Tastes of Summer – Apricot Cake

Featured photo by Cala on Unsplash

The Farmer’s Market on Keystone and Booth in Reno opens the first Saturday of June every year. By mid-July I’ve become complacent, despite having longed for it since February. Mid-July I think there’s no need to get up and go pick out fruit – there’s plenty of summer left. And though it’s open until the end of the first Saturday of October, I get over my complacency when dreaded August hits.

August has always been like Sunday to me, back when I was in school. I was a stellar student if we don’t count math into the equation (see what I did there?) but I totally hated school. So I loved Saturday and had a love-hate relationship with Sunday because while I was still free of school, there it was again, looming on the other side of Sunday.

August is like that. Too close to the official end of summer. Which may actually be the Equinox in the last third of September, but feels like the end of Labor Day weekend.

So. Farmer’s Market. Fresh peaches and cantaloupe and basil and onions and tomatoes and corn.

And apricots.

This is a family recipe, which may only mean from some women’s magazine I can no longer identify, but I hadn’t made it in forever before I made it this summer.  It’s simple, fast, tasty, lasts well, and isn’t so rich you can’t just cut a piece, stick it on a napkin and eat it with your fingers while reading or watering the flowers or doing something wonderfully summerish.

It’s Wednesday.  Here’s something sweet for the halfway mark of the week.

Apricot Cake

14 tablespoons shortening

1 cup minus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

4 eggs

2 cups all-purpose flour

Pinch of salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

Powdered sugar to sprinkle

Somewhere around 8 to 10 ripe apricots, washed and halved, pits removed (do not remove skin)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

 

Cream shortening and sugar until well mixed, then add the eggs, one at a time, stirring between additions.  Add flour, salt and baking powder.

Grease a pan (I use a 7×9 glass pan that fits it perfectly) and spread less than half of the batter over the bottom of the pan.  The batter is really thick, so using less than half is important because the remainder has to be spooned on over apricots, which ideally should stay where you put them, and dragging thick batter over them doesn’t help that process.

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Place the apricots cut side down on the batter in the pan. I usually make two neat (kind of) rows of apricots but you don’t have to. Wildly random apricots would taste just as good, but one layer seems like the best bet in order for the cake to bake through and to have the wonderful tangy-sweet moist pockets of bright apricot.

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Sprinkle the fruit and batter with powdered sugar. Spoon the remaining batter on top and carefully drag to cover the fruit and bottom batter. Sprinkle the top of the cake with more powdered sugar.

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My traditional and not helpful recipe says to bake in the 350 degree oven for “Not less than one hour.” First off, not true! And second off, who says this? It is not helpful. So – I baked mine on a rack in the middle of the oven fur just 50 minutes and it was just this side of dry – perfect, but getting it out at 47 or 48 minutes might have been a tiny bit better. Test with a skewer or toothpick if you have no idea what a skewer is (I don’t – a long toothpick?)

Cool in pan on wire rack. This is better cold than hot, partly because it just is, and partly because the apricots form a pocket around themselves as they cook and inside that pocket they reach roughly the temperature of the sun and will remove your tongue and palate. When the cake is cold, those moist bits are a little tart and a little sweet, like the best apricot jam.

Perfect for after a barbecued hamburger and fresh corn, or maybe an easy morning breakfast with bacon on the side and a good English breakfast tea.

Summer is fleeting.  Taste every moment. Enjoy every encounter.

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Savory Stew

I love summer. I could happily live in the Game of Thrones world as long as it was the beginning of a particularly long summer season (and nobody killed me).

But today I made stew and tomorrow I’m making hand pies with the leftover stew bits. The hand pies are an experiment, and the stew I’ve only made twice, recreating my Grandmother’s beloved (and unrecorded) recipe. So it’s nice the weather cooperated – 70 in the evening, which is nice for a hot stew dinner, and 64 later as we got ready for bed – and nicer still that by week’s end it will be 90 again at our 5000 feet and hopefully warmer in the valley.

So here’s my take on stew, which I can’t imagine any characters in a quest fantasy making as they camp beside a road. Stew has a lot steps and they would be impossible over a campfire. I think questing stable boys who are really kings should travel with PB&J.

