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Hot Maple-Apple Breakfast for the (Maybe) Snowbound

Oh lord, it is cold. Not Vermont cold, or Chicago cold, but cold enough to freeze the spit to the sidewalk. (Ah, the charms of city living.) The hard frost we’d not yet had came yesterday with a vengeance; both Franklin Mint and the scented geranium were, as of last night, suddenly fried. And, as the weather report is (again) reporting snow this weekend, I present to you hardy souls this fortifying breakfast.

A simple sautée of apples, nuts, and maple syrup; it’s just the best on top of oatmeal or whatever hot breakfast cereal you happen to have around. We made it over Christmas on the morning we awoke to find two feet of snow had fallen and the plow guy had not come. If we were going to dig out five cars and get the one low-slung, front-wheel drive, flatlander vehicle on its way, first a good breakfast was in order.

We had it atop some Bob’s Red Mill 10 Grain hot cereal because that’s what there was. I’m sure anything else would be similarly happy with a gilding of tender apples, crunchy nuts, and lightly spiced and sweet maple syrup. Oh, and remember, when it comes to maple syrup, “B” stands for “better. The darker it is, the stronger the flavor.

Also please note that my mother would, of course, have the perfect old china and flatware to flatter this rustic little dish  tucked away in a cupboard somewhere in her little house on the top of the mountain. Naturally.

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1963 Wants to Know: Is Your Food Glamorous Enough?

I often find myself asking that very question. IS my food glamorous enough? I fear, though, that by the exacting standards of the ladies of 1963, my efforts aren’t quite up to snuff. I don’t serve my fruit salad in darling carved grapefruit baskets, my radishes are rarely roses, and I don’t think I’ve turned mushrooms but once.

All is not lost, however, as I received this little blast from the past for Christmas from my friend Susan. I mean, not only is it a food glamorizer, it’s a KITCHEN MAGICIAN food glamorizer. I mean, really, what could POSSIBLY be cooler? Nothing, that’s what.

It’s kind of fascinating that the era that produced frozen peas, condensed soups, and a cascade of other “convenience foods” also produced the glamorizer. I wonder what it could do to frozen fishsticks?

I have yet to unleash any glamorized food on this unsuspecting world, but the time will come to string the celery, carve the pumpkins, and peel the carrots as they have never been strung, carved, or peeled before… or, well, at least not for a good fifty years. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some radishes in dire need of glamorization.

From the Dept. of Sick Days: Shrimp & Fennel Stew

Merf. Today I am feeling unaccountably barfy and, since the snow day that was foretold did not, helas, materialize, I stayed home and slept most of the day. I did, however, manage to sklathe myself out of bed just long enough to accomplish one thing; I took a few snaps of this shrimp stew while the sun tried to shine. Why? Because this simple dish is so ridiculously good I couldn’t wait any longer to share it.

Seriously, this is shockingly tasty, particularly for something that involves little more than a quick chop and simmer. I was quite blown away by its robust and warming deliciousity. Mr. T, too, was unusually effusive in his praise.

The depth of flavor is remarkable; everything–from the pungent onion and anise-y fennel to the acid tomato and briny shrimp–seems to stack together into a greater whole rather than cancelling each other out. In thinking about it now, it may be the backbone of subtle sweetness that those primary ingredients all share that brings it all together.

Oh, and if you’re worried about the fennel and it’s licorice-y taste, two things: one, you’re wrong, it is delicious; and two, it’s very mild and background-y by the time the dish is complete. Try it anyway. It’s a perfect gateway for the delights of fennel.

I would be happy to serve this for company with some good bread and a salad of soft lettuces. It’s perfectly cockle-warming, a good thing now that it seems winter has finally decided to arrive.

And now, back to bed with me.

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The Skeptical Yankee Bakes: Red Velvet Cake

Confession time: I have always looked very much askance at red velvet cake, particularly the modern version currently en vogue, like, everywhere. You see, what had historically been a tribute to the creativity and good taste of Southern bakers challenged with stretching their ingredients as far as they would go–deliciously–has now largely become a red-dyed monstrosity that’s purely an excuse to eat poorly made cream cheese frosting… with confectioner’s sugar. *CAKERAGE*

Whew, ok, breathing… Ahem.

Right, but as I was making preparations for our aforementioned Southern vegetarian new year’s day dinner, my original plan to make pies got tossed RIGHT out the window when I realized that we were expecting 25-30 guests. I only had a day to bake and so needed something delicious and monumental that would take less time that sixty-badillion pies. So… cake. And Southern. Red Velvet was the obvious choice. Adored. Emblematic. Problematic. Frig.

