Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween (and a Belated Happy Birthday to Me!)

BOO! And a Happy Halloween to you! Even though Halloween is the favorite holiday at my house, we have been woefully remiss in observing it properly this year. It's not a valid excuse by any means, but I think my birthday (Oct. 26) eclipsed Halloween this year, perhaps because it was the scarier of the two holidays. Yes, yes, my birthday ended in a big OH-NO this year, and I decided to run away and try to hide from it by going to Cape Cod for a long weekend. Since my friends knew that I had a destination birthday in mind for my actual day, the weekend before, they threw a lovely party for me. It was at my friend Lee Ann's new house, and I am pleased to say that, though there were a few sparkly blue "40" decorations dangling from the windows, they kept the imminent death talk to a minimum, and the funereal black motif was (thankfully) abandoned altogether. Instead, in a nod to my love of the Disney princesses, I was celebrated as the "Perfect Princess" (that's what my pink sash said anyway), and I wore both a dazzling tiara and a paper crown made for me by my little friend, K, Lee Ann's daughter. She also made a matching paper ring and bracelet for me, all in shades of yellow to symbolize Belle, my favorite Disney princess. I think the best part of my costume was the secret message that she wrote inside my paper crown. It said, "Go, Gina! Yes!" which I find a very affirming message in my advanced age and decrepitude. ;-)

The party was so touching, because all my friends cooked for me for once, creating a tasty potluck of their best dishes and some of my favorites. And then they put together a little recipe folder with each of the recipes (complete with Disney princess stickers, of course) for me to keep as a memento. There were so many delicious things, but I think my new favorite was a mushroom paté that my friend Judy made as an appetizer to go along with the margaritas! (Tee hee.) For dessert, I had a charming Disney princess cake and also, by special request, two Carvel ice cream cakes--one chocolate and vanilla in the shape of a jack-o-lantern as pictured above (Halloween has always blended into my birthday celebrations, and as long as I don't have to eat black frosting, I'm cool with that), and one small rolled cake that was orange and vanilla (creamsicle is my favorite!). After we ate, we played a new board game that Judy gave me, the Food Lover's Trivia Game, which was pretty tricky, I must say. In fact, my team lost! Boo! There were also many other delightful presents. Among the highlights were Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home to Yours (the gift that will keep on giving to my friends!) from Cyd, and many of my other pals chipped in on a photo light box to help me take better pictures for this blog! Wasn't that thoughtful? (Now I just need a decent camera to go with it.)

Then for my big birthday weekend, I took one personal day off of work (how irresponsible!) and headed to Massachusetts. On Friday (my actual birthday), I had originally thought to spend the day on Nantucket as Cyd has never been there, and I spent another magical birthday there about a decade ago (maybe 1998 or 99...old people can't remember things well anymore!). But there is such limited ferry service at this time of year, so we decided to make our way all around the Cape instead. The weather was just gorgeous, and there was still a lot of color on the trees, albeit in a palette of rusts and golds. We had no itinerary which was lovely, and we just stopped when ever we saw something interesting or whenever we got hungry. We bought freshly-picked cranberries from one roadside stand and newly-dug turnips from another. And we met Molly the dog, whose birthday was the same as mine, at the place with the turnips. We also bought tomatoes there, if you can imagine. In fact, on my way to work today, I bought tomatoes and CORN from my local farm stand. Isn't that nuts on the 31st of October?? At least the trick-or-treaters won't have to obscure their fabulous costumes by wearing a coat tonight. ;-)

After touring the cape, all the way to Provincetown and back, we took a luxurious dip in the hotel's pool and hot tub (all for $44/night, I might add--gotta love that "shoulder season!"), and then went to the movie of my choice, which I cannot say enough about, Across the Universe. There are so many movies out right now that I want to see, but I knew this one would never come to my town. My advice to you is, run, do not walk, to see this amazingly theatrical film set in the Vietnam era (but with many contemporary parallels, of course) all told from the lyrics of the Beatles songbook. Love, love, LOVED it! (All you need is...)

The next day, we headed to Salem, where we have been several times, but never in October. This time, we wanted to experience Halloween in its full glory. We were hoping to see real witches and warlocks and/or Goth simulations thereof, but mostly, we saw lots and lots of other tourists and all their kids all converging in a big, cheesy carnival of sorts. No, actually, a literal carnival with a ferris wheel and fried dough and everything! I mean, for crying out loud, you had to wait in line to get into the shops with a bouncer-type doorman over-zealously monitoring the store's maximum capacity. Waiting in line to buy overpriced witch souvenirs? No, thanks. I love Salem, but I think earlier in October would have been ideal, not on the High Holiday Weekend. (Next year, we'll try Sleepy Hollow.)

