Monday, August 29, 2016

Lemony Blueberry Buckle

Generous with blueberries, this cake is doused with a lemon syrup.

I first baked blueberry buckle when we lived in western Michigan, where blueberries are a significant presence in the local economy. With such berried abundance, I could afford to over-stuff cakes with what many of us believe are the best blueberries to be found anywhere in the world.

Our dear house rabbit Chloe loved blueberries and we dutifully purchased them year-round. The ones from South America were not up to par. Florida’s were OK, but mostly a herald that Michigan berries would be along in a few months.

This summer, we were able to get our hands on about 30 pounds of Michigan blueberries, thanks to a Michigan native-turned-Iowan who ships them in from his kinfolk. We stocked up. Baking a blueberry buckle was an ode to one of several places I call home.

While my go-to recipe has always been from King Arthur (with trusty and reliable results), I stumbled on this version at David Lebovitz’s blog. (The original source is the cookbook Rustic Fruit Desserts.)

This is for those moments when you want to gild the lily. When a buttery cake abundant with fruit and topped with streusel isn’t enough. There should be lots of lemon zest in the batter and you must liberally douse the cake with a warm lemon syrup.

And if you do all these things, you will be glad you did. I baked this cake at least five times this summer—yesterday most recently.

Something else I like about this cake is the soft layer of warmth from nutmeg. There’s just enough to fill in the blanks without overpowering.

I admit to my own lily-gilding by adding chopped pecans to the streusel. Pecans go well with berries and butter and lemons. Pecans are optional, but do not use walnuts for they are too strong.

You can bake this using frozen berries—just keep them in the freezer until ready to fold in the batter, or else thawed berries will get drippy and stain the cake.

Happy baking!

Blueberry Buckle
Adapted from Rustic Fruit Desserts by Cory Schreiber and Julie Richardson
and from David Lebovitz

Note: I’ve played around with this recipe a bit, adjusting type and amounts of sugar. I found the cake did not need the full one cup of sugar and can be reduced by one-third. On occasion, I used half organic granulated sugar and half organic coconut sugar. I also adapted this recipe for a fresh peach cake, minus lemon syrup, here.

Streusel Topping
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold
1/2 cup organic granulated sugar
1/3 cup flour
1/3 cup pecans, chopped (optional)
1 teaspoon cinnamon

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 to 1 cup sugar
zest from 2 lemons (save the lemons for the syrup below)
1 1/2 cups+2 tablespoons white spelt flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly ground if you can
2 large eggs, room temperature
1/2 cup buttermilk, room temperature
2 to 3 cups blueberries, fresh or frozen

Lemon Syrup
1/3 cup organic granulated sugar
Juice from 2 lemons, about 6 tablespoons

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9-inch square cake pan.

Prepare streusel. Place all ingredients in a small food processor and pulse until the butter is in small pieces and the ingredients are evenly distributed. Remove and put in the refrigerator to stay cold. 

Prepare the cake. With an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition.

Combine dry ingredients in a separate bowl. Add half the flour mixture to the batter and beat gently. Then add half the buttermilk and beat gently. Repeat with remaining flour and buttermilk.

Pour batter into the prepared cake pan. Sprinkle the streusel evenly on top. Place in oven and bake for about 45 minutes, until it is nicely browned on top and springs back when you touch it.

Shortly before the cake is done, prepare the lemon syrup. Put sugar and juice in a small, heavy saucepan and cook on medium high heat until the liquid thickens a bit. Set aside.

Remove cake from oven and spoon over the warm lemon syrup.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Fresh Peach Cake

Fresh, juicy peaches top this simple butter cake.

Last Friday afternoon, I set out to bake one chocolate sheet cake for a weekend dinner party. Baking centers and calms my mind during times when I feel the need to do something or shut off the noise in my head. It had been a tough week and, by the time I emerged from the kitchen, there were three cakes, not one.

