Sunday, February 27, 2011

Cran-Orange Buckwheat Muffin Nirvana

Last week, I attained nirvana in two forms: swooshing down the slopes of Winter Park, CO and eating these muffins. I'm not sure which was better. Colorado had mountains and beer and good friends . . . but the muffins had fresh cranberries! And orange zest! And if I looked at them long enough, they would tell me jokes! That's like being with friends, no? 
Seriously, though, these muffs were tight - er, delish. High in fiber, bursting with fresh fruit, and relatively low in sugar (and can be dairy free if you stick with just oil). Despite the fact that this blog might be what you call sugar-heavy, I try not to use sugar needlessly. Sure, I use gobs of confectioners sugar in my frosting (though less than most standard recipes or anything you would find on a grocery store shelf), because let's face it, if you're eating frosting, ya ain't tryin' to cut down on your sugar. At least not for that particular indulgence. But when it comes to something like a muffin, why use more sugar than you need to?

A standard muffin recipe is for twelve muffins. I routinely see recipes calling for 2/3, 3/4 or even 1 cup of sugar. This is more than you need! Depending on the recipe, it might be for a large volume of batter (even if it says only 12 muffins), in which case you can either make ginormo muffins or 18-24 normal-sized guys. In that case, maybe the additional sugar is warranted. But for your regular twelve-slot tin, with muffins that bake up one or two centimeters above the rim, 1/3 to 1/2 cup of sugar per batch is plenty.
In case you haven't noticed, I love me some fruits in my baked goods, which helps to naturally sweeten things. In this recipe, even with supertart cranberries, 1/3 cup of sugar was enough to balance out the tartness and sweeten the muffins. And if you're baking muffins with a sweeter fruit, like apples, blueberries or (especially) bananas, 1/3 cup of sugar will definitely be fine. If you're making a straight bran muffin or maybe a lemon-poppy seed, you might want to up the sugar to 1/2 cup. I've found that you can cut the sugar in a recipe without making any other changes. So if you see a good recipe that calls for more sugar than you need, take liberties with your sweetener.

But Kaaaaatie, what if I like a reallllly want a sweet muffin? Then quit your whining and go eat a cupcake, because a muffin's not what you're looking for. Kidding. If you want to make a batch of sweet-treat muffins, use your sugar where it counts - on top. Your taste buds will get more bang for their buck with a sprinkling of sugar on top of each muffin than if you were to add twice as much directly into the batter (this is a great tip for those who like sweet cornbread - skip the honey or sugar in the mix and sprinkle the top with a few pinches of raw sugar). For a crumb topping, mix 3 tablespoons of brown sugar with 1 tablespoon of melted butter and distribute evenly over muffins.

And for kicks, here are some pics of my other nirvana. These are the good friends:

 This is me and the mountain (don't worry- it didn't take me down every time):

. . . and these are the beers!

Cran-Orange Buckwheat Muffins

Makes 12 muffins

3/4 cups buckwheat flour
1-1/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup ground blueberry flaxseed (optional)
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup orange juice
1/4 cup canola oil
1/4 plain nonfat yogurt (or another 1/4 cup of oil)
2 tbs. orange zest
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1-1/2 cups fresh cranberries (or frozen and thawed)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Mix all ingredients well, adding cranberries last. Fill cups of a standard muffin tin 3/4 full. Bake for 23-27 minutes. Find your own nirvana.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Love Your Heart: Spicy Polenta Chips w/Roasted Red Pepper Dip (low-sodium)

If there's one thing I like, it's a challenge. So when my friend Sarah R.C. suggested that I check out Sodium Girl's website and participate in her Love Your Heart Recipe Rally, I said, sign. me. up. But seriously, making a low sodium dish? That didn't even sound like a challenge, more like just a new theme for a post. Boy did I get a double dose of sodium reality. Cutting out the Na is hard, folks.

"Sodium Girl" Jess was diagnosed with Lupus in 2004 and has since had to severely curtail the sodium in her diet. But she hasn't let that stop her from eating delish foods everyday (or so it appears from her posts). You can read her story here. In honor of National Heart Health Month, Jess organized the Love Your Heart Recipe Rally to bring bloggers together in posting heart-healthy, low-sodium recipes. 

