Monday, September 29, 2014

Caramelized Leek, Ham and Cheddar Quiche

More decades than I care to admit to had passed before three former high school cheerleaders finally got together this past weekend (and yes, I was one of them). If there was a fly on the wall listening in on our sometimes overlapping, filled with laughter reminiscing and catching-up conversations during a five hour (only two bottles of wine) lunch, they would have never guessed any time had lapsed since we were all together. Time and distance seemed to have no affect on the bonds of friendship formed many, many, many years ago. And it also didn't take long for us to plot a wicked adventure. Yes, once a cheerleader always a cheerleader.

When having a lunch gathering with friends I have not seen in a very long time, I usually try to make something I have made at least once before. For some unknown reason my inner risk taker (a latent adult characteristic) pushed me into making something new for the main course, relying on tried and true recipes for the appetizer and dessert courses only. If the Caramelized Leek, Ham and Cheddar Quiche turned out to be a disaster, at least the first and last courses would salvage the meal. Fortunately (for me and them) there were no cooking disasters. Although I will tweek the quiche recipe even further now having made it. More about that later.

Finally listening to some of the (simplicity) wisdom Ina Garten has shared for years, this was one meal I didn't want to be a preparation slave to while everyone was here. Quite possibly greater motivations were not wanting to miss out on even a snippet of the stories and memories being shared! The quiche recipe made that possible.

Several sources claim the word quiche comes from the German word for 'cake' (Kuchen) even though many consider quiche to be French in origin. Regardless of its' origin, what is not to love about eggs (especially fresh eggs brought back from Rhode Island), heavy cream, and cheddar cheese filling a pastry shell? Caramelized leeks and diced smoked ham made for another layer of quiche love.

The filling possibilities for this quiche are endless, but if you have not yet made a quiche with caramelized leeks, you should. Two leeks thinly sliced and sautéed in one stick (1/2 cup) of unsalted butter on a low heat for about 30 to 40 minutes transforms their mild onion and garlic flavors into an addictive level of deliciousness.

This is a substantial quiche recipe. One calling for a dough recipe yielding enough dough for two pies and a large, deep quiche dish. I made the same pie dough recipe used for the Cinnamon Sugar Pie Crust Cookies and the Brûléed Pumpkin Pie with Caramel Swirl but added two tablespoons of sugar. My ten inch wide two inch deep quiche dish worked perfectly for the volume of filling ingredients.

Here is where the first of several changes I would make to the recipe happened. Instead of going with the crimping the edges of the crust with a fork, I would form the edges differently, more free form. With a total baking time of 1 hour and 45 minutes I thought the edges of the crust would develop a beautiful brown (they didn't). Next timed the edges of the curst will be brushed with an egg wash to get the finished crust color this quiche so deserved.

The original quiche recipe called for 24 ounces of extra-sharp cheddar cheese. Yes, a pound and a half of cheese! After making this quiche, the amount of cheese will be reduced to maybe 18-20 ounces in order for the baked filling to be silkier. However, using a combination of sharp and extra sharp cheddar cheeses instead of using extra sharp cheddar cheese only worked well.

One third of the cheese is layered in the pie shell, followed by a layering of the filling and finished with the remaining two-thirds of the shredded cheese. Once all of the filling is in the pie shell a well is made by pushing the cheese and filling to the sides before slowly pouring in the filling. The key word here is slowly. As I poured in egg/cream mixture, I discovered my 'well' wasn't wide or deep enough (another lesson for next time). To ensure the filling was evenly distributed throughout the pie shell, I used a fork to gently stir the entire mixture in the shell.

The quiche bakes in a 300 degree preheated oven for one hour and forty-five minutes. The long, slow baking time gave me time to take a shower, get dressed and relax just a bit before everyone arrived.

After resting for 10 to 15 minutes, the quiche is ready to cut and serve. The spinach salad with sliced strawberries, Point Reyes Blue Cheese, and pecan pralines all tossed with a homemade balsamic dressing complimented the quiche well. I would definitely pair with this salad with the Caramelized Leek, Ham and Cheddar Quiche again. 

