Roasted Apple and Onion Biscuits

I think it’s like this every year. I’m sure I’ve said that before. The first week of the semester goes by and I think “well, that was fun,” and then I think “oh, I have to do that fifteen times more in a row!” The second week goes by, and I’m exhausted, but grateful for the bonus day Labor Day provided.

Then week 3 hits. The add period is over, so my classes stabilize and become the “real” group that will soldier through the semester with me. The serious assignments begin. The bedtime and alarm start to feel like normal and not like torture.

But the work. At this point, yes, classes have stabilized, but in almost all cases they are still at their enrollment caps, which means the first paper I collect comes in a dose of sixty. And even when you parse that out in stacks of ten, boy does it feel like a lot. By the time the weekend following week 3 hits, I need comfort food.

Fortunately, our weather has cooled into something that feels surprisingly like fall. Mid September is usually stifling, but we are descending into temperatures in which it’s not suicidal to have the oven on for a half hour or so. When I saw that windfall on our weather forecast, I thought of biscuits.

I realize, of course, that there is no shortage of biscuit recipes here, and if I’m quite honest with you, almost every one has the same base. The magic, though, is in what extra flavoring agents you add. This time around, the fall combination of apples and onions hit me hard. I’ve done this before, in a meatball that was really just an excuse to eat more breakfast sausage, but in biscuits I wanted less tartness, less crisp-tender bite, and just melting sweetness with a touch of roasted flavor. Green apple and red onion get roasted in chunks for a half hour before they are tossed with the dry ingredients, then blended in with butter and buttermilk or soured cream. Roll, fold, and punch out rounds from the wet dough, and you are only fifteen minutes from hot, flaky biscuits.

As we chatted during our weekly viewing of Project Runway, my friend T. and I speculated additions to these biscuits. You could add plenty of black pepper, or amp up the savory with herbs: sage is quintessentially autumnal, and thyme also goes well with apple and onion. Where our minds went immediately, though, was blue cheese. Think about it: crumbles in the mix leaking out during baking to form little lacy puddles around the edges of the finished biscuit. Or, if you don’t want more busyness in the biscuit itself, T. suggested blue cheese butter to spread in the center.

These are not doctored, though, any further than the original pairing, and honestly, they don’t need to be. Even the tartest apple, as were the two tiny granny smiths I cubed up, mellows as it cooks, playing with and enhancing the sweetness of the onion. You could have them as we did: the “bread” of a breakfast-y sandwich (I mixed bulk sausage with maple syrup, red pepper flakes, and a squeeze of Dijon before frying in patties to put in the center), but I bet, especially if we are thinking seasonally, that they would be perfect cut a little smaller and swaddled in a basket to be served alongside a Thanksgiving turkey.

Roasted Apple and Onion Biscuits
About 60 minutes, including cooling time
Makes 14-15 2½ inch biscuits
2 small or 1 large tart green apple (I like granny smith), skin on, cut into small cubes
½ large red onion, skin, root, and stem ends removed, cut into large chunks
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 cups all-purpose flour + more for sprinkling on your board
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons baking powder
6 tablespoons cold butter, cut into chunks
6 ounces buttermilk, or whole milk or cream soured with about a tablespoon of vinegar

 

