26 March 2012

Op ALPHABET SOUP: M is most definitely for Muffins!

Muffins are, without a doubt, my ultimate comfort food. We've always got at least one kind of muffin stored in our freezer, if not two, where they can be accessed for breakfast, snacks, to to make a more substantial lunch. Zapping one of those for 30 seconds in the microwave gives us a piping hot treat.

The great thing about making your own muffins, rather than buying the store-made kind, is that you get to control both the ingredients (for health or for flavour) and the size of your muffins. Personally, I'm a fan of a good sized muffin - but even I know that buying a massive bakery muffin means eating, essentially, two.

There's nothing difficult about making muffins, so long as you follow one simple rule: never over mix your batter. Mix up your wet ingredients in a separate bowl from your dry, and when the time comes to combine the two, fold them together gently and only so much as is required to wet the batter and integrate the ingredients. You want to avoid pockets of dry ingredients, but you don't need to mix everything up so well that you can't see bits of dry when you're scooping out the batter. Mix too vigorously, and you'll get tough, rubbery muffins.

Generally, with a standard-sized muffin tin, I'll make 9 muffins out of these recipes. If you're a fan of the miniature muffin, you'll get at least 18, if not 24 out of these recipes. Whether you use muffin/cupcake papers to line your tins is your call. I'm a fan of just greasing the tins and doing without. When you pull the muffins out of the oven, some will need to cool in the tins, while others (generally fruity muffins) should get removed and cooled on racks right away -- otherwise they steam themselves into a being somewhat tough.

The following are some of my all-time favourite muffin recipes. Most of these originated in the 1980's cookbook "Muffin Mania", which has the most gawdawful layout and design in the world, but has been my family's go-to for muffin recipes for as long as I can remember -- and that's at least 30 years. I've adapted these all from the original recipes for both healthiness and taste, but props are due to the original cookbook that started it all.

We make these a lot. If you don't like the taste of the orange peel the first time you try them, you can always try again using just half the orange peel, or none of it. 

1 whole orange
1/2 cup orange juice
3/4 cup pitted dates
1 egg
1/3 cup butter (at room temperature)
1/4 cup plain yogurt (or omit, and use a bit more butter, to make 1/2 cup total)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 Tsp vanilla
1 Cup white flour
1/2 Cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 Tsp baking soda
1 1/2 Tsp baking powder
1/2 Tsp salt
1/2 Tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 Tsp ground nutmeg

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees Celsius.

Wash the orange, and cut it into quarters. Remove seeds if required, but do not peel. Place the pieces into a blender, along with the orange juice. Pulse to chop the orange.

Add the egg, butter and yogurt to the blender, and mix for about 20 seconds. Add the dates, vanilla and brown sugar, and pulse a few times to chop/mix.

In a medium-sized mixing bowl, mix together the remaining (dry) ingredients, including the spices. Create a well (indent) in the middle of the bowl, and pour in the wet ingredients. Fold gently together, taking care not to over mix. The batter will be dense.

Spoon into greased (or papered) muffin tins and bake for 18-20 minutes (approximately 13 minutes for miniature muffins). Upon removal from the oven, transfer immediately to wire racks to cool.

TROPICAL MUFFINS (Carrot/Pineapple/Coconut)
These are a nice, dense, fruity muffin - a bit like having carrot cake for breakfast, minus the icing (who would bother making carrot cake without the cream cheese icing, one wonders, but you get the point).

2/3 cup white sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup milk or yogurt
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla (or 2 tsp white rum)
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup white flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ginger powder
1/3 cup shredded coconut
1 cup finely grated carrot
1 cup crushed pineapple (well drained)
Optional: 1/2 cup raisins

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Celsius.

In a beater bowl, combine sugar, oil, milk or yogurt, eggs, and vanilla or rum. Beat on medium speed for about 20 seconds.

In another bowl, combine the dry ingredients, and mix well. Transfer to the bowl of wet ingredients, and with a large spoon, fold together. Add the carrot, pineapple, coconut and raisins, and gently fold in just until incorporated.

