I’m back…

It’s been almost exactly eleven months since my last post. I didn’t plan such a long break. When I started to lose my blogging mojo I thought I would take a break for a few weeks, or maybe a month. Well, somehow life got in the way and here it is, almost a year later.

Highlights of the last year

Calvin got his driving permit and is slowly learning how to drive. We have graduated from parking lots to subdivision streets. Soon we might venture out on a main thoroughfare. He isn’t totally comfortable behind the wheel and Rich and I are fine with taking the whole process slowly. He will be sixteen in a few weeks (gulp!) but I think the license will wait for a few months until he is more than ready for the test.

We gave the kitchen a facelift in late winter. That story is material for another post, complete with pictures. But I will say I love the new kitchen and still catch myself standing in the middle of it, marveling at the new look.

Okay, I wanted three things to highlight for the year, but there really haven’t been any earthshaking events. The year was full of food and fun in the kitchen, of course. We made lots of pizza, lots of desserts and even tried deep frying (that is definitely a story for another post).

I didn’t make any big cooking discoveries, at least I can’t remember any. One thing I missed about not blogging was taking notes while I cooked. I need to get back in the habit, whether I intend to blog about a recipe or not. We have had some killer meals that I haven’t been able to recreate because I didn’t take any notes.

The blog might look a little different as I move forward. I won’t be posting as often, and I probably won’t be posting as many recipes. I am going to try to get back to my original intent to use the blog as a window into the world of a cook, baker, gardener and foodie. Rest assured, though there may not be as many recipes, I will still be posting cooking tips for the novice (and the expert). And I will still share recipes and experiments in the kitchen, just maybe not three times a week!

Here’s to eating, cooking and blogging about it! (Raises a glass and cuts a piece of cake).

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Baking for a Barbecue

I have been baking up a storm this week. Once again I am providing desserts for the Midtown Alley BBQ. I baked the desserts last year and couldn’t pass up the chance to do it again this year.

I decided to make the same desserts I made last year:

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Gooey Butter Tarts

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Chocolate Gooey Butter Tarts

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Gingersnaps

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Chocolate Chip Cookies

I was going to make a new gooey butter tart flavor, lemon blueberry, in honor of summer. The first experiments weren’t quite there yet, but stay tuned for the perfected recipe soon.

Feel free to stop by Atomicdust in Midtown St. Louis if you are in town and looking for something to do tonight. For now, I’m headed back to the kitchen to finish baking.

Back to Basics – Homemade White Bread

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When I asked for requests for topics in the Back to Basics series I got one for basic white bread. I must admit that I don’t bake much white bread these days. We prefer to eat whole wheat, oat or rye bread. But I decided I could make a batch of white just this once. It’s all for the blog, right? I’ll endure the hardship of making (and eating) white bread for the cause.

All jokes aside, homemade bread leaves store and bakery bread in the dust. At least once in your culinary life you need to bake your own bread. It isn’t hard, you don’t need any special equipment and you will feel so accomplished. And then you get to eat the bread you made.

You can do this.
Let’s start with what you don’t need to make bread. You don’t need a bread machine. You don’t need a fancy stand mixer. You don’t need a kitchen full of gadgets. You don’t even need bread pans.

I started baking bread in college and really honed my skills after Rich and I got married. We had a tiny, barebones apartment kitchen and an oven that only had one rack. We did have loaf pans, but not much else. I baked my way through three bread books during those early days – baking was cheap entertainment. I did eventually save up for a Kitchen Aid stand mixer, but only after I had baked many, many loaves of bread.

The only things you need to make yeast bread are a big bowl, a sturdy wooden spoon or spatula and a baking sheet. That’s it.

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Will your first loaves of bread be perfect? No. Will they be pretty? Probably. Will they taste fabulous? Definitely. What are you waiting for? Let’s get started.

You only need to remember a few things when baking bread: Kneading isn’t scary. Yeast is your friend. You can do this.

Yeast Bread 101
You need happy yeast to make bread rise. All yeast really needs to be happy is food, in the form of flour, and water. This recipe uses milk in place of water to make the bread softer and to help it to stay fresh longer. It also has a little sugar and salt for flavor, along with a little butter. The butter will add flavor and also help with the keeping qualities.