On Sunday, we made our way home but took the long, scenic route through Vermont. Our plan was to make an appearance at our favorite fall craft fair in Burlington, but it became clear early on that we weren't going to make it there in time. So I exercised my authority as the Birthday Girl and opted for a side trip to King Arthur Flour where I acquired many marvelous things, including some tasty baked goods from their new on-site bakery. Some items were just okay and not worth the steep price (the Danishes, for example), but some were superlative, like the chocolate-dipped coconut macaroons (and I don't even like coconut!), and the loaf of oatmeal cinnamon swirl bread that made the most divine toast imaginable!

Like the rest of our adventure, the food experience there was a bit uneven. On Cape Cod, we went from the world's worst breakfast at a place called Ann and Fran's Kitchen in West Yarmouth (dog food canned hash, burned, poached eggs, burned--how do you BURN poached eggs??--pre-packaged gelatinous yellow goo posing as Hollandaise, all atop mushy English muffins, DISGUSTING!) to the best ice cream in the universe at a new place called Sweet Escapes in Truro. They had an endless list of very inventive flavors like their bestseller, Fig and Lavender, and my new favorite, Mud Flats, which had a very strong coffee base filled with dark chocolate chunks and brownie pieces. Wow! They even had a wine-based sorbet made with cranberry wine from a local vineyard. If you are on the far end of Route 6 on Cape Cod, it is a definitely must-stop destination. Then for dinner in Provincetown, we tried a Portuguese fish shop called Clem & Ursie's that was incredible. They had a Friday night all-you-can-eat fish fry, and we chose their amazing catfish vinho dahlos (marinated in vinegar, garlic, spices and hot peppers before breading and frying) and also the catch of the day which was haddock. Unlike the boldly-flavored, rich and meaty catfish, the haddock was mild and light with just a whisper of a crispy cornmeal crust. Both were dee-licious! But the best part of the meal was dessert. We shared a "lobster tail" from their bakery that was formed from some kind of layered croissant dough or puffed pastry and filled with the most ethereal vanilla pastry cream I have ever had. I am going to have to try and replicate it at home if I can manage it.

For dinner the next night, we made a special trip up to Rowley to check out the Agawam Diner, lauded in last April's issue of Saveur. But I'm sorry to say that we found the food just so-so. Cyd had fried chicken (I liked it better than she did. It had a light cornmeal coating and the meat was juicy and flavorful, but Cyd remained unimpressed.) And I had their famous chicken pie. I thought it was decent, but not magical. And of course, we had some of their homemade pie--two pieces at the diner, and two more to take home. We tried custard, chocolate cream, banana cream, and of course, the coconut cream featured on the cover of the magazine. Overall, the fillings of the pies were quite good, but the toppings were generic and the crusts left much to be desired, in my humble opinion. (Thus endeth the road food review.)

So that very long-winded story (not to mention the midterm crush at school) should reveal why we have had little time to spend on Halloween projects at home. But I couldn't let the holiday slip by without acknowledging it in some (culinary) way. Last night, for my trivia gang, I made the following creepy cookies, which were meant to look like bloody axes (an homage to Lizzie Borden and our summer trip to Fall River, MA). Of course, I searched the entire state of Massachusetts for an ax cookie cutter to no avail. So I found a flag cutter at King Arthur that I thought worked well enough. (And if not, then you could look at it as an edible war protest.) Although it was just a plain sugar cookie, the recipe is a very good one, from the Culinary Institute of America's baking book. Of course, I had to scale the recipe down for home use, but it's definitely a keeper. It makes a sturdy, workable dough and a right tasty cookie that's good even without frosting. Here's the recipe for the cookies, followed by the one for the excellent mushroom pate that I mentioned above.

CIA's 1-2-3 Cookies

2 sticks butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon vanilla
pinch of salt, optional
1 egg
2 cups all-purpose flour

Cream the butter, sugar, vanilla, and salt (if using) until light and fluffy. Add the egg and mix well. Add the flour all at once and mix until just blended.

Pat the dough into a disk and wrap it in plastic. Chill for one hour before rolling and cutting (using a liberal amount of bench flour). Bake the cookies for 10-12 minutes at 350 degrees.

