Apricot Pastry Squares and Mourning Doves

I’m offering this recipe for Apricot Pastry Squares mainly because they are so good, and so useful. The recipe comes from “Miss Grimble Presents Delicious Desserts,” by Sylvia Hirsch, and it’s a killer. First, there’s the incredibly tender, buttery crust, then there’s the caramel-y filling studded with luscious shards of moist apricot, and then, the drift of powdered sugar like snowflakes.

The beauty of these bars is that they could be taken on a picnic, or served with each square nestled in its own paper case on a beautiful holiday buffet. They would be perfect for Thanksgiving, Easter, or, for that matter, Ground Hog’s Day or Millard Fillmore’s birthday! You haven’t celebrated Millard Fillmore’s birthday? Why not? Here is the recipe:

Apricot Pastry Squares

CRUST:
1 stick butter (1/2 cup)
1/3 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

TOPPING:
5 to 6 ounces dried apricots, chopped (1 cup)
2 eggs
1 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1/3 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or almonds
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. You may use a 7 x 10″ pan, an 8″ square pan, or a 9″ tart pan with a removable bottom. Grease the pan, line with parchment paper, and lightly grease again. (If you use the tart pan, just grease it.)

Cream the butter with the sugar, then add the flour and the vanilla, blending well. Press the crumbs into the bottom of the pan. Bake for 20 minutes or until edges are lightly browned. The surface will crack a bit.

Simmer the chopped apricots for about 10 minutes in water barely to cover; drain and cool.

Combine the eggs with the brown sugar and beat with a large spoon for about two minutes, until the mixture is smooth and glossy.

Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt and add to the egg mixture. Add the drained apricots, nuts and vanilla. Blend mixture and spread evenly over crust. (The crust can be still warm.) Return to oven and bake about 30 to 35 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool. Dust with powdered sugar and serve.

Photos shows the dried apricots I used, and how finely to chop them. This made one brimming cup of dried apricots, but you could use as little as 3/4 cup if you wish. Also shown, the crumb crust ready for the oven.

Baking notes: The original recipe called for only 3/4 cup chopped apricots, but using a brimming cupful worked well. If you press the crust crumbs down firmly, but not mercilessly, you will have a tender crust. I photographed the bars when they were still slightly warm, and so they look a bit ragged. If you slice them when cool, they will be perfect.

Mourning Doves

This morning I noticed a mourning dove in the garden with a bit of straw in his beak, and then saw him fly up to a gutter of our neighbor’s house. He and a female dove are nesting! Here are some photos.

Home, sweet home.
The father mourning dove. It looks like the tips of his claws have frozen off.

Peace to you. Fran

The Dutch irises are back!

 

 

Dried Cherry Chocolate Chunk Cookies and Bluebirdland

Here’s the thing: I was watching the news, and after a while my mind started looking for avenues of escape. I found myself thinking about an old Italian grocery store I used to go to in Berwyn, Illinois, one that sold homemade Italian sausage, sauce, and all sort of Italian specialties, including liqueurs. I particularly remembered seeing maraschino liqueur sold in a beautiful green glass bottle, wrapped in straw.

Then, my mind saw a little door called “chocolate chip cookies,” and as I opened the door and fell down the rabbit hole, I thought of soaking dried cherries in maraschino liqueur, and adding them to a chocolate chip cookie recipe. The result is this cookie, which is a buttery pillow of melting chocolate chunks and chewy bits of tangy cherries. I used the “chunks” version of TollHouse semi-sweet chocolate, rather than the chips, and this added to the fun. Hope you enjoy!

Dried Cherry Chocolate Chunk Cookies

The footed bowl is from England, and is a pattern called “Vista.”

2-1/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
3/4 cup white sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
11.5 oz. package of semi-sweet chocolate chips or chunks
1 cup (5 ounces) chopped dried cherries, soaked in 2 tablespoons maraschino liqueur or brandy
1/3 cup sliced almonds

Preheat oven to 375 degrees, and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Combine flour, baking soda and salt in a small bowl. Beat butter and the two sugars and vanilla in a large bowl until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in flour mixture, and then the dried cherries, the chocolate chunks and the nuts. You may want to mix this all together with your impeccably clean hands. Using a small cookie scoop, drop dough onto the lined baking sheet. Bake for 9 to 11 minutes or until golden brown. Makes about 4-1/2 dozen cookies.

