This cake is brought to you by your local library

Thirty minutes alone in the library, and look what treasures I brought home! Our local library is a wonderful place, and never more so than on Tuesday mornings when they have “On Our Own” story time for three-year-olds. That means you slap a nametag on your child and hand him off to a smiling librarian to join in stories, singing and stickers while you dash downstairs to indulge in half an hour of quiet time ALONE in the adult section.

I haven’t had a chance to crack all of these books yet, but I managed a couple chapters of Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life, and already found half a dozen recipes to try in Melissa Clark’s In the Kitchen with A Good Appetite. Without even getting through the table of contents, I stopped at “Whole Wheat Cinnamon Snacking Cake” and got to work. I confess, I may have had visions of cheerful, well-mannered children snacking on cake while willingly doing their homework. A good recipe is more than a set of instructions, after all. It’s an attempt to turn an abstract vision into something concrete, something you can taste.

This recipe was true to its promise. Tempers were soothed, arguments forgotten, all at the mere mention of cake. And it provided enough fuel to draw pictures and write sentences (in our best kindergarten spelling!) about red-eyed tree frogs and mango-eating orangutans, and finish molding a peninsula out of floral foam for that second grade social studies project.

I am happy to eat a cake like this unadorned–the nutty whole wheat flavor and subtle cinnamon go nicely with a cup of tea–but the recipe also suggests a variation with streusel, turning it into more of a coffee cake. That sounds good, too, doesn’t it?

The recipe calls for yogurt, but the cake is richer than other yogurt cakes I’ve tried, thanks to the addition of three eggs and some melted butter. I didn’t make a single change to the recipe, so I don’t feel comfortable copying it here outright. I suggest you request In the Kitchen with Good Appetite from your own library, and see what other recipes sound good to you. I already tried the Pan-Roasted Asparagus (topped with garlicky breadcrumbs and a fried egg)….mmmmmm. We had it for dinner, but wouldn’t that be good for brunch?

(Due to a sinus infection that just won’t quit–though I think the antibiotics are finally doing their job–I started this post over a week ago and only now managed to complete it! In the meantime, I’ve made several other tasty things I hope to share with you. Orange Upside-Down Gingerbread, anyone? You’ll have to make it yourself–we ate it all up!)

Coconut chocolate pudding

Sorry, Aunt Virginia, you’ll just have to wait for the next recipe. This one’s only for coconut lovers!

Here’s what happened. Valentine’s Day fell on a Monday, and I had not yet planned my week’s menus. What to do, what to do? I had a bad cold and Little Three was flirting with a fever, so there wasn’t going to be any dash out to the store to pick up some special ingredients. So I thought about chocolate pudding. Rich enough for Valentine’s Day, comforting enough for a sick day. But all I had was skim milk, and I worried that the pudding wouldn’t set well. After reading half a dozen recipes and consulting the pantry, I combined them all and came up with this version. I have to say, I think it was a stroke of genius.  Both the chocolate and the coconut flavors come through, and the crunchy toasted coconut on top is a nice contrast to the creamy pudding. It’s very rich, so next time I will serve it in smaller cups.

 (In case you were wondering, I made chicken noodle soup for dinner. Not your standard Valentine’s Day dinner, but hey, it made me feel warm inside!)

Coconut Chocolate Pudding

1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/8 tsp. salt
2 T. Dutch process cocoa
1 14-oz. can coconut milk
1 cup milk
6 oz. semi-sweet chocolate (I used chocolate chips)
½ tsp. coconut extract
1/2 cup shredded coconut
Whisk sugar, cornstarch, salt and cocoa together in a large, heavy saucepan.  With the heat at medium-high, slowly pour in the milk and coconut milk, whisking thoroughly until smooth.  Keep stirring frequently until the mixture begins to bubble.  Turn the heat down to low, and keep stirring until the pudding has thickened (this only takes a minute or two).  Stir in the chocolate until melted and smooth.  Turn off the heat and stir in the coconut extract.  Transfer the warm pudding to a serving bowl or individual cups or ramekins.  Cover each with a circle of wax paper right on the surface of the pudding, then cover them all with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until cold and set, at least an hour.

Spread the shredded coconut into a thin layer in a sheet pan and toast in a 375 degree oven for 10-15 minutes, or until golden brown. Keep an eye on it–it goes from toasted to burnt in a matter of seconds! Garnish the pudding with a spoonful of toasted coconut.

