Friday, September 30, 2011

Ginger Snap Enlightenment

I'm turning the calendar to October and I couldn't be happier about it.  I love fall. What a great season!  I have been thinking about fall foods – what I want to make and eat and blog about. My list of things to cook includes: all things pumpkin, ginger, sweet potato, and comfort. I'm wishing for lots of time in the kitchen to make some of these things. I decided Ginger Snaps should start the season because this recipe is so very amazing and I think you should have it now so that you can make it as many times as you can in the next few months. Because when February rolls around, you might be ready to move on to chocolate and valentines.

Now, I have to confess that the idea of Ginger Snaps was never appealing to me. They are one of those foods that I had stereotyped.  I am teaching a course this semester called Exploring Human Diversity (I am a professor of social work when I'm not baking, blogging and mothering). We have been discussing stereotypes and seeking to courageously face them in ourselves so that we can dismantle them in our lives and grow beyond them.  So, admittedly, one of my stereotypes (albeit inconsequential compared to other more destructive ones I am certain that I harbor) has been against Ginger Snap cookies.
In my mind they have always been a hard, stale, dark molasses cookie that was found in a box on a shelf and really didn't deserve the title of cookie.  I mean, cookies are a pretty special category, if you ask me.  I thought of them more like molasses disks.  I even bought the ones once that were packaged in a cute kraft brown paper sack, since I'm a sucker for packaging and somehow thought they must be homemade-tasting if they were in that fun sack.  Not so.  This just reinforced my stereotype about Ginger Snaps.  So I wrote them off.  Not worth the calories.  And certainly Dave wouldn't go for them, as he is majorly biased towards soft cookies.

And then, my friend Lisa, brought freshly baked Ginger Snaps to an event and they were so beautiful  – like little puffy, intricately cracked, sugar-coated, round treasures.  I had to pick one up and hold it in my hand and then I had to taste it. In that moment my stereotype was shattered.  I was enlightened!  It was incredible.  It was chewy and the perfect amount of spicy and salty and sweet.  It was unlike any Ginger Snap I had experienced.

In my Diversity course, we have been discussing that the way to undo your stereotypes is to actually encounter people "up-close" and "personal" from the group about which you have made assumptions and generalizations.  And indeed this remedy was true for me and my cookie issues.  I discovered that not all Ginger Snaps are the same.  And that day, this recipe was added to my list of favorite cookies.

So, I encourage you, if you are like me and have some stereotyping baggage associated with hard, store-bought ginger snaps, to try this recipe. This way you can have an "up-close" and "personal" encounter with Lisa's Ginger Snap Cookies and perhaps overcome your bias, all while celebrating the fall season!

3/4 cup Crisco (shortening)
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup molasses
2 1/4 cup all purpose flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt (I use coarse salt)
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves

Extra sugar for rolling

Cream together shortening and sugar.
Beat in egg and molasses.
Add flour, baking soda, salt and spices.
Chill dough for at least 30 minutes.
Roll dough into 1 inch balls.
Roll in small bowl of sugar until completely coated.
Place on baking sheet lined with parchment (or a greased baking sheet).
Bake at 350 degrees for 9-11 minutes
(depending on the size of the balls and heat of your oven).

Watch to see that they are browning just a touch on the edges and flattening.

Remove from oven and let sit on pan for a few minutes – cookies will form the beautiful cracks as they cool a little.

Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

My kids were discussing Snickerdoodles versus Ginger Snaps versus Brown Sugar Cookies (from Joy the Baker that my friend Melissa brought over).  Lucy, my 3 year old was discussing the nuances between the 3 cookies with Asher, my 9 year old.  Lucy argued that Ginger Snaps were browner, and that Snickerdoodles were whiter and were sour (I think she's right – it's that cream of tartar in Snickerdoodles).  Asher asked her how she knew this about cookies, being that she is 3 and all, to which she replied, "I'm an Expert!".  I have no idea where she learned the term, "expert", but I think she probably is a cookie expert.

Friday, September 23, 2011

People's Choice

It was one of those weeks! No fun baking happened here, just trying to make-do and get something on the table to feed my people.  We did some cleaning out of the refrigerator and creative meal fixing.  We had what we call "People's Choice".

Let me define the term "People's Choice", coined by my mom sometime in my childhood.  I must preface this description by saying that I have a very creative mother.  She is smart and clever and always in pursuit of making things fun.  When I was growing up, she made cleaning the house a race in our home (with estimated times, kitchen timers set, tasks assigned and music playing) and made tasks more bearable with singing and assigning creative names to things.  Dave says, "just imagine Maria from The Sound of Music" – playclothes made from old draperies, picnics on the hillside, learning music theory by dancing up steps, overcoming the fear of storms by singing of woolen mittens... you get the picture?

