No Artificial Preservatives

The fall semester started a few weeks back, which means my 57 bus and the B-train are full of students not exactly sure where they’re going. Commonwealth Avenue, down where I work, is lined with banks tabling for new customers, and eager 20-somethings in brightly-colored t-shirts want my help saving the whales, gay rights and women’s right to choose.

And then there are the freebies. There’s always some kind of vitawater or granola bar someone is offering free samples of. I wasn’t aware of how many Luna Bars and Kind bars had made their way into my backpack until yesterday afternoon, when I dumped its contents onto my dining room table in a fruitless search for my keys. (False alarm… long story.) Rich was astounded at the amount of oats and nuts I had on my person, while I was pretty astounded finally reading the voluminous ingredient lists on the wrappers.

I had made these apricot bars this weekend as a direct result of those ingredient lists. I’d made them once before, using apricot jam instead of soaking the apricots. The directions said I’d have to wait an hour for them to soften, but it turns out things were good after only about a half an hour. I brought these bars to a meeting once, along with some whole wheat chocolate chip cookies that I think are just tops. I played these down, but everyone there loved them. Sorry it’s taken me so long to share this.

The recipe comes from The Common Ground Dessert Cookbook: A collection of naturally-sweetened wholegrain desserts. The Common Ground is New England’s oldest natural foods restaurant. (Sidenote: Is it closed? I can’t tell!) It’s up in Brattleboro, Vermont, which is only an hour from where I grew up. Sometimes my mom and I would take a quick road trip up to Vermont and crunch away on a large wooden bowl of salad put out for taking on the honor system.

I think I downplayed these bars because they are nothing like the Flour granola bars I also made last spring. On the other hand, those take more than three hours to make, while these took less than an hour. These bars, like the whole wheat cheese crackers, make comforting additions to lunchboxes. Sure, there’s a lot of butter in the recipe, but something about the whole wheat flour, oats and maple syrup seems to compensate… right?

Apricot Bars

Makes 18 1 1/2”x 3” bars

There are two parts to this recipe, the filling and the crust. My advice is to start soaking the apricots for the filing before you work on the crust. I’ve only done this recipe with the maple syrup, so if anyone tries it with the honey, please do let me know how they turn out. Although the recipe lists the extracts as optional, I have them in the house and used them. The original recipe calls for whole wheat pastry flour, but I only have regular whole wheat flour. Results were pleasing.

Preheat oven to 350F. Oil a 9”x9” baking pan.

Apricot Filling

1 cup dried apricots

1 cup boiling water

1/8 – 1/4 cup maple syrup or honey

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)

1/8 teaspoon almond extract (optional)

Lay apricots in a shallow bowl and pour boiling water over them. Soak fruit until very soft, which will take between a half hour and an hour, depending on the age of your fruit. While your fruit soaks, prepare the crust.

1 cup whole wheat flour

2 cups rolled oats

1 teaspoon baking powder

Pinch salt

1/2 cup butter, melted

3/8 cup maple syrup or honey

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon almond extract

Directions

Mix dry and wet ingredients, each in a separate bowl; then combine and stir well.

Press half the mixture into the bottom of oiled pan.

Prepare the apricot filling:

Drain fruit but save soaking water.

Chop soft fruit and puree it in a blender or food processor with sweetener and only as much soaking water as needed for blending.

Add extracts if desired.

Filling may be thick enough as is. However, if it seems at all runny, bring it to a simmer in a saucepan and stir in 1 teaspoon arrowroot mixed with 1 Tablespoon water to thicken.

Using a spatula, spread the filling on top of the bottom crust.

Sprinkle remaining crust over the filling and gently pat it smooth. Make sure the top crust reaches the edges and corners of the pan.

Bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown.

Cool completely before cutting into bars or they’ll crumble.

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For A Sweet New Year

I originally wrote this piece for Combined Jewish Philanthropies to help get word out about their Fast to Feed initiative. A number of people contacted me offline for the plum cake recipe, so I’ve decided to also share the post and the recipe here.