Scoop into greased or papered muffin tins, heaping the batter high in each cup. Bake for approximately 20 minutes, then place tins on wire racks for 10-15 minutes to cool slightly before removing the muffins to finish cooling directly on racks.

These are my favourite, and since my wife doesn't particularly like them, I get to eat them all myself. This is a hybrid of two muffin recipes -- one for plain raisin muffins, and the other for more of a gingersnap muffin.

1 1/2 cups water
1 heaping cup raisins
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup molasses (or omit, and use an extra 1/4 cup of brown sugar)
1/2 cup butter, softened but not melted
1 egg
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup white flour
1 tsp ginger powder
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Celsius.

Put the water and raisins in a small saucepan, and bring to a boil. Turn down to simmer for about 5-7 minutes, then remove from heat. Drain the raisins, reserving 1/2 cup of the boiling liquid. Set that aside to cool.

In a medium bowl, cream together the sugar and butter. Add egg and beat until fluffy. Mix in the 1/2 cup of raisin water and mix well.

In a small bowl, mix together the dry ingredients. Add to the wet mixture, folding in until about 50% incorporated. Add the well-drained raisins, and gently stir until mixed.

Spoon into muffin tins and bake for 16-20 minutes. These don't rise all that much, so fill the tins right up.

Cool in pans, then remove muffins from the tins.

Everyone - and I mean everyone - loves a good chocolate chip muffin. Adding the subtle hit of orange just brings these up to a new level. Omit the orange if you wish - you'll just have a good, basic chocolate chip muffin. If you're looking to get totally decadent, add about 1/3 cup of toffee bits to the batter when you add the chocolate chips.

1/2 cup + 1 Tbsp milk
1/2 cup yogurt
1/3 cup melted butter
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
Optional: 1 Tbsp Triple Sec or other orange liqueur
1 cup white flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup white sugar
2 Tbsp finely grated orange zest
3 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
1 cup chocolate chips (add an extra 1/4 cup if you are feeling the need)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Celsius.

Mix your orange zest in with your sugar and set aside.

In a small bowl, mix together milk, yogurt, and butter. Beat in the egg, vanilla and liqueur, if you're using it.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix together your dry ingredients, including the chocolate chips. Gently mix in the sugar and orange zest mixture. Create a small well in the centre of the bowl. Add the wet mixture, and fold together, just until blended.

Pour into greased muffin tins. For extra pizzazz, drop a couple of chocolate chips onto the top of each muffin, and/or a tiny dusting of orange zest.

Bake for about 18-19 minutes (about 12-13 minutes for mini muffins). Avoid over-browning the tops - if  you think the muffins aren't done but they're browning too fast, turn the oven down to 325 degrees and allow to finish baking at the lower temperature.

Allow to cool in tins. Utterly delicious while still warm and gooey.

11 February 2012

Op ALPHABET SOUP: L is for lemon – or is it for lime?

Fresh lemons and limes are one of those things that we always have on hand – either in the fridge, or if it's too full, perched in a bowl on the counter. They're a cheap, long-lasting type of produce, handy for just about every type of dish. If we're out of lemons and limes, I know it's really beyond time to get more groceries.

We pretty much only use fresh citrus in this household. Those concentrated lemon and lime juices are pretty nasty if they're used too freely. Given that a lime will last about 6 to 8 weeks in the fridge, I just can't justify using the plastic squeeze bottle variety.

When I say lemons and limes are handy for everything, I mean it. Whether it's in salad dressing, marinades, sauces, added directly to main dishes, or perking up dessert, these babies are always on call. And beyond the juice of the tangy citrus, there's another whole slate of uses for their grated rind. Don't believe in lemon beyond your circa-1984 filet of sole? Read on. Pretty sure that the only lime you ever liked was in a margarita on the beach in Mexico? Try one of the recipes below to broaden your horizons!