Below see the dried cherries and maraschino liqueur, chopping the cherries, the batter, and the finished cookies.

Baking notes: Maraschino liqueur is made from a sour Morello cherry called the Marasca cherry. It tastes like a delicious brandy, and isn’t actually cherry flavored, so you could use brandy or whiskey in this recipe. But it is fun to have the authentic, green glass, straw-wrapped bottle. I took the time to chop each dried cherry in half–it’s actually easier then chopping a big sticky mass of dried cherries.


Some years ago, my sister Janet created a wonderful Thanksgiving feast, and I wrote a story about it, adding the recipes used for the dinner. It was just for fun, and I made up copies and handed them around to family members. Our local library recently made e-book publishing software available to patrons, and I decided to turn my Thanksgiving book into an e-book. This is by a long way of saying that if you click here or on the book cover, it will take you to my book catalog, and then to the book. While it isn’t exactly Thanksgiving season, still, I hope you enjoy.

Bluebird Land

Jim and I recently went for a walk by the river in a nature area called Ferson Creek Fen. The river sometimes overflows its banks here, creating wet meadows of sedges and bullrushes. It was a sunny, sparkling day and we saw our first bluebirds! What a thrill! Peace to you. Fran


bluebird land

A Quiche by Another Name

Somewhere back in about 1973, quiches were a big deal. Quiches are custards baked in a buttery crust, and they seemed to be everywhere then, especially on every brunch menu. Quiches had their moment, and then faded, I think because not everyone is up to making the crust.

At any rate, I recently was at a nice little French bistro in Geneva, Illinois called Chez Moi, and we had quiche. I nearly fell out of my chair it was so good–tender crusted, buttery, fluffy, etc. Quiches are back!

Still, because of the crust issue, I made no effort to make one myself. But when I ran across the following recipe for a crustless quiche, in an old Gourmet clipping, I decided to give it a try. It’s so good–buttery, cheesy, and ham-y, and perfect for an easy dinner. Really! Here is the recipe:

Crustless Quiche

1-1/2 tablespoons fine dry breadcrumbs
1 cup chopped shallots or onions
1 cup diced ham
1 tablespoon butter
1 8-ounce package (2 cups) shredded Swiss cheese
4 eggs
2 cups half and half or cream and milk

Butter a 10-inch quiche dish (you could also use a 9 x 9″ Pyrex baking dish) and sprinkle it with the breadcrumbs. Cook the shallots with the diced ham in the butter for about five minutes. Spread in the prepared dish, then sprinkle shredded cheese on top. Mix the eggs with the half and half, and pour over the cheese, slowly and evenly. Bake until the top is brown and puffed, about 25 to 30 minutes.

Before we go one step further, here’s something I found out–this crustless quiche really is best cooled off before eating–the flavors intensify, and you can cut it into slices. So you can make it ahead, and serve it with crusty bread (or bread sticks) and a salad, and have dinner. Here’s another thing I found out: the Italian name for a crustless quiche is frittata. Whatever you call it, it’s tasty!

Baking notes: Why use shallots? More and more cooks have come to appreciate their mild flavor and the convenience of their small size. Also, you don’t have to use ham–I used a dried pork lunchmeat called capocollo, from Aldi.

By the way, for the salad I used torn romaine, radicchio, one sliced orange and some toasted walnuts. I made a dressing of olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper, and tossed everything together.

The photos below show the chopped shallots and capocollo, the quiche ready to go into the oven, and the cooled-off quiche, ready for snacking!

A closeup of the salad.

Here is Puff, my cat photography assistant.

