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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Apple Walnut Bread Pudding

Two years ago I posted a couple of "strata" recipes for possible brunch menus, one savory and one sweet. (You can find that post here:

Today I was looking for a bread pudding for a dessert that would incorporate apples. Guess what: that sweet strata (very similar to a French toast dish) can be tweaked only slightly to turn into a dessert.

This recipe is quite a bit smaller, as it won't be a main dish as the strata might be. It also has slightly different proportions, with a little more topping in proportion to the bread pudding base, in keeping with its place on the menu as a dessert.

Perhaps most of all, the flavor combination will be changed quite a bit by substituting walnuts for pecans. While these nuts are interchangeable in many recipes, there will be a definite difference in the final flavor. For me, apples and walnuts are a perfect flavor combo, and walnuts are relatively inexpensive this year. However, you can stay with pecans if that is your preference.

As with the strata, this is best served warm--and as a dessert, it really calls out for either ice cream or whipped cream if those are things you enjoy.

A word about Mapleine: 

I grew up with this a part of our kitchen staples. My family never was able to afford "real" maple syrup, so my mother always made the syrup she served over pancakes and French toast with a simple sugar syrup (about 1 1/2 to 2 cups sugar to 1 cup water) flavored with a teaspoon of Mapleine.

For many years I was unable to find Mapleine where I lived, and other brands of maple flavoring never quite came close to real maple syrup. Moving to the Midwest, I did find Mapleine in the stores and have been happy with the current formula, even though the little Seattle company that developed it was bought by the big spice company, McCormick.

Since I still rarely have maple syrup on hand, I make this bread pudding with Mapleine, but I have provided a variation if you have real maple syrup available. Either way, this is a great dessert any time apples are reasonably priced.

Apple Walnut Bread Pudding

3 c cubed firm bread--may be slightly stale or even dried
4 eggs
1/3 c brown sugar
1/2 t Mapleine or other maple flavoring 
1/2 t vanilla
1 c milk, or a bit more (may use evaporated milk for added richness)
1 t cinnamon


3 T butter
1/3 c sugar
2 c finely diced apples--no need to peel
1/2 t Mapleine or other maple flavoring
1 c coarsely chopped walnuts

1.  Spread the bread cubes in a well-greased 9 inch pie pan or 9 inch square pan.

2.  Beat the eggs, sugar, flavorings, cinnamon, and milk together and pour over the bread.

If the bread is not completely covered by the egg mixture, add a small amount of milk and press the bread cubes more firmly under the egg mixture.

3.  Melt the butter and sugar together in a heavy pan and add the apples.

Cook over medium to high heat, stirring often, until the apples are tender and the mixture is starting to caramelize.

4.  Remove from heat and stir in the Mapleine and walnuts. Pour the apples evenly over the bread mixture.

5.  Cover tightly and refrigerate for at least four hours.

6.  Remove the pudding from the refrigerator. Preheat oven to 325.  Uncover the pudding and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean.

NOTE: if you are using a lightweight pan, like the disposable aluminum pie pan shown in the pictures, put the pan in a slightly larger pan or oven-safe bowl with water to just below the top of the bread pudding. This will ensure that the bottom and edges do not brown too much before the center is completely baked. Remove from the oven carefully when done, to avoid getting any remaining water into the pudding.

Allow to sit for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

Substitute 1/3 cup maple syrup for the brown sugar and maple flavoring. Reduce the milk to about 3/4 cup, adding more only as needed to completely cover the bread. Using maple syrup instead of maple flavoring in the apple topping, however, does not result in nicely caramelized apples, so I would not try any substitution of syrup here.

Add 1/3 cup water to 1/2 cup dried cranberries or raisins and microwave for about a minute. Cool slightly and then add to the eggs and milk mixture before pouring over the bread in step 2. 

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Maple-y Apple Bread Pudding

Sometimes, "leftovers" can become a wonderful base for a new dish. That is especially true of a really good bread pudding.

For the best bread pudding, you need really good bread. Sorry, soft and squishy "WonderBread" types won't work too well, at least for the bulk of your pudding.

No, instead you need some fairly firm, preferably whole or multi-grain bread that was a little chewy when fresh. And then you need to let it "age" a bit. This is a great place to use up that extra loaf of bread you ended up with when you got too exuberant in making a big batch of the real homemade stuff. Or maybe your family doesn't carry about the ends of the bread or the "artisan" loaf you bought for sandwiches had ends too small to make really adequate sandwiches. These are the ideal components for making today's dessert, a rich and creamy pudding that certainly doesn't seem at all related to stale bread.

So, while this is a pretty easy dessert, it does take a bit of preparation time, especially in the gathering of the bread that is the basic ingredient. For more on stale bread, see the notes below the recipe.

The other plan ahead part of this dish is that it should be prepared at least several hours before baking, to allow the flavors of the custard to thoroughly infuse the bread. That actually can be an advantage, since you can make this up to a day or two ahead, cover tightly, and keep refrigerated until an hour or so before planning to serve.

