Monday, November 28, 2011

Finally--Nearly 100% Foolproof Fudge! No-Beating Required! None!


Fudge and I go back a long way, and we've had both our good and bad moments. Now, I think I've finally mastered this mercurial, occasionally maddening candy. It's taken me many years.

My first forays into fudge began as soon as I could read cookbooks and was old enough to use the stove--probably around age 9. Well, to be accurate, sometimes I made fudge and sometimes I made something more akin to sludge!

Often on Sunday afternoons, I'd get out the big, heavy dutch oven and my mother's falling-apart vintage recipe books and choose a tempting looking fudge to make. (Any lacking chocolate were dismissed as not being real fudge.) Usually, I tried to enlist my little brother to help with the beating, but he was much better at licking the spoon than stirring with it. Plus, he didn't listen when I tried to give him instructions (or, in his words, boss him around).

Of course, at that age, I knew nothing about the complexities of working with sugar and chocolate, and none of the grown-up cooks in the family did either. And in retrospect, I don't think most of the authors of those books knew the necessary candy chemistry either, because I can now often see that those old recipes were just wrong. 

Sometimes the fudge wouldn't set, ever--in which case, we pronounced the results "fudge sauce," and ate it over ice cream! Other times it turned to stone without even being stirred; we just chipped off pieces and ate it anyway. And often we ended up with gritty fudge, though at ages 9 and 4, we weren't yet connoisseurs, so were not turned off by this.

The only fudge batches we kids considered failures were those that couldn't be eaten at all. Specifically, these included ones that burned and  tasted nasty and ones in which the chocolate never really integrated into the cream.

The burning, I now realize, occurred because chocolate is best only gently melted, not cooked or boiled, and too much high heat had caused its natural starch to scorch. Notice in the following recipe that the chocolate goes in near the end and isn't cooked at all, the safeest way to go.

The second problem occurred because instructions said to put all the cold cream and chunks of chocolate into a pot and heat them until the chocolate melted and blended in--which it never did. I now understand that chocolate is persnickety and only melts and blends smoothly with liquid when the two are warmed and slowly, gradually mixed together. This inviolable confectionery rule accounts for the fairly precise mixing method called for below, so do follow it.

Let me now get to the point by fast-forwarding past several decades of fiddling with fudge-making, professional confectionery training and hours of kitchen testing and moving on to my novel fudge recipe presented here. I'm proud to say I created it for a story that ran in the Washington Post food section last year. I firmly believe that it avoids the major pitfalls of the usual recipes circulating around--at the very least it greatly minimizes the chances of under-cooking, burning, graininess, and even failure to set up and become fudge instead of sauce. And imho it tastes first-rate, too!

Nearly 100% Foolproof Rocky Road Chocolate Fudge

Since I only came up with this fudge-making method in the last year and it's unique, it's going to seem a bit unusual. Instead of being beaten until it grains and stiffens, the fudge is simply poured, while still warm and fairly fluid, into the prepared pan. It then stands at room temperature for a number of hours. This resting period allows time for the natural starch in the chocolate to gradually absorb the extra moisture and stiffen the candy to a firm, but not dry consistency. So long as you follow the directions as written, the method yields fudge that is exceptionally creamy and flavorful and that stays moist and succulent during storage. Please, please curb any impulse to improvise. And let me know how you like the recipe--I'd love your feedback.

It’s important to use a pot that holds at least 6-quarts; the cream-sugar mixture will boil up over the sides and make a mess in a smaller one.  And never substitute a semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate for unsweetened or 99 to 100 percent cacao chocolate. (Use either 7 1/2 or 8 ounces depending on whether you like a slightly milder or more bittersweet fudge.) The unsweetened chocolate is essential not only because it provides the right amount of chocolate to balance the sugar, but because it contains the right amount of natural cocoa starch to stiffen the fudge as it stands. This happens best at room temperature, so don’t refrigerate the fudge right away.

It’s best to use a candy thermometer, but you can make this fudge without one. Just watch closely for the cream mixture to thicken and turn a light dulce de leche color as described below. Then remove it from the heat and proceed as directed.

