Post 117 – The Perfect Bread – Oatmeal Cranberry Walnut

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One of my first jobs out of college was at a small bakery in Dayton, Ohio. I had to be there at 5 AM, which meant getting up at 4, in the dark, hating the world, and driving on mostly empty, quiet roads. When I got there our bread baker was usually wrapping up his overnight shift while listening to talk radio. The first few hours of my days were always hard – not only had the day just begun, but it was really really early. The kind of early where you get up and wonder what the heck you are doing with yourself. Once the sun came up, it was always like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel – there was hope the day would get better. Sunrise meant the bakery would open soon, which meant customers would come trickling in and the quiet dark of the morning’s preparations would be replaced by the happy din of caffeinated and well-fed people.

IMG_1478While working at this bakery I acquired some helpful techniques while I learned to make croissants, scones, cookies, brownies, and danish all from scratch. Though I never made bread while I worked there I often took home a loaf during the week. My mom’s favorite was their Oatmeal bread. Continue reading

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Post 110 – You are what you cook?

To get the results you want, it all depends what you’re aiming for. The best recipe for oatmeal raisin cookies. The all organic recipe. The natural foods recipe. The healthy recipe. The sustainable recipe. The list goes on and on. There are so many times when choosing a recipe that these are the types of question I face. Do I want my ingredients to convey how “good this cookie is or do I want the taste of my cookie to speak for itself?

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At any one point in time we are trying to define ourselves: a neat freak, a runner, a healthy eater, a minimalist. We do all the research to find out how to be that person, what to buy and what not to buy and how to show ourselves to the world. We convince ourselves that it’s a goal worth pursuing, that it’s the right thing to do, and why haven’t we been doing it all along? A week later, a month later, it’s a different story. Things fall apart, we get out of the habit and it’s back to the self we were before (which isn’t necessarily a bad one). The next week it’s something new that we’ve discovered and we’re off again pursuing the new version of me. That’s how it is for me anyway, especially when it comes to food.

Once-baked biscotti (which means twice-cooked)

Once-baked biscotti (a cookie whose name means twice-cooked)

This month I began the Cookbook Challenge – a self-imposed challenge to cook at least one recipe from every cookbook that I own. I didn’t start off with a lot of written rules, other than stating that the majority of my recipes should come from cookbooks and not the Internet. I also told myself that I had to follow the recipes as closely as possible, only substituting or changing ingredients if I thought it would greatly affect the dish or if I did not have that ingredient on hand. I started this challenge wanting every recipe to be a stunning, new fan favorite, but also to reflect something positive about me as a cook. My cooking persona has taken on the personality of whatever cookbook I choose that day. Sometimes it’s telling me to indulge in coffee-flavored cookies for breakfast and other times it’s telling me that love is its own special ingredient.

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In the past few days I have baked Whole Wheat Bread from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day (delicious fresh from the oven and slathered with butter); “Chicken Limon” from Seasoned with Love (another community cookbook from my aunt in Georgia – the recipe was fairly bland and unlikely to be repeated); and Cranberry Breakfast Biscotti from Maxwell House Coffee Drinks and Desserts Cookbook (crunchy Italian cookies with a slight coffee flavor. Sam enjoyed them, though I wasn’t a big fan, so he took them to work to share).

IMG_1356Unfortunately none of these recipes felt very much like me. But then again who am I?

Since writing this blog, I have oscillated between gourmande and ascetic, baking elaborate desserts just for the joy of making them and giving up whole categories of food just to feel better. I have spent so much time trying to define who I am and trying to show you who I am through my food and yet I still go back and forth in deciding what kind of cook I want to be and the food I want to make.

I love food. I love the tactile feel of it beneath my fingers and the magic of transformation on the stove and in the oven. I love connection. I love sharing a good meal with someone, sharing the experience of eating that first delicious bite, or seeing someone enjoy food that I’ve made. But how do I translate this love for food and love for feeding people into something real? Into something that reflects me? I want to taste all of the flavors, try all the recipes that seduce me with their perfected photographs, and in the end still feel vibrant and healthy and fulfilled. Is that so much to ask?

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In the end, perhaps it is better not to define ourselves by the food that we eat or cook. Anyway, who says we can only be one type of person? More and more lately I have realized the importance of being yourself and accepting yourself as you are (as cliche and unexciting as it sounds). Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project puts it nicely in this article. In it she says that ultimately we must acknowledge who we are, the very essence that makes me Erin, the you-ness that makes you you, and in recognizing ourselves we must also recognize the things that are not us. Maybe I’m not the health guru I want to be or the gourmet baker, but that is okay. I am more than the food that I cook or the food that I eat.

