Friday, November 6, 2015

Cider-Chai Syrup {From Food Gift Love} + A Giveaway!

Sometimes things just come together in the most meant-to-be ways.  This is one of those times for me, a confluence of several things that I love all wrapped up in one beautiful book-shaped package.

As someone who imagines herself a food writer, I enjoy reading other blogs, magazines and books dedicated to the same.  I read cookbooks cover to cover like I'm reading a great novel.  I borrow stacks of them from the library only to be sad when its time to return them.  I've been guilty of hoarding stacks and stacks of food magazines because there's just one recipe in each of them that I might use sometimes.  Then there's the ever expanding list of food blogs that I love.  And it's not necessarily the recipes that draw me in, it's the voice of the writer.  The way that you can get a sense of the person in the stories they tell and the food that they share.  It's partly why I do what I do- that sense of the person and history I could always feel in the generation of women before me and that was itching to find a home on a page, screen and photograph.

One serendipitous day about a year and half ago I was reading one of the blogs that was delivered to me via email.  This lovely woman with a talent for giving was writing a book and would anyone care to be a part of a community of recipe testers?  I had a moment of pause, thinking about all the reasons that I shouldn't or couldn't- the fact that I was pregnant and exhausted, living outside the US where some ingredients might not be available and just not knowledgeable enough to give feedback on someone else's recipes.  Then realized that this would be an opportunity to have a little fun, maybe use my brain for something other than remembering my kids' schedules and just maybe learn a thing or two about recipe writing and the process of book development.  And the theme of the book interested me- recipes for food gifting- a thing that I happen to enjoy doing with a passion.  So I signed up and was selected.

I was right.  It was all of those things and more.  Because as I tested I learned how to make my own recipes better while helping Maggie perfect hers.  I found recipes that have actually become part of my regular repertoire (batch after batch of the granola that I tested has been in a jar on my counter since the day I first made it) and I became invested in the project.  It became a little bit mine.  So now that the book has become a reality and I have it in my hands, I can't put it down.  Nearly every page is tagged with a reminder that I want to make that recipe, like now.

I started with the one that might just be the most "me".  It's no secret that I am a bit obsessed with tea and have at least a half dozen recipes dedicated to my favorite drink on this page already.  Chai being my favorite way to shake up my tea, I knew that this Cider-Chai Syrup was right up my alley.  Food Gift Love might be a book about gifting, but I'm not sure that I'm going to share this with anyone.  At least not this first batch.  It's all mine.

But I am sharing something besides the recipe today.  I pulled together a few little bits and baubles from my favorite stores here in Germany.  Some pretty little Weck jars, stickers, gift tags and decorations that will give one lucky reader's holiday food gifts a little German flair.  All you have to do is leave a comment telling me about your favorite food gifts to give (or receive!) by Tuesday, November 10.  I'll pick a winner at random and send my gift to you on its way.  Please only US addresses, sending from my military post office is limited! The contest is now closed.  Congratulations to Monique P for winning.

Cider-Chai Syrup
Makes about 3 cups.  Recipe from Food Gift Love, by Maggie Batista
For the printable recipe, click here

This is a lovely little gift to give the tea lover in your life.  Find a pretty jar, a bit of old ribbon and a fun tag to present the syrup in.  Maggie suggests  adding 2 tablespoons of the syrup to a cup of hot water for a delicious warm drink.  A splash of whiskey makes it into a hot toddy.  I didn't happen to have loose chai tea in my cupboard so I used my favorite loose leaf black tea (assam) and added in ground spices typical of chai.  I've added my variation to the recipe for those of you who can't find loose chai tea.

4 cups (32 ounces) apple cider
4 tbs loose chai tea*
1 cup light brown sugar, loosely packed

*If loose chai tea isn't available, you can substitute 4 tbs loose black tea, such as assam, 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon, 1/4 tsp ground ginger, 1/4 tsp ground cardamom, 1/8 tsp ground cloves and few grinds of black pepper.

Place the apple cider and chai tea in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat.  Bring to a boil and let boil until the liquid is concentrated and reduced by half, about 30 minutes.

