Monday, November 30, 2009

Holiday Gifts from the Kitchen—Bars in Jars Chocolate Chip-Cranberry Bars

Thanksgiving always brings my first big burst of autumn kitchen activity. The beginning of December marks the start of the second stage, when I make assorted holiday cookies and candies and ready my homemade gifts from the kitchen. I look forward to it every year. (For a hazelnut bar click here ; for a cranberry white chocolate drop cookie click here. ) Or, if you're interested in foodie gifts of kitchen utensils and ingredients, I've got ideas and handy hotlinks here.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to share some of the seasonal recipes in my repertoire that have been popular kitchen gifts. I get great pleasure out of making rather than buying holiday presents for family and friends. As I was growing Christmas just wasn’t Christmas unless we handmade some of the presents, and I still feel that way today. It’s gratifying to provide the personal touch, plus I enjoy the opportunities to be creative. Most of my kitchen gifts are very economical, too.

Several years ago I created some “bars in jars” gifts—ready-to-use jars of attractively-layered bar cookie ingredients that are finished simply by combining them with butter and a fresh egg or two and then baking. The jars look a little like the eye-catching stratified sand art creations of several decades ago, and each yields a pan of brownies or bars. They were a hit with the recipients because they could ready a really fresh tasting and yummy treat with almost no work. If you're interested in seeing a video showing how a bars in jars recipe is made go to the video tab at the top of the page, then select the "Daily Cafe," video. (It's not this recipe, but it's made the same basic way.)

Last year I created a pair of gift kits for the Washington Post food section, one a jar of yeast bread mix, the other a jar of soup mix. With them a whole meal could be prepared! These were a big success, too, so I’ll be posting those recipes shortly.

You’ll need 1-liter or 1-quart canisters or jars for making the bars-in-jars recipe. This time of years supplies of appropriate containers dwindle in stores, so you may want to shop for them on line. Leftover 1-quart canning jars or recycled 32-ounce mayo jars also work well (but not the typical 26-ounce pasta sauce jars, which are too small). The manufacturers’ lids can be dressed up by pasting a colorful paper or felt disc over the brand name, or by covering over them with acrylic or enamel paint. You can also buy decorative jar lids on line. Whether new or recycled, the jars need to be clean and completely dry when filling begins.

Readying the jars makes a fun family activity—younger children can help fill the jars, and older kids can prepare the gifts on their own. Recycled Christmas cards, purchased tags and labels, squares of colored construction paper, and decorative index cards all work well as recipe tags. The necessary how-to details can be quickly printed out with a computer and printer and pasted in place, or handwritten, if desired. Plain and fancy ribbons, yarns, raffia, and even twist-ties can add a unique decorative touch to the tags and jars.

Chocolate Chip-Cranberry Bars-in-Jars Mix
This mix recipe yields a quick batch of festive bars for the holidays. Notice that the recipe suggests using “Brownulated” sugar. Often stocked with other sugar in supermarkets, this granular brown sugar lends mellow flavor but is less likely to lump or cake during storage than regular brown sugar. If you can’t find Brownulated, substitute ordinary light brown sugar.

Tip: “Bars-in-jars” recipes such as this one are specifically designed to layer attractively and to fit into 1-quart or 1-liter jars; regular bar cookie recipes usually won’t work.

1 cup all-purpose white flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Generous 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup Brownulated sugar or packed light brown sugar
3/4 cup dried, sweetened cranberries
2/3 cup chopped pecans or walnuts (or substitute white chocolate morsels if needing to avoid nuts)
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate morsels

On a large sheet of aluminum foil (or wax paper) thoroughly stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Using the foil as a funnel, pour the mixture into a 1-quart jar. Shake the jar, then rap on the counter to even the layer. On the same sheet, stir together the sugars until very well blended and smooth. Using the foil, add the sugar mixture to the jar. Shake and then rap the jar on the counter several times to even and compact mixture. Wipe down the jar sides, if necessary. Continue the layering, adding the cranberries, nuts, then the chocolate morsels, shaking and rapping the jar after each addition. If the jar isn’t full and will be shipped, tucked crumpled wax paper in the top.

Secure the lid firmly. Attach a tag or card with the following recipe mixing instructions to the jar. The mix will keep up to 1 month unrefrigerated, 2 1/2 months refrigerated.
Makes 1 quart of mix.