To create the drippy "blood" effect, make a simple frosting of powdered sugar, milk, and a splash of lemon juice with lots of red food coloring and perhaps a trace of black. Dip the edges of the cookies into the icing, loading up the top of the "ax" with extra glaze, then tilt the cookie to let it dribble down in a macabre fashion. Let the cookies dry on a piece of waxed paper before packaging them up to take to your Halloween party!

Judy's Mushroom Paté

4 tablespoons butter, divided
8 oz. mushrooms, cleaned and finely chopped
2 teaspoons garlic, minced
1/4 cup scallions, finely chopped
1/3 cup chicken stock
4 tablespoons cream cheese, softened
2 tablespoons chives, chopped
salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat 2 tablespoons butter. Add mushrooms and sauté
2-3 minutes.
2. Add garlic, scallions, and sauté
1 minute.
3. Add chicken stock and cook over high heat, stirring constantly, until all liquid has evaporated.
4. Let cool to room temperature.
5. Combine cream cheese and 2 tablespoons butter.
6. Add mushroom mixture, chives, salt and pepper. Mix well.

Refrigerate and serve with crisp crackers.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Greatest Thing Since 7-Up, Sliced Bread, and Basset Hounds

Stop whatever you're doing and listen up! I have earth-shattering news! No, it's not about Britney and/or her kids. And yes, we already know that Al Gore won the Nobel Prize (well-deserved...go, Al!). This is much, much more important. Someone has FINALLY come out with caramels that you don't have to unwrap! Did you hear me? Caramels that don't have to be unwrapped! How I HATE unwrapping caramels! The stupid plastic always sticks to the candy, and you need a magnifying glass, tweezers or perhaps other surgical accoutrements to get all of the plastic shards off so that they don't end up as unappetizing chewy bits in your recipes. And once you've finally gotten one free of its wrapping, there's still the rest of the whole damn bag to do! UGH! But some genius at Kraft has given us these, little blob-ettes of caramel goodness, smaller than chocolate chips, but just as useful, ready to be tossed into your favorite baked goods by the sweet, buttery handful.
I spied these at the Super Wal-Mart this past weekend, and I rushed right home, determined to give them a test run. I didn't have a particular recipe in mind, so I just made something simple from the back of the package. It was called Easy Caramel Pecan Brownies, and the name did not lie. You make it with a box of brownie mix, so it's pretty much a Sandra Lee-type of deal, a fake-out recipe that, nevertheless, will charm you and impress your friends, too. However, I'd like to offer some tips which I gleaned from making this recipe twice in one week (once just for us at home, and then again for my trivia team).

First of all, and you may be tired of hearing me say it, but people, you must toast your pecans! It really does make all the difference in flavor and texture and helps to take the final product to that next (delicious) level. And all it takes is a few minutes in a dry frying pan over medium heat, with you stirring frequently and keeping a close eye on them until they just start to take on color. Secondly, choose a dark chocolate brownie mix (or make your own if you have the time/inclination)--milk chocolate is for wimps! And though I generally favor fudgier brownies, I would advise making the cakier version for this. That extra egg seems to make the recipe turn out better for some reason. Third, I enjoy a salty caramel, so consider throwing in a good pinch when adding the pecans to the melted caramel. Fourth, after baking the bottom layer of brownie batter and spreading on the caramel nut mixture, chill it in the fridge for ten minutes or so until the caramel sets up some. This will help give you a distinct (thin but visible) layer of caramel in between the brownie layers. Fifth, be advised that you will have to bake the top layer of brownie batter longer than the recipe says to, or maybe that's just me because I didn't split the batter evenly (but other reviewers on Kraft's web site said the same thing!). Another tip those reviewers offered was to line your pan with parchment rather than tin foil. I took their advice, and it worked out well. (I'm sure the oozing caramel would stick like sin to foil!)

And finally, I highly recommend tossing a handful--or two!) of toffee bits on top of the brownies before the final bake because, well, I just seem to be in a toffee place in my life right now. And have you TRIED to find a Heath, or preferably, Skor bar lately? Is it a conspiracy? Why don't they want us to have them? Is it the skyrocketing price of dairy products (read: butter) that is to blame? It's a mystery. But I digress. Here is the recipe at long last. No, wait, one more thing. I did not photograph my brownies because they looked like...well...brownies...with pecans on top. However, I have included a photo that I stole from Kraft's web site, but do not expect that thick of a caramel layer unless you double what the recipe calls for...which is probably just what the corporate jackals want you to do! Hmph! Ok, NOW, here's the recipe!