  • Preheat the oven to 400F. On a baking tray lined with aluminum foil, toss the apple and onion chunks with the olive oil, the ¼ teaspoon salt, and the pepper. Roast for 15 minutes, toss gently with a spatula, then roast another 15 minutes, until just a few edges are taking on a toasty brown color. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
  • While the apples and onions cool, combine the flour, sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, and baking powder in a medium bowl. I like to use a whisk for this to keep it all light and well mixed.
  • Add in the cooled apple and onion pieces and toss to ensure they are well coated with flour – this will help them stay evenly distributed in the biscuits rather than sinking to the bottom. Dump in the cubes of cold butter and use a pastry blender or your fingers to work the fat into the flour mixture. You are looking for butter bits the size of small peas.
  • Pour in the buttermilk or soured cream and use a fork or your fingers to mix it through the flour and butter mixture and bring the whole thing together into a shaggy, soft ball of dough (if it seems too dry and is not coming together, just set it aside for a minute or three – this will give the flour time to absorb the wet ingredients a bit more).
  • Turn the dough out onto a well floured board, sprinkle some more flour on top, and knead with your hands two or three times just to catch any loose bits. With a rolling pin or your hands, press or roll the dough into a rough rectangular shape about ½ an inch thick. Fold the dough into thirds, then roll out again. Repeat, again folding the dough into thirds and then rolling it out; this creates more flaky layers. If the dough sticks to your board, use the flat blade of a butter knife or a pastry scraper to help you lift it free. This is a fairly wet dough, so you’ll need to be stern with it, and you may need to sprinkle on more flour as you go.
  • After you’ve rolled and folded, rolled and folded (so you’ll have done a total of six folds), roll out once more, this time to a thickness of 1 inch, and use a 2½-inch round cutter (or the floured lip of a glass) to punch out biscuits. Push the cutter straight down through the dough; don’t twist until you are all the way through to the board, or you’ll crush the flaky layers! Repeat until you can’t punch out any more rounds. Re-roll the dough scraps (no need to fold again unless you want to) and repeat – with a 2½-inch cutter, you should be able to make14-15 biscuits around an inch in thickness.
  • Replace the aluminum foil sheet on your baking tray with parchment paper, and arrange the biscuits on it, evenly spaced. I like to do about 8 at a time, but they don’t spread much, so you can crowd them a little. Bake 15 minutes (still at 400F), until they are puffed and the tops are golden and slightly dry. These won’t climb sky high because the apples and onions are wet and add extra weight, but they will still rise a bit.
  • Let cool for a minute or two, then serve warm (see suggestions above for accompaniments).
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Apple Bourbon Caramel Topping

If you’re following along on Instagram, you’ll have seen that N. and I have been up to big things. Huge things! House shaped things! According to the bank, and the escrow office, and our realtor, and the seller, we are now home-owners! We can’t quite believe it ourselves, but enough independent sources verify it that we’re coming to think it must be true. Between the searching, and the paperwork, and the other paperwork, and the packing, and the paperwork, and the fact that the semester is still in, if not full, at least substantial swing, there hasn’t been a great deal of time for blogging.

But still, home ownership achieved on a house that was, quite frankly, nicer than what we’d expected we would be able to find, feels like cause for celebration. So quickly, on a day during which I need to take care of so many things, I want to give you something with which to pause, and to celebrate.

The nice thing about May is that even though it’s spring, there are still the occasional chilly days during which something warm and sweet is everything you need, and on the others, you can just pile that something warm and sweet over something cold and thick. It’s a can’t-go-wrong topping. Think apples. Think bourbon. Think deeply melted and gooey and caramel-y brown sugar, and the right spice of cinnamon, and a swirl of butter, all melted gloriously together, ready to crown anything from waffles (as we did) to pancakes to bread pudding to french toast to ice cream.

My serving suggestion: make yourself a batch of waffles. I like these, as they allow me to use up some sourdough starter from baking days when I’ve gotten a little too enthusiastic, and unlike many sourdough waffle recipes, don’t require an overnight rise. Layer a waffle, a generous spoonful of caramel, then repeat, and add a heaping dome of greek yogurt right on top. The caramel is decadent and the apples provide excellent texture and fall perfectly into the holes of the waffle, and the yogurt is all tang and creaminess and acidic balance for the sweetness of the caramel. It’s breakfast, it’s brunch, it’s a sweet breakfast-for-dinner, and it’s an unquestionably good late-night-when-you-may-have-already-had-some-bourbon snack.

Enjoy. I hope you have something lovely on your plate to celebrate.

 

Apple Bourbon Caramel Topping
20-30 minutes
Makes ¾ – 1 cup (enough for 3-4 servings of waffles)
4 tablespoons butter
2 apples, quartered, cored, and diced into ¼ inch chunks (I leave the peel on because I like the texture. If you don’t like it, you can peel the apples first)
½ cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
pinch salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
2-4 tablespoons bourbon
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons heavy cream

 

  • In a skillet or saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. When it is fully melted and foaming, add the apple chunks. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until they are tender: 5-10 minutes. If they seem to be browning aggressively, give them a good stir and turn down the heat a bit.
  • Once the apple pieces are tender, add the brown sugar, salt, cinnamon, and vanilla. Turn down the heat to medium-low, if you haven’t already. Cook down until the brown sugar is fully dissolved and the mixture is bubbly and thick: 2-3 minutes.
  • Off the heat, add the bourbon and the lemon juice, then stir to combine and simmer slowly for about 10 minutes. At the last minute, stir in the heavy cream.
  • Serve warm over waffles, pancakes, French toast, ice cream, or (almost) anything else you can imagine.

