Baking


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I think pecans may be my favorite nut.  Sure, cashews may be my favorite just to munch on, and pistachios are the best to eat while sitting around a campfire, but pecans can be transformed into so many wonderful goodies – pies, turtles,  brittle.  Not only are they the perfect baking nut – they are so addictive to eat raw.  My mom used to hide the bags of bulk pecans she would  buy for Christmas baking, because otherwise me, my brother and my father would eat them all before she got around to making them into treats.  But now that I live down south where pecans are omnipresent, there’s no need for pecan hiding.  And this abundance has led to many more opportunities to try different pecan recipes.  The most recent is a recipe for spicy candied pecans, and it has been an unmitigated success.

pecans

Now a caveat – sometimes I have to hide the spicy candied pecans because C loves this recipe so much.  If not hidden, the spicy pecans rarely last a few hours, let alone a day,  so I’ve become adept at making these at the last minute.  Since the recipe only takes a half an hour from start to finish this is not a hardship. In fact this recipe is by far the easiest recipe for candied pecans I’ve seen anywhere and I think it’s the tastiest.

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While I used measuring implements for this recipe,  if you’re good at eyeballing measurements you might want to try that to save on the sticky clean up.  The recipe calls for corn syrup, which whenever I cook with it, manages to get all over my entire kitchen.  You combine the corn syrup with sugar, salt, ground pepper and Tabasco sauce.  I won’t tell you how much Tabasco sauce to put in because it all depends on how spicy you like your pecans – obviously the spicier you like your nuts the more shakes of Tabasco.  I would warn you to taste the sugary mixture as you go – a few too many shakes of the Tabasco bottle and the the mixture could be fiery hot.

unbaked-pecans

After the sugary mixture is the correct spicy temperature, you mix in the pecans.  Don’t worry that the mixture won’t cover the pecans evenly, as the melting process will take care of that in the oven.  I would urge you to cover a baking dish with foil and then spray it with Pam or some other baking spray  –  it will save your sanity by making clean-up easier.  Once the pecans are in the baking pan, they go in the oven.  You stir once or twice to make sure the pecans get all the sugary mixture, but you basically let them bake for 15 minutes.

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Once that 15 minutes is up you have to work fast – use a fork to separate the pecans on another piece of foil sprayed with Pam.  If you dilly-dally you’ll get a big hunk of candied pecans.  Not the worst thing.  I suppose you could treat it like peanut brittle and chop it up – but it’s better if you have individual candied nuts.  Once cool you can store in any covered container –  except the nuts probably won’t last that long if anyone hungry is around the house.   Which is fine – this recipe is so easy you can always make more!

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Spicy Candied Pecans

Nonstick vegetable oil spray
3 T.  corn syrup
1 1/2 T. sugar
3/4 t.  salt
1/4 t.  (generous) freshly ground black pepper
Tabasco Sauce (to taste)
1 1/2 C. pecan pieces

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Line with foil and spray baking sheet with nonstick spray. Combine corn syrup and next 4 ingredients in large bowl. Stir to blend. Add pecans; stir gently to coat. Transfer to baking sheet.

Place large piece of foil on work surface. Bake pecans 5 minutes. Using fork, stir pecans to coat with melted spice mixture. Continue baking until pecans are golden and coating bubbles, about 10 minutes. Transfer to foil. Working quickly, separate nuts with fork. Cool. (Can be made 3 days ahead. Store airtight at room temperature.)

Makes 1 1/2 cups

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So clearly it’s been awhile since our last post.  I have no excuses except  for work, school, life, and a DVR full of West Wings.  And here it is almost Christmas  – that wonderful food-filled holiday – and this blog has been silent.  As an early New Years resolution I resolve to do better – to post more, to take more pictures, to experiment more in the kitchen.  There is holiday baking to be tackled and Dorie Greenspan’s Brownie Bites are the perfect place to start.

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When I was growing up, one of my good friends got a chocolate orange every Christmas.  At the time I was more entranced by the fact that orange would magically split into perfect sections once opened rather than the combination of orange and chocolate.  Truthfully,  I’ve  never been one to like fruit flavors with my chocolate – usually I think it messes up the perfect balance of chocolate.  But chocolate and orange seem to go together around Christmas; when I saw that Dorie’s recipe for Brownie Bites  called for orange zest it seemed to be a sign that this could be a new option to add to the cookie tray.

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The batter was easy to put together.  You just melt the chocolate, brown sugar and butter; once this mixture is off the heat you add vanilla, an egg, some sugary orange zest and flour.  It’s a basic brownie recipe – the thing that makes this cute and Christmasy  is that fact that they are cooked in mini muffin pans.  Once popped out of the pans and cooled, the brownies really do look like buttons.

brownie-bites

But what really makes these special is the white chocolate glaze.  Simply melt white chocolate chips then dip the tops of the brownie buttons in the melted chocolate and twist your wrist as you pull them out.  If you do it right it looks like the brownies have a cute little white hat on – just right for a Christmas cookie tray.

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Brownie Buttons
from “Baking, from my Home to Yours” By Dorie Greenspan

Grated Zest of 1/2 Orange
1 teaspoon Sugar
1/4 Cup plus 2 Tablespoons Flour
Pinch of Salt
1/2 Stick (4 Tablespoons) Unsalted Butter, Cut into 4 Pieces
2 1/2 Ounces Bittersweet Chocolate, Coarsely Chopped
1/3 Cup (Packed) Brown Sugar
1/2 teaspoon Pure Vanilla Extract
1 Large Egg

For the optional Glaze:
2 Ounces White Chocolate, Finely Chopped

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly butter two miniature muffin pans, each with a dozen cups, and place them on a baking sheet.

