Oatmeal Brown Butter Bars

DSCN2502 Full disclosure: I don’t like oatmeal. I really don’t understand why so many people automatically categorize it in the breakfast-of-champions category (my first and only choice for breakfast of champions? Beer.) Most supposedly healthy and nutrient-packed bowls of oatmeal just translate to cold, lumpy spoonfuls of goop in my mouth and it seems to me that nothing – absolutely nothing – can distract me from the fact that it essentially tastes like soft brains with a smattering of sugar on top (as the metaphor should imply, I am not a fan of eating brains). DSCN2515 But apparently there is a way to make oatmeal a touch more palatable and that is by incorporating it into a baked good. The funny thing is, what I hate most about oatmeal is its texture (or lack thereof – didn’t the brain reference tip you off?). But when you bake it into cakes, cookies or bars, that’s exactly what it lends to the entire affair: a lovely, chewy texture and slight nuttiness in taste. I know there’s this huge, healthy, get-on-the-nut-oils bandwagon thing going on, but most of the time I think oatmeal goes best with brown butter: smoky, dark, caramel-colored brown butter, which – in this recipe – you stir into a base of oatmeal and wholewheat flour. The whole thing is topped off with some sugar, spices and pecans and then baked. When you slice bars off the finished product, they will crumble slightly and smell really fragrant because of the spices – not in the lush, decadent way that some desserts do but as a sweet, snacking option that isn’t altogether too unhealthy. DSCN2480 DSCN2488 Makes: One 9 inch-by-6 inch baking dish of bars Time:
Prep (20 mins) + Cooking Time (15-20 mins)

Ingredients
1 cup of wholewheat flour
1 cup of raw oats
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup softened butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp powdered cinnamon
1 tsp powdered nutmeg
1 egg
1/2 cup pecans (whole or chopped)

Method
Pre-heat your oven to 350 and grease a 9 inch-by-6 inch baking dish.

In a shallow pan, heat the butter until it melts. Continue heating until it turns a dark shade of brown, bubbles slightly and smells nutty. Keep this aside to cool.

In a large bowl, sift together the wholewheat flour, baking powder, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. Add the oats and keep aside.

Pour the cooled brown butter into a bowl and add the egg and vanilla extract. Beat until all three are well combined. Make a little well in the bowl with the dry ingredients and pour the butter-egg-vanilla mixture into it in three batches, beating in between.

Empty the batter into the greased cake pan – it shouldn’t be too runny. In fact, it should be fairly on the dry side. Press the pecans on to the surface of the batter and bake for 15-20 minutes, until done. Once it’s out the oven, let it cool before slicing off bars.

Perfect for late afternoon snacking and maybe even a picnic?

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Carrot Cake

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How do you guys feel about carrot cake?

Growing up, I was not a fan. I simply didn’t understand the point of mincing and baking carrots into a flour-butter-sugar combination that could just as easily be packed with, oh, I don’t know, shall we say chocolate or mocha? – both much more acceptable flavours to the below-13 palate? My mother made carrot cakes on and off but the lack of hit-you-in-the-face sweetness and rich frosting put me off completely.

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When I first started baking, I was too enamoured by all the pretty possibilities that cakes presented – has anyone seen this, or this? Stunning – and didn’t really bother with earthy, carroty goodness. For some reason, carrot cake does not, in my mind, represent glamour. If anything, it represents mild weather and perhaps a game of Rummy over tea.

All of this changed when I came across this blog post, which sort of elevated the definition of carrot cake in mind. Yes, carrot cake can be sexy – it just needs the necessary trimmings. I adapted the recipe to include some of my favourites – dried figs, which work wonderfully with the chewy carrot base, handfuls of currants, walnuts and pecans, a dash of toasted coconut – and the result were three layers of some pretty good cake.

Which I left out on the kitchen counter to cool. When I returned half an hour later, it turned out that our dog had been as appreciative of carrot cake as me and all that was left were a few crumbs and the empty cake pan.

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Obviously, I was too lazy/tired/disgruntled to bake up another one right away but I did manage to do so after a couple of weekends and the result was everything you’d want in a carrot cake – one that’s undeniably sexy. This one is packed with flavour from the oils, nuts and touch of coconut, has a moist, dense crumb and is topped with a rich cream-cheese frosting that manages to seem more creamy than sugary. It’s a favourite as a not-too-sweet dessert, an accompaniment to tea, and with dogs.

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Ingredients

(I halved the below recipe and got a two-layer, 8-inch cake that was more than enough for five of us).

Carrot Cake:

2 cups wholewheat flour
1 cup toasted and shredded coconut (follow this recipe if you want to make your own)
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground nutmeg
1 pound carrots
1 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup dried currants
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup coconut oil
4 eggs
1 banana, mashed
1 cup dried figs

Frosting: (refer to original recipe)

Method

Preheat the oven to 350 F and grease 4 8-inch pans.