Easy Caramel Pecan Brownies

1 pkg. (19 to 21 oz.) brownie mix (13x9-inch pan size)
1 pkg. (11 oz.) Kraft Caramel Bits
1/3 cup whipping cream
2 cups pecan halves, divided

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line 13x9-inch baking pan with foil (parchment is a better bet!), with ends of foil extending over sides of pan. Generously grease (or spray) foil. Prepare brownie batter as directed on package; spread half of the batter into prepared pan. Cover remaining batter; set aside.

Bake 20 minutes or until top is firm to the touch. Meanwhile, microwave caramel bits and whipping cream in medium microwaveable bowl on high 2 minutes, stirring every 30 seconds or until caramel bits begin to melt; stir until completely melted. Add 1 cup of the pecans (and a pinch of salt); mix well. Spread over partially baked brownie (at this point, I would chill for 10-15 minutes); top with remaining brownie batter. (Some caramel may peek through batter.) Sprinkle with remaining pecans (and maybe some toffee bits, too!).

Bake an additional 25(-35) minutes or until top is firm to the touch. Cool completely. Use foil handles to lift dessert from pan before cutting to serve. Store in covered container at room temperature.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

I may have finally done it...

I think I have created the ultimate fall dessert, with Nigella's help, of course. I wanted to make something for trivia night as I do every week, but I wanted something fairly uninvolved for baking on a school night. I had seen Nigella's new show, Nigella Express, and she made a scrumptious-looking caramel croissant bread pudding that I decided to try, as my trivia team are a bread pudding-loving people, to put it mildly. Nigella made hers while changing her clothes from a night out--that's how simple it was supposed to be. But somehow, I manage to make things more difficult and time-consuming than anyone imagined they could be! The caramel-making part of the procedure was supposed to take 3-5 minutes until the mixture becomes a deep amber color. Well, after more than an HOUR had passed, and it had crystallized on me not once but twice and was still only a tawny topaz color, I gave up and pulled the caramel from the heat. I don't get it. I think I must be constitutionally incapable of making a proper caramel. Though, now that I say that, I made two beautiful caramels for the Sweet-and-Salty Cake of beloved memory.'s a mystery. In any case, the pudding was absolutely delicious, though I'm sure the flavor would have likewise deepened if the caramel were a little darker. Oh well. I didn't take one bit of it home from trivia night, so I think it was "okay" as it was. ;-) In fact, I didn't even have any left to photograph! But it looked not unlike this:
(Photo: Courtesy of the Food Network)

Of course, I can never leave well enough alone, so I had to gild the lily by topping the pudding with spiced apples and butter pecans. AMAZING! Naturally, I could have added chunks of apple and pecans to the bread pudding before baking (which is a very fine idea, I must say). But Tom likes his plain, I like mine with nuts only, Jen doesn't like nuts, Cyd likes hers with toppings sometimes, other times, unadorned, and June and Vicky like all the bells and whistles on theirs. So by serving some of the elements of the dessert as condiments, it's easy to please everyone. But the flavors work so well together, I advise you to try them all together in one magical dessert.

Caramel Croissant Pudding with Spiced Apple Compote and Buttered Pecans
(Source: adapted from Nigella Lawson via the Food Network)

Caramel Croissant Pudding:
4 stale croissants
2 cups sugar
4 tablespoons water
1 cup heavy cream
4 tablespoons bourbon (or rum, or I used 1 tablespoon vanilla)
1 cup whole milk
4 eggs, beaten

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Tear the croissants into pieces and put in a greased/sprayed 13x9-inch baking dish. Put the sugar and water into a saucepan, and swirl around to help dissolve the sugar before putting the saucepan on medium to high heat. Caramelize the sugar and water mixture by letting it bubble away until it all turns a deep amber color; this will take 3 to 5 minutes. Keep an eye on it, as caramel can quickly burn (for everyone except me whose kitchen defies the laws of physics or chemistry, as it may be).

Take the pan off the heat and add the cream - ignoring all spluttering - followed by the bourbon and milk. Whisk to mix, then still whisking, add the beaten eggs. Pour this quickly over the croissants and leave to steep for 10 minutes. Place in the preheated oven for 20 minutes or until puffed and golden (this took 30-35 minutes for me). Top with warm spiced apple compote and buttered pecans (recipes follow).

Spiced Apple Compote:
6 tart/cooking apples, peeled, cored, and thickly sliced
3/8 cup apple cider
3/8 cup brown sugar, loosely packed
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg
pinch salt

Place all ingredients in a saucepan over low heat and cook for 30 minutes or until apples are tender. (May be prepared a day ahead.)