For the Hanging Tag on the Jar:

Chocolate Chip-Cranberry Bars (Makes 12-16 bars)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to warm
1 tablespoon water
1 large egg
1 1-quart jar Mix

Mixing instructions: Set oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 7- by 11-inch (or 9-inch square) baking dish. In a large bowl, using a fork, mix together cooled butter, water, and egg until well blended. Gradually stir in jar contents until evenly blended. If too dry to hold together, stir in a tiny bit of water. Spread evenly in dish. Bake on center oven rack 25-30 minutes, until nicely browned and a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool completely before cutting. Store, covered, 2-3 days; or freeze, airtight, 3 weeks.
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Friday, November 20, 2009

National Press Club's Endearingly Wonky Book Fair—Fun the Washington Way

Washington, DC, has its own endearingly wonky way when it comes to drumming up interest and drawing a crowd. At least the National Press Club does.

The theme of its 32nd annual Book Fair & Authors’ Night this past Tuesday was “Top Pols, Pundits & Cultural Legends." So fittingly, PBS’ “News Hour” host Jim Lehrer, Senator Barbara Boxer (pictured left and right), and Representative Henry Waxman were among the celebs on hand.

Rod Blagojevich, the ousted former Illinois governor was on the program, but cancelled at the last minute. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s autographed book was there, but he was not. I suppose his Judgeship thought it undignified to be seen out flacking his work.

 In some cities glitz and cleavage are in these days, but as the pics show, this was a strictly dark suit, covered bosoms affair. Still, the mood was upbeat and the noise level high. People were obviously grooving on chatting about The Next Front: Souweast Asia and the Road to Global Peace with Islam with Senator Dodd, or On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery with Smithsonian contributing editor Robert Poole.

So what were the cookbook authors like me doing there, you ask? Even in DC, people still have to eat. In fact, every scrap of the bread I took to give out disappeared, and Kneadlessly Simple sold very well.
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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

An American Tradition--Pumpkin Bread Pudding

In the past, as I readied my pumpkin pies for the Thanksgiving holiday, I always imagined the Pilgrims coming together at a huge table with the neighboring Native Americans and ending their meal with pumpkin pie. But when I took time to delve into the historical records, I discovered that my notions didn’t square with the facts.

A December, 1621, firsthand account of Plymouth, Massachusetts, colonist “E. W.” (thought to be Edward Winslow) chronicling what Americans now call the first Thanksgiving makes no mention of pie at all. What the writer actually describes (in a remarkable work called Mourt’s Relations) is a three-day outdoor gathering of the Pilgrims and about ninety Wampanoag tribesmen, who feasted, perhaps around an open fire, on venison and wild fowl. The account suggests that conditions were far too primitive for a seated dinner or niceties like pumpkin pie (sugar and wheat flour weren’t around then), though the game was abundant and likely included wild turkey. Even if pumpkin pie had been offered, it would have been served with all the other dishes, as the modern custom of reserving sweeter ones for dessert had not yet arrived. (If you ever go to Williamsburg, you'll see what we now consider desserts presented with entrees and sides on the table of the Governor's mansion.)

Still, pumpkins were typical fare at the time. The word squash comes from the Algonkian askutasquash, which literally means 'the green things that may be eaten raw.' Roger Williams, founder of the Rhode Island Providence Plantation and a friend of the Wampanoag tribe, documented this in his 1643 work, A Key into the Language of America. Askutasquash, he noted, came in “several colours” and were the native peoples’ “vine apples.” Both the seeds and flesh of pumpkins were eaten, sometimes after being roasted in embers.

A few decades later, in a book detailing his 1638 and 1663 visits to America, John Josselyn gave a recipe for an “ancient New England standing dish” featuring stewed pumpkin. (Standing was used in the same way we employ it in ‘standing invitation’ today.) Some folks weren’t really pleased to be eating pumpkin so often, as a popular bit of doggerel from the period suggests: “We have pumpkins at morning./Pumpkins at noon./If it were not for pumpkins/We should be undoon.”

Tip: If you're interested in other recipes especially suitable for Thanksgiving or other fall menus, check out my Autumn Fruit and Vegetable Bisque here. Or look for my very moist and succulent pumpkin-cranberry quick bread here.

Pumpkin Bread Pudding

This recipe and photo are from a recent book of mine, The All-American Dessert Book. The recipe was inspired by a pumpkin bread pudding in a landmark 1796 cookbook called American Cookery, by Amelia Simmons.The pudding has a soothing pumpkin-and-spice flavor and enticing aroma, and it makes a fine, never-fail substitute for pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. It’s also ideal for fall and winter brunches. I've baked this pudding on a number of television shows and in cooking classes; it's always a huge hit!

The pudding is great served with my easy Brown Sugar Orange Sauce, too.

Tip: If preparing this recipe for a crowd, you may want to double it. Bake it in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish (which will be very full) for 35 minutes, then sprinkle on the brown sugar and continue baking until the center is firm when lightly tapped, 20 to 30 minutes longer.