Line the dried figs at the bottom of one of the pans (this will be the top-most layer). You can also sprinkle some dried currants on the base.

This cake follows a regular wet ingredient + dry ingredient approach. Start with the wet ingredients: finely shred your carrots, with a grater (if you have the willpower and knuckles of steel) or with short pulses in a blender until they are torn into shreds. Keep aside.

Whisk together all the wet ingredients (olive oil, coconut oil, banana and eggs) with the sugar until well-combined and fluffy.

Add in the dry ingredients (wholewheat flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and nutmeg) and give the batter a brisk beating to combine the two. Then, stir in the nuts, dried currants and coconut.

Divide the batter into four greased 8-inch pans (or two, if you’re halving it) and bake for around 45 mins. You might need to keep it in the oven for an additional five minutes (I did) – you can check whether the cake is done with a toothpick.

Prepare frosting as per original recipe (halving if you are halving the cake batter) and slather it between the layers – it isn’t too sweet, so too much shouldn’t be a problem although carrot cake-enthusiasts might find it detracts slightly from the earthiness of the actual cake.

Keep well away from dogs, please.

This is one well-fed, carrot cake-stuffed labrador

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Spicy Pumpkin Loaf

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Am I the only person who got sick of the influx of pumpkin-infused recipes that took over the web this winter? Because there were A LOT – I know that everyone has to do at least one pumpkin pie over the holidays, but surely we don’t have to ram pumpkin into our coffee, cupcakes, frosting, buns, cinnamon buns, breakfast bowls and oatmeal? What really got to me was that most of the recipes followed the same format: take a lot of pureed pumpkin, add a lot of cream, top with a lot of cinnamon and brown sugar and voila! – you’re done.

Yes, it really irritated me.

Which is why I’m mildly ashamed to show you this. It is, I will admit, pumpkin, and there’s no getting around that. But I suspect that in this case, you won’t mind.

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This isn’t one of those overloaded-with-caramel pumpkin dessert recipes. In fact, this is a savory loaf. A deceptively light savory loaf that you can slice and enjoy with a bit of butter at breakfast, or tea time. It isn’t made with pumpkin puree or stuff from a can, but honest-to-god fresh pumpkin that is diced, sprinkled with olive oil and herbs and roasted for the better part of an hour, until it is tender and aromatic and altogether delicious.

This is then mashed with the back of a fork (or, if you’re super enthusiastic, a blender) and mixed with some flour, herbs, a smattering of cheese and crushed red peppers for a bit of a kick. This recipe (which is adapted from one of my mother’s passed-down recipes for a cheese loaf) is beautifully simple, does not require any finicky steps and produces a thick, chewy loaf that’s a nice palate cleanser from all the over-sweet pumpkin dishes we’ve been eating the last few months.

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Ingredients

3 eggs

1/2 cup milk

1/4 of a large pumpkin (should reduce to a cup of mash after being roasted) + 1 tbsp olive oil

1/2 cup grated or crumbled cheddar

2 cups whole wheat

1 tbsp baking powder

1 tbsp dried sage

1 tsp dried oregano (or any other herb of your choice)

1 tsp crushed red peppers

1/2 tsp salt + more to taste

Method

Dice the pumpkin into square-inch cubes and lay it out on a well-greased/sprayed baking tray. Sprinkle a tablespoon of olive oil and some salt on it, then add the oregano/herb of your choice and bake at 150 C for around half an hour to 45 minutes. If you bake it for longer and at a lower temperature, the flavours should intensify best. When it’s done, the pumpkin should be a rich, golden-orange shade and tender.

Let the pumpkin cool, and then mash it with a fork or in a blender. Once it’s pulpy and as smooth as you can get it, whisk together the eggs and milk and pour it into the pumpkin mash, beating to ensure everything combines well.

Sift together the dry ingredients: the whole wheat, baking powder, sage, crushed red pepper and salt, and then add the pumpkin mixture in three batches, beating in between. Once it’s holding together, stir in the crumbled cheddar.

Pour the batter into a greased/sprayed loaf pan and bake at 180 C until it’s well done, around an hour. Test with a toothpick to make sure it’s done (the top should be golden-orange and puffy), and then allow to cool before slicing. Tastes best with a knob of butter.

Notes: this recipe, while it had a lovely crumb and held together beautifully, was a touch on the eggy side. If this isn’t your style, you can reduce the number of eggs to 2 and it still works out perfectly (I tried it the following week).

