Thursday, June 25, 2009

Ginger Lemon Oatmeal Bars: your rasp is a flavor blaster!

Let me be clear: I love crisp, spicy oatmeal cookies. My Mother made wonderful oatmeal cookies. Lots and lots of them. I have a taste memory that has never quit.

What I have no patience for, however, is actually making cookies. One at a time; one by one. No way. No how. With the exception of some marathon Ginger Bread Snowflake and Person events and a delightfully crazy stint with some dear friends and their Spritz device, I haven't made cookies for three decades.

But when the urge for the oatmeal taste comes over me, I can make Oatmeal Bars. And, with all due respect for my Mother's memory and the memory of her cookies, my oatmeal bars are turbo-charged with lemon and ginger. They are quick and easy. The turbo-flavor tool is a Microplane zester, which makes quick work of the lemon zest and grates the ginger, too! You should you should have at least one.


1 stick of softened butter
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar (see note below)
1/4 cup candied ginger
2 T milk (1%, 2%)
1 large egg
zest of one lemon (1-2 T)
juice of one lemon (1-2 T)
2 T grated fresh ginger
1-1/4 cup rolled oats (regular or quick)
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/8 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp dried ginger
1 cup raisins or dried cherries

1. Preheat the oven to 350. Butter or Pam an 8x8 or 9x9 square pan.
2. Cream the butter, sugars and the candied ginger for 4 minutes. The ginger will thump in your mixer and remain lumpy. Ignore the thumps and lumps.
3. Add the milk, egg, lemon zest and juice and grated ginger to the butter/sugar mixture, which may curdle. Beat for two minutes and ignore the curdling.
4. In a small bowl, mix together the oats, flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and ginger. Use a fork or a small whisk. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture in two additions. Beat until just combined -- don't beat this to death.
5. Add the raisins or cherries. You may need to mix these in by hand.
6. Spread into the prepared pan. Bake for 50-60 minutes. There are two tests for doneness: the clean toothpick test (after 50 minutes) and the really brown dark oatmeal cookie test (after 60 minutes). If you like your oatmeal cookies on the deeply brown side, expect the longer baking time.

Dark brown sugar: I grew up in the Washington DC metro area, and because it is in the culinary South, dark brown sugar is really dark brown and has a strong molasses flavor. For the first 10 years that I lived in Minnesota, I thought I was imagining a brown-sugar-flavor deficit. About six years ago, I began importing really dark brown sugar from DC (5 pounds at a time in my luggage). No more: I can get really, truly molassesey dark brown sugar at the Super Target near my house. Thank you, Target Sugar Buyer.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

More time-saving bread-baking books

In late 2006I joined thousands who cheered Mark Bittman's a life-changing New York Times piece about uber-crusted-full-flavored bread from blazing hot pan in hot home ovens. In early 2007 I put that bread into French Toast.

While Publishers Weekly has a laundry list of new bread books in the pipeline, I have already made a space on my shelf for Jim Lahey, who had instructed and inspired Bittman, and his My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method by Jim Lahey with Rick Flaste (Norton, Oct.). I can't wait.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Buy this book: "Baked" by Matt Lewis & Renato Poliafito

My friends in the University of Minnesota Law School Alumni office have perfect pitch: at a great farewell party, they gave me the amazing Baked: New Frontiers in Baking by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, New York, 2008). I opened the book to the picture of Butterscotch Pudding Tarts (p. 104), and, for the first time in my life, I said "food porn" and meant it in a good way.

Kelsey Dilts McGregor did the right thing -- she made the Banana Cupcakes with Vanilla Pastry Cream (p. 70) just to make sure the book was good enough to give as a gift. I absolutely believe in testing and in preview. Thanks, Kelsey.

I've had this book for a week, and I am two-for-two -- both are winners. Because it was her birthday, my former colleague Stacey Tidball got the first pick of cakes. Mindful that one person is the office is violently allergic to chocolate, she steered clear, and picked Lemon Lime Bars (p. 119), the aforementioned Butterscotch Pudding Tarts, Pumpkin Whoopie Pies (p. 151) and Peanut Butter Pie (p. 100). Even saying these things out loud is a pleasure. Because Lemon Bars are practically a State Food of Minnesota, I went for the Lemon Lime Bars with the graham cracker-toasted coconut crust. Unable to leave well enough alone, I now add candied ginger to the crust. Making the filling requires a candy thermometer. Don't flinch -- just buy one.

But Baked isn't just about sweet baking. If you crave a cheese biscuit that's loaded with cheddar and has a real kick, Chipotle Cheddar Biscuits (p. 35) are for you. They require no special equipment. Bake them and pop the leftovers into the freezer. While you can defrost them in the microwave, they are best reheated in a 350 degree oven for 15-20 minutes. You will amaze and astonish your guests, and I guarantee that these biscuits will be Best Friends to your winter chili, summer salads and to year-round tomato soup.

Lemon Lime Bars
(adapted from Baked)
Several people I know will skip the crust and make the filling, which is a lemon-lime curd and cries out for a spoon. While I love the crust, especially with ginger, I fully endorse that plan.