4 large eggs
1 cup packed light or dark brown sugar, plus 3 tablespoons for sprinkling on pudding
1 cup whole or low-fat milk
1 cup light or heavy (whipping) cream
1 15-ounce can solid-pack pumpkin (not seasoned pie filling)
2 3/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon ground allspice
5 1/2 cups cubed (1/3 inch) crusty French or Italian bread, crusts removed
3/4 cup dried, sweetened cranberries, optional
Brown Sugar–Orange Sauce for serving (see recipe archives)
Ice cream or lightly sweetened whipped cream for serving, optional

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees F. Lightly grease a 7-by-11-inch or 9-inch square baking dish or coat with nonstick spray.In a large bowl using a wire whisk, beat the eggs until frothy and smooth. Add the brown sugar, whisking until the sugar dissolves. Whisk in the milk, cream, pumpkin, and spices until completely blended and smooth. Stir in the bread cubes and cranberries. Turn out the mixture into the dish, spreading to the edges. Lay a sheet of baking parchment or wax paper on the surface and press down to keep the bread submerged. Let stand for 10 minutes. Peel off and discard the paper.

Bake for 25 minutes. Sprinkle the remaining 3 tablespoons brown sugar over the pudding and continue baking just until the center of the pudding is firm when lightly tapped, 12 to 17 minutes longer. Transfer to a wire rack. Let cool for at least 15 minutes. Serve spooned into bowls.

Drizzle with brown sugar-orange sauce and/or garnish with scoops of ice cream or dollops of whipped cream, if desired.The pudding will keep, covered,in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Reheat to very warm just before serving.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.
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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Finding the Best Baked Apple--Chapter Two!

Pictures do say a thousand words! Would you want to eat the apple on the top left or top right?

Here are the photos of the apples baked for the recent tasting by me and NPR's Weekend-All Things Considered host, Guy Raz. Guy thought the apple on the top left, the Honeycrisp was the best. I like the one  below it on the left, the Jonathan, a lot, too. It looked and tasted good.

The big loser, top right, was the Granny Smith; it was tart, not very fruity and looked unappetizing to say the least. Guy thought the one underneath it, the McIntosh looked like an enchilada (which it sort of does) but that it tasted good! It was on the tangy side for my taste.

You can catch our comments during the sampling session here.

 Below are pics of the preparation stages--the apples being stuffed and being baked. My classic baked apples recipe is posted on NPR with the interview. Check my recipe archives for my hurry-up microwaved baked apples. My detailed ratings sheet of the apples tested and a link to the recipe is posted here.

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You Made My Day—You Like My Books and Recipes!

It’s a lot more fun being a cookbook author some days than others. When a recipe I’m testing just won’t work out, or my computer suddenly eats my carefully polished prose, it’s not fun at all!

But some weeks, like this one, are both fun and exciting. One reason is I just found out that that my latest book, Kneadlessly Simple, made the 2009 Amazon Cookbooks Top 10 Customer Favorites List. The top entry on the list was Martha Stewart’s cupcake book, so I feel I am in pretty good company!

Along with this honor (which was a huge surprise), I have just gotten several especially memorable e-mails from people who have been enjoying my recipes and took the time to tell me. During the writing/testing phase, I work very hard to be sure my recipes will succeed for every cook. So it is extremely gratifying to hear when my efforts paid off.

Here, with their permission, I’ve quoted several folks whose words really touched me. Two of the e-mails arrived the same day! In case you aren’t familiar with it, the pain d’epice the first writer mentions is a classic French honey-spice bread; it is in Kneadlessly Simple. The second e-mail refers to a story I wrote for the October issue of Eating Well magazine on quick, healthful soup suppers. What could go together better than soup and bread!

Dear Nancy Baggett,
I just tasted the almost-completely-cooled pain d'epice that I made today using your recipe. It is profoundly satisfying; a marvelous combination of tastes, textures and fragrances. I should confess to extreme finickiness on this subject. My mother is French, and pain d'epices were the transcendent treats of my childhood. When we would go to France to visit my grandparents, my grandmother would always get some at the beekeeper's stall in the Fontainebleau market (this, like most bread and pastry, was NOT done at home). Otherwise, the little pre-cut loaves she would send seemed to benefit from weeks in the hold of a ship and then who knows what kind of overheated or freezing freighttrain car on its way to the midwest. Friends bring it back from their trips to France.
     Recently a nearby bakery added a pain d'epice to their repertoire, and my visiting elderly mother exclaimed over its presence. We got some. It was....very good. But as I'm sure you know, that is just not good enough when one is dealing with this sort of intersection of taste & memory. So I started making my way through every recipe I could find. We've had versions that were so dry one had to add a swallow of water to each bite, so defiantly dense that it hurt the jaw to tear off a morsel unless it were sliced paper thin, and a number that smelled great while baking and were just good. Merely Ok. Last summer my son & I worked our way through your All-American Cookie cookbook in an effort to expand our repertoire of regulars. An excellent book! So your name resonated when I saw your pain d'epices recipe recently, and I must say the results are really quite excellent. We will probably try a few more, just for scientific certainty, but I'm going to go put your method on my list of keepers, and will make another loaf to take to my mother. It will make her very happy.