The parameters for the Rally were to pick a typically salty dish that you love, identify the ingredients that are high in sodium and then craft a low-sodium alternative recipe. The goal was to keep each serving under 40mg of sodium. Now, if you, like me, have never monitored your sodium intake, that number means nothing to you. To put it into perspective, the average American takes in more than 3,400mg of sodium per day.*

Oy. And I'm supposed to make something tasty with less than 40mg/serving? More challenging than I thought.

*The USDA has recently recommended limiting that intake to 1,500mg to 2,300mg per day, depending on your age and other health factors. Check out the USDA's new key recommendations for what we should be ingesting each day.
For my Rally recipe, I chose the classic salty snack of chips & dip. Here is your typical sodium intake after one serving of chips & dip:

Potato Chips & Onion Dip
  • 1 oz. Lay's Classic Potato Chips - 170mg (Baked Lay's - 180mg)
  • 2 tbs of Dean's French Onion Dip - 170mg
    •  Total - 340mg
Tortilla Chips & Salsa
  • 1 oz. Tostitos Hint of Lime Tortilla Chips (my fave) - 160mg
  • 2 tbs of Tostitos Medium Chunky Salsa - 250mg
    • Total - 410mg 
Let's get to work.
For my take on the chips, I decided to do a homemade "frito" with yellow corn grits. Corn grits, also known as polenta, are like cornmeal, but more coarsely ground. Any store that sells Bob's Red Mill products should carry the grits. And for the dip, I wanted something creamy - akin to southwestern ranch. Since I love red pepper hummus, a roasted red pepper seemed like the perfect sodium-free route to flavor in my dip. 

If you've never roasted your own peppers before, do it. Now. With this recipe. It's a really cool process and it feels good to go from a fresh veggie to a healthy, tasty dip.
Like I said, I've never paid close attention to how much sodium is in my diet. I could probably tell you down to the calorie the breakdown of fats, protein and carbs, the fiber content and the sugar levels of most things I eat. But sodium? No sé. Initially, I kind of thought I could process a pepper and some lowfat yogurt or sour cream and BOOM, I'd have an awesome dip. Not so much. When I first tasted the pepper puree mixed with sour cream and a dash of chili pepper, I was bummed at how bland it was. :( I looked through my cupboards and everything I wanted to add was chock-full o'sodium. Hot cherry peppers in a jar, sliced jalapenos, canned green chilies, white beans - sodium, sodium, sodium!

And adding even a smidge of salt to the dip was out of the question. One teaspoon of table salt contains 2,300mg of sodium. So even if I sprinkled in a scant 1/16 teaspoon of salt (a few shakes or grinds), I would have been adding over 140mg of sodium to the two-serving dip, which would blow my 40mg/serving limit.

After poking around Jess's site, I decided that vinegar might give the dip the tang I was looking for - and it did! That and some cumin and I was starting to have the semblance of a dip worthy of my chips (which came out awesome by the way - the trick is to spread the corn mixture as thinly as possible before baking).
While I have no intention of going sodium crazy and cutting out all the salt in my life, this exercise opened my eyes to a part of my diet that I was paying zero attention to. Previously, I wouldn't have given any thought to whether I put two grinds of salt or four into my eggs. Only now do I realize how much each grind counts! And I discovered that all of my flavor go-tos were in cans or jars (and thus rife with added sodium). Maybe I'm getting more sodium than I thought and maybe it's time to pay a bit more attention to how I flavor my foods.

On Tuesday, the Washington Post published a timely article with the tagline, "How hard is it to reduce your salt?" According to staff writer Tim Carman, who went low-so for one week, very. I think he wanted to bath in canned soup after every salt-deprived meal. Carman's approach may have been a bit aggressive based on his admitted predilection for salty foods, but his overall result was positive: increased awareness of sodium levels and identification of a few nutritional gaps in his diet. Mr. Carman and I both learned a lot this week.

Thanks to Jess for the healthy inspiration! Links to the other Rally recipes will be available on Sodium Girl today, along with Jess's arsenal of low-sodium tips and meal suggestions.
And with that, I give you my Love Your Heart recipe. Here's to healthy ticking.