Caramelized Leek, Ham and Cheddar Quiche (slight adaptation to the Vermont Cheddar Quiche recipe in the Pia and Simon Pearce 'A Way of Living' book)

1 pie dough recipe (one making enough for two pies) Note: I added two tablespoons of sugar to the pie dough recipe I have been using.)
18-24 ounces of a combination of sharp and extra-sharp cheese, grated, and divided into thirds (recommend Cabot cheese)
2 leeks, thinly sliced and caramelized in 1/2 cup of unsalted butter
4-6 ounces of a boneless, smoked ham steak, cut into 1/4 inch cubes (recommend Boar's Head)
8 large eggs
2 cups heavy cream
3/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 additional egg and 1 teaspoon of water for egg wash

Note: This quiche would work well with a variety of fillings. Choose 8 to 10 ounces of your favorite filling and/or filling combinations. Caramelized leeks with crab; spinach and ham; caramelized onions and shallots; bacon; sautéed asparagus; or any combination of lightly sautéed vegetables.

1. Make pie dough. Refrigerate over night. Roll out dough on a lightly floured surface. Line baking dish with dough and crimp edges (with hands or a fork). Refrigerate the dough-lined baking dish for at least one hour.
2. Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
3. Brush the edges of the chilled crust with an egg wash.
4. Fill pie shell with 1/3 of the grated cheese.
5. Layer caramelized leeks and ham, spreading evenly over the first cheese layer.
6. Layer the remaining 2/3 of the grated cheese over the filling and cheese layers.
7. In a large measuring cup, mix eggs, cream, salt and pepper together. Set aside.
8. Create a large well in the center of cheese/filling mixture. Carefully pour in egg/cream mixture. (Note: Stir gently with a fork to ensure egg/cream mixture is evenly distributed.)
9. Place baking dish on baking sheet and bake for 60 minutes. Rotate tray and continue baking for another 45-50 minutes or until done. Total baking time is approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes.
10. Allow quiche to rest for 10-15 minutes before serving.

You are never once a cheerleader. Once a cheerleader, always a cheerleader. Some of those high school cheerleader tendencies (for better or for worse) have remained not only as a part of my personality, but are recognizable traits in my fellow cheerleaders. For me, cheering on the team when they were losing caused me to believe in possibility. The singular trait of 'all things are possible' remains both a strength and albatross to this day. 

Cheering at wrestling meets (in the stifling hot, sweaty wrestling gym) and track meets may be the reason why I championed and advocated for the marginalized kids in the public schools for all of my years in the education arena. But before those of you who have a fondness for wrestlers get offended, let me explain. Through my high school cheerleader eyes, wrestlers seemed to endure great hardships getting ready for a match. Starving themselves for two days before a match in order to make their weight often meant isolating themselves from the lunch room at all costs. And in high school, no one wanted to miss lunch (and the cafeteria food wasn't the reason). Being assigned to cheer at a wrestling meet (in the stifling hot, sweaty gym) wasn't the same as cheering at a basketball game, but once there you couldn't help but want to cheer on and for those who imposed such hardships on themselves. And unlike football and basketball games, there were usually only a handful of fans at track meets. You had to admire (and want to cheer on) the track athletes who trained incredibly hard but never received all of the fanfare basketball and football players experienced.

Beyond spending time going down memory lane during our reunion lunch this past weekend, it was a reminder of how much our lives our shaped by our school, especially our high school experiences and those early friendships. Whether we maintain some of those early qualities (or vow to completely transform ourselves), what happens in those earlier years influences what happens in our later years. There are always a few regrets (the should have, the could have). For me the biggest regret is letting life get in the way of maintaining friendships that mattered. Keeping up with 'friends' on social media or via email isn't the same as spending time with them. The five hours we spent laughing and talking certainly doesn't make up for all of the 'lost' years, but hopefully it is the momentum we needed to reconnect with one another. Quite possibly (if they are all still game), the wicked adventure we planned will be the start of creating new memories.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Pie Dough Cinnamon Cookies

Each time I open up the refrigerator I almost always see what I call a number of 'good intention' containers (aka leftovers). You know the ones. Morsels of food carefully wrapped as it would be nothing short of a sin to throw them away. Sometimes you intentionally don't finish your meal because your eyes were bigger than your stomach or because you wanted to savor its' deliciousness again. Other times you wrap them up because they taste even better the next day. Whatever the reason, some of these 'good intention' containers end up taking space in the refrigerator, waiting for the ultimate mortal sin of wasting and throwing away food to be committed (have you guessed my religious upbringing yet?).