One more thing--yes, of course, this makes a super gift from the kitchen! For other kitchen gifts ideas, check out my yummy bars-in-jars recipe or my minestrone soup mix kit.

Tip: I really like a rocky road fudge, but if you prefer yours plain, simply omit stirring in the 2 cups mimi-marshmallows into the mixture at the very end of mixing.

 8 ounces unsweetened chocolate (or 99 to 100 percent cacao chocolate), coarsely chopped or in small chunks
2 cups heavy (whipping) cream
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/3 cup light corn syrup
Pinch of salt
1 cup marshmallow fluff
2 cups mini-marshmallows
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans, optional

Line an 8‑inch (or for thinner fudge a 9-inch) square pan with aluminum foil, allowing it to overhang on 2 sides. Put the chopped chocolate in a large, microwave-safe bowl. Microwave for 30 seconds on high power. Stir lightly, then microwave 30 or 40 seconds longer. Stir and set aside.
Combine the cream, sugar, corn syrup, and salt in a 6‑quart or larger heavy non-reactive pot or enamel-coated Dutch oven. Bring to a boil over medium‑high heat, stirring with a long‑handled wooden spoon. As the mixture boils and rises up the sides, continuing stirring until it begins to subside, about 4 to 5 minutes. 

Adjust the heat so mixture boils briskly, occasionally gently stirring and scraping the pan bottom. Continue boiling, stirring frequently, about 5 to 7 minutes or until the mixture begins to boil down, thicken just slightly, bubble loudly and  turn a pale beige color. Then, to avoid scorching, lower the heat so the mixture boils very gently.

If a candy thermometer with a clip is available, clip it to the pot, submerging the tip in the candy, but not touching the pan bottom. Otherwise, just start frequently testing with the candy thermometer available. Cook, stirring constantly and scraping the pan bottom and sides and watching carefully to prevent scorching, about 3 to 5 minutes longer. When the mixture turns a very pale light caramel or dulce de leche color and reaches 234 to 235 degrees F, immediately remove the pot from the heat (with pot holders), stirring. Pour the mixture over chocolate, being careful not to burn yourself. If the bottom of the pot looks grainy or as if it is beginning to scorch, don't scrape out the last of the mixture.

Add the vanilla  and marshmallow fluff to the bowl with the chocolate. Stir the mixture with a clean wooden spoon until the chocolate is fully melted and blended in and no streaks remain; this will take several minutes. Be sure to scrape up the mixture from the bottom. If the fudge looks oily and separated or is too stiff to stir, vigorously stir in up to 6 teaspoons warm water a teaspoon at a time; stop adding as soon the mixture smooths out and looks creamy. Fold in the nuts, if using, until evenly incorporated. Then lightly fold in 2 1/2 cups marshmallows, stopping before they begin to melt into the mixture. Immediately turn the fudge out into the prepared pan; quickly smooth out to the edges with a lightly greased table knife.

Let  the fudge cool on a wire rack. Cover and let stand at room temperature at least 8 hours and preferably overnight; this allows time for the natural chocolate starch to firm up the fudge. Then refrigerate, wrapped airtight, for up to 10 days. Alternatively, freeze airtight, for up to a month.

Let the fudge slab thaw or warm up slightly before cutting. Lift the foil and slab from pan. Carefully peel off the foil; place the fudge slab on a cutting board. Using a sharp knife, trim off and discard the uneven edges all around, if desired. Cut the fudge into quarters in one direction and sixths in the other to yield 24 pieces (or cut in bigger pieces, if desired). Pack airtight and store in a cool place for up to a week. Or freeze airtight for up to 1 month; thaw in the refrigerator, then let warm to room temperature before serving.

Makes about 1 3/4 pounds plain fudge, 2 1/8 pounds nut fudge.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Savory, Hearty Gift from the Kitchen--Minestrone Soup Mix Kit

Sunday afternoon was a golden one, with the leaves still falling and the sun bright and warm. I spent a leisurely hour preparing some kitchen gifts for the holidays. It was a good feeling to see my pretty minestrone soup kits sitting there on the porch finished and ready to go.