So now to the recipe.  Make this when you can get good apples at a seasonably reasonable price, and you'll have a fairly budget-friendly dessert you'll be proud to serve friends and family. It also is a little healthier than many desserts, with good amounts of protein and calcium from the eggs and milk.

This recipe makes enough to serve 10 to 12, so it is easily halved. For good measure, I've even included those amounts, along with some hints to make this even more of a budget-friendly dish.

Maple Flavored Apple Bread Pudding


6 c cubed firm bread--either slightly stale or dried (in the oven at 200 for about 20 to 30 minutes)
8 eggs
2/3 c brown sugar
1 t Mapleine or other maple flavoring
1 t vanilla
2 c milk--may need a bit more
2 t cinnamon


1/2 c butter
1/2 to 2/3 c sugar, depending on apples and your preference
4 c finely diced apples--no need to peel
3/4 t Mapleine or other maple flavoring
1 to 1 1/2 c coarsely chopped walnuts

1.  Prepare the apples. Melt the butter and brown sugar together in a heavy pan and add the apples. Cook over medium heat about 15 minutes. Stir in the walnuts and cook another 10 to 15 minutes until the apples are tender and the mixture is starting to caramelize. Remove from heat and stir in the Mapleine. Allow to cool a few minutes.

2.  While the apples are cooking, spread the bread cubes in a well-oiled 9 X 12 inch pan or baking dish.

3.  Beat the eggs, sugar, flavorings, cinnamon, and milk together.

Pour this mixture over the prepared bread, pressing the bread cubes firmly under the liquid. If they are not all covered, pour a little more milk over the top and stir in gently.

4.  Cover tightly with foil and refrigerate for at least four hours or overnight.

5.  Remove the pudding from the refrigerator. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Bake for 20 minutes while covered. Remove the foil and return to the oven. Bake another 30 to 35 minutes, until a knife inserted in the center comes out without any liquid clinging to it.

(If using a disposable pan as shown in the pictures, the pudding will cook more evenly if you use two pans, one inside the other, with a few tablespoons of water between. Set the pans on a large baking sheet. This will ensure that the edges will not get too brown before the middle is done.)

May be served warm (with a little ice cream melting over the top?) or cold. Serves 10 to 12.


About "Mapleine"

I don't do too many product placement comments, but my mother used Mapleine all through my childhood, and I have continued including it in my meals over the years. Sadly, it is harder and harder to find this in most grocery stores. Here in our city, the local Fareway store still stocks it--thank you Fareway!--and you can find it on the internet, on Amazon, Walmart and other suppliers.

In case you don't believe me when I say this is so much better than any other maple flavors, just check out the reviews here:

Of course, if you want to make this recipe with real maple syrup (NOT the Mrs. Butterworth type substitutes), just substitute maple syrup for the brown sugar and start with perhaps a quarter cup less milk.

About "Stale" Bread

A particularly good way to save money on food is to cut down on waste...well, duh.

However, it sometimes seems as though we can never quite finish a loaf of bread or bag of hot dog buns before they get too stale (or, worse yet, moldy) to use. Just a little proactive thinking can keep you from throwing out perfectly good food, with very little extra effort.

First, check out this site for some ideas on making bread crumbs:

If instead you want to make dried bread cubes, for use in a bread pudding, as croutons, or even for stuffing, here's a quick "tutorial" that may help.

Step one:  Pull the bread out of whatever wrapper it's in and cut or tear into pieces about an inch square. Don't worry if they aren't totally even, just approximately the same size.

Spread the bread cubes in single layers on a baking sheet. You could just set this aside (in an unused oven for example) for a couple of days until dried, but the flavor is usually better if you toast the cubes in a 180 degree oven for 20 minutes to half an hour, until each piece is well dried. Do be sure to dry thoroughly before putting into a tightly closed container. If they are not dry enough, they will get moldy! You can keep these on the shelf for a few weeks if you aren't ready to use them right away.

If you are planning to use all of the bread for stuffing or croutons, you could sprinkle with desired herbs before toasting. Just stir a few times while drying to be sure that the seasonings are well mixed. If you take this approach, you will probably want to use the bread cubes within a day or two, to preserve the flavors at their best.

Half a recipe

This makes a 9 X 9 square inch pan. Use these amounts, following the same method as in the recipe above.

3 c bread
4 eggs
1/3 c brown sugar
1/2 t Mapleine
1/2 t vanilla
1c milk
1 t cinnamon

3 T butter
1/3 c sugar
2 c finely diced apples
1/2 t Mapleine
1/2 to 3/4 c coarsely chopped walnuts

And, finally, some cost cutting changes, when the budget is really tight

Cut the butter back (in the larger recipe) to only a third of a cup--or even less, though the richness will be affected.

Reduce the amount of walnuts--or eliminate completely. This will change the flavor quite a bit, but it is also a possibility if anyone is allergic to tree nuts.