Brown Butter Apple Pound Cake

I’ve tried to start this post three or four times now. The first time I tried to skirt the events of the last week entirely, but that felt like lying. The second time I was overtly political, explaining exactly how I felt and why. That felt more honest, but it didn’t feel like the right move. The third time I tried to be conciliatory, citing concerns on both sides.

2016-food-blog-november-0385In the face of change, particularly because it is not the sort of change I agree with or was hoping for, I retreated to comfort. I know this is not particularly useful. I know I am reasonably safe for a number of reasons, and closing the blinds and wallowing is not helping the people who are – or soon may be – not so safe, but I did it anyway. Finally, I decided I need more time to process what I want to say, so I’ll offer this instead, as unhelpful and uninspiring as it might be: this week was rough. Let’s have cake.

2016-food-blog-november-03382016-food-blog-november-0329For me, the deepest and firmest food comfort is baking. It makes me think of being a child, it makes me think of warmth and sweetness; it makes me feel sound. In his examination of sugar and its coming to and impacts on Europe, particularly England, Sidney W. Mintz suggests that perhaps the reason we are so attracted to sugar, especially when we are young, is because human breast milk is sweet. So it makes sense that when we are troubled, or we feel that we need safety and security, we turn to sweet foods.

2016-food-blog-november2016-food-blog-november-0356The original inspiration for this cake came from Starbucks. A few years ago as part of their fall line-up of baked goods, Starbucks rolled out a brown butter pound cake spiked with Washington apples, and after sampling the dense crumb and the wet, almost too sweet apple chunks, I wanted to do my own version. For the base recipe, I went with that great baking bible Baking Illustrated, by the same cooks and recipe testers as Cooks Illustrated. Their pound cake uses cake flour for a tight but tender crumb, plenty of butter, and the richness and color and emulsifying power of extra egg yolks, rather than all whole eggs. Mine adds the extra step of browning the butter first (which then necessitates refrigerating it back into solidity before creaming it with the sugar), and a generous two cups of apple cubes – granny smith, for the tartness and minimal juice expelled during baking.

2016-food-blog-november-03462016-food-blog-november-0352Most pound cakes have a soft top that splits as it bakes, and this one did offer that classic cleaving in the center, but the rest of the top – the browned exterior on either side of that tender split, was crisp and delicate and almost wafer-like – think of the top shiny, flaky layer of an excellent pan of brownies – perhaps because I was so enthusiastic in creaming the butter and sugar and then beating in the eggs. My batter looked like a good fluffy buttercream in its initial stages.

2016-food-blog-november-0363I usually bring my baked offerings to work with me, leaving only a serving or two to enjoy at home, and this was no exception, but we were sorry about that. Especially as the week wore on, we wanted more of this comforting, moist-but sturdy, not-too-sweet confection, preferably in thick slices. But alas, it lasted only a few hours in our mailroom.

2016-food-blog-november-0368It’s funny in that uncomfortable way, but the last time I made a pound cake was also a heavy time. It’s an uncomfortable metaphor – perhaps I should start perfecting an angel-food cake recipe instead – but hindsight is what it is, and here we are. Cake.

2016-food-blog-november-0371Maybe the best way I can conclude today is with Kurt Vonnegut. In his novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, one character offers the following as a baptismal statement to a pair of brand new twins: “Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”

2016-food-blog-november-0386

Brown Butter Apple Pound Cake
Makes 1 9x5x3 inch loaf
About 90 min
16 tablespoons unsalted butter (2 sticks)
1⅓ cups sugar
3 large eggs + 3 large egg yolks, all at room temperature
1½ teaspoons vanilla
1½ teaspoons water
½ teaspoon salt
1½ cups cake flour
2 cups ½-inch cubes of granny smith apple; 1 large apple or 2 small

