Special Cranberry-Maple Muffins

I have struggled and struggled with this recipe, as the muffins tasted really good but didn’t rise very well. It seemed to me as if the issue must be with the leavening. If you have acidic ingredients such as buttermilk, as my original recipe did, then you’re supposed to use baking soda instead of baking powder, but the recipe called for baking powder. So I’ve tried a number of different leavening amounts and combinations, but I never was quite satisfied with the results. After one especially disastrous experiment I got a Sally’s Baking Addiction post in my inbox (she’s one of only three cooking websites to which I subscribe) that was basically her version of this recipe, although with different spices. Boy, would it have been helpful if she’d made those muffins a week earlier! The version I had just produced

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Strawberry Cheesecake Cupcake Extravaganza

My dear friend Cindy took a picture of the final product under less-than-optimum circumstances in the low light of the wedding reception.  Thank you, Cindy!  As usual I wasn’t prepared to take pictures and had left my camera in the car.

I made these for the daughter of a dear friend, and I have to say that they were very successful.  Every single one of the 96 I made disappeared, and I got lots of compliments. Can’t recommend them highly enough. They’re not very hard and can be made in advance and frozen excluding the strawberries and glaze. The actual filling is a very basic plain cheesecake mixture; the toppings make them special. You can do even more with decorating them if you want to.

 

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Easy, Elegant, Unusual Salmon

I was making all the food for a women’s tea on Saturday, and we were having the company for Sunday dinner that we should have had the week before, only we were snowed in, so I needed something simple.  Fortunately, that was what I had already planned anyway.  No multi-step recipes, no fancy dessert.  I wanted to make something we’d had before, a salmon dish with some kind of sauce made with cider and cream.  But when I went online to look for it I couldn’t find anything that sounded right.  At some point I re-stumbled upon the recipe which turned out to be in Molly Wizenberg’s wonderful book, A Homemade Life.  There are a couple of per-oblems with her ideas, though.  For one thing, as the title might imply, she calls for cider.  But cider (even the ersatz pasteurized stuff) is only available in the fall.  After that, you’re stuck with the apple juice in the juice aisle, and it’s expensive, and I don’t think it has much flavor. And, as in many recipes that all for cider, you’re supposed to reduce it down. So I use one of two alternatives to the cider.

One is cider syrup. Don’t buy this stuff, for heaven’s sake! It’s ridiculously expensive. You can make your own. Just be sure that during cider season you buy more than you’ll drink up. Put the leftover cider into a stainless-steel saucepan and boil it down until it’s syrupy. Keep an eye on it for the last little bit, and it’s easy to overdo it. I got this idea originally from the wonderful cookbook Beat That by Ann Hodgman. I reference her a lot. Anyway, she says, “Now boil it and boil it and boil it, for way longer than you could have believed was possible.” You’ll get about a pint of cider syrup out of a gallon of cider, which means you get one-eighth of what you started out with.

Your other alternative is frozen apple juice concentrate. If you’ll notice on those glass bottles in the juice aisle, you’re usually buying “juice from concentrate” anyway. So, follow me here: First the juice is boiled down to make a concentrate. Then it’s reconstituted and sold in a bottle to you, and you’re paying for them to add water, and then for this recipe you boil it right back down again. So why not just start with the concentrate to begin with? I try to always have a can or two or frozen apple and orange concentrates on hand. They’re much cheaper than the reconstituted juices.

And then she wants you to cook the salmon on the stovetop, but I don’t like doing that, especially with such a big piece.  (Mine was almost three pounds, and there were only six of us for dinner, and we pretty much demolished it–there was a tiny little piece left for Monday lunch.)  Molly’s recipe says to use 6-ounce fillets, but I don’t want to do that.  I like the look of a big old piece of salmon filling up the platter.  (You can see in the picture above that I didn’t quite get it onto said platter without breaking it up a little.  As I’ve said before, the pictures on this blog are definitely not posed or styled.)

