Baked Apples and Thoughts on Food and Cooking

I used to cook everyday for a living. I cooked for hungry school children and teachers. I cooked for a busy, young family, and often I’d come home and cook for Sam and me. I used to think that it would be living my dream – to cook all the time and make people happy with the food that I cooked, but I discovered in the last few years that sometimes dreams change once you begin to live them. And sometimes life just takes you in different directions.

For me, I get satisfaction from turning seemingly basic foods into comforting and delicious meals. I like the feel of breaking cold butter into flour, blending the ingredients just enough so they become semi-homogeneous, and rolling out cold dough to lay gently into a pan as if laying a baby down to sleep. I really do enjoy making a homemade pie crust. I love the sensory parts of cooking – touching cake to feel for that spring of doneness, bending my nose over a pot of simmering soup to smell its seasoning, and listening to the crunch and crack of chopping nuts with a sharp knife.

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I’m not cooking anymore, not for work anyway and here’s why:

  1. Cooking loses its intrigue when it becomes repetitive, mandatory, and no longer creative. Sometimes cooking for a living can do that, especially when you’re cooking to particular customer preference.
  2. Those of you who have been following me for a while know that my body has been telling me it doesn’t like the way I eat anymore and while I’ve been trying to listen to what it wants me to eat, I’m having a hard time understanding. Preparing mouth-watering foods for others that I myself can’t eat (or am afraid to eat for fear of not feeling well) has worn on me and so I’d rather not be around food all day every day.
  3. Working in food sometimes means obsessing about food – thinking about what your next meal will be, what you will cook later, and creative new recipes you want to try. Sometimes my obsession with food drove me crazy and I felt it hard to release myself from thinking about it.

I find now that keeping cooking to a hobby still allows me to enjoy the pleasures of food and pleasing others with the food I cook without driving me and my hungry/angry belly crazy. I’ve learned to eat less of the foods I used to indulge in (and perhaps it’s simply a consequence of getting older) and avoid certain foods (though I test them out again here and there.)

What still makes me happy when it comes to cooking:

  1. Stocking the fridge with delicious foods for the week ahead – snacks, meals, cookies.
  2. Using up ingredients and leftovers just in time to restock and replenish.
  3. Making something out of seemingly nothing.

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I started a new job about a month ago (hence part of the reason I’ve been absent here) and it is so very different from my previous food jobs that it has been a bit of an adjustment. Instead of deciding what to eat from the myriad choices of the school cafeteria, I have to pack my lunch ahead of time and hope I’m still in the mood for that food by lunch time. Bustling around a hot stove and oven have been replaced with staring at two large computer monitors while furiously trying to find the information I need to answer the question at hand. I look forward to fresh air lunch time walks and to the end of the work day. It has been a big change, but I’m hoping it will lead to something greater.

Now for a simple recipe to end this long train of thought: Baked Apples. I invited some friends over for brunch yesterday without really considering what I had in my fridge to feed them. Despite the lack of planning, with a few items picked up from the store and a little creativity we had a delicious brunch. I baked homemade challah bread and stuffed some apples we had in the fridge with a delicious amalgamation from what I had on hand. And the results: divine. Now this is the kind of cooking I can enjoy!

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Baked Stuffed Apples

This recipe can be easily scaled up and toyed around with. The below amounts are approximations of what I used.

2 large apples (I used Jonagold)

1/2 lemon

2 T. brown sugar

1 T. butter, softened or melted

dash of salt

cinnamon to taste

ground ginger to taste

2 T. chopped pecans

1-2 T. dried cranberries

Preheat the oven to 350. Lightly butter an 8×8 square pan or other pan that will fit your amount of apples.

Cut the apples in half. Using a melon baller or small spoon gently remove the seeds and core so you get a shallow canal in the middle of each apple half. Squeeze your lemon half over the apples and lightly rub them to make sure they are well covered. Mix your sugar, butter, salt, cinnamon and ginger in a small bowl. Stir in pecans and cranberries. Taste and adjust as desired. Divide mixture between your four apples halves and place in prepared pan. Cover in foil and baked until your desired tenderness 30-45 minutes. Serve warm with brunch or as a dessert with vanilla ice cream.

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Easy Pumpkin Ice Cream – (no machine required!)