Make this when foods are seasonally well priced--apples in the fall, eggs at various times in the year when on sale--like right before Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter when stores are enticing home bakers to stock up.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Chocolate Butterscotch Chip Bar Cookies

All of us have had those times when we have volunteered to bring cookies for a potluck or snacks for some meeting, only to realize the night before the event that we really aren't in the mood or don't have the time to bake even the simplest drop cookies. So we shift our thoughts to a bar cookie recipe or reach for that box of brownie mix we keep for "emergencies."

That was where I found myself this week. Big plans for making a batch of a favorite butterscotch and chocolate chip oatmeal cookie. All the ingredients ready and even some promises made for what I'd be bringing. And, unfortunately, not a whole lot of time to make the size batch I'd need.

It didn't take much tweaking to alter that old recipe, turning it into a form that took less than 20 minutes to make, from getting out the bowl to putting the pan in the oven. The result was a bar cookie that was a little chewy yet with a bit of a crisp crust--a little unexpected, since most of these recipes tend toward the chewy or "cake-y" side.

This is yet another of the ways that I have found to use mayonnaise in baked goods. Compared to the cost of butter, this (especially when using a store brand of mayonnaise) reduces the cost of the cookies substantially. With the complexity of flavors of all the ingredients, there will be not a hint of this unusual ingredient in the final product.

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Bar Cookies

1 1/2 c brown sugar, packed
1 c real mayonnaise
2 eggs
2 t vanilla
1 t almond flavoring
2 1/4 c flour
2 t cinnamon
1/2 t nutmeg
1/2 t ground ginger
2 t baking powder 
2 ½ c quick (not instant) or rolled oats
1 ½ c chocolate or butterscotch chips—or mixed half and half

1. Combine the mayonnaise and brown sugar and cream until well blended. Stir in the eggs, vanilla, and almond extract, and continue beating until light and fluffy.

2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and spices, and gradually add to the sugar and butter mixture.

3. When well blended, stir in the chips and mix thoroughly.

4.  Add the oatmeal, a cup at a time, making sure the batter is evenly mixed.

5.  Spray or oil well a jelly roll pan. Pat the dough evenly in the pan, making sure that the edges are at least as thick as the center.

6.  Bake at 325 degrees for about 25 to 30 minutes, until the center springs back when you press lightly on it.

This recipe makes about 48 to 60 squares, depending on your preferred size for cutting.

Special notes:

If you have a glass or insulated pan, use it instead of lighter pans, to be sure the edges don't bake before the center is done.

These are easiest to cut while still quite warm.  A hint I learned a long time ago for cutting brownies, bar cookies, and sheet cakes is to use a plastic, disposable knife. These not only are safe for your nonstick pans; they also cut cleanly and often more easily than a sharp knife.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Cake in a Saucepan

Some of our old family recipes go back to generations of frugal Midwesterners and further to New England roots, but others have even more interesting back stories. The origins of this cake fit in that latter category.

Back before food stamps, "commodity foods" were distributed to clients of our county's Department of Social Services. With one of their social workers in the household, I had access to the recipe folders  prepared to help recipients use the fairly significant amounts of the basic foods distributed each month.  Peanut butter and oatmeal (along with processed cheese, dried egg powder, etc.) were very commonly included, so it was important to suggest ways to use up these otherwise bland foods.

It was in one of these recipe flyers that I first found a recipe for an oatmeal cake with a broiled peanut butter topping instead of frosting. The cake was moist, flavorful, and easy to prepare, so I made it often for our family. In the years since, I have worked out several variations of what we fondly came to call "welfare cake" but none of these had included chocolate.

One of the things I have always liked about this cake is the ease of making it--in a saucepan no less. Quick to make, quick to clean up, this was a natural for a mid-week dessert for a group of hungry kids.

While not at all a "health food," the somewhat reduced sugar and fat amounts along with the increased protein and fiber from the oatmeal and peanut butter help justify serving it at the end of a simple sandwich and salad meal. Probably the longest part of the prep is waiting for the oatmeal mixture to cool before adding the eggs, but you can use that time to mix together the peanut butter topping ingredients. Overall, a nice moist cake that is good warm or cold.

Chocolate Oatmeal Cake with Peanut Butter Topping

1 1/2 c water
1 c rolled or quick (not instant) oats
1/3 c butter
1 c semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 c sugar
3/4 c brown sugar, packed
2 eggs
1 1/2 c flour--either unbleached or whole wheat
1 t baking soda

1.  Combine water, oatmeal, and butter in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook about 1 to 2 minutes.

2.  Remove from heat and add chocolate chips, stirring until the chips are completely melted. Set the mixture aside to cool slightly. (Prepare the Topping while this is cooling.)

3.  When the oatmeal is cooled to lukewarm, stir in the sugars and eggs and beat well.

4.  Sift or mix the flour and soda together and add to the rest of the ingredients in the saucepan. Stir just enough to be sure the mixture is completely blended.