Growing up, a half sandwich (one piece of bread, folded over) was far more fun if called a "foldy"... it still is, actually.  A melted ham and cheese sandwich on a bun called a "yumbo" sounded like party food.  Mom could take the ordinary and make it memorable.  She still can.

One of her mainstays was "People's Choice".  Did I also mention that she is also very positive? She's a lemonade-out-of-lemon kind of a lady.  (And she doesn't like wasting or throwing things away.) People's Choice is the name my mother coined for leftovers.  Rather than "left-over night" being a disappointing, re-heating of seen-before-meals, her people's choice was a free-for-all of the leftovers from the previous days, with the addition of some fresh fruit or salad, at times, to complete the meal.  And it worked.  It wasn't dreadful.  It was actually kinda fun.

People's Choice infers that you have the power to choose.  Whatever meal you most enjoyed during the previous days, you can stake your claim on it.  It is almost like working a puzzle (which we happen to really like too).  This is done with the goal in mind of trying to see if you can clear out all of the containers – or at least some of them – and feed all the people at the table something they would enjoy.  This meal requires only 10 to 15 minutes to prep, you are cleaning out the fridge, while simultaneously reducing waste and feeding a household!

So, of course, we carry this tradition on in our home and when the fridge is full of containers of leftovers, and we don't have the time or energy to invent a new meal.  We declare that it is People's Choice night!  Hip Hip Hooray!

(the photo at the top of the page is a typical People's Choice offering at the Hunt house: 2 bowls of leftover tomato soup, 2 slices of lasagna, a pile of roasted veggies, some pita pizzas thrown in to help bridge the gap for kids and to stretch the quantity ... and of course a little plate of fresh fruit – you know how essential that seems to be at my table!)

(or below:  some leftover pasta salad, barley salad, beans – from a home-cooked meal, paired with fajita peppers and onions brought home from a Mexican restaurant, and some bruschetta.  Something for everyone!)  I know you might be thinking, "you brought home peppers and onions from the restaurant?" Yes!  We had eaten most of the meat and the trimmings but had a pile of peppers and onions left, which we paid for, that could make some nice veggie tacos at home.

So remember, when you need to clean out those leftovers in your fridge and you just have a little of this and a little of that and no time or energy to create a new meal ... think People's Choice! And exercise your power to choose!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Book Clubs & Tea Cakes

My 7-year-old loves to read.  So does her mom.  I am thrilled to have a bookworm daughter.   At any given moment, you can find her in a room with her nose in a book – standing, sitting, lying down, perched on the side of the sofa, in the bathroom.  Then, if you walk into another room, you will find another book opened and turned over, marking the page where she left off. (I am trying to teach her the use of bookmarks – a ribbon, slip of paper, gum wrapper, whatever – as a more effective way of marking the book than her technique).  The other day I caught her reading and playing the piano simultaneously and snapped this photo! I know... multi-tasking at its finest!

So last year I decided that maybe she and I should help start a mom/daughter book club.  One of my heros, Brené Brown, whom I wrote about a while back, has a wonderful blog called Ordinary Courage.  It is a wealth of resources, information, thought-provoking challenges and a fresh perspective on living a courageously, whole-hearted life.  I read on her blog about a mom/daughter group that she and her daughter have done with several peers of theirs and I was so inspired that I sought out how I might be able to emulate what she has done.  After a few conversations and several emails, we had an excited group of women and their 1st grade daughters gathered together to begin a book club.  We chose The Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes, as our first book, following Brene's example for our first read.  If you haven't read it, you must.  It is a simple, heartfelt book from the 1944 and yet the themes are timeless and poignant.

One mother, a professor of English (how convenient), facilitated our discussion as we sat around our large oval table and talked about the author, the period in which it was written, the imagery, the scenes that stuck with us, the conflict in the plot, the less-than-ideal-ending and how we had wished the book had ended.  We discussed the great opportunity that reading provides in our lives, to give us insight into our own lives, and even the chance to "write our own ending" to the story of our situations, perhaps influenced and enlightened by the characters in a book.

Another mother and her daughter gathered fun art supplies for the girls to make their own bookmarks with dress-themed adornments.  The girls loved this component of the gathering.  The women even had the unexpected chance to visit while the girls were busy with their art project!