I had dinner at Rino's Place in East Boston before my recent return flight back to the midwest. The amazing, wanted to (literally) lick my plate scallops served in a limoncello sauce appetizer adversely affected my ability to eat more than a few bites of the main course, the famed Lobster Ravioli. Not having a clue as to how I would manage to carry the uneaten, perfectly wrapped up Lobster Ravioli on the shuttle to the airport let alone on the plane, I took them with me anyway (not only would it have been another sin to leave them behind it would have been an insult to the chef who made the incredible dish). Dropping off the rental car, I finally came to the sad realization that the coconut frosted chocolate cupcake from Georgetown Cupcakes and the still warm Lobster Ravioli from Rino's were not going to make the trip back home. But if I couldn't be the one to enjoy the cupcake and lobster ravioli, someone else would have to (sin avoidance thinking). While checking in my rental car, the (young) car rental guy surprised me with an unexpected reduction to my bill. Unbeknownst to him, he would be the 'lucky' one to relieve me of the wasting food guilt I dreaded having. 

As I have shared previously, I am relatively new (and late) to the pie dough making world. For the Brûléed Pumpkin Pie with Caramel Swirl, the dough portion of recipe made enough for two pies. I couldn't bring myself to put the remaining dough into the abyss of the freezer and I wasn't ready to make pie two days in a row. So I decided to do what many other pie dough makers, who couldn't bear to see their homemade dough go to waste, have done for decades. I decided to make Pie Dough Cinnamon Cookies. 

In making these cookies, I finally understood why most bakers recommend allowing the pie dough to chill overnight. The dough's flakiness factor is significantly ramped up resulting in a baked pie dough cookie having buttery layers of cinnamon sugary, crispy goodness.

Antique cookie cutters are one of the things I collect. When browsing through antique stores or sifting through flea markets, I am continually on the hunt for them. The making of these 'vintage' cookies gave me yet another excuse to put them to use. Nowadays there are replicas being made of the antique graduated sets of tin cookie cutters that have taken me years to find. Fatdaddios is a company making some great nylon cutter sets in a variety of shapes.

Rolled out pie dough (to a 1/4 inch thickness) is brushed with an egg wash then generously sprinkled with a cinnamon sugar mixture. The 'sparkly' bakery look finish to the cookies came from using equal parts of white/clear coarse sanding and granulated sugars.

The recommended baking temperatures and times for pie dough cinnamon cookies shared by others ranged considerably. I settled on a baking temperature of 375 degrees and going with a 15 to 20 minute baking time (which turned out to be closer to 20 minutes) in order to get a lightly golden, crispy cookie. Note: The size of the cookie will impact your baking time, watch and adjust accordingly.

Never having made these cookies before I asked the 'tasters' in my life to guess what kind of cookie it was (love this game). In her first bite, my childhood best friend said without hesitation the cookie took her back to her childhood, reminding her of the one her mother made with leftover pie dough. Turns out, she was the only one at the table who guessed right. 

So whether or not these Pie Dough Cinnamon Cookies will evoke a childhood memory or fool everyone else tasting them, they really are a good cookie. A perfect cookie to go with a cup of tea or coffee, with ice cream or gelato, with a glass of milk, or with nothing at all. For me, pie dough will never again be one of those 'with good intentioned' things placed and left to sit indefinitely in the refrigerator before ultimately being thrown away. However, a batch of these Pie Dough Cinnamon Cookies can be baked without making a pie. Simple never tasted so good.