5.  Pour the batter into a well-oiled 9 X 13 pan and bake at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes. (If using a glass pan, heat the oven to only 325 degrees.)

6.  When the cake is just done--a toothpick inserted in the center should come out without any liquid batter adhering to it--remove it from the oven and quickly pour the Topping over it, spreading it as evenly as possible. You will need to spread it back toward the middle, as the tendency will be for the very liquid topping to flow away from the higher center to the edges.

7.  Return the cake to the oven, on the highest rack, for about 5 to 10 minutes, until the topping is beginning to bubble around the edges.

Allow to cool well before cutting.

1/2 c sugar
1/4 c water
1/2 c peanut butter

1.  Combine the sugar and water in a large bowl or 2 cup measuring cup and microwave, covered, for about 3 minutes, until the sugar is totally dissolved and the mixture has come to a rolling boil.

2.  Remove the sugar mixture from the microwave and stir in the peanut butter. Stir carefully, as the syrup is very hot.  As you can see, it's really kind of ugly at this stage; that's okay!


Sprinkle with chopped peanuts while the topping is still warm.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Apple Cake with Raspberry Glaze

Over the years, I have compiled a large number of recipe cards, enough to fill four or five long card files like the kind you used to see in libraries. My primary source of recipe inspiration these days is via internet searches, but there are times when it is fun to review the old tried and true favorites. Mixed in with the recipes I used, there were others that "sounded good," but I have never tried, and then, one more category: those recipes I tried but found only mediocre--not inspiring but still not quite worth tossing.

One of those was actually a $25,000 Pillsbury Bake-off winner in the cookie/dessert category. The judges may have liked it, but our family was not impressed. My note when I first tried it on a hot Arizona day was, "Ok but no better made w/ plums 7/4/79.”

It was not surprising that I had substituted plums for the apples. They would have been much more available--and better--at the time..  That "ok" assessment was faint praise, but I kept the recipe in my files with the hope of finding a way to improve upon it. After all, it had won a large prize in the Bake-off, so surely it must have some merit, right?

Now, pulling out the old card, I considered how to improve upon the basic recipe. I had plenty of yogurt in the refrigerator and some local orchard apples still in the fruit cellar, and there was a half empty jar of homemade jam that might be just what was needed to add a little more flavor. 

The result was a nice fruity dessert that, except for dicing the apples,was quick and easy to make, with slightly reduced sugar and fat from the usual cake of this size. The texture is more like a rich bar cookie than cake, thanks to the ground nuts, so this is a good place to use whole wheat flour for just a little more nod to "healthy" ingredients.

By the way, if you want to see the original recipe,  you can find it here: 

 Apple Cake with Raspberry Glaze

2 c flour (may use part or all whole wheat flour)
1 1/2 c brown sugar
1/3 c butter
1/4 c canola or other neutral oil
1 c finely chopped almonds, walnuts, or pecans (see NOTE)

2 t cinnamon
1 t soda
1 c yogurt
1 1/2 t vanilla
1 egg
2 c apples, cored and finely diced (not peeled--about 2 medium)

1/2 c raspberry jam
1 t lemon juice
1 to 2 T water

1.   Blend the flour, sugar, butter, oil, and nuts with a fork (or in a mixer) until evenly mixed. Pat 2 1/2 cups of this mixture into a 9 X 12 pan, pressing firmly. Set aside.

2.  Combine  the remaining crumbs with the cinnamon and soda and stir well. Make a well in the center of the mixture.

3.  Combine the yogurt, egg, and vanilla and add to the crumb mixture. Stir until thoroughly blended. Fold in the apples and then pour the filling over the prepared crust.

4.  Bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes, until the center is just set.

5.  Meanwhile, combine the jam and lemon juice along with just enough water to make the mixture spreadable.

6.  As soon as the bars come out of the oven, spread the jam evenly over the top. (If desired, you can also poke the jam mixture into the cake with a skewer or sharp knife blade.)

Allow to cool completely before cutting.

NOTE:  If ground nuts are available, I highly recommend them, both for the convenience and the slightly  smoother texture in this recipe. However, you can finely chop nuts yourself if the ground nuts are not available. I also prefer almonds to blend with the other flavors, but other nuts can easily be substituted.


This is the kind of recipe that can be tailored to fruits of the season. Other combinations of fruit and  jams can be substituted--chopped plums would be very good with orange marmalade, chopped peaches or nectarines with peach jam, etc. For the latter, I would add half a teaspoon of almond extract with the vanilla.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Happy New Year!

Hanging those new calendars, doing some planning and organizing for the year ahead, or maybe just kicking back to enjoy the last of the college football bowl games--all good ways to spend this last holiday vacation day before going back into the routine of work, school, and meetings.

This could also be a good opportunity to spend a little more time in the kitchen. As you look ahead to the new year, here is a look back on just four posts with recipes that could be just right for today's food ventures.