Recently, Prism asked me to teach a class on how to bake plum cake for Rosh Hashanah. So what qualifies me as a plum cake expert? I guess I have to credit my Mom’s family. They are  German – yekkes, as they would proudly say – and my Oma would always bake a zwetschgenkuchen (or some say pflaumenkuchen), a traditional plum cake, for the holiday. Someone recently asked me about the looming symbolism of the plum for Rosh Hashana, hoping to find some sort of sweet correlation as with the apples and honey. Well, to be honest, as far as I know, late August and early September was when the Italian plums were ripe and hung heavy on the trees of the German and Alsatian countryside. So plum cake for Rosh Hashana made sense. And was always delicious.

A few years back I made a zwetschgenkuchen to bring to my mom’s for the holiday. I used the pitch-perfect plum torte recipe from the New York Times archives. The plums were wrapped in soft pillows of batter, and topped with cinnamon, lemon and sugar. Just splendid. But when Prism asked me to lead the plum cake baking class, my mom jumped at the chance to share a genuine kuchen recipe with me.

It turns out my Oma, along with millions of other Germans Jews before her, based not just their plum cakes, but their general baked goods, on a mürberteig, a  “shortcrust dough.” This morning I took the recipe for a test run, cutting the butter into the flour, making pebbles of dough that eventually formed a ball to kneed and roll out.

We hosted friends for the taste testing that afternoon. As it happens, they are Mormon and, as strange as it sounds, we actually understand the choices we’ve each made through our respective religious outlooks. My not eating pig and shellfish is similar to their choice of not drinking alcohol or coffee.

When I told them about Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ Fast to Feed program, they got it. As I explained, Jews observing Yom Kippur abstain from eating and drinking. Why not take the money you’d be spending on food during that day, and donate it to a program that feeds one of the 700,000 people that go hungry every day? Well, it turns out that Mormons have a fast on the first Sunday of every month, and the money they’d be spending on food is donated to feed the hungry. No kidding.

The plum cake was fantastic, and I’m thrilled to be teaching my family’s tradition on Thursday night.

 Zwetschgenkuchen: Traditional German Plum Cake

This sweet dessert starts with a Murberteig, a mellow or short dough, which is the basis of many German baked goods. Simply, it’s a shortbread dough.

For this recipe, you will need a pastry cutter, a large bowl, a rolling pin, a dough scraper, and a tart pan.

Ingredients

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ cup sugar

Pinch of salt

¼ lb. butter

1 egg, beaten

Directions

Cube the butter and place in freezer while you gather and measure out the remaining ingredients.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. Mix them together with a whisk or a large spoon.

Sprinkle the chilled butter cubes over the flour and begin working them in with the pastry blender, using it to scoop and redistribute the mixture as needed so all parts are worked evenly. Soon enough, all of the butter pieces will be the size of tiny peas.

Make a well in the center of the bowl. Add the beaten egg and using a spatula, mix thoroughly. Soon enough, the dough will come together. Knead the dough on a breadboard/hard counter.

This dough has a very high butter content, so refrigerate it while you prep the rest of the ingredients.

Plum topping

2 lbs. of plums

¾ cups sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ cup chopped almonds

Halve and pit the plums. Slice the fruit into quarters. Set fruit aside.

Chop the nuts. Place in bowl with the sugar and cinnamon. Stir.

Remove the chilled dough from the refrigerator. Flour your counter, the dough in the middle and the rolling pin. Start rolling your dough lightly from the center out. You’re not going to get it all flat in one roll or even twenty; be patient and it will crack less. Roll it a few times in one direction, lift it up and rotate it a quarter-turn and repeat. Re-flour the counter and the top of the dough as needed to avoid sticking.