When yeast is happy and fed, it grows and reproduces. And when it grows it makes the bread rise. Or rather, the yeast itself doesn’t help the bread rise, but the by-product of its digestion, carbon dioxide, does. The little bubbles of carbon dioxide, along with gluten, make yeast bread light and fluffy.

Gluten is not evil, unless you are allergic to it. That is all I’ll say on that. I’m not going to get in a debate about gluten’s nutritional role. For yeast bread, we need gluten. It forms the structures inside the bread that hold the carbon dioxide bubbles we just talked about. Without gluten, the bread wouldn’t rise.

Kneading develops the gluten in the dough. Yes, you can make bread without kneading. But to make close-grained, dense but fluffy sandwich bread, you need to knead. It isn’t hard. It can be a little messy, but it isn’t hard.

Finally, bread does not take all day to make. And you don’t have to sit around watching it rise. From start to finish, the process will take a little more than two hours. But for most of that time you can be doing something else while the bread rises. Set a timer and do other things around the house. Heck, for the first hour-long rise, you can even run errands. When I made the bread for the photos, I made the dough and then washed the dishes, ran to the store and folded a load of laundry while it rose the first time. During the second rise I washed the rising bowl, did a little housecleaning and put away the laundry I folded earlier. Make the baking fit into your schedule and you will get other things done and end up with freshly baked bread.

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The recipe below is detailed so don’t let the length discourage you. I included some pictures to help you along. I didn’t get pictures of the actual kneading process. That is hard to do and photograph yourself. I think Rich would be a little perturbed if I covered our shared camera with crusted-on dried dough. But follow the directions and you will be fine.

This recipe was the first bread I ever made. I found it in one of my mom’s Better Homes and Gardens cookbooks. I was home from college on Christmas break and looking for something to do. First try the bread turned out perfectly. And a baking habit (addiction?) was born.

Repeat after me: I can make bread. Then get some flour and some yeast, pull out a bowl and just do it.

Print just the recipe.

Basic White Bread
Adapted from Better Homes and Gardens
Homemade Bread Cookbook
Makes 2 loaves

If you don’t have 9 by 5 inch loaf pans, you can use a large baking sheet. Follow recipe directions for shaping and simply place the loaves on a lightly greased baking sheet, far enough apart so they have room to rise. Bake as directed, but for only 20-25 minutes.

2¼ cups milk
5¾-6½ cups all-purpose flour, approximately
1 package instant or active dry yeast (2¼ teaspoons)*
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon butter, room temperature

*Be sure you don’t buy rapid rise yeast. That particular yeast only works in recipes written specifically for it. Look for instant or active dry yeast packets in the baking aisle of the grocery store.

Heat milk until very warm (120-130 degrees). It will feel very warm if you test it with your finger. If it is hot, let it cool a little before you use it. Combine 3 cups flour, yeast, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Stir to combine. Add butter and warm milk. Stir vigorously until combined.

Add 2½ more cups of flour gradually, about a cup at a time. Dough will become stiff and hard to stir. Continue to work and stir the flour in until the dough is firm enough to knead. You might need an additional cup of flour, but try not to make the dough dry.

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Lightly sprinkle a kneading surface with flour. Turn dough out of the bowl onto the flour. Flour your hands and start to knead, adding sprinkles of flour as needed.

Knead gently at first: pull the far side of dough toward you and fold over, pressing it away from you with the heels of your hands. Turn dough a quarter turn and repeat. When dough is less sticky, you can be less gentle. At first you might need to scrape your kneading surface with a rubber spatula if dough sticks. Add flour as necessary to the dough and your hands to prevent sticking. Knead the dough 5-8 minutes or until it is no longer sticky. It will become smooth and elastic.

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Lightly grease a large bowl (at least 3 quarts). Place the ball of dough in the bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. You don’t want the dough to dry out while it is rising. Let dough rise in a warm place until doubled, about 60 minutes. I like to use the turned-off oven with the light on. It gets surprisingly warm.

While the dough is rising, lightly grease two 9 by 5 inch loaf pans.