First, some ideas for snacks while watching those football games. Try them out today and you'll be ready to add them to next month's Super Bowl menu.

This one has some spreads that are wonderful for any special occasion snacking. If you love olives, the tapenade will be something you'll want to make often, with lots of possible uses.

Perhaps pesto is more in your plans. Who says this has to have expensive pine nuts or even the sometimes hard to get at this season basil? This one includes spinach and cilantro along with almonds--totally not traditional perhaps, but still really good and a lot more "frugal" than the original.

Resolution: Healthy, thrifty eating

Maybe your time in the kitchen will be spent taking concrete steps toward those healthful and/or thrifty food resolutions. Homemade soup could be a good place to start.

Potato soup and a lot of variations are all included here. What could be more warming than a pot of this bubbling on the stove after a day of playing in the snow?

Want to make something less creamy?  This soup can be made for vegetarians if you use vegetable bouillon cubes, and it focuses on vegetables easily available in the winter:

Whatever you decide to cook today, be sure to spend time to savor it, and where possible, to share it with family and friends with good conversation as the best accompaniment. Here's to a New Year full of hospitality and love!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Homemade Breakfast Sausage

Our local Fareway store has an old-fashioned butcher department, with very helpful staff and, I have discovered, ground pork that is both lean and often on sale. Even at its regular price, it is almost always far more reasonable than ground beef here.

After I had decided to make cassoulet for guests, I discovered that I didn't have any sausage in the freezer as I had thought. Since the Fareway meat department makes their own breakfast sausage and hot and mild Italian sausages from this same lean ground pork, I decided to stop over and pick up a pound of the breakfast sausage.

Usually all of these products are offered at the same price, so I was a little surprised to see the mild Italian and breakfast sausages at $2.99 while the hot Italian sausage and plain ground pork were only $1.99. Further, one of their many hand-written signs was advertising a 10 pound package of ground pork for only $1.89.

Well then.

Just recently the Mayo Clinic newsletter had included a recipe for homemade sausage that had looked pretty easy, and I knew I had seen others before as well. With this difference in price, it seemed only reasonable to buy the big package of ground pork and go home to experiment.

Pointing to the sign, I said I'd take the ten pound package. "You mean the $1.39 one?" asked the butcher.

"Umm, no, it says $1.89."

The butcher came out from behind the counter, looked at the sign, and said, "Guess we didn't change that yet." He thereupon returned from the cooler with my ten pounds of lean, lean ground pork, rang it up at $1.39 a pound, and I was ready to bring it home for some testing.

Checking out the Mayo recipe and then some others on line, I made some adjustments in the seasonings to what I thought I'd like and proceeded to test it with a pound of ground pork. With one final adjustment, and some taste testing by friends who dropped by, I came up with the following recipe.

Perhaps you won't get quite as good a bargain as this, but it was nice to be able to make my own tweaks to the seasoning and be able to have sausage far less greasy than the kind most often available.

If you're not sure if this is quite the blend you like, make up half a recipe and then cook up a small patty to test. When it is well-cooked, taste and add more seasoning or blend in a little more meat. You too can soon have the sausage that will be exactly what you and your family prefer.

Homemade Breakfast Sausage

1 pound ground pork
2 t brown sugar
1 t salt
1 t sage
1/4 t marjoram
1/2 t black pepper
pinch of cloves
1/4 to 1/2 garlic powder (optional)
1/8 t red pepper flakes (optional)

1.  Combine all the ingredients except the meat and blend well, either with your fingers or a fork.
CAUTION:  Do NOT skip this step! I did the first time, and it was really, really hard to blend things evenly. By mixing the herbs with the larger volume of salt and brown sugar, it will be a lot easier when you really get into the mixing!
2.  Pour the seasoning mixture over the meat in a large bowl big enough for easily mixing.

3.  The easiest way to mix this is with your hands. If you are not crazy about messing around with what will be a pretty sticky mess, you may want to use plastic disposable gloves. You need to "squish" the mixture between your fingers and really work to be sure the seasonings are evenly distributed.  Using the plastic blade in your processor may also work, but that seems like a lot of unnecessary clean up, so just go ahead and get your hands right in there!

4.  To be sure that you have the seasonings exactly as you like, form a small amount of the sausage into a patty, flatten, and saute over medium high heat in a small frying pan. When browned on both sides and thoroughly cooked through, taste. You can then adjust as desired any seasonings in the rest of the uncooked sausage.

5.  As with all pork dishes, be sure to cook the patties until completely cooked through (or, if you want to be sure, until a meat thermometer inserted in the center reachs 160 degrees). Depending on how thick you make the patties, this should take about 5 minutes on each side.