I will also say that I don’t really like wild-caught salmon.  Every year Costco has a big sale of the Copper River salmon that’s only available during the season, so I’ve dutifully bought it in the past, thinking that ‘Oh, great–this is the good stuff and worth paying extra for’ and then not really liking it much.  So, although this probably brands me as a terrible person, I just buy the el cheapo farmed salmon from the grocery store, and if it’s on sale, so much the better.  The farmed stuff has more fat, which makes it buttery and smooth.  (And it also has color added, I know–which makes it pretty!)  I love it.  And it needs to have the skin on, which protects the flesh and adds flavor. So don’t take it off, as some misguided recipes tell you to do.  You can remove it as you cut up and serve the fish from the platter.

One other thing:  It’s totally worth it to brine the salmon for 15 minutes before you cook it.  The standard brine for meat is a quarter of a cup of salt to a quart of water.  (This is regular table salt. Let’s not get into the weeds of salt types here, except to say that kosher salt has bigger crystals and so takes up more space, so you usually need twice as much as regular table salt.  I refuse to agonize over salt. Robert Wolke, a former chemistry professor turned food writer and the author of What Einstein told His Cook and the wonderful “Food 101” column that used to appear in the Washington Post, made some enemies in the snooty food community years ago when he wrote a column about how silly it was to pay big bucks for sodium chloride.  I’d love to track down that article.)  Anyway, because fish is much more flimsy (that’s the technical word) than meat, I find that the standard brine makes it too salty.  So I just use 2 tablespoons (table) salt per quart of water and brine the salmon right in the baking dish I’m going to use to cook it in.  Put it skin side up, so that the flesh is submerged.  When the 15 minutes are up, carefully pour the brine out in the sink–you’ll have to use a spatula or something to keep the salmon in the dish–and pat the fish dry with paper towels. Flip it over so that now it’s skin side down and proceed with your recipe.  The brining step will help keep the salmon moist and will at least minimize the horrible white albumen protein that comes out on the surface if you overcook it by even 30 seconds.

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Cider-Cream Sauced Salmon ​

From Molly Wizenberg's book A Homemade Life. I have tweaked it quite a bit, including the cooking method. 

Course Main Course
Servings 6
Debi Simons Debi Simons

Ingredients

  • 3 pounds salmon or 8 oz. per person
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1-2 shallots diced as finely as humanly possible
  • 1/2 cup cider syrup or 3/4 cup apple juice concentrate plus more for brushing on the salmon
  • Oil for brushing salmon anything but olive oil is fine; I don't think the flavor of olive oil goes with the flavors in this recipe
  • 1 cup heavy cream Yes, heavy cream. If you don't want to use that, make something else!

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. While that's going on, brine your salmon in a glass or ceramic baking dish (I have a nice big Pyrex one) with two tablespoons of salt to one quart of water. I just mix it right in the dish and then slide the salmon in, skin side up. Let sit for 15 minutes. Since it's such a short brining time you don't need to refrigerate it. When the 15 minutes are up, dump out the brine, pat the fish dry with paper towels, and flip it over so that it's skin side down. (Pat that side dry, too.) Brush it with the oil of your choice (anything except olive oiand then with some of the cider syrup or concentrate. Bake for 15 minutes or so—it may need a bit longer. I don't like rare salmon! If you'd like more of a glazed top, you can broil it for a couple of minutes, but be sure you keep track of the time. Use your trusty instant-read digital thermometer to test the thickest part of the fish; I would recommend 130 degrees, but if you like your salmon on the rarer side you could go with 125 degrees. It will continue to cook some after you take it out.

  2. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a medium frying pan and saute the shallot until soft. Then add your cider syrup and cream and simmer while the salmon is cooking. Since the apple component is already reduced, you're just blending the flavors. If you're using the apple juice concentrate you might want to add that to the pan first and simmer a few minutes just to get it down a little, and then add the cream. When your salmon comes out of the oven there will be some nice juices in the pan; pour those into your sauce and whisk in.
  3. Put the salmon on a platter and the sauce in a gravy boat or bowl and serve. Very, very good with plain sliced sweet potatoes that have been baked or microwaved until soft. You don't need to gussy them up.