The recipes below feature lemons and limes in their more obvious states, but don't hesitate to use lemon or lime to add a background zing to your dishes. For example, I'll often use the juice of half a lemon on chicken as I'm sautéeing it to add to a pesto or alfredo pasta dish. Squeezing a bit of lemon juice over the meat while it cooks seems to give it enough time to soak up the flavour without becoming too strong. The flavour is subtle – even unidentifiable – but it gives a little boost to the otherwise meek and mild chicken.

This holds true for a lot of dishes. A spritz of lemon juice on your vegetables perks them up without screaming too loudly at anyone's taste buds. A spritz of lime or lemon juice over a fruit salad gives it a whole new layer of flavours – particularly helpful if you're dealing with the typically mealy and bland selection of fruits available in the middle of winter.

So go to the produce section, pick yourself up a handful limes and a few lemons, and start living on the citrus side of life. Below is a series of recipes to get you into the lemon and lime vibe.

The high level of citric acid in this marinade makes for a super-quick marinating process. If you use it on something as delicate as fish, including shellfish, you'll only need to marinate for about 30 to 60 minutes. On chicken or pork, give it a couple of hours, or longer. For beef, you can let it work from 3 to 18 hours. Whatever you marinate, go directly from the marinade to the grill or pan, and discard the remaining liquid. 

3 limes
2 cloves garlic
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 or 2 green onions (aka scallions) or 1/6 of a white onion
1 Tbsp granulated (white) sugar
1 tsp chili powder
Pinch salt
Black pepper
Optional: Pinch dried red pepper flakes or 1 tsp finely chopped jalapeno pepper
Optional: Cilantro to taste

Cut the limes in half, then ream or squeeze every last bit of their juice into a glass bowl. Add the sugar, and whisk until dissolved (about 30 seconds). Add the olive oil, and whisk for another 30 seconds.

Wash and peel off the outer skin of the green onions. Finely chop the onions, using the white bottom portion as well as about 1 to 2 inches of the green stalk. Add to the bowl.

Peel and mince the garlic. Add to the bowl, along with the chili powder, salt, black pepper, and the optional ingredients if you're using them. Give a quick whisk to mix. Put in a large resealable plastic bag (yeah, that's a Ziploc bag!), and add your fish or meat.

Gently squeeze out the air from the bag, seal, and give a few shakes/pats/rubs to ensure the marinade is completely covering your meat. Place on a plate, and refrigerate for as long as needed.

Forget paying a premium for the newest hot thing in yogurts – the low-fat "Greek style" yogurts. Buy some plain 2 or 3% yogurt, and make your own, with a zesty twist. It's all about straining your yogurt. I suppose you could even go so far as to make your own yogurt, but let's just keep this to the realm of the reasonable! 

All you need to make this is a medium or large wire mesh sieve (not a colander!) and some cloth or cheesecloth. You can vary the sugar as you see fit, but don't be afraid of making this a bit sweet. It works well with the natural tang of the yogurt and the lemon.

On its own, this makes a fantastic snack or fruit dip, or use it as an exquisite drizzle for desserts and fruit salads – a delicious replacement for whipped cream or ice cream. Served alongside rich, dense chocolate desserts, it provides a nice balance of slight acidity (from the citrus and the yogurt) but with a light, smooth and creamy texture. 

If you don't want to add the vanilla, it's still a great dish. Just use the lemon zest, or for that matter, some lime zest.

1 750ml container plain (unflavoured) yogurt, 2% or 3% fat content
3 Tbsp white sugar
2 Tbsp lemon zest
1 vanilla bean (or 2 drops of the best quality vanilla extract that you can find)

Take a piece of cheesecloth (best place to buy it is the Home Depot, in the paint/varnish section of the store!) and lay it in a wire sieve, which you have balanced over a large bowl. A clean dishtowel will do the same thing, but cheesecloth is best. In a pinch, we've even used stacked sheets of high-quality paper towel.

Dump your yogurt in a medium sized bowl. Add the white sugar, and mix gently.

Wash your lemon, and pat it dry. Zest over a fine micro plane or the zesting panel of your handy cheese grater to give yourself up to 2 tablespoons of zest. Toss this in the bowl of yogurt and give a quick stir.

