Indian Spiced Pumpkin Custard Bars

I’ve tried to start this post three times. Each time I deleted what I’d written, and ultimately it took me a week in between actually making the thing and knowing what to write (hence the Halloween plate) because as usual, it’s hard to know how much from “out there” belongs here in my little virtual kitchen. I feel like I want to talk about it, even though it is hard, because to separate and live only in an idealized, happy little blog space feels disingenuous. Yet to try to write about a massacre in the same breath as a dessert feels just as bad. And it is happening more and more often.

So I’m going to try to write this post by talking about my friend M. instead. M. is an amazing woman who, in my last two years of graduate school became a firm friend, and in the years since has risen in my esteem to be one of my favorite people. She is smart. She is complex. She is opinionated and feisty and loud and dedicated and… just a really cool human being. She is also vexed with a complicated set of food allergies. And she happens to be Jewish. She deserves, as do all people, to live safely, have the freedom to practice their faith or lack thereof, and to pursue happiness in their own way. And so because I’m having trouble writing out my thoughts about Pittsburgh and what has happened there in a way that makes sense, I made a dessert for M.

It’s not enough. It’s not even a related action. But I saw a post on Facebook the day I made these from a woman named Kim Weild that told me “The Talmud says: Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” We have so, so much work to do. And on this day I could not complete the work, but baking was a tiny way of doing something I felt capable of doing. And I voted while it was baking, so there. Are you going to? Tomorrow’s the day…

One of the challenges of feeding M. is that she cannot have dairy or eggs. Rice is out of the question, as is beef. So is avocado, of all things. Gluten isn’t a no-no, but it should be a rarity. So M. has spent several years investigating alternatives, and though I don’t see her very often, I occasionally concoct something she can eat, in the off chance I’ll get a chance to feed her. There’s an allergy-free coconut cream pie recipe deep in my mind that I want to get to someday.

This one, though, is inspired by a now-lost-to-the-ages conversation she and another food-interested friend had on Facebook once that I eavesdropped all over. It involved pumpkin, turmeric, and other various spices. It may have included oatmeal. What it did for me, however, was to get me thinking of what would happen if you combined a lot of warm spices with Indian flair in a pumpkin pie, subbed out the eggs for silken tofu, and instead of a traditional crust, pressed together a combination of nuts and coconut oil graham cracker style. And then I scrapped the whole pie idea entirely and went with bars instead.

These are rich, taking a long time to bake and an insistence on cooling completely before they can be dealt with. Ideally they should be refrigerated overnight to let the coconut oil and the oils the nuts release chill and reconstitute, while the pumpkin and tofu mixture solidifies into something creamy and almost smooth. But in addition to a baking dish, they do require only one food processor and a small bowl to mix up, so that’s easy. They fit right into a long, slow afternoon when you need something sweet and tender and spiced to comfort you.

M., here’s a humble plate of comfort I made thinking of you. Happy belated Hallow-birthday-ween.

Indian Spiced Pumpkin Custard Bars
Makes 9×9 inch square pan
About 1½ hours plus cooling time
Crust:
1 cup raw, unsalted pistachios
1 cup raw walnuts (halves or pieces)
¼ cup brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt
scant ⅓ cup coconut oil
Filling:
1 can (15 ounces) pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie filling)
16 ounce block silken tofu, drained and patted dry
½ cup soy, almond, or coconut milk – your preference
¾ cup brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cardamom
½ teaspoon ginger
½ teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon vanilla

 

  • Preheat the oven to 350F and line your baking dish with a “sling” of parchment paper: one piece that covers the bottom and extends past the top of opposite sides, and a second piece positioned perpendicularly, so it adds a second layer to the bottom and extends past the top of the other two sides.
  • To make the crust, add the walnuts, pistachios, ¼ cup brown sugar, and ½ teaspoon salt into the bowl of a food processor. Using the pulse function, pulverize into fairly even bits about the size of lentils, though some will be smaller. Reserve ¾ cup of this mixture for later.
  • Add the coconut oil and buzz on high until very well combined but not quite buttery. You want the coconut oil to be fully integrated, but you still want to be able to manipulate the mixture.
  • Once well combined, dump the crust mixture into the prepared pan and use your hands or a spatula to press it into an even layer across the bottom. Stow this in the fridge while you make the filling.
  • In the same food processor (you can wash it out if you want to, but I didn’t bother), combine the pumpkin puree, the silken tofu, the milk, the ¾ cup brown sugar, ½ teaspoon salt, all the spices, and the vanilla. Process on high until the mixture is very smooth, then stop the machine and scrape down the sides to be sure – sometimes little clumps of tofu remain.
  • Remove the crust from the refrigerator and pour the velvet-smooth filling in, then carefully transfer to the oven and bake for about 60 minutes. The edges of the filling will be firm and the center will be extremely wobbly but set on top.
  • Remove from the oven, gently sprinkle the reserved nut mixture over the top in an even layer, being sure to get it into the corners. Return to the oven and bake for another 10 minutes.
  • Turn off the oven but leave the dish inside for about 10 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely before refrigerating, ideally overnight, but at least for a few hours.
  • Carefully remove from the pan and the sling, then slice while still cold and serve. Alternatively, serve by scooping big spoonfuls into bowls or pretty glasses and adding a scoop of ice cream or whipped cream on top.