There was a chocolate sheet cake, a blueberry buckle and this simple peach-topped butter cake. It was a last-minute inspiration but I liked it so much — as did my friends — that I wanted to share with you. What I like about the cake is that it’s moist and sturdy. It slices easily and holds its shape — the kind of dessert one could eat out of hand, as some of my new co-workers did when I shared leftovers.

The recipe is based on a blueberry buckle that David Lebovitz adapted from the cookbook Rustic Fruit Desserts. Because I’d just slid his blueberry version in the oven (minus the streusel topping and lemon syrup), the recipe was fresh in my mind and I decided to take advantage of the remaining room-temperature butter I had on the counter.

For the peach version, I made a few adaptations: reducing the sugar by one-third, omitting cinnamon and lemon zest, adding vanilla and almond extract. Rather than folding in the chopped peaches, I arranged the slices on top in a circular pattern.

This little inspiration was a winner and I’ll be baking it again now that peaches are in season. Hope you give it a try and enjoy it, too.

Fresh Peach Cake

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup sugar (I used 1/3 cup organic granulated sugar and 1/3 cup organic coconut sugar)
1 1/2 cups+2 tablespoons white spelt flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 large eggs, room temperature
1/2 cup buttermilk, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
2 to 3 big peaches, sliced vertically into 1/2 in. wedges

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9 inch round or an  8-inch square cake pan.

With a hand mixer or in a standing mixer, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition.

Combine dry ingredients in a separate bowl. Add half the flour mixture to the batter and beat gently. Then add half the buttermilk and beat gently. Repeat with remaining flour and buttermilk. Then add vanilla and almond extracts. Beat gently to incorporate.

Pour batter into the prepare cake pan. Arrange sliced peaches on top of the cake.

Place in oven and bake for about 45 minutes, until the cake is browned on top and springs back when you touch it. 

Remove and let cool a little bit. Serve with ice cream or whipped cream for dessert, or plain with afternoon tea, or for breakfast with your coffee.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Asparagus and Mushroom Bread Pudding

Asparagus and Mushroom Bread Pudding from Deborah Madison

My husband is generally pleased with whatever I prepare and so any kind of extreme response is unusual. This Asparagus and Mushroom Bread Pudding, however, elicited a strongly positive review.  Something on the order of “the best thing you’ve ever made.”

How can you go wrong with fresh local asparagus, mushrooms, chunks of bread and cheese?

I know the rule is never try out a new recipe on your dinner guests, but part of the fun in trying new recipes is sharing them with others.

As I planned for two visitors last week, I thumbed through one of my Deborah Madison cookbooks looking for her wild mushroom tart. Turns out I was in the wrong cookbook (has that ever happened to you?) but spied this bread pudding. I had fresh asparagus, some wonderful sourdough bread from New Pioneer Food Co-op and the decision was made.

For those who like texture, this bread pudding gets a bit crunchy and chewy around the top, but the insides are nice and creamy.

The original recipe calls for chanterelle or morel mushrooms, but I did not have access to either (though morel season is getting started here in Iowa). Morels are my favorite, but those sweet little things are so precious that I would not use them in a bread pudding where I fear they would get lost. These organic button mushrooms were just fine.

I used fresh marjoram, but you also can substitute tarragon, but don’t use both. These herbs have  pronounced and distinct flavors and would not work together. Marjoram isn’t something I use often, but after making this dish, I went out and added a plant to my herb garden. So there it will be amidst the oregano, thyme and four varieties of mint.

At this time of year, there is no shortage of good asparagus recipes and here’s one to add to your list. Do give it a try. Perhaps your loved ones will say it’s the best ever, too.

Asparagus and Mushroom Bread Pudding
Adapted from Local Flavors by Deborah Madison

3 cloves of garlic (Deborah calls for green garlic, but it’s too early in the season here)
3 c. milk
1 (1 lb) loaf sourdough bread (Deborah calls for a white bread but I really liked the sourdough flavor)
1-2 lbs. asparagus, peeled if it’s thick
 salt and freshly ground pepper
3 T. unsalted butter
1 large shallot, finely diced
1/2 to 1 pound mushrooms (the recipe calls for chanterelle or morel, but I used white button)
4 large eggs
1/3 c. chopped parsley
3 T. chopped marjoram (or you can use tarragon)
2 c. Gruyere cheese, grated

Preheat to 350 F. Lightly butter or oil a 9 x 13 inch baking dish. Add the garlic to the milk and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and set aside to let the garlic steep.