If I was going to make it, I was going to make it right, and it was going to be good. How fortunate, then, that I found the perfect recipe courtesy of Julie Richardson. A northerner like myself, she’d shared my skepticism over the edibility of red velvet cakes as well but included a recipe in her new book, Vintage Cakes.

And, fiiiine, it’s a good cake. Rich and moist, with a bouncy, even crumb and a nice lactic tang from the buttermilk that enhances the cocoa flavor. The latter is of particular importance because red velvet cakes were originally CHOCOLATE cakes, with the redness emerging from the ph reactions in the batter. So, hooray for a cake that tastes like something other than, you know, red 40. That said, I did feel compelled to add the requisite food coloring, not wanting to rain on anyone else’s parade. Hrmph.

For the party, I doubled the recipe and baked it in two 9″ x 13″ pans (slightly decreasing the baking powder to prevent cratering). The version below hews to the original proportions and will produce two 9″ rounds. I also swapped in my standard–and AWESOME–white chocolate cream cheese frosting for Richardson’s mascarpone version. The combo was pretty awesome, and there was veeeery little cake left. Always a good sign, even for this skeptical Yankee.

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Sweets for a Southern New Year: Bourbon Pecan Squares

There are few things I enjoy more than a party; the planning, the prepping, the primping. Except for maybe wrestling with invite lists and cleaning up, it’s all good. Which it should be no surprise to anyone that I was to be found bright and early on New Year’s Day out in idyllic Hillcrest, helping good friends prepare for a feast. A Southern, vegetarian New Year’s feast.

Sigh. So, yeah, Southern food… not my forte, particularly when the (delicious, delicious) crutch of pork is verboten. That said, it was a relief that the mains–black eyed peas, collard greens, and cornbread–had already been chosen by the host. I just had to help make sure that they came out right and take care of the things on the edges. So, to that list of Southern staples for good luck in the new year, I added cheese straws and deviled eggs up front, a bright grapefruit and fennel salad on the side, and red velvet cake and pecan squares to finish up.

With that menu, 14 packets of fresh peas, 8 enormous bunches of collards, 4 dozen eggs, 2 dozen grapefruit, and $25 worth of white chocolate… among other things… we managed to successfully sate 25 people who were all impressed that we’d manage to do so a la veggie. We even managed to kill each other in the kitchen, despite a variety of heated Mason-Dixon arguments on what cornbread should be, the… uh… “merits” of vegetarian bacon, and how spicy the greens should be. Hooah.

Per the voting that we did on facebook last week, you’re getting the pecan bars today. They landed in second behind a kale salad and in front of the red velvet cake. If y’all (*hem*) are interested in how a Yankee and a vegetarian from Richmond make black eyed peas and collards, just let me know. I can write those up too.

This recipe makes a TON of pecan squares, which, I think, is the correct amount. I’ve grown to like pecan bars over pie because the nut-crust-filling ratio is better. Lots of crunchy, flavorful nuts; enough buttery crust to hold on to; and just enough sweet-salty, caramelly glue to hold it all together. Too often with pecan pie there’s too much gungy, syrupy sweet filling and everything else gets drowned out. Not so here. More nuts, more bourbon, more salt, and a touch of espresso powder makes the bars stand up and stand out, in an addictive, grown up kind of way. Bliss.

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A Healthy Post for the New Year: Kale & Sesame Salad

Happy New Year, all! So, yes, I hope everyone had a lovely holiday. Mr. T and I had a wonderful time gallivanting around the snowy north with various permutations of family, which is always fun. But, helas, we’re now back to the grind and I at least am feeling the need for something cleanse-y. Of course, I have a fairly hardcore cleanse lined up and ready to go, but apparently I’m something of a hosebeast during the process, so I have to wait till Mr. T is on travel to do it. Sigh.

Meddlesome partners aside, it seems that most of you are looking for something similarly fresh and healthy after some holiday excess. I did an informal poll on the PassionFruits’ facebook page (which, obviously, you should check out if you’ve not already) and kale salad was a clear winner over the red velvet cake and pecan squares I’d lined up for the next week or so.

So, kale salad it is. In case you’ve not recently been accosted by a juicer, raw fooder, vegetarian, Prevention magazine-reader, or other holistic evangelist (lucky you), kale has been enjoying something of a renaissance of late. It is ridiculously, insanely good for you and thus is popping up in all sorts of places, both traditional and not.

Now, while I have yet to investigate kale chips up close and personal, the latest method of consuming the superfood du jour did intrigue me. Massaging the kale with oil or acid to relax it a bit–a pre-chewing, if you will–makes the whole eating endeavor less work and more pleasure. I tried it out while we were in Boston over the holiday and lo, it worked. Very cool. It was lovely tossed with a light vinaigrette, sliced green apples, fennel, and toasted pecans. So, there’s that version.