Haters Gonna Hate Pumpkin Spice Loaf: Now with photos!!

People have such vitriolic responses to the phrase “it’s pumpkin spice season” that by this point some of you have already stopped reading. I’ve heard a few interesting theories about why this is, including the idea publicized by a student at Swarthmore College a few years ago that since the drink that popularized this craze is popular among women, hating on it is another subtle way we’ve internalized sexism: pumpkin spice lattes are a girly thing, so just like other girly trends it must be devalued. Vox and various others picked up on this idea, also evaluating the pumpkin spice connection to capitalism, class, and being “basic.”

But I tend to sympathize more with the point made near the end of the article, and which I’ve seen in a few other places, which is simply: there’s enough trauma and horror and viciousness going on in that weird world we inhabit, so let’s let people find harmless joy where they can. And further, let’s face it: by and large, the mixture of warm autumnal spices that we mean when we say “pumpkin spice” are, even if you don’t want them in your coffee, frankly delicious.

So I’m on board the pumpkin spice train, and although I’m not terrifically enthused about them being swirled through my latte, a liberal dosing in pies, cookies, cakes, muffins, or breads of almost any kind is a-okay by me. And since my Trader Joe’s had a big end cap display of their pumpkin butter this week and Los Angeles is STILL resisting its usual September heat wave tendencies, I decided to take advantage of the season my calendar reports we’ve just fallen into (get it? get it?) and bake up a yeasted loaf infused with all those spices pumpkin benefits from.

My loaf started with an old favorite I haven’t worked with in a while: my Nana’s sweet dough. It’s a firm but soft product, elastic and pliable, and though in this incarnation it’s fairly sticky from all the wet ingredients, it just sighs when you roll it out in such a lovely way. I added a full cup of pumpkin puree to Nana’s original recipe, plus the requisite cinnamon and nutmeg the pumpkin spicing requires. You could use ginger and cloves as well, but this time around I decided to complete the trifecta with cardamom; its slightly citrusy brightness feels right for “fall” in Southern California.

To get that luscious, deep, spicy sweetness of the pumpkin butter into my creation, I decided to do a swirl in the center of my loaf: once risen, I rolled out the dough into a large rectangle, smeared it with butter, added a glossy layer of the deep orange spread, and on a whim, zested on some orange rind for additional lift.

This is a monstrous loaf. I bake so often with only sourdough anymore that I forget how high and how certainly active dry yeast rises. Even though it climbed in both its first and second rise, the oven spring as the loaf actually baked was incredible; I couldn’t believe it was holding its shape as it pillowed, hugely, almost like a gigantic Yorkshire pudding, above the loaf pan, and was disappointed but not surprised when it deflated a bit as it cooled; a huge air pocket between the bulk of the loaf and the mountaineering dome was the source of much of its swollen majesty.

Never mind that aesthetic imperfection, though; the loaf itself was a delight. Not too sweet, it boasts a pillowy, soft-but-chewy texture that reminds me of my mom’s challah, but with a subtle pumpkin flavor pushed along by the warm spices, and a just-toothsome crust for a pleasant contrast. The pumpkin butter slathered into the center is sweet and rich, but there’s only a bit of it swirled through the while thing, making the addition of jam or preserves extraneous: it’s baked right in. To me, that means you can eat this at any time of day, just like its latte-based inspiration. Haters gonna hate, it’s true, but that just means another slice for you.

