Friday, April 17, 2009

The Quest for the Perfect Scone

I tweaked, and I tested, and I tweaked some more, and I found it! My go-to whole wheat, reduced fat, lightly sweetened scone recipe. Sounds about as appetizing as cardboard, huh?

Well, you would be wrong my friend. Trust me, if you don't believe that you can make scones without heavy cream, or a ton of butter, or mounds of white sugar, try it just once. These are amazingly light and the whole wheat flour gives them a great flavor. The agave nectar (or maple syrup if that's what you have) adds just a hint of sweetness, and if you want to guild the lily, the sprinkling of raw sugar adds a sweet outer crunch. They are infinitely adaptable to add-ins--like cranberries and orange zest in the fall, or more apropos for the coming months, blackberries with lime zest.

One of the most popular posts I ever wrote was about my all-time favorite scone recipe. (Although by popular, I mean my aunt made it and liked it a lot, but that is likely to be the height of my fame, so I'm going to go with it.) And that recipe is fantastic. Too good in fact, because it uses an entire cup of heavy cream and quite a bit of sugar. It's a recipe that I reserve for holidays. This recipe is for the other 10 months out of the year, when I'm doing penance for my holiday extravagances.

I started with this recipe on 101 Cookbooks, the hands-down ruling blog of natural cooking. I loved the whole wheat pastry flour and the oats but holy cow 11 tablespoons of butter! That put a kink in my "healthy" scone quest...

So I tweaked, and I tested, and I tweaked some more, and I found it. About half the butter, much more milk, and a little bit of egg later, and I had it.

Whole-Wheat, Everyday, Scones
Makes about 9 large scones or 18 little ones

2 tbs. lemon zest (optional, but highly recommended)
2 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 cup rolled oats (not instant)
1 1/2 tbs. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 stick (6 tbs.) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits
1 large egg
1 cup 2% reduced fat milk*
1/4 cup agave nectar (or real maple syrup, preferably grade A)**
turbinado sugar (raw sugar) for sprinkling on top (optional)

-Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
-Zest the lemons or orange with a grater or use a vegetable peeler, then finely, finely chop the zest.
-Combine the zest, flour, oats, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Cut in the butter until the mixture resembles a course meal. The easiest way to do this is to dice the butter very small and make sure each piece is separated before you add them into the flour. The flour will keep them from sticking back together so shake the bowl before adding in more pieces. Then use two knifes to cut the butter pieces even finer. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
-If adding berries, nuts or other mix-ins, add to the dry mixture at this point.
-In another small bowl beat the egg, milk, and maple syrup together.
-Mix the liquid mixture into the dry mixture, just until combined. (There can be a few small dry spots, it will come together when you have it on the counter.)
-On a lightly flour surface, dump the dough out, knead it once or twice and press it into a 1 inch thick rectangle with your hands. (If it too sticky to do this just sprinkle it with a little more flour).
-Cut the dough into nine squares or cut each square into two triangles. (It helps if you put a little flour on the knife so it doesn’t stick.)
-Brush the top of each scone with a little milk if you want to sprinkle with turbinado sugar.
-Place the scones an inch apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, and bake in 400 degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes or until they start browning on the edges.

NOTE: You can freeze the scones before you bake them, then bake them as you need them. If freezing, place baking sheet in the freezer after you shape the scones for at least one hour or until the scones are hard and frozen. Place the scones in a freezer bag until ready to bake. Defrost in the refrigerator on a parchment-lined baking sheet for a few hours then bake.

1 1/4 cups fresh cranberries, chopped coarse (approx. in quarters) mixed with 2 tbs. sugar (or you can use dried cranberries, but don’t add sugar to them) and orange zest.

1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, or a combination. (I like lime zest with the blueberries and the blackberries.)

*If you don't normally buy 2% milk, I've also used 1/2 cup heavy cream with 1/2 cup skim milk.
**I've tried both, both were delicious, but I have a slight preference for the agave. But this bit of information (found on might be useful if you are deciding which to buy: "While the sweetness of agave and maple [syrup] is comparable (and agave's caloric count is higher), agave still has the lower glycemic index (between 11 and 30). The most daunting property of maple syrup may be its price. Because it takes approximately 40 gallons of raw maple sap to produce a single gallon of finished syrup, the cost of pure maple syrup can be easily twice that of agave syrup, making it prohibitively priced for regular use." So if you're on a budget buy agave.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Polenta w/ Broccoli Rabe and Sausage

