Better-Than-Store-Bought Biscuits

Over the Christmas season, we were fortunate enough to spend quite a bit of time with my husband’s high school friends, a group they call “The Core” (which always reminds me an ’80s band or a trendy gym). Our friend Eric and his wife Christa were in town for the wedding of another Core member, and since they’re the only ones who live out of state, it’s always a good excuse to get everyone together when they’re in town. During a little dinner party at our house, somehow Christa and I ended up talking about how you can never make homemade biscuits turn out quite as delicious as the store-bought ones that come in the tube you smack with a spoon. Seriously, they’re never as good. What does Pillsbury put in those tubes that makes their biscuits come out all airy and fluffy and buttery? (Do I actually want to know?) Christa is from Alabama, which I figured meant she would have a slam-dunk biscuit recipe–don’t they eat biscuits all the time in the South? But even she agreed that store-bought always turns out best.

A week or so later I was making a turkey soup that needed some kind of accompaniment and remembered my conversation with Christa. Thus far in my life I had never made a successful biscuit. They always come out more gluten-y doorstoppers than buttery showstoppers. This time I turned to Mark Bittman’s trusty How to Cook Everything Vegetarian to see if his recipe could bring me out of my biscuit funk. And indeed it did! Any guesses for the secret ingredient that made the difference? More baking powder? The lately-super-popular coconut oil? Eye of newt?

Nope, the thing that made the difference was none other than that most versatile of dairy products: yogurt. (Wish I had known this when I wrote about unexpected uses for Greek yogurt.) Then again, the use of the food processor may have also made a difference–though even Mark Bittman says it’s the yogurt. These came out light, buttery, and yes, even fluffy! With the addition of some fresh herbs, they made for a hearty sidekick to turkey soup–and from now on, I’m sure I’ll be using them to accompany many other dishes, because they actually were…

better than store-bought!

Better-Than-Store-Bought Biscuits
(Adapted from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman)

Ingredients:

2 c. all-purpose or cake flour
3/4 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. dried herbs, such as rosemary or thyme (optional)
4 Tbsp. butter
7/8 c. yogurt
3 Tbsp. milk

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

2. Mix the dry ingredients in the bowl of a food processor. Cut the butter into small pieces and pulse it in the food processor until thoroughly blended.

3. Transfer mixture to a large bowl. Stir in the yogurt and milk and form dough into a ball. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it 10 times.

4. Press the dough to a 3/4 inch thickness and cut into 2-inch rounds with a biscuit cutter or open end of a glass. Gently reshape the leftover dough and cut again. Place the rounds on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake 9-10 minutes or until biscuits are golden brown.

Makes about 10 biscuits.

Carrot Apple Bread

So the big news this week at our house is that we’re getting solar panels installed. I for one am super excited about this (clean energy! lowered electric bills! coolness factor!) The only downside of the whole process is that for the better part of one whole day, your power has to be shut off. As someone who uses a heavy duty hair straightener every day so I don’t look like Cher in some terrible ’70s Merv Griffin appearance, this news was disappointing.

NOT JOKING

Still, in a weird way, there’s a part of me that couldn’t help treating it like an experiment. With all the post-Apocalyptic story lines in recent TV/movies/books, you kinda have to wonder how you would respond if you were suddenly thrown back a couple hundred years in terms of technology. Going without power for one day is like a teeny tiny fraction of that experience, I know, but it’s one of those things that’s worthwhile as an occasional reminder of all we take for granted having electricity.

Anyway, we belong squarely in the 21st century, and tend to rely heavily on our toaster for breakfasts. That being the case, I decided to bake this carrot apple bread the night before the power outage–since I wasn’t up to the challenge of attempting it over an open fire the following day. (Yes, we could have had cereal and milk. I felt like baking anyway.) The funny thing is that before breakfast I drove to Starbucks for some coffee (again, not willing to MacGuyver some camping-style version of coffee in my fireplace) and was approached by a barista standing in the drive-thru handing out samples. She was handing out–you guessed it–apple bread. Well, Caramelized Apple Cake, to be more precise. Of course it was super tasty, as cake for breakfast always is. So when I got home and sat down to this bread, the contrast in sugar content seemed drastic. There was probably as much sugar in one ketchup-cup sample of Starbucks’ apple bread as in this entire loaf. After I got over the sweetness disparity, though, I felt proud of myself. Why? Because I have learned that breakfast doesn’t have to be drenched in sugar to be delicious and satisfying. (I didn’t used to know that. Years ago I would buy those giant trays of grocery store cheese danish, stick them in my freezer, and hack one off every morning.) And believe me, this bread is plenty sweet! It’s just not Stabucks-drive-thru-breakfast sweet, which is actually a good thing. It has both a fruit and a vegetable, a beautiful, fluffy texture, and that soft-but-firm exterior I love so much in a well-done breakfast bread. Substitute up to 1/2 cup of the white flour with whole wheat to make it even heartier.

