The Gut Buster

Eating good, healthy food is an admirable goal. It’s a really good goal.

Sometimes though, it’s just. so. dang. hard. Ya feel me?

Exhibit A: three sticks of butter. When does that ever make sense? Well, a lot of times, that’s when. Just ask Joy the Baker, or Bon Appetit magazine, or Paula Deen, or my Aunt Faye. They’ll tell ya the truth about butter.

Exhibit B: bourbon and homemade vanilla extract? These make sense practically all the time, and I’m not even joking. They are much less problematic than those sticks o’ butter.

Exhibit C: pe-cans? coconut? These are problems, too. I grew up shelling pe-cans, eating ice cream full of pe-cans, pies loaded with them (and not just Thanksgiving day, either), and almost everything sweet is better with pe-cans.

Coconut? Well, I even like coconut in my hair, so I think I don’t need to say anything more here.

So let’s imagine a utopia where all of these things existed at one time. Let’s imagine that such a place was fat-free, calorie-free, and just as tasty. But truthfully, that isn’t the case, as we all know. Truthfully, some things are just meant to bust your gut.

These bars are those things. I can’t even begin to warn you about how ridiculous they are, how sweet and rich and heavy and butter-laden they are. How much they remind me of every Southern pe-can pie I’ve ever eaten, which is to say that they are a-freaking-mazing, each and every little gram of fat contained in them. Which, if you haven’t noticed, is probably a lot.

But some things are worth a splurge. Like maple cheesecake. Red velvet cake. Homemade Oreos (yep!). Rhubarb-Cornmeal tarts.  And now, these: ooey, gooey, buttery “bars” that taste just like your favorite Southern woman’s pe-can pie.

Go ahead, bust a gut. Or three.

Pecan Pie Bars
Adapted from The Pastry Queen; makes 2 1/2 dozen bars

time commitment: 2 hours (includes 1 hour cooling time)

printable version

ingredients
crust
1 1/2 c (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 c firmly packed brown sugar
4 c all purpose flour
1 t salt

filling
8 large eggs
6 c firmly packed brown sugar
1/4 c bourbon
6 T unsalted butter, melted
2 T vanilla extract
1 c all purpose flour
1 t salt
2 c unsweetened flaked coconut
2 c pecan halves

instructions
Preheat oven to 350 F.

Using a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter in a large bowl on medium speed (about 1 minute). Add the sugar and beat about 1 minute, until fluffy. Add the flour and salt; mix on low speed until evenly incorporated but still crumbly. Press the mixture evenly over the bottom of the prepared pan (I used a 9×13″ pan and used about 2/3 of the mix, but the recipe itself calls for 12×17″ pan but I didn’t have one that big. You could probably divide the mixture between two 8×8″ pans as well and just adjust the baking times accordingly and watch more carefully). Bake the crust for 15 to 20 minutes, until it has darkened to a deep golden brown. Leave the oven at 350.

Meanwhile, prepare the filling. Whisk the eggs and sugar in a large bowl until blended. Stir in the bourbon, butter, vanilla, flour, and salt, then the coconut and pecans. Once the crust is parbaked, pour the filling over the crust, spreading evenly. Bake until set, 25 to 30 minutes (mine baked longer, like 40 minutes, since I poured all of the mix into a smaller pan, resulting in less “surface area” to bake). Cool thoroughly, at least 1 hour. Once cool flip over on wax paper to cut into 3-inch squares or diamonds. (Yields about 2 1/2 dozen bars)

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To Bathe in Sugar

Have you ever been to a Mexican wedding? I haven’t, but if I did, I’d sure hope to see these cookies.

I’m not sure why, but small round balls of nutty dough rolled in confectioners’ sugar seem to be all the rage at weddings, or at least that’s what their name says. Do they even have these cookies at weddings?

When I was a kid, my favorite cookies were stocked high on the top shelf of Food Lion, near the graham crackers and the Fig Newtons. The packaging was simple, but eye-catching at the same time. It was bright Barbie pink, and unlike a lot of cookies on the shelves that came in plastic trays (Oreo and Chips A’hoy!, I’m talking at you!), these were stored in a paper bag, although now I’m pretty certain they’ve switched to a tall box.