Easy, Rich Chocolate Cupcakes

Pretty nice-looking cupcake, isn’t it?  Beautifully domed, perfectly sized for the muffin tin cup.  And the inside was moist and delicious, in spite of the fact that I overbaked it a bit.  (Note to self:  Be sure to use the oven timer that measures minutes and seconds, not hours and minutes, when baking something that requires minutes.  If I hadn’t realized at about the 20-minute mark that I’d set the wrong timer, the above would be a picture of a lump of chocolate coal.  As it was, they probably baked about five minutes more than necessary.)  I did frost these with an unbelievably delicious chocolate buttercream, but I’ll be discussing that recipe in a later post.

Below are are two comparison shots of the cupcakes this week and the ones last week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last week’s version was a disaster, as you can see on the left.  They’ve collapsed in the middle and spread out over the top of the pan, and they were impossible to remove neatly.  Their texture was very gooey.  (Although one women said that she preferred them over this week’s version!)  It was no big deal for this particular occasion, as everyone was very understanding, the cupcakes tasted good, and it was an informal meal.  But I wanted to solve the problem and was very puzzled by the results.  The recipe was from Martha Stewart, and I had checked and re-checked my ingredients since it was my first time making it.  So what had gone wrong?  Then it hit me:  I hadn’t done any adjustments for high altitude.  Normally, for something with a coarse texture and thick batter, such as muffins, it doesn’t matter too much.  I usually don’t bother with any changes.  But for something light and fluffy, especially with a thinner batter that is dependent on the leavening for most of its structure, the altitude makes a huge difference.  I went online and looked up the adjustments given by my old friend King Arthur Flour, and by implementing them I was able to achieve the results that you see on the right.  You can see the complete table with all the technical information by following the link, but I followed are listed below. In general, the changes are tied to the lower air pressure at high altitudes, causing baked goods to rise too quickly and then collapse.  That is obviously what happened to the first batch of cupcakes. But remember–just to make things confusing, these adjustments are not always necessary. For this recipe they are. I would also say, in general, that for small items such as cupcakes, the high altitude adjustments won’t matter as much as for a big item such as a layer or sheet cake. (Yet another reason to make cupcakes instead of cakes!) But I liked this recipe enough that I was willing to fiddle with it.

Here are the adjustments I used:

Recipe Element
Change
Oven temperature
Increase 15-25 degrees (Use lower temp. for chocolate items.)
Bake time
Decrease slightly, perhaps 10%
Sugar
Decrease by 1 tablespoon per cup
Liquid
Increase by 3 tablespoons
Flour
Increase by 2 tablespoons
Leavening
MOST IMPORTANT CHANGE;
For altitudes of 5,000 feet (where I live), cut leavening in half.
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Easy Dark Chocolate Cupcakes

Adapted from just the cake part of Martha Stewart's "Salted Caramel Six-Layer Chocolate Cake."

Ingredient amounts in parentheses are for high altitude baking, 5,000 feet or higher.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour add 2 tablespoons extra
  • 3 cups sugar minus 3 tablespoons
  • 1 1/2 cups unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder*
  • 1 tablespoon baking soda 1 1/2 teaspoons
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 3/4 teaspoon
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk**
  • 1 1/2 cups warm water add 3 tablespoons extra
  • cup ​1/2 plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil--anything but olive oil
  • teaspoons ​2 vanilla