If you're using vanilla bean, slit the bean lengthwise with the tip of a cooking knife. Open the bean up along the slice, and scrape out the sticky delicious middle of the bean. Add this tarry goodness to the bowl of yogurt and lemon. If you're not using vanilla beans, just add a scant two drops of vanilla to your yogurt mixture instead.

Give the mixture a thorough but gentle stir to ensure it's fully blended. Now spoon it into your prepared (lined) sieve. Cover loosely with plastic wrap to protect it from the odd smells in your fridge.

Making sure that your sieve is perched over a bowl to catch the drips, place in your fridge and allow to drain for a minimum of 4 hours, but up to 2 days. As the liquid drains from your yogurt, it thickens up to some wickedly smooth and decadent yogurt.

Remove the drained yogurt from the sieve, either into serving dishes, or for storing, in a covered glass or plastic dish. You can store the finished product in your fridge for a day or two, so long as you give it a good stir before consuming. After that, it's easy enough to make more!

I've only made this as mini-cupcakes, but once I had made them, I wished they were full-sized! This is slightly modified from Dorie Greenspan's "Baking" cookbook recipe for a  coconut tea cake. 

They're like a delicious cocktail turned into a dessert (and still kid-friendly). Quite honestly, they'd work just as well with lemon, but there's something about the combination of lime and coconut that's irresistible to me.

Note that I used light coconut milk, but you could easily stick with regular old milk and get comparable results. 

There are two options for topping your cupcakes below. One requires that the cupcakes are still warm, the other that they're cooled – so best to have your plan for action determined before you pull the cupcakes out of the oven.

Cupcakes are ever-so-trendy right now, and let's face it, highly portable cake is just awesome. However, if you'd rather cook this as a full big cake, just grease a bundt or tube pan well, and use it instead of smaller tins. Bake for 60 to 65 minutes. 

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
1 cup light coconut milk (stir very well before use)
1/3 cup butter
4 eggs
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons dark rum (or white rum if that's all you have!)
3/4 cup shredded coconut
1 lime (for zest and juice)

Put the sugar in a small bowl. Wash and dry the lime. Zest the full lime into the granulated sugar, stirring to mix completely. Slice the naked lime in half and set aside for use in the next step.

Preheat your oven to 350º F. Line your mini or regular muffin tins with cupcake papers.

Put a small saucepan over low heat. Add the coconut milk, butter, and squeeze or ream in the juice of the lime. Stir constantly until butter melts. Turn off the heat but leave the saucepan in place to keep warm.

In a deep bowl, beat the eggs and sugar together, either with a stand mixer or hand mixer. Beat for about 3 minutes, until the mixture has essentially doubled in size. Add the vanilla and rum, beat another 30 seconds.

Sift together your flour, baking powder, and salt together. Add this to your wet mixture, and on low speed, beat until flour disappears. Don't overdo it at this point. Using a spatula, make sure the sides of the bowl are scraped down and everything is smoothly blended together.

With your spatula, gently mix in the coconut.

Now, with the mixer on low speed, add in the coconut milk mixture. Again, just mix until blended. Give the bowl a few turns with your spatula to make sure you don't have any pockets of dry ingredients at the bottom or sides of the bowl.

Pour this mixture into your lined cupcake tins, and place on middle rack of oven. Bake for about 14 minutes (mini) or 20 minutes (large), keeping an eye on the tins to ensure they don't overcook. These times are very rough, so stick around the kitchen and keep an eye on the cupcakes. If the tops start to brown, pull them out right away.

Test the centres of the cupcakes with a toothpick to ensure they're done. If the toothpick comes out clean, you can move them to cool in the tins on racks.

If you'll ice the cupcakes, let them cool completely. However, if you want to glaze them, immediately drizzle them with the glaze so it soaks in as they cool.

Lime & Coconut glaze:
Juice of 1 lime
1 Tbsp white sugar
Splash of white, dark, or coconut rum, approx. 1 teaspoon (optional)
1 Tbsp shredded coconut

In a small saucepan over low heat, dissolve the sugar in the lime juice, stirring constantly preferably with a silicon whisk or spatula. Allow to come to a gentle boil, still stirring constantly.

