Celebrating Special Days with Special Treats

Cake imageThe joyful birthday of our country on July fourth happens to be right next to and between my husband Stephen’ birthday on the third and our wedding anniversary on the fifth. Over the many years of our life together what a wonderful time we have had with our celebrations. In the past we would share what we used to call our three days of peace and love with friends. They would come from everywhere and stay for the three days, overflowing our large home and even camping in the back yard. The pool and the hot tub were frequently in use. They were joyous occasions.

Today we live more quietly, yet we still celebrate and have friends in to join us, though not so many or for so long. Special recipes are always fun to share for these occasions. One of Stephen’s favorites is a cake made with Almond paste or Marzipan. The main ingredient can be purchased at almost any market. This cake is not the kind to be frosted however you could also decorate it with fruit. In my case if I decide to make it this year I might spell out Happy Birthday Stephen with pieces of strawberry.

Marzipan Cake for Special Occasions

Preheat oven to 325

Grease and flour, or grease and line with parchment an 8″ round cake pan.

Ingredients:

7 or 8 oz almond paste or marzipan

¾ cups butter

2/3 cups sugar

3 large eggs, beaten

¼ teaspoon almond extract

¼ tsp baking powder

1/3 cup all purpose flour

Method: Crumble almond paste into bowl. Add butter. Beat well until blended. Gradually add sugar and beat well until mixture is light in color and texture. Add beaten eggs, continue beating for 3 minutes. Add flavoring. Sprinkle in baking powder by pinches. Fold in flower. Scrape batter into prepared baking pan. Bake 35 to 40 minutes, until firm and browned on top, and a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool 10 minutes on a rack. Slide a thin knife around and under the cake to detach from pan. Invert on rack then turn right side up and finish cooling. Sprinkle with powdered sugar if desired.

This cake is a wonderful treat, and can easily be made gluten free by using a flour mix from Bob’s Red Mill or another one you might like. It really helps to have a mixer, as it would be very labor intensive to mix it by hand, though it would also be excellent exercise. Whether I make this recipe or another I am fond of, I know I will enjoy celebrating these special days.

Advertisements

Easy, Healthy Spring Recipes

TashasSpiralGardenEven though I love to cook, in the good weather I’m happy not to have to   labor in the kitchen or spend time fussing with complicated recipes when I would rather be doing things out of doors and elsewhere. In addition, local fresh green vegetables are more and more often available as farm stands open and crops are harvested. It is such a treat when local asparagus as well as rhubarb become available. Both are helpful for the bodily cleansing that helps make for a healthful change of season.

This first recipe is win/win in that it goes together quickly, will please just about anyone, and is inexpensive to make. Gluten free or intolerant diners can make and eat it confidently using one of the many good gluten free pastas available in the local supermarkets. Asparagus Pesto and Pasta : Ingredients:1 Lb. Fresh Asparagus (The equivalent of 2 cups) 3 fresh basil leaves or 1 tsp dried—more is fine. ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese, ¼ cup chopped pecans, walnuts or cashews, whatever you like is fine; 1 small clove raw garlic, ¼ tsp salt, 3 Tbs olive oil, 8 Oz fine spaghetti or fettuccine.

Method: Cook spaghetti to taste and drain. Add 1 Tbs olive oil and stir well. Place remaining oil, asparagus and all other ingredients in blender. Blend until smooth, pour over spaghetti, stir and serve with a side salad and some fruit for a complete meal. This is also a good recipe to have fun with: try other green vegetables and/or vary the herb as desired. The addition of Parsley would be a natural. Or combine say half a cup of parsley and any green fresh or lightly steamed and still bright green vegetable.

If you have access to rhubarb leaves, you might be tempted to think they are edible. However, they are poisonous for humans, so under no circumstances ought you to consume them. There is a simple recipe for an insecticide on Google so I won’t repeat it. But don’t spray the leaves of your lettuce with it. It’s poisonous and potentially dangerous.Use caution on vegetables, a simple onion garlic spray is better there.

Rhubarb is technically a vegetable and yet we generally serve it as a dessert. There are many ways to prepare it—pies, cakes, puddings and so forth. However, I have always preferred it steamed and eaten plain with honey. To enjoy rhubarb easily, simply purchase fresh, young stems at the market or if you are lucky, pick them from a friend’s rhubarb patch. Snip them into inch or so sections with a pair of sharp scissors. Put them into the top half of a double boiler or a bowl that will fit into a pot with some water in the bottom.