You can mix up a large batch, form into patties and then freeze, uncooked or cooked, remembering that sausage (and other ground meat) products generally should be used within a month or so of freezing.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Applesauce Gingerbread

Now into December, the "pumpkin spice" lattes and bagels (and more) have mostly been replaced in coffee shops and Trader Jo's with wintry peppermint treats. Still, today I was in the mood for the warm and cozy fragrances I remember from my mother's kitchen on gray fall and winter days like the weather we've been having. The day was definitely made for baking something full of spices that would provide that home-baked aroma from my childhood.

Gingerbread seemed to be just the right old-fashioned but quick dessert to go with the day's simple soup and bread supper. There was still a cup or so of applesauce in the refrigerator from last week's baking, so it was time to do some experimenting with ways to blend that in to a soft, rich molasses-y dessert.

After finding pages and pages of applesauce gingerbread options on Google, I knew it was time to try my own version. Out with any butter or oil--the applesauce would easily replace that. 

I also wanted to reduce the molasses levels (probably the most expensive ingredient of the cake) without losing that deep rich flavor. With dark brown sugar well priced at a lot of stores right now--holiday baking specials are at their peak--I could still be assured of a good deep flavor even with less molasses. 

One of the things all the "old-fashioned" gingerbread recipes called for was hot (or even boiling) water. Wondering if this was a step I could skip, I did a little more searching and found the following possible explanations at 
  • One explanation claims that the baking soda is added to neutralize the acids in the batter, in addition to adding tenderness. This makes sense when you consider that the leavening must be balanced to achieve a neutral pH.
  • Molasses and brown sugar are very acidic, thus the baking soda neutralizes this acidity, allowing the baking powder, which in itself is balanced, to do the actual leavening.
  • When baking soda is added to hot liquid, gas releases that changes the pH of the recipe and darkens the color of the batter (especially when cocoa is part of the batter).
  • Hot water loosens the gluten strands in the flour, creating a lighter textured gingerbread.
  • Warming the eggs prior to baking the gingerbread allows them to expand to their utmost in the oven.
Whatever the reason for it, hot water would stay. Still, I was looking for as streamlined a recipe as possible, so I ended up with the following. Using the microwave to heat the water while mixing up the rest of the batter didn't really add any time to the preparation--and probably even shortened the overall baking time, even if only by a little. 

In the end, this amount filled a 9 X 13 pan (or two 9 inch square or round pans), even though it is almost the same as several recipes that called for putting all the batter into a 9 inch square pan. While the smaller pan would give a very high cake that some might prefer, I would be concerned that the center might not be done until the edges were beginning to dry out, not a result I was looking for. Spreading the batter into the larger space still provided a cake with slices at least 2 inches high.

Served still warm from the oven (or re-warmed for a few seconds in the microwave), this is a fine dessert without any kind of topping. Of course, you could add a plain powdered sugar icing (and some sprinkles to match the season) or, as I remember my father doing, just split a piece and spread a little butter over each piece. After all, Dad would say, it is bread. 

The picture at the top of the page resulted from trying to please both those who like their gingerbread unadorned and those who appreciate a little more elaborate presentation. By alternating the iced and plain pieces, the presentation turned out to be a little more fun. 

To stay closest to the version I grew up with, however, I would need to make some real whipped cream. You can scroll below the recipe for a quick story on the whipped cream topping of my childhood.

Whether you decide to whip up some cream, scoop rich vanilla ice cream on to each warm square, frost it, or just eat it plain, the result will be a warm, rich finish that can turn even the simplest weeknight meal into a very special meal.
Applesauce Gingerbread

2 1/2 c flour
1 1/2 t soda
2 t cinnamon
2 t ground ginger
1/4 t nutmeg
1/4 to 1/2 t cloves
1/3 c sugar
2/3 c molasses
1 c applesauce
1 egg
3/4 c  hot water

1. Prepare a 9 X 13 pan by oiling well, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.As soon as the batter is mixed, you will want to get the gingerbread into the oven, as the hot water will begin leavening the batter immediately.

2.  Mix wet ingredients (except the hot water) together and set aside. Heat the water in the microwave (or on top of the stove) until almost boiling.

3.  Mix the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl.  Make a well in the bottom of the dry ingredients and pour in the wet ingredients. Mix just until blended.

4.  Add the hot water and mix again, stirring just until blended. Immediately turn into the prepared pan and put into the oven.

5.  Bake for about 25 to 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

6.  If not serving from the pan--the most "authentic" way for a home-y dessert like this--wait about 10 minutes before turning it out on a cooling rack.

 This keeps quite well, though it is moist enough that it will be best stored, tightly covered, in the refrigerator.

 Nostalgic thoughts on gingerbread from my childhood:

For most of my early years, we had a cow or two on our tiny farmstead, so we had plenty of cream-on-top milk. When Mom made gingerbread, she would pull out an old green pitcher that had an egg beater built right into a wooden lid. We then took turns whipping that fresh cream, with just a tiny bit of sugar beaten in, ready for each person to dollop on to their warm gingerbread squares.

