30 January 2014

Cinnamon Toast Biscotti


An Ardent Collaboration

Cinnamon Toast has a special place in my heart. There is something wonderfully appealing about the way a hot oven melds the sweet warmth of cinnamon and a dusting of sugar on a pallet of buttered bread. The resulting crisp veneer of spicy caramelized sugar has long been a powerful charm for chasing the cold from my winter mornings. It is such a potent memory that I can almost taste the sweetness, feel the warm scent in my nose as it invites a smile to linger on my lips.

Of course the ardent collaboration of cinnamon and sugar has the power to warm more than just a slice of toast on a cold morning. The beauty of this alliance is easily transferred to other delightful applications. Cinnamon is perfect for enlivening a sweet streusel topping, adding mystery to a cup of hot chocolate, or a vivid accent to a fruit medley.


Sweet and Simple

Cinnamon and sugar also makes a fantastic topping for biscotti, that crisp twice-baked cookie often served with coffee or tea. This recipe for biscotti is unique in its initial plainness. It is made from a basic recipe without the common additions of fruit or nuts. It is first baked without adornment, as two mildly sweet loaves on a single baking sheet.

What makes Cinnamon Toast Biscotti special is what’s added as it is baked the second time. After cutting the loaves into thick slices and toasting one side, the biscotti is brushed with a bit of butter and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, like a slice of Cinnamon Toast. When it goes back in the oven the cinnamon topping is sealed to the cookie as it fully develops that wonderful crunch, lending a sweet touch of cinnamon warmth to every bite.


Cinnamon Toast Biscotti


2 cups flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ cup butter
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup white sugar
2 eggs
1½ teaspoons vanilla

1-2 Tablespoons butter, melted
2 Tablespoons white sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350F. Lightly grease a large baking sheet and set aside.

In a medium bowl whisk together flour, baking powder and salt.

In a large bowl, beat ¼ cup butter until smooth. Add brown and white sugar and continue to beat until very smooth, several minutes.

Add eggs, one at a time, and continue beating. Add vanilla and beat until smooth and well combined.

Stir in dry ingredients, just until combined.

Divide the dough in half and turn onto the prepared baking sheet. Shape each half into a log approximately 2 inches wide, 12 inches long, and 1 inch high. Make sure the logs are at least 2 inches apart on the baking sheet.

Bake at 350F for about 20-25 minutes or until lightly golden. Remove from oven and place on a wire rack. After a few minutes remove loaves from the pan and allow to cool on the wire rack for 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes cut each loaf into ¾ inch thick slices. Place each slice face down on the baking sheet. Return to oven and bake at 350F for 10 minutes. Remove pan to a wire rack.

Combine the 2 Tablespoons sugar and the 2 teaspoons cinnamon.

Flip each cookie over. Brush the side turned up with just a little of the melted butter and sprinkle with the cinnamon sugar mixture.

Return to oven and bake 10 minutes. Remove pan from oven and allow cookies to cool.

Enjoy!

22 January 2014

Aunt Hen's Cinnamon Toast


Morning Memories

This is not exactly a recipe. It’s more like a memory. Or maybe a mindset, intent on those old-fashioned basics, pared down and well executed.

And it’s not exactly news. It’s been written about by food bloggers everywhere, some who have some great thoughts on the matter, some who get right to heart of things, and some who don’t.

For me, it’s about waking up early, hushed and groggy, in the still darkness. It’s about stretching young limbs toward the ceiling with eyes pushed tightly shut then reaching bare feet down to the cool wood floor beside the bed. Its about walking slowly, noiselessly, through the shadows in the dark hallway toward the light at it’s end. It’s about the sounds of morning at the end of that hallway, as the light gathers budding on the horizon beyond the ruffled window curtains; the slight hum of the kettle, water rustling over the hot electric coil, the deliberate footfall of someone competently moving from side to side of their small kitchen, the creak of an oven door opening and the muffled thud when it closes. It is the sensation of morning in an ordinary home of modest means. It is the comfort of being greeted by the smell of something delicious reaching through the fog of receding dreams and calling you out to the dawn of a new day.