Creamy Cilantro Rice

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I love risotto but so far, all my attempts at making it have not been entirely satisfactory. By which I mean the rice did not end up creamy enough, the entire affair had a bit too much bite in it and I spilled a ladle of stock on myself and got burned. On the whole, it’s a process that requires patience and dedication which I’m sure I will acquire in spades someday. But till then, I have discovered a cheat – a shameless, should-I-even-be-talking-about-this cheat that will probably send any Italian chef worth his salt into palpitations. I called it cilantro rice, to avoid any accusations or unfair comparisons but it’s basically a poor-chef’s-version of risotto.

The base, of course, is white rice (I used Basmati – poor, poor Italian chefs) but I pre-steamed it until it was about three minutes away from being done to perfection. Then, it is topped with an explosion of flavors – fresh, minced cilantro, which adds a herby brightness; pureed spinach, lending it an earthy tone; heaps of garlic, because I am obsessed like that; white onion for sharpness; judicious sprinklings of pepper; a bit of stock for body and cream because – well, cream.

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All of this flavorful goodness is stirred in through the steaming, fluffy rice and then cooked in a covered pot for about five minutes. This is about the right amount of time – it all comes together nicely but the rice isn’t overcooked.

I sort of loosely based this recipe on a version of mint rice my grandmother makes, but keeping in mind the consistency of risotto. So I was pretty surprised that it vaguely resembles an actual Mexican dish called arroz verde. The texture is pretty different, but it looks absolutely delicious so this is probably worth a shot as well.

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Ingredients

1 cup white rice

500 g spinach

200 g cilantro

1 white onion, chopped finely

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 tsp red pepper flakes

1/4 cup cream

1/2 cup vegetable stock

1 tbsp olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Method

Steam the rice for about 10-15 minutes. It should be just a couple of minutes away from being fully cooked, with a slight bite.

Finely chop the white onion and mince the cloves of garlic. Puree the spinach and cilantro together and set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a large, shallow pan and sautee the garlic and red pepper flakes until slightly brown. Add the onion and cook till it turns soft.

Add the pureed spinach and cilantro, cover and let it cook for 4-5 minutes. Then add the rice and the stock. Stir for about 3-4 minutes, until the rice absorbs the stock and is fully cooked. Then add the cream, salt and pepper and sautee for another 2 minutes. Serve immediately.

Strawberry Cream Biscuits

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Every time someone says they’re coming over for tea, my imagination promptly creates a situation that is undoubtedly ripped off from one of the many Enid Blyton books I read as a kid: a table set with a pretty checked cloth, a china teapot and a selection of dainty, sweet eats that would put a Downton Abbey tea table to shame. This obviously rarely happens, but every once in a while I like to bust out a snack that makes people believe I spend most of my time flitting around in the kitchen. And one of the easiest ways to do this is to bake up a batch of biscuits – not the nasty, sugar-filled variety that you can buy at a department store but fluffy, light homemade biscuits that crumble when you bite into them and go perfectly with a cup of sweet tea. What’s more, they’re easy to make, don’t use any fancy ingredients and you can have them out of the oven in 15 minutes as long as you don’t spend too much time snacking on raw dough (bad habit, I know).

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While I’m a huge fan of plain biscuits, a little flavouring can go a long way. These strawberry cream biscuits, very slightly adapted from this genius recipe, are very faintly sweetened, with the tart, fruity strawberry flavour occupying centre stage. Beaten cream is stirred into the dough and the raw cookies are brushed with a few teaspoons of melted butter, so that they puff up and flake with each bite. They aren’t particularly healthy, but are an indulgent addition to any evening meal and a great option for gifting.

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Ingredients

2 cups flour

1 tbsp baking powder

1/2 tbsp sugar

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

3 tbsp melted butter

2 tbsp strawberry jam

Method

Sift together the flour, sugar and baking powder and set aside.

Beat the cream for about 5 minutes, until it turns pale and fluffy. Add the strawberry jam and beat again until it’s well combined. Fold the cream into the flour mixture and combine to form a dough.

Roll the dough to a thickness of 3/4 inch, and cut out biscuits. The original recipe called for a 2 1/2 inch-diameter cutter, but I used a 2 inch one. Brush the tops of the biscuits with melted butter and bake at 425 F for 10-15 minutes. When they’re golden-brown, with the faintest champagne-pink tinge, take them out of the oven and let them cool before serving.

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Notes

I cut down on the sugar used in the dough because of the slight added sweetness of the jam. If you prefer your biscuits on the sweeter side, you can a full tablespoon of sugar instead.

The jam I used was organic and had whole stewed strawberries, which gave the biscuits a more natural flavour. I’m guessing artificially-sweetened jams won’t have the same effect. Alternately, you can puree strawberries and add them to the cream before beating for a more tart, but authentic, flavour.

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