When we try new things (recipes, hobbies, habits) we discover other possibilities for ourselves (or rule them out) and there is no one perfect answer for anyone. It takes time to figure ourselves out and to answer the many questions in our lives. If nothing else, we are asking the questions.

More recipes to come (hopefully ones worth sharing!)

Post 106 – Store-bought from scratch

We all get stuck in our habits and routines. Lunch at 12:30 even if you’re not hungry. Stay home on Sunday morning even though there’s a delicious bakery down the street. Buy the same brands, eat the same foods. When you always do something, the habit gets so ingrained that it becomes hard to imagine the other possibilities. If you always buy your granola, why would you consider making it? Store-bought pesto – easy! While these quick grabs can definitely be a time saver, there are some days when you have the time and it’s totally worth it (and even an improvement) to make your own. For some reason this past weekend I was inspired to try making what for me are usually store bought foods – pita bread and marinara sauce. The results: delicious!

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Now you might remember that I’ve gone through some different food experiments while writing this blog. I’ve dealt with acid reflux (still do), I tried an elimination diet, and I tried some low FODMAP recipes. I became frustrated when nothing in particular seemed to make me feel 100% better and I started to wonder: is this a part of getting older? Did I develop some kind of strange allergy or disease? Is this permanent? Was I dealing with some serious pre-wedding stress last year? I didn’t feel stressed. Whatever it was, it has seemed to resolve itself somewhat for the time being and I am thrilled! I’ve focused less on avoiding certain foods and more on enjoying the food I do eat while not eating too much. It’s still a balancing act, but I’m finding my way and in the process I am thrilled to reintroduce myself to many of those foods I avoided before – hello garlic, onions, oranges, and lemons! Who knows how long this will last…

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Lemon and garlic for the chicken shawarma marinade

 

Eating these foods again has greatly expanded my recipe possibilities, which is why I took on the homemade pita and marinara projects. Nothing can beat the smell and warmth of fresh bread from the oven and I figured warm pita would be no different. Having made homemade bread and pizza several times, I figured pita bread was totally do-able. It takes a bit of babysitting to make, but is overall the quickest baking yeast bread that I know of – it bakes in less than 5 minutes. We served the pita bread with chicken shawarma, hummus, and veggies, using the pita as an edible utensil to scoop up all the yummy juices from the chicken.

Dinner spread complete with homemade pita and hummus.

Dinner spread complete with homemade pita and hummus.

As for marinara sauce, we always bought the jars of sauce when I was growing up. Prego, Ragu, Barilla – whatever brand we bought, marinara sauce seemed like one of those canned foods that saved time and wasn’t overly processed. It’s only recently having heard my co-workers talk about making sauce at home that I considered the possibility. I looked up a recipe and was surprised how quick and relatively simple it sounded to make. Sure you start with canned tomatoes, (especially this time of year) but at least you’re simmering the sauce with the flavors and fresh herbs yourself. I’d say it’s a nice step up from buying jars of sauce and the flavor was wonderful. I layered my homemade sauce into a hearty lasagna and served it with a fresh green salad.

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I know how easy it is to just do what you’ve always done, but sometimes you’ll be surprised what a difference it makes to eat your own homemade food whether it’s bread, sauce, or even yogurt. When you have the time to experiment, take a look around and see what you might be able to make yourself. Take a step back and ask yourself, could I make that? Sometimes you just have to see with new eyes.

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Homemade Marinara Sauce

adapted from theKitchn.com

1 T. butter or olive oil (I used butter, but you can use olive oil to make it vegan)

one 28-oz can whole San Marzano tomatoes

one 14-oz can whole San Marzano tomatoes

one 8-oz can pure tomato sauce

1 small onion, diced

1-2 cloves garlic, minced

1 bay leaf

fresh basil in chiffonade

1/2 tsp. each dried oregano and thyme

salt to taste – 1/4 tsp. to start

a pinch of sugar

 

There are a couple approaches you can take with your tomatoes here. For a chunky sauce, carefully quarter each tomato (being careful not to burst the juices into your face – trust me) and add to the sauce as instructed. For a smoother sauce, pulse your tomatoes in a food processor before adding to your sauce. OR wait until your sauce is done simmering and carefully blend in a food processor or with an immersion blender. Either way I would recommend prepping your tomatoes at least by opening the cans before you get your onions going so that you don’t burn your garlic when the time comes to add the tomatoes. Whatever you do, the sauce will be great.