In such moments life isn’t all that complicated. The need for sleep satisfied, the desire for fuel sets in. Too young for coffee, something good to eat was the priority. Nothing brings out the goodness of a little sugar, cinnamon and butter on bread, like just the right amount of heat.


Something Good to Eat

At least one morning a week Aunt Hen made my breakfast. No one in my world made breakfast like she did, or even made toast like she did. At my house we used a toaster. It was convenient. Just pop in a slice and forget about it. The result was often anemic, or burnt. Buttered it was adequate to satisfy hunger. Add cinnamon sugar and you were likely to end up with an insipid mess that wasn’t exactly unpalatable but was not what being-drawn-into-the-light memories are made of.

Aunt Hen's toast was another matter. Whether she made buttered toast or cinnamon toast she made it in the oven, under the broiler. She took untoasted slices of bread and carefully covered the space between the crust edges in butter. After laying each slice on her small dented baking sheet she added sugar and cinnamon to mine and placed them on the highest oven rack.

A minute or so passed before she stood rapt at the oven door peering in. She watched as the toast browned, as the upper grain began to respond to the heating element, the butter began to bubble and the sugar melted and darkened. When the colors took on a pronounced golden hue she reached in and nabbed the pan with a hot pad or the edge of her kitchen towel. There was no letting that perfect moment pass or disaster would follow; golden toasted perfection could become burnt and inedible in an instant.

The toast that came out of Aunt Hen’s oven was amazing. Even as a child I reveled in the complexity that resulted when heat and watchful eyes transformed a few basic kitchen staples. The bottom of the bread maintained my favorite characteristics of white bread, a mild flavor and freshly warmed softness. The top, on the other hand, was all crispness and snapped delicately as I bit through the caramelized sugar. The taste was all buttery cinnamon goodness, my absolute favorite flavor as a child. I loved Aunt Hen's Cinnamon Toast. To this day I am happy to believe that no one else could make it quite like she could.

Of course we can always try.


Aunt Hen's Cinnamon Toast


4 slices of white bread
1-2 Tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1 Tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon


1. Take two or more slices of plain white bread (other bread works too but sacrifices the nostalgia). My favorite white bread is Bunny Soft-Twist.


2. Gently spread one side of each slice with a thin layer of butter. It is important to keep the layer thin so that butter doesn’t pool or soak through the bread. I used about 1 teaspoon of butter for each slice, but that’s just to give you an idea of what I mean by a thin layer. You might want to use a little more. Though I did it this one time, somehow it misses the point to measure.

This step is easiest to accomplish if the butter is at room temperature. If the butter is cold. trying to spread it thinly will tear the bread or cause you to end up with way too much butter on the bread unless you are very patient. If your butter is cold I suggest shaving it off the stick in thin layers that will quickly warm to a spreadable texture or simply laying the paper thin slices across the bread.

Like my Dad’s best tip for Grilled Cheese Sandwiches, “What makes it good is making sure the whole surface of the bread is evenly coated with butter,” though I know that when it came to Dad’s grilled cheese sandwiches that layer of butter was often anything but thin.

And one more thing. Do not use soft margarine spread! Because, well, eeew! Generally speaking, it tastes bad or, at best, it tastes mostly wet. Here I am no doubt making some departure from true nostalgic replication. My memories of this toast are based on my experience in the 1960s and 70s after all, and at that time Aunt Hen’s kitchen staples included stick margarine, Coffee Rich and Cool-Whip instead of more authentic dairy products. But a certain degree of tasteful discernment and revisionist historical assessment have led me to update the original recipe on this one point.


3. Evenly sprinkle the buttered bread with granulated sugar. Again, it isn’t necessary to measure but I did for the sake of clarity and, again, I used a little less than 1 teaspoon of sugar per slice.


4. Tap a small quantity of ground cinnamon evenly over the sugar. Be careful! Cinnamon is delightful but also potent. A little goes a long way. Here I used too little to accurately measure on one slice.

