Thursday, October 28, 2010

A cake worth cheating for...

Ahhh...I am halfway through my vegan cleanse, and feeling wonderful. I've been focusing on all of the wonderful things I can eat and not feeling at all deprived. I even survived a steakhouse dinner with coworkers without caving. All in all, things are going well.

But last weekend we had some friends in town, and I had planned on cheating a little bit. The question was, if I was going to break the momentum I had going, what was worth cheating for? The first thing that came to mind was a vague notion of a cake, something like the one on the cover of Bon Appetit in October or that appeared in Cannelle and Vanille's blog last month. I continued to ponder the many pie, apple tarte tatin, apple bread. I'm sure you see the theme: I was craving warm baked apples with a lightly sweet cake to bind it all together. It simply isn't fall until I've had some baked apples.

I spent a large chunk of time each day dreaming about what to make when I discovered that Dorie Greenspan's newest cookbook, Around My French Table, had been released. Birthday gift card in hand, I went straight to the bookstore to buy my copy. It should be said that I collect cookbooks the way some people collect dust bunnies: without really trying and they always accumulate faster than I realize. I ought to take a page from Heidi Swanson who started her blog to use recipes from cookbooks she already has.

In any case, I saw that there was a beautiful looking apple cake to be found in this cookbook. Even better, it was far more apples than cake, large chunks of fruit barely held together with a batter that enhances the flavor of the apples without overwhelming them. Being that I was cheating on a vegan diet, I reasoned that this recipe was less cheating than some other cakes might be. It was a lovely story to sell myself, and I bought it hook, line and sinker.

It was oh-so-worth it! I loved that we had friends visiting and we were all able to share it together. I probably enjoyed it the most, not having had many sweets in the past few weeks, my palette a little more revived after eating so cleanly, but also because I selfishly made exactly what I was craving. Topped with a lightly whipped cream spiked with vanilla, this was a perfect ending to a perfect meal with friends. I should confess that I cheated a few other times as well, but I limited it to once per day, so overall I think I did pretty well. And still, after all the sneaky bites, it is this cake that I enjoyed the most.

For now, I will enjoy eating a variety of fresh, crisp apples, and share a wonderful cake recipe with you. Soon, we can share it together.

Vanilla Apple Cake

Dorie calls her recipe "Marie-Helene's Apple Cake," but I made a few adjustments based on what I had on hand, so I'll share what I made with you. I encourage you to try it her way also; this is really a base that you can flavor as you like. Hers calls for dark rum, which I swore I had in the pantry but didn't, so I used Navan Vanilla Liqueur. I loved the boozy vanilla flavor, and was tempted to use some cinnamon, but kept it clean and simple. If you want to try cinnamon and nutmeg, I'm sure it would be delicious. I also used some whole wheat pastry flour, which I love for it's nuttier flavor, but you can use only all purpose if that is what you have on hand. I used 2 Granny Smith apples for their tartness, a McIntosh for its soft creaminess when cooked, and a Pink Lady for the tart-sweet balance.

1/2 cup Whole Wheat Pastry Flour
1/4 cup all purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
4 large apples, different kinds if possible
2 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
3 1/2 tablespoons Navan (or another vanilla liqueur)
1 stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and position rack in center of oven.

Butter an 8 inch springform pan and place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.

Whisk the flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl.

Peel the apples, then cut in half, remove the cores, and cut into 1 to 2 inch chunks.

In a medium bowl, beat the eggs with a whisk until foamy. Add the sugar and whisk for another minute or so to blend. Whisk in the liqueur. Slowly add half of the flour mixture and whisk until it is incorporated. Add half of the butter, whisking to incorporate, then repeat with the rest of the flour and the remaining butter. The batter should be smooth and a little thick.

Using a rubber spatula, fold in the apples until they are evenly coated. Pour the batter into the pan, scraping the batter from the sides, and then even everything out in the pan.

Bake for 55-65 minutes, until the top is golden brown and toothpick in the center comes out clean. Let cool for 5 minutes on a rack, then carefully run a butter knife around the edges to loosen the cake and apples from the sides of the pan. Carefully remove the sides of the springform pan, taking care to make sure there is nothing stuck to it.

Cool the cake until it is a little warm or at room temperature.

Serve with a little lightly whipped cream with just a little powdered sugar and vanilla, or eat it all on its own. It would be delicious the next day also as breakfast or a mid-afternoon snack.

Store with parchment or wax paper on the cut edges and over the top, then cover with a tea towel. It will be okay at room temperature for two days, if it hangs around that long.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Soup’s On

I suppose you know autumn has officially arrived when it seems everyone has a cold. I had just about convinced myself that I was invincible and would not succumb, but then on Saturday night I had the tell-tale scratchy throat and runny nose. Fortunately, I have a very minor cold, the kind that does leave me sounding like I’m very sick so I’m getting a good amount of sympathy, but where the most intense symptom is soup-craving.