  • First, brown the butter. In a small saucepan, preferably with a light colored bottom so you can see what is happening, melt the butter over medium heat. As it melts, it will foam up. Keep swirling and checking the color underneath that foam; it will gradually darken from yellow to golden, and the foam will recede a bit. Watch very closely at this point, occasionally tipping the pot to see the bottom – little white solids will have collected. When these begin to turn brown, the butter will smell toasted and nutty. Take it off the stove and stow it in the refrigerator until it has solidified but is not too hard – your thumb should still press in easily.
  • While the butter cools down again, preheat the oven to 375F and prepare a loaf pan by spraying with non-stick spray and lining with parchment paper. Prep the apple by peeling it, quartering and coring it, and then slicing and cubing into ½ inch pieces.
  • In a mixing bowl (Baking Illustrated recommends using a stand mixer, but I used a glass bowl and my regular electric mixer and it was fine), combine the re-solidified butter and all of the sugar. Mix at medium speed until very light and fluffy, at least 3-4 minutes. Really. That long. It will take on a texture much like a slightly grainy buttercream frosting.
  • Beat the eggs with the egg yolks, the water, and the vanilla and, with the mixer still running, dribble in this egg mixture until all is well combined. At this point the batter will be very thick and glossy and still a bit reminiscent of frosting.
  • Now, sift in ½ cup of the flour with the salt right over the top of the batter. Once it is all snow-drifted on top there, use a rubber spatula to fold it in. Once fully combined, repeat the sifting and folding with the second ½ cup of flour.
  • Sprinkle the apple cubes over the batter, then dust with the remaining ½ cup flour. Giving the apple chunks a little flour coating helps them stay suspended in the batter during baking, rather than sinking to the bottom. Repeat the folding process one final time, being sure the flour is fully incorporated and there are no dry pockets.
  • With your rubber spatula, pour and scrape the batter carefully into the prepared loaf pan. Smooth off the top if you like, then stow in the preheated oven for 45-55 minutes, or until a toothpick insertted comes out with just a few damp crumbs.
  • Let the loaf cool in the pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes, then use a second wire rack placed over the top of the pan to invert. The loaf will plop right out, upside down, onto this second rack. Carefully remove the pan from the loaf and flip the loaf back over top-side-up to cool completely. Peel off the parchment paper, transfer to a cutting board, and slice up thickly to eat.

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Apple Cranberry Hand Pies

2016 Food Blog January-0251When my sister was a kid, she somehow acquired a cooking toy the internet tells me was called “McDonald’s Happy Meal Magic: Pie Maker.” Released in 1993 (feeling old yet?), it allowed the user – with parental guidance, to be sure – to create a small pocket snack that, at least in inspiration, vaguely approximated the fast food giant’s classic dessert. The “pies” this toy made can’t have been very good; from what I recall, they consisted of a piece of store-bought bread, crusts removed, that you rolled out thin and topped with a small hill of fruit filling (I remember applesauce; my sister recalls jam). You then folded the bread over the filling, placed it in a little box-like contraption and, upon forceful application of the lid, squashed and crimped it into submission. You could then sprinkle on some cinnamon sugar, and eat it immediately.

2016 Food Blog January-02192016 Food Blog January-0221The problem with this, aside from the fact that it doesn’t sound very appetizing anymore, was that after going to all the trouble of removing crusts, rolling out, squashing and crimping, my mom would only let us eat one or two at a time. And I can’t imagine they would keep well.

2016 Food Blog January-0222Regardless of practicality or flavor, though, I remember this being a lot of fun. There was a satisfaction to assembly-line production of “dessert” items that, though not as prolific as Lucy and Ethel’s experience, meant we had the ability (if not the permission) to create high volumes of sweets.

2016 Food Blog January-0224This was my introduction, though I didn’t realize it, to hand pies. A sweet rejoinder to pasties, flaky dough encases a fruity filling in a single serving that, true to its name, can be picked up (once it has cooled enough, of course) and eaten straight out of hand. It can also, of course, be topped with a scoop of ice cream, or drizzled with caramel, or a dozen other plate-and-fork applications, but the glory of being able to lift one straight off of a baking sheet and walk away utensil-free is worth noting.

2016 Food Blog January-0225A mid-winter pie should be sweet, yes, but it should also be tart and bright to wake up your sluggish, post-holiday self. I decided on apple and cranberry. I always buy a few extra bags of cranberries when they are on sale in November and December, and stow them in the freezer in case I get early spring cravings for cranberry sauce.

2016 Food Blog January-0233The dough for hand pies needs to be easy to manipulate, since you’ll be rolling and cutting and folding and crimping, so I went with the cream cheese dough I’ve been dabbling with lately – it is a moist dough, so it doesn’t tear as easily as some, and the cream cheese as well as butter keeps it fairly tender even when you work it a bit.

