crabapple hooch

My neighborhood isn’t tight in the way some are. No block parties and outside of the casual, “hi, how’s it going,” folks tend to stick to their own business. That said, there are a few neighbors we’ve connected with and built relationships with. And it is to them that I dedicate this post.

treesTwo years ago, I was invited by neighbors across the street to help myself to the beautiful and rosy red crabapples hanging from their tree.

Never one to turn down free food, I filled a large bucket and considered my options. This being so long ago, I don’t remember exactly why I thought “liqueur,” but I did and after a quick google search, I had my recipe.

apples picked

apples picked

quartered and cored

quartered and cored

My husband and I settled in to watch a movie that night and I started in on the crabapple prep. Had I known that coring these tiny little apples would take upwards of six hours, I would have started much earlier.

mixed with sugar and vodka

mixed with sugar and vodka

Eventually, though, I was ready to mix the quartered crabapples with vodka and sugar. And when I climbed into bed at 2 a.m., I was comforted in knowing that my crabapple vodka would be ready for unveiling in 16 short days.

a bit cloudy at first--sugar crystals will dissolve in a few weeks and the resulting liqueur will be ruby red and crystal clear

a bit cloudy at first

16 days later

16 days later

high-tech filtration system

high-tech filtration system

isn't it lovely?

isn’t it lovely?

They didn’t disappoint. What a lovely batch of liqueur: brilliant red, sweet but tart, almost syrupy. I treasured my supply and whittled it down ever so slowly.

For botanical reasons of which I know not, this crabapple tree bears fruit every other year. Last year, then, offered no harvest. But this year I hit the jackpot and was invited again by our neighbors to pick.

This go-round, I’m tackling the project in smaller segments–no more all-nighters for me–and am once again comforted and thrilled to have crabapple hooch “brewing” to sip, savor, and share.

on the tree

on the tree

Many thanks to neighbors who are willing to share their harvest. I also raise a glass of this lovely spirit to Jessica, a neighbor and friend who is relatively new to the street and, sadly, soon to leave. We’ve shared a few toasts over the years, and I thank you for your friendship. You will be missed!

cheers to Jessica :-)

cheers to Jessica 🙂

banana bash–three dishes you’ll want to make and one you will not

Those who’ve been here before may have read mention of neighbors who bring over a box of food every Sunday. My understanding is that their church has a community food bank, from which they take any leftovers home to share with friends and family.

It’s much like a CSA as I never know what a Sunday will bring. Near-expired dairy products, produce, cookies, bread–it’s been fun to receive this kindness weekly. We offer our thanks each time they bring bounty (though their being from Nigeria and ourselves born and raised Minnesotan means communication can be spotty) and when appropriate, share what we make with their gifts. (They once brought over a 50-pound (!) box of chocolate chips–you’d better believe they got a batch or three of cookies out of me.)

they dared me to use them all

they dared me to use them all

I share this here not so much as a personal anecdote, but rather to set up this post’s reason for being: four bunches of spotted bananas. Not four spotted bananas, no. Four bunches.

What to do? A loaf of banana bread wouldn’t even make a dent. Freezing (peeled or no, both work) would take care of what I couldn’t use, but I was up for a challenge, so put it out there on deLizious facebook that I needed banana recipes stat. And my awesome readers came through. Here’s what I did to use up three of those four bunches. (One went home with friends, so was not my problem.):

My friend Jill wrote about a smoothie her family enjoys on summer nights. Cleverly named Monkey Smoothies blend frozen banana chunks, chocolate sauce, peanut butter, and milk. I cut a few bananas up and froze them overnight, then followed Jill’s instructions the next morning. The shakes were dreamy and tasted much like a peanut butter cup would were it frozen and drinkable. Definitely a winner.

frozen bananas, pbutter, choc sauce, milk--yum!

frozen bananas, pbutter, choc sauce, milk–how could this be anything but extraordinary?

monkey smoothie: drink a candy bar for breakfast

monkey smoothie: drink a candy bar for breakfast

Fellow WordPress blogger Perky Poppy Seed opened new worlds for me with her “recipe.” She suggested slitting unpeeled bananas “banana split-style” and placing on a baking sheet. Next, the slits were filled with small pieces of butter, ground cinnamon, and a splash of rum (or brandy or bourbon) and roasted at 400°F-ish until the skins turn black. Finally, the puree is spooned from the skins and used wherever mashed banana is called for. This was a “wow” for me–any banana bread I’ve ever made (and I’ve made a fair number as I try not to repeat b bread recipes) could be made again with this spiked puree, taking on a slightly different flavor. This I had to try.

