Carrot Cake Breakfast Bars

Food blog June 2015-1023The cake world is populated by two camps, it seems to me: those which are definitively dessert, and those which are trying to be breakfast (I’m looking at you, coffeecake). Some of the “trying to be breakfast” denizens bridge the gap by taking the appellation “bread” rather than cake – banana and zucchini bread are the chief players in this particular masquerade. But they are, at heart, essentially still cake: sweet, plenty of fat from oil or butter, and sometimes interspersed with shards of chocolate for good measure. Carrot cake, the other popular vegetal option, doesn’t even pretend. It just comes right out there and, whether it’s for alliterative reasons or not, boldly declares itself a cake and leaves it at that.

Food blog June 2015-1002The idea of putting these long orange taproots into a sweet application came originally from the Middle Ages, when sugar was barely on the horizon and other sweeteners were hard to come by. Carrots as a cake ingredient have since had two spikes in popularity: once during the second world war, when sugar and honey were, again, in short supply, and once starting in the 1970s or so when it was touted not as a sugar-rationing option, but as a “healthy cake.” Really though, if we’re honest today’s carrot cake is far from healthy. It may have a discernible threading of carrots, and it’s frequently studded with nuts, raisins, sometimes even coconut or pineapple, but it is also loaded with oil for moisture and draped with that miracle that is cream cheese frosting.

Food blog June 2015-1000During a text conversation with my sister about golden raisins (probably 70% of our texts are about food), I developed a craving for carrot cake. This is an irritating paradox that happens quite often to me during the summer: now that I have plenty of time on my hands, I frequently get the urge to embark on elaborate baking projects. However, because it’s summer and school is not in session, I don’t have a whole department of people to foist my creations off on. I only have N. and me, and we would both like to retain our svelte (haha) figures. My sister suggested turning carrot cake into a muffin so it could be consumed for breakfast, and I thought even easier might be a tray of breakfast bars – moist and flat and portable and loaded with carrots and golden raisins. Thus I’ve taken carrot cake – the cake that isn’t even pretending to be anything but a dessert – into the breakfast cakes camp.

Food blog June 2015-1003What resulted is not your traditional super moist, super tender carrot cake drowning in sweetened cream cheese (not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you). After deciding on a breakfast version, I wanted something that was not, in fact, cake. Even if we didn’t want it for breakfast, we should be able to turn to it as a mid morning snack without suffering an instant sugar high. It might be a good option for N. to slice into after running. It should be more filling – more substantial – than your typical carrot cake, and very lightly sweet. It should definitely include both nuts and raisins, the nuts should always be toasted, and the spices should be more assertive than in your typical cake. I added oats in place of some of the flour, taking a hint from one of my favorite granola/energy bar recipes and toasting them first. I cut down on the quantities of oil and sugar that most recipes call for, and ended up with something very lightly sweet – the carrots and raisins contribute most of the bursts of sweetness, not the mere ½ cup of brown sugar. If you’re looking for something sweeter, bump up the sugar by ¼ cup, as I note in the recipe below.

Food blog June 2015-1005The worst thing about making a carrot cake is grating the carrots. Working from the always brilliant suggestions in The New Best Recipe, I eliminated the frustration of grated knuckles and bright orange fingernails and used the food processor. This ends up being a considerable time-and-dishes-saver, because you can also use it to chop the nuts, pulse the oats, and, as the recipe testers in TNBR devise, emulsify the oil with the eggs and sugar to make a frothy, perfectly combined syrup of wet ingredients that integrate smoothly and quickly. Toasting the nuts and the oats in the same 9×13 inch pan you’ll later bake the bars in means you’re only using, aside from various measuring and mixing utensils, a food processor, a single mixing bowl, and one baking dish.

Food blog June 2015-1019At first I considered making a simple cream cheese icing – just a breath of powdered sugar, and maybe some lemon juice to brighten it up – but found I didn’t want it after all. They were perfect, just as they were, and even better with a glass of iced chai. If you find you miss the frosting component, I’d suggest whisking a little honey or maple syrup into some room temperature cream cheese, maybe with a little lemon or lime zest if you’re feeling fancy, and adding a dab to the top of your bar.

Food blog June 2015-1020As well-spiced, fruit-laden desserts often do, these improve after a night of resting in the refrigerator, and are still just as good on the third or fourth day. This is perfect, really, because it means you can bake them the night before and have something all ready for an early breakfast before heading off on some summer adventure.