2016 Food Blog January-0237The filling is lightly adapted from Joy the Baker’s Apple Cranberry Crumble pie.  In addition to the classic procedure – toss the apples with sugar, cinnamon, lemon juice – Joy includes two extra steps: let the apples macerate for thirty minutes or so, to create a puddle of sweet, spiced juices. Rather than just dump this into a pie shell, in a stroke of genius, you bubble the juices down with some butter to create a thick, syrupy caramel, which you promptly stir back into the fruit before filling your crust. You end up with a slightly less wet filling, which is a fine thing on the mess front, and a deeper, more developed flavor. I took the liberty, and I think Joy would approve, of adding a few tablespoons of bourbon to my juice mixture before I boiled it down into a syrup.

2016 Food Blog January-0242These are lovely little pockets of sweet tartness. In the time it takes the crust to go pale gold and fluff up into pockets of flakiness, the small chunks of apples and coarsely chopped cranberries swimming in syrupy cinnamon caramel have time to cook through, but not turn to mush. Your only enemies here are time and heat – as with all butter-based pie crusts, if the butter in the dough warms up too much before it goes in the oven, the crust will not puff and flake, as the butter will melt right out of the dough before it has a chance to create layers of pastry. But you can surmount this by carefully moving back and forth between prep with the crust and the filling, making use of your fridge in between, and still put forth a dessert in about two hours. I brought one to N. to sample, and he returned ten minutes later with an empty plate and said “that was really, really good. Now I just want four more.” I didn’t tell him I’d already eaten two and was contemplating another.

2016 Food Blog January-0259I call that a win.

2016 Food Blog January-0275These will keep wrapped in aluminum foil for 2-3 days before the pastry starts to get a bit soggy. Good news, though: they reheat perfectly in a 300F toaster oven.

2016 Food Blog January-0250

Apple Cranberry hand pies
Makes 16 5-inch pies
Time: about 2 hours
For Crust:
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
8 ounces cold full fat cream cheese
8 ounces cold unsalted butter (2 sticks), cut into thin slices
3-4 tablespoons very cold water
For Filling:
3 large granny smith or other tart apples, peeled, cored, and cut into ¼-½ inch chunks
1 tablespoon lemon juice
¼ cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons bourbon (optional)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
For assembly:
Flour, for dusting
Coarse sugar, to sprinkle

 