Pumpkin Spice Loaf
Makes 1 very large loaf
About 4 hours
Dough:
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
pinch sugar
½ cup warm whole milk
1 egg
¼ cup softened butter
1 cup pumpkin puree
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cardamom
½ teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
2-3 cups bread flour
Filling:
¼ cup softened butter
¼ – ½ cup pumpkin butter spread
zest from 1 orange

 

  • Stir the yeast into the warm milk with the pinch of sugar and let it sit for 5-10 minutes to allow the yeast to wake up.  It will begin to get bubbly and smell warm and bready.
  • While you wait for the yeast, add the ¼ cup softened butter, the pumpkin puree, the egg, and the vanilla into the bowl of a stand mixer (or into a large mixing bowl). Mix with the paddle attachment to combine.
  • Add the yeast and milk mixture to the combined wet ingredients and mix them together briefly using the paddle attachment (if you are not using a stand mixer, an electric handheld or some elbow grease and a whisk will do nicely here).
  • Add the brown sugar, spices, salt, and 2 cups of flour.  Using the paddle attachment (or a sturdy wooden spoon if you aren’t a stand mixer sort of person), mix just until the flour is moistened and you have created a lumpy dough. Let it sit for about 20 minutes to begin hydrating the flour.
  • After the dough rests for 20 minutes, switch to the dough hook (or turn your dough out onto a well floured board) and knead for 5-8 minutes in the mixer, or 10-12 minutes by hand. The dough will be very sticky at first – we’ve added a lot of fat and a lot of moisture.  Don’t despair. Add more flour a ¼ cup at a time just until the dough cooperates (up to 3 cups of flour, though depending on the relative humidity of the day, you might not need that much).  It will still be a bit sticky, but it will become more elastic and supple and much easier to work with.
  • When your dough is smooth and stretchy and a bit springy, plop it into a greased or oiled bowl, cover it with plastic wrap, and set it aside in a warm place to rise until doubled, around 90 minutes.
  • Once doubled, punch down the dough to release trapped gas by gently deflating it with your fist. Turn it out onto a floured board and roll it into a rectangle of about 12×24 inches.
  • Smear the second ¼ cup of softened butter over the surface of the rolled out dough. Add the pumpkin butter and spread this atop the butter, leaving a half inch border at one of the long ends. Sprinkle on the orange zest, if using.
  • Begin to roll up the dough from the long side opposite the edge on which you left a border. Start with the middle and move out to the sides, as you would for a jelly roll.  Continue rolling until all the filling is enclosed, and then fold up the remaining, bare edge and pinch it firmly against the roll to create a seam.
  • Twist your log of dough a few times by gripping it and rotating your hands in opposite directions. This will ensure that a pretty swirl of filling is formed as it bakes. Fold the thinner ends underneath the fat middle and settle the whole thing into a buttered or greased loaf pan. Cover it lightly with greased plastic wrap and set it aside to rise again for 30-45 minutes minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350F.
  • At the end of the second rise, remove the plastic wrap form the loaf and bake it for 35-40 minutes, until the bottom sounds hollow when thumped or the internal temperature is between 180-200F (the thump test is the standard way of checking for doneness on bread, but it seems sort of impossible when you are baking a big loaf in a loaf pan. I prefer to take its temperature).
  • When it tests done, using whatever is your favorite method, remove it from the oven and let it cool for at least twenty minutes in the pan.  This will allow the structure to firm up so it slices nicely, rather than collapsing and squashing into itself when you so much as approach it with a serrated knife.
  • Slice and consume. I don’t think it needs a thing to accessorize it, but especially on the second or third day, a sweep of unsalted butter or a smear of cream cheese probably wouldn’t hurt anything…

Cherry Chocolate Brownie Chunk Cookies

This is the story of a batch of cookies that almost didn’t happen. I’ve had them in the back of my mind for the better part of a week, now – a rehash of these brownie chunk cookies I’ve been playing with for a few years – and Sunday morning, as N. headed off to run a 10k in Santa Monica, I was ready to bake.

Until.

The previous night, I’d decided to make some little pesto swirled buns to use up a bit of fed sourdough starter, and plopped the kneaded dough right back into the bowl of my stand mixer to rise slowly in the refrigerator overnight. So of course when I got ready to make the cookies Sunday morning, I walked straight over to the mixer and only remembered after a few seconds of confused staring why the bowl wasn’t there: it was full of raw dough.