The mixer and lid are long gone, but the pitcher remains one of my favorite heirlooms from my mother's kitchen.In the spring, I love filling it with peonies or lilacs. In the summer, though it doesn't pour as easily as other pitchers, it looks great filled with ice-cube-cooled lemonade. 

One thing I have not done with it, though, is use it for whipped cream; that's a delight I have never enjoyed. Maybe, just for old times sake, and to help my grandchildren share a memory with me, I need to find an egg beater that will fit the narrow confines and whip up a mound of creaminess to go on top of another batch of gingerbread. For now, however, they were fully satisfied with just the gingerbread, still warm from the oven. Maybe that will be their memory they carry deep into the 21st century for their own future families.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Molasses Popcorn Balls

Sometimes every rule needs an exception.

A basic "rule" for this blog is to never post a recipe that I haven't tested--very recently--at least once, if not more. I have also been trying to include photos on every entry, even if my camera skills are pretty basic.

This entry, however, is going to be an exception. The recipe below is one I haven't made in years and don't plan to try for awhile more, so it's not tested, and won't have photos to show results.

Still, because it's been in the family for a long time, I thought I'd put it out here and hope some of you might try it and add a photo of your efforts in the comments below.

Why now? A Facebook post about popcorn balls made with light corn syrup reminded me of Mom's better, in my opinion, recipe, and a niece responded, asking if I had Mom's recipe. It didn't take long to find the yellowed and battered Molasses Popcorn Balls card, in her own handwriting.

As I recall, the "season" for popcorn balls started around Halloween. If she hadn't made homemade doughnuts to give out for trick or treat, there were likely to be popcorn balls--back in the days when homemade treats were far more common than any wrapped candy from a store.

There were other times when we made these too, usually on a cold winter evening.  Those were the times when we sat together as a family, playing some games or listening to a radio program (we were among the last people I knew to get a television). Dad had a terrific sweet tooth, and so he would often say, I'll crack some nuts if you (Mom and us kids) want to make fudge--or divinity. If we didn't have any more of the hickory nuts we'd gathered in the fall, he might instead bring up some apples from the basement and peel a few, using his pocket knife to make a spiral of peeling we'd grab before it fell on the floor.

And sometimes, to go with those apples, Mom would bring out the popcorn popper and make popcorn balls. After Halloween, these were a rare treat because they are, admitedly, pretty messy to make, but the deep molasses fragrance after the smell of popping corn could warm up even the coldesst, dreariest evening.

With all these memories stirred, and Halloween around the corner, it seems like a good time to pull out this "heritage recipe" and maybe have a family night making these together. For total authenticity, find an old radio program to download and listen to while you are working.

Following is, first, Mom's original recipe, one that does not include any idea of how much popcorn to use, other than knowing that, in the end, you should have 12 balls. Hers were usually the size of a baseball after packing together, if that helps any.

If you look closely, you'll see my own notes and adaptations, dated May/68--so you know the card is OLD! I've included those changes following the transcription of Mom's original below. Finally, there are the comments Mom had also included on the back.

These popcorn balls were often sticky, but they were full of flavor and very much like rich caramel corn--or like old-fashioned Cracker Jack, without the peanuts. We would sometimes butter our fingers or even grab up the sticky popcorn with pieces of waxed paper protecting our hand as we molded them into shape.

A couple of notes:

As noted above, there is no measurement for popcorn anywhere on the card, but, based on the volume of syrup, it probably was a lot. She used a saucepan about the size of those stove-top poppers you see in the stores, and I am going to guess she made at least two batches for this recipe.

I'd suggest popping a lot more corn than you need, put some (8 cups or so?) in a big bowl and begin pouring the syrup over it. If you need to add more corn, you can just toss some in as you stir, until the mixture seems just about "right." And if you end up with too much corn to make the balls stick, then you have caramel corn. If you don't have enough popped corn, well then, you have some very, very sweet, very, very sticky popcorn balls that may need to be eaten with a spoon--or at least have popsicle sticks stuck in the center to keep your fingers relatively unstuck!

Use a bigger pan than you might think you need, and be prepared: when you add the soda, the mixture will bubble up vehemently.

You do need to be careful not to handle the mixture when it is too hot--you can burn yourself pretty easily if you do. At the same time, waiting too long for the mixture to cool makes it almost impossible to get the balls to come together. (Maybe that is why my variation is for caramel corn instead of popcorn balls!)

Molasses Popcorn Balls
1 3/4 c light molasses
2 c sugar
2/3 c water
2 t vinegar

Cook to hard ball stage (250 degrees).
Remove from heat.
Stir in 1/2 t soda - mixing thoroly.
Pour over corn, stirrig up from bottom of dish so all corn is covered. Shape into balls.
Makes 12 balls. 

 good w/variations May/68

My changes to the popcorn balls recipe were somewhat minimal:

1/2 c. light molasses--but I would have used "dark" or regular molasses, since I never had light molasses in the cupboard
3 c sugar
Continue with Mom's original recipe.

