Apricot Pine Nut Cakelettes

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I used to have a huge apricot tree in my front yard.  It was so wonderful throughout the seasons to see the blossoms appear in spring and the fruit appear around June and the leaves turn shockingly golden in October.  It was one of my favorite things about our house and it introduced me to jamming and gave me a passion for it.  Because of that tree, I learned to make apricot preserves and the first two years we had fruit, I canned nearly 100 jars of apricot jam variants. Vietnamese Cinnamon, Chinese 5 Spice, Bourbon Brown Sugar, Rosemary, Vanilla Bean (the best version) and even Crushed Red Pepper Apricot!  I gave them away as gifts and really just reveled in the sudden surge of domestic satisfaction I was getting from the process of gathering, cleaning, cooking and canning a resource from my own yard.  I felt like such a good steward of those little golden gifts!

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To make a sweet story a bit sad, that tree fell victim to the terrible drought our area has been suffering the past three years.  The second year into the drought, the fruit on our tree was tiny but packed with flavor.  It was the last year it would bear fruit.  We had to chop it down last summer and I will admit, I mourned the loss of that tree for months.  We’ve tried planting replacement apricot trees twice, now, and borers got the second one (and the first – it was a borer/drought combo) and the second replacement got hit by two late frosts and never recovered (although I won’t call it officially gone till next spring).

So maybe it’s not meant to be?  Maybe the lesson learned is to make good use of what you have while you have it.  Revel in the gifts you’re getting now, because soon, they may not be available to you.  If you have a fruit tree and don’t have time to make anything from it, first, call me and I’ll come pick up every piece from your yard (I know there’s no fruit on trees in this area, yet – still, the sentiment always applies) and second, if nothing else, just eat from it!

This recipe is a wonderful, easy recipe that can be used with fresh, canned or even dried apricots (or any fruit, really).  I used dried apricots that I reconstituted in a bit of water, first, because I couldn’t find canned, as the recipe called for.  They turned out wonderful and they lasted for a week!  The cake part is a wonderful cake recipe and one that I plan on using for other purposes in the future.  It calls for buttermilk, and I happily used some raw buttermilk from our local dairy, Pereira Pastures.  They are suffering from the drought too, and could use your support if you are from this area and feel like making a donation and getting some amazing milk in the process!

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Apricot Pine Nut Cakelettes*
makes six cakes

1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1/4 cup plus 1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1 tablespoon water
8.5 ounces apricot halves, sliced
1 1/3 cups AP flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 350F. Butter six 6-oz ramekins and place them on a baking sheet with a shallow rim.

Divide the pine nuts evenly among the ramekins.

In a medium-sized saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium-low heat.  Add 1/4 cup brown sugar and the water and cook, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved.  Add the apricots and stir gently until coated.  Divide the apricots and syrup evenly among the cups.

In a small bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt.  In the bowl of an electric mixer, or by hand, beat the remaining 4 tbs butter, 1/3 cup brown sugar, and the granulated sugar on medium speed until well blended.  Beat in the egg and the vanilla until combined.  With the mixer on low speed, mix half of the dry ingredients into the batter until just combined.  Mix in the buttermilk until combined.  Mix in the remaining dry ingredients until combined.  Divide the batter evenly among the ramekins and smooth the tops.

Bake until a toothpick inserted comes out clean, about 30 minutes (mine took more like 45).  Transfer the ramekins to a wire rack and cook for 10 minutes.  Run a knife around the edges of the ramekins to loosen the cakes.  Invert the cakes onto individual dessert plates and serve warm with fresh whipped cream, or a drizzle of amber agave nectar, like I’m currently obsessed with.  🙂

* recipe from the Bonne Femme Cookbook!