Food blog June 2015-1024Carrot Cake Breakfast Bars
Makes one 9x13x2 inch pan; 15-18 squares or bars, depending on how enthusiastically you slice them
1 cup old fashioned rolled oats
1 ½ cups pecans, walnuts, or a mixture
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
¾ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon cardamom
½ teaspoon ginger
¾ cup golden raisins
½ pound carrots, stem ends removed (approximately – for 2 cups finely shredded)
½ cup brown sugar for barely sweet, ¾ cup brown sugar for slightly sweeter
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup vegetable oil

 

  • Preheat the oven to 350F. In a 9x13x2 inch pan, scatter the oats in as close to a single layer as possible. Toast in the oven at 350F for 15 minutes, until lightly golden and smelling strongly of oatmeal. Remove and pour into the belly of a food processor fitted with the metal blade.
  • In the same pan, scatter the pecans and/or walnuts and toast in the oven at 350F. Depending on the size of the nuts, pecans will take 5-7 minutes and walnuts will take 5-10 minutes. They are ready just as you begin to smell them, even if they don’t look it – they will darken as they cool, and burned nuts are unsalvageable. When ready, remove from oven and set aside to cool slightly.
  • While oats and nuts cool, whisk together remaining dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl: the flour, the salt, the baking soda, and the four spices.
  • Using the metal blade attachment, pulse the oats in the food processor 3 or 4 times, until some are fine and powdery but some are almost fully intact. Add to dry ingredient mixture and whisk to combine.
  • Add the toasted, cooled nuts to the food processor. Pulse 4 or 5 times until roughly chopped, then add to the dry ingredient mixture and again, whisk to combine.
  • Now replace the metal blade attachment in the food processor with the shredding disc. Feed the carrots through as close to vertical as possible for fine, thin shreds. You can peel the carrots before doing this if you want; I just scrubbed them off a bit. Transfer the finely shredded carrots to the bowl of dry ingredients. Add the golden raisins and fold them in with a rubber spatula.
  • Switch the food processor back to the metal blade attachment. Process the brown sugar with the eggs and vanilla until the mixture is frothy – about 20 seconds. With the machine still running, add the vegetable oil in a steady stream and continue processing until it is emulsified – another 20 seconds or so. The mixture will be surprisingly thick, almost like a butterscotch sauce in texture and in color.
  • Pour and scrape the emulsified oil mixture into the bowl of dry ingredients and carrots, and use a rubber spatula to fold them together until no hidden dry pockets remain. The resulting mixture will be thick, more like cookie dough than a standard cake batter.
  • Lower the oven temperature to 325F and spray the same 9x13x2 inch pan you used for toasting with a non-stick spray. Scrape the batter into the pan and use your rubber spatula to flatten it into an even layer. Bake at 325F until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with just a few moist crumbs; 25-30 minutes.
  • Let cool in the pan for at least 15 minutes before slicing into bars or squares.

Spicy Carrot and Radish Herb Salad

Food blog June 2015-1064It’s dangerously easy to throw some greens into a bowl and crunch through them, but I think this is the kind of preparation that makes people think about salads as boring to make and to eat. With summer in gear and a series of weddings and reunions to attend within the next month or two, I find myself brainstorming salads creative and intriguing enough to hold my interest, so I can more easily convince myself to make choices that keep me responsible healthy fitting into my summer wardrobe. The easiest way of making a salad more exciting, it seems to me (besides just loading it up with cheese and some crisped pork product), is to take ingredients not usually used in a salad and jamming them in there anyway, lettuce be damned. For me, this generally takes the form of whatever dish I’ve been craving, transformed into something you can add an acidic vinaigrette and maybe a few crumbles of cheese to, toasting up a hunk of bread, and calling it dinner.

Food blog June 2015-1028This particular salad has two geneses. Lately I’ve been craving banh mi, with all its freshness and brightness, but I haven’t wanted to go through the whole production of making all the ingredients myself (which I’d insist upon, because I’m such a responsible foodie stubborn). Rather, I convinced myself, I wanted a salad inspired by a banh mi sandwich. What this meant was a collection of fresh and pickled vegetables, with some brightness from soft green herbs and some heat from jalapeño slices. I dithered over the pickled part, reluctant to devote multiple days to preparing for a simple salad, until I remembered a grain salad my friend S. exalted about a few years ago featuring lightly pickled carrot slices, along with some jalapeño and mint. Wheels turned.

Food blog June 2015-1033What we have here, then, is a salad that announces its summery freshness through bright, grassy herbs and crunchy cucumber, but still clings to the mild crispness of spring with ribbons of carrots and impossibly thin discs of radish. I find herb salads can get almost medicinal on the tongue, so a handful or two of baby greens tempers the sharpness of the herbs and the pucker of the vegetables after a 2 hour lemon juice bath, and brings this closer to what we usually think of as a salad. You could use any combination of greenery, but lately I’ve been obsessing over the “power to the greens” package from Trader Joe’s – baby chard, kale, and spinach, all tender enough that no stem removal is necessary. Add jalapeños, which I’ve put through the pickling process but you can certainly leave fresh, and you have a salad that pairs happily with almost anything.