Stew

1 pound chuck tender roast (or your favorite roast)

5 tablespoons Crisco

1/3 cup (more or less) all purpose flour

Oregano

Fresh ground black pepper

Sea salt

Baby carrots (or big carrots chopped to baby carrot size)

Fist-sized white or red potatoes, scrubbed and chopped to bite size

One small onion, roughly chopped (like into eighths)

2 to 4 cups beef bouillon

Scrub and chop the potatoes and carrots. Cover well with cold water in a medium sized pot and bring to a boil; continue to cook until they are just fork tender (i.e., the fork goes in but kind of has to be forced out).

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Melt the Crisco over medium high heat in your favorite Dutch oven. Mine is a big cast iron pot with a lid, which was a wedding present. While the Crisco is melting, combine flour, oregano, salt and pepper in a large zipper plastic bag (or jar or other sealed container) and shake until all meat is coated. Reserve the leftover  flour.

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Add the meat to the melted fat and toss occasionally as it browns. Some of it will stick to the bottom of the pan. That’s fine; I make that part of my stew.

When the meat is browned but still a little red inside, add judicious amounts of beef bouillon – I believe I used 2 ½ cups tonight, and 3 to 4 handfuls of the seasoned flour to thicken. This is personal preference here – I like a thick gravy for the stew, and enough of it to be sopped up with bread. While you’re doing this, the meat is still in the pan; stir it around a bit to get up some of the drippings and coatings stuck to the bottom of the pan.

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Once the gravy is to your liking, both with thickness and volume, add your drained, cooked potatoes and carrots and the chopped onion. A bay leaf probably wouldn’t go amiss, but I haven’t added one yet and didn’t feel the stew was lacking because of it. Another nice addition would be fresh or frozen petite green peas if you don’t have a significant other who acts like he or she is being poisoned by the mere sight of peas.

Turn the heat to low and put the lid on at an angle. I let it cook an hour tonight because we were watching Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and that was about perfect. This makes 4 servings with some nice bread to dip in it, or 2 servings and leftovers for the hand pies. I’ll post about those once I’ve made them.

Country Crust Bread

This is the first bread I ever learned to make.  I was in college, and living in an 8-plex with a roommate in one of the 2 bedroom units.  University of Nevada, Reno, was right across the street, so it’s a wonder how very infrequently I went to class.

Because Kim and I were the first to move into the complex, and because we were excited to be out of our respective parents’ homes, we greeted everyone who moved in and soon knew the medical student upstairs and her husband and two kids and the enormous black Labrador they did not own because it was a no-pets building.  Then Ramana, head of the engineering school, who did not own fish, and Valerie, who taught preschool and did not have a cat, and Ray, who was going to be a dentist and didn’t have a love bird, and Jack, whose apartment I took when he and the marijuana plants he did not own moved away.  At that point Ray gave me the love bird and went on to not really own an African Gray Parrot and John and Barbara downstairs did not own an awful lot of marijuana they were selling.  At some point there was also Eric, the football player, who had a lot of different girlfriends, some of whom met each other unexpectedly and with explosive results.

I learned in that complex that college boys would eat anything, especially fresh, hot bread.  This one (and the cheese bread I posted some time ago) were both very popular.

I haven’t made this simple white bread in forever.  It’s an easy bread, a user friendly recipe that creates a bouncy, soft, elastic dough.  Brush the top of the finished loaves with a big slab of butter, letting it drip onto something easily cleanable or disposable like wax paper (trust me, you want to remember to put something under the wire rack…) and it’s wonderful as is, or for sandwiches, or with a roast cooked with all the trimmings, or at Thanksgiving dinner if you can convince your significant other to not have cheese bread instead (I cannot….)

Country Crust Bread

2 cups hot water in a large mixing bowl

2 packages active dry yeast (or 2 yeast spoonsful or 4 ½ teaspoons)

½ cup granulated sugar

1 tablespoon sea salt

2 eggs

¼ cup canola oil (or salad oil of choice)

6 to 6 ½ cups unbleached flour

Softened salted butter

 

2 9x5x3 loaf pans, greased

Dissolve the yeast in the water in the big mixing bowl.  Stir in the salt, sugar, oil, 2 eggs and mix well.  Add in the flour, one cup at a time, until the dough is not shiny sticky wet and can be lifted as one big elastic-y handful onto a floured work surface.IMG_6176

Knead in as much flour as needed to make the dough elastic and just short of wet.  If it can just barely accept more flour, but isn’t sticking in big clumps to your fingers, that’s a good place to be.  Evening, mid-80s, early August, 5000 feet, it took 6 and ¼ cups today.

Transfer into a large mixing bowl and cover with a clean dishtowel.  Leave in a warm place to rise until double, probably an hour (under summer high altitude conditions, mine was ready in 35 minutes.