Instructions

  1. Mix the dry ingredients (flour through saltogether on low speed in either the bowl of a standing mixer with the paddle attachment or a large mixing bowl with a hand mixer. (Put buttermilk powder in at this point if you're using.) In a separate, smaller bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients, eggs through vanilla. (If you're using the buttermilk powder, then you'll just use the total amount of liquid for the warm water and buttermilk combined, 3 cups or 3 cups plus 3 tablespoons if adjusting for high altitude.) Pour the wet ingredients over the dry and beat until smooth, about 3 minutes. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the bowl with a spatula to totally incorporate the dry ingredients!
  2. Divide batter among 4 12-cup muffin tins, filling each one only about half full. Yes, this makes a lot of cupcakes. You can cut the recipe in half, but then you'll have to do all the fiddly adjustments for high altitude if you're using those. So this may be a recipe you save for when you're making cupcakes for the entire fifth grade, or something like that. Bake at 365 degrees for 15 minutes, then test with a toothpick, which should come out clean. Cool in pans for at least five minutes before taking them out so that they have a chance to firm up. Frost as desired.

Recipe Notes

*Dutch-process cocoa is darker and less acidic than regular cocoa.  It can be hard to find, but you can't substitute regular cocoa for Dutch-process without also fiddling with the leavening to allow for the different acidity.  Hershey's has a "Special Dark" brand of cocoa that is a blend of regular and dark cocoa and will work fine for this recipe.  I have recently been using a brand that Costco carries, Rodelle Gourmet Baking Cocoa, European Dutch Processed, and have had good luck with it. If Costco stops carrying it I'll go back to the Hershey's Special Dark.

**Buttermilk is a difficult ingredient to keep on hand, as you don't usually need a lot of it for a recipe and it doesn't keep well.  I always have a can of buttermilk powder on hand and use that. The directions are on the container and it's very easy to use.  For each 1/4 cup of buttermilk called for in the recipe you use 1 tablespoon of the powder and 1/4 cup of water.  Mix the buttermilk powder in with the dry ingredients and the water in with the wet ones (obviously!).  You can also do the lemon juice or white vinegar trick, by adding 1 tablespoon of either to 1 cup of milk and letting stand for 5 minutes before using.  I always feel that doing it that way is cheating, but hey! Sally over at Sally's Baking Addiction does it that way, and she's the pickiest person around when it comes to baking.  I'll stick with my buttermilk powder, though.  Your call.

How to Tweak a Recipe

This week I’m doing something a little different from the usual recipe-for-company-or-a-crowd. Instead, I’m writing on how to adapt a specific recipe with some general principles thrown in.  The gorgeous muffins pictured above were made this week for a regular breakfast for just us three (yes, I do that sort of thing–no Cheerios around here–but I’m often very lazy about dinner).  The original recipe is from Shirley Corriher’s Cookwise, first published in 1997.  I had read about the book and thought it sounded so interesting that I asked for it to be my Christmas present that year, which it was.  And I’ve enjoyed reading it (I love to read cookbooks, weird as that sounds) and looking at the gorgeous photos, of course, but I’ve found the recipes I’ve tried to be, on the whole, mind-bogglingly complex and/or seriously weird.  The original muffin recipe falls into both camps.  So I didn’t make it for quite awhile, but Monday morning, for some reason, I decided to give it a shot.  The recipe below is my revised version. In case you’re wondering, no, I’m not breaking any copyright laws by doing this. A list of ingredients cannot be copyrighted. Original content such as the wording of the directions and any commentary is considered creative work and belongs to the author, but believe me, those are strictly my own.

So first let me explain the changes I made. My purpose in writing this commentary is not to criticize this particular recipe per se but to give you the confidence to look at a recipe and say, “That will never work” or “I don’t have that ingredient but I do have this one” or “I don’t have to do it that way.” Recipes are not set in stone! You can often work with what you have, or simplify a step.