We had fresh berries, salty snacks, raspberry lemonade and tea cakes.  These tea cakes are one of my most treasured recipes.  The recipe came from my friend, Connie.  She got it from her mother-in-law and sister-in-law.  There is a bakery, Ham'N Goodys, in Knoxville that makes these. They had a location in Nashville also, but, sadly, it closed several years ago. It was such a disappointment, because their lemon sugar cookies and tea cakes with thick almond glaze are out of this world.

It's hard to find a good recipe for a tea cake.  That term, "tea cake", can be interpreted a lot of ways.  Some cookbooks see it more like a Mexican wedding cookie, others think of it as a quick bread with dried fruit and nuts.  I think of tea cakes in the Ham'N Goodys Bakery way:  a soft, puffy, cakey sugar cookie with a thick almond glaze covering the top.  This recipe accomplishes it!

It is bigger than a cookie and easier to serve, transport and eat than a cupcake!  People love them! Kids and adults alike.  And they are so pretty.  My friend, Melissa (the florist) makes them also and I have seen her pipe a monogram or initial on the top with some buttercream icing.  They are lovely!

The recipe only has a few ingredients and I find it interesting that whipping cream serves as both the oil (fat) and the liquid of the recipe.  The only trick to this recipe is getting them the correct thickness and doneness.  You really must try them!

1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup whipping cream
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla or almond extract (you choose)
3 1/2 cups of self-rising flour

Glaze- 4 cups powdered sugar, a few drops almond extract & a few spoons of water

Mix together sugar, whipping cream, egg and extract in a bowl.  Add flour one cup at a time (because it can become stiff), stirring in between.  Add flour until incorporated and not too sticky to handle.  Roll the dough into golf ball size balls. Place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.  Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes.  Watch closely- they typically do not brown on the top, only on the bottom.

After they are fully cooked, remove from pans and let cool on wire racks.  While cooling, mix together powdered sugar with a few drops of almond extract and a few Tablespoons of water.  Continue stirring, adding water as needed to get the desired consistency.  You want it to be thick enough to stay on the cookie but thin enough to spread  easily. Let them rest until glaze is firm. (If you want to add sprinkles, do so while they are still wet.  If you want pipe a design on top, wait until they are dry and set). 

(I make them with almond extract but you can exchange that with vanilla or lemon if you want.)

I often double-layer the dough to insure the right thickness

smoothing on glaze with the back of a spoon

sprinkles (if you want) and then drying on a rack

And I can't think of anything more delightful than curling up with one of these Tea Cakes, a cup of coffee or tea, and a good book. Sigh – take me there!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Strawberry Cake

I remember first having this super-moist strawberry cake at a women's retreat.  It was made in a loaf pan and sliced.  It was outstanding! (And it wasn't even adorned with frosting.)  It was delicious.  I tracked down who made it and the baker immediately wrote the recipe down on a little spiral notebook page by memory, tore the page out and handed it to me.  It quickly became a favorite.  I then started making it topped with strawberry cream cheese frosting, because why would I not.  Oh my, is it good!  Then again, what isn't good with cream cheese frosting.

And then I made them as cupcakes, because everybody loves a cupcake.  And I actually think they work better as cupcakes, because the frosting doesn't have much body to it and sometimes pours down the cake making a sloppy and not-so-perfect-looking cake.

So when it was my son's 4th birthday and I asked what kind of cake he wanted and he said, "I would like a Batman strawberry cake."  I giggled thinking about my very active, boyish boy with a pretty pink cake.  I began trying to figure out how to honor the batman theme and not compromise the yumminess of the strawberry cream cheese frosting.  I ended up making a layered cake, covered in pretty pink cream cheese frosting, topped with a Batman-occupied-Batmobile toy placed on top with a "Happy Birthday Asher" paper banner extending from the vehicle.  Somehow it worked.  It was boy enough and yummy.

He is 9 now and this remains his most requested birthday cake.  I love that.  This year was his GOLDEN birthday- turning 9 on his birthday, the 9th.  (Golden birthdays are a new concept to me...I missed mine about 30 years ago).  He requested... "a strawberry cake...of course"! Here's the cake.

This cake is also a favorite of my girls, though Lainey is now really more into red velvet cake (like father/ like daughter).
at Lainey's 4th birthday party

We had these for Lucy's 3rd birthday, last year, and my sister made these adorable ballerina toppers with paper, lollipop sticks and tulle netting.  Aren't they fun!?