No matter. I’d just use my old handheld electric mixer ad my biggest glass mixing bowl… which, it transpired, was full of potato salad. A big old metal bowl it would be, then. Not as photogenic, but that’s a bit of a tiniest violin complaint.

So I creamed up the butter, added the sugar, lifted the electric mixer to clear out some of the collected mixture from inside the beaters, and the whisk part of one of the beaters – just the little bulb bit at the end that does all the work – fell off its metal post right into the butter.

I just stood there for a few seconds, considering the wisdom of options that included washing my stand mixer bowl and just throwing the butter and sugar blend I’d started right into the garbage, and decided on perhaps the laziest, least responsible option, which was to jam the beater back onto its post and mix the rest of the batch with that side smashed up against the bowl so it wouldn’t come off.

So I did. And everything was great. Until I went to add the flour, and realized I didn’t have any. Well, that’s not quite true. I had bread flour, and I had whole wheat flour. But who wants that in a cookie? (Actually, there is a bit of bread flour in these, but using such a high protein flour for the whole allotment was untested and might be less than pleasant.)

It turns out the Ralph’s down the street from my house is pretty uncrowded just before nine in the morning on a Sunday, which meant I got back from my unexpected errand quickly enough that I couldn’t be too annoyed, but still. How many setbacks is one batch of cookies worth?

The answer is at least this many. Many even one more. These cookies are triumphant. There are toasted walnuts. There are shards of bittersweet chocolate. There are hunks of brownie that somehow don’t get dried out and overbaked. And there are cherries.

I’ve never been a big fan of chocolate and cherries. Chocolate and strawberries are, of course, a worthy classic, and though I would go for one or two Mayfairs, those See’s candy creations with chopped cherry and walnuts inside, other incarnations didn’t thrill me, I think because most of the chocolate and cherry combinations I was tasting involved maraschino or other sweet cherries. These cookies, though, rely on the opposite: you need tart or sour dried cherries for this one. I used Montmorencies, which are still sweet but carry the same slight pucker as a dried cranberry – enough to make your mouth water just a little – and this hit of contrast is perfect in these chocolate-drenched cookies.

These are a project. Before actually baking the cookies, each tray of which require almost twenty minutes in the oven, you have to make the brownies and toast the walnuts, and the whole mission sets you back a full pound of butter. But when you are faced with trays of perfectly golden, chocolate studded cookies that are just crisp at the edges and softly chewy in the center, and when you crunch into the first flake of sea salt scattered decadently across the top, all of that extra preparation, even an emergency grocery store quest, feels justified.

Cherry Chocolate Brownie Chunk Cookies
adapted from the Sweet Pea Bakery and Catering, via Bon Appetit magazine
Old Fashioned Brownies
Makes a ½ inch slab of about about 10×15 inches
5 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped (unless you’re lazy like me)
½ cup unsalted butter (1 stick), cubed (see parentheses above)
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 large eggs
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour

 

  • Preheat the oven to 350F. Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil, or parchment paper leaving at least an inch overhang on all sides to lift with.
  • Create a double boiler by filling a medium pot about half full of water and setting a glass or metal bowl over the pot, being sure the bottom of the pot doesn’t touch the water. Add the chocolate and butter to the bowl, and bring the water in the pot to a bare simmer over medium heat. Stir frequently until chocolate and butter are smooth, glossy, and completely melted. Set aside to cool for at least 15 minutes.
  • When chocolate is barely warm to the touch, whisk in the sugar and vanilla. The mixture will become clumpy. Add the eggs and salt; whisk firmly until fully combined. Switch to a spatula and stir in the flour until no white streaks remain.
  • Dump and spread the batter over the prepared pan to create a thin, even layer. You may have to manipulate it quite a bit to get it to spread that far.
  • Bake in the preheated oven until a cake tester comes out with just a few moist crumbs; about 20 minutes. Cool in pan, then cover and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight.
  • To remove from the pan, lift using the foil overhang and reserve about ½ of the slab (or maybe a bit more) for the cookies. Use the remainder for your own devious purposes.