Strain out the chai tea through cheesecloth and return the cider to a cleaned saucepan.  Add the sugar to the cider and boil over medium-high heat until dissolved, about 10 minutes.  Remove from the heat.

Let the syrup cool at room temperature before bottling.  Strain it through a coffee filter 1 or 2 times to remove any extra tea or spice bits for the cleanest presentation.

The syrup can be stored in the fridge for up to one week.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Mom's Chocolate Pear Upside Down Cake

Tradition [truh-dish-uh n] noun : 1. the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction 2. characteristic manner, method, or style

I've been struggling with this post, which is why it has taken so long to arrive in this space.  I keep sitting down to write and coming up blank.  I love this recipe, I love its origins and what it has become.  So what's the problem?  And what does that have to do with the definition of tradition that I wrote above?  Both valid questions.

The thing is, I really don't know.  I can guess, sure, but it's not clear to me yet what the block is about.  Too many things to list here, I suppose- maybe in a future post.  Probably all boiling down to life, kids, responsibilities.  You know, the stuff that distracts from really living fully.  Buuuuut...... I try not to make this blog a personal diary so much as an exploration of the thoughts that run though my day with enough frequency to make them relevant.  It's not a true confessions page though.  So lets keep it lighter, shall we?  

In the meantime I'm trying to overcome my blogging block by going back to my roots.  Which always leads me to my Mom.  Hence the nod to tradition referenced earlier.  The cake I'm offering up today is one of those cakes that I can remember her making since I was a small child.  She grabbed the recipe from a magazine long ago and it was one of those total 70s recipes.  Canned fruit, maraschino cherries, you know the kind.  She did away with the cherries from the start but pretty much stuck to the recipe otherwise.  I thought I might take it a step further (and kick tradition to the curb, if you will) and modernize it just a bit more.  So gone is the can of sugar-laden fruit; replaced instead by gently poached pears who's poaching liquid is also used to make the caramel-ly goodness that is characteristic of an upside down cake.  It's a nod to tradition without being strictly traditional.  And maybe just the thing to kick my blogging butt out of its funk.

Chocolate Pear Upside Down Cake
Makes 1 8x8 inch square or 9 inch round cake.
For the printable recipe, click here.

This update of my Mom's classic is enhanced with poached pears but its still a simple cake at heart.  If you don't have time to poach your own pears, by all means use pears canned in their juices (not in syrup!).  The recipe has pecans in the ingredient list but you won't see them in my photos because my little family doesn't appreciate them.  So I guess they're optional but really great if you have them.

For the pear topping:                   
1/4 cup (4 tbs) unsalted butter           
1/2 cup packed brown sugar               
2 tbs pear poaching liquid                

4 poached pear halves (recipe to follow)                       
1/4 cup coarsely chopped pecans           

For the cake:
1 1/4 cup sugar    

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour                        
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
10 tbs softened butter
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 eggs
1/2 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Melt the 1/4 cup of butter and pour it into a 9 inch square cake pan.  Drizzle the corn syrup over the butter and then sprinkle the brown sugar in the pan. 

Cut the pear halves into 4 equal portion lengthwise and arrange the pieces in a sunburst pattern over the mixture in the baking pan.  Sprinkle the chopped pecans around the pears.

Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt.  Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl (fitted to a stand mixer or with a handheld mixer with beaters attached), beat together the butter, sugar and vanilla until light and fluffy.  Add the eggs one at a time, beating fully between additions.  Add the dry ingredients alternately with the buttermilk in three additions.  Mix until thoroughly combined.

Pour the batter into the pan gently so as to disturb the pattern of the pears as little as possible.  Bake for 45-55 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean of batter or very wet crumbs.  Cool the cake for about 5 minutes and then run a knife around the edges of the pan to loosen.  Invert the cake onto a serving platter.  Cut into squares.

Poached Pears
2 ripe but still firm pears
1 quart water
1/2 cup honey

Stir the water and honey together in a 2 quart pot.  Bring the mixture to a boil over a medium heat.  In the meantime, peel, quarter and core the pears.

When the water/honey mixture comes to a boil add the pears.  Turn the heat down to medium and simmer the pears for 20-25 minutes or until the tip of a sharp knife easily pierces the pears.  Remove the pears from the poaching liquid and cool making sure to reserve 2 tablespoons of the poaching liquid.