Here were the major problems I saw in Shirley Corriher’s recipe for “Good-for-You Apple Bran Muffins with Walnuts and Orange Zest”:

  • A complicated procedure for toasting the nuts, which I simplified and streamlined to work within the overall recipe
  • An insistence that you use oat bran as a main ingredient, something that’s not always readily available at the grocery store. I give several options for this ingredient.
  • Calling for several fiddly ingredients, i.e., using two egg whites instead of a whole egg, the grated zest of two oranges but no orange juice, a small amount of nonfat dry milk, and, most egregiously, 3 tablespoons of crushed pineapple. What are you supposed to do with the rest of that can of pineapple? So, instead, I call for a whole egg instead of the two whites (so the recipe now simply calls for two eggs), make the orange zest and nonfat dry milk optional, and cut out the pineapple altogether, adding more grated apple.
  • Calling for way too much salt and cinnamon–2 tsp. salt and a whole tablespoon of cinnamon. I can’t imagine how this would taste and refused to ruin a whole batch of muffins to find out. I cut the salt in half and the cinnamon by two-thirds, so now each is a reasonable one teaspoon. These are ingredients that have normal, usual amounts.
  • Baking temperature way too high and baking time way too long. As in the previous point, I was completely unwilling to ruin my muffins by following the original directions. Normal baking temp for muffins is 400 degrees, sometimes lower, but certainly never 450 degrees, which is what the original recipe calls for, and certainly not for 20-25 minutes. I always check muffins at the 15-minute mark and find that 15-18 minutes is plenty.
  • Calling for more sugar than necessary for a breakfast muffin. I cut the sugar by 1/3, from 3/4 cup to 1/2 cup. They taste fine just with butter, and if you put a sweet ingredient on them (apple butter would be great), they really don’t need that extra sugar.
  • Yielding 14 muffins instead of 12. One of these days I may try to re-jigger the recipe to yield 12, which is, of course, what a normal muffin pan holds. I’d have to figure out how to cut every ingredient so that it’s 6/7 of what it is now. Not an easy task! I’ve never seen a muffin recipe before that makes such a weird amount. You can’t just put extra batter into each of 12 muffin cups because they’ll overflow and spread out, making it almost impossible to remove them. So for now I’ve left the recipe as is, and since I own several muffin pans I just make the extra two in another pan. If you own just one, you can perhaps bake the extra batter in a little pie plate or in ramekins, if you own those. You could also try baking the extra two muffins after you’ve baked and removed the first 12, but muffin batter doesn’t keep well because the baking powder starts losing its oomph. If this weren’t such a good recipe, I’d never bother with all these tinkerings, but there it is.
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Apple-Bran-Walnut Muffins

This is the tweaked version, and you'll see that there are still options for you to play with.

Course Breakfast
Servings 14 muffins
Debi Simons Debi Simons

Ingredients

Dry Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 cups 1 1/2 cups oat or wheat bran, ground flaxseed, or whole-grain flaked hot cereal, or same amount of oatmeal ground up in blender until fairly fine
  • 3/4 cup flour—all purpose or whole-wheat Whole wheat is better, of course!
  • 1/3 cup nonfat dry milk This is totally optional—it will add extra protein.
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 tsp . cinnamon
  • 1 tsp . salt
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder

Wet ingredients:

  • 1 medium to large carrot, grated optional, use 1 large apple or 2 small ones below if not using carrot)
  • 1 medium to large apple cored and coarsely shredded—not necessary to peel
  • Zest of 2 oranges totally optional, or use several drops of orange oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup buttermilk or 1 cup water and 1/4 cup buttermilk powder
  • 1/4 cup oil anything but olive oil​​

Instructions

  1. Turn oven on to 400 degrees. Dump the walnuts onto a baking sheet and slide them into the oven to toast slightly while you're doing the rest of the prep. Set the timer for 10 minutes so you don't forget about them. Take them out and let them cool a bit before you chop them.
  2. Combine the dry ingredients, making sure that you get out any lumps in the brown sugar. If you're using the buttermilk powder, put it in here.