Remove from heat, add the rum, and the coconut. Taste, and adjust sugar as needed.

Drizzle this over your cupcakes while it and they are both still warm.

Coconut Icing:
As above, use regular milk if you don't have coconut milk on hand. Just add a bit more coconut to the mixture to make sure the flavour is still strong. Or for that matter, use coconut rum as your flavouring! 

4 Tbsp butter, softened but not melted
1 1/2 cups icing sugar, plus extra as needed
2 Tbsp light coconut milk (stir very well before using)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla or dark rum
Scant pinch of salt
1 Tbsp shredded coconut (plus more for garnish)

Using a hand mixer or good spatula, cream the butter with 1 cup of the icing sugar and the salt. Beat in the coconut milk and vanilla and/or rum. Add in more of the icing sugar until you get the icing to the smooth, thick consistency you want -- then spread generously on the cooled cupcakes.

Garnish with more shredded coconut if you wish. I'm not a big fan of artificially coloured adornments on my food, but if you have some of those eerie translucent green sprinkles on hand, a very scant sprinkle of these would work as a topping to the icing instead of coconut (or use yellow if you're making this whole recipe with lemon instead of lime!).

If you want to achieve a little colour the natural way, add 1 tsp of lime zest to the icing sugar before you mix the icing up. The tiny bits of green add a cool dimension to the icing.

11 December 2011

Op ALPHABET SOUP: Back to G... this time, for GINGER!

It's Christmas time again, and that means back to the holiday baking. This weekend I started the preparations for what will be a scaled down version of our usually holiday fest. Posting that I'd made ginger cookies on Facebook generated a lot of requests for the recipe for the cookies, so I decided to post it here for all to see.

And so, back to "G" we go.

This recipe is modified from the best ginger cookie recipe I've ever found, which originally appeared in the Holiday edition of the LCBO's "Food & Drink" magazine in 2003. There are a few variables that I'll include, and they allow you to tailor the cookies to your own taste.

A note for the health-conscious: I don't recommend using whole-wheat flour in this recipe, as it drastically changes the consistency of the cookies.

3/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup + 1 Tbsp brown sugar
1 egg
1/3 cup molasses
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
Scant 2 Tsp baking soda
2 Tsp ground ginger
1 1/2 Tsp ground cinnamon
Generous pinch ground nutmeg OR ground cloves
Pinch salt

For rolling, you'll also need about 1/4 cup of granulated sugar, on a large plate.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper or a silicone cooking mat.

Using a stand mixer or hand mixer, beat the butter until it is fluffy. Add to this the brown sugar and egg and molasses, and beat thoroughly until smooth and consistent in colour.

In a separate bowl, mix the flour, soda, salt and spices. Add to the wet ingredients, and mix gently only until blended. Do not over beat!

Working with your hands, in small batches of 6-8, roll the batter into 1-inch balls, and place on the plate of granulated sugar. Roll gently to coat, then place on the prepared cookie sheet. Space the balls of dough about 2 inches apart. Flatten very gently with a fork.

Bake for 10 minutes. Using a thin spatula/lifter, place cookies on rack to cool. They will crisp up as they cool. Once the empty cookie sheets have cooled, you can do your next batch of dough.

Extra tweaks and Adjustments:
  1. If you prefer a less chewy ginger cookie (ie more of a ginger snap), you can add another 1/4 cup of flour to the recipe. 
  2. If you like darker ginger cookies, swap out another 1/4 cup of brown sugar for the same amount more of molasses.
  3. And finally, the original recipe called for crystallized ginger to be used in addition to the dried spices. Chop the pieces into small bits and add to your dry mixture, stirring to coat the pieces well so they don't clump up. Then just mix it all together as indicated above. I don't usually bother with this because I like the fine, delicate texture of the cookies without it, but in truth, the crystallized ginger was a tasty addition when I did use it, too.

Makes approximately 3 dozen cookies.