  • To make the crust, pulse the flour, salt, and sugar in the belly of a food processor until evenly distributed (consider doing this in halves – my food processor could barely handle the whole quantity). Add the cream cheese and let the mixer run until the mixture is homogeneous – it will be the texture of barely moistened sand and stay together only a moment when pressed between thumb and fingertip, as in the photo above.
  • Dump in the slices of butter and pulse in 1 second intervals until most of the butter is broken up and, when tested, the mixture stays together when pressed between thumb and fingertip.
  • Drizzle in 3 tablespoons of the cold water and pulse again briefly once or twice. We are looking for the mixture to just start to come together into a rumbling ball in the belly of the machine. If the mixture seems too dry, add the last tablespoon of water and pulse again briefly to bring together.
  • Stretch out a piece of plastic wrap on your countertop and dump the contents of the food processor onto it. Remove the blade and use the plastic wrap to help you shape the dough into a disc about 6 inches in diameter. Try to handle it as little as possible to keep it tender. Wrap it up and stow it in the fridge for at least an hour.
  • While the crust chills, make the filling. Combine the apple chunks, lemon juice, brown sugar, granulated sugar, cinnamon, and ¼ teaspoon salt in a large bowl. Toss with a spatula or your fingers to evenly distribute the spicy, sugary coating. Gently maneuver the apples and their sugar and spice mixture into a fine mesh sieve and position this over the large bowl you were using, then set aside for at least 30 minutes (Joy says up to three hours, though I didn’t leave mine this long). The objective here is to catch the drippings.
  • While the apples drip, preheat the oven to 400F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Remove the pie crust disc from the fridge. Lightly flour a large board and a rolling pin, then unwrap the disc, divide it in half, and set half on the floured board. Pop the other half back into the fridge until you are ready for it. Using firm and deliberate strokes, roll out the first half of the dough into a rough circle about ¼ inch thick. Every few rolls, shift the dough circle around, flipping it and adjusting it on the board – this will minimize sticking. You can also add more flour if needed.
  • With an even ¼ inch layer of dough, use a floured cutter or lip of a glass to cut the dough into circles. I went with 5 inches in diameter. To avoid extra stickiness or tearing the dough, press straight down without twisting. Once you have cut all the way through the dough, then you can twist the cutter a bit to loosen the round from the board.
  • Once you have made all the circles you can, gather together your scraps and re-roll them – you want to do this as quickly as you can to prevent the butter from softening too much. Roll out and cut again, then repeat with the other half of the dough. Position your dough circles on the prepared baking sheets (it’s okay if they overlap – they won’t stick), and put them into the fridge to chill out again.
  • Now turn back to the filling. When you have at least ½ cup of liquid from the apples, pour it into a small saucepan along with the 2 tablespoons butter and the bourbon, if using, and cook over medium-low heat until it becomes thick and syrupy, and only about ⅓ cup remains.
  • While the apple drippings cook down, plop the apples back into the original large bowl. Using the same food processor you used for the crust (you can wash it out if you want – I usually just scrape out any big lingering bits), pulse up the cranberries until they are coarsely chopped. You can do this by hand if you want, but it is fairly messy.
  • Add the cranberry pieces to the apple chunks in the large bowl, and toss them with the cornstarch until the cornstarch is no longer visible.
  • When the apple drippings are reduced to a thick, syrupy caramel, pour it back over the fruit and toss gently to combine.
  • Now, pull the prepared dough rounds out of the fridge (I’d do one baking sheet at a time), and add 1½-2 tablespoons filling to each 5-inch round of dough. You will be tempted to add more. Don’t do it! 1½, or a scant 2, tablespoons is all that can safely fit. If your rounds are smaller, you will, of course, need less filling. When all rounds are filled, you’ll likely have a tablespoon or 2 of filling left over.
  • As you place each tiny pile of filling in the middle of the dough round, fold it in half and press the edges together with your forefinger and thumb. To seal each little half-moon package, set it down on the floured board or on your baking sheet and press down on the edges all the way around with the back of the tines of a fork.
  • Settle each crescent evenly spaced on your baking sheet – you should be able to fit 8 per sheet without them touching each other. Slash the top of each one lightly with a knife to give an escape valve for steam, and if desired, sprinkle on a pinch or two of coarse sugar before levering them into the oven.
  • Bake at 400F for 25-30 minutes, until the crusts are puffed and golden brown, and possibly a bit of gooey syrup escapes from the less-carefully-crimped edges.
  • Cool for at least 10 minutes before digging in. They are perfect on their own, but I suspect a scoop of vanilla ice cream wouldn’t hurt matters…

Apple-ginger-bread with nutmeg “hard” sauce for #Twelve Loaves October

Food Blog October 2014-0722As soon as I saw that the October assignment for Twelve Loaves was apples, I thought of cinnamon. But then my contrary side took over. Apples and cinnamon is such a natural pairing, it’s practically expected. Why not give someone else a chance? Why not ginger? The searing spiciness of ginger against the cool sweetness of apples sounded like a worthy combination, and I was off and running with not just an answer to the Twelve Loaves assignment, but for my long postponed sauce project as well.

Food Blog October 2014-0735My mom has, on and off since I was little, made a holiday dessert of gingerbread and a warm, well-spiced, rum-spiked sauce. The gingerbread is a homely 9×9 layer, cut into unremarkable uniform squares. The sauce, almost still bubbling, gets spooned over the top, and a swirl of whipped cream inevitably slides right off the square of cake onto the plate beside it, already losing its fluff from the heat of the sauce. I love it.

Food Blog October 2014-0702But like so many desserts, Mom’s gingerbread with nutmeg sauce belongs to the winter. We only ever have it around Christmas and New Year’s. There’s something about its flavors that requires chill in the air. Contrary once again, I decided to see what could be done about that.

Food Blog October 2014-0705Food Blog October 2014-0706We call it a bread, but gingerbread is truly a dark, moist cake. It’s redolent with spices and sticky-sweet from large doses of molasses. Its crumbs cling wetly together and, though not particularly dense, it feels rich and heavy.