I know you won’t find “soup craving” in any medical tomes on the symptoms of the common cold, but you will find soup in just about every culture as a way to alleviate the symptoms. I guess all these years of treating a cold with Chicken Noodle Soup has just led my body to immediately crave the cure. Since I love soup, I’m actually a bit happy to have an excuse to eat a lot of it for the next few days. So far I’ve tried a new vegan version of my favorite butternut squash soup, a cup of kale and white bean soup from the market, and miso soup.

All were wonderful and hit the spot. But truth be told, I only really made the butternut squash soup; the miso soup was from a box, to which I added some enoki mushrooms, firm silken tofu, and spinach leaves. It was very good and felt very cleansing and healthful, so I recommend it if you, too, are suffering from a cold and don’t feel like doing much of anything.

But if you’re a bit hungrier and want something more substantial, then it is butternut squash soup you want. You may not know you want it, but trust me, you do. At least I do, and I make it all the time. There was a period last year, after our little squash plant went crazy and we had a big basket of butternuts in the pantry, when I was making soup weekly and eating the leftovers for lunch several days a week. It got to the point that my husband requested I not make it for awhile. He likes to come home and eat my leftovers when he works nights, and it turns out that weeks on end of butternut squash soup got to be a bit much for him.

So you may want to just start with making this once, then again in a few weeks if it’s a hit, and then go from there. Maybe you’ll become as obsessive as I am, or maybe it’ll be a once a year type of dish for you. Either way, you’ll want it in your repertoire.

The version here is a super-garlicky one, but since the garlic is roasted it has a nice, soft, sweet flavor. I roasted whole cloves along with the peeled and cubed butternut squash, all tossed with olive oil and salt and pepper. The smell was divine, and I couldn’t help but snack on a few bites straight from the oven. In fact, if you were feeling lazy, at this point you could nix the soup and just eat the roasted squash. Or even better, double the garlic and roast two squashes: one for soup and one for a side dish, one for now and one for later. Why, oh why, didn’t I think of this when I was making it? Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to do this again next weekend. Sorry honey, butternut soup’s for dinner…again.

Garlicky Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

What I hate worst about most butternut squash soup recipes is that they call for an exact amount of squash, and who actually sits there weighing vegetables and converting that to the number of cups it will yield while they’re in the middle of grocery shopping? Not me. I’ve purposefully left this a bit vague for you so you can use whatever size squash you have on hand. When you are picking squash, choose one that is heavy for it’s size; it will be the sweetest and most flavorful. If you only have itty bitty ones to choose from, then maybe grab two or three so you can make a decent amount of soup. The other ingredients will need to adjust based on how much squash you have, but I promise it is a forgiving cooking method and will still taste great.

1 butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes (my squash was about 3 pounds and yielded about 9 cups, cubed)
1 head of garlic, whole cloves, peeled
1 medium onion, diced
1 tablespoon fresh sages leaves, or more to taste
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided, more as needed
¾ cup white wine
3-4 cups vegetable stock
Salt and pepper to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste (I used 10-12 grates)
Green scallion rings for garnish, optional

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Toss squash and garlic cloves with 2 tablespoons of oil and a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. If there is not enough oil to coat, add a bit more. Spread evenly on a baking sheet and roast until the squash is tender, turning once or twice so it doesn’t burn, about 45 minutes to an hour. A little browning of the squash is fine and adds wonderful flavor.

When the squash is almost done or is finished, heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a heavy bottomed stock pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion, sage, a few grates of fresh nutmeg, and a pinch of salt and pepper, and sauté until it is translucent. Add the wine and increase heat so the wine begins to reduce. When it is reduced by half, stir in the squash and garlic, and cover with vegetable stock, about 2-3 cups. Let simmer for 5-10 minutes until the squash starts to fall apart.

Using an immersion blender or working in batches in a regular blender, puree until smooth. Return to pan, and add more stock as needed to thin the soup to desired consistency. Taste, and re-season with salt and pepper as needed. Garnish with green scallion rings, and serve with a piece of whole grain toast and a green salad.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


It’s been a little while since I’ve been here, and I’m sorry about that. I’ve been on vacation and then had a busy week of work, and I’ve really missed the writing and the thinking and planning that come along with it. I’m feeling a bit rusty, but happy to be back at the page.

Vacation was a trip home to Colorado, and it was wonderful to see friends and family, and enjoy some beautiful Fall weather. Fall is my favorite season in Colorado, and I think others would agree. I love the crisp air and the fresh smell it brings, as if the heavy-scented heat has been blown away. I love the turning leaves, especially when they are at that point of just turning from green to gold.