Pie Dough Cinnamon Cookies 

12 ounces all purpose flour
8 ounces cold unsalted butter (recommend KerryGold), cut into pieces
4 ounces ice water
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt

Sugar Mixture
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup white sanding sugar (or any other color of sanding sugar for a different look to the finished cookie) Recommend India Tree Sanding Sugar
1 teaspoon Saigon cinnamon

Egg Wash
1 large egg, room temperature
1 teaspoon water

1. Place the flour and salt into the food processor to mix.
2. Add half of the butter and process slightly. Add remaining butter until mixture has a crumbly consistency.
3. Add cider vinegar to the ice cold water. Slowly pour the vinegar/water into the flour/butter mixture until the dough comes together (be careful to not over process). 
4. Press the dough together, divide in half (forming each one into a disk), wrap in plastic wrap and chill overnight. Overnight chilling is important.
5. Mix together the coarse sanding sugar, granulated sugar, and cinnamon and set aside.
6. Mix the egg and water until well blended and set aside.
6. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
7. On a lightly floured surface, roll out dough to 1/4 inch thickness. Cut out dough with cookie cutter of choice (or use a knife to cut into triangles).
8. Place cookies on a parchment paper lined baking sheet. Brush each cookie egg wash and then sprinkle liberally with the sugar mixture.
9. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until lightly golden. Remove baking sheet from oven. Allow cookies to set for five minutes before transferring to a cooling rack. Allow cookies to cool completely.
10. Store cooled cookies in a tightly sealed container or if making as a present, wrap in cellophane bags tied with ribbon.
Optional: Serve with some ice cream or gelato or dip in melted chocolate.

I grew up in a midwestern city designed like a grid. All of the horizontal and vertical intersecting streets were filled with houses, schools, a few parks, and some stores. The spaces between houses were called gangways and everyone got to their garages by driving down the alley. The only animals seen on a regular basis were dogs, cats, and squirrels (have I told you how much I don't like/hate squirrels?). I remember the family on our 'block' who tried to raise chickens for what seemed like a week. With neighbors living in such close proximity to one another, there wasn't much tolerance back then for the sound of a rooster.

Nowadays when I am driving down two-lane highways in towns with more open space or in rural areas, the mere sight of cows, sheep, goats, buffalo, or horses has me reaching for my camera to take some photos. I attribute this slight obsession with taking animal photos with a very limited exposure to animals seen in my childhood (the zoo doesn't count). But I am neither whining nor complaining about my childhood. As there is much to be said for being an adult having a childlike exuberance for all living things (except squirrels). I have been known to turn around on a highway, stop suddenly (not my wisest moments), or drive out of my way to take photos of animals and wildlife. When my nephew and I were driving across Montana this summer, I failed to let him know that the words 'oh, look' spoken as I was pointing at animals was really code for 'could you please pull over so I could take some photos?'. I ended up muttering 'there goes a good photo opportunity' more times than saying 'thank you for stopping the car'. But had we stopped as often as I thought there were picture postcard photo opportunities, the drive from Bozeman to Missoula would have been about as long as it would take to get there on a horse (only slightly exaggerating here).

Beyond experiencing the sheer excitement of just seeing a drove of cattle, a flock of sheep, a herd of buffalo or a string of horses, is getting as close as possible to seeing and capturing the genuine beauty in their faces and in their eyes. Oh, the things that make me happy.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Brûléed Pumpkin Pie with Caramel Swirl

My penchant for perseveration has had no boundaries. My ability to maintain the 'continuation of something usually to an exceptional degree or beyond a desired point' and its' relationship to food goes back as far as I can remember. Which for me is aged five, the year I entered the first grade (for some unknown reason the great unsolved mystery in my life is that I never went to kindergarten). I didn't live far enough from my elementary school to stay for lunch, however, on those rare days when I could, my lunch was always the same thing: a bologna and yellow mustard sandwich on white bread. I would continue to have this same sandwich until I graduated from high school. Or in other words, twelve years of my 'school life' were spent eat the same lunch. Even today one bite of a bologna sandwich takes me back to the days of my youth (hmmm, maybe I should start eating them again!).

On my recent trip out east I wanted to take as many photos as possible. On a day trip to Maine, my first stop was York. My first destination was not my favorite antique store, but instead was the Cape Neddick 'Nubble' Lighthouse. I can still hear myself laughing and saying out loud 'so how many times are you going to photograph this lighthouse, the same lighthouse'? 'Less than the number of Colorado aspen photos' I said under my breath. When you spend a part of your life on the perseveration end of a continuum there really isn't a good answer to that question. If you are someone who has taken more than your fair share of sunset, fall landscape, or 'selfie' photos (all perseveration tendencies) you know none of them are never exactly the same. More than place or weather/sky conditions, the proverbial 'lens' you see these things through continually changes resulting in photos having different nuances to them and all evoking a different memory. 