And, lastly, a mourning dove who appears to be napping, on the roof next door. Peace to you. Fran

 

A Trip to Samarkand, and Spring Birds

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This is the time of year when I wish I could sprout wings and fly to some exotic land. Spring is close–so close I can almost touch it–but the sunlight is still cold and the ground icy.

unknownSo I’ve been taking a little vacation from February by immersing myself in a cookbook called “Samarkand: Recipes & Stories from Central Asia & the Caucasus,” by Caroline Eden & Eleanor Ford. Samarkand, which is in present-day Uzbekistan, is on the ancient Silk Road of Central Asia, and its foods, especially its flatbreads, seem wonderfully exotic to me. The flatbreads are baked in tandoor ovens, which are cylindrical and made of clay.

I had first read of these breads, which are called “nan,” in “Time-Life Foods of the World: Russian Cooking,” and the accompanying picture (see below) of the breads sold in an exotic bazaar amazed me. When I was a kid, we usually had Wonder Bread, or Pepperidge Farm, if we were being fancy, so this picture fascinated me.

img_7428 At any rate, I found a simple flatbread recipe in “Flatbread and Flavors” by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, and decided to try it. The recipe comes from the oasis city of Kashgar, home to the Uighurs, a Turkic population. I made a number of changes from the original recipe, as noted below.

Note: The centers of these breads traditionally are decorated with a tool called a “chekich.” It has nails that form a decorative design in the dough. I have found that a “pin frog,” (see picture below), is a good substitute. It can be found wherever flower decorating supplies are sold.

Uighur Nan

1 package (1/4 oz.) yeast
2-1/2 cups warm water
1 teaspoon sugar
6 cups bread flour
2 teaspoons salt
sesame,  poppy or charnuska seeds

one beaten egg to brush on bread

In a large bowl, sprinkle the yeast on the water, and then stir in the sugar. Allow to foam up. Add three cups of the bread flour, along with the salt, and stir for about one minutes to develop the gluten. Add the rest of the flour and stir in. It will become too stiff to stir, and you can start kneading it. I knead it right in the bowl. After kneading for about five minutes, turn the dough out of the bowl, clean it, and add some oil. Return the dough to the bowl, and coat with the oil. Let it rise until double, about 1-1/2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Turn out the dough onto a floured surface, and cut into six pieces. Form each piece into a ball. Then roll out to circles about seven inches across. Press the center of the dough down to form a one-inch rim. Using a fork, or a “pin frog,” prick the center of the bread. Brush the bread with the beaten egg, and strew with the seeds of your choice, or sea salt. The original bread called for cumin seeds and finely chopped scallions.

Bake, two at a time, for 10 minutes, or until golden brown. Makes six loaves.

Notes: Be sure the yeast foams before proceeding. The original recipe did not call for any sugar, but in this cold, dry time of year, a bit of sugar gives the yeast a kick. Add up to two more teaspoons if the yeast is sluggish. If the dough is a bit too sticky to knead, add a quarter to half a cup more flour. And be sure the oven is thoroughly preheated before baking. Charnuska seeds have an onion flavor and can be purchased at specialty spice shops.

I’m serving this bread tonight with feta cheese, grapes, and some cauliflower/chorizo soup that I made yesterday.

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In the photos below, see the yeast and water before and after foaming, the unrisen and then the risen dough, dough cut into six pieces, formed into balls, and then rolled out and pricked with my make-do chekich.

I ran across an interesting article about “The Fabled Flatbreads of Uzbekistan,” in Aramco World, which is worth a look at. Also, here is link that shows Uzbek flatbreads being made.

The oranges are called "blood oranges," and are available now in markets. The flavor is grape mixed with orange. Delicious!
The oranges shown above are called “blood oranges,” and are available now in markets. The flavor is grape mixed with orange. Delicious!

Time to move on to birds! I heard a cacophony of bird song coming from some trees down the block, and went to investigate with my camera. Turns out there were starlings, robins and cedar waxwings all flying to and fro from a serviceberry tree to a nearby pine tree. Here is a cedar waxwing reaching with his beak for a dried berry.

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Starlings are so elegant!

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Flocks of robins are back in town. Glad to see them! Peace to you. Fran

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Monet’s Almond Cookies

fullsizeoutput_2ff5No, Claude Monet didn’t bake these cookies himself–but possibly they were baked by his cook, Marguerite, and served at teatime late in the afternoon under the lime trees at Giverny. If only I had a time machine . . . He and his wife had visited England, and it’s there that he came to appreciate the custom of teatime. At home, Monet and his family and visitors enjoyed scones, fruit cake, and, according to legend, these almond cookies, called galettes nantais.