Another interesting thing about rhubarb is that it has so much liquid in it already you really don’t need to add any when you cook it the way I do in a double boiler. Cover and steam for about 45 minutes. Add ½ to ¾ cups honey or sugar, to taste. Stir well and chill. Serve any time of day for a refreshing treat as well as good cleansing for your system. Let your food be your medicine, especially in the spring!

Easter Eggs are More than Just Food

A favorite memory I have of Easter is of dying my eggs using onion skins. For weeks I saved up the papery wrappings of the outside of the onions. Now it was time to put them to use. Using string I secured the onion skins to my eggs and set them on to boil. The results were quite lovely and I was grateful to my friend Maggie for sharing her knowledge of how eggs were originally colored in her native homeland.

Eggs have always had mythological significance. The oldest recorded writings the Vedas of India, say the world evolved from a cosmic egg. According to Wikepedia other mythologies featuring creation and eggs include the Egyptian, the Phoenician, the Greek, the Chinese and the Finnish. As all life hatches from eggs—whether those of mammals or of egg layers, it make perfect sense that a holiday that began as a fertility celebration would feature them.

Easter is essentially a spring festival. The Christian expression of it also relates to life and generation of which eggs are a symbol. Red dyed eggs have been found buried at Bronze Age sites. These were surely connected to the worship of the pre-Christian deity, the goddess in charge of spring farm and field fertility. The name Easter derives from the name Eostre, the Anglo Saxon goddess of spring or Ostara the Germanic version of the goddess’s name.

How the rabbit came to be associated with Easter and eggs is another story. A rabbit relative associated with the goddess, the hare a strong, somewhat fierce animal is nocturnal and its babies unlike those of rabbits are born with eyes open. Some say the figure on the surface of the moon is that of a hare. The hare has also been associated with the moon because its gestation period is the same 28 days. Thus the goddess’s sacred animal came to be part of Easter.

Despite their differences, the hare became a rabbit when Germans immigrated to the United States in the 1600s and settled in Pennsylvania, spreading out from there to the surrounding states. Their Easter celebrations did not catch on right away, however, because of the stronger puritan influence that suppressed what was thought to be essentially too pagan in its expression. It is most likely that children envious of Easter goodies and fun influenced the universality of the celebration so that eventually it spread everywhere.

Easter eggs continue to be important and many households will overflow with them after the holidays. My favorite way to use hard boiled Easter eggs is in egg salad sandwiches. This recipe is for 6 eggs. I don’t peel them but instead break them in half and scoop out the insides. Chop and mash with ½ cup mayonnaise, 1 teaspoon tarragon, Salt, pepper, a tablespoon or more of horseradish sauce and ½ teaspoon of dry mustard. Add ¼ cup finely chopped celery, and ¼ cup finely chopped onion. If you like curry flavor, add a teaspoon or so to taste.

Thoughts from a Thrifty Cook

Tasha's Fridge 1My mother felt strongly that food was precious and not to be wasted. She had been a young child during World War I in Germany, and the experience of scarcity had shaped her attitude. To her way of thinking, all food was to be used up one way or another. Then came World War II and rationing. I too was very young, yet this also gave me lessons in thrifty use of food. Fortunately I have been able to put my early lessons to good use in learning how to create meals from whatever I have left over even if I hadn’t already planned ahead.

A chicken, for instance normally provides two people at least three meals: hot, cold, and soup. That’s easy, but what about the bits and pieces of vegetables, meat, fish, or even pasta that might otherwise molder in the back of the ‘fridge. Why not make a soup, or combine them in a quick stirfry? If your family is fussy about food you probably can’t do that, however a retired couple like us, or even a single person may find it fun to experiment. One warning: it is important for the leftovers from the originals to make good combinations. A curry and a chili won’t mix well.

To use up most leftover vegetables, sauté half an onion until soft and then tip in whatever you have. This freshens the taste and makes them seem like a different dish. Add half a box of chicken or beef broth and serve this as a soup with a salad for supper. Throw in a handful of uncooked pasta of your choice and simmer or add leftover rice for a heartier dish. Or combine the vegetables and the rice or cooked pasta, sprinkle on curry powder, voila, another meal. Cook any leftover hamburger or some other chopped up cooked meat and add to the simple stirfry for a more filling lunch or supper. You can also cover it with leftover mashed potato, pop into the oven and have a shepherd’s pie.

