Thursday, December 24, 2015

Pear Butter

I generally have a hard time with summer ending. The fruit aisle at the grocery store transitions from stands bursting with cherries, berries, and peaches to a pathetic selection of approximately three fruits that are actually good in winter plus a bunch of pale, anemic fruits that are coaxed to survive through the dead of January. The plus side is that the few good winter fruits are very good and very versatile. Pears are one such fruit, and I think they are underappreciated. If you disagree, perhaps this pear butter can persuade you otherwise.

In case you’re new to fruit “butter,” it’s simply fruit that has been cooked and pureed to a thick spread and sweetened. It often has spices added. I like it because it’s more full-bodied and less overwhelmingly sweet than jams and jellies. Also, it’s really easy to make (no pectin required). For this recipe, you pretty much just chop pears into a crockpot, stir it now and then, and then add sugar and a few spices.

This pear butter has just the right amount of sweet and spice. It makes a great addition to morning toast and is fancy enough to give as a gift. If you can bear to part with it, that is.

Fun Fact: Fruits in general are a good source of vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium, and fiber. Potassium is a mineral with many vital functions in the human body, including nerve transmission and muscle contraction. Minerals can be lost in cooking water, but they are not destroyed by heat.

Pear Butter
Adapted from Food in Jars by Marisa McClellan
5 cups chopped pears, cored but unpeeled (I used Bosc pears and was very happy with the result, but the recipe doesn’t specify a variety)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
juice of ½ lemon
1 cup sugar, can add more to taste

Place the chopped pears in a crockpot, and cook on low, covered, for 1 hour.

Stir the pears, and prop the lid slightly open by a wooden spoon or other utensil. Continue to cook for about 5-7 hours, stirring the pears every hour. After 4 hours, mash and or blend the pears to the desired consistency. Stir in the spices.

During the last hour of cooking, add lemon juice and sugar to taste. Continue to cook until the mixture is thick and spreadable, and then store in a jar in the refrigerator. Enjoy on toast, fruit, yogurt, etc. Makes about 2½ - 3 cups, depending on how thick you make it.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Dark Chocolate Orange Pistachio Bark

More often than is probably normal, the moments before I fall asleep at night are spent thinking about things I want to eat. This recipe began just that way about one year ago, also near Christmas, a time when everything I want to make seems to involve chocolate, ginger, or copious amounts of cheese piled on starchy things.

This recipe is decidedly chocolate-focused. I used a nice bittersweet chocolate bar because I love dark chocolate and orange together. They’re incredibly fragrant, floral, and holiday-ish in combination. The pistachios add a nice mild, slightly salty crunch that goes perfectly with the chocolate and orange. Also, they look pretty.

This recipe is very easy to make, and it gives me a sense of accomplishment to make my own candy (and eat it). You can feel even more accomplished by candying your own orange peel, or you can just buy it already made. I won’t judge you.

Fun Fact: Pistachios contain lutein and zeaxanthin, both of which are carotenoids (yellow-red-orange pigments) that are involved in retina health. Those who eat foods high in lutein and zeaxanthin may have lower rates of age-related macular degeneration.

Dark Chocolate Orange Pistachio Bark
3½ oz. bittersweet chocolate
3 Tablespoons shelled, roasted, salted pistachios
2 teaspoons diced candied orange peel (instructions for candying below)

The measurements above are to taste and can be altered as desired.
Chop the chocolate, and melt in a double boiler. (I use a glass bowl set over a pot with about an inch of simmering water.) While the chocolate is melting, shell the pistachios, if not already done, and chop to whatever size you want in the bark. I did mine in approximate halves and quarters. Spread the melted chocolate to desired thinness over waxed paper. Distribute the pistachios and orange peel prettily over the top. Let the chocolate cool and harden for 2-3 hours, then break into pieces. Store unlikely leftovers in an airtight container.

Candied Orange Peel
2 oranges
1 cup water
1 cup + 2 Tablespoons sugar

Prep: Bring two small-medium pots of water to boil (or just one – you decide after reading instructions). Rinse oranges thoroughly. Slice the ends off of each orange, then score the peels so that there are two peel hemispheres on each orange. Carefully remove the peels without ripping into smaller pieces, and then slice into 1/8 or 1/4-inch slices.

Blanching: Blanch the sliced orange peels in boiling water twice for about 3 minutes each time, rinsing the peels and changing the water after each blanch.

Candying: Stir together the water and sugar until sugar is dissolved, and bring to a gentle boil. Place the orange peels in the syrup, and boil for about one hour, checking occasionally to make sure the water hasn’t boiled away. Note: I have made these twice, and the first time, I found an hour to be too short because the orange peels were limp, though delicious. The second time, I went closer to 75 minutes, and it worked pretty well, though some might find them too sticky. You can try lifting them with a fork during cooking to check progress.