Buttered Pecans:
Cook about a cup of whole pecans in two tablespoons of melted butter until just a little browner-looking and a lot toastier-tasting. This takes just a few minutes (a few minutes more than that, and they'll be burned and bitter!), so keep an eye on them and taste as you go to get them to the right stage! ;-) Sprinkle with a bit of salt.

I may not have had my own picture of the final product to share, but here are some snaps from outside my office window at school. Dont'cha wish you were here?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Now, what to do with all these apples?

Oh, it's all well and good to go traipsing around apple country(-ies), getting a bag of Honey Crisps here, a peck of Cortlands there, a half peck of Russets somewhere else. And then there are all the lovely pears, too! But what's to be done with the lot? As for the apples, there have been pies, cakes, and tarts, and more are sure to follow. But there's always applesauce, if all else fails, and if you get overwhelmed with eating too much of it at this time of year, consider some savory applications. For example, one night last week, I fired up the crock pot, anticipating a busy day and late arrival home. I heavily seasoned and then browned a 3 to 4-pound pork roast (I used a Jacques Pepin brand spice rub with coriander, but use whatever you fancy/find in your spice cupboard). Then I put the roast in the slow cooker along with one large, thinly-sliced red onion, a couple of cups of sauerkraut and a pint of applesauce. I believe I also threw in some minced garlic, a couple-to-few cloves, and then covered it and went off to work. It becomes fall-apart tender around six hours on high (or if you will be away much longer, set it to low instead). I served the roast over regular mashed potatoes, and as a special treat for Cyd, lover of brussels sprouts, I made a new recipe from the current issue of Bon Appétit which may make brussels sprout converts out of even professed haters. In any case, pork roast with sauerkraut and applesauce served with mashed potatoes and brussel sprouts makes for a wonderfully seasonal dinner without much fuss, thanks to the faithful old crock pot!

Shaved Brussels Sprout and Shallot Sauté
(Source: Bon Appétit, October 2007)
Makes 8 servings

1 3/4 pounds brussels sprouts, outer leaves removed
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter
3 tablespoons olive oil
12 medium shallots, thinly sliced (about 2 cups)
6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted, divided (I used a blend of pine nuts, pumpkin seeds, and almonds, a delicious mix from Trader Joe's)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Working in small batches, place brussels sprouts in feed tube of processor fitted with thin slicing diskand slice. Melt butter with olive oil in large pot over medium heat. Add shallots and sauté until almost translucent, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and stir 1 minute. Add brussels sprouts; increase heat to medium-high and sauté until tender, about 8 minutes. Stir in 3 tablespoons pine nuts and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to bowl. Sprinkle with remaining 1 tablespoon pine nuts and serve.

Another idea for all that applesauce is to keep cooking it down until you have apple butter, a heady, spicy, autumnal spread that is the perfect complement to a warm, fluffy biscuit or scone. I tried a new recipe this time around (or rather, a very old one!), from Annie of the Harvest Forum fame (yes, the same Annie who authored the legendary salsa recipe). It was her grandmother's apple butter recipe, and apparently, Annie won with it at the county fair when she was 12. I tweaked it just a bit to suit my tastes, and it came out perfectly. I only made three pints, but I might just have to make another batch soon! Annie swears by cooking it in the oven instead of on the stovetop, and I might try that approach next time around to keep from burning my forearms and to save on the cleanup from those endless little apple butter volcano eruptions all over the stove! And surely roasting can only only improve on the flavor, if that's even possible.

(Annie's) Grandma's Apple Butter
(Source: adapted from GardenWeb's Harvest Forum)

6 lbs. apples, cored, peeled and sliced
6 cups fresh apple cider
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon freshly-ground nutmeg

Simmer the apples in the cider until tender, then use a stick blender to reach the desired consistency (I like mine smooth, but some prefer some texture to theirs). Cook the mixture down until it "rounds up on a spoon." Mix in the sugars and spices to taste. Continue to cook it down until it's thick enough to suit you. Pour into hot jars and process in a boiling-water bath 10 minutes for half-pints or pints, or 15 minutes for quarts.

Then what to do with the all the lovely, fragrant Flemish Beauty pears? Certainly more of the maple vanilla pear butter is in order. In addition, I used some of the pears to make a delicious, rustic tart for trivia night last week, also from the new Bon Appétit (the October issue is a really great one, if you can't already should pick one up!). It turned out very well, except that I think I sliced the pears a little too thin and ended up with almost a chunky pear sauce filling. Still, my trivia team gobbled it all up. And look how pretty!

