Over the last few weeks, I have had more than my fair share of extravagant food for one: More pounds of asparagus than I care to admit have passed through my kitchen as I chopped and cooked, mixed and measured, tweaked and twiddled, before finally settling on a recipe, only to discard it the next day. I have a shelf full of goodies that I bought for the sole purpose of cooking an entire recipe to take 3-4 bites (and, when I couldn't freeze it, throw it away before I ate it all), before repeating it the net day - the food waste around here lately is appalling! Tomorrow's agenda includes baking a chocolate cake, not because I have a party this weekend, oh, no, this is going to sit here and taunt me for however long it takes me to eat it...one teensy little slice at a time.
But other days, days like today, I spend the entire day with my head down over a computer, only to look up as the sun drops behind the hill wondering how it got to be dusk. Days when my 'break' from the computer, such as it is, involves a stack of paper covered with red squiggles. Days when, if I am smart, I start with something that will keep me going all day.
Something like this: simple, old-fashioned oatmeal, cooked with 1/4 cup of apple cider and a sprinkle of cinnamon in the cooking water. I put it in a beautiful blue bowl that fits in the curve of my hand (50 cents at Goodwill!), top it with a drizzle of manuka honey and I have food so comfortable it darned near hugs me.
I am a big fan of food that delivers showy results with a reasonable amount of effort. I like food that scares people even better. I don't mean "scares" like some of the stuff that Steve eats - that just weirds me out - but rather stuff that scares the cook, not the eater. Like soufflés.
Soufflés can definitely be intimidating, even though they consist of two dead simple parts: a simple white sauce that functions as a base and a mound of stiffly-beaten egg whites. The base provides all of the flavor and the whites elevate the dish, literally, above the simple ingredients. Combine the two, however, and even experienced cooks cringe.
Many questions have plagued humankind for eons:
One might wonder how dull my day was to spend it hunting down the answer to such a question, and one might be right. In my defense, however, that's not what I started out to do...
If I had to pick one word for my life the last while, it would have to be scattered. Just as one crazy thing is brought under control, the next careens into view. Like garlic butter in your cake pan. Or a teetering stack of biscuits.
One of my surest cures for scattered is bread. As I gather the bits of ragged dough and knead them together into a cohesive whole, I am, likewise, remade just a bit, my loose edges reintegrated and all that. It's one of my favorite meditative states.
For a number of years now, I have been fortunate enough to live in a house that had blueberry bushes in the garden. Right now I have about eight bushes, which having been attentively pruned and tended since we arrived, are now producing about a gallon each. That is enough to let us enjoy blueberry treats for several months, put up a dozen pints of blueberry habanero chutney, and still have a gallon or two in the freezer so I can make muffins to stave off the mid-winter no-fresh-fruit doldrums. In fact, I probably have enough berries for one more batch of muffins before I run out. Not bad for the end of February.
Most people would see this as the embarrassment of riches that it is, but I am utterly spoiled by our last house, which had a blueberry orchard! Two patches, each holding a five-by-five square of high-bush blueberries, kept us (and our friends) in berries all year. Each June found me in a race to empty the freezer of the previous year's harvest in time to make room for the berries that weighed down the fragile looking twiggy branches just outside my kitchen window.
This wealth also led me to an ongoing quest for the perfect blueberry muffin. During the heavy berrying season of late summer, when I could fill my basket in less time than it took the oven to preheat, I baked muffins weekly. (Remember what I said about berries for friends? I ate far too many muffins myself, but I did share!) This quest, however tasty, has proven fruitless-well, as fruitless as something involving gallons of berries could be-as I determined that there is no such critter as the perfect blueberry muffin.
Maybe I can blame it on my age. When I was a child, muffins were relatively dense and dry little things; tasty, but not particularly sweet or rich. Then sometime in the eighties, a transformation occurred. Muffins grew, more than doubling in size until one could be shared between two people who knew each other well enough to breakfast together. That wonderful rustic crumb, perhaps weighed down by the sheer bulk of the salad plate sized behemoths muffins had become, collapsed into a sugar-laden little cake-truly the only thing missing is the frosting. (I fear there is an entire generation of young people growing up who will think that the cakelets at every drive-through espresso stand are real muffins...but that's my own personal nightmare.)
