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…

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.

Date and Orange Tea Loaf

When we started talking about our theme for Christmas food this year (what? Your family doesn’t theme your holiday dinner? Weird.), we quickly lit on the concept of “spiced,” in part inspired by a gingerbread trifle idea I have for dessert. N., who is not a kitchen maven but does like to be able to contribute, lit up when he heard this concept and said, “I could make a winter spiced beer!” (oops, don’t read this, family; it’s supposed to be a surprise…) My brain immediately went crazy imagining flavor pairings. Weirdly, the first one I came up with was dates and orange, which doesn’t contain any “spice” components at all. We decided that in beer, that might be a little strange, but the combination stuck and simmered.

Dates and orange sounded, upon further reflection, like a duo for a loaf cake, in the vein of banana bread or zucchini bread: not too sweet, equally suitable for breakfast or mid-afternoon. I put my mom on a research mission, imagining such a pairing might show up in one of her old cookbooks. It sounded like a classic, and so right for the approaching winter holidays. The closest she found was an orange and walnut loaf (in, weirdly enough, exactly the cookbook I’d been thinking of when I offered up the assignment), so she sent me the recipe and I started to play.

Walnuts and orange sounded nice, but the recipe Mom sent had an awful lot of orange juice in it, and simply replacing the chopped walnuts with the fruit didn’t seem quite sufficient. Since I was already thinking about thick slices served with tea, I was reminded of my barm brack all studded with dried fruit that had soaked in tea for some time before getting kneaded into the bread itself. That seemed the thing to do here as well. Dates are such sugar bombs, so an hour’s steep in hot tea, with some orange juice as well for good measure, would temper the sweetness and impart some extra moisture just in case.

With that sorted, I replaced some of the granulated sugar with brown sugar, swapped the oil in the recipe for a touch more melted butter, opted for chopped orange peel instead of orange zest for aesthetics and the occasional bitter, marmalade-esque bite, and decided to top the loaf with chopped walnuts and hazelnuts. As a last minute decision and a nod to the original “spiced” concept that planted the idea, I tossed in some cardamom. So, in short, I completely changed the recipe. Oops. It happens.

And I’m glad it did, because despite concerns about quantity – the batter was only enough to fill my loaf pan halfway – and overcooking – it ended up taking about ten minutes longer than I’d expected – this was easily the best baked good I’ve made in a while. The texture is moist and compact but still bouncy, a bit more elastic than a banana bread, and studded with meaty chunks of dates that have plumped and softened during their bath and long bake. The tea flavor is not immediately obvious, but blends pleasantly with the other orange components. I tend not to like chopped nuts inside a loaf like this, but this layer across the top is perfect for a touch of crunch that doesn’t disrupt the even-textured, pleasantly-dense interior. They toast nicely while the loaf bakes (if they seem to be getting a bit dark, cover lightly with a layer of aluminum foil during the last 10-15 minutes of baking), and the nutty flavor adds depth to the rich sweetness of the cake itself.

Originally, I had planned to take this loaf to school with me as a gift for the first twelve or so people to come into the mailroom in the morning. N. has historically not been fond of dates (it’s a texure thing, I think), so he wasn’t feeling too enthused about the outcome and I certainly don’t need to eat the whole thing myself. When, however, I had talked myself down from another full slice to just eating half of the end piece as a second helping, and when I offered N. a few bites on his way through the house and he turned all the way around to receive the rest, I realized there was just no way I could let this loaf leave the premises. Not with the pre-Thanksgiving week I’m about to have. Sorry, work family. Next time, I promise! In the meantime, treat yourself to this one. You won’t be sorry.

Date and Orange Tea Loaf
Makes 1 9x5x3 inch loaf
About 2½ hours (including 1 hour steeping time for the dates)
8 ounces pitted, chopped medjool dates
¾ cup boiling water
1 earl grey tea bag
peel of 1 orange (remove in wide strips with a potato peeler)
¼ cup fresh squeezed orange juice from 1 orange
2 cups all purpose flour
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup brown sugar
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cardamom
1 egg
4 tablespoons melted butter
¼ cup chopped walnuts
¼ cup chopped hazelnuts

 