Perhaps making kitchen gifts is so gratifying to me because I grew up in farming country. Gifts from the home kitchen rather than bought items were the main way families remembered one another during the holidays. Many folks liked to drop by friends’ and relatives’ homes every year with a treat they'd put up during the summer preserving season. A family friend, Mrs. Miller, always gave us a jar of big, chunky sour pickles, and Aunt Roberta presented us with her famous allspice- and mustard seed-sparked green tomato slices. (Which I still make on the rare occasion I can get enough green tomatoes.)

Other peeps dispensed baked goods: A lady my parents played bridge with gave us a loaf of banana bread, which she invariably presented prettily tied up in a red and green plaid bow. We reciprocated with a jar of raspberry jam, or a tin of rolled sugar cookies, or sometimes my mother's fondant-stuffed dates.

The kitchen gifts habit I learned long ago stuck. No matter how many presents I buy, I don’t really feel ready for the holidays till I prepare a variety of kitchen treats to give out. Originally, I made rolled sugar cookies but over the years I’ve updated my repertoire to include candies (lately, peppermint bark), spiced nuts, chutneys, herb vinegars, this layered soup mix, and my chocolate-chip-cranberry bar cookie mix. (I don’t do jam because my sister gives it.)

The soup kit recipe makes a thoughtful and healthful present for any cool weather occasion, especially for those who can't eat or don't care for sweets. (If you scroll down you can see the finished soup.)  I gave a jar to my Thanksgiving hostess several years ago, and have also  made up kits for Christmas gifts. The recipe was featured in the Washington Post food section several years ago and was a big hit! If you pack yours in an attractive jar or canister as I have here, that can be part of the gift, too. (Or if you're on a budget, use recycled large mayo jars or canning jars.)

Minestrone Soup Mix
(Makes 1 jar of mix and yields about 2 quarts soup)

This attractive gift mix enables the recipient to make a very savory and hearty pot of homemade minestrone with minimal effort and supplies. In fact, served along with a bread or salad, it can make a fine, no-fuss supper.

Tip: If you hunt up gluten-free bouillon granules and pasta, the mix can be suitable for those with wheat allergies. You can also sub vegetable bouillon granules for a vegan version of the kit.

Tip: For a lower sodium soup, I suggest using 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon regular bouillon granules and 1 tablespoon very low sodium bouillon granules.

Layer the mix ingredients in a clear glass, acrylic, or plastic jar or canister with a volume of 1-pint (16-ounces) or 1/2-liter or slightly more. If only larger containers are on hand, you can improvise by filling any empty space at the top with a plastic bag full of soup crackers. Or, if the container used is a little too small, attach the package of pasta to the outside of the jar instead of in its top. Don’t forget to provide the recipe instructions along with the mix.

2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon good-quality beef bouillon granules
3 tablespoons minced dried onions
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped dried (not oil-packed) sun-dried tomatoes or chopped freeze-dried tomatoes or dried sweet pepper pieces or dried chives (or a combination)
1 1/4 teaspoons dried oregano leaves
1 teaspoon dried marjoram leaves or dried thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried minced garlic or garlic powder (not garlic salt)
Scant 1/8 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes or 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 cup uncooked pearled barley
1/4 cup uncooked red or brown lentils
1/4 cup uncooked green or yellow split peas
1/4 cup uncooked kidney beans
1/4 cup uncooked cannelloni beans or great northern white beans
1/2 cup uncooked medium-size macaroni, penne, or corkscrew pasta

To make the mix: Combine the bouillon granules, dried onions, dried tomatoes (or sweet peppers), oregano, marjoram, garlic, and pepper on a sheet of heavy duty foil. Using the foil as a funnel, put the mixture into a clean 1 pint or 1/2 liter jar (or similar-size canister or a heavy zip-lock bag). Rap the jar to even the layer. In layers, add the barley, lentils, split peas, kidney beans, then finally, the white beans to the jar, rapping after each addition to even the layers. Pack the pasta separately in a small sturdy plastic bag and close tightly. Tuck it into the top of the jar (or tie around the outside if the jar is full). If the jar or bag will be shipped, pack any headroom with crumpled wax paper. Close tightly.