Pear Croustade with Lemon Pastry and Almonds
(Source: Bon Appétit, October 2007)
Makes 8 servings

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour (I used half whole-wheat pastry flour for a nice earthy flavor that complemented the pears)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices
1/4 cup (or more) whipping cream

1 pound firm but ripe Bartlett pears, peeled, cored, thinly sliced
1 pound firm but ripe Bosc pears, peeled, cored, thinly sliced (I used all 2 pounds of Flemish Beauties)
5 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons all purpose flour
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel
1/4 teaspoon (generous) ground nutmeg

whipping cream (for brushing)
2 tablespoons sliced almonds

For pastry:
Whisk flour, sugar, lemon peel, and salt in medium bowl. Add butter; using fingertips, rub in butter until coarse meal forms. Drizzle 1/4 cup cream over; toss with fork until moist clumps form, adding more cream by teaspoonfuls as needed if dry. Gather dough into ball; flatten into disk. Wrap in plastic and chill 1 hour. Can be made 1 day ahead. Keep chilled. Let stand at room temperature 30 minutes before rolling out.

For filling:
Preheat oven to 400°F. Mix all pears, sugar, flour, lemon juice, lemon peel, and nutmeg in large bowl to coat. Roll out pastry on sheet of floured parchment paper to 14-inch round. Transfer crust on parchment paper to baking sheet. Mound pears in center of pastry, leaving 2-inch plain border. Fold pastry border over pears, crimping slightly. Brush pastry edges with cream; sprinkle with sliced almonds.

Bake croustade until filling bubbles and almonds are lightly toasted, about 1 hour. Cool slightly. Serve croustade warm or at room temperature with vanilla ice cream, if desired.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Pearsnapples, or Further Along the Circuit de Paysan

Well, gang, the weather finally looked at a calendar and resigned itself to being fall. We even felt safe enough to take the air conditioner out of the window last night! Tee hee. And we have had some rain, too. In fact, we had a three-day holiday last weekend , and though we had some ideas for fun things to do, the monsoons came on Saturday, and we just holed up watching movies and taking naps (which wasn't too bad a plan either!). But it cleared up and became beautiful on Sunday, so we decided to venture north and see what kind of trouble we could get into. My only idea was to visit a small orchard/farm stand that I had read about on one of my favorite blogs. The irony is that they are from Montreal, but the place they wrote about was just 20 km west of Hemmingford, QC (which is, in turn, a mere six miles from my house and my closest crossing). Somehow, I had never been quite that far west. We usually travel down the Covey Hill Road, stop at the Viau butcher, then head north at the Mooers Forks/Cannons Corners crossing to frequent the outdoor market at St. Chrysostome, and then continue on to Montreal. But by heading further west this time, we stumbled upon the epicenter of the known apple-producing universe! And it's name is Franklin Centre.

Our first stop was to visit M. Safian's roadside stand that I had read about, and we scored a peck of gorgeous russet apples, some wonderfully-fragrant Flemish Beauty pears, and the proprietor's signature buckwheat honey (dark and flavorful), all for about fifteen dollars. The russets were a particularly exciting find because they are an heirloom apple that you don't see much anymore. Russeting refers to the leathery jacket covering the apple, and though I find them beautiful, modern apple growers and consumers, apparently, do not. But they are firm and sweet and almost nutty in flavor, and may even be compared a little bit to a pear. Delicious!

Franklin, QC is a dense cluster of apple orchards, and you can hardly drive a mile down the road before hitting another one. Some are tiny, like M. Safian's, and some are huge dog-and-pony shows, which some may find crass, but I think are charming at this time of year. One such larger operation was Vergers Cassidy, just down the way from M. Safian. There were a million cars and a parking attendant directing people, so we knew something big was happening there! As it turns out, every weekend in October, the Cassidys have an Octoberfest of sorts. They have hot cider and German sausages on the grill, a German musician playing handbells and the accordian, pony rides and a petting zoo for the kids (ok, we enjoyed the petting zoo, too!), fresh baked goods (we snatched up an apple strudel!), picnicking in the orchards, and of course, u-pick apples of all kinds. And let me tell you, the joint was jumpin'! It seems like every Montrealer had come down, Circuit de Paysan map in hand, to enjoy their (Canadian) Thanksgiving weekend picking apples at places like Cassidy Orchards. I highly recommend it for a fall outing, especially if you have kids.

