Monday, October 10, 2011

Whole Wheat Pumpkin Bread w/ Maple Cinnamon Glaze

Sigh. This past weekend was about as good as they come. It was three days long, the weather was UH-mazing, and my usual haunts were crawling with pumpkins. I freaking love pumpkins. I want to buy a thousand of them and cover my yard with the orange beauties so that everyone walking by can taste the fall in the air and feel flashes of subconscious nostalgia for trick-or-treating as a kid. Halloween is my favorite holiday (as evidenced here), despite the painful memories of the year that I had a short haircut and my parents dressed me as a skeleton and all of our neighbors thought I was boy. I was 7; it left scars.

But back to the present. I spent Saturday gloriously baking and cleaning and walking my pup. She and I took a stroll over to Eastern Market to pick up some home-grown yellow tomatoes and basil (which later came together in a super-fresh pasta dish with a little olive oil and cherry peppers). I can't say it enough, but the weather was so good. I'll say it a million times to show the weather gods how much I appreciated it. Hot weather that runs into October is what gets me through those garbage months later on (I should probably just move to Arizona and be done with it). So I was strolling along, loving the heat and loving my dog and just loving life. Then I see what I can only describe as a heartstoppingly beautiful pumpkin. Charlie Brown would have died. So I bagged it up and lugged it home (seriously lugged - between the tomatoes and pumpkins and dog, getting home took all my energy and coordination).
I had the perfect pumpkin centerpiece. Then it was on to the perfect pumpkin dessert. I looked at gobs of recipes for pumpkin bread before crafting my own. The most popular recipe floating around the internet calls for 1-1/2 cups of sugar per loaf. Now, I clearly am not one who shies away from using sugar. I bake sweet treats like it's my j-o-b. But, as I've said before, there's no point in putting boatloads of sugar in a baked good where you don't need it. I would wager that if you pitted my recipe (3/4 cups of sugar and 3/4 cups unsweetened applesauce) against a recipe with 1-1/2 cups of sugar, mine would win. And even if it didn't win (though this is doubtful), it wouldn't be because of the missing sugar. Save your sugs for when they really count.
This recipe produces a moist, dense quick bread. Not something airy or crusty or crumbly. "Quick bread" is a catch-all term for breads that don't use yeast to rise (and hence are more like your typical baked good than actual bread). E.g., banana bread, corn bread, zucchini bread, soda bread, biscuits. I wanted something so moist that it's almost mushy on the inside - just like the banana bread that my mom used to make when I was a kid. 

The whole wheat was an experiment. I used half whole wheat and half all-purpose, but you wouldn't even know it was part whole wheat. Next time, I'll go whole hog on the whole wheat and see what happens. In the meantime, don't hesitate to try this recipe - which is tasty-central - or to experiment with your own ideal pumpkin bread recipe!

Whole Wheat Pumpkin Bread w/Maple Cinnamon Glaze 

Makes one loaf

Pumpkin Bread
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. salt
1-1/4 cups canned pumpkin
2 eggs
3/4 cups packed brown sugar
3/4 cups unsweetened applesauce
3/4 cups vegetable oil 

2 tbsp. low-fat cream cheese (same as neufchรขtel), room temperature
2 tbsp. pure maple syrup
pinch cinnamon

This recipe is easy peasy. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Mix your dry ingredients - the first 8 ingredients, not including the brown sugar (brown sugar is sticky and won't distribute evenly when put directly in dry ingredients). Mix together wet ingredients plus brown sugar. Add dry to wet, mixing just enough to incorporate. Pour batter into a greased loaf pan (or a pan lined with parchment paper that hangs over the edge on two sides for easy removal). Bake at 350 for 50-55 minutes. Top should be just starting brown at the crevice (there's always a crevice in quick breads) and a toothpick should come out clean. I baked for exactly 55 minutes.

While bread cools (for 15-20 minutes), whisk together cream cheese, maple syrup and a few good shakes of cinnamon. Make sure cream cheese is at room temperature, otherwise it won't incorporate with the syrup very well. While bread is still warm, pour the glaze down the center of the bread and spread to edges gently with a spatula. 