Ready and include a card or sheet containing the following recipe instructions:

 Minestrone (Makes about 2 quarts soup)

A fragrant, nourishing, fuss-free soup. The diced meat is entirely optional, but makes a heartier, meal-in-a-bowl minestrone. Keep the mix up to 3 months in a cool spot.

1 container of Soup mix
1/2 cup diced ham, hard salami, pepperoni, or smoked turkey, optional
1 to 1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped mixed fresh or frozen vegetable medley (such celery, bell pepper, zucchini, and onions)
1 14- to 15 ounce can diced tomatoes, including juice

Grated Parmesan cheese, coarsely ground black pepper, or chopped parsley for garnish, optional

Remove the pasta package (and crackers, if included) and set aside for later use. Put all the remaining ingredients in the jar in a large soup pot with 9 1/2 cups of hot water. Bring to a boil, stirring once or twice, then turn off the heat and let the beans hydrate for 10 minutes. Return to a boil, then cook, covered, adjusting the heat so the pot boils very gently until the beans are just barely tender, usually 50 to 55 minutes.

If the minestrone is thick, thin it to a soupy consistency, then reheat it to boiling. Stir in the pasta, vegetables, and meat (if using). Simmer, covered and stirring occasionally, 10 to 15 minutes longer, until the pasta is cooked al dente. Add tomatoes, salt and pepper to taste; reheat to piping hot. If necessary, thin the minestrone with more hot water to the desired consistency. Pass a bowl of Parmesan for garnishing the soup, if desired. The soup usually thickens upon refrigeration; thin it before reheating. Keeps 3-4 days refrigerated or 2 months frozen in an airtight container.

Click here for my cranberry-chocolate bars-in-jars gift mix.
Or how about a nearly foolproof rocky road fudge here?
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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Say Thanks with Perfect Pumpkin Gifts from the Kitchen

I can't think of anything more appropriate to take a host or
hostess for Thanksgiving than a pumpkin-themed gift. The pumpkin is our most enduring symbol of autumn's bounty. Native Wampanoag tribesmen introduced pumpkins and other squash to the Pilgrims, who may have roasted some in the fire right along with the game for their now-famous 1621 feast.

In fact, a popular early American rhyme, circa 1633, suggests that pumpkins were as commonplace on colonists' daily menus as they are on our Thanksgiving menus today. (Apparently, parsnips were likewise widely eaten back then, but they've been supplanted by green bean casserole on modern Thanksgiving tables. My veggie-hating grandson would definitely consider this progress!) Notice that the poem uses the archaic English "undoon," in place of "undone," to make the rhyming pattern work:

"For pottage and puddings and custards and pies,
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies,
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,
If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon."

This year I'm going to my son's house and am contributing both pumpkin quick bread and "painted" pumpkin-shaped sugar cookies
(dough recipe here) to our Thanksgiving feast.

The cookies are cut out with pumpkin shaped cutters and decorated with a quick powdered sugar icing. (I incorporated a teaspoon of light corn syrup to make the glaze glossy.) Because I prefer to minimize the use of food dyes these days, I substituted orange juice concentrate for water, and heightened the hue only slightly for a soft, natural look. The darker accent lines on the pumpkins were created by adding a little cocoa powder to some of the orange icing. Instead of piping, I applied the accents using a small artist's brush while the icing was still wet. You could use a piping bag and fine tip for this, if desired.

Part of the secret to making any kitchen gift seem special is to present it nicely. Because the cookies are already colorful, I've wrapped them individually in plain clear bags and raffia that show them off but don't compete for attention. (The other advantage of clear bags is that they are easier to find than seasonal ones and can be used any time of year.)  I'm giving out the individual cookies as gifts for the kids this year, but they also make fine Thanksgiving table favors.

The pumpkin mini-loaves (made using the recipe here) can be packaged in several ways: Sometimes, I wrap them in plastic or a decorative cellophane bag, add a tag, and secure them with a festive ribbon. Another possibility for a family that likes to bake is to wrap the loaves, then return them to their baking dishes and give these as part of the gift. (I found the mini-loaf pans at Michael's several years ago for $1 each!)