 

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Size when set to rise. In 35 minutes of August heat, it filled this huge glass bowl.

 

Punch dough back down and form into loaves for 2 normal sized loaf pans.  The directions say to roll out the dough into a 18×9 inch rectangle, then roll up from long side to long side, tucking the ends under to form a loaf.  I used to do that responsibly but since learned that if I just shape it into a ball, then keep running my hands from the top to under the sides to make a long oval with the seam on the bottom, then allow it to rise, the bread takes on loaf shape anyway by virtue of filling the pan.  I never liked all the rolling, measuring and tucking.

Allow to rise as loaves until double, about an hour in normal places, I think, or 20 minutes at 5,000 feet in August.  Brush both loaves with canola or salad oil.  I think you can do this right before putting them in the oven, but brushing them before leaving them to rise keeps the surface from becoming at all dried out.

 

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This rise took 20 minutes.  Even at 5000 feet, that’s fast!

 

Bake in a 375 degree oven for 30 to 35 minutes or until tops are golden brown and the bottoms sound hollow when tapped. Gently release the breads from the pans and cool on a wire rack.  When they’ve been out of the oven 15 or 20 minutes but are still warm, place the rack over waxed or parchment paper, or a baking tray, to catch drips.  Run a pat of salted butter over the crust.

 

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Fragrant and lovely.

 

This bread is great warm with butter (or jam or peanut butter or honey or almost anything) but let it cool at least 20 to 30 minutes or the crumb will crush down and the bread will seem undercooked, too wet in the middle (almost like clay, you can form shapes out of it – this will stop as it cools).

Once cool this bread has an open, easy crumb, and the loaves will last a couple days at room temperature.  If you have bread storage bags, you’re more prepared than I am – I use a gallon-sized zipper baggie and leave one end open – sealing up fresh bread tightly in plastic makes it sweat, leaving you with soggy or dried out and stale bread.  (Though in that case, there’s always bread pudding or French toast.)

If you try it, let me know what you think!

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Books & Brews at the Bakery (brewed tea, that is)

When I was a kid one of my favorite books for the sheer fantasy and magic was Humbug Witch by Lorna Balian. It seems to be somewhere between picture book and first reader, not quite either, with wonderful line drawings shaded with one or two muted colors.  It’s about a little girl who plays dress up all day. With her pointy hat and stripy socks, she’s a witch who casts spells and has a cat named Fred who follows her about, mostly looking perplexed or playing with things.  I loved it because it was the magic I longed to find in everyday life, the “walk around the corner and the world has changed” type things, the “open this door and behind it is stardust and wonder.”

Similarly, I fell in love with every scrap of magic I found in books, like The Blue-Nosed Witch by Margaret Embry, and The Little Witch by Anna Elizabeth Bennett, not to mention The Peculiar Miss Pickett by Nancy Julian and April’s Witches by Beverly Crook.  And of course Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There and The Phantom Toll Booth.

 

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This is my Grandmother’s 1916 Rand McNally & Co. copy, with illustrations by Milo Winter.

 

As an adult, I’ve just added another book to that list of magical getaways.  Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, basis of the SyFy channel’s series (which seems to be following along pretty closely, though we’ve only watched season 1 so far).

What I love is the time the author is taking to create a big fat real magical world with all the trappings and true-to-life characters so real that today I found myself thinking “No! Leave her behind! Don’t endanger yourselves for her!  I hate her!” about one of the characters (who you’re not supposed to like.)

I also love the magic that creeps into ordinary pages and the author either has wonderful and understanding editors or is never challenged to take it out.  I find when I say something flighty in a contemporary story or too flighty in fantasy that I’m usually asked to change it.  I love when magic like this is breathed into a book (and it reminds me to stick to my guns where my own fiction is concerned: no one knows what the next new and unique thing will be until someone writes it; if I’m lucky, I will be that someone).

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I’m an impatient reader.  There are an endless number of books I want to read, many of them lining the bookcases and walls of my office.  I’ll never catch up and I’m not sure I want to

But I’ve been reading The Magicians by Lev Grossman since early April.  It’s not the only book – not even close – but I keep it on the cluttered kitchen table and read it when I’m waiting for something to bake or cook or steep.  I’m reading anything from zero to 20 pages a day, because I absolutely don’t want to take any chances that I’ll rush it.

So deep summer at High Desert Bakery, I pulled out one of my Yixing clay teapots and headed to Safeway for loose tea because I noticed they had bins of it last time I was there.