My favorite recipe straddles the line between the two versions, making a reliable, middle-of-the-road muffin: not too sweet and with a fairly "old-fashioned" crumb...but not too dry. It's a very good muffin and I can make it in my sleep. More importantly, many other people seem to be able to make it in theirs.
What I really love about this recipe, however, is its flexibility. It can be simply varied to produce a muffin that is adapted to your particular taste and demands of the occasion. If I need a fancier more dessert-like version, I increase the sugar and top them with cinnamon sugar. Less rich muffins come from a reduction in sour cream while richer ones from a change to full-fat sour cream. Flavor changes come from citrus zest and/or spices. And you can always add a handful of chopped nuts or even change the kind of berries you use.
makes one dozen normal muffins (or 5-6 huge ones)
sugar, 1/2 cup / 3 1/2 ounces / 100 grams
butter, melted and cooled, 3 tablespoons / 1 1/2 ounces / 42 grams
low-fat sour cream, 1 1/4 cups / 10 3/4 ounces / 300 grams
all-purpose flour, 1 3/4 cups / 7 7/8 ounces / 220 grams
baking powder, 2 teaspoons
baking soda, 1 teaspoon
salt, 1/8 teaspoon
blueberries, 1 1/2 cups / 6 3/4 ounces / 189 grams (if fresh, simply wash; if frozen,leave in freezer until you are ready to use them)
Preheat oven to 375°. Have all ingredients, except frozen blueberries, at room temperature. Prepare muffin pan with paper cup liners.
The difference in nutritional data from the main recipe is included in parentheses, and is per muffin. (so you can decide just how badly you want to swap out that low-fat sour cream).
Like many of my recipes, this came together from ingredients that happened to be on hand at the time and my vague idea of a desired flavor. I was making a simple, and oddly summery, lunch (a huge salad, prawns in sage butter, and fresh focaccia) for guests and wanted something a bit more appropriately seasonal to go with the snow that still lingers outside.
My other requirement for this dessert was simplicity. One bowl and one pan was just about right. If it did not require a trip to the store, so much the better. At this point, I was leaning towards brownies...again. I've made so many batches of brownies lately that I am sort of tired of chocolate. (as if) In any case, brownies clearly wasn't it.
Back to winter flavors. In Washington state, winter means apples. In my house last week, apples meant applesauce. Not a bad start. Applesauce cake fit the bill. Right season, ingredients on hand, one bowl, and one pan. One problem. Somewhat lacking in magic. You know: Not. Very. Exciting.
evenTinierTown's only bakery has a for sale sign in front of the darkened building. Sad but true. What's sadder is that I never had one of their legendary maple bars during the brief time they were reopened — and by brief, I mean perhaps as long as six months. Since the building's for sale, I doubt there will be another bakery sprouting up there anytime soon. sigh
Looking for the silver lining, I decided it's time to master a few things I've somehow gotten away without learning so far. I'm pretty fearless when it comes to grabbing a recipe and going for it, but every time I've approached laminated doughs (those being the rich, butter-layered ones used for things like croissants and danish) I've had to make some urgent phone call or another. There's something about all that rolling and chilling and rolling again that's just intimidating. But what's a mage to do? The nearest bakery is an hour away...something had to give. First on the list is danish. With any luck it'll be followed by croissants and maybe even doughnuts someday...but first the danish.
Ahhh, fall. Here in Washington state, where even the intra-college football rivalry pays homage to fall fruit with the Apple Cup, autumn means apples. As the berries fade to memory, apples step into the void, offering one last chance to capture that ineffable summerness of local fresh fruit before the edge in the air get seriously cold.
One of my favorite fall appleThings is muffins. Quick and simple to make, they are multi-purpose, fitting for everything from breakfast pastry to late-night snack for munching during the Daily Show. Sprinkle a little extra cinnamon sugar on them and it's almost dessert; add a bit of ice cream or a drizzle of liqueur--or both--and it truly is.