Since we'll have a cozy group of only about eight this year, we'll probably cut and serve one loaf and save the second to enjoy after the day of feasting is past. A slice makes a lovely snack with a glass of milk or soothing cup of tea--with or without a turkey sandwich!

In case you're wondering, no, I don't usually take any pumpkin pies to family Thanksgiving celebrations. My grandchildren love to help get ready for Thanksgiving by making these with their dad.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Are My Recipes Good Enough for a Cookbook? Recipe Testers Revealed the Hard Truth

 Everybody wants to write a cookbook. A veterinarian once told me this as she probed and prodded my poodle. The UPS man said so as he delivered a cookbook manuscript to my door.

It’s fine to aspire. But coming up with all those pesky recipes may be a challenge. In case you didn't know, famous folks often just hire a recipe developer. Some peeps solve the problem by cleverly adapting other authors' recipes, which (unfortunately) in some cases is legal but does require reworking them in a particular way.

I recommend (gasp!) digging in and diligently creating the recipes yourself. Though this admittedly involves a lot of effort, it's a very gratifying and creative process.

In the food and cookbook writing classes I teach, I always emphasize that the recipes can't just be so-so, they have to be really good. (I learned this the hard way as I mentioned in a previous post.) It’s important to thoroughly test, not just guess about your recipes. Then get others to test them and honestly say what they think.

Extra testing in your own kitchen is a good way to find errors like dropped ingredients and incorrect yields, but getting third parties to make and rate your recipes is a much more valid measure of their worth. It helps verify that the instructions are clear and doable by somebody other than you! And it helps gauge whether the eventual user is likely to be happy with the final dish.

As part of my work on my next book, Simply Sensational Cookies, a few months ago I sent some in-progress recipes to a group of volunteer home bakers from across North America. ( I didn’t personally know any of these helpful folks.) I furnished them guidelines and rating sheets and urged them to grade the recipes very hard on taste, texture, appearance, and overall appeal. (While home cooks’ recipes don’t have to look attractive, readers expect a professional’s to be.) I also encouraged the testers to take photos so I could see how their cookies turned out; some of their pics are shown in this post.

I wish I could brag that everything tested was good enough to go in a cookbook, but I knew from past experience that this wouldn’t be the case. (An earlier post on accepting testers’ criticism gracefully is here.) Of the approximately 20 recipes tested only 7 received perfect or near perfect ratings of 9 or 10 in all four categories.

 The testers’ remarks about the winners were the kind every cookbook author hopes to hear. Commented Steven, “It’s fairly unusual and exotic … I loved this cookie!” Cindy was also thrilled with her results: “This is an absolutely delicious biscotti recipe. I especially like the texture—although it is crunchy, it’s not a tasteless crunch nor a hurt-my-mouth crunch….” And Susan simply said of the Vanilla-Cream Sandwich Cookies, “… they are SO delicious.”

In the dud group, six recipes received a disappointing 7 points or less in at least one category, and two received an utterly abysmal 3 and 4. I consider even a 7 a failing grade because when folks are paying for recipes they expect and deserve something better than “It’s okay.” I’ve since spent 3 weeks upgrading a sugar cookie recipe that received a single 7 (the other scores were 8s) because the tester’s reaction was so clearly ho-hum. Said Margo, “A basic, sturdy, serviceable, easy to make sugar cookie, but it didn’t knock my socks off.” If I don’t routinely knock people’s socks off, especially with traditional favorites like sugar cookies, I’m not going to maintain a loyal following or generate the broad enthusiasm and word of mouth needed to sell books.

You might assume that the complete “duds” automatically get dumped, but it’s not that simple. I did immediately cut a recipe for animal crackers that the tester, Deb, gave mostly 6 ratings because of her following comments: “Lacking in flavor. Just not appealing.” And the real killer, “Not worth the trouble. Just didn’t compare to animal crackers.” Calling a recipe a waste of time and less appealing than store-bought is a kiss of death!

My Sweet & Crunchy Peanut Crisps recipe actually received the single worst score—a 3 for taste from a tester named Sallie. But Sallie’s ratings of 7 for texture and 8 for appearance, along with her several favorable comments made me think the recipe might be worth saving. I’ve since completely reworked it to jazz up the taste and am fairly certain it’s now cookbook worthy. In case you'd like to try the "new and improved" version, it's posted here.