I haven't cooked a lot of, what'd'ya call em...well-balanced meals, since Nic went to Egypt. I have mainly subsisted on bean burritos, tuna pasta salad (which I should really post about one of these days), and egg salad sandwiches. But when I was picking up some baking supplies at Whole Foods tonight (for an awesome scone recipe that is coming soon!), I impulsively purchased polenta. I think I was drawn in by the description:

I love that they use "also known as" on the label. Like the polenta is an 80s rock star trying to redefine its image. They wanted to draw in the southerners with the grits, but they didn't want to ostracize the northerners. What to do? Then a crafty marketer came up with the idea to throw on the fancy European term, "polenta." It's a twofer!

I came home, scrounged around in the fridge, pulled out a bunch of broccoli rabe my mom sent me home with after Easter and package of sausage that I needed to use, and I started to cook my first well-balanced meal in three weeks. Unless you count chasing bean burritos with ice cream sandwiches as well-balanced.

This is a fantastic combination of flavors--the sweet and spiciness of the sausage really balances out the slight bitterness of the broccoli rabe, and the polenta and grated Pecorino Romano cheese complete the picture. [UPDATE: This is the most awesomely delicious leftover lunch I have had in a looooooooong time. So make enough for leftovers, mmmk?] Okay, enough food talk mumbo-jumbo, it is easy to throw together, and it makes for a pretty presentation if you cut the polenta into little squares or circles after it sets...or you can just glob it on the plate if you want to skip a step and you aren't worried about such vanities.

The most difficult part of preparing this meal is prepping the broccoli rabe, but it's not that bad once you get the hang of it. My mom taught me to cut about 1/2 inch off the stem end then pull it towards the flowered end to pull off the tough outer skin on the stem. Then, using a good paring knife, you get under the edge of the skin and pull it off in pieces, moving around the stem. Some of the toughest outer leaves will come with it. The skin will come off fairly easily, and it doesn't have to be perfect, but you want to get most of it off because it makes the broccoli rabe tough.

Polenta w/ Broccoli Rabe and Sausage
Serves 6

two large bunches of broccoli rabe (it shrinks when it's cooked)
1/4 cup of olive oil (give or take)
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
6 Italian sausages, cubed (sweet or spicy, your choice)*
2 cups of polenta (i.e. corn grits)
2 tbs. butter
salt/black pepper
1 1/2 cups of grated Pecorino Romano (or Parmesan)

-Put a large pot of salted water (about 2 tsp. salt) on to boil on high heat. Clean the broccoli rabe (see above for technique). When the water comes to a boil, throw in the broccoli rabe. Cook for 6 to 7 minutes in the boiling water, until the stems are softened. Drain and rinse with cool water to stop the cooking.
-Using the same pot, bring 6 cups of salted water (about 2 tsp. salt) to a boil on high heat. Slowly pour in the polenta and reduce the heat to medium low. Cook the polenta stirring often until it is very thick, about 25 to 30 minutes. Keep an eye on the polenta or it will stick and burn.
-While the polenta is cooking, heat the olive oil in a deep frying pan over medium heat. Add the minced garlic and the cubed sausage and cook until the sausage is browned and cooked through. Add the broccoli rabe and cook just until heated through. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Reduce heat to low to keep warm until the polenta is done.
-When the polenta is finished cooking, stir in the butter and season with salt and pepper, then spread in a glass baking dish. Let set for 10 minutes, then cut in squares or use a biscuit cutter (or the top of a glass) to cut individual servings.
-Place a serving of polenta on each plate, top with broccoli rabe and sausage, and garnish with a generous helping of grated cheese.

*Here I actually used spicy chicken sausage.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Lemon Curd Pie

This very, very lemony pie was a quick, spring-y dessert for Easter Sunday. It comes together so easily and with ingredients that I usually have in the pantry, so I'm sure I will be making it a few more times this spring and summer. The berries really sweeten up the tartness of the lemon, so next time I will probably cover the whole pie with berries.

Happy Spring!