IMG_1794Okay fine. I gave into the pumpkin. I love pumpkin – I really do. I was just getting tired of feeling like it got all the excitement and spotlight in the fall. As soon as the first hint of fall and September hits people go pumpkin crazy. I thought maybe it was good to switch it up. But you know how I love to use up leftovers, and I love to try new recipes. Well I had a cup of pumpkin puree sitting in the fridge begging to be used, and since I’d recently made cookies I figured I should go a different direction. Ice cream!

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I had had this recipe tagged for a few months now probably – the two ingredient ice cream recipe that promised to be awesome and easy for those without an ice cream maker. I simply had to test it out. I love ice cream, but I try to keep it out of the house as it is just too tempting and easy to overeat. I mean, you can eat too many cookies, but the numbers guilt you out of it usually. It’s quantifiable. You know you ate 4 cookies, but with ice cream you can say, I just had a bowlful. (Does anyone actual measure their ice cream to meet the serving size?) And then ate a few spoonfuls while I was serving it. And my bowl was pretty darn big. <guilty smile> If I owned an ice cream maker, it would just be another one-trick kitchen gadget that I would use as an excuse to make homemade ice cream way too often. That just sounds dangerous.

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Well now that I’ve found this recipe, I might have just found a new level of kitchen danger because this recipe is way too easy and adaptable and delicious. And unless you want to drink half a can of sweetened condensed milk (okay, yeah you probably do) it’s hard to make a smaller batch.

The great thing about this recipe – besides no machine needed – is its adaptability. You can put any flavor you want in it. In fact I had full intentions of making multiple flavors of ice cream with this batch and then completely forgot when it came time to mix in the pumpkin. Oops!

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Anyway, enough of my rambling. You want to know how to make it? You whip some cream. You fold it into some sweetened condensed milk and you freeze it. And you wait. Then ta-da – ice cream!

Easy Pumpkin Ice Cream (no machine)

1 14-oz can sweetened condensed milk

1 pint whipping cream (2 cups)

1 cup pure pumpkin

1/4 tsp. allspice*

1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg*

1/8-/14 tsp. ground cinnamon*

1 tsp. maple syrup (optional)

If you have time, chill a large mixing bowl and beaters in the freezer for 10 minutes. This helps the cream to stay cold and whip better (in theory). In another large bowl pour your sweetened condensed milk. Stir in remaining ingredients except the cream. Set aside.

In your chilled bowl with your chilled beaters, whip your cream starting out at a low speed to avoid splatters. Gradually increase the speed as it thickens and beat until soft to medium peaks form. It will take some time, but if you’re using a hands-off mixer such as a Kitchenaid mixer, don’t walk away from it or you will end up with butter. After it seems well-whipped, be sure to scrape the sides and bottom with a rubber spatula to make sure the cream at the bottom has been sufficiently whipped. Beat again if you find some cream that is looser.

Gently fold the cream into the pumpkin and sweetened condensed milk mixture. Start with a quarter of the cream and gently fold it with a sweeping motion from the bottom of the bowl to the top and over. Gradually fold in the rest so that the color is uniform. The reason you fold gently as opposed to beating vigorously is so you don’t lose the air you just whipped into your cream. Put a lid on your bowl and freeze for at least 5 hours. You can stir it after a few hours to evenly chill it, but you don’t have to. I found mine took about 8 hours, but it will depend on the depth of the bowl you freeze it in and your freezer.

Scoop into a bowl (or eat straight from the container!) and enjoy!

*You can substitute pumpkin pie spice for the spices I used. Just experiment with the amount. I would guess no more than one teaspoon.

Note: I find this ice cream is best at its “freshest.” Because it is not churned like ice cream machine types it will get icier (instead of staying creamy) as it sits. If you invite your friends over for an ice cream party you can enjoy it at its prime. I also found it helps to let it sit out at room temperature for 15 minutes before scooping, but that will probably depend on the temperature of your freezer.

Bon appetit!

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Fall Cookies: Soft and Chewy Oatmeal Scotchies

IMG_1710Pumpkin gets a lot of hype this time of year. It’s orange to match the foliage, it’s in season at farmers’ markets and apple orchards, and it’s darn delicious when you whisk in some warm fall spices and sugar to sweeten the deal. This time of year we see recipes for everything pumpkin from pumpkin soup to pumpkin cookies to pumpkin cheesecake. Don’t get me wrong – I love pumpkin, but I wanted to distinguish myself here. I was hoping to stand out from the crowds of pumpkin spice lattes and pumpkin donuts. (I guess I did make this pumpkin creme brulee once.)