I have been feeling very autumnal which may or may not explain why I am having a serious yearning for all things pumpkin (for the record this doesn't meet my definition of perseveration, yet). The Pumpkin Squares made last wee seemed to open up a 'making all things pumpkin Pandora's box'. Several months ago I came across a recipe for a pumpkin pie swirled with caramel. Pumpkin and caramel combined together in a pie, oh my, be still my heart, was all I could think. As anxious as I was to try this recipe, I thought it best to hold off for a more seasonably appropriate time of the year. For some reason pumpkin pie made and served in the sweltering heat of summer doesn't necessarily bode well for the majority of the world. And making a pie for solely for my own consumption was not an option.

With my pie crust making comfort and confidence levels in a relatively good place, the anticipated official arrival of fall, and the need to put all of those cans of pureed pumpkin to good use, the time had finally come for me to make the Brûléed Pumpkin Pie with Caramel Swirl. Spoiler Alerts: I should have have made this pie months ago. This pie could seriously cause canned pumpkin puree shortages.

After deciding which pie crust to make, I saw many recipes recommending an overnight, instead of the usual couple hour, chilling time. Having put off making this pie far too long and being unable to wait just one more day, I went with a six hour chilling time. No culinary reason for the six hours, it was just as long as I could wait. 

To partially blind bake the crust for 10-15 minutes in a preheated 400 degree oven or not was my first decision. After a short period of going back and forth on this, blind baking won. Filling the pie plate up to the rim with dried beans helped to keep the crust from slipping during pre-baking. I would have to wait until I tasted the pie to decide whether or not this decision was a good one.

While on my east coast trip, I brought back a dozen fresh eggs and a jar of the unbelievable Fat Toad Farm's caramel with the anticipation of using some of it for this pie. The combination of caramel and the sweetened condensed milk is lethal. The result is a pie with a creamy, velvety texture that can only be described as sublime. If a pumpkin filling made with caramel and sweetened condensed milk wasn't enough, there was more. The brûléed added yet another dimension of flavor and texture. I seriously think I could overdose on this Brûléed Pumpkin Pie with Caramel Swirl.

Cinnamon is the only spice in this pie. Next time (and there will be a next time) I will add a scant 1/4 teaspoon of ground cloves (or ground ginger) as the combination of cinnamon and cloves or ginger in a pumpkin pie works for me. However, if you are making this pie for the first time, please know the cinnamon all on its' own works. 

Before the filling went into the partially baked pie crust, the edges were brushed with an egg wash and sprinkled with demerara sugar (any coarse sugar would have the same effect on taste). If, like me, you have never added the egg-sugar finish to the edge of a pumpkin or fruit pie crust, I would strongly recommend you consider doing this. 

A semi-generous 1/4 cup of the caramel is poured over the pie filling then swirled using a knife. 

With the oven temperature reduced to 375 degrees, this pie bakes for 40 to 50 minutes or until the filling is set. Note: This baking time here is for a 9 inch pie plate. If you are using a larger pie plate, your baking time most likely will range from 35 to 45 minutes or until the filling is set. The concept 'baking until just set' means different things to different people. For me, it means there is very little jiggle in the pie 'custard' although there is usually some ever so slight movement in the center of the pie.

To brûlée or not to brûlée was the second decision. It wasn't much of a decision. As beautiful as the un-brûléed finished pie was, it just beckoned to be brûléed. Instead of using granulated sugar, there was not other option (for me) than using the demerara sugar.

For whatever reason pumpkin pie seems to been placed into the very narrow baking window of fall until early winter. In some families it makes an appearance only at Thanksgiving. (What is up with that?) If there was ever an opportunity to change this, it is this Brûléed Pumpkin Pie with Caramel Swirl. If you can't find Fat Toad Farm Caramel, use the best caramel you can find (Fran's makes a really caramel sauce too).

The decision to partially pre-bake the pie shell and brûléeing the top of the pie turned out to be (whew) good ones. Don't feel you have to brûléel this pie. I wouldn't want that step to what stops you from making it. 