not going to win any beauty contest, but they smell heavenly

not going to win beauty contests, but they smell heavenly

I filled and roasted 10 of the bananas, placing them on a foil-lined baking sheet to avoid having to wash the pan. The fragrance was heavenly and the final puree was as amazing as I’d imagined.

this stuff is pure baking gold

pure baking gold

I immediately set aside a cup for my next project, which was…

bananarama cake!

bananarama cake!

Beki, of Beki Cook’s Cakes, is the instructor responsible for my personal best in making a cake look pretty. She responded to my facebook query with a link to her blog for what looked to be an amazing recipe. I followed this recipe mostly to the letter, though used the roasted rum bananas and sprinkled a touch of vanilla salt between frosted layers.

The cake was phenomenal, though Beki will most likely wonder if I left my fine decorating skills in her classroom. Alas, the finished cake was a bit more goofy than it was beautiful. (I could use my 7-year-old daughter as an excuse for the imperfect frosting, but she was really only responsible for one smudge in the lettering. I’ll take full responsibility here.)

one crazy--but tasty--cake

one crazy–but tasty–cake

But even without bakery-quality visuals, this cake was crazy good. I was finally able to stop myself after three slices (they were fairly small, but still!) and am even now remembering how moist and tender that cake was. How it had an earthy sweetness that keeps you coming back for more. I managed to part with half of the cake to share with our neighbors, which means the cake has already dwindled significantly. When it’s gone? I’ll make another as I have a good cup or so of the spirited puree in my freezer.

oh, this is good

oh, this is good

The one banana recipe I did not use (besides the one that read “open trash bag, throw away”–horrors!) was offered by the keeper of the Kirschner Cookbook Library, which I’ve written up here before. Megan posts great finds from this library at a favorite blog and she pulled from her archives to share Banana Sardine Boats. These scary salads are worth a click for the kitsch factor alone.

Left in my freezer, then, is about a cup of spirited banana puree and maybe 1/2 cup frozen banana chunks. I was thrilled to meet my banana challenge, though also had plenty of help from facebook readers. While the four bunches of spotty bananas are gone, I’m certain I will run across more sooner rather than later and I’d bet you will, too. So I ask you to keep the recipes and ideas coming. What is your go-to banana recipe when you find yourself with too many brown bananas? Please share as it’s more fun to go bananas with fellow food folk 🙂

making-do-with-what-I-have pumpkin bread pudding

I have collected a fair number of cans of pumpkin puree (thank you, neighbors), so a recipe for Pumpkin Bread Pudding recently caught my eye. Being the only one in the house who enjoys bread pudding doesn’t deter me from making it. I can easily justify enjoying the whole batch myself. It counts as breakfast, yes?

Tonight was the night for the bread pudding. Topped with a bourbon sauce (isn’t all bread pudding supposed to be served with some type of whiskey sauce?) and a cloud of whipped cream (yes, laced with bourbon), it was swoon-worthy. The pudding itself isn’t overly sweet and has a beautiful almost pumpkin pie-like texture. As a bread pudding, though, it is decidedly hearty and rustic–even more so than some as it started with a loaf of fairly dense mulitgrain bread.

I was trying to use up a rather large (17-ounce) round loaf of multigrain bread (gift from same neighbor), so this replaced the baguette called for in the recipe. I sliced it 1/2 inch thick per recipe instructions, but my loaf was so much larger than a narrow baguette, the slices were anything but delicate. Just the same, I toasted it in the oven per recipe instructions and tore it into large pieces before soaking it in the egg mixture. In the end, I like how the irregular-size pieces meld together in the custard.

The recipe called for 1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice. Didn’t have (how many of us do?) and wasn’t going to run out and buy so used 1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon and made up the difference with half ground ginger and half freshly grated nutmeg. (sort of what the recipe advised)

I also didn’t have 1 quart half-and-half in the house. It would have been easy enough to mix 2 cups cream (which I did have) with 2 cups milk, but this was one of those times (and we all have them) when we were milk-less. I don’t know too many fans of powdered milk, though it does come through in a pinch when baking. My “half-and-half” was 2 cups liquid milk made per powder box instructions stirred into the same amount of cream.