Makes about 8 servings (1/2 cup each).


Aside from the occasional brush with the Swedish variety, I didn’t grow up eating meatballs very often. But then I had kids, and eventually discovered that the one way they will all eat meat is in meatball form. Needless to say, meatballs are now a regular feature at our dinner table. I used to buy frozen turkey meatballs, which are certainly fine in a pinch, but they’re not as tender as homemade, and they can be expensive. And once I discovered a fuss-free method (no frying, flipping or scrubbing the stove!) for cooking the meatballs (inspired by Cooks’ Illustrated), the little investment of time in making them was definitely worth it.

This is not so much a recipe as a method. For each pound of ground meat (beef, pork, veal, turkey, or any combination thereof), add one crumbled piece of sandwich bread soaked in 1/3 cup of milk or cream, and various seasonings. If you have some extra time, finely chop 1/2 an onion and a couple cloves of garlic, and sauté them in a bit of olive oil until soft before adding them to the meat. Otherwise, sprinkle in some garlic powder and onion powder. If you’re going to serve your meatballs with marinara sauce, add some Italian seasoning (1 tsp.) and maybe a little fennel seed (1/2 tsp). If you’re making a brown gravy, a couple shakes of Worcestershire sauce are nice. For Swedish meatballs, add a pinch of nutmeg or mace, and a little dill.

Mix everything together well (get your hands in there!), and roll into 1 1/2-inch meatballs. You can certainly make bigger ones, but much smaller than that and they dry out. Put a cooling rack on top of a sheet pan (line it with foil for easier clean up) and spray the rack with nonstick spray (or brush it with vegetable oil). Line up the meatballs on the rack and bake in a 400 degree oven for about 20 minutes, until browned. Transfer meatballs to a pot of the sauce of your choice and heat through.

This batch was for Eight’s birthday dinner: meatball sub sandwiches. They have a little surprise inside: a cheesy center! I rolled them with 1/2-inch pieces of mozzarella tucked in the center. Three or four sticks of string cheese are perfect for this.

I like this meal for so many reasons. It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t enjoy it (vegetarian friends excepted, of course). It’s great for a party or a busy weeknight or when you’re expecting houseguests with an uncertain ETA. Just keep the meatballs simmering in their sauce in a deep pot on the stove, or better yet, the slow cooker. Make a salad, cook up some pasta, or set out a big basket of submarine rolls, and then pour a glass of wine and put your feet up until it’s time for dinner. (I realize that’s just a fantasy. But you can go scrub the bathroom or crack the homework whip or check your email without worrying about burning the food!)


Chicken tortilla casserole

As you may have heard, we’ve been having a little bit of a snow day here in Chicago. It’s been a full day’s work just to shovel out the driveway (I only took one turn, and I’m not sure when my abdominal muscles will recover). If you’re snowbound, too, you might have the ingredients for this 1980’s style casserole on hand. Or maybe you can have chicken for dinner tonight and save the leftovers to make this tomorrow. We just got the call that school is canceled again, so it would be good to have another dinner already planned.

I know casseroles are impossibly old-fashioned, un-hip even. But let’s just call the casserole “retro,” and acknowledge that it has several things going for it: 1) You can make it ahead (freeze it, even!), bake it later; 2) It’s a great way to recycle leftover chicken and the three bags of crumbled tortilla chips hiding in the pantry; and 3) The kids might eat it!

I eliminated the condensed cream of chicken soup from the original recipe and instead made a tasty white sauce as the base. The day before, I made a large roast chicken in the slow cooker (Fauxtisserie Chicken), and there were about 4 cups of diced chicken left after I picked the meat off the carcass. I put all the bones back into the slow cooker, covered it with water, and cooked it on high for 4 hours. (Usually I put it on low for 8 hours overnight.) Anyway, by the next day I had lots of chicken and chicken broth to use for this meal, and more for the freezer. I like to stretch my $4 chicken as far as possible.
I made our casserole very mild (the salsa said “medium,” but it seemed mild even to me), but you could add some jalapeños or hot sauce if you like things spicy.
Chicken Tortilla Casserole

2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 cups chicken broth
3 Tbsp. flour
1 cup milk (skim works just fine)
2 cups diced cooked chicken
3/4 cup green salsa
1 1/2 cups shredded cheese (I used a 4-cheese Mexican blend, but cheddar or Jack are fine)
3/4 bag of tortilla chips

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large sauce pan and add the chopped onion. When the onion starts to look soft and translucent, add the garlic. Stir for a minute, and then stir in the flour.  Cook for another minute, and then whisk in 2 cups of chicken broth and 1 cup of milk. Raise the heat to medium high and cook, stirring frequently, until the sauce begins to bubble and thicken. Add salt and pepper to taste. Turn the heat off and stir in the salsa and diced chicken.