Food Blog October 2014-0700I poked around and shifted things a bit, landing on a slight adaptation of Laurie Colwin’s gingerbread recipe in her lovely little book Home Cooking. First of all, if I was going to pass this off as a bread, it needed to be in a loaf pan. This is suitable for dessert, of course, but it should also be acceptable as an afternoon snack. For freshness (and to meet the terms of the challenge, of course), I added the diced chunks of two apples. Two eggs and some buttermilk lighten things up. And finally, because I can’t leave well enough alone, to the already tremendous tablespoon of ground ginger I was prepared to include, I insisted on a palmful of finely chopped crystallized ginger as well.

Food Blog October 2014-0712Food Blog October 2014-0714Food Blog October 2014-0715Now, this bread on its own is a marvelous thing. The apples and the ginger are good playmates, and the spiciness of the bread elicits a harvest feel. With a cup of tea or a mug of apple cider, this bread is perfect.

Food Blog October 2014-0732But sometimes you want more than perfect. Enter Nutmeg Sauce: a silky, buttery, creamy spill dotted with grains of freshly grated nutmeg and discolored in the most wonderful way by a generous dose of dark rum. When I first nabbed this recipe from my mom, I thought this was another classic. Due to its inclusion of alcohol, I’d always thought it was a “hard sauce.” This name, however, comes not from the inebriating potential of the concoction, but the texture: a hard sauce is, well, hard. It’s a solid, buttery spread intended to be served in a cold, spoonable dollop. Nutmeg sauce, on the other hand, is served hot (it’s good cold as well, though it does get a bit clumpy). It is thickened to a pourable velvet with cornstarch, and it is the ideal addition to an already-perfect slice of gingerbread.

Food Blog October 2014-0734Food Blog October 2014-0740Here, though I was determined to serve them together, I must admit: the bread was good. The sauce was good. Together, they were friendly but not in love (still, I wouldn’t say no to yet another generously garnished slice). But I think I know how they could become so. Despite my most contrary, resistant feelings, I think replacing the nutmeg in the sauce with cinnamon, for the sake of the apples, would be the perfect pairing. Sometimes you just shouldn’t fight the classics.

Food Blog October 2014-0736

Apple-ginger-bread
Adapted from Laurie Colwin
Makes one 9×5 inch loaf
1 ½ cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
½ cup (8 tablespoons or 1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup brown sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
scant ½ cup molasses
½ cup buttermilk
2 sweet (rather than tart) apples, peeled, quartered, cored, and diced
2 tablespoons finely minced crystallized or candied ginger

 

  • Preheat the oven to 325F and lightly grease a 9×5 inch loaf pan.
  • In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, the salt, and the ground spices.
  • In a large bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer), cream together the butter and sugar on medium speed until a light, fluffy mixture forms. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing to combine after each. Add the vanilla and the molasses and mix well, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl to ensure complete integration.
  • Add about ⅓ of the flour mixture and beat to combine, then add half the buttermilk. Repeat with another ⅓ of the flour mixture, then the other half of the buttermilk, and finally the last ⅓ of the flour mixture, mixing until the batter is homogenous each time.
  • Finally, add the apples and the minced crystallized ginger and mix on low speed until just incorporated. Scrape and pour the mixture into the prepared loaf pan, and bake at 325 until a toothpick or cake tester inserted through the center emerges with only one or two damp crumbs; 70-80 minutes.
  • For the sake of structural integrity, let cool in the loaf pan for at least 30 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack and cool completely. Serve with or without nutmeg sauce.

 

Nutmeg “hard” sauce
Makes about 1 cup
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (or try it with cinnamon to marry with the apples, and tell me all about it)
¼ cup butter
2 tablespoons dark rum (or 2 teaspoons vanilla)
1 cup whole milk

 

  • Pour the sugar, cornstarch, and nutmeg into a small pan. Set the pan over medium heat, and with a whisk, stir in the milk and the butter.
  • Cook over medium, whisking slowly but consistently, until a sluggish boil is reached. Continue whisking for another 3-4 minutes, or until the sauce thickens slightly to a texture like barely melted ice cream.
  • Remove from heat and add rum (or vanilla); serve hot.

Apple Cheddar Monte Cristo Sandwiches

Food Blog September 2014-0599When you tell people you live in Los Angeles, one of the first things they often say is something in the realm of “well you can’t beat the weather!” Well, okay, but you can get sick of it. As I drove home from work the day we had these sandwiches for dinner, one of the local radio DJs said something akin to “is it still summer? I won’t let it be fall yet.” Cue snarling and angry words from me. How could she?! I mean, I like the sun. I love summer. But here’s the thing: I miss my jeans. When I get home from work and evict myself from my teacher clothes, I miss sliding into the worn embrace of my soft, familiar denim. Not to mention spending a day without the hair plastered to the back of my neck. Appetizing, I know.