A few years ago I made the strawberry cupcakes for a baby shower and my friend, Jessica, who was at the shower loved them and has been talking about them ever since.  In fact, she has been asking me since I started this blog, when I was going to post these cupcakes.  It just hasn't been the right time, I've had so many other seasonal things I've wanted to write about.  But when Jessica had a baby a couple of months ago and I took a meal to her, she requested the cupcakes and I made them to celebrate the arrival of her sweet baby girl! I took photos this time so I could finally post the process!

[The cake begins with a white cake mix.  Have you ever used the Cake Mix Doctor cookbook?  All the recipes in the book begin with a cake mix, and are then ramped up with a bunch of other ingredients.  A recipe similar to this is found in that cookbook.  The author, Anne Byrn and I agree that homemade frosting is key! ]

Strawberry Cupcakes with Strawberry Cream Cheese Frosting

The Strawberry Cake

1 pkg. plain white cake mix
1 pkg. (3 ounces) strawberry gelatin
1 cup mashed strawberries (1½  cups whole berries)
1 cup canola oil
½ cup milk
4 large eggs

Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.  Lightly grease, and dust with flour, three 8-inch or two 9-inch cake pans (or line 2 muffin pans with cupcake liners).  

In a large mixing bowl, place cake mix, strawberry gelatin, mashed strawberries and juice, oil, milk and eggs and blend with an electric mixer on low speed for 1 minute.  Stop the machine and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.  Increase the mixer speed to medium and beat for 2 more minutes.  Divide batter among the pans (or muffin tins) and place in the oven.

Bake the cakes until they are light brown and a toothpick inserted in the center of the cakes comes out clean – 25-28 minutes for cake – less for cupcakes (more like 18-20 minutes). Remove from oven, place on wire racks to cool for 10 minutes, then remove from pan.  Allow them to cool completely, 30 minutes more. 

Meanwhile, prepare the frosting.

Dave's favorite part...a container of leftover frosting in the fridge 
Strawberry Cream Cheese Frosting

1 pkg. (8 oz.) cream cheese, at room temperature
1 stick butter, at room temperature
4 cups (or more) confectioner’s sugar
¾ cup strawberries, mashed into ½ cup, drained well!

Combine cream cheese and butter in mixer and blend until smooth and well incorporated.  Add sugar and strawberries.  Blend together, on low, until fully incorporated.  Increase speed to medium and blend for another minute.  Add more confectioner’s sugar as needed to thicken.

Frost cooled cakes. Gobble them up! 
(Actually, if you can resist, I  think they taste better day 2, as the frosting and the cake have a chance to “marry”.)

A cake that can equally thrill and honor a 9 year old boy, a 3 year old girl and a new mom has got to be a winner!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Last Summer Hurrah

I wanted to hurry up and post this recipe for marinated cucumbers and tomatoes before Labor Day!  It seems like I should be moving on from summer fare to autumn treats... it is September after all!   However,  it's hot around here and the tomato and cucumber harvest is still plentiful! I have made this salad this summer but haven't had a chance to write about it.

I went back and forth about whether or not to post this now or save it for next summer.  (I have about 4 other posts I’m currently working on of goodies I have baked lately – which makes it hard to choose).  

But as I talked to my friend, Nanette, she encouraged me that if I hurry up and post it this weekend, before Labor Day, then I should be safe.  If you grew up knowing etiquette, you will know what she is referencing.  There is an imaginary cut off of all things summer on Labor Day: white pants and white shoes especially!  This is the weekend where we are to switch out our white for dark in our closets. Neighborhood pools start to close and Halloween costumes invade the aisles at Target.  

So, I quickly post this fresh and easy salad which is a classic southern dish.  My grandmother Adcox used to make it and serve it in little brown bowls at her dinner table.  I love it.  I think it’s the vinegar/ sugar/salt combination.  All things I love.  Do you like salt and vinegar potato chips? YUM!  – especially Kettle ones – even though I usually end up with sores in my mouth after eating them!
This reminds me of that flavor, except on veggies instead of potato chips.

This salad is refreshing and is great because you put it together and then refrigerate it.  It keeps well for several days, so you can just pull it out and serve it up with your meal.  It tastes better Day 2 and keeps until the veggies start to wilt.

Marinated Cucumber Salad
2 tsp salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

2 large cucumbers
1 cup grape tomatoes
1/2 cup onion

Stir together first 4 ingredients until sugar and salt are dissolved.

Thinly slice cucumbers and half tomatoes. Thinly slice onion. Add vegetables to marinade and toss together.

Cover and refrigerate.

(You can also experiment with different combinations of veggies, if you would rather.)

So, hurry and and savor your favorite foods of the summer season, go swim at the pool before it closes and wear those white pants one last time!