Tools: food processor to grind graham crackers and ginger
9x13 baking pan
candy thermometer
fine mesh sieve and a spatula

Graham-Coconut-Candied Ginger Crust
1 c. sweetened shredded coconut
2 c. graham cracker crumbs
1/4 c. candied ginger, chopped or processed with the graham crackers
2 T. firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 stick of unsalted butter, melted

Lemon Lime Filling
11 large egg yolks*
3 large eggs
1-3/4 c. sugar
3/4 c.fresh lemon juice
2 T fresh lime juice
2 T grated lemon zest
2 T grated lime zest
1-1/2 sticks of unsalted butter, softened and cut into small pieces
1/3 cup heavy cream

Make the Crust
1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Butter or spray the bottom and sides of a 9x13 inch baking pan.

2. Line a baking sheet with parchment and toast the coconut until it starts to turn golden (7-10 minutes). Remove from the oven, toss the coconut and return it to the oven for 3 more minutes, or until it starts to smell and is dark gold. Check it every minute after 2 minutes. Burnt coconut is not good.

3. Use a food processor to crush the graham crackers into crumbs. Process the ginger in the same bowl.

4. Put the graham and ginger mixture in a bowl. Using your hands, add the coconut and the brown sugar and mix well. Add the melted butter, and still using your hands, firmly press the crust into the prepared pan. Using a measuring cup as a press will help make an even crust.

5. Refrigerate the crust for 15 minutes, and then bake it for 10 minutes. Cool the crust before adding the filling.

Make the Filling

1. Increase the oven temperature to 325 degrees.

2. Mix the egg yolks, eggs, sugar, lemon and lime juices and zests in a deep clean metal pot. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly until the mixture reaches 180 degrees. This may take 10 minutes. Do not walk away from this mixture -- if it burns, you will have to start over.

3. Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter and the cream. Pour through a fine-mesh sieve directly onto the cooled crust. Make certain that you scrape the underside of the sieve to capture ALL of the filling. Tap the pan to make an even layer. NOTE: Fully strained lemon lime curd is smooth and silky. If you don't have a fine-mesh sieve, use a spaghetti strainer and know that you'll have some lemon and lime zest in your bars.

4. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the filling is just set. Test for "set" by shaking the pan. When it barely wiggles, it is done. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for a least two hours. Cut into squares.

* What about the egg whites? You can make a lot of omelets or Pavlova. While New Zealanders and Australians continue their dispute over the origin of the Pav, you can make this giant meringue and top it with summer fruits.

Buy this book for yourself or for a baker who loves you.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Carrot Cake: the last "official" office birthday cake

After 16 years at the University of Minnesota Law School in the career office (it had four names in 16 years), I have taken advantage of an opportunity and changed careers. Beginning in June 2009, I will sit at the helm of three enterprises: Pass The Baton llc, which manages generation shift by capturing and transferring mission critical information; nanoscapes llc, a launching pad for tiny and giant watercolors and needlepoint designs; and a modest cooking school called "Susan-Cooks!" which will have its official opening in late June 2009. Question about the cooking school? ( or 651-917-0219)

While there were many things that I loved about my work (work with students, alumni, administrators and employers, learning about individual students and their dreams and goals), I especially cherish my colleagues for supporting my Baking Explorations.

After declaring my 50th birthday year the Year of 50 Cakes, when I baked on Sunday and delivered a cake for critique on Mondays, I continued the project to about 120 (that list will be published shortly). I imposed on my friends to vet eight versions the Lemon Ginger Pound Cakes for a Minnesota State Fair Entry (which didn't survive freezing that was required by my Off Campus Interview Travel Schedule) and they sat in judgment of my first five pecan pies, favoring the 2-cups-of-pecans-and-bourbon version and, in a complete surprise to all, they voted Mark Bittman's Custard Pecan Pie from the first (yellow) edition of How to Cook Everything, a strong second place.

So long as they didn't mind my spirit of experimentation, anyone who spoke up got his or her choice of birthday cake. In April 2009, we celebrated Director Alan Haynes, whose favorite is carrot cake. And, because many people asked, I made an an extra bowl of cream cheese frosting.

This recipe is particularly easy if you have a food processor with a fine grating blade to make quick work of the carrots. Because this is a sheet cake, the "frosting" skill is ultra-simple -- "dump and slather." Note that you need two cups of pecans, one for the cake and one for the top of the frosting.

Carrot Cake III (adapted from an posting by Tammy Elliott.

4 eggs
1-1/4 cups canola or other neutral oil
2 c white sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 c all purpose flour
2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp ground cinnamon
3 c grated carrots -- the fine grind in a food processor or on a hand grater
1 c chopped pecans, toasted

1/2 c butter
8 oz cream cheese, softened
4 c confectioner's sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 c chopped pecans, toasted (optional addition to the frosting or sprinkled on the top of the cake)

1. Preheat the over to 350. Grease and flour a 9x13 pan.
2. Toast the two cups of pecans on a flat pan in the oven while it heats to 350. (10 minutes or until they are fragrant.)
3. Using a stand mixer if you have one, combine the eggs, oil, sugar, and vanilla. Beat for 3 minutes.
4. In a separate bowl, whisk (or stir) the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and cinnamon together. Slowly add the flour to the sugar mixture and beat on medium speed until just combined. If you dump it in all at once, the flour will be on your ceiling.
5. Add the carrots, and beat at slow speed until just combined. Stir in the pecans by hand.
6. Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 40-50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes and then flip it onto a wire rack to cool completely. For easy frosting and transport, pop the cooled cake back into the pan.
7. To make the frosting, combine all of the ingredients except the pecans. Beat until smooth. Use the "dump and slather" method to frost the cooled cake. Top with extra pecans if they you haven't eaten them.