In a large baking dish (9″x13″ or something similar), put a layer of slightly crushed tortilla chips. Drizzle about 1/2 cup of broth over the chips.  Spread 1/3 of the chicken and sauce mixture over the chips.  Sprinkle 1/2 cup shredded cheese on top.  Repeat these layers twice more, ending with a final layer of cheese.  Cover the baking dish tightly with foil. Refrigerate or freeze if you’re assembling the casserole ahead of time.

Bake at 350 degrees for about an hour (perhaps longer if you’ve refrigerated the casserole).  Keep the foil on for the first 45 minutes, and then remove it and bake until the cheese bubbles and the edges begin to brown.

Serve with rice (I made brown rice), and some extra salsa or sour cream if you like. The kids ate a little rice, but mostly scooped up the casserole with more tortilla chips, as if it were a hot dip. They were eating and not complaining, so I kept quiet and ate my dinner in peace.

Melting pot menus: quick posole

Though I know many serious foodies (or foodies who take themselves too seriously) harbor a not-so-secret disdain for Rachael Ray, I admit to being a fan. Sure, she shouts at the camera, but I appreciate her approach: uncomplicated, home-cooked food that you can get on the table with maximum flavor and a minimum of fuss. No coordinated tablescapes, no canned frosting–just good food that brings your family together.

Here’s a quick version of a traditional Mexican stew that was happily slurped up at our table. A certain eight-year-old even had seconds. It’s comfort food for a cold winter night. If you like chicken noodle soup, it’s not much of a stretch to try this hearty stew. I like the balance of the smoky pork and cumin flavors with the brightness of the tomatillo salsa and lime juice. And if you can believe it, I streamlined Rachael Ray’s recipe (she makes her own salsa from fresh tomatillos, while I just use jarred salsa)!

The aforementioned eight-year-old is making a family coat of arms for a school project this week. All by himself, he decided our family motto should be: “Never underestimate the power of food!” It’s reassuring to know that family values really are passed on at the dinner table.

Quick Posole
adapted from Rachael Ray’s 30-Minute Meals

1 1/2 lbs boneless pork loin chops, diced in 1-inch pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 T. ground cumin
1 tsp. dried oregano (or fresh, if you have it)

1 tsp. dried thyme (again, fresh if you have it)

1 cup green salsa
1 large (28-oz.) can hominy, rinsed and drained
6 cups chicken broth
2 limes

Toppings: shredded cheese, sour cream, chopped cilantro, chopped scallions, broken tortilla chips or baked tortilla strips

In a large pot or Dutch oven, brown the pork in a couple tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. When the pork is mostly browned on all sides, add the onion and garlic. Reduce heat to medium and cook until the onions are translucent. Add the cumin,oregano, thyme and salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the salsa, hominy and broth. Bring the stew to a simmer and let it simmer gently for about 15 minutes (or more…just put the lid on the pot so the liquid doesn’t all cook away). Just before serving, stir in the juice of one or two limes, to your taste.

Ladle the stew into bowls and let everyone choose their own toppings!

Melting pot menus: sesame noodles

As I veer off the baking path, I thought I’d share some recipes that are great weeknight meals. Inspired by the cuisines of other countries, these are certainly not authentic, but I think in their own way they are truly American. Where better to celebrate the melting pot of our nation than at the dinner table?

Today’s Asian-inspired noodle dish can be a side dish or a meal in itself. I usually supplement it with steamed and salted edamame (the kids won’t eat peas, but they’ll eat a great bowlful of edamame!), and maybe some potstickers or other dumplings from the frozen food aisle (Trader Joe’s has some decent ones, as does our local Asian market). Once we even served these noodles in little cardboard takeout containers for a party! They are best served at room temperature, so they’re perfect for a buffet or a lunchbox (and for kids who don’t like their food too hot or too cold). And once you stock your pantry with the basic ingredients, you can add this recipe to your repertoire of quick pantry meals that you rely on when you don’t have a meal plan (or your plan falls apart, as often happens around here!). Adjust the proportions to your taste…spice it up with more chili oil, add more soy sauce or vinegar, or substitute soy nut butter if you have peanut allergies to contend with.