  3. Mix or whisk the wet ingredients, including the carrot and apple, together in another bowl, being sure to add the water here if you used the buttermilk powder. (You don't absolutely have to do this separate bowl step, but it's hard to get things mixed evenly if you don't.) As this point you should have your walnuts chopped, so mix those into the dry ingredients. Then pour the wet mixture on top of the dry ingredients and use a spatula to get everything combined. Be sure to get all the dry ingredients mixed in. It's surprisingly hard to do this, so make sure you're going all the way to the bottom of the bowl and scraping up. Stop as soon as you don't see any more streaks of the flour mixture. You'll notice that the batter starts getting bubbly as soon as you combine the two sets of ingredients. That's the baking powder starting to work, and you don't want to deflate things too much, so work with a light hand.
  4. Spray your muffin pans with baking spray or use foil or paper liners. Portion out the batter among the 14 cups. Bake until lightly browned on top and a toothpick comes out clean, 15-20 minutes. Let cool in the pans for 5 minutes before taking them out and putting on a cooling rack. Good warm or at room temp. Don't forget the butter!

 

Complicated-but-Good Harvest Muffins

I would highly recommend these muffins, and you could leave off the topping if you want them to have less sugar.  The amount in the muffins themselves isn’t too bad.  You do have to measure a fair number of spices and grate apples.  I kept trying to talk myself out of putting in the apples when I made this recipe for the first time, as I didn’t want to bother, but I decided I’d better go ahead and include them and I was glad I did.  The combination of the pumpkin and the apple is really good, and the apples are probably counted as part of the liquid in the recipe.  So it’s kind of a pain, but worth it.  These probably aren’t muffins that you’d whip up for a regular weekday breakfast, but they’re very nice for a special occasion.

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Simplified Layered Pesto-and-Tomato Spread

I originally made a version of this recipe from my beloved Beat This cookbook, and while I really liked it there were some issues. For one thing, dear Ann Hodgman, the author, has you make your own pesto and then drain it in a sieve to get as much of the oil out as you can–so you put the oil in, and then you take the oil out. You can certainly buy pre-made pesto, as I do, but be sure you buy it from Costco or some such. Regular grocery stores sell it, but it comes in small jars with big prices. She called for sun-dried tomatoes for the tomato layer, but she specified that they be dry-packed, not oil-packed, which are hard to find. The tomatoes were to be diced and scattered across the cream-cheese layer, which meant that you wouldn’t necessarily get any tomato in a small dab on a cracker. It never occurred to me that I could make it any differently, so I made it Ann’s way and people really liked it. Later on I ran into the version I’m posting here. and because the layers all have some cream cheese in them and are mixed in a food processor they’re pretty smooth. Then, I realized that the sun-dried tomatoes aren’t really necessary because they’re going to get pureed anyway; you can just use tomato paste. What you really want is the color and the taste.

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Debi’s Great Green Stuff

I got the original recipe for this dip/sauce/dressing from a monster cooking blog called Pinch of Yum, where it was called “5-Minute Magic Green Sauce.” It is totally great, but let me say that this isn’t really a 5-minute recipe, with all due respect where respect is due. It takes more time than that just to strip the leaves off enough cilantro/parsley to make a packed cup. (You can pack an almost infinite amount of small leaves into a cup.) However, it is well worth making. People scarfed this down at a reception like you wouldn’t believe, and then stood around the bowl forlornly scraping out the last molecules with pita chips. I should have made at least a double recipe. It’s really a combination of a type of pesto (the herb/oil/nut component) and guacamole (the avocado/jalapeno/lime component). Lindsay Ostrom, the author, says it can be used as a dip, spread or salad dressing depending on how thin you make it. It could work on a very sturdy salad with lots of crunchy ingredients and would be good on any kind of meat or fish as a sauce (my son tasted it and said, “This would be really good with beef”), with any raw vegetable as a dip, or with some type of neutral-flavored chip or cracker.

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Pear Crumb Pie

I’m not indulging in many desserts these days, but this one isn’t all that sugar-heavy, clocking in at 1 cup of sugar for the entire recipe. That’s 2 tablespoons of sugar per serving if you cut the pie into 8 slices, or 24 grams total. The goal is to keep daily added sugar consumption below 25 grams, or 100 calories. So you could have a regular-size slice and not go over your allowance for the day, as long as that’s all the added sugar you eat! Ice cream or sweetened whipped cream would be out as toppings, but unsweetened cream, whipped or unwhipped, would be fine.

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