Instead of the dark brown sugar I usually make (1 cup white sugar plus 2 tablespoons molasses), I made a lighter version by replacing 1 tablespoon molasses with the same amount of dark honey.

Also, the original recipe toasted the bread and baked the pudding at 300°F. I bumped up the second bake temp as I wanted faster baking and some browning on the surface.

Here’s how it all turned out.

pumpkin bread pudding swimming in a honey-bourbon sauce

Pumpkin Bread Pudding

Adapted from a recipe found in Everyday Food (November 2003). Note that my recipe looks nothing like what was intended. Tasty just the same.

  • 1 (1-pound) loaf multigrain bread, sliced 1/2 inch thick (I used most of a 17-ounce loaf)
  • 4  large eggs
  • 2 cups milk and 2 cups cream, or 1 quart half-and-half
  • 1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin puree
  • 1 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon and 3/4 teaspoon each ground ginger and freshly grated nutmeg, or 1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Heat oven to 300°F. Coat 9-inch baking pan with cooking spray.

Place bread on baking sheet. Bake, turning slices over once, 20 minutes or until lightly toasted. Remove from oven. Tear into large pieces.

Meanwhile, in large bowl, combine eggs, milk, cream, pumpkin, brown sugar, spices, vanilla, and salt; whisk until blended. When bread is toasted, add to bowl; push down to submerge. Let soak 20 minutes or until saturated.

Heat oven to 325°F. Pour bread mixture into baking pan. Bake about 1 hour or until knife inserted in center comes out clean. Makes 12 servings.

Honey-Bourbon Sauce

  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 2 tablespoons cream
  • 2 tablespoons bourbon
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Pinch salt

In small saucepan, bring all ingredients except vanilla and salt to a boil. Boil  5 minutes or until just slightly thickened. Stir in vanilla and salt. Makes about 1/2 cup.

Bourbon Whipped Cream

In bowl, whip heavy cream to make whipped cream, stirring in a splash of bourbon and just about as much powdered sugar.

Victory Part 3-1What does Nathan Fillion have to do with bread pudding? Absolutely nothing. This is why he’s here.

pepper pots

Bell peppers are on sale at a neighborhood grocery this week, which is a good thing. I love the vibrant colors of yellow, red, and orange bell peppers. I already had a stash of green bell peppers in the refrigerator thanks to a gift from a neighbor. The peppers would serve as inspiration for tonight’s supper.

I immediately thought “pepper pot soup,” though not sure why as I’d no idea what it was. A bit of online searching uncovered two types–a Jamaican hot pot of sorts with yams, coconut milk, and hot chile peppers. The Philadelphia or Yankee version was more what I had in mind: beef, carrots, celery, okra (had some on hand from a recent project), tomatoes, and the namesake bell peppers. I’d love to share a recipe here for what I made, but can’t. It’s not that I don’t want to follow recipes; my livelihood is developing, writing, and editing recipes, after all. It’s just that I never seem to have all of the ingredients I need. Or I mess up somewhere along the way. But I use what I have and move through “mistakes,” because I know that recipes are only springboards (am talking cooking here–this laissez fare attitude doesn’t usually hold for baking).

When I made tonight’s pepper pot soup, I loaded up on the bell peppers, replaced the tripe with short ribs, added thyme, beer, and a splash of white wine vinegar for more flavor depth, skipped the water and bouillon in favor of the stock I’d made with beef soup bones (one of the easiest ways to make something spectacular), used twice as much okra as the recipe called for as I wanted to finish the bag, and probably some other “tweaks” I’m not recalling. Could I make the exact same soup again? Nope. Was it good? Absolutely. My daughters picked out most of the vegetables, but they tried something new and I consider that a success.

Beef stock is as easy as throwing a few ingredients into a pot and letting it simmer. Freeze the stock in ice-cube trays, then pop the cubes into a resealable freezer bag for quick hit of broth. Or freeze in 1- or 2-cup portions.