Spicy Polenta Chips

Makes around 36 chips; serves 2

-1/2 cup polenta (aka corn grits)
-1/2 tsp. chipotle chili pepper (choose any sodium free ground chili powder; I used McCormick Chipotle Chili Pepper)
-3/4 cups boiling water
-1 tsp. olive oil

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Mix polenta and chili powder in a bowl. Add boiling water and olive oil, stirring well. Wait a few minutes to allow the corn to absorb the water. Spoon 1/2 teaspoon to 1 teaspoon-sized dollops of mix onto a parchment lined cookie sheet. Using the back of a spoon, spread the corn mix into a disk as thinly as possible without having big holes. Sprinkle chips with paprika. Cook the chips at 450 for 10-11 minutes or until they start to brown and lift up at the edges.

Nutrition (per serving): 10mg sodium, 150 calories, 2.5g fat, 1g saturated fat, 27g carbs, 1g fiber, 1.5g protein

Roasted Red Pepper Dip

Makes 1 cup; serves 2

-1 red pepper, roasted, skinned and seeded
-1 tbs. vegetable oil
-1/4 cup low fat sour cream (check sodium content)
-1/2 tsp. chipotle chili pepper
-1/2 tsp. cumin
-2 tsp. good vinegar (I used a white balsamic)

Set your oven to a high broil (or around 500 degree). Coat bell pepper in vegetable oil using a basting brush or your fingers. Because of the high cooking temperature, stick with vegetable or canola oil and not olive oil. Place whole pepper on its side in a pan and put in the oven. Rotate the pepper on its side a 1/4 turn every 3 to 5 minutes. You want the skin to get blackened, but not split open. Total roasting time should be 15-20 minutes, rotating as needed for an even char.

Remove pepper from the oven and place in bowl with a cover. Let pepper sit covered, steaming for 10-15 minutes. Once pepper is cool enough to handle, peel off the skin. Then pull off the stem and scrape out the seeds. Squeeze out any excess juice as you do so.

Slice the roasted pepper into 4 or 5 chunks, making sure to remove any blackened skin or seeds. Place roasted pepper chunks in a food processor and process for 30 seconds, scraping down the sides as needed. Let pepper puree sit until completely cooled. If any excess liquid collects, drain the puree.

Add sour cream, chili pepper, cumin and vinegar to the puree. Stir well or process for another 15 seconds. Refrigerate for at least an hour. Garnish with paprika. Enjoy with homemade spicy polenta chips.

Nutrition (per serving): 20mg sodium, 90 calories, 4g fat, 2g saturated fat, 20g carbs, 1g fiber, .5g protein

Monday, February 7, 2011

Sponge Candy: Heaven by Way of Buffalo

Just a steel town girl on a Saturday night/Lookin' for the sponge of her lii-i-ife. This girl's steel town is Buffalo, NY. (True, Buffalo is not really known as a "steel town" these days, but in the 1900s it was one of the largest steel-producing locations in the U.S. By the mid-20th century most of the steel plants had shut down.) 

Though I don't hail from B-lo, I did spend four glorious years there for college and routinely visited growing up because we had family there. I still go back at least once or twice a year for weddings, babies and food. And let me tell you, BUFFALO IS AWESOME. If you don't think it's awesome, go jump in a lake and/or never speak to me again.

Buffalo has produced some of the greatest things on Earth: buffalo wings (Superbowl Sunday would have no redeeming qualities without these guys); Loganberry juice (ummm, hello, it's purple. That means it's got to be at least 8% natural.); snow (oh, you didn't know they invented snow in Buffalo? Well, now you do. Please inform your old history teachers.); and most importantly, sponge candy.

Sponge candy is basically a puffy kind of toffee, typically covered in milk or dark chocolate. The ingredients are sugar in granule form and sugar in liquid form. And it has similar addictive properties to crack. Just FYI.

In Buffalo, you can't even go into a gas station without sponge candy smacking you in the face, which is just the way I like it. I've been told that they sell similar types of candy outside of Western NY (under the aliases "sea foam candy" or "honeycomb"), but sadly, I have yet to come across any. So when I had a hankering for some sponge candy last week, it seemed my only option was to make it myself.