Lemon Curd Pie
Adapted from Gourmet, May 2008

7 (5"X2 1/2" graham crackers, broken into small pieces
3/4 cup almonds
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 stick unsalted butter, melted

Lemon Curd
large lemons (depends on how much juice they make)
cup granulated sugar
tsp. cornstarch
whole large eggs plus 2 large yolks
stick unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
tbs. fruity olive oil

-Preheat oven to 350 degrees with rack in middle. Butter a 9 inch pie plate.
-Pulse almonds in a food processor until finely chopped. Add graham crackers and sugar and pulse until they are a fine crumb.
-Transfer crumb mixture to a bowl and mix with melted butter.
-Press crumb mixture evenly onto bottom and side of pie plate.
-Bake until lightly browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Cool completely.
- Grate enough zest from lemons to measure 1 tablespoon, then squeeze 3/4 cup juice from lemons.
-Whisk together lemon zest and juice, sugar, cornstarch, whole eggs, and yolks in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking constantly. Boil, whisking, 2 minutes.
-Remove from heat and whisk in butter and oil until smooth.
-Pour the lemon curd into the pie crust. Top with berries and serve with fresh whipped cream.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Easter Bread

Long time, no see! Or as my Grandmom Julie would have said... "Where you been all your life?"

I was thinking about my great-grandmother a lot today while I was baking this Easter bread. She never made it. She was too busy making cheese bread and hard boil eggs died shades of pastel I could never replicate. But it was one of the few things I remember my mom baking, and she got the recipe from Grandmom Julie's neighbor, Frances.

Frances scared the bejeebies out of me when I was a kid. She lived in the little row house next door to Grandmom Julie, and the only time I really remember seeing her was when she stood on the back balcony and shouted over it to talk to my grandmother in Italian while she hung her laundry on the line. I never understood why she didn't just come over, but she always sounded angry so I didn't say anything. Grandmom Julie and Frances were both immigrants, they both lived alone (for most of my memory), and they were the only people I knew who still hung their laundry out to dry. When I called my mom for the recipe and she told me she got it from Frances, I pictured the little old Italian lady shouting the recipe across the balconies to my mom.

I called this sweet bread when I was growing up, but after baking it myself I now realize it isn't actually that sweet. At least not on it's own. But then my mom and I remembered that it was supposed to have a powdered sugar glaze. And sprinkles. The little round rainbow colored ones to be exact. Unforunately I remembered the sprinkles too late, and so they didn't make an appearance on this year's bread. Next year though, I will be prepared with the sprinkles.

O, and a long time ago I mentioned that my mom made Easter bread shaped like bunnies. That was this bread, but apparently I did not inherit the dough sculpting gifts. After a failed attempt that looked more like a fat hamster, I went with braids. Which makes this look like challah.

Frances's Easter Bread
Makes 2 braided loaves, or apparently four bunnies.

2 cakes yeast (or two packets active dry yeast, 4 1/2 tsp.)
1/4 cup lukewarm water (105-115 degrees)
1 cup milk
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
2 large eggs. beaten
5 cups all-purpose flour
2 egg yolks, beaten to brush on before baking
powdered sugar
rainbow sprinkles

-Dissolve the yeast in the warm water with a pinch of sugar and set aside. It should froth up in 5 to 10 minutes. If it doesn't, either the water was the wrong temperature or the yeast is dead (expired).
-Scald the milk in a saucepan or in the microwave for 2 minutes.
-Pour the hot milk into a bowl (you can use the bowl of a stand mixer if you have one) and add the butter, sugar, and salt and mix. Cool to lukewarm.
-Add the flour a little at a time, enough to make a thick batter. Save the rest of the flour for later use.
-Add the yeast and two beaten eggs. Beat well.
-Add the rest of the flour a little at a time until the dough comes together into a loose ball.
-Transfer the dough to a floured surface and knead, adding flour as needed. (This can also be done with the dough hook attachment on a stand mixer, it takes about three minutes on medium speed.)
-Shape the dough into a ball. Spray a large bowl with cooking spray, put the dough into the bowl, cover with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel, and let rise on hour and a half or until doubled in size.
-Punch down the dough. Let it rest in the bowl 15 minutes, covered.
-Shape into a bunny or another animal or just a braid and place on an ungreased baking sheet. (You can also put a hard boiled egg--colored or not--into the dough and lattice the dough in an X over the egg to hold it on).
-Cover the loaves with clean kitchen towels and let rise about an hour and a half.
-Brush with egg yolk before baking.
-Bake at 350 for 25 to 30 minutes.
-Make a glaze by adding a few tablespoons of milk slowly to about a cup of powdered sugar. Add milk until you reach the desired consistency (about the thickness of yogurt). When the bread is cool, brush it with the glaze and sprinkle on the sprinkles while the glaze is still wet.