Roll the dough out to a little more diameter of your tart pan, enough to cover the entire the inner sides of the pan. Using the dough scraper, gently move the rolled-out dough onto and press into the pan. Don’t worry if you get a crack or hole; just use some of the excess from the edges to patch it up!

Starting with the outer rim, arrange the sliced plums in a circle on dough.

Evenly sprinkle the sugar and cinnamon and nuts on top of the plums

Bake in a preheated, 375-degree oven for 30 minutes.

Letting Go

I believe in leftovers and packing lunch, which means I have a cupboard that is jammed with Tupperware, Gladware, and well-washed yogurt containers. About once a year I sit on the floor of the kitchen and empty it out, marry each container with its lid, purge singletons, and neatly stack all parts back on the shelves. Things remain tidy for about three weeks, but before long, plastic containers throw themselves to the floor when I open the cupboard door.

We’ve had one container in particular that’s been in our collection for years. It’s a huge yellow tub that once held peanut butter, and, until recently, served as the perfect vessel for our homemade ice creams. Whenever we’d whip up a batch of peach basil, or maybe some Turkish Delight, I knew I could count on the plastic tub to be just the right size for our new flavor. Until last week, that is.

Last week was our friends’ 7th annual beer and cheese party. Last year Rich and I went local, bringing both beer and cheddar that was made nearby. I simmered up a pear chutney to keep things interesting, and it went over very well. This year, due to the impending birth of the hosts’ second child, the party was moved up from the fall to August, which meant a pear chutney was out of the question. To keep things interesting, we didn’t bring a cheese, but homemade cheese crackers, which we paired with a selection of local German-style lagers by Jack’s Abby brewery in Framingham. The crackers are a Melissa Clark recipe (I know, I know, what can I say, I just can’t quit her), and they taste like a healthy Cheez-it, or a Goldfish cracker you wouldn’t mind feeding your little one. The hostess noted they were a bit like a whole wheat shortbread.

The crackers went over well, but we left the party early for a dinner party. Not all the crackers had been eaten when it was time for us to leave, so Rich left the container on the table and walked away. Which container? My beloved yellow tub. I didn’t realize until we were about 10 minutes from the party that we’d left it behind. “My container!” I whelped. “Let it go,” Rich said. “But! But!” I responded. “Let it go. Just let it go.”

Healthy Homemade Cheddar Crisps from In the Kitchen with A Good Appetite by Melissa Clark

We actually used a combo of leftover cheese bits that were in the fridge: fontina, cheddar and Parm. I say use whatever cheese or cheeses you have that you’d like. It’s your palate, after all.

Ingredients

1 cup whole wheat flour

¼ teaspoon baking powder

4 Tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

½ teaspoon kosher salt

Pinch cayenne (optional)

1 ½ cup (6 ounces) shredded Cheddar cheese

Directions

In a small bowl, combine the flour and baking powder. In a food processor or electric mixer with a paddle attachment, mix the butter, salt and cayenne until creamy. Add 1 cup (4 ounces) of the cheese and mix until thoroughly combined. Gradually add the flour mixture and run the food processor or beat with the paddle until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl and starts to form a ball, about 7 minutes. Wrap the dough in plastic, and roll into a log about 1 ½ inches in diameter. Chill in the refrigerator for 1 hour or up to overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350F and line two sheet pans with parchment. Unwrap the log of dough and slice into rounds 3/16 inch thick. Arrange the rounds on the prepared baking sheets and place a generous pinch of the remaining ½ cup cheese on each cracker. Bake until the crackers are golden brown, about 12 minutes. Turn off the oven and leave the crackers to crisp for an additional 5 minutes. Transfer the crackers to a wire rack to cool.

Clark points out that you can also place the dough between 2 sheets of plastic and roll into a rectangle 1/8 inch thick. Using a small (1 ½-to 2-inch) heart-or-fish-shaped cookie cutter, cut out the crackers and place them on the prepared sheet pans. Press the remaining scraps of dough together, reroll, and cut out additional crackers, then bake as directed.