Sesame Noodles
adapted from New Recipes from Moosewood Restaurant

1 lb. soba (buckwheat) noodles
1/2 cup peanut butter (add 1 T. brown sugar if using natural peanut butter)
1/2 cup tahini
1/4 cup hot water
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup toasted sesame oil
1/2 tsp. chili oil
3 T. toasted sesame seeds
3 scallions, sliced

Optional: 1 cucumber, seeded and diced; 1 cup fresh bean sprouts; 1/2 cup shredded carrots

Bring a large pot of water to the boil and cook the noodles according to package directions (usually 5-6 minutes). Set aside 1/2 cup of the hot pasta water.  Drain and rinse the noodles.

In a large bowl, whisk together peanut butter, tahini and hot water until smooth. Whisk in soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil and chili oil. Add some of the reserved pasta water, a few tablespoons at a time, to thin the dressing. Add the cooked noodles to the bowl and toss gently until coated. Garnish with toasted sesame seeds and scallions. Serve with cucumber, bean sprouts and carrots (I like to keep them separate, both for the picky eaters and because leftovers store better separately).

Coming soon: Quick Posole (Pork and hominy stew)

Brown sugar bars (with oatmeal and coconut)

Here’s another one for the “I Need a Cookie and I Need it NOW” file. From Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, it’s a base recipe that invites endless variation. Today’s version is Oatmeal Coconut Bars, but tomorrow’s could be Chocolate Chip Walnut Bars, or Cherry Almond, or White Chocolate Macadamia, or Leftover Halloween Candy Bars, or all of the above. Use your imagination. It’s like Mary Poppins’ bottomless carpet bag: it will accommodate more than you think it will.

Another virtue of this recipe is that it only makes enough for an 8-inch square pan–just enough to eat up before they begin to get stale (or guilt sets in). On the other hand, it doubles nicely in a 9×13 pan, or even in a 10×15 sheet pan (cut them really small for a big party tray).

And just to gild the lily, you can make this in a single mixing bowl! Don’t dirty the mixer–you’ll want to dig right into these gooey bars and you don’t need a sink full of dirty dishes to postpone your pleasure.

Brown Sugar Bars (or Blondies)
from How to Cook Everything

8 Tbsp. melted butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla (or almond extract)
1/4 tsp. salt
1 cup all-purpose flour

Optional additions:  1/2-3/4 cup each of chocolate chips, oatmeal, shredded coconut, chopped nuts, dried fruits, etc.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Melt the butter in a microwave-safe bowl. Beat in brown sugar, egg, vanilla and salt with a wooden spoon until smooth. Add flour and stir until just incorporated. Stir in whichever additions you choose. Press dough into a greased 8×8 pan (my trick is to spray my fingers with nonstick spray and quickly press the dough flat) and bake for 20-25 minutes, until golden brown and set in the middle.

Oven baked fries

Another simple dinner:  fish and chips.  The fries are homemade, the fish is from a box (a fabulous deal from my recent foray into the crazy world of couponing).  I hesitate to even call this a recipe.  My prep time:  15 minutes.  Baking time:  30 minutes.

I have made my own deep-fried fish, but let’s face it, deep frying is pain.  But making oven fries is easy, so that’s one less bag of frozen food to resort to.  And conveniently, the frozen fish and your homemade fries bake at the same temperature.  Bring out the tartar sauce, ketchup or malt vinegar, and you’ve got yourself a fast, finger-friendly dinner.

These fries are soft, not crispy.  I think I remember reading some technique in Cooks’ Illustrated for getting crispy oven fries, but since the kids are not regular fast food fry eaters (we usually opt for the apples in those Happy Meals), they are content with soft fries.  I like to use a waxy potato (in our stores, pretty much anything but a big baking potato) so that the fries hold their shape.  I find that smaller potatoes are perfect.  It doesn’t take long to slice them into fries, and there’s no need to peel their thin skins.

Heat the oven to 425 degrees (turn on the convection if you’ve got it).  Rinse 4-6 medium potatoes.  Cut them into 1/2-inch fries (I sliced these in quarters lengthwise, then sliced those into fries).  They don’t have to be perfect, but if they’re roughly the same size, they’ll all cook at the same rate.