I love the blue skies, the need for a sweater, and I love the return of heartier food. I was able to revel in all of this for one week. The best part was returning to Texas, where Fall is starting to make a tentative appearance.

Part of my love of Fall is the food. There is the lingering summer produce as well as all of the start of cool weather crops: beautiful winter squashes, dark greens, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower. All of the things I’ve been secretly waiting for while delighting in tomatoes and eggplant and zucchini. It’s not just that I love to eat squash, but there is something so comforting about roasting a vegetable, letting the flavors really develop, and then sitting down to dinner. By this time of year it’s dark again at dinner time, and a warm meal and a glass of wine inside feels like being wrapped securely in a blanket.

I also love braised meats at this time of year, but that will have to wait a few weeks. I’m doing a 40 day Vegan diet in conjunction with a 40 day Yoga Challenge through Yoga Yoga in Austin. So, for the next month or so we won’t have any meat, seafood or dairy on these pages. I know, it’s a bit scary at first, but I promise that still leaves lots and lots of recipes. Just this weekend I made a big batch of watermelon gazpacho, possibly the last truly summery dish of the year, and it is so fresh and flavorful that I’ll probably have to share this one with you at some point. I’ve also enjoyed some of the first roasted Delicata squash of fall; bridging two seasons of produce will make this so enjoyable. I’m also considering an experiment with making crisps and pies without butter, just shortening. I have a lot of research still to come, but I don’t even think I’ll have to do without baking during this cleanse. So far, I’m excited about all there is to make and not feeling at all deprived. And in a month, I'll be ready to delve into a different side of cold weather fare.

So, here is a toast to Fall, to fresh air and fresh food, and to a few new challenges to keep you grounded.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Wishing for a Fig Tree

There is a beautiful fig tree up the street from me on the route I walk my dog. It towers over the house on the corner and shades the whole side yard and sidewalk. The tree reigns over a garden that tumbles with colorful flowers and vines and just-about-to-bloom cacti. A lemon tree stands to the side, in front of the house. The garden looks as though it was once very well planned and now has had some time to settle in. It’s on the verge of chaotic, but still cared for. It reminds me of a person who is a little eccentric but really fun to have around.

I love this garden, and always slow down to walk past it. Not just for the welcome shade on a hot afternoon, but to see plants that are not quite as pruned as the rest of the neighbors'; to observe all of the succulents, which I have never planted, aside from an aloe plant in college that I slowly murdered with too much water.

But it is the fig tree that I am really stopping for. It’s exotic, curvy leaves, the small, seedy fruit, and even the scent of fruit that has fallen on the other side of the fence and now smells slightly fermented. I am forever hoping that the owner will be out front, that I will stop to talk to her (that she will be a her!), and that we’ll strike up a friendship, the best kind of friendship, the kind where I get baskets of fresh figs and lemons, and where I come back a few days later with jars of fig preserves and lemon curd.

As of yet I have not met the neighbor, though I’m still hopeful each time I turn the corner at the end of my street. But I won’t let that stop me from enjoying fresh figs. September is when they are at their peak, and our farmer’s market and grocery stores are brimming with Missions and Brown Turkeys.

The fig is almost sensual, with its feminine curves, bursts of seeds and a musky and floral scent. I have to confess that all on their own, the flavor is almost too much for me. But that is the perfect reason to dress them up a bit. I love the bite of an earthy blue cheese to cut the floral notes, and some salty prosciutto to counter the fruity flavors. So simple and yet so perfect.

Now, if I could only meet that neighbor so I had enough figs to make this dish every day, it would be a perfect, perfect world.

Figs with Blue Cheese and Prosciutto

This is one of those recipes where you really don’t have to measure anything at all, which is my favorite kind. The amounts below are approximately what I used, but if you have a more or less pungent blue cheese, you may want to use more or less honey to balance it. I meant to add chopped walnuts to the cheese mixture but forgot; it was great without them but add some for more crunch.

1 pint very fresh figs
6 slices of Prosciutto
2 ounces blue cheese, at room temperature
1 tablespoon heavy cream
1 ½ teaspoons honey
1 tablespoon toasted walnuts, chopped

Snip the stems off of the figs. Taking care not to cut all the way through, quarter the figs, leaving about a quarter inch at the bottom. It will look like petals of a flower and still be intact.

Mix the cream, cheese and honey and walnuts, if you’re using them, in a small bowl, stirring to combine. If the cheese is still solid, add some more cream. Taste it; if it is too strong, add more honey, but remember that you’re still adding it to the figs and prosciutto.

Divide the cheese into all of the figs, about a tablespoon per fig. Gently press the mixture into it, then push the sides back so they are upright. Wrap a slice of prosciutto around the fig, making it look like a tulip.

Arrange on a plate and Enjoy!