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Tiny Almond Lemon Cakes with Bourbon Vanilla Bean Glaze

23 May

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It would be no exaggeration at all to say that my quest to perfect these little cakes has been haunting me for weeks now. It started with an introduction, by way of the incomparable Heidi Swanson’s 101 Cookbooks. Swanson made a batch of these little almond beauties, and I was hooked at first sight. The delicate almond crumb. The swipe of vanilla bean-flecked frosting. I was all in.

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But then, much to my horror, my dream of making my own batch of tiny little almond cakes was brought to an abrupt halt when I was faced with the heretofore unknown price of almond paste. Featured as the main ingredient in Swanson’s cakes, almond paste, I came to discover, sells at a market rate of about $1.50 per ounce. As the cake called for 14 ounces of almond paste (which, for those of you not interested in doing the math, would run me over $21), I, upon witnessing the price, slowly backed away from the paste and went home to cry sad little almond-cake-less tears.

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But I could not be stopped. Look, as a person who has taken the time to create a mini cherpumple just for kicks, there was no way I was going to miss out on this almond cake just because of my unwillingness to pay as much for 14 ounces of almond paste as I pay for enough Thai food to feed three people (I love you, cheap Thai takeout). So, I made my own almond paste, the added benefit of which was the fortuitous ability to control (read: reduce) the amount of sugar included in the paste. Smooth sailing was to be found ahead, right?

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No. My first attempt at the cake found me trying to bake the entire thing in a too-small fluted cake pan, a cute little number that is only 6 inches wide, but exceptionally deep, making for a cake that was beautifully browned along the edges, but unfortunately underdone in the very center. My next attempt included the use of the same pan, only with a slightly altered recipe that changed the egg ratio, the amount of cornstarch, and the baking time. The cake cooked all the way through this time, but about two minutes after I took it out of the oven it completely collapsed, folding in on itself like a deflated wading pool.

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More tinkering ensued, things were added and taken away, and then, finally, success was achieved. Baked in tiny little pans (thanks again, Corinna!), the cakes, unburdened by an excess of batter, turned out perfectly. The key? Knowing your pans. Though you may want to pour all of this cake’s batter into one smallish-yet-tallish pan, don’t do it. Almond paste behaves very differently than flour when it bakes, and this cake contains no leavening agent to aid in its rise. A taller pan will only bring you grief in the form of an underdone or collapsed cake. My experience has shown that an 8-inch pan works beautifully if baking a single cake, or, if you are in the mood for making several cakes at once, these cakes turn out wonderfully when baked in tiny little molds. The final product here is just spectacular, with the unmistakable flavor of almond essence mingling with the freshness of lemon zest and just the tiniest touch of bourbon in the vanilla bean glaze. The crumb is light, the hue is nothing short of gorgeous, and, at long last, everything about it is just right.

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Last Year: Garlic Naan and Indian Turkey Burgers with Green Chutney

Tiny Almond Lemon Cakes with Bourbon Vanilla Bean Glaze

Adapted from 101 Cookbooks

10 ounces raw blanched almonds

4 ounces (about ¾ cup) confectioners’ sugar

3 large eggs, at room temperature

2 large egg yolks, at room temperature

finely grated zest of 1 lemon

½ teaspoon sea salt

scant ¼ cup cornstarch

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted then cooled

Bourbon Vanilla Bean Glaze

1 cup confectioners’ sugar

2 tablespoons milk

seeds scraped from ½ a vanilla bean

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon bourbon (to taste)

optional: toasted almond slices

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Thoroughly butter and flour an 8-inch pan, or several smaller pans.

In the bowl of a food processor, pulverize blanched almonds until pebbly. Add the confectioners’ sugar, and continue to process until mixture is very fine and just beginning to barely clump together. Process too much, and you’ve got almond butter (delicious, but not what you want here). Add the eggs and egg yolks, and process until smooth. Add the cornstarch, salt, and lemon zest, pulse a few times, then pour in the butter. Blend one more time, before transferring to the prepared pan (or pans).

Bake in the center of the oven until deeply golden and set in the center, when a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. This will take what seems like an impossible amount of time. An 8-inch cake can take up to an hour, and the tiny little cakes seen above took almost 45 minutes. The color of the cakes will be deeply golden, and will appear just on the verge of being too dark.