  • First, brew the tea: pour the hot water over the tea bag in a 2-cup glass measuring cup. Steep for 1-2 minutes. Use the time to remove the orange peel in thick strips with a potato peeler; reserve these for later. Add the orange juice and the chopped dates to the brewed tea. Stir, then let sit for at least an hour.
  • While you wait, use a thin bladed knife to carefully remove the pith from the strips of orange peel. Mince, or slice across into thin threads as in the photo above, whichever you prefer. I found I wanted the threads for more orange presence.
  • When the hour (or however long you decide to let the dates steep) is almost up, preheat the oven to 350F and grease a 9x5x3 inch loaf pan. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, brown sugar, baking soda, salt, cardamom, and reserved orange peel.
  • With a slotted spoon or small strainer with a handle, remove the dates from the tea and orange juice mixture (reserve the liquid! We still need that). Let them drip briefly, then use your fingers to break them up (they will all stick together) and drop them into the dry ingredient mixture. Use a rubber spatula or your hands to mix them in, taking care to separate them as much as possible. Tossing them with the flour can help them stay evenly integrated in the loaf while it bakes, rather than clumping or all sinking to the bottom.
  • Add the egg and the melted butter to the reserved tea and orange juice and whisk to combine. Pour this wet mixture into the dry mixture all at once and fold together with a rubber spatula just until no white streaks of flour remain. At first it will not seem like enough liquid, but suddenly it will all come together into a reasonably thick, muffin-like batter.
  • Pour and scrape the mixture into the prepared loaf tin. Sprinkle the chopped walnuts and hazelnuts in an even layer over the top, then bake for 50-60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted near the center of the cake comes out with only a few moist crumbs (don’t put the toothpick through the central crack in the top; this will give you a falsely undercooked reading. Aim for about a half inch off). If the nuts look like they are getting too dark, place a sheet of aluminum foil over the top during the last 10-15 minutes of baking.
  • Cool at least 30 minutes before turning out of the pan, then another 30 minutes before slicing. I know it’s a long time to wait, but trust me. The loaf needs a little time to establish structural integrity. Serve warm, or cool, if you can make it that long, perhaps with a cup of tea.

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Dessert Latkes

One of the great shames of holiday food, I feel, is how assertively we restrict it to holidays. Every Thanksgiving when I eat that first piece of turkey straight off the carving fork (there are privileges to being the cook), I think to myself, “why do I only make this once a year?” Of course, that’s after I’ve already had a glass of wine and a few snacks, so I’m repressing the amount of work I’ve just undergone to get that thing defrosted, prepped and suitably accompanied, and haven’t yet allowed myself to think about the labor to come of denuding its carcass, fabricating broth, and dreaming up leftovers.

But turkey is only one example. There are so many other foods that we reserve strictly for their special day. In my family, the challah my mom taught us to make gets trotted out on Christmas Day, and sometimes on Easter. It was a surprise to me to learn that my aunt N. makes it multiple times a year, whenever she and her husband want a slice. But this is a silly thing to be surprised about. Why shouldn’t we make whatever foods we crave, whenever we crave them? I don’t think gingerbread would cease to be special just because I make a batch in March and in October as well as the night before Christmas. Besides, holding onto these foods as once-a-year-sacred means we don’t get an opportunity to experiment with them, since whatever masses you’re feeling probably want THE dish, not a derivative thereof. And okay, I admit, the old standard is good in itself, but the opportunity to play is one of the great rewards of cooking: what if I added apples to the gingerbread this time around? How would the turkey be with dill and mustard powder rubbed into the butter?

One of the great injustices of this restriction of holiday foods is that people are not, I suspect, ingesting as many latkes as they rightfully should be. While it’s true that these carry a slightly more meaningful symbolic link to their holiday than gingerbread does, indulging their delectable crispiness without pondering on the miracle of the oil lasting a full eight nights feels to me like sensible celebration rather than sacrilege. And once you get into the habit of eating latkes throughout the year, rather than just during Hanukkah, you start to realize that potato and onion are nice and all, but there are other options out there that deserve attention in crispy fried form.

This time around, I wondered what would happen if you moved latkes from the dinner to the dessert course. Sweet potatoes seemed like a natural choice, and instead of onion, I went with apple – it adds a tart sweetness that mellows as it cooks, and it would contribute, I thought, similar water content as the onion in the original. A toss with flour and eggs, some cinnamon to lend extra autumnal feeling, the requisite bubbling fry, and then a stack dripping with maple syrup, or sweetened sour cream, or maybe a drizzle of honey for really tooth-aching indulgence.

When I dug in, I found the combination of frying and sweetness reminded me ever so slightly of funnel cake – the snowy sprinkle of powdered sugar on top would have fit right in. I do suggest using orange sweet potatoes (often marketed as yams) if you are serving these for dessert; they are a little less firm in texture when they cook, but they are definitely sweeter. On the other hand, if you are looking for an interesting, produce-led alternative to pancakes, use the slightly less-sweet yellow or white fleshed sweet potatoes, and these could slide right in as a breakfast – perhaps for the holidays, okay, but in the spirit of not restricting ourselves, perhaps for any cool morning the urge for something special arises.