 

Cherry Chocolate Brownie Chunk Cookies
Makes 2½ – 3 dozen
1½ cups room temperature butter (3 sticks)
1 cup sugar
1½ cups brown sugar
1½ teaspoons vanilla
3 eggs
3 cups all-purpose flour
¾ cups bread flour
1½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt, + more for sprinkling
1 cup walnuts, toasted, then chopped (I like to pop them in while I’m preheating the oven – by the time it reaches 325F, the walnuts are usually ready)
1 cup dried tart or sour cherries, such as Montmorency
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped in chunks
½ – ⅔ old-fashioned brownie slab, cut into ½-inch chunks

 

  • Preheat oven to 325F and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper (toasting the walnuts while it’s preheating is a good way to multitask)
  • Cream the butter in a large bowl until it is light and fluffy. Add the sugar and the brown sugar and cream again until well integrated – be sure there are no errant chunks of butter.
  • Add the vanilla and eggs to the creamed butter and sugar and mix well to combine, scraping down the sides to create a homogeneous mixture.
  • Stir in the flours, baking soda, and salt to form a soft dough. Add the walnuts cherries, and chopped chocolate, stirring well to combine. Finally, gently fold in the brownie chunks – we don’t want to break them up too much.
  • Spray a ⅓ – ½ cup ice cream scoop or measuring cup with non-stick spray and use it to scoop the batter into rounds on the prepared cookie sheets, spacing them about 2 inches apart (this allowed me to fit six balls of dough on each sheet). Once spaced, press down with two fingers to flatten each ball slightly.
  • Sprinkle the top of each cookie sparingly with coarse or flaky sea salt and bake in the preheated 325F oven for 18-20 minutes, until edges of cookies are starting to turn golden and the middle is set but still very soft.
  • Cool on cookie sheets for 5 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely.

 

Lamb Stuffed Zucchini

The last week of summer is a curious avalanche of light melancholy and nervous action. I’m caught between the post-vacation-slump of wanting to curl and laze and bake my mind in nothing, and the deep itch of my protestant work ethic demanding I Get. Things. Done. before school starts.

So I cautiously plan in small doses, and I soothe the anxious itch that rears up when I am “wasting” time by consuming novels in gulps, to make up for reading little during the rest of the summer. I’m struck by Jesmyn Ward and Tommy Orange, and just this morning I fell back down into the entrancing, haunted wonderland that is Toni Morrison’s Beloved, inspired in part by this suggested reading list for white Americans assembled by a group of black writers. When I saw Morrison’s perhaps most famous novel on the list, I was brought back to an interview she did with Stephen Colbert in which she describes looking through her book for the right page to autograph for a reader, telling him “I looked down and there were these sentences.” I needed to read those sentences again. I burrowed through the first fifty pages this morning and now that itch is to open the book again.

But I do have other obligations, and one of them is to the final, late summer push of my miraculous zucchini plant. It flourished in our absence, our friend who was on plant-watering duties taking home several swollen specimens, and offering another few to our neighbors, and then suddenly, with only two large, hidden bats remaining, took a gasping breath and shuddered to a… pause? A stop? I think it will produce a few more, maybe, but its time seems limited.

That being the case, there was little time to waste in sharing my biggest zucchini triumph of the summer with you, in case you, too, have a few dark green baseball bats you aren’t sure how to consume.

Rather than an accompaniment or a burying-ground, this recipe uses the zucchini as a vessel. Ground lamb, seared and spiced and liberally tossed with toasted pine nuts, golden raisins, chick peas, preserved lemon, feta crumbles, and as much grassy, bright dill as you can handle, gets piled into the scraped-out cavity of the monstrous squash. A mound of oiled breadcrumbs on top is not a necessity, but what a luxury.

This may seem like a lot of ingredients, but they really play together well. Lamb with dill is obviously a winner, but if you haven’t tried lamb with golden raisins, I insist that you make it a priority – they add a perfect sweetness and here, soak up some of the fat from the meat so they are juicy and plump in the final product. The feta and preserved lemon each contribute a nice brininess – I wouldn’t forgo either, though if you don’t have preserved lemon (and are unwilling to make it yourself), plenty of zest might fill in reasonably well. I initially added chick peas as a way of stretching the lamb, and you certainly don’t need them, but they provide a nice lightness of their own and, I think, eradicate any need for a side of starch. Though we ate ours overflowing segments with garlic-rubbed toast and were quite happy.

I like to think this filling has a life of its own beyond zucchini, which is what makes it so nice. A well-hollowed eggplant would work nicely as well, maybe a cored bell pepper, and as the days shorten and hopefully cool, a carefully carved butternut or kabocha squash. Or you could just ignore the vegetables entirely and use the lamb mixture (maybe minus the chick peas) as a loose filling for a take on stuffed shells, or ravioli, or just tossed gently with rigatoni and a few glugs of sauce.