They were also messy – they must have been bathed in a ginormous vat of powdered sugar, maybe three or four times just to make sure there was enough sticking to the cookie. You took one out of the bag and the cookie’s sugar coating went all over the place – like the flour in the jar that you always seem to get everywhere, despite your slow, purposeful movements of the cup into the bowl. These cookies were nearly impossible to eat on the sneak, and for that reason I usually just ate the whole bag at once in an effort to only get into trouble for sneaking cookies one time.

To be honest, I’m not quite sure why there are so many different types of these cookies from all different countries. The name I grew up eating was Danish Wedding Cookies, the recipe I adapted from here was called Mexican Wedding Cookies, and there are also Swedish and Italian versions, probably Argentinian and Fijian too, for all I know. The recipes all seem pretty much the same, so why can’t we just call them “Wedding Cookies”? And why are they called Wedding Cookies anyway? Like I said, I’ve never seen them at a wedding… but maybe I’ve just been to the wrong nuptial ceremonies.

Regardless of what you decide to call them, I can’t believe I’m confessing that this is the first time I’ve ever made them. Furthermore, I haven’t purchased a pink bag or box of these cookies in years, probably even more than a decade ago, which makes me really feel ancient right about now. I’ll also confess this: now that I have made them, I can pretty much guarantee these are the easiest cookies ever to throw together. Christmas cookie swap, anyone?

Danish weddings? Mexican weddings? What the hell ever. I’m just gonna call them Wedding Cookies, and leave all the countries out of it. I don’t really care where they come from, to be honest. I just know that I should have saved a handful of them instead of taking them all to work last week. But no worries – I’m sure there are many more a cookie to be had in the next few weeks.

Happy Holidays!

Wedding Cookies
Adapted from Lottie + Doof; makes ~50 cookies

time commitment: under an hour (most inactive – baking and cooling)

printable version

ingredients
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temp
1/2 c confectioners’ sugar, plus more for rolling
3 T maple syrup
1 t vanilla extract
1/4 t salt
zest of half an orange
1/2 t chipotle chile powder
2 c all purpose flour
1 1/2 c g pecans

instructions
preheat oven to 350 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

in the bowl of a mixer, combine butter and sugar and mix until combined and creamy. add maple syrup, vanilla, salt, orange zest, and chile powder and mix until combined. add flour and pecans and mix until fully incorporated.

roll cookies into 1-inch balls and place about 1 inch apart on baking sheets. bake ~14 minutes, remove and let cool completely. toss in confectioners’ sugar to coat completely.

When in Singapore…

Sadly, I wasn’t the one who got to go to Singapore – this time. Chris headed out there last Friday as he says, to “take care of bizniss”. And although he spent 2 of the 5 days going to and fro, the other 3 were primarily loaded with plenty of Apple-related activity.

He did get to eat to eat plenty of good food, like black pepper crab and all sorts of handmade noodle dishes, and he shopped for durian in the local markets. He admitted that it smelled like shit, and even though it’s fruit, technically, it supposedly has a weird custard-like consistency. Meh. I’ll stick with Asian pears as my “exotic fruits”.

Anywho, he arrived back safe and sound late this week, bloated, jet-lagged, and with a bag of boxed noodle dishes so I can make my own Singapore noodle entrees at home. YUM. I’m definitely glad he’s back, but while he was gone I must say I accomplished quite a bit.

For starters, I mopped. Okay, our detergent-filled robot mopped, but that still meant I had to move rugs around AND put them back. Why, you ask? We’re having a party this weekend. That’s right, Iron Chef San Francisco is about to be in full effect. YES!

I listened to Bjork. And Cake. And I watched a few episodes of What Not to Wear. I even drank a bottle of Pinot while watching Something Borrowed on Saturday night, with Indian takeout in my belly. It was downright awesome. Sometimes a quiet weekend evening is the most perfect thing on earth (especially with lackluster romantic comedies at play).

I went to the San Rafael farmers’ market in search of pink lemons, only to find the three remaining fruits hard and shriveled; the weather was nice, though, and Judy bought dining room chairs – finally! Earlier that weekend, we noshed on plenty of goodies at the SF Street Food Festival, including steamed pork buns, arepas, and something I’ve been craving for weeks – no lie – chocolate babka from Wise Sons Deli.