All in all (if you were wondering) we survived our day without power. No one died, and no one had to cook anything in the fireplace. No one even had to poop in the woods! So it was way better than camping. Now let’s just hope no zombie Apocalypse happens in my lifetime. I’m not ready to go that hard-core.

Carrot Apple Bread
(Inspired by How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman)

Ingredients:

2 c. all-purpose flour
2/3 c. packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. salt
4 Tbsp. butter
1 egg
3/4 c. milk
1 c. loosely packed shredded carrots
1 small apple, chopped

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9 x 5 inch loaf pan.

Stir the dry ingredients together. Cut the butter into pieces, then use a fork or two knives to cut it into the dry ingredients. (I used a food processor to make this step faster.)

Beat together the egg and milk. Pour into the dry ingredient mixture and stir until just moistened. Fold in the carrots and apple. Pour batter into the prepared pan.

Bake about 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Pumpkin Oatmeal Muffins

Well, it’s mid-October and pumpkin season is in full-swing. Good thing, too, because I haven’t forgotten my previous commitment to go “pumpkin craaaaaazy“!! But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Around here, pumpkin patches are appearing on street corners faster than you can say “Why am I paying so much for pumpkins?” I do enjoy our annual visit to the pumpkin patch, though. This year, our family (plus my dad and step-mom in town from Illinois) headed out to the far East Valley to check out the festivities at Vertuccio Farms. For $8 admission, you can’t do better than this place. Their fall festival boasts games, a bounce house, pedal race cars, farm animals for petting, a barrel train ride,

This is what I mean by “barrel train.” It’s made out of barrels.

and a 2-mile corn maze complete with a mystery modeled after the game Clue (in this case, it was which animal kidnapped Farmer Joe–I think it ended up being the chickens with the rat poison in the outhouse…or something similarly macabre. The instructions stated that “fowl play” was involved). The kids had a blast and we were all pretty wiped out by the end of the afternoon, so we finished our visit the way any sensible person would on a Phoenix-area fall day: with sno-cones.

Elliot had cherry. Gabe had cotton candy flavor.

At any rate, here’s another recipe involving everyone’s favorite orange vegetable. I wish I could say I made these muffins with pumpkin puree from a pumpkin patch pumpkin (try saying that three times fast), but no, they were created with the humble canned variety. But you know, they still turned out great! Very moist and pumpkin-y with the hardy texture of oats, these were super satisfying for a fall morning when you’ve been bitten by the pumpkin bug.

Pumpkin Oatmeal Muffins
(Adapted from Peanut Butter Fingers)

Ingredients:

3/4 c. whole wheat flour
3/4 c. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. pumpkin pie spice (mix cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves)
1 c. old-fashioned oats
1/3 c. brown sugar
1/3 c. white sugar
1 egg
1 c. pumpkin puree or canned pumpkin
3/4 c. milk
1/3 c. canola oil

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease 12-cup muffin tin or line with paper liners.

In a large bowl, thoroughly mix whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice, oats, brown sugar, and white sugar.

In a separate bowl, mix egg, pumpkin, milk, and oil. Pour pumpkin mixture into flour mixture and mix well to incorporate.

Fill muffin cups and bake for 18-20 minutes or until muffin tops spring back when touched.

Makes 12 muffins.

Chocolate Butterscotch Blondie Cake

As I mentioned in my last post, someone around here had a birthday last week. (Okay, it was me.) The great thing about having your birthday right around Labor Day–or frequently on Labor Day–is that you can generally count on a three-day weekend that feels pretty much especially for your birthday. For me, any of the other three-day weekends (Memorial Day, Veterans’ Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day) are tinged with just a little bit of guilt for not being more patriotic and/or social justice-oriented. As in, we don’t put out the American flag on those days (we don’t have one–I know, I know, that’s no excuse) and frankly, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. All the things I’m brainstorming right now just come out sounding patronizing and offensive, so I won’t even mention them…yikes.

As three-day weekends go, then, Labor Day feels like an irreproachable freebie. It was instituted in the 1880s and ’90s (various states adopted it at various times) as a “national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Hey, I’m a worker! …Or at least I was before I had kids, and now I work harder than ever, though I technically don’t “have” a “job” (picture this statement with Chris Farley van-down-by-the-river air finger quotes). So, see? Like I said! This holiday’s for meeeee! And you, and you, and you. Pretty much anybody who’s ever had a job.