But I also wanted something a bit more substantial, a salad that could stand on its own for lunch. So, I turned eastward with a sesame-miso dressing, added some more veggies and a bit of chicken, and voila, a delicious salad that’ll keep the 3pm munchies at bay. An easy victory for healthy eating in the new year. And, having written this up, I can now get back to baked goods! (I’ll keep eating the salad though, and you should too!)

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12 Days of Christmas (Cookies) #1: World Peace Cookies

While cook, author, and all around baking diva Dorie Greenspan is (justly) famous for many things, these cookies may end up as her most enduringly delicious legacy. Originally published in her book Paris Sweets, the recipe comes from frequent Dorie-collaborator Pierre Hermé and is just as divine as everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) says it is. And what better cookie, then, to kick of my 12 Days of Christmas Cookies bake-off? I’ll be attempting to crank out 12 delicious holiday cookies in basically the next two weeks. Insanity may ensue. (ed. note. It did, and this is as far as I got. Waaah-waah.)

Despite having read about these on countless blogs and having bought Dorie’s Baking: From My Home to Yours, which includes the recipe, I’d not made these buttery, darkly decadent sablés until very recently. And I’m here to tell you that the hype is very much well-earned. Distinguished by their saltiness, their chocolate flavor is powerful and sophisticated, with smoky, not-too-sweet nuance. Even the bits of chocolate embedded in the luxuriously sandy crumb are bittersweet.

Totally addictive, and so good that Dorie’s gone into production for herself. You can buy them at her Beurre & Sel shoplettes in New York City. They’re quite simple to make yourself, though, so if a trip to the Big Apple isn’t in the cards, you can still get your fix.

You could certainly use regular cocoa for these, but I love them with black cocoa. The Batman of cocoa, it’s dark and angsty and brooding and delicious. Use with caution. I get mine here. I also took the liberty of mixing in some broken cacao nibs for extra textural interest and because it seemed like a good idea.

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It’s Springtime Somewhere: Scented Geranium Spritz

At this late stage in the season, there’s little action occurring on the PFruits balcony. Everything’s been cut back, pulled up, or put to bed. Everything except Franklin (the) Mint, who is still doing well in solitary confinement, and the scented geranium I put in mid-season to replace the monarda that crapped out before bothering to bloom.

In addition to being gratifyingly green so late into the fall, the geranium’s feathery, leathery leaves give off such a gorgeous, complex scent–floral rose, spicy lemon, astringent pine–when I brush up against them that I felt driven to capture it somehow before the frost finally does the plant in. Having just gone out and tousled it to see get another hit of its smell, I’m now sitting here in front of the computer with my hands up my nose like Mary Katherine Gallagher, breathing in the fabulous scent.

Many people use the (non-toxic, I checked) leaves of scented geranium to flavor sugar for use in baked goods, and I’ll probably do that as well, but why infuse sugar when there’s VODKA? I mean, honestly. So, after cutting a few leaves, giving them a good wash and air-dry, I gently clapped them together in my hands to release the oils and plopped them in about a quart of vodka.

This, by the way, represents the cutting edge of herbal cocktail science. Apparently, today’s mixological cognoscenti clap or spank their herbs gently rather than muddling them so as to pull the essential oils to the surface but not break them up to the point that the bitter green plant flavors come to the fore.

Continuing this quest to pull the flavor of the oils and not of the green chlorophyll-y leaves itself, I only steeped the leaves for about 24 hours. Much longer than 48 and those bitter green flavors will emerge even if you’ve only given your leaves the gentlest of spankings. The upside, though, to all this cosseting of the vegetation is that your fabulous herbal infusions are ready almost instantly.

Then, though, came the question of what to do with it. By itself, the vodka still burned like vodka, but sparkled with the flavor/scents that the geranium did. While it was fairly obvious I’d need to add some fruit, sweetness, and a little acid to the party since the geranium’s pungency all falls fairly high on the nose, I wasn’t quite sure how to accomplish all that without drowning it out.

After much tinkering and subjecting friends to teacups with teeny amounts of this, that, and the other combination of things, I think we came up with a lovely, if slightly unseasonal, beverage. It’s lovely and delicate, with the wonderful complexity of the geranium enlivened by the sparkling water and rounded out with a touch of lemon and just a few drops of rich, fruity Chambord. Of course, it really begs to be sipped at a garden party, so unless there’s an orangerie somewhere in your general vicinity, this one goes out to all you Southern Hemispherians… at least for now.

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