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If you aren’t sure if your dough is doubled, poke your finger into it at the edge. If the hole doesn’t fill in immediately, your dough is ready. Turn the dough out onto your kneading surface and knead briefly to press out any large air bubbles. You shouldn’t need any flour.

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Divide the dough in half. Working with one half at a time, flatten the dough into a rough rectangle about 9 inches wide (as wide as your pan is long). See the pan I was using as my guide in the picture below.

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Starting from one 9-inch side, tightly roll the dough into a cylinder.

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Pinch the seam and the ends closed. Roll the top side against the surface to smooth. Here I didn’t get the rolls as smooth as I should have. I like the design at the ends, but if you want smoother finished loaves, keep pinching and rolling until your log of dough is smooth. Rising will only magnify any ridges, it won’t smooth them out.

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Turn seam side down and fold the ends under slightly. Place in pan, seam side down. Repeat with the second half of the dough.

Lightly cover the loaves with a sheet of parchment or waxed paper. Let rise at room temperature for about 30 minutes, or until the middles of the loaves are about 1 inch above the tops of their pans.

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Preheat the oven to 375 degrees while the loaves are rising.

Bake the risen loaves for about 30 minutes, or until they are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped with your finger. Check the loaves after 20 minutes, and tent loosely with foil if the tops are browning too fast.

Remove loaves from the pans and cool on wire racks. Try to wait at least a few minutes before cutting into the loaves. Ideally wait until they are fully cool before slicing. You are going to want to sample your bread before it cools. I know you are. That is fine, but be very gentle when you slice the warm loaves or you will crush them.

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Store at room temperature in an airtight container or ziplock bag. Homemade bread dries out much faster than commercial bread. Slice loaves and freeze if keeping for longer than a couple of days.

Get the Scoop on Chilling Your Dough

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The weeks leading up to Christmas are cookie-baking time around our house. We give cookies for presents, take them as our contribution to potluck holiday parties and package them up for hostess gifts. We have done this since the first year we were married, and I don’t see us ending the tradition any time soon.

We make about twelve different kinds of cookies every year. Most of them are drop cookies, or the kind you roll into balls before baking. Some of them require a little more effort, but none of them are complicated or time consuming. As I write this, I realize many of our favorites are the roll-into-balls recipes – gingersnaps, Russian teacakes, chocolate chip doodles and snickerdoodles. The recipes instruct, “chill the dough before forming into balls for baking.” This often ends up with me using my forearm muscles of steel to scoop rock hard, chilled cookie dough.

The other day, when I was fiddling around, fixing my Russian teacake mistake, I had a revelation. If I scooped the dough balls first and then chilled the dough I would be getting the best of the process. I could scoop soft, creamy dough with ease and then chill the balls. Then, when I was ready to bake, the heavy lifting (so to speak) would be done and I could just place the balls on the pans and bake.

It works beautifully. Mistakes lead to innovation. And no, I’m not comparing myself to an inventor of say, rubber or the Slinky. It did kind of rock my cookie-baking world, though.

Try the method with any dough that calls for an hour or two of chilling. Portion out the dough right after you mix it and then chill the balls in an airtight container for up to a week. You can freeze them if you want to make them further ahead.

Oh, and in the free time that you will have if you use my revelatory method, you can kill some time on the internet. Try typing, “mistakes that led to inventions,” into any search engine and you will get some interesting reading.

Cookies for Later

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I spent a lot of Friday working on various kitchen projects, which is pretty much my idea of an ideal day. I planned to make cookies, but I only got as far as mixing up the dough and sticking it in the fridge to deal with later. By the time I remembered it I was out of energy and the inclination to bake the cookies was gone. I left the dough in the fridge for the next day.

Between one thing and another, baking cookies wasn’t going to be part of Saturday’s plan either. I decided to freeze the cookie dough balls to bake another day.

The concept is simple – portion out cookie dough (this works with any drop cookie recipe) as if you were going to bake the cookies. You can put them as close together as possible, just try not to let them touch or they will freeze together. Instead of baking the cookies right then, freeze the dough balls on a cookie sheet. Once they are hard, which only takes about half an hour, put them in a ziplock bag. The frozen dough balls will keep in the freezer for several months. Label the bag with the name of the cookie recipe, since the dough balls can be hard to identify later. And you won’t remember what they are. Trust me.