To start your sauce, in a large skillet melt your butter over medium heat. Add your onion and saute for 5 minutes or until it begins to soften. Stir in the garlic until fragrant, less than a minute and then add your tomatoes, juice and all. Add the tomato sauce, salt, bay leaf, oregano, and thyme. Save the fresh basil for the end. Bring to a simmer and turn down to a low simmer for 15-20 minutes, stirring every now and then. Remove the bay leaf and taste your sauce. Adjust flavors as needed – a pinch of sugar, more salt, some black pepper. Add your basil, stir to incorporate and remove from heat. Use for your favorite ravioli, lasagna, or even garlic bread.

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Post 104 – Homemade Hamburger Buns

IMG_1195I’m not even sure what day it is anymore. Tuesday? Saturday? Snow day? My long weeks have turned into long weekends and I’m beginning to lose track of what the real world is like. Is anyone else feeling that way with all this snow? Isolated? Stuck in a time capsule?

This kind of weather can bring out the best and the worst in people. Here in Boston the T has been shut down, traffic has been backed up for hours, the roads made narrower by heaping snow piles and pedestrians avoiding un-plowed sidewalks. All this snow can make a person grumpy. And let’s face it, Boston isn’t known to be the friendliest city.

IMG_1197But despite the countless feet of snow (I’ve lost track anyway) I have been pleasantly surprised. On the days when the snow keeps piling up and Sam and I decide to venture out into the white wonderland to relieve our cabin fever, we have gotten more hellos and smiles than on any sunny day. People make eye contact and nod, even say a hello and how are you? It’s as if those brave enough to go out in the snow get a special recognition from other like-minded people. That happens with runners sometimes, I find, especially in the morning. You’ll be out for an early morning jog and you get the smile and nod from another runner as if to say: “Look at us. We made it out to enjoy the natural world before anyone else.”

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I have been enjoying our wintery walks as a way to get out, but I’ve also been enjoying the snow days as an excuse for lots of cooking and baking. During the first storm we had a pot of Cincinnati Chili ready to go and leftover Cinnamon Swirl Bread. The second storm started around the Super Bowl. As usual, Sam and I went to the store well before the predicted blizzard to stock up on food for the week. There was no Super Bowl party on our agenda, but we still wanted a tasty meal to enjoy while we watched the game. After deciding on pulled pork and more delicious sweet potato salad (we’re a bit obsessed – thanks, Sister) we found the store was out of our favorite hamburger buns. They had another brand, but we decided not to risk it. “It’s okay,” Sam told me. “We can go without.”

We could go without OR I could make them. I mean, how hard could it be? So I looked up a few different recipes online, considered my ingredients and went to work. And actually it’s really not that hard. It’s like baking any other loaf of bread in that it takes time and patience and a little bit of technique. I used this recipe (which provides tips and technique help as well) and within a few hours we had the delicious smell of homemade bread, soft, warm buns and a salty, savory pork to pile on top of them.

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The buns that we didn’t eat that night, we put in the freezer to keep them longer. A few weeks later we are down to only one! If you’re home on a snow day and looking for something warm and delicious to make, give these a try. You’ll thank yourself later.

Post 100 – The Cooking Marathon

I wanted to do something special for Post 100 – make a hundred of something (actually totally do-able at work), post a hundred photos from my blog (too much scrolling), or eat a hundred M&Ms (my father-in-law would be proud), but none of those things seemed quite right. Reaching a hundred posts after about 2 years of blogging feels pretty important, but I don’t need to turn into some kind of holiday. (The first blog I wrote lasted about 3 posts, no photos, and probably never had any readers but me – watch out, it might still be lurking out there in cyberspace…)

Breakfast: Happ parfait, cinnamon bread, cheesy spinach square

Breakfast: Happ parfait, cinnamon bread, cheesy spinach square

Instead I spent my day yesterday in the kitchen cooking and baking to my heart’s content, filling up the fridge with good food and gearing up for a week of good eating.

Here are some photos from the 6 recipes I made yesterday: homemade cinnamon bread, sweet potato salad, chicken cordon bleu, salmon with cilantro pumpkin seed pesto, cheesy spinach squares, and walnut cream for my apple, ginger and nut “porridge” from my new cookbook!IMG_1181

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Thank you to all of you reading and following my blog! I wouldn’t be writing and taking crazy photos of food without you.

Post 93 – Eat your Greens! + Chelsea’s Cranberry Bread

Last Friday (Oct. 24) was Food Day! To celebrate we offered samples of kale chips to the students and teachers. To our shock and amazement, the kale chips were wildly popular with students coming up for seconds and thirds. We even heard one child exclaim: “These are better than potato chips!” I could not have paid that child to say anything better 🙂

It probably helped that we gave out stickers if they tried it and put up a big poster to voice their opinion of the kale.