I had eaten a sliver of this pie when it was room temperature and another after it had been refrigerated overnight. And honestly I can't decide which one I like better. I might just have to find any plausible reason to make another pie, all in the spirit of making a decision. 

Brûléed Pumpkin Pie with Caramel Swirl (pie filling inspired by a recipe from Crepes of Wrath and pie dough recipe shared by Yossy Arefi)

Dough (this recipe makes enough for two pies; freeze any unused dough up to 2 months for later use or roll out, cut into shapes, apply egg wash, and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar and bake 15-20 minutes at 375 degrees)

12 ounces all purpose flour
8 ounces cold unsalted butter (recommend KerryGold), cut into pieces
4 ounces ice water
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt

1 15 ounce can pure pumpkin puree
1 14 ounce can sweetened condensed milk
2 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons Saigon cinnamon
scant 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves or ground ginger (optional)
Generous 1/4 cup caramel (highly recommend Fat Toad Farm caramel)
1 large egg, lightly beaten (for the crust)
Couple of teaspoons of coarse sugar (demerara or turbinado for the crust)
1 to 2 additional Tablespoons of coarse sugar

1. Place the flour and salt into the food processor to mix.
2. Add half of the butter and process slightly. Add remaining butter until mixture is still crumbly.
3. Add cider vinegar to the ice cold water. Slowly pour the vinegar/water into the flour/butter mixture until the dough comes together (be careful to not over process). 
4. Press the dough together, divide in half (forming each one into a disk), wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least 2 hours (but overnight is recommended).
5. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
6. Roll out dough on a lightly floured surface and place in pie plate. Place pie plate in the refrigerator for 10-15 minutes.
7. Remove from the refrigerator, line the plate with parchment paper and fill will pie weights or dried beans.
8. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes or until very lightly golden. Remove parchment paper and beans from pie shell.
9. Brush edge of pie shell with a beaten egg and sprinkle with demerara (or other coarse) sugar.
9. Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees.

1. Whisk together the pumpkin puree, sweetened condensed milk, eggs and spices. Set aside.
2. Pour filling into a prebaked pie shell 
3. Pour the caramel sauce evenly over the top of the pie. Using a knife or chopsticks, swirl the caramel around.
4. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes or until the pie fillng is set. Note: Baking time is for a 9 inch ceramic pie plate. Baking time may be slightly decreased with a larger pie plate or metal pie pan.
5. Sprinkle top of baked pie with 1 to 2 Tablespoons of demerara sugar. Using a culinary torch, brûlée the sugar.
6. Allow the pie to come to room temperature before slicing. 
Option: Place cooled pie in the refrigerator and serve chilled. 

Over the past two years, I had taken the ferry to Martha's Vineyard four or five times. Either renting bikes or taking the bus, the time there was mostly spent exploring Edgartown and Vineyard Haven. On this recent trip, I decided I needed to rent a car to see up close the Gay Head Cliffs and the 1856 brick Lighthouse in Aquinnah I had read about but had seen only through the eyes of others. The lighthouse is considered to be in danger of falling over the edge of the Gay Head Cliffs as a result of more than a century of erosion and the impact of climate change. Efforts to 'save the lighthouse' have been underway for years. Finding lighthouses compelling (and taking more than my fair share of the photos of the same lighthouses on the east coast), the forty minute drive to the lighthouse seemed to take what felt like an eternity. And the closer I got, the greater the anticipation.

My (im)patience was beyond rewarded. On this day, the skies were various shades of blue and filled with an assortment of cloud formations. The sky and clouds were mesmerizing all on their own making for a 'first sighting' perfect backdrop to the cliffs and the lighthouse. Once there, time suddenly seemed suspended as I took it all in with my own eyes. I may have needed to remind myself to breath.

In replaying the images and feelings of the day on the return ferry trip, I remembered one of my favorite quotes on perspective. "What you see depends not only what you look at, but also, on where you look from." If there was one more thing I could give myself this year, it would not be something tangible. Rather it would be the intangible capacity for a continuously evolving, dynamic perspective on everything from food to life to love. Perseverating on this thought would be one reason why perseveration might not completely be such a bad thing after all.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Pumpkin Squares

After six glorious days on the east coast, I am back home. Or at least I am back in my midwest home. For there is a part of me that will always feel as if Little Compton (Rhode Island) is home to me as well in spite of living there for barely two years. As someone who seriously entertains the concept that we have all been here before, I have often wondered if my strong connection to this town is due in part to having spent time there in another life. But whether or not this is possible, I find it hard to believe that its' compelling, sheer beauty and tranquility are the only reasons I love this place as much as I do. Until moving there, I had never known just how much living near the ocean could simultaneously be both energizing and calming. If there is one thing I know for sure, I shall always continue to be drawn back there in this lifetime.