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When you want to bake cookies, preheat the oven according to the cookie recipe directions, pull out as many dough balls as you like, place them on greased cookie sheets and bake them frozen. They might need an extra minute or two in the oven, but that is the only adjustment you need to make. You can bake any number of cookies – the whole batch, a dozen for a quick after-dinner treat for the whole family, or just a couple for you to eat by yourself, whenever you need a quick pick-me-up.

Just a Typical Friday

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I’m not sure what your normal Friday looks like, but mine is usually full of catch-up chores and projects to get ready for the weekend. I don’t usually work on Fridays, so I try to make time to play in the kitchen along with the other things I have to get done.

Today I have been to the store to pick up ingredients for a date night dinner with Rich. Calvin is spending the night with my parents and Rich and I are cooking dinner together and then going out on the town. Don’t get too excited – the going out includes shopping for a new mailbox. But do get excited about our dinner. I am. We are having Cornish game hens roasted on a bed of apples and shallots, a red rice and kamut medley and caramelized acorn squash. They are all experiments, but if they turn out I’ll post recipes and methods soon.

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I have cinnamon almond ice cream churning right now and there is butter softening on the counter for chocolate chip cookies. Both are for tomorrow’s delayed family celebration of Rich’s birthday. The ice cream is another experiment, so if it turns out I’ll be posting that one too.

I also have injera batter fermenting on the counter and plans to make a starter for an Austrian buckwheat bread tonight. Tomorrow I am leading a bread baking session to make several kinds of bread for World Communion celebrations at our church on Sunday. We have done this for the last several years and it is always fun. The picture at the top of the post is the selection from last year – we made a Xichuan flatbread, sorghum rolls and a round schiacciata.

I enjoy the challenge of finding recipes to use every year. It is always a lesson in planning to figure out the timing on three different breads so that we can make them in a couple of hours, with one oven and one stovetop. This year we are making Ethiopian injera, Austrian buckwheat bread and Persian flat bread.

Baking, cooking and experimenting. Yep, that pretty much sums up my usual Friday. What are your plans for Friday and this weekend?

New Gadget – Tiny Cookie Scoop

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I am so excited that I have a new addition to my kitchen arsenal – a teeny, tiny cookie scoop. It holds 1½ teaspoons and will be perfect for making tiny cookies and miniature gooey butter tarts. Of course, it would have made more sense to get it before I made the mountain of tiny treats for the Midtown Alley BBQ last week. But now I am ready for the next bite-sized baking adventure.

All of you can stop shaking your heads and smiling like you understand, even if you think I’m goofy to get so excited about a kitchen tool. Think of your favorite hobby or even a not-so-favorite chore. It always goes better when you have the right tools.

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When I was baking for the barbecue, I spent way too much time fiddling around to get the miniature gooey butter tarts portioned out so they were all the same size. My formerly smallest cookie scoop was too big, and a measuring teaspoon was too small. I added more to this muffin well, and less to that one and got them all to come out mostly the same. But, now that I have my tiny scoop, next time I will just be able to go along, scoop, scoop, scoop and be done.

Celebrate with me! And know that if you live close, or if you have an in with me, you will get to sample more tiny treats, since I have my new scoop. Or, if you just don’t get it, at least let me have my moment.

Recipe in Progress – Peach Vanilla Muffins

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Part of the original intent of my blog was to give you a peek into my life as a cook, baker and lover of food. I spend a lot of time tinkering with recipes. Sometimes I am creating a dish for dinner at the last minute. And sometimes I am on my third, or fourth, attempt to make a recipe produce the results I think it should. Lately I have been working on a peach vanilla muffin.

I made my first batch a few weeks ago when I was cleaning out the fridge. I found some peaches I had cooked with a little sugar when they were starting to get too ripe. Which is a nice way of saying they were starting to attract fruit flies and were going to go from ripe to rotten in no time.

The container of cooked peaches somehow got pushed to the back of the fridge for a couple of weeks. When I found them, I had to do something with them or I was going to end up pitching them after all. I thought about muffins, but I didn’t have a recipe for peach muffins. I never let little details like that stop me.