Alternately you can mix the cinnamon and sugar before sprinkling it on the toast. In fact it is nice to have a container of pre-mixed cinnamon-sugar for a variety of uses. In that case I mix about ½ teaspoon of ground cinnamon into 1 Tablespoon of white sugar. You can use more or less cinnamon according to individual preference.

Another way to spread the sugar and spice is to scatter a teaspoon or so roughly onto the buttered bread, then tilt and tap the slice to spread the sugar evenly over the whole buttered plane. Then you can tap any excess onto the next slice, if you like.


5. Preheat broiler with rack positioned roughly 6 inches below the heating element. Have an oven mitt ready and waiting.
Position pan in the center of the rack and watch carefully.
By one minute the sugar and butter should begin to bubble.
By 2 minutes the edges will brown.
In 2 minutes and 15 seconds my toast was ready to take the edge off my morning hunger for a sweet start to the day.


Variations:

If you aren’t looking for a walk down Memory Lane but simply want something fun to eat for breakfast here are a few suggestions that might spark your interest.

For a nice hint of vanilla use vanilla sugar on your toast. Or, for a little more of a sandy crunch, you may want to try using organic turbinado sugar instead of plain white sugar. To add a sort of French I-just-dipped-my morning-baguette-in-my café-au-lait flavor add a little espresso powder or instant coffee to your cinnamon sugar blend. Or add a pinch of ancho chile powder for more of a South-of-the-Border taste.

You could also add a few chocolate chips during the last few seconds under the broiler. Then wait a minute or two after removing the toast from the oven to spread the chips over the surface with a knife...

Enjoy!

14 January 2014

Details, Details: Hominy Au Gratin


Hominy on the Side

Do you remember hominy? I ate it growing up. Aunt Hen served it as a side dish, warmed up, seasoned a bit, but more or less plain from the can. Its giant puffy kernels, mild flavor and unexpectedly chewy texture appealed to my childish imagination. I thought it was fantastic and a bit mysterious. I enjoyed it as a gentle foil to the more complex flavors of casseroles and other main dishes that challenged my tender palate.

Recently I ran across an article I clipped some years later but now many years ago. Perhaps it came from the Sunday magazine insert of our local newspaper. It featured Julia Child and several recipes that looked approachable for green beans and hominy, two side dishes that have always reminded me of home.


Hominy in the Lime-light

This time the mystery of hominy finally got the best of me and I did an internet search to see what hominy is all about. What I learned is fascinating, though not wholly appetizing. I found that hominy is dried field corn, or maize, soaked in a lye or slaked lime solution to soften the outer husk which is later rinsed off along with the solution. This process, called nixtamalization, kills the germ of the kernel and prevents sprouting during storage.

But what sounds bad (food treated with lye or slaked lime) and is hard to say (nixtamalization) turns out to be a good thing when you read on to learn that nixtamalization also acts on the corn, enhancing its protein and transforming it into a useful source of calcium and niacin. The process also acts on the protein structure of the corn to allow the resulting meal, masa harina, to form a dough used to make tortillas. More coarsely ground hominy is known as grits, another southern staple.


Hominy à la Julia Child

This is a nice recipe for bringing hominy to those who may resist both the mystery and the details. Like making Cheese Grits Casserole for the grits-averse, this cheesy hominy casserole dresses those curious kernels in a familiar flavor and context. Much like Macaroni and Cheese this casserole speaks of comfort and satisfies big appetites on a budget. Even if you don’t have fond childhood memories of hominy I’ll think you’ll enjoy this introduction a la Julia Child.

For more information and ideas on using hominy:

What is Hominy Again? at FarmFlavor.com
H is for Hominy!What Is It and How Is It Used? at TheKitchn.com

There are some great ideas in these posts and in the comments. I have found several here that I hope to try soon.


Hominy Au Gratin

From an old newspaper clipping featuring Julia Child

4 15oz. cans of hominy (white, golden or a mix of both)
3 Tablespoons butter
4 Tablespoons flour
1½ cups milk, warmed
¼ teaspoon salt
1 pinch of white pepper
3-4 ounces grated Cheddar or Swiss cheese, divided

Generously grease the bottom of a shallow 2 quart casserole (I used a 7.5” x 11” rectangular glass baking dish.) Set aside.