Garnish with your favorite decorative pumpkins.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Caramelized Onion and Eggplant on Toasts

Home cookin' is great. But so is restaurant food (I'm sure I don't need to tell you that, America). There's a reason your mouth waters when you walk down streets crowded with restaurants. And it's no coincidence that the restaurant industry is raking it in (taking in an estimated $604billion in 2011).

Yes, one reason is because lots (but not all) of restaurants use all sorts of extra fats and sugars and flavor additives that you would never dream of stocking in your kitchen. But another reason, the part I prefer to think about, is because restaurants have professionally trained chefs who know how to use ingredients. They know the go-to ingredients that always taste good in any dish and they know what flavors have synergy (please forgive me for just using the word synergy). I, as a home cook with zero training, happen to think that onions are one of those ingredients that taste good in any dish. Caramelized onions are sweet and savory at the same time and go well with meats, sandwiches, eggs, cheeses, pasta - you name it!

This onion & eggplant dish tastes like it came from a restaurant. Or maybe a fancy caterer. It's hard to explain exactly what that means, but I promise it means delicious. It comes together with a sophisticated flavor straight away, and doesn't require any fancy-pants cooking knowledge. In fact, you don't even have to get top-notch ingredients. I mean, who ever says, "look at these onions - they're so fresh!" As long as your onion doesn't have weirdo spots or discoloration, it's fine. And to be quite honest, my eggplant was a little dried out. But that was no problem! You can't screw this dish up. And your dinner guests will be falling all over themselves to scoop up the last bits.
Over the summer, my high school BFF got married at a great little inn in upstate NY. One of the hors d'oeuvres was an eggplant spread that, at least according to my memory, tasted just like this one (I'm calling it a spread for lack of a better descriptor, but as you can see, it's chunkalicious). I may or may not have gone overboard tasting the eggplant spread . . . strictly for research purposes, of course. And as luck would have it, one of my recent CSA boxes had a very nice looking, albeit small (and as I would come to find, dried out), eggplant. Obviously, the-powers-that-be wanted me to re-create the wedding eggplant dish. Well, TPTB, challenge accepted.
Eggplant has a high water content, so some eggplant recipes recommend that you salt the eggplant in advance of cooking to sweat out some of the moisture (for example, you might want to do this if you have a very fresh eggplant that you're using in an eggplant parmesan to avoid getting a soup-sauce). But since a) my eggplant was dry anyway, and b) a little extra moisture is fine for this dish, I didn't do any pre-salting. You don't have to either (because even if you did end up with a lot of extra liquid in your eggplant spread, you could just use a slotted spoon to scoop it into your serving dish).

I tested the spread with both goat cheese and feta cheese and thought the feta was perfect (goat was good, but the feta was great). And if you'd rather serve this as a main course, it would make an insane panini. For a little more substance, add prosciutto and serve on a ciabatta roll. Damn, that sounds so good. Just thinking out loud here.

Caramelized Onion & Eggplant on Toasts

Serves 4-6 as an appetizer 

1 medium eggplant
1 medium onion
4 cloves of garlic, minced or crushed
4-6 tbs olive oil
1 baguette
plain feta cheese crumbles

Peel and dice eggplant. Peel and dice onion. In two separate skillets, heat up 2 tablespoons of oil over medium-low heat (2 tbs. in each pan). Add eggplant to one pan and onion to the other (use a larger pan for the onion). Eggplant will cook for 15-20 minutes, onions will cook for 20-25 minutes. Both should cook down until very limp and easily cut with your spatula.

After 20 minutes, turn off heat under eggplant. Add minced garlic to onions and continue to cook for another 5 minutes. Add eggplant to the onions. Add salt and pepper to taste. Leave over heat for another few minutes.

Preheat oven to 350. Slice baguette and place slices on a cookie sheet. Since it's being toasted, the bread does not need to be super-fresh. This is a perfect recipe for using up day-old (or several-day-old) baguette remnants. Toast baguette slices in the preheated oven until lightly browned (3 to 4 minutes).

Serve eggplant & onion mix on toasted baguette slices with plain feta cheese crumbles on top.
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