This past Saturday was another superfun DC blogger event - this time it was a wine tasting at Lauren's place. What better to go with wine than the most delicious chocolate covered candies under the sun?! Perfect op for my spongy experiment.
Some tips:

1) If you want to make candy, you need to have a candy thermometer. Don't fool yourself into thinking that you can guess when your candy is at the "soft ball" or "hard crack" stage, because you can't (believe me, I tried). The boiling sugar looks exactly the same at 200 degrees as it does at 300 degrees. I use the Good Cook thermometer that I got for $7 at my local Safeway. It's not exactly high-end, but it does come encased in a glass tube so you don't have to worry about numbers melting into your candy (which is a common complaint about candy thermometers).

If you are looking at thermometers and can't tell which ones can be used for candy making, just look for two things: 1) temperature levels exceeding 350 degrees Fahrenheit (usually they will go to 400 or 500); meat thermometers usually only go to about 220; 2) some kind of clip or hook that allows you to secure the thermometer to the rim of a pot or pan. So you might find a thermometer that is unlabeled or labeled as a frying thermometer, but will work fine as long as it meets the two aforementioned prereqs.

2) Use a single round pan, at least 9" wide. It is tempting to think, "Oh I'll just use my square baking pan. It will be easier to cut that way." Or maybe, "I'll use two smaller pans." No. Wrong. Stop. I already made these mistakes for your benefit. A circle pan works better because you need a stiff mold of parchment paper. Getting a stiff mold in a square or rectangle pan is way harder, trust me. The hot, foamy candy is poured into a lined pan and left to harden. The usable parts of the candy are in the inside, so you want as little surface area as possible (i.e., one mold, not two).

For the same reason, don't halve this recipe (or, if you halve it, use a circle pan with a small diameter so that you have less surface area). If you only want a little candy, I recommend making the whole batch and chucking whatever you don't want. The ingredients are sugar and sugar. Cheap and plentiful.
3) Use at least a medium-sized pot for boiling (at least 3 quarts), preferably one that you can lift with one hand. The candy foams up a lot, so you need a good amount of extra space in your pot. Ideally, you would pour the foam into the line pan with one hand and scrape out any excess with the other hand using a spatula. If you need both hands to lift your pot and then you scoop out any excess foam, that's fine. It just might result in a few lost bubbles.

Also, you will see the leftover foam bits start to harden on your pot and whisk. Don't worry, they will clean up no problem with some hot water.

Ok, I know that was a lot of instruction - on to the candy making!

Sponge Candy
recipe from Intimate Weddings

Makes about a pound of candy

2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2/3 cup light corn syrup
6 tbs. water
2 tsp. vanilla
2 tbs. baking soda (sift or stir to break up any lumps)
cooking spray
1 bag of milk or dark chocolate chips (or coating chocolate if you can find it)

Prepare a 9-10" springform or cake pan with parchment paper: cut out a circle for the bottom; make a double thick cylinder lining for the sides that reaches several inches above the rim of the pan. Spray the parchment paper with cooking spray. 

Mix sugar, corn syrup, water and vanilla. Pour into pot being careful not to get excess sugar up on the sides of the pot. Place your candy thermometer on the edge of the pot and turn the heat up to medium-high. Without stirring, let the sugar mix come to a boil and then continue to heat up to 300-302 degrees Fahrenheit.

Remove from heat. Take thermometer off the pot (otherwise it will get in the way of your stirring). Immediately add the baking soda and whisk until incorporated (5-10 seconds). Watch the awesome chemical reaction take place before your eyes.

Pour foamy mixture into your prepared pan and let cool completely. Once the foam is completely hardened and cooled, remove from pan and peel away parchment paper. Cut into the hardened foam and begin to cut pieces of candy. Discard the outer 1/4 inch or so of the foam shell - you will be able to see (and taste) the difference between the inner foam and hard shell.

Using a double boiler, melt 2/3 to 1 bag of chocolate chips, depending on how much candy you want to make and how much chocolate you want on each piece. Dip foam pieces in chocolate and set on wire rack or wax paper to cool. Then say goodbye to your life as you formerly knew it and hello to your new addiction.
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