* though these are designed to be sweet, they could easily edge back toward the savory camp with the addition of black pepper or sage, and a more traditional topper of plain sour cream. Or you could make them even more dessert-like by adding other wintery spices we associate with pies and cakes – maybe even pumpkin (pie) spice in all its polarizing glory, as a nod to the season.

 

Dessert Latkes
30-45 minutes
Makes 9-10 3-inch latkes
2 medium sweet potatoes – orange fleshed for a sweeter product, white fleshed for less sweetness
1 medium granny smith apple
2 eggs
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½-¾ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Vegetable oil to fry
Maple syrup, powdered sugar, honey, or sour cream mixed with some brown sugar, to serve

 

  • Peel the sweet potatoes. If using a box grater, shred them with the large holes. If using a food processor, cut them down into large chunks that will just fit in the feed tube. Quarter and core the apples. Use a box grater or food processor fitted with the shredding disc to shred the sweet potatoes and apples. Scrape the shreds straight onto a clean kitchen towel and wring it out vigorously into the sink. When you’ve exhausted your arm muscles, let the towel-wrapped shreds sit for two minutes, then squeeze again. You should be able to extract a little more.
  • In a large bowl, beat together the eggs, the flour, the baking powder, the salt, and the cinnamon. Dump in the drained sweet potato and apple shreds and mix well – I find a fork works reasonably for this, but nothing is as good as your fingers to ensure even integration.
  • Heat vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat; you want enough to come about ½ inch up the sides (the quantity will vary depending on the size of your pan). Cast iron is my vessel of choice for latkes.
  • When the oil is shimmering, carefully place small heaps of the latke mixture straight into the skillet – I use my hands for this, but of course you’ll need to be very careful. Ensure the small heaps don’t touch one another. Use the flat side of a spatula to gently flatten each heap.
  • Cook over medium-high heat 4-5 minutes, until the bottoms are crisp and well browned. Flip and cook another 3-4 minutes, then remove from heat and repeat with remaining mixture.
  • While you are cooking the latkes, it’s useful to store each batch in a 300F oven on a wire rack placed over a cookie sheet. This keeps them warm and lets any excess oil drip off.
  • To serve, stack up a pile of latkes and drizzle, sprinkle, or pour on your desired topping. Eat hot.

Zucchini Crepes with Mascarpone Almond Cream

food-blog-february-2017-0288There is no way I can connect this recipe with Black History Month. I’ve tried. The transition just isn’t there. But when this issue of The New Yorker showed up on our doorstep, with this beautiful new imagining of the iconic Rosie the Riveter staring confidently back at me on the front, I wanted to make sure you saw her. Clearly a response to the Women’s March, she is also a powerful image of intersectional feminism, replacing the white WWII era working woman with an African American marcher, pink pussy hat and all. And though the cover doesn’t bear Rosie’s original accompanying phrase – “We can do it” – there’s no way to divorce that message, with all its connotations, from this new version.

There is so much to do, but we can do it.

food-blog-february-2017-0260These started not as crepes but as a desire to modify my favorite zucchini spice bread recipe into a pancake (I told you there was no transition. I just wanted to show you my magazine cover and remind you about the history we should be celebrating this month). There would be nutmeg and cinnamon, there would be caramelized crisp edges, there might be golden raisins… and then I made the mistake of searching for “zucchini bread pancakes” online, and of course the first hit was Deb’s recipe, deepening, as ever, my intense love-hate relationship with her and her site. Let me be clear, before you start emailing me: I adore Smitten Kitchen (look, Deb, I’m even giving you traffic!). I have the cookbook, I went to a signing and thoroughly embarrassed myself, and I trawl through her archives all the time, because she has tried everything! But there’s the hate part (or, at least, the jealous part): she’s tried everything! I certainly wasn’t going to make zucchini bread pancakes if she already had the consummate version (which, of course, I just automatically assume she does. Being a jealous fan-girl is weird).

food-blog-february-2017-0263food-blog-february-2017-0267So I had to go with something different, and somehow something different became crepes. I wasn’t sure how they would work, given the sodden heaviness large quantities of shredded zucchini often contribute to a dish, but the zucchini were already in the fridge and the milk on the door was begging to be used, so the experiment had to move forward.