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I love this Safeway – it’s in what strangely is a pretty strip mall in Sparks, off Vista Boulevard.  I may be prejudiced, because years ago my husband was foreman on the construction crew that did a lot of the remodel.  They put up the awnings, which still look good, and I remember they had endless trouble with the clock – it kept slipping sideways.  Time’s like that.

 

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The grocery store itself is pretty, with what looks like old-timey hardwood floors in the produce section and these lovely bins of dried fruit and teas.  To celebrate midmonth and summer and mourn it running out too fast, I picked up a couple teas and tried some dried kiwi, which I’ve never seen before.

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The kiwi is much better if gently reanimated with a little water – it’s also a gorgeous translucent green then.

This is the first of the teas I’m trying, raspberry passion black pekoe, with high caffeine and a wonderful taste.  I think I gave it a 5 minute steep, before joining it with the kiwi and The Magicians.  For another few carefully unrushed pages.

What are you reading?  And what are you eating with it if you eat while reading?  Any books you reread on a consistent basis and if so, what keeps them magical time and again for you?

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Citrus Sugar Cookies

I’ve had this recipe in mind for months.  More impressive, though, I’ve had candied citrus peel in my freezer for months and it’s survived snack attacks.

In May I made a Shaker Lemon Pie and a Citrus Pie, from two different cookbooks, to see how they stacked up against each other.  At the time I imaged a beautiful picture of the two pies perched on rocks looking out over the fake lake that blooms in our desert valley when there’s heavy rain or snow runoff.  (This year it’s mid-August and the lake is still there.  It’s not spring fed – it’s actually usually dry; the desert just got that much water this past weird winter.)

However, I misjudged where the big rocks were I was looking for, and found only small rocks, a great view – and a rattlesnake.

When the pies and I made it home, I had a piece of each and then resolutely threw out the rest.  This is because I didn’t need two pies to myself, my mother-in-law lives too far away to take her two pies on a whim (and what would she do with two of them?) and we weren’t headed her way anyway.  My husband hates lemons, and every friend I know who lives local either never, ever eats flour/grains/sweets, or is protein-dieting heavily.  Before I tossed them, I pulled off the toppings and froze them.  They were too bright and pretty – and tasty – to toss.

My plan was to top sugar cookies with them and see what happened.  But I’ve never been able to make sugar cookies that didn’t turn into crumbs before I got them rolled out.  I’ve tried countless recipes.  This time, after thumbing through a well-loved red binger that bulges with my own recipes and family and friend recipes, I settled on my friend June’s recipe, because she indicated when she gave it to me a century ago, that it was no fail.  (Clearly June isn’t a century old, but I feel that way – perhaps our friendship involves time-travel.)

The recipe didn’t fail.  I failed it, a little, by not chilling the dough for 2-3 hours but overnight because I got sleepy and went to bed.  When I took it out 20 hours later it was rock hard.  By mangling and massaging it, though, the butter won through and the dough became soft enough to roll out.

 

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Cold dough is not friendly.

 

The results are mixed.

The sugar cookies themselves are fantastic!  Light, crisp, and if you like a crisper cookie, give them 8 minutes, watching closely, and a more tender crumb (that still crumbles all over as you eat) 7 minutes.

The frozen citrus rounds were covered in the respective pie fillings.  The Build a Better Pie filling is all lemon and a simpler mix.  The Martha Stewart Pies is more complex, and uses oranges as well as lemons.

I baked some of the cookies with nothing on them.  Just because.  (Well, just because of my husband.)

I baked some of the cookies with the rounds of fruit on top, being baked in place.

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I baked some of them with nothing on them and pressed the fruit on as soon as they came out.

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I already knew the baked citrus was chewy.  A sensible thing might be to gently take the rind off when using sugar-dredged citrus as pie toppings, but the aesthetic would suffer.  Biting into a piece of the pie means really biting, or cutting first with a knife, or getting an entire citrus round in one bite.  It’s worth it!

 

So after baking the rounds on the cookies, biting into the cookie with a piece of lemon or orange, the citrus piece came off promptly and the cookie stayed behind with one bite taken out of it.

Oh.  And the ones that I put on the fruit after the cookies came out, they were softer, and mostly stayed in place, but somehow weren’t as interesting, the flavors not as intense.