Cooling: Remove the candied peels from the syrup, and place on a cooling rack set over a plate or waxed paper to catch the drips. Let cool thoroughly. The orange peels will stiffen as they cool.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Caramel Apple Cake

If you like the idea of caramel apples but get overwhelmed by the apples, this is the cake for you. If you like desserts with plenty of butter, sugar, and happiness, this is the cake for you. If you like desserts that typify everything that is good about autumn and life itself, this is the cake for you.

Apple Carnage

This seasonal beauty comes from the King Arthur Flour website, which has yet to lead me astray. There are a few steps involved in the assembly, but none are difficult, and each is well worth it. This cake is moist, intensely apple-flavored, and pleasantly spiced. It’s warm and autumnal and crowd-pleasing.

Deceptively Unattractive
From Drab to Fab 
I must warn you that should you decide to disregard the recipe’s advice to use a deep cake pan, you will have batter and caramel ooze out and burn on your oven floor. I saved myself the second time around by putting a sheet of tin foil underneath the cake while it was baking. To be honest, though, I rather like that it overflows a bit. I’m always left with deeply browned, extra-caramelized bits that I have to cut off to get the cake out of the pan. I took a plate of these crispy-licious bites around my apartment, and my roommates and I devoured them greedily. They make a nice appetizer while you’re waiting for the cake to cool.

Fun Fact: Cake is good for the soul. Also, it increases your levels of friendship, which is definitely health promoting.

Caramel Apple Cake

Not really adapted at all from

2 small apples, peeled and sliced between 1/8-1/4 inch thick*
4 Tablespoons butter
¾ cup brown sugar, packed
2 Tablespoons frozen apple juice concentrate, thawed
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
½ cup light corn syrup

¾ cup canola oil
1 cup brown sugar, packed
2 Tablespoons frozen apple juice concentrate, thawed
2 large eggs
1½ teaspoons cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour**
1 medium apple, peeled and finely chopped
(The original recipe includes ¾ cup chopped walnuts or pecans, which would definitely cut the sweetness. However, I have a childlike palate and don’t want to cut the sweetness.)

Preheat the oven to 325-350 degrees F. (I have only baked this in Utah, and 350 seemed excessive for my particular oven. I usually preheat to 350 and then turn down to 325 or even a little lower once I put the cake in. Peek at the cake after about 10 minutes to see how quickly it’s browning.) Grease the bottom and sides of a 9-inch round cake pan that is at least 2-inches deep (see commentary above). Cut a circle of parchment to line the bottom of the pan, and grease that as well.

To make the topping:
Place the butter through corn syrup in a saucepan, and heat over medium flame, stirring occasionally until the brown sugar is dissolved. It’s okay if it reaches a gentle simmer.

Place the sliced apples in a ring around the bottom of the pan, overlapping each other. Place a few extra slices in the center so it isn’t lonely.

Pour ½ cup of the caramel over the sliced apples, and set the remaining caramel aside.

To make the cake:
Beat the oil, brown sugar, juice concentrate, spices, and salt at medium speed for about 2 minutes. (You can do this by hand easily enough too.) Mix the flour and baking soda together separately, and then stir into the batter a bit at a time. Finally, stir the chopped apples into the cake batter.

Drop the batter in large spoonfuls over the apple topping, and spread smooth. Bake for 50-55 minutes until a fork or cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the cake cool for five minutes in the pan. Then, run a knife around the edge, and invert onto a plate.

Reheat the reserved caramel sauce, and boil for 30-60 seconds to thicken, if desired. Keep in mind that it will thicken as it cools. Pour desired amount of caramel over the cake, letting it drizzle down the sides. I usually have extra caramel, but you could definitely use all if wanted.

*You can really use any variety that you like. I’ve tried both Red Delicious and Fuji.

**I may or may not have accidentally left out ½ cup flour the last time I made this. I admit nothing, except that this cake has been delicious every time. Good thing it’s hard to mess up.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Granola & Autumn

Maybe it’s the chilly mornings, but something about autumn makes me want hearty, starchy, filling foods. This granola is my favorite and one I have been making regularly for the past few years, especially in autumn and winter. 

It’s crunchy and sweet, but not too sweet. It has wide-flake coconut that gets perfectly toasted and a pleasant maple-cinnamon flavor. The original recipe calls for walnuts but also works great with almonds or pumpkin seeds or probably any other nut you would want to try. I also appreciate the fact that it’s not drenched in butter or oil. There is a little bit of olive oil, but the real crunch-creating factor is egg white, which causes delightful clumps and allows the granola to stand up to milk being poured on top of it.