food-blog-february-2017-0255I’m calling these crepes, but they don’t share ratio or ingredient quantities with other crepe recipes. My grandfather called them Swedish pancakes, probably more because he was Swedish than due to any recipe authenticity. They are a bit moister than some crepes – a little less papery around the edges, maybe a bit heavier, and we’ve never been particularly fussy about getting them wafer thin. Here, the addition of the zucchini makes these qualities important, since the batter has to be substantial enough to hold up to the extra weight of the vegetation.

food-blog-february-2017-0268food-blog-february-2017-0272As I always yell at food competition contestants when they scrunch or tear or mangle their first crepe, the first one probably is going to be ugly. Maybe the second one too. But you have to persist. Crepes require a bit of a rhythm – you have to get a feel for how much batter goes into the pan, how steeply to tilt your pan while you swirl to get an even coating of batter, and how long it really does need to cook before you can flip that delicate, eggy circle. And ultimately, really, it’s okay when that first one rips, because now you get to eat it surreptitiously and make sure it’s good. Cook’s prerogative.

food-blog-february-2017-0277These were indeed good. The zucchini is mild, so don’t worry if it’s not your very favorite vegetable flavor, but it cooks so quickly that every bit of grassy rawness was gone. They could go in a sweet or a savory direction, but I opted for sweet, whisking mascarpone cheese with some honey, some lemon, and roughly chopped toasted almonds for a bit of crunch. Lemon and zucchini play well together, as do zucchini and almonds, and it’s nice to have some texture in with the softness of the cheese and the pliable delicacy of the pancake.

food-blog-february-2017-0280We had these for dinner as a decadent response to a rainy day, but they would make an indulgent breakfast or a superb brunch course as well. You can fold the crepes up into a triangular, handkerchief-like packet with a mound of cheese inside, or you can roll up into a cylinder, which is what my family has always done. I found I liked a few almonds sprinkled over the top, and an extra drizzle of honey as well. Any extra crepes keep fine covered in the fridge for a day or two, until you take them out, reheat them with a bit of salted butter, and smother them with cinnamon sugar, because some days require that kind of solid self care, so you can get out there and keep going.

food-blog-february-2017-0293

Zucchini Crepes with Mascarpone Almond Cream
Makes 10-12 crepes in a 10-inch skillet
30-40 minutes
For the filling:
½ cup whole raw almonds
8 ounces mascarpone cheese
1 tablespoon heavy cream
2 tablespoons honey
zest of one lemon
1-2 teaspoons lemon juice
additional honey, to drizzle
For the crepes:
2 cups shredded zucchini, from 2 medium zucchinis
2 cups milk
2 tablespoons melted butter
3 eggs
1½-1¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon sugar
⅛ teaspoon salt

 

  • First, make the filling. Preheat the oven to 350F. While it heats, roughly chop the almonds – it’s okay to have some uneven sizing. Spread them out on a baking tray and toast in the oven 10-15 minutes until they are golden brown. Start checking at 10 minutes; keep in mind they will continue to cook after you take them out of the oven.
  • In a bowl, whisk the mascarpone cheese and the heavy cream together until light and fluffy (I used the whisk attachment of my stand mixer). Add the honey, the lemon zest, and the lemon juice, whisk again and taste for seasoning – you are looking for something lightly sweet, and rich but not overwhelming. When the almonds cool, fold ¾ of the amount into the mascarpone mixture, reserving the remainder to sprinkle atop the crepes.
  • To make the crepes, shred the zucchini in a food processor or with the large holes on a box grater. Collect them on a clean kitchen towel and squeeze to remove as much liquid as possible. Let it sit for 2 minutes, then squeeze once more.
  • Warm the milk slightly in a bowl or large glass measuring cup and add the melted butter, stirring to incorporate. This ensures the butter will integrate evenly, rather than hardening back into chunks. Let cool to room temperature and whisk in the eggs, then 1½ cups of the flour, the sugar, and the salt. Finally, whisk in the zucchini shreds. You should have something like a thin cake batter, probably thinner than your average pancake batter. If it seems too liquid, add the remaining ¼ cup of flour.
  • To cook the crepes, heat about 2 teaspoons butter in a 10-inch skillet or crepe pan over medium-high heat. Pour in about ⅓ cup of batter, turning and swirling the skillet as you do so to allow for a thin layer of batter to coat the entire surface. Try to spread out the zucchini a bit – it has a tendency to clump up in the middle, which results in uneven cooking.
  • Cook 1-2 minutes per side, until golden and almost dry. Don’t be alarmed if the first crepe tears or is otherwise mangled – they are delicate, and you have to get a rhythm going. After every two crepes, add another few teaspoons of butter to the skillet.
  • As you finish cooking each crepe, remove from the skillet to a covered plate to keep them warm. They won’t stick together – there’s enough fat in them to prevent clinging.
  • To serve, spread out one crepe on a flat surface and spread a few tablespoons of the mascarpone and almond mixture in a line a bit to the left of the center. Use the tines of a fork or your fingers to lift the edge of the crepe over the mascarpone filling, then continue rolling up into a tight burrito shape. Remove to a serving plate and continue with remaining crepes and filling. Sprinkle the finished rolls with the remaining almonds, and if desired, drizzle with more honey before serving.