There was still a chunk of dough left, warming on the counter because not going through that again, the over-chilling business.  Before rolling it out I cut up a bunch of the fruit into ¼ to ½ inch bites, and then when kneading the dough to make it pliable enough to roll out, I kneaded the fruit right into it (and was consequently sticky as hell).  Then the rolling out, which was more challenging, and the forming of cookies, which were more bumpy.

But the results of that batch were really good.  Kind of like citrons in cookies only so much more bright and tangy (candied peel is often very sweet).

I’m not sure what good this recipe does for anyone who hasn’t baked two Shaker pies and encountered a rattlesnake and had a nice hot summer for several months before making sugar cookies to add the fruit to, but there’s no reason candied lemon and orange slices couldn’t be stand-ins.  My own recipe for citrus strips is below.  No reason it wouldn’t work for slices.

The Cookies

1 ½ cups powdered sugar

1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon almond extract

2 ½ cups unbleached flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

Cream sugar and butter until well blended.  Mix in the egg, vanilla and almond extract.  Mix well, then add the dry ingredients, blending them into the creamed mixture.

Refrigerate for two to three hours (apparently it means this).  Probably best to cover the bowl with some plastic wrap, too.

Divide dough in half.  Cover a pastry board with cloth (tea towel tucked under worked nicely) and flour the cloth.  Roll out to 3/16 of an inch thick.  Cut into 2 to 2 ½ inch rounds or whatever shape you like.  I just grabbed a drinking glass which turned out to be 3 inches and ended up with 42 cookies, I think.  They’re mostly gone now….

Place some distance apart (but they don’t spread that much) on greased or parchment-lined cookie sheets.  Bake in a preheated 375 oven for 7 to 8 minutes.  The bottoms should be turning golden brown.

Should make 5 dozen 2-inch cookies but I’ve never in my life had that happen.  I got 42 3-inch.  If they were a half again bigger, I should have had 45, I think – math and I are not friends – which is actually closer to the recipe-stated numbers than I usually get.  And I didn’t eat more than half a tablespoon of dough, because it’s sweeter than I like.  That didn’t stop me from eating the cookies.

Citrus Peel or Rounds

Short of making two variations of Shaker Lemon Pies and tossing out the pie part, I’d try dredging the thin sliced lemon and orange rounds under enough sugar to nicely cover them in a medium sized nonreactive mixing bowl.  Chill overnight and let me know what you decide to do with the vaguely crusty lemon and orange flavored sugar that will be left over.

You could take another step and briefly bake these as if they were the top of a pie, following the directions for the pies in the blog entry linked above.

Another option: try making candied peel and using that – this is my favorite recipe for candied citrus peel from Martha Stewart.

If you try them, let me know the results in the comments!

Sour Cream Coffee Cake

 

My sister used to make the world’s best coffee cakes.  They managed to be moist without being cloying, and to have just the right sweetness without being cake.  A breakfast treat for weekends, with the sour cream lending a tang.

I don’t know what her knack is but I don’t have it.  This is a family recipe and it’s easy but time-consuming – if you want this fresh and hot for breakfast, at least give yourself a jumpstart by laying out the ingredients the night before and starting what you can.  Maybe soften the butter, or even mix the butter and sugar, and crack the eggs into a separate bowl to avoid those pesky shell bits and not have to take the time in the morning.

Even so, it takes a while and inexplicably doesn’t seem to know how long it bakes.  Whoever it was who recorded it in the family indicated 350 for the oven and must have had high altitude amounts in place, because there was no problem with that – the cakes rose just fine and didn’t fall.  But the directions say to bake for 30 to 60 minutes – that’s a very broad difference in time.  Kind of like someone took a guess.

I think this recipe could benefit from some experimentation.  It’s lightly sweet, which I suppose coffee cake is meant to be, and it has a nice open crumb.  It just needs something to go with – hot chocolate, maybe.  Or strawberries gently steeped in powdered sugar and poured over.  Or blackberries.  Or maybe I just don’t quite get coffee cake.

It makes two loaves, and goes stale quickly, despite the moist interior (or maybe because of it).  I’m planning to wrap the second loaf in freezer or parchment paper and a thick zipper-close plastic freezer bag and freeze it until the day comes I need bread pudding.  That day will more likely be deep winter than deep summer.

Serve this with thick, dark coffee or clean, sweet breakfast tea, dress it up with fruit or drown it under cream – and let me know what works for you if you try it.

Makes 2 loaves

Need 2 loaf pans, greased and floured (I greased and floured my nonstick as well as my old metal pan)

The Batter

This is a super thick batter, because the liquid all comes from the eggs and the sour cream.