Food blog June 2015-1048Serving suggestions: I can see this making a perfect base for grilled steak or salmon, with or without the addition of some tangy crumbles of goat cheese. I risked all to have it as a side for last week’s crab and shrimp balls, and though there’s a certain digestive peril to the fried + spicy pairing, hey, that’s what alka-seltzer is for. You could even force this back to its banh mi inspiration roots and stuff it inside a baguette or maybe a pita, with or without a protein accompaniment. In all cases, I’d recommend something sparkling to drink alongside – maybe a crisp prosecco or a hefeweizen with a thick wedge of citrus, or, if you prefer to go alcohol-free, a frosted glass of ginger beer with lime, for an intriguing contrasting spice.

Food blog June 2015-1062

Spicy Carrot and Radish Herb Salad
Serves 2-3 as a side salad
1 cup carrot ribbons (from 3-4 small carrots)
1 cup thinly sliced radish discs (from 5-6 radishes)
8-10 thin slices of jalapeño cut on the bias
3-6 tablespoons lemon juice (see options below)
2-4 tablespoons olive oil (see options below)
salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon capers
⅓ – ½ cup thin slices of seedless cucumber, cut on the bias
¼ cup cilantro leaves plucked from their stems
¼ cup mint leaves, torn if large, plucked from their stems
¼ cup parsley leaves plucked from their stems
2 tablespoons tender, pale green celery leaves, plucked from their stems, optional
1 cup mixed baby greens

 

  • Prepare carrots, radishes, and jalapeño. To make the carrot ribbons, peel carrots, then continue shaving off long pieces with your peeler from one side only. When the carrot gets concave and it’s difficult to make complete ribbons, flip it over and begin the shaving process again. Slice the radishes and jalapeños as thinly as you can or, if you are fancy, use a mandolin slicer (watch your fingers!).
  • For a quite spicy salad: In a large bowl, whisk together 3 tablespoons of lemon juice with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add the carrots, radishes, and jalapeños, toss gently to distribute, and allow them to marinate for about 2 hours. They will soften, pickle slightly, and the vegetables and dressing will take on the spice of the jalapeños.
  • After 2 hours and just before serving, add the capers, cucumbers, herb leaves, celery leaves (if using), and mixed baby greens to the bowl and toss lightly to combine. Lift out with clean fingers or tongs, let excess dressing drip off a bit, and position on serving plates.
  • For a moderately spicy salad: In a large bowl, whisk together 3 tablespoons of lemon juice with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add the carrots, radishes, and jalapeños and allow them to marinate for about 2 hours. They will soften, pickle slightly, and the vegetables and dressing will take on the spice of the jalapeños.
  • After 2 hours and just before serving, lift the lightly pickled carrots, radishes, and jalapeños out of the bowl and set them aside for a moment on a paper towel. Discard the remaining liquid in the bowl and wipe clean.
  • In the clean bowl, whisk together the remaining 3 tablespoons lemon juice and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the vegetables back in, then gently toss with the capers, cucumbers, herb leaves, celery leaves (if using), and mixed baby greens. Lift out with clean fingers or tongs, let excess dressing drip off a bit, and position on serving plates.
  • For a mildly spicy salad: In a large bowl, whisk together 3 tablespoons of lemon juice with 2 tablespoon of olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add the carrots and radishes and toss gently to distribute. In another, smaller bowl, combine the jalapeño slices with 1 tablespoon lemon juice and a bit of salt and pepper. Allow all vegetables to marinate for about 2 hours. They will soften and pickle slightly, but the spice will not infiltrate the carrots and radishes as in the above preparations.
  • After 2 hours and just before serving, add the capers, cucumbers, herb leaves, celery leaves (if using), and mixed baby greens to the bowl with the carrots and radishes and toss lightly to combine. Drain the lightly pickled jalapeños from their lemon juice bath and add them to the salad as well, tossing gently again to combine. Lift out with clean fingers or tongs, let excess dressing drip off a bit, and position on serving plates.
  • Serve immediately – salad left in its dressing wilts quickly and loses its crisp appeal.

 

 

Crab and Shrimp Balls

I realize that when most people think of a meatball, fish is not what immediately springs to mind. Ground, seasoned meat, bound with egg and sometimes bread, and fried and braised in sauce seems to work for land animals better than those more oceanically-inclined. But I think this is a mistake. After all, what is a fish cake, really, besides a flattened meatball? And crab cakes are such wonderful, beautiful things that, now that summer is upon us, the beach child in me wants to eat all the time (seriously. Lunch and dinner are obvious, but the idea of eggs benedict with a fat, tender crab cake instead of an English muffin fills me with longing). So when it occurred to me that, really, a crab cake was only different from a meatball in shape and mindset, I knew immediately I needed to change both.