I lined my baking sheet with a silicone mat, but you could use foil or nothing at all.  I just find that they stick a little less on the mat.  Drizzle the fries with a couple tablespoons of olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  I also added some granulated garlic and paprika.  (You know those curly fries at Arby’s?  I was thinking of those.)  Toss the fries, oil and spices with your hands so everything is well distributed, and spread them out in a single even layer.  Bake the fries for about 30 minutes, stirring once or twice, until tender and golden brown.

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Chocolate banana bread & simple cooking

After the frenzy of cooking and baking around the holidays, we’ve been keeping it pretty simple for the month of January. I’m always trying to balance what we would like to eat with what the kids are likely to eat, which doesn’t make for novel or exciting fare. What it does make for is repetition. As in most areas, kids seem to like repetition in food–until they get tired of it, that is. So I’ve baked a lot of buttermilk bread lately (since school started, we’re back in the lunch packing routine), and we have pizza or tacos about once a week. Both are pretty frugal meals, often using ingredients left over from earlier meals. Chicken soft tacos always come a couple days after a roast chicken, and pizza is a popular choice for Friday night (I save any extra dabs of tomato sauce in the freezer–just enough for a pizza or two).  Pasta with pesto and soba noodles with sesame peanut sauce are two more recurring players on our menu.

Which is all to say that I haven’t tried many new recipes to share with you lately, aside from this yummy Chocolate Swirled Banana Bread from Our Best Bites.  It’s similar to the Coconut Lime Banana Bread–more yogurt, less butter, less sugar–but you add some melted chocolate to part of the batter and swirl the two together.  I’ll need to practice my swirling technique to more evenly distribute the chocolate, but it’s yummy.  I substituted white whole wheat flour for half of the white flour, which made it slightly drier, but that hasn’t bothered anyone here (especially when it’s toasted and buttered!).  Right at home for breakfast, snack or dessert.

So here’s my plea to you readers:  What would you like to see more of on this blog?  Should I expand and include recipes beyond baking?  Is there an elusive recipe out there that you just can’t conquer?  Give me some ideas and we’ll practice together!

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Sandwich bread series: No-knead buttermilk bread

I have a confession to make.  I frequently fall down on the job of keeping the kitchen stocked with freshly baked bread.  I don’t usually put bread on the grocery list because if we buy bread, then why would I bake more?  But because I haven’t gotten into a consistent baking routine, there are often days without any bread at all.

If I were into making New Year’s resolutions, keeping up with the bread baking would be on the list.  And this buttermilk bread recipe might bring me a step closer to achieving my goal.  It’s easy.  I can mix it up in the time it takes for my morning cup of coffee to brew.  Everybody likes it–it’s a soft crusted white bread, ideal for toast and sandwiches–so we eat it up before it goes stale.

I have finally tweaked the recipe so that it works well for me.  I’m learning that there’s a getting-to-know-you period with every bread recipe.  You need to meet several times and figure out a comfortable working relationship.  With the buttermilk bread, I had to reduce the salt a little, use a little less flour, and get to know how much dough fits in my loaf pans.  This is a recipe that’s on its way to the easy predictability of an old friend.

Mixing in the flour

Buttermilk Bread
adapted from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day

Makes 2 large loaves

2 cups lukewarm water
1 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 Tbsp. active dry yeast
1 Tbsp. Kosher salt
1 1/2 Tbsp. sugar
6 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp. melted butter

Dusting risen dough with flour in preparation for shaping

Mix the water, buttermilk, yeast, salt and sugar in a 5-quart bowl or lidded food storage container.  Add the flour and stir until all the flour is incorporated.  (I use a large silicone spatula, but a wooden spoon works fine, too.)

Cover the bowl or container (not airtight) and let rest at room temperature for about 2 hours.

At this point, you can use the dough immediately or keep it covered (still not airtight) in the refrigerator to use over the next 7 days.  Sprinkle the dough with a little flour and scoop out half.  Dust the piece of dough with a little more flour and quickly and gently shape it into a ball.  Stretch the ball into an oval and place in a greased 9x4x3 non-stick loaf pan.  The pan should be a little more than half full.

Ready for the oven

Let the dough rest for 40 minutes (or 1 hour and 40 minutes for refrigerated dough).  Twenty minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Dust the loaf with flour, and slash the top with the tip of a sharp knife.  Brush the top with melted butter.

Bake for about 45 minutes, until golden brown.  Remove from the pan and cool completely on a wire rack before slicing.  Keeps well in a sealed plastic bag for about 3 days.