Our next stop was a bit further down the way, at Vergers Blair. There was also a big blow-out happening there, but this time, the patrons were at the other end of the age spectrum. All the old-timers seemed to had converged to enjoy an outdoor dance featuring the music of the Black and White Country Band. They played traditional Acadian music (close your eyes, and you would swear you were in Louisiana), and the old folks got their groove on. They two-stepped and line danced and even busted out their tap shoes! It was quite entertaining to watch! Of course, Blair Orchards had u-pick apples and baked goods, too. We scored a maple cream pie and some warm dinner rolls to take home. There was also a beaver tail stand next to the music pavillion (that's the Canadian take on fried dough, like elephant ears) where you could have your crispy dough topped with real maple cream. YUM!

By the time we finished visiting Vergers Blair, we had run out of Canadian cash, and truth to tell, the better part of the day was gone, too. So we decided to go to the end of the Circuit de Paysan to the west (Huntingdon) and then loop around through Ormstown and back down to Hemmingford. Along the way, we encountered a lovely old covered bridge that reminded me of my beloved cocker spaniel, Percy, who passed away last year about this time. (Yes, I realize that the bridge was not named in his memory, but it is in my mind!) All in all, it was a lovely day, and truly, one of the top five all-time autumnal outings, maybe because it was unplanned and oh-so serendipitous. In any case, I strongly encourage you to get out there and enjoy at least one more al fresco adventure before the winter sets in. (My local readers should be ashamed if they don't, as we are really lucky to live in this glorious apple country--and right next to one, too!)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Not a crisp autumn...but a delicious autumn crisp!

I got home awfully late Monday night, so I didn't have time to make anything too complicated for Trivia Night on Tuesday. I had originally thought to make my signature Dutch Apple Pie since I still have a tote full of Cortlands. On a side note, I think I had their album in the 80's--A Toteful of Cortlands--they were from downstate, I believe (a joke for my fellow New Yorkers). But that would involve making crusts and chilling and rolling and more chilling on top of all the requisite peeling, coring and slicing. So I quickly abandoned that idea in favor of another plan. Since the weather can't seem to make up its mind, I decided to make a dessert that combined summer and fall flavors into a warm and comforting crisp. And other than dealing with the apples, crisps are the simplest things in the world to make, and everyone loves them because they are so homey and flavorful. I got this particular recipe from Joy of Baking, but I made a few changes, as is my way. One was to double the recipe to fill a 9x13 dish (I often end up feeding half the bar where we play trivia!). But the most important amendment was to add blueberries to the mix. I used frozen wild blueberries which added a wonderful bright flavor and turned the filling into the most AMAZING magenta color (which, by the bye, was my very favorite crayon color from the 72-crayon box with built-in sharpener, circa 1972). I also added some vanilla to the filling, because I love the flavors of both lemon and vanilla with blueberries. And finally, the recipe did not call for any thickening, and I was worried about a runny result, so I threw in some tapioca flour that worked perfectly. The juices were thickened but not so much as to turn the filling into a solid mass of fruit.

My team chided me for making such a mammoth dessert, but I didn't even have any left over to take home and photograph! So I snapped this quick (flash), unstyled photo on a crappy little paper plate (on top of our Brainstormer Pub Quiz answer booklet!) just to give you an idea of what it looked like. And it was well-received, to say the least. ;-)

Blueberry-Apple Crisp
(Adapted from: Joy of Baking)

1/2 cup all-purpose flour (I used white whole wheat)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup light brown sugar (I used dark brown here)
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon fresh or ground nutmeg (freshly grated, puh-LEEZ!)
1/8 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/3 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
1/4 cup chopped walnuts or pecans (I opted for walnuts this time)

2 1/2 pounds or 6 cups peeled and sliced Granny Smith Apples or other firm, tart-tasting apple
1 cup fresh blackberries or raspberries, optional (I used wild blueberries)
zest of 1 lemon, optional (I say this is
mandatory--but I used one lemon for a double batch, so that would be just half a lemon's worth for this recipe)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, optional
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1 tablespoon tapioca flour (or thickener of your choice)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F and place rack in the center of the oven. Butter or spray with a cooking spray, a 9-inch, deep dish pie plate or an 8x8x2 inch baking dish. (Can also make 8 individual ramekins.) Set aside.

For topping: Place all the topping ingredients (flour, sugars, spices, butter, oats and nuts) in a food processor and process until the mixture is crumbly (looks like coarse meal) and there are no large pieces of butter visible. (This can also be done with two knives or your fingertips.) Set aside while you prepare the filling.

For filling: Peel, core, and slice the apples into 1/4 inch thick pieces. Place in a large bowl, along with the berries, lemon zest and vanilla, and add the brown sugar and thickener. Gently combine and then transfer to your prepared baking dish Spread the topping evenly over the apple mixture.