I often use some of that convenient boxed coconut milk to season my leftover vegetables. Or in the summer I may add some salad dressing and toss them with lettuce, chopped sweet onion, and whatever else you like for a cold meal. Adding some canned salmon or tuna makes a more filling meal. The coconut milk is also very tasty with leftover chicken stirfry or soup. Simply chop up what you have, add whatever vegetables you like and warm them all up together with either leftover or freshly cooked rice. For soup, add chicken broth.

Whenever I make rice I make enough so I have some left over. I like to use it to make what I call Pudding As Rice: Per person use ½ cup rice, 1 Tbs butter, 1 Tbs brown sugar, about a half cup or so mixed dried fruit of your choice—brown and white raisins, dried cranberries, cherries, dried pineapple, or whatever else you fancy. Mix and cook together over low heat 15 minutes or so, stirring occasionally until all is mingled into a tasty mix and serve with almond, coconut or dairy cream poured over it. Or instead, combine it with fresh or canned fruit. This simple dessert pleases almost everyone.

 

Three Recipes for Healthy, Tasty Meals

onions-on-display When I visited Russia with my mother, in the guesthouse where we stayed we were served cabbage at every dinner. Although I got rather bored with it, I understood why it was so prevalent. It keeps very well and is inexpensive. It is also a most nutritional vegetable, especially raw. Its anti oxidant properties assist in cancer prevention, its anti inflammatory properties are helpful with arthritic conditions, it is a fine cardio vascular nutrient, and it is good for the lining of the stomach and intestines, helps with ulcers too.

Cabbage has lots of vitamins: C, B1, B2, Folate and a host of minerals, not to mention dietary fiber. Its vitamin content boosts the immune system and fortifies our bodies against the ever-present germs that lie in wait for us during the cold months in New England. While cooked vegetables are good for us, raw ones are extra important because none of their vitamins are cooked away. I have recently invented a new way to eat it: cabbage salads. This is not coleslaw.

Instead of grating it or using the food processor as I would for coleslaw, I cut the cabbage into very thin strips with a long serrated knife—kind of fun to do. I put it into a bowl and cut into the strips with scissors to shorten them. Then I slice off a chunk of sweet onion and cut that into thin strips that I also reduce in size. I add enough mayonnaise to moisten together with a tablespoon of horseradish sauce and a pinch of salt. I stir it well. Voila! Cabbage salad. This way of preparing it makes for more crunch, and the vitamins are a welcome addition. You can of course add other ingredients if you like—raisins, dried fruit, canned pineapple or herbs.

Another staple of my winter meals is a variety of hearty soups. My Lentil Herb soup provides herbal support for the immune system as well as good taste. In 2 Tbs Butter and 2 Tbs good olive oil sauté ½ large chopped onion, 1 cup or more chopped celery (I use scissors) and sauté until transparent. Add 2 cups water, 2 cups beef broth, 1 tsp each of dried savory, thyme, marjoram, ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley, 1 bay leaf, 1 large potato peeled and chopped into ½ inch chunks–about a cup, 3 cloves of pressed not chopped garlic, ½ cup lentils salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, simmer for 1 ½ to 2 hours, and enjoy!

A tasty bread pudding finishes off any meal nicely. This one is easy and quickly made. Chop into 1 inch squares 4 slices any good (dense) bread (With or without crusts, your choice.) Put in a 1½ quart casserole (buttered or not, your choice). Stir bread together with ¼ to ½ cup sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon and a pinch of salt. Stir in 1 cup raisins. Beat together 2 eggs and 2 cups any kind of milk. Stir into bread. Cover casserole and place in 350 degree oven, bake for 45 minutes, uncover and bake another 15 minutes to brown the top. Serve warm or cold with any kind of cream poured on it, or just as it is.  Tasha Halpert

Two Recipes from my Kitchen for Comfort Food

woodenspoon1

As I have said before, I did not learn to cook from my mother. She did not think me responsible enough to deal appropriately with food, something that to her was a precious substance and not to be wasted. After I got married I learned how to cook from a cookbook. I made some funny mistakes and we ate them anyway because we were on a rather limited budget. Back in the 50’s you could actually live on $30.00 a month for food. To be sure, we ate a lot of hot dogs.

Over the years I have enjoyed experimenting with different recipes and learning what works and what does not. For instance, it might be just fine not to use a recipe for a vegetable casserole but under no circumstances try to make cookies without one. Of all the many recipe collections I possess, my old Fanny Farmers cookbook is my got-to for recipes. I look there first when doing research. There is something tried and true about a book that has been around so many years.