Monet certainly was interested in eating well, and kept menus and cooking journals, journals that were the basis for “Monet’s Table: The Cooking Journals of Claude Monet,” by Claire Joyes, wife of Madame Monet’s great-grandson, which is where I found this recipe.

Almost forgot–in researching this post, I ran across a snippet of film, from 1915, showing Monet painting. Kind of amazing.

Almond Cookies (Galettes nantais)

fullsizeoutput_2fdc3-3/4 cups flour
2 cups powdered sugar
pinch of salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup ground almonds
grated rind of one lemon
4 eggs

chopped almonds and sugar for topping the cookies

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. In a large bowl, mix the flour, powdered sugar and the pinch of salt. Add the butter, ground almonds, lemon rind and eggs. Mix well. When the dough is smooth, roll it out on a floured work surface. Cut into circles with a cookie cutter, and transfer to baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Sprinkle with the chopped almonds and sugar. Bake for 20 minutes or until the bottoms are golden.

Baking notes: I made a few tweaks to this recipe, including adding salt and decreasing the flour. The recipe was a bit vague as to cookie size, so I used a 2-3/4″ round cutter, and rolled the dough out to a 1/4″ thickness.

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The montage below shows the freshly-grated lemon peel, the finished dough, and what the cookies looked like before baking.

The cookies are nice but plain and seem to call to be served with something tangy and fresh, so I made up a plate of sliced oranges. See below for the how to’s. I peeled two naval oranges, pared off the whitish surface (not sure what to call it) of the peeled oranges, and sliced them crosswise. They can be drizzled with orange liqueur, if desired.

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Birds. Sometimes I feel like they save my life in this crazy world, they are so beautiful. Peace to you. Fran

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Dolce Italiano

img_7323Hope you can will bear with me here, because this post is a maelstrom of pears, Parmesan cheese, chrysanthemums, honey and biscotti. It all began when I found a recipe for Pears and Parmesan Drizzled with Honey in “The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook,” by Jack Bishop, and then recalled the Italian saying, “Don’t tell the peasants how good cheese is with pears,” and before you know it I was at the grocery store looking at pears. That’s all it took! I found four different kinds of pears: Bosc (brown), red, Anjou (green) and little Forelle pears (in the bowl). Pears are so beautiful!img_7328Then from my own cupboard I took a jar of honey purchased at a local farm. With that and with a wedge of fresh Parmesan, I was ready to go.

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You can serve slices of the ripe pear with a small piece of cheese if you like.

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But I decided also to try something fancier, following the recipe from the cookbook.

Pears and Parmesan Drizzled with Honey

3 large, ripe pears, cored and thinly sliced
small piece of fresh Parmesan
2 tablespoons honey

Arrange the pear slices on a dessert plate. With a vegetable peeler, remove curls of the cheese, letting the curls artistically fall onto the pears. (At least we can try.) Use a small spoon to drizzle the honey over the pears. Serve immediately.

Notes: The main thing to remember here is to use ripe, juicy pears. Also, you can cut off the side of a pear, make incisions in it, and fan it out, for a nice presentation (see below). But again, this only works if the pear is ripe and juicy.

img_7315 img_7316When I was looking at the pear and cheese recipe, I made the mistake of turning the page, and found a wonderful-sounding biscotti recipe: Cornmeal Biscotti with Dried Cherries, and I had to try! These are not typical biscotti, as they are made with butter. They are absolutely delicious–chubby buttery little things, crunchy with cornmeal, and with sweet zings of dried cherry.

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Cornmeal Biscotti with Dried Cherries

1 cup flour
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons butter, softened
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla or brandy
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
3/4 cup dried cherries, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a large bowl, stir together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and salt. Cut the butter into chunks and add to the flour mixing. Beat (slowly) with an electric mixer until the mixture resembled coarse crumbs. Mix together the egg, vanilla and lemon zest. Pour over the dry ingredients and mix together. Stir in the dried cherries.

