What’s Cooking at the Cafe?

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Cooking in the time of the coronavirus is about the spirit as much as the body. In the best of times, making and enjoying good food is one of the joys and comforts of life. In the worst of times, the pleasure, diversion, and comfort it brings are more important than ever.

It’s not surprising then, that people everywhere are spending more time in the kitchen since Covid-19 has transformed our world and “stay at home, save lives” measures have gone into effect.

In this post, I’ll share some of the food we’ve been making at My Eclectic Café.

A Baking Renaissance?

Let’s start with that loaf of whole wheat bread above, which I baked earlier this week.

It appears that Covid-19 may have given rise to a home-bread-baking renaissance. Flour has disappeared from market shelves in many places, per reports we’ve heard, and we’ve seen scant supplies in our own area. When we decided to bake bread a week ago, all of our local stores were out of yeast.

Fortunately, the cafe always has a stash of flour, and kind friends in Washington state mailed us yeast from their own pantry and local market to keep bread in our oven as the pandemic continues.

I made the bread above from a simple King Arthur Flour (KAF) recipe, easy to follow for even novice bakers. You can find it on the KAF website here.

While I’ve baked bread before, I was trying this recipe for the first time and would use it again. I had the KAF white whole wheat flour specified, chose the molasses option for a darker loaf, and left out the dried milk.

The bread was moist and flavorful, with a chewy, well-browned crust, made great toast, and stayed fresh for days. It was great with the vegetable soup below.

I’ve baked with several types of KAF flour for years and recommend it. Their website is a valuable source of tips, recipes, and informative articles and reviews for beginning to experienced bakers.

Fresh Fruit and Vegetables Central

Healthy eating is always a priority at My Eclectic Café, with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables at the center of our cooking. Since the Covid-19 crisis, we’ve been amplifying that focus. It’s a good time to be vegetarian: When other foods have been swept off the shelves, we’ve found the produce section of our stores well-stocked.

Before our Southern California weather hit 90 degrees this week, we enjoyed this spicy, colorful mixed vegetable soup: cauliflower, carrots, zucchini, Napa cabbage and corn with brown rice and Penzey’s southwest seasoning (a mix of spices and herbs with the heat of ancho, cayenne and chipotle peppers).

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Such fresh, homemade soups have been a lunchtime staple — comfort food with the benefit of numerous vitamins and nutrients for staying well and keeping the immune system strong.

Salads, made with diverse vegetables or fruits, nuts, and selected proteins, have also been on our daily menu.

If you’re shopping much less often, as we are, to limit potential exposure to the virus, heads of radicchio and Napa (Chinese) cabbage are both versatile, long-lasting salad ingredients. They also go well together in a salad. Napa cabbage leaves are much more tender than those of red or green cabbage. They also have a mild, slightly sweet flavor that contrasts nicely with the bitey radicchio.

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Open the cafe refrigerator, and you’ll find it brimming with citrus fruit. We’ve eaten tons of it in the past few months, as I fought to get over a mean bout of bronchitis and the Covid-19 pandemic burgeoned.

Grapefruit, tangerines, oranges, lemons. Rich in Vitamin C and other nutrients, they’re a constant ingredient in our fruit bowls, salads and other dishes, as well as a favorite refreshing snack. I use the juice and zest to add “oomph” to my cooking and baking, especially lemon juice, which brightens any dish. The cafe is blessed to have a prolific and treasured Meyer lemon tree in the backyard.

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What’s for Dessert?

While we love dessert at the cafe, we usually keep it light and simple: fresh fruit and a piece of very dark chocolate, or that chocolate with a cup of green tea or breakfast coffee. (Yes, it’s perfectly acceptable to have dessert at breakfast — especially now, when we all need some uplifting treats to sweeten the day.)

Endangered Species’ wonderfully smooth bittersweet chocolate (low sugar, 88% percent cocoa) is a favorite, always on our menu. In addition to making excellent chocolate, the company supports conservation efforts for endangered species and habitats.

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I’ve been baking mostly breakfast muffins lately and dreaming of making other pastry, but I did try a new cookie recipe that’s definitely a keeper: cardamom-walnut crescents from The New York Times.  My co-confiné agrees.

I love nut cookies, and these are delicious: light and not too sweet, with a great texture. The recipe is adaptable and doesn’t take long to make. My adaptations: raw pecans in the absence of walnuts, olive oil in place of some of the butter, cinnamon instead of cardamom, and a light dusting of powdered sugar when completely cooled. I look forward to trying them with walnuts and cardamom too.

More baking to come at the cafe. I’m craving those anise-almond biscotti above, remembering happy pan meino and coffee breakfasts in Milan, pondering a fruit galette …

Your  Turn

It’s a good time to try new recipes, enjoy comforting old favorites, and set a cheering table. What have you been making?

Copyright M. Vincent 2020. All photos copyright M. Vincent 2020.

Licensable, high-resolution versions of some photographs in this post, and select images from other My Eclectic Café posts are available on Shutterstock.com. Click here to view my Vince360 Shutterstock photo portfolio.

Pumpkin Butter Chocolate Chip Muffin Day

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I’ve often wondered about those “days” in calendars or other publications that don’t correspond to established world holidays or celebrations. Who comes up with things like Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day? Old Maids Day? World Nutella Day?  As you might suspect, many were created by marketeers to promote products, services, issues or causes. Others, who knows?

This week I decided to make up my own. It was a cold, windy day in our generally temperate Southern California winter, and after a brisk walk by the ocean with my partner – shivering in several layers of clothing, plus hat, scarf and gloves – I was craving a tall hot coffee and a sweet treat to go with it.