Growing up, one of my sister’s favorite cookies was called an oatmeal scotchie. It started with a traditional cookie dough with some rolled oats but then you swirled in some butterscotch chips (scotchies!) baked them until crispy. I liked them well enough and I ate them, (I mean c’mon now, they are cookies) but I’ve always preferred my cookies on the softer side. Don’t you?

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While wandering the grocery store aisles for my regular shopping I passed by these butterscotch chips and I began to feel nostalgic for the days of oatmeal scotchies baked by my mom. It seemed like as good an excuse as any so I threw them in my cart along with the other regular cookie ingredients (stocking up my Seattle kitchen!). When I got home I wanted to get to work right away. No time to waste for cookie making! I decided to start with the recipe on the back of the bag with some alterations (when do I ever follow a recipe exactly these days?). I tasted a few chips before starting and was surprised by how sweet they were (things are never too sweet when you’re a kid). So I decided to tone down the sugar a bit. I threw in some toasted pecans to help counterbalance the sweetness. And just for fun I made half the batch with dried cranberries instead of butterscotch chips to see how that would go. Dried cranberries are part of the fall flavor collection it seems.

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The first batch - too crunchy!

The first batch – too crunchy!

Nonetheless I was disappointed with these cookies. (I mean, again, I ate them because they’re cookies for goodness sake, but I wanted them to be better.) These were too crispy and flat and the pecans hardly made a difference. So I ditched the pecans and ditched the recipe on the bag and started over. I turned to my great grandma’s recipe box, a beautiful heirloom handed down to me from my grandmother. I pulled out her recipe for oatmeal drop cookies and I made it (followed it exactly!) – half with raisins as the recipe states, half with butterscotch chips. They were soft and chewy and had just the right flavor of fall.

Are you sick of pumpkin yet? Okay, maybe not, but give these a try if you want something different. Maybe I’ll spark a new fall flavor tradition!

As a side note: these butterscotch chips are super sweet and a little fakey. My next project would be to figure out how to make better HOMEMADE butterscotch chips. Please leave a comment if you know any great butterscotch recipes!

Grandma’s Oatmeal Scotchies (or Oatmeal Raisin cookies)

1/2 cup shortening*

1 cup granulated sugar

1 egg

5 T. milk

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups flour

1/2 tsp. salt

1 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. allspice

3/4 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 3/4 cup rolled oats

1/2 cup butterscotch chips (or raisins)

1/2 cup toasted pecans (optional)

*You can try substituting butter for the shortening in this cookie, but you will sacrifice the texture! Using all shortening makes for softer cookies. I have not tried doing half butter and half shortening, but I imagine that would be pretty good.

Start by creaming your shortening and sugar for a few minutes with an electric beater. Add the egg and vanilla and continue to beat until light and fluffy. Add milk and mix to incorporate. Don’t worry if it looks too curdled. Add in your flour, salt, baking powder, and spices and stir with a spatula to incorporate. Lastly add your oats and butterscotch chips and mix.

My great grandma’s recipe says to bake these in a moderate oven, which I interpreted as 350 or 375. Scoop onto ungreased cookie sheets and bake for 12-15 minutes at 350. It should be a shorter baking time in a 375 degree oven and they may brown a little more. These came out a little pale in the end. Remove from pans and allow to cool.

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Enjoy warm with a glass of milk and a cozy blanket while you watch the fall foliage. Mmm fall!

Seattle Apple Pie

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We made it to beautiful Seattle and in a week’s time we have toured apartments, visited family and friends, walked around a hilly but beautiful new city, and eaten delicious food. Surprisingly I have hardly cooked in the last three weeks. Between staying at a hotel our last week in Boston and now staying with my in-laws, I don’t even remember how to do meal planning and shopping as all of our food has been prepared by others (and for that I am grateful!) Eventually we’ll have to get back to real life, but for now I’m enjoying it. Continue reading

Post 94 – Beets & Sweets

The leaves are gone. The cranberry-walnut bread is gone. Winter’s cold has sunk its claws into the leaf-strewn earth. It is fall here in Boston, but the temperatures have dropped dramatically already and I fear we have a cold, cold winter ahead of us. I love the beautiful fall colors, the cozy smells, and the seasonal flavors, (Pumpkin everywhere! Quick – get it before it’s gone!) but I hate to think that winter is coming.