And then!, inspired by the layers upon layers of said chocolate, and in between Mexican dinner and ice cream with the other Heather – a perfect weeknight catch-up, I finished off my lonely week by making my own babka at home. I even took it in to work the next day for fear I’d eat it all when no one was watching. Or even if everyone was watching, because when something’s this good, who cares, really. There’s no need for class when chocolate’s involved, is there?

 

Chocolate Babka
from Good to the Grain; makes 1 cake

time commitment: ~ 4 hours (a little over an hour active time – most of time is letting dough rise) + overnight chilling in the fridge

oh! a couple of things. this recipe came from one of my favorite cookbooks, which means that a lot of interesting flours are used. I’m sure you can find them online, but I bought my Kamut and millet flours from a bulk market (Rainbow Grocery in SF). Whole Foods probably carries them too. if all else fails, I’m sure you could substitute other flours or even just use all purpose, although the texture and taste will obviously be a little different….

also! i’m serious when I say to put the rolls in randomly (you’ll see). the dough falls into place upon baking and when it comes out, it looks like a perfect gorgeous cake. this bread is amazing like that.

printable version

ingredients
sponge
1 pack active dry yeast
1 c 2% milk
1 T honey
1 c Kamut flour
1/4 c millet flour

dough
2 1/2 c all purpose flour
1 T kosher salt
3 eggs
8 oz (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temp

filling
1 c pecan halves
8 oz bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped
1/2 c brown sugar
1/4 c sugar
1 t kosher salt
2 oz (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

instructions
make the sponge. pour yeast into bowl of stand mixer. heat milk in microwave so that it’s warm to the touch; pour over the yeast and stir together. add honey, Kamut flour and millet flour, then stir again. add all-purpose flour to the top of the dough, then the salt; do not stir.

let the sponge sit for 30 minutes, until flour cracks. meanwhile sit eggs out to come to room temperature. after 30 minutes, crack eggs and add to the sponge. affix the hook attachment and mix on low until flour is incorporated, scraping down sides.

if dough is sticking to the sides, add 1 extra T of all-purpose flour at a time and stir until dough is forming a cohesive mass and pulling away from the bowl (may take up to 1/2 c). turn mixer to medium and mix for 5 minutes; strop and scrape dough from hook and bowl. mix for another 5 minutes. at this point, the dough should be an elastic mass. add butter 1 T at a time and mix on medium until each is incorporated. afterwards the dough will be shiny and soft.

spray or butter a large bowl, scrape dough into the bowl, cover with a towel and let rise for 2 hours. punch dough down, cover, and refrigerate overnight.

rub a bundt pan with butter or spray and add a bit of sugar to dust. toast pecans in a skillet over medium for about 10 minutes, tossing occasionally. meanwhile, dust top of dough with flour and place, flour side down, onto a floured work surface. dust top with flour and roll into a rectangle 10 x 16 inches. rub butter onto dough or drop into small chunks. combine sugars and salt into a small bowl and spread over dough. once pecans are toasted, slightly break them up and sprinkle over sugar mixture, then add the chocolate.

starting at the wide end of the dough, roll into a tight log, and slice into 13-15 pieces. place pieces randomly into the bundt pan (some upright, some spiral side down, etc), filling in large spaces, until all pieces are added. dump any extra sugar/pecans/chocolate over the top; cover and let dough rise until doubled in size, about 2 hours.

preheat oven to 350 F. once dough has risen, bake for 40 minutes. remove from oven and let sit for 15 minutes, then place a rack over the top and flip upside down, releasing the bread. if not eating right away, store in airtight container.

Straight from Bombay

My good friend, Cheryl, used to have a boyfriend. He was (still is) of Indian descent, and he was one pretty cool guy. He liked hip-hop music and Escalades (neither of those necessarily made him cool, and I’m not sure why I keep saying these things in the past-tense, because I’m sure he still likes hip-hop and Escalades). What was my favorite thing about him, you might ask? I’d be hard-pressed to decide between his dance skillz and his ability to make a killer masala chai.