Unless your bread is stale, you will want to let it dry a bit. Slice the bread and put it on a baking sheet until it gets a little golden but not hard. Break it into chunks, put it in a large shallow baking dish, and strain the milk over it. Occasionally turn the bread so that it soaks up as much of the milk as possible.

Slice the asparagus on the diagonal about 1/3 inch thick. Fill a skillet with water and, when it boils, add salt to taste and then asparagus. Simmer until bright green and partially tender, about 3 minutes. Drain, then rinse with cold water to stop the cooking.

Melt half the butter in a medium skillet. Add the shallot, cook for 1 minute, then add the mushrooms. Cook over high heat until the mushrooms turn brown in places and release their liquids. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

Break the eggs into a large bowl and beat until smooth. Add the marjoram and parsley, 1 t. salt, and plenty of pepper. By now the bread should have soaked up most of the milk. Add the bread and any milk that is left to the bowl, along with the asparagus and mushrooms plus any juices, and two thirds of the cheese. Toss well. I found that it was easier to use my hands to toss everything around.

Pour all of this mixture into the prepared baking dish. Dot with the remaining butter. Scatter the remaining cheese over the top and bake until puffy and golden, about 45 minutes. Let cool for a few minutes, and then serve.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Springtime Strawberry Torte

Layers of genoise, strawberry puree and créme mousseline for this springtime dessert.
For a recent dinner gathering, I wanted a special dessert to complement the main courses of roasted lamb and chicken. Something pretty but not too sweet or heavy. This strawberry torte, with layers of genoise, créme mousseline and a thick strawberry puree, was perfect.

The cake is not particularly difficult, but does require a bit of time, however, the components can be made in stages and ahead of time, so that gives you some options. I first made the cake layers as a 9 x 9 inch square and cut rectangular pieces from it. The second time round, I used the same size cake layers, but use biscuit cutters and formed several little cakes, which I think are fun. This enabled me to use three layers of genoise instead of two.

A créme mousseline takes pastry cream one step further by adding butter. (I know.) It is nothing but luscious and if you’ve never made it before, you really should add this to your cooking life list.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Arrivals and Departures

The challenge of working in a creative field is finding the time and energy for your own interests. For many years, I've helped others pursue their artistic goals, or I've channeled my own creativity toward an institution's mission. I gave at the office and when I arrived home, there wasn't much time for me.

This blog, for instance. I started it in 2011 when I found myself living in a new state. I wanted to take some time to cook and write and photograph food while I looked for work.

About one year later, I landed a highly creative position and quickly found that there wasn't time for blogging. It was a fast-paced office and by the end of the day, I was tired and didn't want to spend more time in front of a computer. Instead, I wanted/needed to exercise and cook dinner and spend time with my husband.

Not only that, but the good daylight I'd relied on for shooting my pictures was now hard to come by.

I continued blogging at night and on weekends, but after a year, I found myself now leading a department of creatives in an organization with some pretty ambitious goals and expectations. The blog went on standby.

And three years later, here we are.

The corporate world being what it is, I've come out on the other side of a merger and downsizing. While it's not something you expect to happen, I'm truly OK with it. I worked with some great people, built an amazing team and we produced excellent work.

But the last four weeks have been pretty good, too. I've caught up on sleep, given attention to housework long ignored and reconnected with relaxation. It's springtime. This pause could not have happened at a more lovely time of year.

In this season of new beginnings, I'm thinking about what I want to do next, and that's exciting.

I'm also cooking more. There's a calmness that sets in when I'm in front of the stove.

But many of us know it's not enough to cook and eat. There's the conversation. Friends have asked hopefully if this new pause in my career means I'll return to the blog. Yes. Yes, it does. Stay tuned.

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