Bake for approximately 35-45 minutes (25 - 30 minutes for individual ramekins) or until the topping is golden brown. Remove from oven and place on a wire rack to cool for about 30 minutes before serving.

Serve with softly whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. Refrigerate leftovers and reheat before serving.

Makes 4 servings (I would say at least 6, maybe even 8 small servings)

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

A cozy fall supper...

The weather has been going all kinds of crazy on us lately. Last week, I actually had to meet with one of my Plattsburgh State classes outside because we couldn't take the oppressive humidity of our second-floor, non-air-conditioned classroom, something I managed to avoid doing all through two summer sessions. But then we have spates of coolness where we have to run around, closing all the windows at home and debating whether it's time to fire up the freshly-serviced furnace or not. And I find myself torn, too. On the one hand, my lackluster tomato crop could use any extra warmth that we can squeeze out of the season, but we also need the crisp weather to brighten the leaves that are just on the cusp of becoming fully glorious.

Our meals are likewise schizophrenic: one night we'll grill out and have the last bit of local corn on the cob, but the next night, I crave a cozy pot of soup and homemade bread. For the latter, I offer two recipes to make your gullet all nice and toasty. First, a lovely autumnal soup. Normally, I favor Martha's Jamaican Butternut Soup, but I decided to go a different way this time. One of the vendors at the farmers' market gifted me with two acorn squashes a few weeks ago, and they've been hogging up valuable counter space ever since. So I decided to roast them and then fashion a soup of my own devising. And let me tell you, it turned out GREAT--savory and creamy with a wonderful sweetness, perfect for a cool fall evening. I served it with a delicious, homemade maple oatmeal bread (you will note the maple theme...can you tell that I just bought a big jug of Grade B for cooking from Parker's Maple Farm down the road from me?), sparkling apple cider to drink, and the beloved maple walnut cookies for dessert. And you can make this delightfully seasonal meal,'s how!

Acorn Squash Soup with Maple, Brown Sugar, and Bacon

2 acorn squashes, halved and seeded
2-4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1-2 tablespoons brown sugar

6-8 pieces bacon, cut into very thin slices/slivers
1 large onion, peeled and diced
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme (or 1-2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves)
1/2 teaspoon rubbed sage
pinch of cayenne
pinch of nutmeg (freshly grated, of course)
salt and pepper to taste
4 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons maple syrup (preferably, Grade B)
1/2 cup heavy cream (more or less, as you please--and you could swap out half-and-half, if you're cowardly)

Preheat the oven to at least 400 degrees. Drizzle the acorn squash halves with 1-2 tablespoons of the olive oil and sprinkle them with brown sugar. Roast the squash until caramelized and tender, about an hour. Let cool, then scoop the flesh off of the rinds.

In a large pot, heat the remaining olive oil and cook the bacon pieces until crisp. Remove them with a slotted spoon, then saute' the diced onions in the drippings. Add the thyme, sage, cayenne, nutmeg, salt and pepper, and stir to combine. When the onions are tender and just threatening to brown, add the roasted squash and chicken stock to the pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a low simmer. Using an immersion/stick blender, blend until smooth. Stir in maple syrup and cream. Taste and correct seasonings. Serve steaming hot into large bowls and garnish with the reserved bacon pieces.

Vermont Maple Oatmeal Bread
(Source: Janet Fielden via Recipe Link)

3/4 cup boiling water
1 cup hot coffee
1 cup rolled oats
1/3 cup shortening
1/2 cup maple syrup (preferably, Grade B)
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
2 packages dry yeast (4 1/2 teaspoons)
1/4 cup lukewarm water
2 eggs, unbeaten
5 1/2 cup sifted bread flour or enough to make stiff dough (I used white whole wheat)

Combine boiling water, coffee, rolled oats, shortening, maple syrup, sugar, and salt. Let this mixture cool until lukewarm. Dissolve yeast in 1/4 cup lukewarm water and add to mixture. Blend in the eggs. Gradually add the sifted flour and mix until smooth. Add enough additional flour to make stiff dough. Place in greased bowl, cover, and let rise until double in size. Knead just a little and form into two loaves. Place in two well-greased bread pans, and let it rise again. (After the second rise, I glazed mine with an egg wash.) Bake in moderate oven, about 325 degrees for 50-60 minutes or until deep brown. Let cool in the pan for ten minutes or so, then turn the loaves out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

*Note: Makes superlative toast!