In addition, I am what you might call an old fashioned cook. I do not use nor do I possess a microwave oven and I hope never to have to have one. I know many people love them and find them convenient. No doubt they are. However, I feel no need to hurry my food along that way. By definition comfort food need not be cooked quickly. Sometimes the very best food is some that takes its time and lets he flavors develop.

Here are two of my favorite comfort food recipes: Onion soup and Bread pudding. The onion soup recipe is one I devised from trying different ways to make it. The Bread pudding has evolved from several recipes, my favorite being from The Cat Who Cookbook by Julie Murphy and Sally Abney Stempinski created from dishes in the “Cat Who” series by Lillian Jackson Braun.

Onion Soup Tasha: To serve 4 to 6, thinly slice two medium to large onions to make 1½ to 2 cups. In a heavy bottomed pot melt 2 Tbs butter and 2 Tbs olive oil. Add and sauté the onion, stirring frequently over medium heat. When onion is transparent, reduce heat and continue to cook uncovered over relatively low heat for an hour, stirring occasionally. Add 4 to 6 cups beef broth. Low sodium is best. Cook 15 more minutes and serve with garlic bread, or melt some cheese on toasted bread and float it on top for the French version.

Pleasing Bread Pudding: Depending on appetites, serves 4 to 8. Butter a 1½ quart casserole. Remove the crusts from 4 slices of firm, not soft bread. Cut or tear into smaller pieces. Place in casserole. Measure 1 cup any kind of milk, beat in two eggs, pour over bread. Sprinkle on 1 cup dried fruit—black and/or white raisins, dried cranberries, cherries etc. Sprinkle on 1 teaspoon cinnamon and ½ cup sugar. Add 1 teaspoon vanilla. Stir well. Add another cup of milk to make 2 cups. Stir again. Place casserole in a shallow pan filled with water. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes or until nicely browned on top.  Tasha Halpert

Muffins for Fall Munching

Down to her frillies 3

 

 

I once attended a weekend Renaissance Fair with some friends. Wearing a costume of a mobcap, a full skirt, blouse and a vest, with my similarly garbed friends I was having breakfast in the restaurant of the motel where we were staying. As I perused the buffet table a man came up to me. “There are no more muffins,” he said. I shook my head and assured him I wasn’t a waitress. “We need more muffins,” he said loudly. My similarity to the waitress’ colonial garb was too convincing. My friends were helpless with laughter. I giggled and joined them. To this day Stephen kids me about the incident.

While I like making muffins now, I didn’t learn to make them in my mother’s kitchen. She didn’t bake from scratch or even at all, and I was not encouraged to do so. Once married I tried to make them but my muffins were invariably heavy, flat and dense in texture. Though edible, they were not how I thought muffins ought to be. When I sought inspiration from more experienced cooks, I found out what I was doing wrong. Voila, my muffins rose nicely.

I discovered that muffins, unlike cakes, cookies and other baked goods did not need to be well beaten. Once I learned to fold the wet ingredients lightly into the dry ingredients my troubles were over. The source of my information was a column in the Boston Globe called the Confidential Chat. It ran several times weekly and was a wonderful source of recipes, advice and help as well as an opportunity to share for those of us who wished to do so. At the peak of my participation I wrote around fifteen or so letters a week, many of which were published, and in the process I learned to write succinctly.

Writers to the column used pen names, so publication was anonymous. However, letters answering you that were not published were forwarded bundled in an envelope you provided, and you could choose to answer any of them if you wished. In certain ways the Confidential Chat was part of the foundation for this column because it helped me learn to write precisely and convey information clearly. Long-winded or unclear letters simply were not published. Since I enjoyed seeing mine in the paper, I worked hard to write well. I also loved the recipes and shared many.

Here is a recipe I use a lot for Banana Chunk Muffins. You may substitute melted butter for the oil. If you do, be very sure to mix lightly. Ingredients: 2 eggs, 1/3 cup oil, ¾ cup any milk, 1 tsp vanilla, ½ cup sugar, 1½ cups flour, 1 tsp baking soda, ½ tsp salt, 1 tsp cinnamon, 2 or 3 bananas cut into ½ to 1 inch squares, ½ to 1 cup optional chopped walnuts, ½ to 1 cup optional chopped dates. Method: Preheat oven to 350 degrees, Mix fruit, nuts with dry ingredients, beat wet ingredients together well and lightly mix into dry. Use liners or grease 1½ dozen muffin cups or 1 8″ square pan. Fill ¾ full and bake for 30 minutes for muffins, 35 to 40 for pan. Enjoy!

Tasha Halpert