Homemade Beef Stock

  • Beef soup bones
  • Water
  • 1 large onion, cut into wedges
  • 2 to 3 carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks
  • 2 to 3 celery ribs, cut into large chunks
  • 6 or so whole peppercorns
  • Bay leaf
  • Few sprigs fresh parsley

Heat large stockpot over medium-high heat. Add soup bones; cook, turning, until browned on all sides. Add remaining ingredients. Cover pot; bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer uncovered 4 to 6 hours. Strain and discard solids. Skim fat from surface of stock or refrigerate and remove top layer of chilled fat.  Season stock with salt, if desired. Refrigerate or freeze to store.

jammin’ 2

Tonight, I made jam with the berries from our generous neighbors. I’m still a jam newbie, so it was great fun to stir, boil, and learn. I watched the numbers go up on the digital thermometer and matched temperatures to changes in the jam’s consistency. Stirring the brilliantly hued syrup (blackberries, blueberries, raspberries) made for a stunning canvas–the jam-to-be looked like a pinker version of Van Gogh’s Starry Night with its sparkly swirly insanity. The process wasn’t without hiccups, though. Apparently, my canning jars have been used for craft projects (kids) and an undectected clump of glitter made its way into the boiling water when the jars were being sterilized. Rewash. Re-sterilize. When the jam was jarred and processed, I scraped all I could from the saucepan, wishing I could retrieve every last bit. Remembering the chocolate syrup we’d poured over our pound cake and strawberries for dessert earlier, I took the last of the syrup and stirred it into the pan. Stirred and heated gently, the simple, homemade syrup became an elegant chocolate-berry syrup. Magical. I found the chocolate syrup recipe a while back on a clone website. It was too easy and fun to make to ever go back to buying the packaged kind. It makes great chocolate milk and hot chocolate and is wonderful drizzled over pound cake and fresh fruit. And now I know that berry jam is its perfect flavor partner.

Chocolate-Milk Chocolate Syrup

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (you can play around with using dark or regular–it’s all good)
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 dash salt

In saucepan, combine cocoa, sugar and salt. Add water; mix until smooth. Bring to a boil. Boil 1 minute, watching carefully so it doesn’t boil over. Reduce heat; simmer 3 to 4 minutes or until just slightly thickened. Remove from heat; cool slightly. Stir in vanilla. Store in refrigerator.

homemade Hershey’s syrup–sweet!

jamming

Had a long morning. Was able to squeeze a gym trip in before heading off to church where my youngest was in the children’s musical. Next, off to the mall for lunch, hair cuts, and shoes. The girls weren’t especially poorly behaved, but I was feeling tapped when we got home. I was unhappy with my oldest, who was whining about not getting the same shoes as her sister. My repeated encouragement/scolding that she focus on what she does have rather than what she doesn’t seems to always fall on deaf ears.

As it often does, though, food turned things around for me. We returned home to our neighbor’s gift of a large box packed full with pints of fresh berries: blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries. And some grapes and mixed greens thrown in for good measure. These neighbors occasionally bring us leftover food from their church and I’m excited each time we get a box. Holy CSA, Batman! Often it’s organic produce, dairy, or eggs. But never the same collection of food. (Have 10 green bell peppers in my refrigerator right now; need a good stuffed pepper recipe.) I love this gift of food because it’s bounty. It’s excess. It’s generosity. I’m ever appreciative and often bring the neighbors part of whatever I make with their gifts. Today, their gift helped me build up what was torn down. I’ll be making jam with the berries and our neighbors can expect a jar or three.

Berry Jam (from the 2009 Ball Blue Book guide to preserving)

  • 9 cups crushed berries
  • 6 cups sugar

In large saucepan, combine berries and sugar. Slowly bring to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves.  Cook rapidly to gelling point (220°F at sea level or when jam breaks from spoon in a sheet or flake), stirring more frequently as jam thickens to prevent sticking. Remove from heat. Skim foam if necessary. Ladle hot jam into sterile, hot jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Seal with sterile canning lid and ring. Process 15 minutes in boiling-water canner.*

*I’ve yet to purchase a canner, so for now make do with sterilizing canning equipment in the dishwasher, then “processing” the filled and sealed jars in a stockpot of boiling water. I do have a canning jar funnel and lifter to make filling and transporting the jars to and from the boiling water easier. If you’re new to canning, read through canning instructions well before starting. For a fairly simple process, there’s a lot to it and after all of the hands-on time you’re putting into it (not to mention the fantastic fresh produce you’re using), it’s not something you want to mess up.