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Overall, Food Day kale chips were a huge hit and I’m happy to say we may even make kale chips again. (Another great quote: “Can we have these every Friday?!” – HA!) We even had requests for the recipe so we posted it in the school’s weekly bulletin. Eat your greens!

Speaking of greens, well green vegetables, I wanted to share a successful and simple recipe with you that I came up with on Friday. Most of the time when I go to the grocery store I have a plan and a list that I follow. Sometimes I stray from the list based on what looks good and sometimes my indecisiveness causes me to buy multiple random ingredients for which I have no specific plans, or rather some vague plan that I may or may not follow. This week it was asparagus, bacon, fresh cranberries, and coconut milk. After sitting in the fridge for a few days, the idea came to me: bacon-wrapped asparagus!

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Simply wrap your asparagus spears in half strips of bacon (no oil needed thanks to the bacon fat), lay out on a tray, sprinkle with fresh cracked black pepper if desired, and bake. I don’t have a good baking rack, but I’m sure they would turn out crispier if you put them on a rack on top of the sheet pan. That way more air circulates and they’re not sitting in the bacon grease. Bake at 450 until they reach the done-ness you desire (10-15 min) and broil at the end for a few minutes for extra crisping!  Easy and yummy!

I decided to use the cranberries for my sister Chelsea’s favorite Cranberry-Orange bread. This recipe is one I clipped from a magazine back in high school while collecting recipes for my favorite recipe binder. It quickly became a favorite. It is fresh, only slightly sweet thanks to the fresh cranberries, (I even got Sam to try a fresh cranberry! His face was priceless) and has a nice crunch from the walnuts. I opted to make them in mini loaves this time, though it makes a great big loaf too.

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One of the best parts about this recipe is I get to use my favorite kitchen tool: the pastry blender!

 

Chelsea’s Favorite Cranberry Bread

2 cups all purpose flour

1 cup granulated sugar

1.5 tsp. baking powder

1/4 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. salt

1/3 cup unsalted butter, cold

2/3 cup orange juice (fresh squeezed is best!)

1 tsp. grated orange zest

1 large egg

1.5 cups fresh cranberries, halved (allow some time to cut these babies)

1 cup walnuts, chopped

 

Start by halving your cranberries, chopping your walnuts (if necessary), and juicing your oranges. Measure your flour, sugar, baking powder and soda, and salt into a medium bowl and stir to mix well. Cut your cold butter into small cubes and using a pastry blender (or two knives) cut into the flour mixture until the butter is pea sized.

Preheat your oven to 350.

In a small bowl mix your orange juice, zest, and egg. Pour into flour and butter mixture and mix just until barely combined (see photo above). Carefully fold in your cranberries and walnuts. The dough will be relatively thick and lumpy, but don’t overmix it.

Pour into one large greased loaf pan, smaller loaf pans, or jumbo muffin pans. Bake for 25-30 for small loaves and 55-65 minutes for the large loaf. Loaves are done when golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool and enjoy.

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The smell is irresistible!

Oh and in case you’re wondering, I still have some remaining cranberries and I haven’t decided what to do with the coconut milk. The coconut milk (canned) will keep, the cranberries will not. More to come! Happy fall!

 

 

Post 72 – Catching up

March! Thank goodness. This is the month where I start to believe spring is coming soon (until I remember that last year on my birthday – the end of May – it was forty degrees and rainy!) Eh, I guess spring and warm weather may be a long way off, but here’s hoping. Why do I look forward to the spring? Sunshine, warmth, no ice to slip on, fresh fruit and vegetables in abundance! I will miss the snow days, but there’s always spring and summer break to look forward to.

I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus from my blog, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been cooking (of course). I haven’t been bloggin because I haven’t been cooking anything crazy interesting lately, due to my continuing issues with GERD. I’ve resorted to fairly simple (boring) recipes as the list of foods that I can’t eat seems to grow longer and longer and so I haven’t taken many pictures of them. I am back to eating wheat and gluten (for now), but still experimenting with other foods that might upset my system. It’s frustrating for someone whose job and life revolve around food, but I’m figuring it out.

Here are a few photos of what I’ve made since my last post (all carbs and sugar since those seem to be the most photogenic recipes I make):

photo 1(20)Homemade chocolate peanut butter cups for my valentine

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The simplest, freshest, crustiest, homemade, hot-from-the-oven oat flour bread (from this book!)

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Classic Chocolate Chip cookies (my future mother-in-law’s recipe, with a twist)

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I hope to have more interesting recipes to share with you soon, but until the next time I hope these pictures will get you by. I only wish I had equally tantalizing pictures of beautiful fruits and vegetables! If that’s what you’re looking for check this out.

 

Cheers and here’s hoping spring comes soon!