Oh, Lordy-me-oh-my, that stuff was good enough to make you consider selling your first-born child for a lifetime supply of it. Though he’s not around anymore, I’m willing to bet he could be found through a simple Facebook search, and if I do find him, I might ask him if he’d like to have an “ultra-white” blue-eyed, blonde-haired raggamuffin. But then, if he said yes, I’d have to give up wine for 9 months, and I’m not sure if I’m ready for that, especially with a trip to the west coast in my near future (!!), and a hopeful excursion to “the boot” next year (!!!).

Now before I go on waxing poetic about this guy (actually, I was finished), let me say that Cheryl’s new (if you consider new to mean almost 3 years old) squeeze is way more awesome, and I’m not just saying that just because he reads my blog. I’m saying that because he has a motorcyle. And a boat. And, he let Hubs borrow his “De-troits” when we visited them a couple of weeks ago. Also, he has mad photo skillz (to make up for what I would assume to be lackluster dance skillz, although I can’t say I’ve ever seen him cut a rug, or try to, even – it’s just a hunch) and he can make a Mediterranean pizza that might just make me consider trading in my second-born for a constant supply of that. I get the impression that I’d have to up the ante though, cause I doubt Cheryl wants a lil’ Wetzel running around her house, and quite frankly, I’d prefer our bedroom there to be free of mobiles, onesies, and poo.

Back to this chai business. I seem to be losing focus today, don’t I? I’m gonna try to push through, because I do want to talk about this lovely concoction you see here. My breakfast rotation was starting to become a bit stale, if you will, and let me tell ya – I heart the granola bar, I do. But I was in need of a change, actually just a slight variation, you see. I wanted something a little less chewy, but not lacking in flavor or texture otherwise. I wanted to make it myself, because I do adore homemade breakfasts. I wanted there to be oats, and fruit, and nuts (oh, my!), and distinct flavors that wake me up in the morning, sans caffeine.

So quite clearly, what I wanted was granola spiced with all those Indian flavors that you find in a masala chai, those flavors that remind me of those few times the ex-boyfriend-of-my-friend-and-still-Indian-guy-with-the-dance-skillz made when he was visiting.

And since, at some point during the process of contemplating this recipe, I’ve decided that I would probably like to keep my first- (and possibly second-) born children, when and if I have them, I figured it best to make my own spice mix, and that I did. I’m guessing, no I’m quite certain, that you can buy what they call “chai spice” mix from your local spice store, but making it really is just as easy if you’ve got a few seconds. You can do like I did and use ground spices as a short-cut, or you can really keep it real by using whole spices.

Either way, when you do make it, and when you get your hands into that bowl of fresh-made chai-spiced granola, thank those folks from South Asia for their lovely spices. Or me, really – the one phrase I learned during my one German class was, ironically, “Ich komme aus Bombay“.

ps – Happy Birthday Cheryl – this one’s for you!

Vanilla-Chai Spiced Granola
makes ~20 servings (1/2 c each)

okay, this probably seems like a lot of granola – you wouldn’t be wrong in saying that. but here’s the thing: it keeps for weeks, so why not make a boat-load of it?! store in the fridge for weeks, give to friends, or eat it by the handful over a weekend. Your choice. and if you choose to not make this much, it easily halves.

by the way, this granola is awesome with plain yogurt, or with a little milk poured over it. or by the handful, as previously suggested.

printable version

ingredients
6 c rolled oats*
2 c coarsely chopped nuts (I used pecans and hazelnuts)
1/2 c unsweetened shredded coconut
5 T packed brown sugar
1/2 t kosher salt
1 T ‘chai’ spice blend (recipe below)
1/2 t vanilla extract
1/3 c agave nectar
1/3 c blackstrap molasses
4 T vegetable oil
1 c dried fruit (I used blueberries and golden raisins)

instructions
Preheat oven to 300 F. Line two standard-sized baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, mix oats through vanilla. Combine oil, agave nectar, and molasses in a small saucepan and heat until mixed thorougly and just-boiling. Remove from heat and pour over granola mixture.

Spread 1/2 of mixture on one baking sheet and the remaining half on the other. Bake for ~ 40 minutes, stirring mixture and rotating pans every 10 minutes. Remove and cool granola in the baking sheets on a wire rack. When cooled, mix in dried fruit.

*gluten-free oats if needed.