If you’re using the orange zest, combine the zest and sugar in a small bowl, rubbing them between your fingertips to blend: set aside. Whisk together the flour and salt.

Melt the butter, chocolate, and brown sugar in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan over very low heat, stirring frequently with a heatproof spatula and keeping an eye on the pan so that nothing overheats or burns. When the mixture is smooth, remove from the heat and cool for a minute or two. Stir the vanilla, egg and the zest into the chocolate mixture. When the mixture is well blended, add the flour and stir only until it is incorporated. You should have a smooth, glossy batter.

Spoon the batter into 16 of the muffin cups, using about a teaspoon of batter to fill each cup 3/4 full. Put 1 teaspoon of water in each empty cup.
Bake for 14-16 minutes, or until the tops of the buttons spring back when touched. Transfer the pans to racks to cool for 3 minutes before carefully releasing the buttons. Cool to room temperature on the racks.

To make the glaze: Melt the chocolate over a double boiler. Stir constantly and don’t leave the chocolate for even one minute- white chocolate scorches easily. As soon as the chocolate is smooth, remove from the heat.

One by one, dip the tops of the buttons into the chocolate, twirling the buttons so that you get a little swirl at the center of each one and the excess chocolate drips back into the bowl. Refrigerate the buttons for 15 minutes to set the glaze.

Ah, Banana Bread.  Is there any other baked good that you have to plan a week in advance to make.  You might get your craving for Banana Bread on a Monday, but by the time you buy the under-ripe super market bananas and wait impatiently for them to ripen it might be Sunday, and by then you might have a whole new craving.  That’s why when I was presented with three perfectly ripe bananas by my visiting in-laws, I knew I had to seize the moment.  Banana bread must be made.

Actually, in truth the bananas could have used a day or two more.  Then they would have been overripe – totally black and ugly – absolutely perfect for banana bread.  But these three normally ripe bananas would have to do.  When peeled and mashed they gave me almost a cup and half of banana mush – the amount needed to make my mom’s famous banana bread.

Now my mom makes this bread for everything.  When I was growing up it was her go-to homemade Christmas gift,  her go-to breakfast item, heck, there were times it was her go-to dessert.  Because this bread is dense and moist it can serve all of these purposes and more.  Plus it freezes beautifully.  Many people have received previously frozen banana bread as gifts from my mom and were never the wiser.

The only thing I’ve ever changed about my mom’s recipe is the spices.  Since I’m addicted to nutmeg I always tend to add bit of freshly ground nutmeg.  This time I also added in a pinch of cinnamon.  Personally, I think they give the bread a nice warm spiciness, but to honest, Mom’s original recipe works just fine.  You really can’t go wrong – either eat it yourself or give it away.  Or just hoard it in your freezer, since you never know when that banana bread craving will attack, and there’s no better way to be prepared.

Banana Bread

Makes 1 loaf

Ingredients:

1/2 cup butter

1 cup sugar

1 1/2 cup mashed bananas

2 eggs beaten

1 t. vanilla

2 cups flour

1 t. baking soda

1/2 t. salt

1/2 cup milk

pinch of nutmeg and cinnamon (optional)

1/2 cup walnuts or pecans

Directions:

Preheat oven to 325 degree.  Butter and flour a loaf pan.

Combine the flour, baking soda, and salt in one bowl and set aside.  Cream butter and sugar together.  Add in the mashed bananas, eggs and vanilla.  Add in the flour mixture.  Add in the milk as well as the nutmeg, cinnamon and nuts it needed.

Pour mixture into the prepared loaf pan.  Bake for 1 to 1 1/2 hours.  Remove from oven and let rest in the pan for 15 minutes.  Then remove from pan and let fully cool on a rack.

To freeze – double wrap the loaf in aluminum foil and place in a zip lock plastic bag.

Sigh

I rarely meet a cornbread I don’t like, but I definitely have a favorite. Some cornbreads are more like cake — sweet, fluffy, and very mild. Those are good, but real cornbread, at least to this Southerner, is not sweet at all but rather is nuanced with the savory flavor of bacon and it’s texture is granular — not at all cake-like. My favorite is my mom’s. It ranks among my favorite comfort foods. It is a reminder of home and family.

Just like Mom's

There are a couple of things about this cornbread that are important to know. 1. It’s good no matter what but it’s brilliant if you use the recommended bacon grease. Bacon grease? Disgusting! Not at all, my friends. Trust me on this one. The next time you make bacon, don’t throw that liquid gold away-save it and use it. You’ll be blown away by how it transforms soup, stews, potatoes, and cornbread.

Cornbread

2. You can fry this cornbread like pancakes, or you can bake it in a cast iron pan. I love my cornbread-shaped cast iron pan. I got it from my grandmother, and it’s black and well-seasoned from years of use. The cornbread comes out looking like little cornsticks that make the perfect accompaniment to any fall soup or stew.

Cast Iron Pan

Mom’s Cornbread
2 cups self-rising cornmeal (I always use Martha White)
2 teaspoons sugar
1 large egg
2 tablespoons AP flour
1 1/2 cups milk
Bacon Grease

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place about one tablespoon of bacon grease into each mold in the cast iron pan (if you aren’t using a cast iron pan like the one shown above, you can use a regular muffin pan. Put approximately 1 tablespoon of grease into each muffin cup). Place the cast iron pan in the preheated oven to allow the grease to heat. Leave the pan in the oven for about 10 to 15 minutes.

In a large bowl combine cornmeal, sugar, egg, flour, and milk. Mix thoroughly. Allow batter to sit while the cast iron pan heats in the oven. Once the pan is heated, remove it from the oven and pour batter into each mold filling to nearly the top.

Bake until golden brown (about 10 to 15 minutes). Serve immediately.

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