¾ cup of salted butter (1 ½ sticks), softened

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

3 cups flour

1 ½ teaspoons baking soda

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt (preferably sea salt)

3 eggs

1 ½ teaspoons vanilla

1 ½ cups sour cream

The Crumb Topping and Middle

1 cup brown sugar, packed

4 teaspoons cinnamon

½ cup flour

 

Preheat oven to 350.

Cream together the butter and sugar.  Add the eggs and vanilla and beat until blended.

Mix together the dry ingredients and add alternately with sour cream, beginning and ending with the dry.  This is a thick, creamy batter that comes out of the mixer bowl in thick spoonsful.

 

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This is the halfway point. From here sprinkle the crumb topping and then top with batter and more topping.

Grease and flour 2 regular size loaf pans.  Spoon ¼ of the batter into each pan, then sprinkle ¼ of the crumb topping over the batter.  Top with the remainder of the batter.  You’ll have to gentle it over the crumb mixture, and if rubber spatulas work for you, that’s your best bet.  For me, a wooden spoon, as rubber spatulas seem more trouble than they’re worth.  Divide the remaining crumb topping between the two loaves and sprinkle evenly over.

 

Bake in 350 oven for 30 to 60 minutes, my instructions say.  At 30 minutes batter still clung uncooked on the toothpick.  At 45 minutes they were abruptly and perfectly done.

Best eaten once cooled.  Place the hot pans on a wire rack but it may not work to remove the coffee cakes – mine just bent and tried to dissolve into crumbs.  The first piece, warm, was good, but nothing to get ecstatic about.  The second piece, now, when it’s two hours out of the oven, is heavenly.  So maybe best served cooled.

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My office assistant doesn’t like coffee cake but can dress up any post. 

 

 

 

 

Is your pesto the best-o?

Remember when Phoebe Buffay asks that of Monica’s sous chef Tim in Friends? Tim answers that he doesn’t know if it’s the best-o but it’s pretty good-o.

I love Friends. I also love my own weird version of pesto, about two times a year, and then I’m done.

Pesto is a weird choice for me.  I’m not crazy about garlic and I hate pine nuts, which I understand are in a lot of traditional pesto recipes.  Not only do I not care for things that taste like the rosin I used to put on my violin bow (yes, I “played” violin, but never well, and I was only 11 at the time and can be forgiven for the noises I produced, which are probably still out there orbiting the planet, frightening people), but I hate the idea that pine nuts can actually alter the way you taste food.  Permanently. I read that somewhere. Even if it wasn’t true, I’m taking no chances.

So here’s my take on the summertime, kelly green treat.  I love this with toasted sourdough baguette or just a chunk pulled from the loaf and not toasted.

Non-Traditional Pesto

1/3 cup olive oil (I’m really not picky and grab cheap brands)

1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese (not the type that comes already grated – it’s missing something)

1/4 cup chopped parsley

1/2 cup chopped fresh basil (does anything smell more wonderful?)

1/2 teaspoon garlic salt

1/2 teaspoon salt (optional; my last batch was a little too salty and parmesan is also salty)

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg (fresh grated is nice but not mandatory)

Throw everything into a blender and pulse until it’s nicely combined.  Eventually the oil will come back out of the mix, but olive oil by itself with fresh cracked black pepper makes a nice dipping sauce for bread, so not really a problem.  Plus you can always just scoop the oil back in with the other ingredients with the bread.  Messy and easy for a summer lunch with maybe leftover barbecued chicken or steak, and maybe a bunch of green grapes.

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Summer is for Salsa

August got here way too soon.  I could live all year in summer, hiking in the desert foothills at dawn, sitting out, directly in the sun during “severe heat warning” afternoons.  Watching sudden “flash flood warning” thunderstorms.  Watching the mini-bunnies grow up.

And going to the farmer’s market.  Made it on Saturday, which I don’t always — there’s always stuff to do and getting up in time on Saturday is a challenge.

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Last Saturday I was lured out by the promise of fat, ripe tomatoes and big yellow onions and fresh sweet corn.  In the last 20 days I’ve done a 10-day cycle of juice cleanse, my first ever, which I think I may have done wrong, because I enjoyed it and used my blender for the juicing itself.  This was followed by 10 days of Atkins induction, which I’m just finishing, but with the addition of fresh fruit — it’s summer.