Lamb Stuffed Zucchini
Serves 6-8 with filling left over
About an hour
1 very large zucchini squash
a maximum of ½ cup olive oil (you probably will not use all of it)
salt and pepper to taste
⅓ cup pine nuts
1 pound ground lamb
1 teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
15 ounce can chick peas, drained and rinsed
½ cup golden raisins
2-3 tablespoons finely diced preserved lemon
3-4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill (you could sub with an equal amount of mint or about half as much oregano, if you don’t like dill)
4 ounces crumbled feta
¾-1 cup panko bread crumbs

 

  • Preheat the oven to 400F and line a large baking tray with aluminum foil. Split the zucchini in half lengthwise so you have two long, rounded planks with seeds exposed. Scrape out the seeds and some of the interior flesh with a metal spoon. Discard the scrapings and place the remaining “boats” on the baking tray. Lightly coat them with olive oil before seasoning liberally with salt and pepper. When the oven is preheated, put in the zucchini-laden baking tray and let them roast about 20 minutes while you start the filling. After 20 minutes, remove from the oven and set aside.
  • To make the filling, first heat about 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a medium pan and add the pine nuts. Toast over medium heat, stirring and checking often, until they are nicely golden. Be careful; they burn quickly. When toasted to your liking, set them aside.
  • In the same pan, still on medium heat, add a little bit more oil and then your ground lamb. Use a flat-sided wooden spoon, if you have one, to break it up, then sprinkle over the allspice, cayenne pepper, and a bit of salt to season. Let it cook, stirring and turning and continuing to break up large chunks, until no longer pink in the center.
  • When the lamb is just cooked through, stir in the chick peas and the golden raisins, turn the heat down to medium-low, and let it go another five minutes. This lets the new additions pick up some flavor. After five minutes, remove from heat and drain off any excess fat.
  • To the now-cooked lamb, add the toasted pine nuts, the preserved lemon, the dill, and the feta, stirring well to combine everything. Taste for seasoning and add salt and more cayenne pepper, if needed. When you are satisfied with the flavor, scoop the filling into the empty, partially-cooked zucchini halves. I like to mound it up a bit. It will be crumbly because there is no binder.
  • In a small bowl, toss the panko bread crumbs with enough olive oil to coat them well. Pack spoonfuls on top of the lamb filling and exposed zucchini flesh.
  • Carefully place the laden tray back into the oven, turn the temperature down to 375F, and roast for 25-35 minutes, until the panko is deeply bronzed and the flesh of the zucchini pierces easily with a fork.
  • Let cool about 5 minutes before slicing and serving large segments.

 

Zucchini Spice Bread

Well, I did it. In my exuberance about having a vegetable garden at last (one year into our tenancy in our very own house, N. built us a few raised beds and I treated myself to a few varieties of heirloom seeds), I brought home a little zucchini plant from the garden store.

The first time I planted zucchini, it did what zucchini does: it grew so many squash for us that, halfway into summer, and after grilling, stuffing, roasting, and frying, I filled every baking dish in my kitchen with batter and looked for new friends so I had new possibilities for offloading all the loaves and cakes and muffins my happy plant had obligingly helped me produce.

The second time I planted zucchini, which was only a year or so later, about seventy percent of our potential squashes got about three inches long, then turned yellow at the blossom end, softened, and shriveled. Unwilling to dive into experimental hand pollination, I sighed and concentrated on tomatoes instead.

So I was delighted when, in a different garden and a different state, this spring’s zucchini plant proved the adage about third times and charms, as it perked its little leaves up and started to produce its familiar little orange blossoms. And then it got bigger, and I celebrated our first little courgettes. And then it made more. And its leaves reached the size of small umbrellas. Its flowers would have fit a full four-ounce mini-log of goat cheese and had room to spare. Suddenly, underneath those spiky umbrella-sized leaves and fragile, pollen-dusted blossoms, I was facing down an army of tiny squashes and remembering why so many avid home gardeners leave laundry baskets of zucchini on their neighbors’ porches in the summer.

It was time to bake zucchini bread. Fortunately, I have a pretty foolproof recipe, a zucchini spice loaf from the thick and dependable Bon Appetit Cookbook, and that is fine. But I wanted to play. My recipe calls for vegetable oil, cinnamon, and chopped toasted nuts. Oil is a good choice for quickbreads, especially if the loaf also contains nuts, because it’s 100% fat and thus keeps the bread moist. But the best banana bread I’ve ever had, bought from a roadside stand in Maui, was advertised as containing all butter. I wondered if, with a little tinkering, I could bring that buttery perfection to my zucchini loaf.