All that to say it’s an ideal time to have a birthday. Thank you, Mom, for going into labor in that Wendy’s drive-thru in Peoria, Illinois on Labor Day weekend 1982. You were on to something: labor on Labor Day. And I must say, this birthday was a really great day. In the morning, my husband made my favorite cinnamon pancakes (eventual blog post to come about this wonderful recipe), I went to a yoga class, got to do some shopping, and made my own birthday cake. Some people say you shouldn’t have to cook on your birthday, and I’m sure that’s true for people who don’t really like to cook, but I certainly enjoyed making this cake. It’s basically two layers of blondie brownies slathered in butterscotch and chocolate ganaches. It’s like if Brownie and Cake got married and made a sweet, sweet baby. “Brownie” in the sense of “dense blondie texture,” and “cake” in the sense that it’s “stacked” with “frosting” (again, Chris Farley air finger quotes–sorry, I’ll stop). So don’t be surprised if it doesn’t come out of the oven super moist and airy like a traditional cake. It might just be better.

Chocolate Butterscotch Blondie Cake
(Adapted from Annie’s Eats, originally from Bakerella; chocolate ganache from Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan)

Ingredients:

For the butterscotch brownie cake:

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 3/4 cups packed light brown sugar
1 tbsp. vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 (11 oz.) package butterscotch chips, divided

For the butterscotch ganache:

3/4 cup butterscotch chips
6 tbsp. heavy whipping cream
3 tbsp. unsalted butter

For the chocolate ganache:

4 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tbsp. sugar
2 tbsp. water

To make the cake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Butter and flour the sides of two 8-inch round cake pans. In a medium mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.  In a large bowl, combine the butter, sugar and vanilla.  Beat on medium speed until creamy.  Scrape down the bowl and mix in the eggs until well incorporated.  Gradually beat in the flour mixture on low speed just until combined.  Stir in 1 cup of butterscotch chips with a rubber spatula.

Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans.  Sprinkle with the remaining butterscotch chips.  Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Transfer the pans to a wire cooling rack and allow to cool completely before carefully removing from the pans.

To make the butterscotch ganache, combine the cream and the butter in a small saucepan.  Warm over medium-high heat until the mixture is almost boiling.  Place the butterscotch chips in a small, heatproof bowl.  Pour the cream mixture over the butterscotch chips and allow to sit for 30 seconds.  Stir until smooth. If too runny, place in refrigerator until it thickens enough to not run too quickly off the cake.

To make the chocolate ganache, place the chopped chocolate in a small bowl.  Bring the cream, sugar and water to a boil, then pour the liquid over the chocolate and let sit for 30 seconds.  Gently whisk the mixture together until smooth.  Leave the glaze to sit until it thickens a bit to your desired consistency.

To assemble the cake, place one of the cake layers on a wire rack with a sheet of wax paper.  Drizzle butterscotch ganache over the top so that it drips over the edges of the cake.  Drizzle with a small amount of chocolate ganache as well.  Lay the remaining cake layer on top of the first and top with remaining chocolate ganache so that it drips over the edges. If desired, place remaining butterscotch ganache in a squeeze bottle and use it to decorate the top of the cake–or simply use extra butterscotch chips to decorate. Transfer the cake to a serving platter.

Cinnamon Pear Muffins

If you’re thinking about staging a Muffin Intervention for me right about now due to the inordinate number of muffin posts on this blog, well…….

…..you might be on to something.

We pretty much perpetually have a batch of muffins on hand around here. Muffins rock my breakfast world. I believe “muffintastic” should be a complimentary adjective, as in “Muffintastic pants, bro!” And frankly, I’m especially proud of these particular muffins because I came up with the recipe myself and they were quite tasty. (I’m only just learning to be adventurous in the recipe creation department.)

The other thing I like about this recipe is that it gives the often-overlooked pear the limelight (or the pearlight? too many fruits in this sentence) with the more frequently chosen apple. In the world of baked goods, the pear is like the slightly-less-pretty-but-makes-up-for-it-with-spunk younger sister to the attractive, popular apple, a la Little Women or A League of Their Own. Apple strudel, apple bread, apple pie–yes, they’re all delicious, but the pear deserves a chance, people! It’s easily as sweet as an apple, and sometimes juicier. When baked, I find its graininess softens to the perfect texture. So do yourself a favor and use it in a muffin….like this one.

Cinnamon Pear Muffins

Ingredients:

1 1/2 c. whole wheat flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 c. brown sugar
1/4 c. maple or agave syrup
1 egg
1/3 c. oil
1/2 c. applesauce
1/3 c. almond milk
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 large pear, peeled, cored, and finely chopped

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 12-cup muffin tin.

In a small bowl, combine flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and cinnamon. Set aside.

In a large bowl, mix brown sugar, maple syrup, egg, oil, applesauce, almond milk, and vanilla. Slowly mix dry ingredients into wet ingredients until just combined. Fold in pears.

Bake for 18-20 minutes. Makes 12 muffins.