The most troubling negative response was to my Chocolate-Cardamom Crunch Cookies, which I absolutely adore, but which the tester, Elaine, and her battery of samplers “did not care for at all.” They found the bits of crushed cardamom seeds distracting and “chalky” and the overall appearance drab. Some raters even found the taste of the spice strange. I, in contrast, specifically called for crushed, not ground, seeds because I loved the crunch, and I happen to think that cardamom is the world’s most alluring spice, especially when combined with chocolate.

So, I plan to make these again and present them to a large tasting/rating panel before deciding their fate. If I do put them in the book, I’ll emphasize in the headnote that though most cardamom fans will really enjoy them, they will not have broad appeal and they look rather plain.

I’m enormously grateful that my volunteers were so thorough and thoughtful. They offered a wealth of other invaluable insights into what the “end user” probably wants and needs. I’m going to thank each one of them for their important contribution on the book's acknowledgements page.

Here are just a few of their many comments that have enabled me to improve specific recipes and my book in general. And there will be more helpful feedback coming, because I'm sending out additional recipes to testers soon.

“When a recipe calls for posh chocolate, I expect the results to be orgasmic.”
“Found a serrated knife caused tendency toward slices breaking more than a regular knife.”
“The mixing and shaping are easy, but give a heads-up that the prep is substantial.”
“I think a novice baker would find rolling the dough into a square a bit challenging.”
“Had to drive 20 miles to get the cardamom seeds for this cookie.”
“I would add more detailed instructions on dough shaping. Not everybody is experienced.”
“The reader would appreciate a heads-up on how long this will take from start to finish.”
“The biscotti loaves cracked on top during first baking. You should tell readers if this is normal.”

As you might guess, hearing truly candid feedback isn’t necessarily fun, but it’s incredibly worthwhile. I put it in the same category as getting a shot—it hurts but it makes me better.
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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Smashing Way to Use Up Halloween Pumpkins—Pumpkin-Tomato Bisque

Perhaps it’s the current economic downturn, or a heightened environmental awareness. Or maybe I’m just starting to turn into my paternal grandmother, whom I adored, but prefer not to become! At any rate, lately I’m showing signs of following in her slightly fanatical recycler footsteps.

Grandma was a staunch, uncompromising believer in “waste not, want not,” compulsively saving all little paper sacks, pieces of string, and rubber bands—which nobody, even mild-mannered Grandpop, dared point out had mostly rotted and become useless from age. My stern yet doting grandmother was also convinced that wasting food was a sin: Anyone who left sandwich crusts on the plate at her house was scolded, and she carefully saved all bread heels and crumbs to feed the ducks during our delightful daily walks in the nearby park. Actually, I never saw her throw away any food.

Let me admit here that on several occasions my hubby has insisted that we toss out the jumble of cardboard boxes stashed in the garage in case I “have to send somebody something,” and that at this very moment I have a huge bag full of recycled clean plastic salad containers out there ready to store leftovers, gloves, shoes, etc. (Does anybody else find it ironic, even discomforting that all those “natural, organic” greens come packed in totally environmentally unfriendly, non-biodegradable plastic boxes?)

But to get to the point, I decided not to let the three Halloween pumpkins just languish on our stoop this year. Some precious natural resources, not to mention a farmer’s sweat equity, went into growing them, so it seemed right to consider them food. Probably if I’d formulated this notion ahead, I’d have bought smaller ones. Their total weight of over 25 pounds is now causing the nonsensical “Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater,” nursery rhyme to reverberate in my brain.

 So far, I’ve tackled the largest—a thirteen pounder—and am speeding ahead. After scraping out the seeds and loose pulp and brushing the interiors with oil or butter, I broiled one quarter, roasted one quarter, and in two batches nuked the other half. Both the roasting (at 450 degrees F) and the microwaving worked fine, but I don’t recommend broiling because it added nothing to the flavor and turned the skin dry and tough. We first ate some of the cut-up cubes of cooked flesh simply buttered and salted. They were tender and succulent, but, frankly, bland to the point that we couldn’t face eating large quantities fixed that way.