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Bread: Guest post from Matt Palmer, a.k.a. The Bread Man

Alisa: I wanted Matt to write about the bread that he’s made countless times in the past seven years.  He started on a quest to learn to bake at the same time he wanted to become more likable at his office (to improve his performance review, which, the only thing that was negative was, “Matt’s kind of intimidating”) and so the two tasks naturally went hand in hand.  After one year of bringing bread in to the office every Friday, not surprisingly, there wasn’t a negative comment on his next review 🙂  Bread is the great equalizer.  This loaf, in particular, is beautiful in its simplicity, flavor, crusty exterior and soft, spongy interior.  Frankly, it’s the perfect loaf.  I think life has a lot of challenges, but if you could say that you could turn out a loaf of bread like this (given a day’s notice) any time it was needed, well, I’d consider that success.

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Matt: I like making things from scratch. I enjoy learning how things work, and with cooking you usually end up with something better than what you can get at the store – and it’s cheaper, better for you, and you even get a night’s entertainment out of it. So I guess it was just a matter of time before I got into baking. I’ve been making bread pretty regularly for a few years now, and I’ve certainly gotten better, but I’m still an amateur. Bread is one of those things that you could devote your life to (think Jiro Dreams of Sushi) and still find things to improve on.

That’s part of why I love it, but if that sounds disheartening to you, the good news is that even the poorest homemade loaf is better than anything you can get at the store. With a little bit of practice you can make bread better than you can get anywhere (unless you happen to live in San Francisco, New York, or a country that still cares about good bread). It’s kinda like chocolate chip cookies – the best bread you can buy where I live is essentially the bread equivalent of Chips Ahoy. Maybe you live somewhere with a bakery that sells something other than cupcakes, but unless the guy behind the counter looks like this, I’m guessing the bread there is still a Soft Batch at best. I’m sure the worst batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies that came out of your mom’s oven blows either of those away. The bread that will soon come from your oven is the same – once you’ve tried it, you’ll be hooked.
 Plain bread
Bread
21 oz bread flour (or AP flour if you prefer)
14 oz water (66%, for the bread nerds out there)
1 tsp instant/rapid rise yeast
2 tsp salt
Mix up the dry ingredients (you are using a scale, aren’t you?) and then add the water. Mix until the flour is all hydrated then cover it and set it aside for twenty minutes. (Or I could just say autolyse. See, you should become a baker, we have our own secret language.)
Stretch the dough out and fold it back up in thirds like you would a letter. Turn the dough 90 degrees and repeat, then put it seam side down in an oiled bowl. Wait ten minutes, then repeat. After three of these stretch-and-fold sessions your dough is probably developed. Put the dough back in the bowl and cover it and place it in the fridge overnight, or for up to 2-3 days (you might use less yeast if you know you’re going to wait several days to bake).
About two hours before you want to bake, take the dough out and let it warm up on the counter for a bit. Press it out into a circle (gently, we’re not making pie), then gather each side up to form a ball. Roll the ball in small circles on the counter to develop surface tension. This is a lot easier to understand when you see it, so you might want to watch a video.
Put the dough (now a boule, if you want to talk the talk) into a bowl lined with a floured towel. I use a basket called a banneton, which I flour directly, and it leaves little rings of flour on the loaf.
Leave the dough covered, on the counter to rise. This will probably take about an hour and a half, but you can tell if a loaf is still rising by poking it gently – if it springs back quickly, leave it to rise some more. If the indention stays, you’re ready to bake.
About a half hour before baking, preheat your oven to 450, with your baking stone, Dutch oven, or preferred baking device inside. You can bake on a sheet pan, and if that’s your plan you don’t need to preheat for very long. I recommend a Lodge cast iron combo cooker, which gives you the added heat while also trapping steam, and you can put dough into it without getting second degree burns, which is tough to do in a normal Dutch oven.
When the dough is ready, remove your preheated Dutch oven and flip the bowl over to put the dough into the pan. Make a couple of cuts in the loaf so it doesn’t rupture when it rises in the oven (this is called scoring), then put the lid on the Dutch oven and return it to the oven for thirty minutes.
Remove the lid from the Dutch oven and bake another 30 minutes.
Remove the loaf from the oven (the interior of the loaf should be around 200 degrees, if you want to make sure it’s done) and put it on a rack to cool. Lean in close and I bet you can hear the loaf “sing.” It’s tempting to cut into it right away, but I promise it’s better if you let it sit and finish cooking – think of it like resting a steak.
plain country bread loaf