Food Blog September 2014-0584Food Blog September 2014-0586Food Blog September 2014-0590So maybe out of resentment at the season (or lack thereof, since it just slid from mid- to late September and we spent the last two weeks ping-ponging between mid-80s and near 100 degree temperatures), I came up with a dish that screams fall at the top of its lovely, melty little lungs. Apples. Cheddar cheese, as sharp as possible. Dense, moist sourdough. Sage, that most autumnal of herbs. Maple syrup. It’s a bit of a breakfast sandwich, but since when have I ever been opposed to that sort of thing as an evening meal?

Food Blog September 2014-0591Food Blog September 2014-0594In its preparation, this sandwich takes the Monte Cristo as its font of inspiration. Though I’m using cheddar instead of swiss, and replacing ham with apples that have been gently sautéed in brown butter with a liberal dosing of maple syrup (are you hungry yet?), the whole assembled sandwich gets dunked in an egg batter and then fried until delicately crisp on the outside and limp with melted goo on the inside.

Food Blog September 2014-0597Food Blog September 2014-0598In an effort to be responsible diners, we ate this with a wilted kale salad-ish concoction, but it honestly didn’t need any accompaniment. In fact, the second time I made it in as many weeks, I didn’t prepare any side dish at all, and that and the relatively petite slices of bread I used made me feel completely justified in demolishing two sandwiches all by my lonesome. Well, minus the apple slice or two that I shared with Miss Lucy. It’s tough to refuse those velvet brown eyes.

Food Blog September 2014-0587Food Blog September 2014-0588Your fingertips will get greasy as you eat this. But despite the richness of the cheese and the eggy coating and the caramelized, syrupy apples, the sage keeps the whole thing from being overwhelming. Its sharp, herbaceous note cuts through the cheese, and it somehow miraculously maintains a bit of crunch even buried between the layers of filling. For me, it’s sandwich nirvana.

Food Blog September 2014-0600

Apple Cheddar Monte Cristo sandwiches
Quantities for 2 sandwiches
1 tart apple, quartered, cored, and cut into thin slices – I like granny smith
6 tablespoons butter, divided
3-4 tablespoons maple syrup
¼ teaspoon salt
8 whole sage leaves
4 slices sourdough sandwich bread
⅔ cups extra sharp cheddar cheese
1 egg, lightly beaten
½ cup milk
2 tablespoons flour

 

  • Heat 4 tablespoons of the butter, the maple syrup, and the salt over medium heat in a 10-12 inch skillet. When the butter has melted and is bubbling with the syrup, add the apple slices in a single layer, and scatter the sage leaves on top.
  • Cook on medium heat until the underside of the apples is brown, about 5 minutes. Flip the slices over, and cook again to brown the other side, about 2-3 minutes more. Try to keep the sage leaves on top of the apples so they get crisp from the heat but don’t burn. The apples will show that they are almost ready by puffing up and looking swollen just before they begin to get golden, and the butter and maple syrup mixture will get deep, deep toffee colored and become a thick caramel.
  • Remove the pan from the heat and cool while you ready the other ingredients.
  • Shred the cheddar cheese and set it aside.
  • In a shallow bowl, combine the egg, milk, and flour, mixing well to eradicate flour lumps. The addition of the flour will help the exterior of the sandwiches stay crisp – I use the same trick with French toast.
  • To assemble the sandwiches, layer cheese, then half the apples and half the sage, then a bit more cheese onto one slice of bread. You should aim to use ⅓ cup of cheese per sandwich, but we want to have some on both sides of the apple slices to hold the whole thing together better. Top with the second slice of bread, and repeat for the second sandwich.
  • In a skillet, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons butter over medium-low heat. While it melts, set the first sandwich into the egg and milk mixture and leave it for 30 seconds or so to allow some of the batter to penetrate the bread. Then flip it over and let it sit another 30 seconds or so. Repeat with the second sandwich.
  • To cook, raise the heat on the skillet to medium and carefully add the sandwich (or sandwiches, if your skillet is large enough to accommodate both). Cook over medium heat, flipping halfway through, until both sides are golden and crisp and the cheese is melted. This should take about 5 minutes per side.
  • Slice as desired, and consume hot.