Saturday was the break.  I came home with quite the bounty, and put together a simple lunch out of the fresh produce and various cheeses already on hand.

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Fresh salsa and chips with chicken for dinner.  My favorite salsa is fresh, chunky, all the flavors married by sitting together and mingling, exploding at each bite. Rick prefers the blended salsa, everything pureed into a colorful near-liquid.  So I do both, making the salsa as one and splitting the batch in half: part left chunky, part pureed.

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This is simple, sunny and tasty.  Before serving, and before blending a portion, I pour the whole of it into a fine mesh strainer to remove most of the liquid.  What drains in the collection bowl may be eye-wateringly spicy from jalapeno, but tastes like a fresh, rather wonderful V-8 (even better, in my opinion, because there’s no overwhelming taste of bell pepper).

Simple Salsa

Fat ripe summer tomatoes, not Roma style – mix up colors if you want

Yellow onion

Jalapeno

Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Fresh cilantro to taste

Fresh oregano optional

Halve the tomatoes and squeeze out the juice, collecting it for some other recipe or just as fresh tomato juice if seeds don’t bother you. Chop the tomato into rough bites – my pieces are around half an inch in size.

Yellow onion to taste. I like to halve a big fat farmer’s market yellow onion, skin it and cut it into roughly quarter inch pieces.

Jalapeno – I use one to two, depending on how much they make my eyes water and how numb my lips go from tasting one. I generally leave out about 80 percent of the seeds — I like the taste of salsa; I don’t want to seer my tonsils.

Mix the vegetables in a medium sized glass or nonreactive bowl.  Cut cilantro and oregano, if using, into shreds and mix into the vegetables.  Sea salt and black pepper to taste.

Cover with plastic wrap so everything else in the refrigerator doesn’t end up tasting like onion and jalapeno, and let cool and mingle until you’re ready to drain and either puree or just eat as is.

To me, this is the taste of summer.

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Floury Baps

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Floury baps evolved over time for me.  There are so many recipes to make and so many variations on the same item – like the baps – there has to be something special to make me go back and try something a second time.

The first time I made baps I used a recipe from one of my favorite bread books.  Despite that, it didn’t turn out to be my favorite recipe for them.  They were dry and too floury – kind of grainy, definitely blah.

But I really wanted them to turn out.  I wanted to split them in half and load in a fried egg and some bacon and despite the similarity to certain fast food breakfast treats, this actually turned out when I used the second recipe – from Ultimate Bread by Eric Treuille and Ursula Ferrigno (1998, a DK Publishing Book).  My variations are minor, meant to reflect the dryness of the desert and the speeded-up rising and baking times of 5000 feet.

The second time I tried these was about a week into May. The Sierra still wore a considerable amount of snow.  Which wouldn’t be noteworthy, except this past Monday the foothills at the end of my street were covered once again in snow.  On June 12. Today the North Valleys will hit 88 degrees.

I love my desert.

As for the baps, apparently they’re meant to be slathered in jam, or opened and filled with cream.  I can see filling them with clotted or whipped cream and fresh, lightly sugared berries, too, though I haven’t tried that yet.

But the fried egg and bacon version was excellent.  So was baking them with grated cheddar inside.  So was loading one with a slice of cooked sausage (the kind that comes in a roll, ready to slice and cook) and a little cheese.

Baps aren’t all that sweet, so I’m not sure why they couldn’t be stuffed with a mix of lentils, corn and salsa, or be used as a sandwich wrap, or be filled with sliced black olives and tomatoes and sprinkled with oregano, other than the fact that might be messy as the filling spills back out.

¾ cup warm water

¾ cup room temperature milk + more for glaze

2 teaspoons active dry yeast (not rapid rise)

1 teaspoon sugar

3 ½ cups unbleached flour

1 ½ teaspoons fine sea salt

Combine the milk and water in a measuring cup.  Pour one half of the liquid into a smaller bowl.  Sprinkle yeast and sugar over top and let stand for 5 minutes.

Mix 2 ½ cups of the flour and all the salt in a large bowl.  Form a well in the center and pour in the mixed liquid, sugar and yeast.  Draw in as much flour as necessary to form a sticky dough.  Stir in remaining liquid as needed.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board.  I use part of the reserved 1 cup flour for dusting the board and kneading into the bread.  When I’m kneading and the dough stops pulling the flour from the board and my hands, it’s time to slow down adding more.  I’ve found while baking yeast breads in the desert that my best loaves come about from doughs that still cling just a little damply to my hands.  Still the soft rounded look of the dough, and they’re not leaving sticky patches or pulling off, but just slightly tacky or damp.