Let the cake or cakes cool in their pan(s) for a bit (5 minutes for tiny cakes, 20 minutes for a larger cake), then turn out onto a wire rack to finish cooling completely.

To make glaze, combine all ingredients together in a small bowl, then whisk until smooth. When cakes have cooled completely, drizzle with glaze. If desired, sprinkle with toasted almond slices.

Makes about 3 cups of batter total, enough for one 8-inch cake, or six tiny cakes plus one super flat, tart-like 8-inch cake.

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Homemade Granola Bars

11 Apr

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If I were to tell you straight off the bat that these granola bars were made of whole grains, dried fruit, healthy nuts, and no added sugar or sweeteners, you would probably roll your eyes at me and then refuse a taste of what could only be an exercise of virtuous, boring, tasteless snacking. This would be a mistake, of course, because refusing a taste of one of these delicious granola bars is akin to refusing yourself a…well, a taste of a delicious granola bar. A really, really delicious granola bar.

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I am aware that most people do not give one hoot about what goes into a granola bar, and I understand why. Granola bars are not particularly exciting, and being readily available at any number of stores only adds to the banal nature of their status. But, if you are like me, and you like snacking, and you like your snacking to do as little damage to yourself as possible, you start to actually get interested in granola bars and the elements that make a fine granola bar what it is.

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As with energy bars, I tend to think that a granola bar should not be simply a disguised candy bar or a cookie. If you’re going to eat a candy bar or a cookie, just eat a candy bar or a cookie. Conversely, if you’re going to reach for a seemingly healthy granola bar, it should be all that its reputation advertises. Sweetened with pulverized dates and a hit of fresh, unfiltered apple cider (which is merely unfiltered apple juice, for all you Europeans out there), there is nary an extra sweetener included in these fellows. What is included in these granola bars, however, is a whole lot of stuff that is very good for you, and also has the added benefit of tasting good. It’s not all that often that you can find a place where those two distinctions overlap. Take advantage of that knowledge and put these to work right away.

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Another take on homemade granola bars (although a thicker, sweeter, heartier option) can be found here

Last Year: Cider-Braised Greens and Roasted Fingerling Sweet Potatoes with Lemon Tarragon Aioli

Homemade Granola Bars

2 cups oats (not quick-cooking oats)

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon sea salt

1 cup roughly chopped nuts or seeds of your choice (I used almonds, pepitas, and sunflower seeds)

½ cup dried fruit of your choice, roughly chopped to be of similar size to the nuts (I used chopped dried apricots, but raisins, dried cherries, or dried blueberries would also be good)

1 cup pitted whole dates (plain, with no added sugar)

¼ cup unfiltered apple cider (also called unfiltered apple juice)

1/3 cup almond butter

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a 9” by 13” baking pan with a sling of parchment paper, then slightly spray or brush the pan and paper with vegetable oil.

In a large bowl, combine the oats, cinnamon, sea salt, nuts, and dried fruit. Toss to combine.

In the bowl of a food processor or blender, combine the pitted dates and apple cider. Pulse until the mixture forms a thick paste, with some visible chunks of date still remaining.

In a medium bowl, combine date and cider mixture with almond butter, vanilla, and vegetable oil, then whisk to combine. Pour wet mixture over oat mixture. Using a spatula or wooden spoon, stir the ingredients together until they are thoroughly combined.

Pour the mixture into the prepared pan. Wet your hands, then pat the mixture into the pan, pressing it down into the edges and corners. The mixture will really, really want to stick to your hands, so keep rewetting your hands as necessary until you’ve flattened the mixture completely into the pan.

Bake in the center of the oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until the edges are golden brown. I baked the batch pictured above for far too long, so it is overly darkened at the edges. Don’t make the same mistake.

Allow the bars to cool for at least an hour before attempting to cut them. Cutting with a large serrated knife (like a bread knife) works best for these. The granola bars will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for about a week, but they will keep indefinitely if kept in an airtight container in the freezer.