Ginger Blackberry Scones

2016 Food Blog March-0656It’s going to sound a bit cliché to do this – a literature major starting a post with quotes about April – but it has again proved itself to be the cruelest month. Really, as a medievalist I should be referencing Chaucer, and I do prefer his April – with its sweet showers and sleepy birds and waking pilgrims – to T.S. Eliot’s earthy disturbance of memory and desire, but this year Eliot is unfortunately more apropos. April is a thief. It stole things from me, and from others I love. It sapped me on a personal and a professional plane, and on levels both trivial and profound.

2016 Food Blog March-06192016 Food Blog March-06242016 Food Blog March-0625In the wake of April’s larceny, which began on the very first day of the month, something had to give, and that something was this something. The ease with which I slipped in a substitute post was insidious, and to manage my own needs, I had to allow that ease to linger.

2016 Food Blog March-0627Now that April has blustered its way out of our lives, now that I’m picking my way delicately up the slope that everything I dropped created, I think we need something warm and comforting, but bright. Something to wake up those sleepy birds and push us forward on our pilgrimages. There are several search terms for the 2016 project that involve blackberries, which is no surprise. However, I just couldn’t see my way ‘round “blackberry sauerkraut party meatballs” (any ideas?), so I settled on “ginger blackberry scones” instead, borrowing a bit from a Bon Appetit base recipe for cream scones.

2016 Food Blog March-06382016 Food Blog March-0641There is much, and also not a great deal, to say about scones. Richer than a biscuit, drier than a cake, they are a crumbly compact package I would eat at any time of day. Studded with chopped crystallized ginger, bright with citrus zest and weeping with the purple stain of lurking blackberries, they are capable of offering comfort even in the final days of the “stony rubbish” that is that cruelest of months (Eliot 20).

2016 Food Blog March-0647Ginger Blackberry Scones
Makes 8 large, 16 medium, or 24 small
Adapted from Bon Appetit
¼ cup granulated sugar
zest of one lemon or one lime
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon kosher salt
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting your board
½ cup (8 tablespoons or one stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1¼ cups (about 12 ounces) fresh blackberries
¼ cup finely chopped crystallized ginger
1 large egg, beaten
1¼ cups heavy cream, plus more for brushing
raw sugar, optional, for sprinkling

 

  • Preheat the oven to 375F. In a medium bowl, rub the sugar and citrus zest together until the zest is evenly integrated and the sugar and your hands smell of its brightness. Whisk the zested sugar with the baking powder, baking soda, salt, and three cups of flour.
  • Add the butter chunks and, using a pastry blender or your fingers, work the butter into the flour until only small pieces remain – some will be the size of oats; some will be more like peas.
  • Add the blackberries and chopped ginger and toss gently to incorporate.
  • Make a well in the center of the mixture and add the egg and the 1¼ cups cream. Use a fork to mix, incorporating the wet and dry ingredients gently, until a shaggy dough forms. Lightly knead in the bowl just until it comes together – a few dry patches are fine. Some of the blackberries will lose integrity, bleeding through the dough. That’s okay too.
  • Turn the sticky, shaggy dough out onto a floured board and pat it into a round (more traditional) or a rectangle about 1 inch thick. Cut into wedges/triangles (a pizza cutter works well for this), or punch out rounds with a cutter, and transfer to a parchment lined baking sheet.
  • Brush tops of scones with a bit of cream, then sprinkle with raw sugar if desired. Bake at 375F: 25-30 minutes for large scones, 20-25 minutes for medium or small. They will blush pale gold when they are done, and the bottoms will bronze a bit darker.
  • Remove gently to a wire rack and let cool a few minutes before eating. If desired, you can leave off the brush of cream and sugar, and instead, when the scones are cool, drizzle them with a well-whisked mixture of 1 cup powdered sugar, ¼ cup lemon juice, and 2 teaspoons vanilla.