside, Sunday night I just didn’t have any sausage. And I really wanted that soup.

I thought instead of running out, why not just make the recipe without the sausage? The technique is the real star, where you mash half of the potatoes right in the pot, with or without sausage.

I just needed to come up with a new spice combination to proceed. Smoked paprika, which is fast becoming the one ingredient I use in everything, came to mind.  A few other spices added complexity but I threw in nothing too involved. A Sunday night dish isn’t the kind I want to be laboriously mixing spices for.

This chunky and thick soup is delicious not only right after it is made but later on in the week, once the flavors mesh together. I honestly didn’t miss the sausage either. I’m a definite fan of sausage soup (mostly because it is a funny thing to say and write about) but a complex and hearty vegetable dish with color and heat is always welcome.

I also believe this adapted version confirms that pretty food doesn’t taste as good as not so pretty food. These are not winning photographs, but the soup is good.

Sweet Potato, Chickpea and Collard Greens Soup

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Makes 4-6 servings

Ingredients:

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 can of chickpeas, washed and patted dry
1/2 cup yellow onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon and 1 1/2 teaspoons smoked paprika, divided
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1 pound sweet potato, cut into small cubes or slices
1 small potato, cut into small cubes or slices
4 cups of chicken or vegetable stock (if you want this to be vegan)
2 cups chopped and torn uncooked collard greens.

Directions:

1. Heat the olive oil in a deep heavy pot over medium high heat. Add 1 teaspoon of smoked paprika and the chickpeas. Brown for 5-10 minutes.  Remove chickpeas and set aside.  Add the onions, garlic and remaining spices. Brown for 5-10 minutes, mixing thoroughly to make sure the spices do not burn.

2. Add both the sweet and regular potatoes. Cook the potatoes for 12 minutes until they begin to soften.

4. Add the broth and mix vigorously, making sure to incorporate any browned onions pieces hugging the bottom of the pot. Let the soup come to a boil.  Once boiled, cover and simmer for 15 minutes.

5. After 15 minutes of simmering take a potato masher and mash about 1/2 of the potatoes in the soup so that the texture begins to transform into a blended yet still chunky mix. This is best judged by you so taste often!

6. Add two cups of chopped collard greens and the set aside browned chickpeas. Let the soup simmer, covered, for another 5-10 minutes until the greens are soft and wilted.