Converting from oil to butter requires a little calculation – butter is not 100% fat; it’s a mix of fat and water, so you need more butter than oil if you’re substituting. Since the oil is liquid when it’s incorporated into the batter, the butter would need to be as well, and if we were already melting it, well, we might as well go the extra step and brown it. This would also evaporate that pesky water in there, leaving us with 100% fat again.

That sorted, and wanting to keep things toasty and rich, I replaced half the granulated sugar called for in the original recipe with brown sugar, added some tart dried cherries for extra interest, and replaced the cinnamon with cardamom for a bright kick that played well with the fruit. And how was it? Well, so far we’ve sliced our way through three loaves of the stuff and I wouldn’t say no to another piece.

Should you decide to make your own (or if you’ve been the victim – I mean recipient – of some of your neighbors’ zucchini harvest), know this: this is quite a thick batter, almost like soft cookie dough rather than cake. There’s not a lot of liquid in the mix – just eggs and the melted butter – and I think that’s why the recipe doesn’t require any draining of zucchini shreds before you fold them in. They add just enough juice of their own to keep the loaf dense but tender after an agonizing hour and a half in the oven. That means, all told, this is at least a two hour endeavor, which might entice you to skip the initial steps of toasting the nuts and browning the butter. Don’t be tempted. Both really to enhance the flavor in a way it would be a shame to miss.

As is frequently the case for quickbreads, this is delightful on its own, sliced right from the loaf. It stays reasonably fresh wrapped in aluminum foil on the counter for 3-4 days. If, however, it starts to feel a little stale, or if you’ve overbaked it a touch, I’ll just remind you that a smear of cream cheese rectifies many sins…

 

Zucchini Spice Bread
Adapted from The Bon Appetit Cookbook
Makes 1 large loaf
2–2½ hours
2½ cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cardamom
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon baking powder
3 eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
1 lightly packed cup brown sugar
16 tablespoons butter (2 sticks)
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups grated zucchini
1 cup finely chopped walnuts or pecans, toasted
1 cup dried tart cherries or chopped dried apricots

 

  • Spray or butter a 9x5x3 inch loaf pan, and preheat your oven to 350F. This is a good opportunity to toast the nuts – they are usually ready by the time the oven reaches its target temperature. Once they are lightly browned and smell fragrant, set them aside to cool.
  • For the batter, first brown the butter. To do this, place the sticks of butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat and let them melt and bubble. First, there will be a lot of foam on top. Then it will clear to liquid gold, then you’ll start to see a lot of clear bubbles stacked atop one another. Keep waiting and stirring occasionally. Eventually you’ll start to see some darker yellow residue, then pale brown, then almost bronze bits mixed in with the clear melted butter when you stir. As soon as these bits look bronze, turn off the heat and remove the pan to allow it to cool. If you get antsy, you can put the pan in the freezer for a few minutes.
  • In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, cardamom, baking soda, and baking powder. In a larger bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer), use an electric mixer or the paddle attachment of a stand mixer to beat the eggs until very well combined and foamy on top. Gradually add the granulated sugar and the brown sugar, then mix until pale and thick, about 4 minutes. It will look almost like you are on your way to meringue. Add the vanilla and the cooled brown butter, beating well to combine.
  • Now incorporate the dry ingredients in three additions, beating just until combined. The batter will be very thick. Stir in the grated zucchini, then fold in the nuts and dried fruit, if using.
  • Pour and scrape the thick batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake in the preheated 350F oven until the top is dry and crusty, and the center is cooked through and a toothpick or cake tester inserted emerges with only a moist crumb attached. This will take about 1 hour and 30 minutes.
  • Let cool in the pan at least 10 minutes to avoid breakage, then turn out onto a wire rack and cool completely before slicing.

Slow Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Ginger Lime Butter and Charred Broccoli

By now, given that it’s not only all over Pinterest, but both Saveur and Smitten Kitchen have a version (though to be fair, hers is based on Saveur’s offering), you probably know about slow roasted sweet potatoes which means I am completely overdue unoriginal on trend with this one. But that’s okay. As a scholar of medieval texts, I am nothing if not interested in old material. Besides, this one comes with thanks to Chef Alex Guarnaschelli and her propensity to respond to people’s recipe request tweets – while tweet-stalking fangirling scrolling through my feed last week, I noticed a reader ask advice for a lamb chop dish, and Alex recommended a side of sweet potatoes with a ginger butter.