But the alternative dish, a pumpkin-tomato bisque has been—I have to say it—a smashing success. So far, I’ve made two batches, and am eagerly looking forward to the next pot. It’s healthful, filling, easy, economical, and, oh yes, tastes really good. It can be gussied up for a dinner party or served for the most humble lunch. Readied with vegetable broth, it is suitable for vegetarians.

So, thirteen pounds down, and twelve to go-- into pumpkin pies, more batches of bisque, or possibly pumpkin drop cookies with cream cheese frosting. Grandma would be very proud.

How about you? Are you more of a recycler or more environmentally conscious than you used to be? Does all that plastic food packaging, especially on organic products, bother you? Do let me know.

Pumpkin-Tomato Bisque

I imagine that if you wanted to substitute plain canned pumpkin, you could; probably 2 1/2 to 3 cups would be needed. But since my goal was to provide a way to use up fresh leftover Halloween pumpkins here, I haven’t tested that approach. Incidentally, the pumpkins I bought were raised for ornamental purposes, yet they had a thick wall of succulent flesh inside. There’s no need for the so-called sugar or pie pumpkin in this recipe; it will still have a robust, very appealing flavor, texture, and look.

 You’ll notice a secret ingredient, peanut butter, which may sound odd, but should not be left out. Most people don’t even detect its presence, but it lends richness, body and underlying nutty character that really makes the dish.

About 3 1/3 to 3 1/2 pounds fresh whole pumpkin, including seeds
1 tablespoon melted butter or 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
½ teaspoon sea salt, plus more if needed
About 1 1/2 cups vegetable broth or chicken broth, divided
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom (substitute 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger if necessary)
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper, to taste
1 14 to 15 ounce can garlic, basil and oregano seasoned diced tomatoes
1/4 to 1/3 cup smooth peanut butter
Freshly ground black pepper to taste, optional
About 2 tablespoons table cream and/or chopped peanuts for garnish, optional

 Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F. Cut the pumpkin in half vertically, and scoop out and discard the seeds and stringy pulp. Rub the flesh surface lightly with melted butter or oil, then sprinkle lightly with ½ teaspoon sea salt. Cut the pumpkin into three or four large pieces. Place on a roasting pan or rimmed baking sheet.

Roast the pumpkin (middle oven rack), uncovered, for about 30 to 35 minutes, or until tender when pierced with a fork. (Alternatively, arrange the pieces on a microwave-safe plate. Cover with a microwave-safe cover and microwave on full power for 16 to 20 minutes, or until tender when pierced in the thickest part with a fork.)

Set aside until cool enough to handle. Then cut the flesh away from the skin. Coarsely chop the pumpkin and discard the skin. You should have about 3 1/2 to 4 cups flesh. (Use it immediately or cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.)

Combine the chopped pumpkin, 3/4 cup broth, allspice, cardamom, and cayenne in a 4-quart pot or saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and boil gently, uncovered, for about 10 minutes until the pumpkin is soft and the liquid greatly reduced. Transfer the mixture to a food processor and process until very smooth, at least 3 minutes; stop and scrape down the sides halfway through and don’t under-process.

Return the pureed pumpkin to the pot. Combine the canned tomatoes and peanut butter in the processor. Process until completely smooth, about 2 minutes; don’t under-process. Stir the tomato mixture into the pot. As necessary, thin the bisque with more broth or water. Taste and add more salt and black pepper as desired. Heat to piping hot.

Garnish the servings by adding a teaspoon of table cream to the center top of each soup bowl and then partially swirling it in, or by sprinkling over chopped peanuts, if desired. Top with freshly ground pepper, if desired.

Makes about 1 quart soup, 4 to 6 servings.