Pears can be stored in the cooled poaching liquid in the refrigerator until use.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Our Favorite Apple Cake

The day started out with an entirely different plan.  We were to meet up with friends on the grounds of a lovely Baroque castle for one of our favorite fall festivals.  Beautifully carved pumpkins, amazing statues and scenes created out of stacking all sorts of gourds and squash, pumpkin-centered food and record breaking giant pumpkins all in an idyllic setting.  Sounds perfect, doesn't it?  Well it would have been if not for the German national holiday and the hordes of people trying to do the very same thing we were.  As we sat in traffic and drove in circles trying to find parking I could feel my husband's frustration level rising (and kid-friendly language beginning to fail him), so I turned to him and said, "Let's get out of here".

It was such a good call. 

We ended up doing not much of anything, really.  But had a great day doing it.  Pointing the car in a direction where no other people were going we ended up driving through (and stopping to meander in) no fewer than three towns each with its own castle or medieval wall.   And each was prettier than the previous one.  In between was some beautiful countryside with fall colors all around.  At the end, we settled on a beautiful town square to have dinner in.  The evening was warm so we ate our dinner of wild game and traditional German sides out on the square watching children play and night watchmen lead tours through town to the tune of church bells.  This is German living at its best, my friends.

But my favorite part of the day wasn't the castles or the dinner.  It was the 20 minutes that we spent stopped on the side of the road picking apples from some old, forgotten trees.  The boys and their dad having fun and daring each other to go higher and get bigger apples.  The oldest climbing up on his dad's shoulders balancing just enough to reach the really big ones.  His little brother finding apples on the ground that were still worthy of picking (and eating as many of them as he could).  Their baby sister just napped and played happily as I took it all in.  Because as the boys get older I know these simple and blissful afternoons will be fewer and farther between.  Sure, I'm thrilled to have the bowls full of apples to cook and bake with but it was the experience that was more fulfilling.  No TV or video games, no forced fun.  Just two boys and their dad, laughing, climbing and enjoying each others' company.  To me, that was the true beauty of the day.

Our Favorite Apple Cake
Makes one cake.  Adapted slightly from The Great Holiday Baking Book by Beatrice Ojakangas.
For the printable recipe, click here

I have been making this cake for years.  The original is from a book I was gifted one Christmas from a co-worker and I've made it every fall since.  It reminds my husband of a cake that his mother used to make as a child and I think it might just be his favorite cake ever.  We have always called it Jewish Apple Cake, though I really don't know why.  I suppose growing up in a very mixed religious area of South Jersey we simply always associated the cake with our Jewish friends and the fall holiday of Rosh Hashanah.  Though it needn't be limited to just one season.  This is one of those homey, year round cakes that just makes you feel good.

3 cups all purpose flour
3 tsp baking powder
1  1/2 cups granulated sugar, divided
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 cup neutral flavored oil
4 large eggs
3/4 cup fresh orange juice
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
6 medium apples (sweet, firm apples are best), peeled, cored and sliced thinly (about 4 cups finished)
1 tbs ground cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Butter a 9 or 10 inch tube pan (or 9x13 inch rectangular pan).

In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, 1 cup of the granulated sugar and the brown sugar.  Stir to distribute the dry ingredients.  In a separate bowl mix together the oil, eggs, orange juice and vanilla.  Pour the wet ingredients into the bowl with the dry ingredients.  With an electric mixer or by hand beat the mixture until light and fluffy.

In another large bowl stir the apples together with the remaining 1/2 cup of granulated sugar and the cinnamon until the apples are well coated.  Place half of the apples at the bottom of the prepared pan.  Pour the batter over the apples and even it out with a spatula if necessary.  Arrange the rest of the apples over the top.

Bake for 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes or until a wooden skewer inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.  The cake will be golden on top and the apples will be tender.  Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes.  Remove the cake from the pan onto a serving dish.  If using a tube pan, loosen the cake from the pan and invert it onto a plate.  The invert the cake again onto a serving platter.  Replace any apples that might have remained in the pan and let cool completely before serving.

The cake will keep for 3 days in an airtight container at room temperature.