I love the combination of pumpkin, classic fall-winter spices and dark chocolate, and muffins would be quick to bake …  A jar of pumpkin butter in the cupboard completed my inspiration. The result: a spicy, chocolaty, nutty muffin, low in fat and healthy too. A muffin that should have its day.

Pumpkin Butter Chocolate Chip Muffin Day is a moveable feast. Celebrate it any day you like from now until spring, whenever it’s winter in your part of the world. The muffin recipe follows. The rest of the celebration is up to you.

Pumpkin Butter Chocolate Chip Muffins

Ingredients

  • 1 cup (125 grams) flour: ½ cup whole wheat, ½ cup unbleached all-purpose
  • 3 teaspoons baking soda
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 ½  teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • ¼  teaspoon ground cloves (optional)
  • 1/3 cup (about 66 grams) brown sugar, packed
  • ½  cup pumpkin butter
  • 1 large egg
  • ¾ cup almond milk
  • 2 tablespoons light olive oil
  • 1/3 cup (40 grams) toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped
  • 1/3 cup (60 grams) dark chocolate chips (mine were 70% cacao)

Preparation

  1. Heat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, salt and spices (cinnamon, ginger, and cloves, if using). Add the brown sugar and whisk it in well. Set aside.
  3. In a small mixing bowl, combine pumpkin butter, egg, almond milk and olive oil.
  4. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture. Pour the pumpkin butter mixture into it, and stir just until all the ingredients are blended. (Don’t mix too long or vigorously or the muffins may turn out tough. Add a bit more almond milk, if needed, to moisten flour mixture completely.)
  5. Fold walnuts and chocolate chips into the batter. Spoon batter into a lightly greased 12-cup muffin pan.
  6. Bake until lightly browned and a pastry tester or toothpick inserted in center of muffins comes out clean: 12 to 15 minutes. Take care not to bake too long. Let muffins cool in pan 1–2 minutes, then transfer from pan to a wire rack.

These muffins are best served warm. Stored in an airtight container, they stay flavorful for several days and can be reheated in the oven.

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What’s your favorite unusual celebration day? Leave a comment. Comments on the muffins welcomed too.

Note: If some celebration days on your calendar or elsewhere leave you quizzical, see checkiday.com, a varied collection of “days,” several with information about their origins. Another good resource is nationaldaycalendar.com, which tracks fun, unusual days, weeks and months; I found World Nutella Day there, with a link to founder Sara Rosso’s interesting story about its kickoff and history.

Copyright M. Vincent 2018

 

Let Us Eat Cake: Recipe for a New Year’s Break

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For most of us, new year activities are gearing up, or perhaps already in full swing: back to work, back to school, kicking off personal goals or resolutions for the year.

Hefting some heavier weights at the gym? Juggling new work responsibilities and projects? A teacher with an exuberance of grade school students to wrangle? With all the frenetic activity underway, we all need some time to relax, reflect and recharge.

Take a break for coffee or tea with this fragrant, flavorful apple cake and one of those books on your new year’s booklist. (I wrote about 2018 booklists here.) Or, just savor the cake and the timeout, no activity required –– except for the baking, which can be a calming break in itself.

For weeks I’ve missed the opportunity to have my cake and bake it too, so I started looking for a simple, relatively quick, yet delectable recipe using apples. Melissa Clark’s “Easy-as-Pie Apple Cake” in The New York Times caught my eye. My recipe below is adapted from hers.

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Take a Break Apple Cake

Ingredients

  • 1 cup (125 grams) flour: ½ cup whole wheat, ½ cup unbleached all-purpose
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¼ teaspoon Himalayan pink salt (or kosher salt)
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened + 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • ½ cup (100 grams) sugar: ¼ cup granulated, ¼ cup brown
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon (heaping) ground cardamom
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 cups diced apples (about 2 apples), tossed with 1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
  •  ½ cup (57 grams) toasted pecans, coarsely chopped
  • ¼ cup (about 29 grams) rum-soaked golden raisins

Preparation

  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda and salt.
  2. In a mixer bowl fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and oil, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and cardamom. Add the egg and beat until smooth.
  3. With the mixer on low, beat in the dry ingredients until smooth. (The batter will be very thick.) Fold in the apples, raisins and nuts by hand. (Lightly wetting your hands with water beforehand helps to avoid sticking as you work these ingredients into the batter.) See batter and finished cake below.

4. Spread batter evenly into a greased and lightly floured 9-inch pie or cake pan with 1-inch sides. (I used a 9.5 in. glass pie plate. An 8” x 8” x  2” square pan would also work.)

5. Bake until cake is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean: 35 to 45 minutes, depending on your oven. (My cake was done at a bit over 35 minutes.) Let cool in pan 10 minutes before serving.

This recipe reduces the sugar in the NYT recipe, adds whole wheat flour, and replaces some of the butter with oil. I love cardamom and fresh lemon juice with apples, so used those in place of nutmeg and added the rum-soaked raisins for extra zest. The result was a not-too-sweet, warmly spicy cake with a pleasing chunky-with-apples texture –– and a wonderful aroma that filled the kitchen.

If you make this recipe, let me know how it turned out for you.  Please leave a comment.

Note: The My Eclectic Café kitchen is vegetarian, except for seafood, with fresh fruit and vegetables as primary staples, and a focus on healthy eating. Baked treats are much lower in sugar than most recipes specify, healthy oils are generally used instead of butter, and I’ve never met a recipe I didn’t adapt.

Copyright M. Vincent 2018