This granola is also great with pumpkin butter, apple butter, or pear butter; and it’s good with yogurt too. It’s also good when snacked on plain. In fact, you should probably make a double batch while you’re at it.

Fun Fact: Oats contain soluble fiber, which has a myriad of health benefits. One benefit is that it can bind to “bad” cholesterol, causing it to be expelled from (rather than recycled through) your body.

Adapted slightly from “The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook”

2.5-3 cups rolled oats*
1 cup unsweetened, wide-flake coconut
2/3 cup walnut halves, chopped or hand-broken into smaller pieces
2½ Tablespoons whole wheat flour
2 Tablespoons olive oil
scant ½ teaspoon salt (or ½ teaspoon coarse salt, as the recipe calls for)
½ cup maple syrup (or more, if desired)
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 large egg white
Raisins, dried cherries, dried blueberries, or whatever you please, to serve

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.

Mix all ingredients from oats through cinnamon in a large bowl, making sure the oats are well coated. In a separate bowl whisk the egg white until it is a bit foamy. Stir the egg white into the granola until it is well-distributed.

Spread the granola out flat on a parchment-lined baking sheet. (At this point, I like to make a gap in the center of the pan so that the granola forms a giant, oblong ring instead of a sheet. I find this helps with browning.)

Bake the granola for 45-55 minutes, carefully flipping after about 25-30 minutes – use a large spatula, and flip in sections, keeping the clumps as intact as possible. Continue baking until it is deeply golden brown, and then let cool completely. Store in an airtight container, and eat with dried fruit and fruit butter, yogurt, or milk.

*The recipe calls for 3 cups, or 240 grams, of oats, but I reach 240 grams before I have poured 3 cups, and when I used all 3 cups once, my granola didn’t clump as well.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Blueberry Pie

The line “I’m as normal as blueberry pie” in the South Pacific song always struck me as odd because for my first 18 years, I had never even seen blueberry pie let alone tasted it.  I figured since my encounters were so limited, it couldn’t be that normal of a dessert.  And since I don’t generally go out of my way for just “normal” desserts anyway, I didn’t feel like I was missing anything.

In the past few months, however, I have been developing a love for pie where once there was only lukewarm appreciation.  So at the height of summer, when blueberries were beautifully abundant, I decided it was time to try this apparent classic.

Now that I have cast off my ignorance and tried the pie, I understand the line of that song completely differently.  It isn’t that blueberry pie is boringly normal, but rather, it should be a normal part of everyday life because it’s too good not to eat regularly.  I have vowed to make the necessary lifestyle changes to make this possible.

I have made this pie with both fresh and frozen blueberries.  The texture of fresh blueberries is a bit more tender and enjoyable, but the flavor of both is phenomenal – sweet and intensely blueberry-ish either way.  This pie has a small amount of cinnamon to add some depth without overwhelming the blueberries, and I like to add a tablespoon of lemon juice to make the flavor brighter.  (It doesn’t make the pie taste like lemon at all, though, in case you’re worried about offending lemon dessert-hating palates.)

The other nice thing about this pie is that it will get eaten so fast that no one will have time to judge your sloppy, asymmetrical lattice top crust….unless you take a picture of it and post it on the internet….

Fun Fact: Blueberries get their blue color from a class of pigments in their skin called anthocyanins. Not only do anthocyanins make pretty colors, but they also have antioxidant effects, meaning they destroy oxidizing agents in the body that can lead to heart disease and cancer. Maybe this will help with all of the butter you’re about to eat in the pie crust.

Blueberry Pie

Crust adapted from

2 sticks (8 oz.) butter, frozen for 15-30 minutes
2½ cups flour, chilled
1 tablespoon sugar
¾ cup ice-cold water

Mix flour and sugar together in mixing bowl.  Using a coarse grater, and working from square side of the stick of butter (you don’t want really long curls), grate both the sticks of butter into the flour/sugar mixture.  Avoid getting large piles of butter by occasionally moving the grater to different spots of the bowl and lightly tossing the already grated butter with the flour from time to time.  Make sure the butter is pretty evenly distributed through the flour – you’re aiming for pieces of butter the size of peas spread throughout. (You can always go with the pastry blender or food processor method if you prefer.)

Pour ½ cup of the cold water into the mixing bowl, and stir to combine.  Add additional water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough is moist enough to clump together.  Divide the dough into two balls, then flatten lightly into discs, and chill for at least 30 minutes before rolling.  Makes enough for one double-crust pie.