Food blog June 2015-1059The meatball I imagined had to be aggressively herby, bright with citrus zest, and obviously needed to be shallow fried, not braised in sauce. And since N. would not be partaking due to his distaste for shellfish (nobody’s perfect…), I realized I could add shrimp to up the succulence factor even more, and these crab and shrimp balls were born.

Food blog June 2015-1035You have a few choices when it comes to crab. There’s no sense in harvesting it yourself for this dish – it’s too much work, and the pre-cracked and pasteurized options are perfectly fine. What you really have to decide is whether to blow your budget on lump or jumbo lump meat, which comes in large, sweet pieces from the muscles connected to the crab’s swimming legs, or whether to go for more affordable claw meat. I tend to think the claw meat has a stronger flavor, and since I was going to pulse it up and mix it with herbs anyway (and because I’m cheap), I went with a package of claw meat and was quite pleased with the taste.

Food blog June 2015-1042As for the shrimp, you want raw, because it will keep the meatball together a bit better, and there’s nothing so unpleasant as rubbery, overcooked shrimp. If you can find it deveined, then all you’ll have to do is pull the shell and tail off before dropping it into the food processor. If you do end up with shrimp that still have the shell and vein, this how-to from the kitchn gives a pretty clear set of instructions for how to do the prep yourself.

Food blog June 2015-1043Feel free to mix up the herbs to your liking, though I’d include at least one onion-y component. I toyed with the idea of adding a teaspoon or two of excruciatingly finely diced jalapenos, but since I was planning to have this with a spicy salad (more on that next week!), I opted to leave the meatballs themselves heat-free. I do think, though, a bit of fire in these would be lovely, especially if you plan to dunk them into a cooling or fatty sauce of some sort.

Food blog June 2015-1052Obviously I loved these. I’m a sucker for shellfish in almost any application, and coated in bread crumbs and fried = me rendered completely helpless. Adding citrus zest instead of juice (to control the moisture content of the meatballs) proved to be a particularly good move; it broke up what could have become a monotonous flavor and kept the meatballs feeling bright and light, despite being fried. The panko formed a perfect tight, crisp crust to protect the interior, keeping it hot and relatively ungreasy.

Food blog June 2015-1056Hearkening back to my childhood when, more often than not, I ordered the fried seafood appetizer platter as my entrée, I ate these meatballs as my main course, accompanied by a banh-mi-inspired salad I’ll tell you more about next week. But they would clearly excel (and go a bit further) as appetizers as well.

Food blog June 2015-1064Note: you’ll notice that there is panko in the meatballs themselves as well as coating them. I thought about leaving the interior breadcrumb-free, but the resulting mixture was so delicate I feared they would just collapse. Adding this bit of starch and allowing them to chill for 45 minutes before cooking eliminated this risk of disintegration.

 

Crab and Shrimp Balls
Makes 16 (serves two as an entrée, 4 as an appetizer)
6 ounces crab meat (claw meat is fine, but blow the bank on lump or jumbo lump if you prefer)
8 ounces raw shrimp, preferably peeled and deveined
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
2 tablespoons minced fresh dill
2 teaspoons lemon zest, lime zest, or a combination
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
1 egg
1 ½ cups panko breadcrumbs, divided
1 cup vegetable oil, to fry

 

  • Check your crab and shrimp carefully and remove any lingering shell bits or cartilage, then deposit the meat in the belly of your food processor. Add the herbs, the citrus zest, the salt and pepper, the egg, and ½ cup of panko breadcrumbs. Pulse three or four times for two seconds each, until the herbs are well integrated and the crab and shrimp are broken down a bit. You don’t want a paste, but you do want small pieces that will cling together.
  • Pour the remaining 1 cup of panko breadcrumbs into a pie plate or other wide dish with sides and spread them out into an even layer. With moistened hands, scoop rounded tablespoons of crab and shrimp mixture, lightly roll them into balls (they will be quite tender), and roll them in the panko until completely coated. Repeat until you have used up all the crab and shrimp mixture, then refrigerate the coated meatballs for 45 minutes to allow them to firm up a bit.
  • After 45 minutes, remove meatballs from the refrigerator and set them aside while you heat the 1 cup of vegetable oil in a 10 inch skillet. When the oil is shimmering, or when a spare piece of panko you drop in sizzles and small bubbles are released all around it, it’s time to add the meatballs. Place 8 meatballs in the oil carefully, keeping them separate from one another, and cook over medium or medium-high for 2-3 minutes on each side, until they are uniformly crisp and golden (I know, I realize that meat“ball” suggests an absence of sides, but I usually end up with a semi-round object that needs two or three turns to completely immerse).
  • As the meatballs finish cooking, remove them to a paper-towel-lined plate and repeat with the remaining 8 meatballs. They will stay hot inside for 5-10 minutes, but you can place the finished ones in a warm oven while their compatriots cook, just to be sure.
  • Serve immediately, with a remoulade or tartar sauce, fries, or a side salad.