Divide the dough in half. On a lightly floured surface, roll each piece of dough into a log about 12 inches long and 1 inch across. Place the two logs on the baking sheet. Bake until firm, about 20 minutes. Let cool for about 10 minutes, and cut the logs into 1-inch-wide diagonal slices.

Lay the slices on their side on the baking sheet and return to the oven for about 8 minutes, or until crisp.

Baking notes: Dried cherries can be expensive (as opposed to cherry-flavored dried cranberries), but I found a small bag for $3.99, and used them here, and was glad. The cherry flavor is really delicious. When adding the chopped dried cherries to the dough, sprinkle them evenly over the dough so the pieces are evenly divided. If there are clumps, it makes the finished cookie crumbly to cut.

Photos below show the crumbly dry mixture, the dough ready to be formed, and the dough logs ready for baking.

Another pix of the little Forelle pears.
img_7336Hope you enjoy! Keep the faith. Fran

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One last photo–just as a reminder of summer.

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French Cheese Puffs

img_7279Something made me think of gougères the other day–this doesn’t happen often, but the thought of these crispy, toasty cheese puffs sounded so good that I decided to make a batch. I consulted my favorite French cookbook, “The Taste of France,” by Robert Freson, went to the store to buy some grated cheese and some tulips (indispensable for brightening up these wintry days) and a bottle of Beaujolais (a Burgundy wine), which is traditionally served with the puffs.

img_7287We normally have a small glass of Winking Owl Cabernet Sauvignon with dinner, the whole bottle costing $2.79. So this morning when I bought the $10.99 bottle of Beaujolais-Villages, a “plump wine with notes of strawberry, black cherry and spice,” I felt like I was going wild!

I baked up the puffs, and realized that to photograph them, I should show them with a glass of the Beaujolais, which meant that I should drink it–waste not, want not. The Midwestern Methodist in me felt a little shocked–guzzling wine at 12:30 in the afternoon on Monday? I asked Jim if he would share. “Oh, if I have to,” he replied. So we both had a sip, and snarfed down a crunchy puff. This is when we discovered what a genius combination the wine and the cheese puffs were: the fruity wine with the toasty cheese flavor is so good!

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Here is the recipe:

Gougère

9 tablespoons butter
pinch of salt
2 cups of flour, sifted
5 eggs
8 ounces finely shredded Swiss cheese
one more egg, beaten

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper (or grease with shortening if you don’t have the paper), and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a saucepan, combine the butter, salt and 1-1/2 cups of water. Bring to a boil; remove from the heat and add the flour all of once. Mix with a large spoon. Return to the (low) heat and stir until the mixture smooths out and comes away easily from the sides of the pan, one to two minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat and add the five eggs, one by one, mixing each until well blended. Add the shredded cheese, and season with salt and pepper. Scoop up the dough with a large spoon, and drop blobs onto the prepared baking sheets. Glaze with the beaten egg, and bake for about 40 to 45 minutes, or until golden brown. Let cool before eating.

Baking notes: You are basically making cream puffs here, with the addition of cheese. If you’ve never made cream puffs before, the process may seem a bit strange, but persevere–the results are worth it! The original recipe called for Gruyere cheese, but I knew it would be tough to find at my local supermarket. So I looked for grated Swiss cheese, which is a good substitute–but came up zero. Yikes. So I used a finely-grated Italian five cheese blend. This worked well, and you could probably use a finely grated sharp Cheddar. I don’t recommend mozzarella, as it may be too moist.

There are many different recipes for these puffs, some calling for milk, others for add-ins such as chives. You can also add cayenne pepper or a pinch of nutmeg. It’s the toasty cheese flavor, though, that goes so beautifully with the wine, so I wouldn’t stray too far from the classic recipe.

Below, the photos show the sifted flour, the cooked butter, flour and water mixture, then the mixture with the eggs added, the blobs of dough on the baking pan, and the baked puffs.

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Here are some goldfinches on a sunny day.

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img_5059In these nerve-jangling days, I’ve been using my cat Puff as a guru. He sleeps so deeply and serenely! Keep the faith. Fran

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