This trip back was a 'birthday' present of sorts to myself. It was a chance for me to spend time with friends, travel back to some of my favorite places, get in some beach time (weather could not have been more cooperative), do some antiquing, get my fix of lobster rolls, and explore places I had longed to see. From walking the Boston Public Gardens to taking in the breathtaking views of the Aquinnah Cliffs on Martha's Vineyard to traveling along the southern coast of Maine to spending time in Little Compton, this trip definitely ranks high on my list of travels thus far as both my soul and spirit were nurtured.

With many sights to be seen and photos to be taken, there wasn't any time for cooking or baking (a short term hardship). With one exception. In the kitchen of the cottage I was staying in, there was a charming little stove with an oven. It was the perfect size for baking the lobster and artichoke pizzas (brought back from a day trip to Maine) I served at a small gathering I had one evening in the cottage. Is there any lobster better than Maine lobster? There is only answer to that question. No. I think my new favorite toppings on pizza are now (Maine) lobster and artichokes. Already I finding another reason (as if I need one) to get back to east coast.

While there was barely of hint of color on the trees out east, pumpkins, gourds, and cornstalks were in abundance. This may be my imagination or possibly just a personal bias, but the most gorgeous pumpkins are grown out east. (I may have disenfranchised some of you with this belief, but with some degree of confidence I believe the east coast would win a pumpkin throw down. Okay, now I may have pushed some of you over the edge.)  If I could have figured out how to make enough room in my suitcases (I do not pack lightly), I would have brought back some pumpkins with me as their shapes, colors, and textures were insanely, uniquely beautiful. But if my suitcases were going to be overweight (which they were), I decided several bottles of wine must take preference over the pumpkins. I would have to be satisfied looking at my pumpkin photos while savoring the wine.

The last time I made these Pumpkin Squares was last November. They were one of my contributions to the Thanksgiving dinner we shared with friends, a memorable dinner made in a cabin in the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky. The reason for making them this time was less celebratory but no less important as they were for a friend who recently suffered a great loss. Food may often seem unimportant during times of grief, yet it always manages to play an important healing role while we remember those who have left this world. So this time the Pumpkin Squares would be comfort food.

One of my pet peeves is seeing recipes posted on foodblogs where the sources of inspiration or actual recipe creator are conspicuously absent. I could do a rant on this, but will show some restraint. Having said all of this, I am posting a recipe on this blog I have absolutely no idea where I had found it or who its' creator is. In my semi-disorganized approach to researching pumpkin bar and pumpkin square recipes, I failed to note the source. My only contributions to this 'honestly unknown source' recipe was adding walnuts to the batter and adorning the finished pumpkin squares with some white chocolate dipped walnuts (yes, this is an insignificant contribution, I know). But if any of you who read this blog know this recipe's original source, please let me know so I can be relieved of the guilt I am having over posting a recipe not of my own creation.

When canned pumpkin hits the grocery store shelves in late summer early fall, I turn into a hoarder buying more cans than I possibly need for the fall and winter seasons. The rationale for this is two-fold. What if there is a pumpkin shortage one year and canned pumpkin becomes scarce? (probably not likely, but certainly plausible). And, what if I have a craving for pumpkin pie or pumpkin squares or pumpkin bars in the summer? (this is always definitely likely). If pressed further, I might be able to come up with a few more reasons for this obsession with having a semi-ridiculous inventory of canned pumpkin in the pantry.

These Pumpkin Squares are more cake-like in texture. The thickness of the square (and subsequently the baking time) all depends on personal preference. They can be made in a 9x12 pan, a 10x15 pan or even a slightly larger half-sheet cake pan. My choice has been a 10x15 pan (baking time of 35-40 minutes) as I like the thickness of the finished squares as well as the cake to frosting ratio. If using a smaller pan, the baking time is increased and with using a the larger pan the baking time is decreased. In addition to the use of cake tester or toothpick to test for doneness, I also like to use the press lightly method. If it springs back, I know it is done. If an indention remains, it still has more baking time.