Drain hominy in a colander and rinse well with cold water. (You can use white or golden hominy. I used a mixture of the two.) Set aside.

In a sturdy saucepan, melt 3 Tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Whisk in the flour until smooth. Cook and stir over moderate heat until the mixture has bubbled for two minutes without deepening beyond a buttery yellow. Remove from heat.

When the bubbling stops, add the warm milk, whisking into the butter mixture until smooth. Return to heat, and bring to a simmer, stirring constantly. Continue to simmer and stir for 2 minutes, adding the salt and white pepper and a few more drops of milk to thin the mixture as necessary. (The sauce should be thick enough to coat a spoon with a light creamy layer.)

Remove from heat. Stir in 2 ounces of grated cheese. Adjust seasoning as needed.

Spread a thin layer of the cheese sauce in the bottom of the buttered casserole dish. Add the hominy and cover with the remaining sauce, shaking the pan and stirring a bit, to let the sauce drip down among the kernels of hominy. Scatter the remaining grated cheese on top.

Bake at 425F for 25 minutes or until bubbly and browned on top.

Serve and enjoy!

08 January 2014

Back to Basics Cornbread


Ten Things

It’s a new year and, like many folks, I am sweeping out the old to make room for the new. Last night the kings of our nativity set completed their journey to visit the Christ child in celebration of Epiphany. Today they were packed away with the last of the Christmas decorations.

I didn’t stop there. The new year called for another round of "Ten Things". Over the past few years, through the process of several moves, my husband and I have pared down the volume of our belongings through a challenge we call "Ten Things". When we are feeling burdened or overwhelmed, when we can’t find something or are simply drawn to take another step toward reducing the distractions in our life, we search out ten items we don’t need or use and put them in the donation box we keep in the laundry room. We have already made one trip to empty our box (and the pile beside it) since the year began and our box is already half full again.


Back to Basics

It feels good to clean out the clutter as we begin a new year. Still, there can be a downside. Unless we sort and discard carefully there is a chance of future regrets. I think of the Parable of the Clean House. In Matthew 12:43-45 Jesus warns that a house swept out and put in order can invite back what has been swept out, and then some, if we aren’t mindful of how we should use the space we are creating and occupy it with good things.

One new thing I have recently discovered is Eating Well, a magazine my husband subscribed to. The November issue was the first one I looked through and it was packed with inviting recipes that focused on a healthy approach to traditional dishes.

My favorite was a recipe makeover for traditional cornbread. Unlike other breads and cakes that rely heavily on butter, whlte flour and other ingredients I try to limit, if not eliminate, from my diet, this recipe cuts them to a minimum while delivering a tasty bread that is soft and moist. The secret is frozen sweet corn, thawed and pulsed in the food processor until it is smooth. The resulting Whole-Grain Cornbread is dense and soft with just a hint of added texture from the corn. It goes well with beans or chili and is lovely left-over, warmed or toasted and served with a drizzle of honey for a snack.


Back to Basics Cornbread

From the November issue of Eating Well

1¼ cups yellow cornmeal (whole grain if you can find it)
¾ cup white or whole-wheat flour (I used a mixture of the two)
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup frozen sweet corn, thawed
1 large egg
¾ cup low-fat milk
3 Tablespoons canola oil
3 Tablespoons honey

Preheat oven to 350F.

With a whisk, combine the cornmeal, flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the thawed sweet corn and egg. Process briefly, just until smooth. Add oil and honey, pulsing to combine. Add milk and pulse again.

Add the corn mixture to the flour mixture and stir together, just until combined.

Spread batter evenly in a prepared 9-inch square baking pan.

Bake for 20 – 25 minutes, or until done.

Allow to cool in pan for at least 10 minutes on a wire rack. Cut into pieces and serve warm or at room temperature.

Enjoy!