OR the caramel corn! 

1/2 c white syrup (this would mean light corn syrup)
3 c brown sugar
1/2 c water
2 t. vinegar
1 T butter
add 1 T salt to this mixture before cooking. 
Cook (with an arrow pointing to the 250 degrees)
Another arrow confirms that 1/2 t soda should be added just with the popcorn bals.

Though my notes on the card don't have much more explanation than Mom's, I remember laying  waxed paper on a cookie sheet and then spreading the caramel corn out on that to dry. 

(I will be frank here: My sister Merry has a much easier and better oven caramel corn recipe that I will probably be trying sometime in the next few weeks. I plan to post that soon, so you can compare and make up your own mind about which is better.)

And the notes on the back

As with many of Mom's recipe cards, there were little notations and extras on the back of the card. This one was no exception. Here is, verbatim, what she had added.

A quickie:
   Melt 1/2 lb light caramel candy with 2 T water - in top of double boileer. Stir until smooth and pour over 2 qts salted popcorn. Spread on buttered cookie sheet. Cool, break apart.

And one more, final, final, note for our family:

If you notice on the card, and on my transcription, Mom's instructions for adding the soda were to stir it in "-mixing thoroly."

Mom was a stickler for correct spelling, but she also spelled a few words in a very unique way, "tho", "thoro", and "thoroly" the main ones I ever noticed. She explained that Grandpa Brereton had been a great believer in the University of Chicago "simplified spelling" movement and had taught her some of these "simplified" words. I just checked and there is a lot of information on this out on the internet, much of it behind paywalls. Still, the Wikipedia article seems pretty accurate, so you might want to check this out:

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Apple Brownies

A kitchen well supplied with apples. A request for cookies for a community event. Not a lot of time.

What better combination of ingredients to try out some apple bar cookies. Why specifically bar cookies?  Almost every bar cookie recipe is quicker to make than any other kind. Mix up the batter, pour it in the pan, and bake. No trying to get lots of little blobs of batter formed in even, nice round shapes, let alone considering the effort involved with rolled out cookies.

A little riffling through my recipe files and cookbooks and more searching on the internet revealed nothing quite like what I had in mind, so I played with a couple of very old recipes and came up with these rich tasting and easy brownie-like cookies. 

The final recipe is large, in part because of the current request for bar cookies, and I have included the amounts needed for half a batch at the end of this post. However, I strongly suggest you consider the full recipe. You have all the ingredients out anyway, so the only thing that really takes extra time is dicing two cups of apples instead of just one. Any extra bars can be frozen for later use and should keep well if tightly covered--though I haven't been able to test that. Every batch I've now made has been finished too quickly to know.

As usual, I did not peel the apples for this recipe. Unless you have a variety with a very tough skin, keeping the peeling on adds flavor and fiber and also yields more fruit per apple. And, of course, it takes less time to prepare the apples too.

How to top them? These really need absolutely nothing to add to the flavor and appearance.  As you can see from the photos, these will develop that rather crinkly, slightly crisp but also chewy brownie top, perfect without anything added.

If you really want to gild the lily, however, serving these warm from the oven with a scoop of vanilla ice cream will make you forget about ever again making an apple pie!

Apple Brownies

1/2 c butter
1/2 c oil
1 c sugar
3/4 c brown sugar
2 eggs
1 t vanilla
2 c flour
1 t baking powder
1/2 t soda
2 1/2 t pumpkin pie spice (see NOTE)
2 c chopped apples (pack quite firmly in measuring cup)
1 c chopped walnuts

1.  Chop the apples and set aside. This can be done in a food processor or manually.

2.  Beat together the butter, oil, sugars, eggs, and vanilla.

3.  Sift together the flour, baking powder, soda, and pumpkin pie spice, and stir into the egg mixture. The batter will be quite stiff.

4.  When the batter is thoroughly blended, fold in the apples and walnuts and stir just enough to be sure the apples and nuts are evenly distributed.

5.  Turn the mixture into a very well oiled 11 X 13 pan and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. If using a glass pan, set the oven at 325 degrees. Cool in the pan before cutting. Makes about 48 cookies.

NOTE:  You may substitute 1 1/2 cinnamon, 1/2 t ginger,  and 1/2 t nutmeg for the pumpkin pie spice if desired. 

Half Batch Variation

--> 1/4 c butter
1/4 c oil
1/2  c sugar
1/3 c brown sugar
1 egg
1/2 t vanilla
1 c flour
1/2 t baking powder
1/4 t soda
1 1/4 t pumpkin pie spice (see NOTE)
1 c chopped apples (pack quite firmly in measuring cup)
1/2 c chopped walnuts

Proceed with the recipe as above. Bake in a well-oiled 8 X 8 or 9 X 9 inch square pan.

NOTE:  You may substitute 3/4 t cinnamon, 1/4 t ginger,  and 1/4 t nutmeg for the pumpkin pie spice if desired.