I pureed the peaches and substituted them for the mashed squash in a spiced squash muffin recipe I found in one of my cookbooks. Then I proceeded to make so many other changes that the recipe’s only resemblance to the original was that it made muffins.

The muffins looked pretty – smooth, light orange tops that resembled, well, peaches. The peach flavor was subtle, but they were definitely peach muffins. They were too sweet, though, since I forgot to compensate for the sugar I had used when I cooked the peaches.

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I didn’t want to write a recipe that called for cooking the peaches first. I didn’t want to cook peaches every time I wanted the muffins, and I didn’t think anyone else would either.  I tried the recipe again with raw pureed peaches. The muffins were good. In fact they were darn good, but they still aren’t there. Now the peach flavor was even less prominent, though I had fixed the sweetness level. And the texture wasn’t as good as the muffins made with cooked peaches.

I need to do more adjustments, but peach season is almost over. I might have to put the muffins on the back burner until next summer. Stay tuned. I’m sure if I get tired of working with peach muffins, or run out of fresh peaches, I’ll move on to another recipe. I do have a chocolate doughnut recipe that needs work…

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Mini Chocolate-Striped Cakes

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Calvin often takes enough dessert in his school lunches to share with a couple of his friends. I hear back, through him, which of our homemade desserts are the lunchroom favorites. Gooey butter tarts are tops on the list so far. Even when I don’t hear the compliments firsthand, and when the compliments are from always-hungry teenage boys, I enjoy baking for an appreciative audience.

Last week, Calvin came home from school asking if we could make our own version of Little Debbie zebra cakes. One of his pals had shared some at lunch and Calvin was a fan. I don’t have to tell you what my answer was.

After some thought, I decided to use our tried-and-true white Texas sheet cake recipe for both the cake and the icing. I wanted to make the cake layers thin, so we used half the recipe and baked it in a large pan.

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We used a cookie cutter to cut circles out of the big cake. Calvin lobbied for hexagons like the originals, but I vetoed that. If we had a hexagon cutter I would have done it, but we don’t. Next time I might just cut squares and skip the whole cake scraps part. But the scraps were tasty. And I used a few to make a mini trifle with some leftover pastry cream from a batch of almost failed cream puffs (more on those another day).

At first I thought the cake layers were too thin, but once we sandwiched two layers together with icing they were the perfect size. A drizzle of melted chocolate on top of the icing and they were good to go.

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I iced the sides of the first cake, but then I nixed that idea. The icing was thickening quickly and I wasn’t sure I wanted to take the time to ice the sides anyway. I will only go so far when copycatting a recipe. The cake and icing are both very sweet and icing the sides is probably overkill.

If you do decide you want to go all out, you will probably want to double the icing ingredients. Just be aware that the icing thickens very fast. You might have to re-warm it part way through if it gets too thick to spread onto the tender cake.

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Our zebra cakes were moist, buttery and sweet. We stuck with the original recipe’s combo of vanilla and almond, but I think I want to make it all vanilla next time. For the record, Rich and Calvin do not agree.

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Download or print the recipe here.

Mini Chocolate-Striped Cakes
From The Cook’s Life
Makes 12 mini cakes

If you don’t like almond extract, you can substitute an equal amount of vanilla extract for the almond extract. If you don’t have a large baking sheet, you can use two 9 by 13 inch pans. If you only have one 9 by 13, you can bake half the batter at a time.

Cake:
½ cup butter (1 stick)
½ cup water
1 cup flour
1 cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 egg, well beaten
¼ cup sour cream or plain yogurt
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon almond extract (see headnote)

Icing:
¼ cup butter (½ stick)
2 tablespoons milk
2¼ cups powdered sugar, sifted (DON’T skip sifting or you’ll have lumpy icing)
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon almond extract (see head note)

Stripes:
3 tablespoons semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a 12 by 17 inch half sheet pan or a 15 by 10 inch jelly roll pan with waxed or parchment paper. Set aside.

Bring butter and water to a boil in a saucepan or the microwave. In a large bowl, stir together flour, sugar, salt and baking powder. In a separate bowl, mix together egg, sour cream or yogurt and extracts.