Chai Spice Mixture
makes ~3 tablespoons

there are dozens of similar recipes out there, so use this or use whatever you find. or buy it, if you don’t have all the spices on hand and don’t want to buy all of them!

printable version (spice only)

ingredients
1 T g. ginger
1/2 T g. cinnamon
1 t g. cloves
1 t g. cardamom
1 t g. nutmeg
1 t g. allspice
1/2 t g. pepper

instructions
isn’t this obvious? mix them together!

Icing on the Cupcake

My (pound cake) gramma’s house, the house where my dad chased rattlesnakes, cured tobacco in the barn throughout his summers, and where he to-this-day parks his 1984 Nissan pick-up truck (the same pick-up truck in which I learned to drive stick shift, and the same one I stole Doral ultra-lights from in high school) is flanked by a now non-functioning outdoor wash basin and sink, a swing set, and a pe-can tree that stretches up towards the sun. I remember spending my summers there, and when I wasn’t in awe at my grandmother and her quilting club or climbing the rafters in the tobacco barn, I was picking pe-cans from that tree with my bro.

We loved us some pe-cans, and we may have loved picking them up and filling those buckets even more.

I’ve also been known to fancy a dollop of molasses on a buttermilk biscuit (and gladly licked the dripping syrup before fastening the jar); it seems only natural to be an avid fan of a sugar + molasses marriage, brown sugar.

These things, these humble ingredients, they work perfectly together. Brown sugar + pecans = soulmates.

And just in case the words brown sugar and pe-can aren’t really quite doing it for you, how about the word ‘caramel’? Thought so, it works every time! For me at least, and I’ve been known to eat the caramel topping without even eating the dessert itself, even when involved with a favorite of mine, bread pudding.

But this icing, oh, this icing; it’s madly insanely good. The strange thing is, I used to never be an icing girl. I used to swipe it to the plate, enjoying the cake itself far better. But homemade icing is a monster I cannot tame, and although the one that gets me is usually of the cream cheese variety, I think I found my oh so very close second.

Brown Sugar Pecan Cupcakes with Caramel Frosting
Adapted from Bon Appetit, makes 12

the icing is good as is, but i’ve heard you could leave out the egg yolks, if you like, without it affecting the overall taste or texture. next time, i’ll try that. the icing recipe makes enough for two batches of cupcakes, unless you use ALOT of icing, or unless you eat it from the bowl while you’re frosting (not that anyone would do that, right?!). as for the cupcakes, i added a little more sour cream to the recipe below to moisten them up a bit, and cut back on the baking time.

printable version

ingredients
cupcakes
Nonstick vegetable oil spray
1 c all purpose flour
1/2 c cake flour
1/2 t baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t fine sea salt
1 1/4 c coarsely chopped toasted pecans
1/2 c (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 c (packed) golden brown sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
1/2 c sour cream
1 t vanilla extract

frosting
1 c sugar
1/4 c water
1/2 c heavy whipping cream
2 large egg yolks
1/2 c (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/8 t fine sea salt
1 c powdered sugar, sifted
1/4 c coarsely chopped toasted pecans

instructions
cupcakes
Put rack in bottom third of oven; preheat to 350°F. Spray 12-cup muffin pan with nonstick spray; line with muffin cups.

Whisk both flours, baking powder, baking soda, and sea salt in medium bowl. Stir in chopped, toasted pecans. Beat butter in large bowl until smooth. Add brown sugar; beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating to blend between additions. Beat in sour cream and vanilla. Add dry ingredients; beat on low speed just to blend. Divide batter among muffin cups.

Bake cupcakes until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Cool in pan on rack 15 minutes. Transfer to rack; cool.

frosting
Stir sugar and 1/4 cup water in medium saucepan over medium-low heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat to med-hi; boil until syrup turns deep amber, 6 to 7 minutes. Remove from heat; add cream (mixture will bubble up and try to harden). Stir over low heat until caramel bits dissolve; may require additional heat, if so – stir over medium heat. Whisk egg yolks in medium bowl. Very gradually whisk hot caramel into yolks. Cool to room temperature.

Using electric mixer, beat butter and salt in large bowl until smooth. Beat in caramel. Add powdered sugar and beat until smooth. Let stand at room temperature until thick enough to spread, about 1 hour.

Spread frosting over cupcakes. Top with a few pecans.