Knead the dough for 5-10 minutes, as long as it feels elastic and smooth.

Leave the dough in a clean bowl covered with a clean dish towel.  Allow to rise in a warm place until doubled, roughly 45 minutes at 5000 feet.

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When the dough has risen, punch it down and allow it to rest on the board for 10 minutes, then separate into 8 pieces.  Gently form into soft ovals and flatten slightly with your hand as you put them on a greased or parchment-lined cookie sheet.

Brush with milk and give each a heavy sifting of flour.  Allow to rise, uncovered, for 30 to 45 minutes or until doubled in size.  Mine took a really long time to rise, but that was subjective and because I forgot them – I was making devil’s food cupcakes and an olive thyme baguette at the same time.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Dust with flour again, then bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until lightly golden.  When first out of the oven, cover the baps on the tray with a clean dish towel for 10 minutes.  Then remove towel and move baps to a wire rack.

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Olive Thyme Baguette

I could live on bread and cheese.  With apples and grapes thrown in. During the summer, the hottest weather (my favorite time of year, the hotter the better) that’s what I eat a lot of the time – some kind of bread, cheese sometimes, grapes and apples, water with ice and maybe some lemon.  Sourdoughs are my favorite breads, but I’m still learning how to make an actually sour sourdough (I’ve used all kinds of starters and made good breads – they’re just not sour).

Several years ago I found a recipe for an olive bread that was made in a ring shape and may or may not have had thyme in it.  I can’t remember.  What I do remember is that it sounded heavenly and I made it several times before giving up.  The bread refused to rise.  Sometimes it refused to cook.  There’s something impressive about dough that refuses to finish in an over that’s over 400 degrees – how can it just refuse to bake? How is that even possible?

When I got tired of playing with the recipe and was still longing for something like it, I played around and developed this one.  It’s never failed me and offers up a substitution of a rosemary bread without olives if you choose.  The rosemary bread is good toasted, or not toasted and with butter, or without butter but with cheese.  The olive bread is fantastic just the way it is.

2 cups all purpose flour + ½ cup reserved

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 package yeast (not rapid rise)

1 cup very warm water

1 cup chopped or sliced Kalamata olives, drained (black olives are also good)

Several sprigs of fresh thyme

In a large bowl, combine 2 cups flour with sugar, salt and yeast.  Mix together and make a well in the center.

Stir in the cup of warm water, mixing with a wooden spoon until the dough leaves the sides of the bowl and clings to itself in a sticky loaf.

Turn out onto a floured board – I use the reserved flour to flour the board in order to measure how much flour I’m adding to the dough.  Knead for 5 to 10 minutes, depending on how the dough feels, and add flour by judicious handfuls if the dough is too sticky.  Dough should be just damp enough to stick to the fingers but go back to itself rather than sticking in chunks to your hands.  If it seems to be getting to dry, just keep kneading on one of the less floury sections of board – it should absorb the extra flour and become supple and smooth again.

Place dough in a clean, greased bowl and spin it so all sides are greased.  Cover with a clean dish towel or plastic wrap and leave to rise in a warm place.  First rise will take approximately 45 minutes at high altitude.

When dough is doubled in size, move it to a scraped and re-floured board and gently punch it down.  Let rest for 10 minutes.

Shape the dough into an oval, patting it to about 3/4 –inch thickness with your fingers.  Cover the surface with the chopped olives the way you’d cover dough for cinnamon buns.  Snip the thyme leaves or pull them from the stems, dropping them along the olives.

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Roll up to form a long baguette, tucking the ends under.  This can rise on a baguette pan, which are usually perforated to allow heat to get through at all angles and create a lovely crunchy crust, or on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, preferably without sides.  Allow to rise until double.

Bake at 425 25 to 30 minutes.  Check the loaf at 20 minutes and cover if it’s browning too fast.  Spraying the loaf or the oven with water when the loaf first goes in will create a crispier crust (avoid the lightbulb at all costs – I once made one explode doing this and had to start all over after cooling the oven and cleaning out all the broken glass).  Or brush the loaf with a whipped egg white.

The rosemary alternative substitutes finely chopped rosemary leaves for thyme and leaves out the olives.  It bakes the same, though almost always has an egg white glaze and some rosemary leaves (or are they called needles?) decoratively arranged.  The rosemary version is wonderful with barbecued or lemon-stuffed chicken.

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