Add hot butter and water mixture to dry mixture and stir until smooth. Add egg mixture and stir until well combined. Pour into prepared pan and spread in a thin, even layer. Bake for about 7 minutes, or until the edges are golden brown and the cake bounces back when touched lightly. Let cake cool, in the pan on a wire rack until room temperature.

Use a round cookie cutter to cut circles out of the cake. I used a 2¾ inch diameter round cutter and got 24 circles, to make a total of twelve sandwiched cakes. Save the cake scraps to make a mini trifle, or just eat them.

Once the circles are cut and ready, make the icing.

In a saucepan, bring milk and butter to a boil. Remove from heat and add powdered sugar and extracts and stir until smooth.

You need to work fairly quickly – the icing gets thick as it cools, and the cakes are tender. Spread icing on the tops of half of the cake circles. Top with the remaining circles. Spread icing on the tops of the stacked cakes. There won’t be enough icing to cover the sides of the cakes. If you really want to ice the sides, double the icing amounts and find another use for any leftover icing.

Let icing set up and harden, which probably will take about 30 minutes.

Melt the chocolate chips in a microwave safe bowl for about 75 seconds on high power. Stir them halfway through. Transfer melted chocolate to a small ziplock baggie. Cut off the corner and use the baggie like a piping bag to pipe melted chocolate in stripes across the tops of the cakes. Let chocolate set up before covering cakes for storage.

Make these a day ahead of time, if possible. Cakes improve with age and are good keepers, staying moist for 3-4 days, if they last that long. Cakes freeze well.

Raspberry Lemon Muffins

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Fresh raspberries usually cost the earth, so I don’t even look at them in the grocery store most of the time. This week they were on sale for a dollar a package. I couldn’t pass up that deal. Then I was faced with how to use them, other than just eating them.

I mentioned raspberry lemon muffins as a possibility to Rich and Calvin and they jumped on it. My decision was made. Of course, I didn’t have a recipe for raspberry lemon muffins. I decided to start with my go-to blueberry muffin recipe and tweak it a bit.

I substituted raspberries for blueberries, of course. I upped the amount a bit, to match up with the volume of one six ounce package of raspberries. I added the zest and juice of one lemon to really give the muffins a citrus zing. I then increased the sugar just a bit to offset the tang of the lemon.

They baked up beautifully – tender cake surrounding tart, bright red raspberries, topped with a shattering sugar crust. I like the bursts of tartness from the berries, contrasting with the barely sweet muffin. If you like things sweeter, follow the directions in the head note of the recipe, or add a sprinkling of sugar at the table. As is, they are light, bright and refreshing –the muffin version of a glass of cold lemonade on a hot day.

Download or print recipe here.

Raspberry Lemon Muffins
From The Cook’s Life
Makes 12 muffins

These are not very sweet. If you like your muffins on the sweeter side, you may want to increase the granulated sugar by 1-2 tablespoons.

One small lemon
1 cup white whole wheat flour (or all-purpose flour, if you prefer)
½ cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
⅓ cup granulated sugar (see head note)
1 egg
¾ cup milk
⅓ cup vegetable oil
1½ cups raspberries, fresh or frozen
Granulated or coarse sugar for sprinkling, optional

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease a 12-cup muffin pan and set aside.

Zest the lemon into a large bowl. I Iike to use a microplane for this, but the finest holes on any grater will work.  Add the white whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Stir and set aside. Juice the lemon and set aside.

Beat egg, milk and oil together until well combined. Make a well in the middle of the flour mixture. Add egg mixture and lemon juice and stir gently. When just a few streaks of flour remain, add raspberries. Gently mix just until there is no more dry flour. Let batter sit for about five minutes to let the whole wheat flour absorb more of the liquid.

Divide batter among the greased muffin cups, filling each about three quarters full. Make sure each muffin has at least a couple of raspberries – redistribute the berries if necessary.

Sprinkle the each muffin with about ½ teaspoon of sugar, if desired.

Bake muffins for 12-15 minutes, or until the tops are firm and light golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the middle of a muffin comes out clean.

The muffins are tender – let them cool in the pan for 10-15 minutes before moving them to a wire rack to cool to room temperature.

Muffins keep at room temperature for a couple of days. Freeze for longer storage.