Homemade Energy Bars

24 Jan

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When my son was in kindergarten, the head of his school sent a very polite note to all the parents asking that they please not pack energy bars in their children’s lunches. Energy bars, she explained, are little more than candy bars packaged as a healthy food, and they’re not the type of thing that five year-olds need to have powering them during school. When I read this note, I was sort of flabbergasted. Not because the head of my son’s school was asking that kids not eat energy bars while at school, but because, up until that point, I realized that I had no idea what an energy bar actually was. I thought it was, like, a granola bar with more nuts in it, or maybe a tightly packed rectangle of muesli. Energy bars have added sugar in them? They contain chocolate? Who knew?

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Well, as it turns out, everybody in the entire world, aside from me, knew that. Not to keep feeding the myth of my own Luddite tendencies, but, look, I have never actually eaten an energy bar, nor have I ever seen one out of its package. If you’ve never been in close proximity of an energy bar, one would logically think that, hey, if this food is supposed to keep people energized while doing physical activity, it must be packed with lots of protein, a good dose of fruit, and maybe some grains. In reality, energy bars are basically cookies. Sure, they can be organic, cane juice (read: sugar) sweetened, oatmeal cookies, but they are still cookies. Sometimes they’re even just straight-up brownies. Now, it should be obvious to everyone here that I have absolutely no problem with cookies and other sweets, but I tend to think that if you’re going to make something that is labeled as being healthy or good for a kid, that thing should actually live up to its name.

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This is all a long-winded way to tell you all that, look, I, the person who has never actually seen an energy bar, have made you some energy bars. Actually, what I have made is not so much an energy bar, as it is what I think an energy bar should be. It is packed with protein, filled with fruit, and it contains no gluten or grains (not because I don’t eat gluten or grains, but because I thought people might like having the option of an energy bar without those things in it). It is just about as friendly and harmless a snack as anyone could ever wish for, only these suckers are also super delicious. Like, almost dangerously so. I’ve taken to eating one just about every other waking hour, which means that I am going to have to start preparing for some hiking or power-biking pretty soon, lest I waste the virtues of these energy bars on my current low energy activities of sitting, typing, and reading. Although, sometimes I do get up and stretch in between prolonged bursts of frantic typing, which means that, hmmmm, maybe I might need another energy bar to help my body power up for more stretching. You wait here while I go get one. I’ll lead some stretches when I get back.

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Last Year: Yard Long Beans with Chile Oil and Garlic Bits and Ponzu-Marinated Flank Steak

Homemade Energy Bars

These little bars are basically little more than a collection of fruits and nuts all ground together and then baked a bit to keep their shape. The recipe below was based on whatever seeds, nuts and dried fruits I had sitting around in the house, but I’d encourage you to use whatever combination of flavors you think would be good. I think dried, unsweetened coconut would be great in here, as would dried apricots, dried apples, or dried, unsweetened cherries.

¼ unfiltered apple cider

½ cup whole Medjool dates, cut into quarters, seeds removed

½ cup dried mangoes

½ cup dried pears

1 cup whole raw almonds

¼ cup raw pepitas (pumpkin seeds)

¼ cup raw sunflower seeds

¼ teaspoon sea salt

Preheat oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, then set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine apple cider, dates, dried mangoes, and dried pears. Toss to combine, then allow to sit and soak for a bit while you gather the remaining ingredients.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine soaked dried fruits (along with any apple cider remaining in the bowl) and almonds. Pulse 5 or 6 times to coarsely chop everything. Add the pepitas, sunflower seeds, and salt, then pulse half a dozen more times until the mixture sticks together and begins to clump up. There should still be big chunks of seeds and nuts visible.

Turn mixture out on to a large sheet of wax paper. Wet your hands with water (to prevent the mixture from sticking to your hands too much), then shape the mixture into a 12” by 6” rectangle. Cut the rectangle into 8 bars that are roughly 6” by 1.5” a piece. Using a flexible spatula, transfer bars to parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake in center of oven for 10 minutes, then carefully turn each bar over and continue to bake for an additional 8 to 10 minutes. The bars should be slightly golden, but the nuts should not be singed or burned.

Remove from oven, and allow bars to cool on baking sheet. Store in an airtight container for 3 days at room temperature, or in the refrigerator for up to a week. Or just eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and never find it necessary to store them anywhere for any prolonged period of time.

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