I have just made ALL of the soup recipes in Eating Well from October and can't thank you enough. They were fabulous and I love soup as a main meal. I have never written anyone before but I thought you deserved to hear how delicious they all were!

I just want to say how much I am enjoying your Kneadlessly Simple bread book. I cannot believe how easy and amazing delicious it is. My bread machine is now history. Have one bug to iron out. The bread is done much quicker. So I now put it in the middle of the oven. Should I just drop the oven temp by 25 degrees? That seems to be the other problem. Also do you use a gas oven-- mine is electric. Oh and my friends are now buying your book. Thank you so much.
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A Taste of Autumn--Pumpkin Cranberry Quick Bread

Autumn just wouldn’t be autumn without pumpkin and cranberries on the menu at my house. The amazing aroma that fills the air when pumpkin and spices are baked together is almost reason enough to turn to this fall fruit. (Yes, pumpkins are technically fruits.) And the bright color and zest of fresh cranberries add a memorable, enticing touch to both sweet and savory dishes.

Another reason I enjoy using pumpkin and cranberries is that they reflect our culinary past. We're part of a long line of American cooks who have turned these fruits of the season into something special. It’s fun to imagine our "foremothers" (our forefathers rarely cooked) cleverly capitalizing on winter squash and cranberries to add variety and nutrition to the household diet, especially in the coldest months when larders grew bare.

 I also like to picture the Pilgrims coming together at a huge table with the neighboring Native Americans to share a meal reminiscent of our modern Thanksgiving dinner. But it turns out such romantic notions are way off base! The Pilgrim men and about ninety Wampanoag tribesmen probably stood around a fire where they ate venison and other wild game. No nice tables, linens, or fancy eating utensils--those assembled were just thankful to have anything to eat at all. Sad to say, the few remaining Pilgrim women who hadn't already died from the harsh conditions didn't join in the celebrations either--they were just scurrying around serving the menfolk. For more on the real story, click here.

Pumpkin-Cranberry Quick Bread

This is a hearty, moist, well-flavored quick bread that’s also very easy to make. Not too sweet nor overly rich, it makes a wholesome snack, or can accompany coffee or tea or almost any autumn meal. Note that the recipe yields two substantial loaves; if you can bear to part with one, you'll have a perfect gift! The bread stays moist for several days and freezes beautifully if you wish to make it ahead or stash the second loaf for later giving or eating.

Tip: If you have fresh gingerroot on hand it will add a wonderful kick and extra aroma, but if necessary you can leave it out.

4 1/2 cups all-purpose white flour
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 15-ounce can pumpkin (not seasoned pumpkin pie filling)
2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups nonfat or low-fat plain (unsweetened) yogurt
2 large eggs
2/3 cup canola oil, corn oil or other flavorless vegetable oil
2 tablespoons peeled minced fresh gingerroot, optional
1 cup dried sweetened cranberries
1 cup fresh or frozen (thawed) cranberries, chopped moderately fine
2 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar combined with 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon for garnish

Place a rack in the middle third of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees F. Generously coat 2 8 1/2- by 4 1/2-inch (or slightly larger) loaf pans with nonstick spray.

In a very large bowl, thoroughly stir together the flour, cinnamon, allspice, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In medium bowl using a fork, beat together the pumpkin,sugar, yogurt, eggs, oil, and dried cranberries until very well blended. Gently stir the yogurt mixture and fresh cranberries into the flour mixture just until thoroughly incorporated but not over-mixed; excess mixing can cause toughening. Immediately turn out the batter into the pans, dividing equally and spreading evenly to the edges. Sprinkle the sugar-cinnamon mixture over the loaves, dividing equally.

Bake on the middle oven rack for 50 to 65 minutes or until well browned on top and a toothpick inserted deep in a center comes out clean. It’s normal for the tops to crack. If the tops begin to brown too rapidly, lower the heat to 350 degrees F. and cover them with foil the last few minutes of baking.
Let the pans stand on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Run a table knife around the pans and under the loaf edge to loosen the loaves and place on wire racks. Cool thoroughly. Keep airtight at room temperature for up to 2 days; or freeze packed airtight in heavy plastic bags for up to 1 month.

Makes 2 medium-sized loaves, 12 to 14 slices each (or  1 medium loaf and 4 mini-loaves).

For other fine autumn sweet treats, find my cranberry-white chocolate cookies here or pumpkin cookie recipe here.

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