Pumpkin squares are also just another (secret) excuse to make cream cheese frosting. When I made them for Thanksgiving I filled a pastry bag with the cream cheese frosting then sprinkled chopped toasted walnuts on top. This time I wanted a different look to the bars. So I simply lathered the frosting over the baked pumpkin squares with an offset spatula and created a simple design (again I probably saw this somewhere too so I am not taking credit for this either).

Before frosting the squares, I always allow them to cool to room temperature and then chill in the refrigerator for a couple of hours. The chilling isn't completely necessary, but I feel as if the squares retain their moistness when chilled. Once iced, they go back in the refrigerator for a second chilling. This chilling makes cutting them much, much easier.

I wanted to find a way to infuse a little bit of chocolate into these pumpkin bars, so I thought white chocolate dipped walnuts would be a perfect (monochromatic) finishing touch on each square. But the options for decorating these squares are somewhat endless. One option being no decorations at all.

Two teaspoons of cinnamon add just the right amount of spice in these Pumpkin Squares. Complimented by the sweetness of the cream cheese frosting makes them equally delicious for breakfast, for a snack, or for dessert. If anything, these pumpkin squares do not need a reason to be made. If you are craving the taste of pumpkin, have more cans of pumpkin in your cupboard than you know what to do with, are in the mood to fill the house with the aroma of pumpkin and cinnamon, or just want to bake something, then make these. If you are making to give away or bring to a gathering, be certain to cut them in such a way there are some uneven pieces left for you.

Pumpkin Squares (minor tinkering to source unknown recipe)

1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs, room temperature
2 cups canned pumpkin
2 teaspoons Saigon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup walnuts, roasted and chopped (optional)

16 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature (or combination of unsalted butter and margarine)
2 cups confectionary sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla

Optional: White chocolate dipped walnuts for decorating. Other options include chopped walnuts, sprinkles, or fall marshmallow candies.

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 10x15 cake pan with parchment paper and set aside.
2. Sift together the flour, cinnamon, salt, baking soda and baking powder. Set aside.
3. Using a handheld mixer, beat vegetable oil, sugar and eggs until light and creamy.
4. Mix in pumpkin until mixed.
5. Slowly beat in sifted flour on medium speed until thoroughly combined.
6. Spread batter in prepared pan. Smooth top. Place baking sheet on a larger baking sheet and bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean. Note: Can make in a 9x12 cake pan, but increase baking time to 40-45 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.
7. Allow baked pumpkin bars to come to room temperature. Place cooled bars in refrigerator to chill.
8. To make cream cheese frosting, first beat cream cheese with butter until smooth. Beat in sifted confectionary sugar until well blended. vanilla.
9. Spread cream cheese frosting over chilled bars using an offset spatula or with a pastry bag fitted with your pastry tube of choice.
10. Return bars to the refrigerator to chill before cutting into squares.
11. Cut frosted pumpkin bars into squares. Place cut squares in cupcake papers.
12. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

One of the many endearing qualities of Little Compton is the continued practice of the 'on your honor' way of purchasing. For some cities and towns across the country, this would be a throwback Thursday concept, but there it is a present day one. Unattended pumpkins on the roadside, fresh eggs on a table at the end of a driveway, bouquets of flowers on a stand, clusters of fresh herbs and perennials, or boxes of freshly picked fruits/vegetables are all accompanied by a container of some sort or another (more often than not unlocked so you can make change) to place your money in (or in some cases to leave a note saying you will back the next day). I had often wondered why in this day and age such a practice continues, not just there but in other places too (still clinging to an idealistic way of viewing the world and trying not to succumb to a rather jaded way of thinking).

At the memorial service for the sister of my friend, there were many words spoken. But the words 'our goal in life is to make the visible the invisible grace of God' had me take pause for many reasons. The least of which maybe was they also seemed to provide the answer to at least one of my many wonderings. Proving to me once again epiphanies can happen at any time, in any place, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, but always, better late than never.