Blueberry Filling adapted from

¾ cup granulated sugar
5 tablespoons cornstarch*
¼ teaspoon salt
1/8-1/4 teaspoon cinnamon (the cinnamon is more pronounced with ¼ teaspoon, but neither amount is overwhelming)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
4 cups blueberries, fresh or frozen (frozen weight is about 20 oz.)
1 tablespoon butter, diced

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mix sugar, cornstarch, salt, and cinnamon together in a large mixing bowl.  Toss in the blueberries and lemon juice, and stir to combine.  Roll out one of the pie crusts until it is large enough to drape over the sides of a standard 9-inch pie plate.  Roll out the second pie crust, and cut into strips for a lattice, fun shapes to dot the top of the pie, or no shape if you want a standard double-crust pie (just be sure to cut steam vents).  Place the blueberry filling in the first crust, then dot the top with the diced butter.  Place the second crust, however it’s shaped, over the top, and crimp the edges.  Cut away the excess crust – you can bake it separately with cinnamon sugar.

Line the edges of the pie with foil, and bake for about 50 minutes**, until crust is golden brown.  Let the pie cool thoroughly before cutting into it or you’ll have a runny mess like I did.  I like this pie better the second day, after it has chilled in the fridge, but I can never wait that long.

* I have used 4.5 tablespoons both times I made it, and it has been slightly too runny both times.  I like the juiciness of it, though. I’d rather err on the side of juicy than gummy, but feel free to try 6 tablespoons.

** It may take a bit longer with frozen blueberries.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Creamy Pesto Pasta

One day, I made cilantro pesto as I am wont to do when I have extra cilantro and Parmesan cheese on hand.  Then I realized that I also had leftover cream cheese.  And there was much rejoicing.

This pasta concoction turned out to be one of my happy let’s-throw-several-yummy-things-together-and-see-what-happens success stories.  The first time I made it, I used spaghetti noodles, and the second time, I used whole wheat rotini.  I enjoyed it thoroughly both times, so you can really use any pasta that suits your fancy.  The flavors are bold enough that they stand up well to whole wheat, though, and I appreciate the wholesome heartiness.

I’m not a huge pasta person in general, but I do consider pasta an excellent vehicle for pesto.  The cream cheese lends a nice texture, but there’s not so much of it that the dish becomes heavy.  I really enjoy the slight sweetness of the broiled zucchini, and the almonds add a nice crunch.  Also, this pasta is fantastic warm or cold, which makes it an ideal leftover kind of food.  The herbs and nuts you choose to use in the pesto are variable too.  This would be fantastic with traditional basil pesto or a parsley-walnut pesto.  Go crazy.

Fun Fact: Garlic contains a phytonutrient called allium, which may contribute cholesterol-lowering benefits (evidence is still limited).  However, garlic extracts and pills may not contain the same substances that would cause this effect, so embrace the garlic breath and eat some pesto.

Creamy Pesto Pasta
1/3 cup raw almonds
1 oz. parmesan cheese
2 cloves garlic
¼ teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1 cup packed cilantro
4-6 Tablespoons olive oil

Toast the almonds in a dry skillet over medium heat, tossing often, until golden and fragrant.  Let cool.  Cube the Parmesan cheese.  In a small food processor, pulse/grind the Parmesan until finely ground.  Remove from machine, and set aside.  Add the almonds to the food processor, and pulse until well chopped but still chunky (don’t turn them all into dust).  Remove almonds from bowl and add to Parmesan cheese.  Place the garlic and the salt in the food processor, and process until finely minced.  Add the cilantro and 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, and process again until finely minced.  Place the almonds and cheese back into the food processor with the herbs, and continue to pulse while drizzling the remaining olive oil into the pesto.  Add oil, and pulse until it achieves the consistency you want.  I prefer mine not too oily with the almonds still a bit chunky.

8 oz. whole wheat rotini
1-2 small zucchini, halved and sliced into ¼-inch thick slices
Olive oil
3 oz. cream cheese, softened
10 Tablespoons pesto (about one full batch)
Salt and Pepper to taste
Additional cilantro, toasted and chopped almonds, and shaved Parmesan to garnish

Bring a pot of well-salted water to boil, and add the pasta.  Boil about 10 minutes, until soft but not mushy.  Reserve ½ cup of the pasta water, and drain the rest.

In the meantime, line a baking sheet with foil, and spread the zucchini out in one layer.  Drizzle with a little bit of olive oil (1-1½ tsp.), and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.  Broil for about 5-10 minutes until the zucchini is tender and browned in spots.

Add the cream cheese and pesto to the still hot pasta, and stir to combine, adding pasta water 1 tablespoon at a time until the desired consistency is reached.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Add the broiled zucchini (as much or as little as you want), and toss.  Serve with additional cilantro, toasted almonds, and shaved Parmesan cheese.   This dish is good warm or cold.  Serves four generously.