In the mood for pumpkin but looking for sweet instead of savory--try this really good pumpkin-cranberry bread or pumpkin bread pudding.
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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Cranberry-Apple Crumble--When You Crave the Taste of Autumn

Last week I kept eyeing the bags of cranberries in the refrigerator, thinking I really should make something with them because nature’s goodies deserves to be treated with respect and even cranberries won’t sit in there forever. Then,  I thought that once I created this crumble recipe, I’d get you drooling with words like “festive” and “seasonal,” and by pointing out  that the color of cranberries is so much deeper and richer (not to mention better for you) than anything out of a food coloring bottle. And that their flavor is so bracing and zingy and marries so perfectly with fresh local apples that when you take a bite you can almost feel  the cool autumn mist from crimson bogs on your face and hear the fallen leaves crunching underfoot in the orchard. 

Yes, I craved a taste of the season mightily, but needing to dispatch some cranberries motivated me more.  The conventional wisdom is that cranberries are excellent keepers, and they are certainly on the far end of the spectrum from, say, pears, which go  from  too hard to exquisitely ripe to mealy-mushy in about 3 hours.  But in an impulsive gesture in support of our poor, over-productive  cranberries farmers (more on harvesting berries here),  when I first spied fresh berries in the markets in September I bought more bags  than I’m going to admit to here.  And now October is gone, and we’re into November, and soon their smooth, shiny skins will wrinkle, and they’ll be too soft to bounce when dropped.  (Did you know that some early American settlers called craneberries “bounce berries?”) Flaccid is as unattractive a descriptor of cranberries as it is of most other things—I’ll leave it at that.

So here we finally are, one cranberry bag less in my crisper, and one large, sumptuous cranberry-apple crumble to consume.  As it baked, the smell of toasty oats, butter, brown sugar, and the fruit all bubbling up together grabbed hold and wouldn’t let go of me.  It was hard not to find a spoon and dig in as the dish came out of the oven, but the flavor is fuller if you wait a bit. (How fitting that the leaves kept drifting down while the crumble cooled on my deck.)  I actually doubled the recipe, so the one shown here is humongous, but feel free to make it regular size if you’re not trying to save so many good berries from coming to a bad end. 

I dished up a serving and plopped on a scoop of ice cream to take a picture, deciding pretty quickly that instead of just having the dish of crumble sitting there, it should look as if someone was actually in the act of eating.  So, for art’s sake, I took a spoonful, which led to a second, which soon led to all eating and no photographing any more.  What with the cold and creamy mingling with warm, sweet-tart berry-tinged apples and accents of chewy-crispy oats, if I have been a cat I’d have purred.  Like long walks in the woods and visits to a cider mill, this is the sort of indulgence autumn was just made for. (Another equally appealing indulgence is this cranberry streusel bar recipe.)

Cranberry-Apple Crumble
As presented, this is tangy-tart. For a tamer taste, add two or three extra tablespoons of brown sugar to the recipe. For best apple flavor, combine several kinds of apples--Stayman, Johnathan, and Rome or Honeycrisp are lovely together.  The recipe is an updated version of one that I created back in the 1990s for my Dream Desserts cookbook.

The servings really call out for a scoop of ice cream.

Tip: If you need a gluten-free version, simply substitute white or brown rice flour for the all-purpose flour and use certified gluten-free oats.

1 cup rolled oats 
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons packed light or dark brown sugar 
3 tablespoons all-purpose or unbleached white flour 
 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon  
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
3 2/3 cups peeled and diced Stayman, Jonathan, Rome or other tart, flavorful apples 
1 teaspoon lemon juice 
2 2/3 cups fresh or frozen (thawed) unsweetened cranberries, chopped 
Ice cream for garnish, optional 
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly grease a 7 1/2- by 11-inch baking dish. 

Stir together the oats, brown sugar, flour and cinnamon. Using forks or fingertips, cut in butter until thoroughly incorporated. In a large bowl, toss apples with lemon juice  until well combined. Stir in cranberries. Reserve 1 1/4 cups oat mixture for topping. Add the  remainder of oat mixture to the fruit, tossing until well mixed. Spread the  mixture in baking dish. Sprinkle reserved oat mixture over top.  
Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, or until mixture is bubbly and nicely browned on top and apples in the center are tender when pierced with a fork. Transfer to a cooling rack. Serve warm or at room temperature. Store, refrigerated, for up to 3 days. 

Makes about 6 servings.

 For another way to make use of fresh cranberries, check out the Cranberry-Pear muffins here.
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