Almond Raisin Roasted Cauliflower

2015 Blog September-0517This week, Los Angeles finally had some mercy on us and allowed the temperatures to drop just a bit. My building at work turned off the air conditioning in our offices. I didn’t change into shorts immediately upon getting home. In fact, I actually – and you might be shocked here, so get ready for it – I actually put on a sweatshirt and wore it quite comfortably for several hours. I dug my bedroom slippers out from the dust-bunny-laden corner of the closet and slid grateful, almost chilly, feet into their old embrace.

2015 Blog September-0501Of course, since this relief might not last very long, I did the only sensible thing I could, which was to buy a head of cauliflower and shove it into a high-temperature oven. Cauliflower and I were never friends in childhood, but Mark Bittman changed all that for me by offering a high-heat roast, rather than a steam or a boil, as the plan of attack. In fact at this point, I think N. and I would happily eat a tray of roasted broccoli and cauliflower three or four nights a week, without much to accompany them.

2015 Blog September-0502On occasion, though, a bit of accompaniment is nice. Though my typical procedure is just salt, pepper, and plenty of olive oil, I wanted to give the cauliflower some friends to play with as it bronzed slowly over the flames. The vegetable itself has such a mild flavor that it can easily go in a sweet or a savory direction, and I decided I wanted to play with these borders. Adopting a vaguely Mediterranean direction, after the first blast of roasting I scattered a handful each of golden raisins and sliced almonds over the cauliflower. Back it went just long enough for the florets to brown and the almonds to toast, but not quite long enough to burn the nuts or the delicate raisins. On the contrary, the raisins plump up a bit as they suck in some of the oil and moisture released from the cauliflower. A quick shower of chopped parsley as the tray leaves the oven, and the dish is ready.

2015 Blog September-0506The flavors here are perfect, and it’s hard to describe perfection, but my unexpected favorite thing about this dish was the play of textures. The cauliflower gains an almost-crisp crust on its exterior, but the inside is meltingly soft in an entirely pleasant way. The raisins don’t stay plump for long after exiting the oven, but they provide a subtle chewiness I enjoy, and the almonds are a perfect crunch.

2015 Blog September-0509I usually try to give you pairing suggestions, and while I think this would be good with everything from turkey to lamb, I feel no shame in admitting that, since I was dining solo, I just ate the whole tray and called it a night.

2015 Blog September-0511

Almond Raisin Roasted Cauliflower
Serves 2-3 as a side, 1 as a main
45-50 minutes, mostly unattended
¼ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
1 medium head of cauliflower
generous ⅓ cup golden raisins
generous ⅓ cup sliced untoasted almonds
¼ cup roughly chopped fresh parsley

 

  • Preheat the oven to 450F with a foil-lined 9×13 inch baking tray inside. We want to preheat the cooking surface as well as the oven to start the cooking process immediately.
  • While the oven heats, whisk together the olive oil, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Cut the cauliflower into medium florets (a large bite-size) and toss in the seasoned oil for even coating.
  • Carefully remove the preheated baking tray from the oven and dump on the oiled florets, arranging them in a single layer. Return to the oven and roast for 20 minutes, during which time you can assemble and prep the remaining ingredients.
  • After 20 minutes, take the tray out of the oven and, using tongs, flip over the florets. Yes, each one. Yes, it’s tedious, but it will make for a better end product. Push them back into the oven and roast for another 10 minutes.
  • Remove the tray from the oven again and scatter the raisins and then the almonds over the cauliflower. This protects the raisins a bit and ensures the almonds toast nicely. Back into the oven once more for a final 10 minutes, then remove, scatter with chopped parsley, and serve hot or warm.

 

 

Carrot Cake Breakfast Bars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Last salad

I think Fall has finally found Los Angeles, and only a week and a half to go before Thanksgiving.  Within a week, we went from temperatures in the mid-80s to a high of barely 70F.  My living room went from a comfortable lounging 75F to barely hitting 70 despite blinds wide open to catch the sun all day.  Thankfully, the items I have left on my Bittman list accommodate this weather change.  Today I have to report the last salad of the list, and a foray back into desserts.  Both have decidedly autumnal collections of flavors (I wrote “flavor profile” first, and then I thought, “who do you think you are?”).  Many of the food blogs I read have been reporting for the past week or two on Thanksgiving recipes, and I thought about doing that too.  But then I remember that Bittman’s entire list is conceived as Thanksgiving sides, so if you’ve been following this little blog for any length of time, you’ve been seeing Thanksgiving options – with only a few disruptions – for the past two years!

“67. Sprinkle shelled pumpkin or squash seeds with a little chili powder; roast, shaking occasionally, until lightly browned. Combine with grated sweet potatoes (raw or lightly sautéed in butter or oil), raisins and a vinaigrette made with red wine vinegar, olive oil, Dijon mustard, a touch of honey and maybe a little more chili powder.

I gathered:

1 small sweet potato

1 TB pumpkin seeds

chili powder to taste (mine is really mild – I probably used about a teaspoon)

2 TB butter

2-3 TB raisins

These measurements look small, but I was planning this for just the two of us and didn’t want any leftovers.

We were having this “salad” with spanakopita, so I decided to capitalize on the heat of its baking.  I popped the pumpkin seeds onto a baking tray, drenched them with chili powder, and tucked them into the oven for a few minutes.  When you hear the first couple of pops, they are done.  Don’t leave them too long – not only will they burn, they will propel themselves all over your oven.