That was all the light-bulb I needed for how to dress up these already-basically-perfect sweet potatoes, roasted for an agonizingly long time until their sweetness deepens, and their flesh collapses into rich orange velvet, and their skins need the barest flick of a fork to split, and just before serving you can shove them under the broiler just until they start to blister and crackle for extra texture. Ginger would be delightful here, cutting sharply through the butter and the starchy softness of the potato (you keep your fresh ginger in the freezer, right, for easy grating?). I knew immediately I would add some brown sugar, or maybe some maple syrup, but set all that off with a generous grating of lime zest to keep it from becoming just deconstructed sweet potato pie (though honestly, that doesn’t sound like such a bad thing…). And rather than make them play second fiddle to some protein, these would be the central feature of our plates.

An almost-dessert main requires a sidekick to keep it oriented, so our vegetable costar would have to be savory and kicky and intense. I went green. Broccoli, sliced into thick, steak-like slabs to expose flat, crisp-tender centers of each stem, aggressively seared until deeply bronzed, then tossed with a pungent mixture of lime juice and fish sauce for that deep, salty-savory funk. At first taste, N. was thrown off by the sourness of the sauce combination, and I’ll admit, it is strong. But then he kept coming back for more, as the briny strangeness seeped temptingly into the bright florets.

This is a weekend meal to be sure, given the length of time needed for the potatoes. But it’s largely hands off; once you stow them in the oven, glistening with oil and scattered with salt and pepper because we are going to eat every shred of that skin, you can putter around, or sink into a movie, or venture out into whatever sort of garden you might be planning for, or indulge in a cat nap, or continue your binging of season two of Jessica Jones; you are free for whatever needs doing until it’s time to char the broccoli and lick your plate.

Slow Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Ginger Lime Butter and Charred Broccoli
Serves 4
About 2½ hours
For sweet potatoes:
4 large orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, approximately equal in size
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt and pepper
For ginger lime butter:
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened but not melted
zest of 2 limes
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger (keep it in the freezer for easier grating) OR 2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 tablespoons brown sugar or maple syrup
For charred broccoli:
1 pound broccoli
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon fish sauce

 

  • Preheat the oven to 275F. While it warms, line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Rub the sweet potatoes with the 1 tablespoon olive oil, arrange on the lined baking sheet, and sprinkle each generously with salt and pepper. Place carefully into the oven and bake at 275F for 2½ hours.
  • While the sweet potatoes take their sweet time, make the ginger lime butter. In a small bowl, use a spoon or a spatula or a small whisk to whip together the softened butter, the lime zest, the ginger, and the brown sugar. Once fluffy and well combined, cover with plastic wrap and stow in the fridge until a few minutes before it’s time to eat.
  • When the sweet potatoes have about ½ hour left to bake, start on the broccoli. Combine the 3 tablespoons vegetable oil and 2 tablespoons sesame oil in a small bowl. Cut the broccoli into large, steak-like slices straight across the head – the point is to have lots of flat sides of broccoli flesh to lay against the pan.
  • Heat about 1 tablespoon of the oil mixture in a large skillet over high heat. When the oil is shimmering but not quite smoking, carefully arrange slices of broccoli over the surface in a single layer. Try not to crowd; you will likely need to do this in a few batches. Cook without moving until the underside of each broccoli slice is deeply bronzed, around 2-3 minutes depending on your stove. Flip each piece over and repeat, so both sides are darkly browned and the broccoli is barely tender. Remove to a bowl or serving dish and repeat, adding more of the oil mixture when needed, until all of the broccoli is cooked.
  • While you are cooking the batches of broccoli, whisk together the 1 tablespoon lime juice and 1 tablespoon fish sauce in a small bowl. When all of the broccoli is done, pour on the sauce mixture and toss to combine.
  • After 2½ hours, the sweet potatoes are done. For an extra layer of flavor and texture, if you wish, set them under your broiler on high for a few minutes just before serving, until the skin blackens and crackles just a little bit, then carefully remove to a plate, split down the center, add a heaping helping of the ginger lime butter, and serve with a side of the broccoli.