Nonetheless it will come and with the passing of time so will the spring and then the summer. Life beats on and the sun rises and sets again and again. For now we must embrace all that we have and enjoy the moment.

Speaking of enjoying the moment, I have been reading about meditation lately in an effort to take a more holistic view of health. As a kid I always thought of meditation in the stereotypical way – sitting with your legs crossed and your fingers forming O’s in the air while you hummed “ommm” and reached a higher state of being. However, from what I’ve recently read, it seems meditation is not about reaching enlightenment in the way I may have originally thought. Meditation is about being present in the moment. It’s a practice that takes, well, practice, but can be used to enrich your life and daily experience. Meditation goes along with mindful eating. If you are present with your food and in the moment when you eat a meal, you are less likely to overeat and more likely to feel satisfaction from your meal. The act of meditation may not help you to reach Nirvana, but the act of being present and mindful may eventually give you more satisfaction with your life.

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If changing what we eat does not fix our food woes, perhaps changing the way we think can. (Read this interesting article for a lesson on awareness.) Taking a moment to relax and reflect before a meal can help you to ease into digestion mode. Eating slowly and in good company will help as well. These are strategies to relax and prepare yourself for a meal eaten mindfully. If our lives do not satisfy, there are many things we may want from our food instead – comfort, companionship, acceptance – but we are unlikely to get them from the food itself. Practicing meditation helps us to live in the moment and be thankful and aware of what we are living and receiving right now. I am grateful for the cold weather that helps me to appreciate the warm weather.

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With the cold weather brings the root vegetables. I love sweet potatoes in particular and beets I enjoy in moderation. Mostly I love their beautiful fall colors and their naturally sweet flavors. Check out those swirls in the beets! Since I’m always suckered into buying those root vegetable chips at the grocery store (like Terra or Trader Joe’s) I decided I’d try making my own. I sliced my veggies as thin as I could without slicing my fingers off (no mandolin slicer here), tossed them in oil and salt, and roasted away. They were delicious, but they didn’t get as crispy as I wanted them to without burning so I’ll have to play with the recipe more. Nonetheless they satisfied that sweet and salty craving and kept me from eating a whole bag of chips (not usually my weakness).

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Being mindful and practicing meditation is sometimes easier said than done. On a daily basis there are so many things going on in our lives and going through our minds that it can be tough to remember all the promises we’ve made to ourselves every moment – eat less, lose weight, be kind, be patient. Sometimes being present in the moment is the best we can do.

Thanksgiving is coming. Be grateful.

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 ­čÖé

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,┬ásprinkle 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!┬á 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 92 – How About Them Apples!

We took our annual apple picking trip Columbus Day weekend and we returned with 66 pounds of apples!

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(Ah the beauty of nature! I just love the color of these apples! Like purple plums! I wonder what happens to those sad apples that fall to the ground…)

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Our 66 pound stash included a full bag of just Honeycrisp (delicious!), some baking apples like Cortland (pie!) and some tasty eating apples like Gala and Fuji. We had the pleasure of hosting my brother-in-law and sister-in-law for the weekend so they helped us pick more than our usual amount.

On our way home from apple picking, we also made a stop at Walden Pond where we enjoyed snapping some silly panoramas with the scenic fall backdrop. Despite the cold temperatures and constant drizzle of rain during our picking, it was a wonderful way to spend a chilly fall day.

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Sadly the weekend had to end at some point. We sent them home with as many apples as they could carry and promises to visit them in their new home in Luxembourg in the future.

After a weekend of eating apples for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, pie baking, and making our famous meat-stuffed apples (as well as sending some back with my brother-in-law and sister-in-law), we were down to about 35 pounds! I made some applesauce this past weekend and our stash is down even lower! We’ll see how long it takes to finish these off.

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While making the applesauce I enjoyed an informal apple tasting, stealing a slice of different apples here and there, comparing the texture and sweetness and crunch. I have always marveled at the beautiful colors nature creates with real, good foods, but I am even more amazed that even just within the category of apples how many different colors they come in. Check out this rainbow of apples!

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I hope you are enjoying the last few days of warmer temperatures and bouts of sunshine. The winter will be here before we know it.

Eat well!