I set aside the lightly toasted seeds and turned to the sweet potato.  N. and I proved in earlier experiments that we don’t like it raw – the starchy feel when you chew is just too much – so I was glad Bittman allowed for a cooked option.  I melted the butter while I grated the sweet potato, and tossed the shreds of bright orange onto the fizzing fat.  If you have more patience than I do, you might wait for the butter to brown a bit to add nuttier, deeper flavor to the sweet potatoes.

I let the little ribbons of sweet potato cook for a few minutes over medium heat.  The goal was not to brown them, just to lightly cook them through.  When I estimated them to be two minutes from done, I tossed in the raisins and folded the mix together.  This gave the raisins time to match the sweet potatoes in temperature, and it allowed them to plump up and take in some buttery flavor.

Heat off, I turned to the dressing.  Whisk together:

1 TB red wine vinegar

1 tsp honey

1 tsp dijon mustard

sprinkle of chili powder

2 TB olive oil

I tossed this lightly with the sweet potatoes and raisins, then topped them with the pumpkin seeds (which I almost forgot AGAIN!  What is it with me and missing the crunch?) and it was ready for tasting.

We liked this.  I’m not sure it read as a salad – in fact I’m not sure what it read as at all.  At once, it was not quite a salad, but also not quite a vegetable side, and not quite a chutney.  But it was tasty.  The red wine vinegar was acidic enough to counter the sweetness of the potato and raisins nicely.  It was a refreshing bite against the richness of our spanakopita.  The crumbling cubes of feta hidden in the spinach blend imparted the final necessary taste: a briny saltiness so welcome to the rest of this sweet and butter-drenched meal.

I took my next choice (partly made because it sounded delicious, but partly to use up the phyllo) to an election party.

“93. Pumpkin-Raisin-Ginger Turnovers: Mix pureed cooked pumpkin, raisins, chopped crystallized ginger and sugar.  Brush a sheet of phyllo with melted butter and cut lengthwise into thirds. Put a spoonful of the filling at the top of each strip. Fold down to make a triangle and repeat, like folding a flag. Repeat with remaining filling. Brush the tops with butter and bake 20 to 30 minutes. Dust with powdered sugar.

Whether you are elated, distraught, or ambivalent about the results of the vote, these little turnovers were worth celebrating over.

1 15 oz. can pumpkin puree

½ cup sugar

½ cup raisins

¼ cup finely minced crystallized ginger (or you could try grating this on your microplane.  I’m not sure how that would work, but since candied ginger is gummy and hard to chop, it might be helpful)

butter

phyllo dough

I couldn’t resist adding about a teaspoon of cinnamon.

First, I preheated my oven to 375F and put the butter into a small pan, which I set over low heat so it would melt but not brown.

I shlooped the pumpkin from the can to a bowl and whisked in the sugar and fruit.  I suggest you use a fork for this, not a traditional whisk.  The mixture clumps and sticks in the slender spokes and results, if you are at all like me, in cranky frustration.

When everything is well mixed, turn to the phyllo.  If you’ve never worked with it before, don’t be afraid.  The amazing way it changes from dry papery sheets to flaky, buttery pastry is worth the challenge.  Here’s what I do:

Set up an assembly line on your counter.  At one end, unroll the phyllo and set a just-damp kitchen towel (or couple of paper towels) over the top.  This will help, if you are a slow worker, to prevent it from drying out and breaking.  Next to that, you need a board big enough to accommodate one sheet of phyllo.  Next to that, place your butter, followed by your filling, followed by the final resting place for your wrapped confections.

Carefully peel off one sheet of phyllo and place it on your board with the shorter end facing you.  Recover the remaining stack with the damp towel.  Using a pastry brush, brush the whole sheet with butter.  Cut it in long thirds (you’ll begin your cuts on the short edge of the rectangle, so that you create three long, thin strips, as opposed to three short, squat strips).  Then, place about two tablespoons of filling at the top of each strip, and begin to fold in triangles.

To make the first fold, bring one corner down to the opposite edge of the strip.  Don’t press too hard, or the filling will ooze out everywhere.  The second fold will be straight down: the remaining corner (now doubled because you’ve folded over your first triangle) folded down onto the same edge.  Continue to fold, keeping your filling in the center of a triangle, until you reach the end of the strip of phyllo.

Place that on a parchment-lined or greased baking sheet and brush the top with a little more melted butter.  Repeat until you run out of filling.  Since these won’t rise or spread, you can place them quite close to one another on the baking sheet.  Don’t overlap them, though, because only the dough exposed to the air will brown.

This sounds complicated, but once you get into a rhythm it’s relatively easy and quite satisfying.  You end up with two trays of sweet little parcels that you can stow in the oven for 20-30 minutes until they become magically golden and flaky.

When they were done, I dusted them liberally with powdered sugar and tented them with aluminum foil to take to the party.  I brought home an empty, sugar dusted tray with a lone raisin abandoned in one corner.

They were so tasty.  The pumpkin-raisin-ginger combo was insane: earthy and sweet and, with the addition of the cinnamon, warmly spiced.  Inside the phyllo, it was a contest of texture too: unremittingly soft pumpkin with the occasional chewy juicy punch of raisin, against sharp flaky crunch of sugar-dusted pastry.  We couldn’t resist tasting a few before dinner, and then we had to revisit them again for dessert.  These will, I suspect, make repeat appearances in my kitchen.  They could probably be made a few hours ahead as well, or transported and baked on location: wrap them up, dredge them with butter, and store them under a damp towel or some plastic wrap until ready to bake.  If you don’t like pumpkin pie, or you’re tired of it (I know, heresy!), these might be a fun alternative Thanksgiving dessert option.