Corn Cookies

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This is one of the best cookies I’ve ever had in my entire life.  Crispy on the outside, chewy and soft in the middle.  Sweet, salty, and incredibly buttery.  It uses a mystery ingredient: corn powder. All you do (and believe me, slackers, this ingredient is worth whatever effort you don’t want to put forth) is buy a bag of freeze dried corn off Amazon and pulse it in your blender or food processor till it looks like powder.  Then, you’ll have enough for a few batches of these amazing cookies.  The corn powder adds to the incredible butter flavor and if you don’t tell anyone, they won’t be able to pick out the secret ingredient.  They’ll just sit and marvel that they are enjoying the greatest cookie (that doesn’t include chocolate) of their life.

This recipe is from the wonderful Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook.  Matt made Olive’s first birth-day (made it when we came home from the hospital with her) cake from this book, my birthday cake and the Crack Pie that we’ve made a few times and won a smallish award (in a contest created by us) for best non-fruit pie at our Pie Bake-Off.  Christina Tosi is undoubtedly a genius, as Momofuku  Milk Bar’s creative pastry chef.  It’s only her hummingbird-like brain that could come up with such nostalgic, creative, sugar-rush kind of desserts.  She is a child at heart, which shows so evidently throughout this cookbook.

Word of caution: if you like to get in and out of the kitchen quick, this book isn’t for you.  (the cookies were easy enough but the rest…) My birthday cake had Matt in the kitchen for two days and involved around 5 different recipes for one cake alone.  However, it was the best cake ever.  I don’t need to reiterate that good things are worth the hard work, but I will.  To quote Bob Kelso, “Nothing in this world worth having comes easy.”

And every recipe from Momofuku Milk Bar is worth having.

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Corn Cookies
yield: 13-15 cookies

*225 g butter, at room temp (2 sticks)
300 g sugar (1.5 cups)
1 egg
225 g flour (1 1/3 cups)
45 g corn flour (1/4 cup – if you don’t have corn flour, which I didn’t, mix 1/4 flour and 4 tsp corn powder)
65 g freeze dried corn powder (2/3 cup)
3 g baking powder (3/4 tsp
1.5 g baking soda (1/4 tsp)
6 g kosher salt (1.5 tsp)

1. Combine the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and cream together on medium for 2 to 3 minutes.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the egg, and beat for 7 to 8 minutes (this is important.  This long mixing process is what gives the cookies their amazing texture)

2. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the flour, corn flour, corn powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.  Mix just until the dough comes together, no longer than 1 minutes.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl.

3. Using a 1/3 cup measuring scoop, portion out the dough onto a parchment-lined sheet pan.  Pat the tops of the cookie dough domes flat.  Wrap the sheet pan tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour.  Do NOT baking your cookies from room temp – they WILL NOT bake properly.

4. Heat oven to 350F.

5. Arrange the chilled dough a minimum of 4 inches apart on parchment or silpat-lined sheet pans.  Bake for 18 minutes (Mine looked perfect in exactly 18 min. They know their stuff) The cookies will puff, crackle, and spread.  After 18 minutes, they should be faintly browned on the edges yet still bright yellow in the center; give them an extra minute if not.

6. Cool the cookies completely ON the sheet pans before transferring to a plate or your mouth (yeah right, you know you’ll eat a warm one and you SHOULD).  At room temp, the cookies will keep fresh in an air-tight container for 5 days.  But I really doubt they’ll last that long.

*I think measuring your flour, corn flour and corn powder by weight is really important.  Reason:  I first did it by volume and measured out 1 1/3 cups.  Then, to double check, I weighed the flour I’d measured and it was only something like 210 grams.  That’s enough of a difference to matter in the final result.  Just FYI!

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