Saturday, March 27, 2010

Blueberry-Pecan Whole Grain Pancakes

There once was a time, in a galaxy far, far away, when I slept late on Saturday mornings and then lounged around drinking coffee and reading the newspaper for, oh, hours if I felt like it.

Those days are over.

Saturdays begin a wee bit earlier now, and though the quiet and calm has been replaced with the sound of cartoons and squabbling children, my aim is still for a slow start to the busy that overtakes so much of our time these days.

Too much busy isn't good for anyone, and luckily, my little family seems to agree with me on this one small point. Yesterday, after three straight days of non-stop running around, the children and I had nowhere to be, nothing that had to get done, and no reason to look presentable to the rest of the world.

The Boy Wonder, usually game for any adventure, said wearily, "Mom, do we have to go anywhere today?" I shook my head and he brightened up instantly, saying, "Yay. Can I wear my pajamas all day?"

That's my boy.

And so it goes that there are mornings when we don't have to rush, when the cereal boxes get left on top of the refrigerator, and when we can all gather around the table and enjoy a leisurely homemade breakfast. In our pajamas, of course.

Pancakes are always a hit around here, and it is the breakfast I have the most fond childhood memories of myself. We have always been a whole-grain family. My mother raised me on oatmeal pancakes that, if followed with a glass of water, would swell in one's stomach and negate the need for another meal for the rest of the day (and sometimes the day after). These weren't the kind of thing that came from a box, but rather from the dog-eared, cover-held-on-with-a-rubber-band copy of Recipes for a Small Planet that lived on our kitchen counter through my entire childhood.

I love that cookbook. I do not cook from it these days (I am the only vegetarian, child-raised-by-a-hippie in the house, after all), and it has been out of print for many years, but the cover art is enough to send me back 30 years every time I see it.

The title of this silly blog is, naturally, a play on the title of that beloved old cookbook.

I have made variations on whole-wheat pancakes for some time now, tinkering here and there, and sometimes (shocker alert) going so far as to use a whole-wheat baking mix (!) in order to achieve the texture I was aiming for: something a little lighter than the usual brick-like substance that results when using 100% whole-wheat flour.

Actually, it isn't only pancakes that have given me a bit of trouble texture-wise. Bread, pizza dough, pasta, pancakes - anything made with 100% whole-wheat flour has been a bit too heavy for our taste, so I have tended to go with a mix of whole-wheat and unbleached all purpose flour when making any of these items.

It pained me to do so, to use all-purpose flour, and to have store-bought whole-wheat items surpass what I could make at home. A friend told me about vital wheat gluten, and said that it would help lighten the finished product, but I found that to be a rather intimidating prospect, though I cannot explain why.

It was only recently, when consulting Alice Water's The Art of Simple Food for something or another that I came across her recipe for pancakes. The answer to most of my problems was right there, and I felt a bit daft for not having thought of it myself: use 1/2 whole-wheat pastry flour and 1/2 regular whole-wheat flour in order to keep them light.

Whole-wheat pastry flour is ground very, very finely, and is quite lovely to use, as it turns out. I had a bag in the fridge already from a long-forgotten cookie recipe, but was, for some unexplainable reason, storing it for a special occasion I suppose. After reading the tip in The Art of Simple Food though, I pulled out the bag and went straight to work on it. Over the course of a few days, I have now elevated it to the same status as olive oil and kosher salt for items I would take to a desert island. It is crucial stuff, you see, and works magic on whole-grain foods. My pizza dough is now perfect (thin, crispy, and yet 100% whole-wheat) and the pancakes I made using this technique are, in my only slightly humble opinion, the best ones I have yet to eat.

And I've eaten a lot of pancakes.

Texture is key with pancakes, and not just in finding the middle ground between leaden hippie whole wheat pancakes and that spongy, tasteless fluff from a white flour baking mix. Something must break up the monotony of a single-texture meal, and in this case I use both fruit,frozen so it stays whole while mixing, and nuts.

I was a little late coming to the table where putting nuts in pancakes is concerned. As a matter of fact, and this pains me greatly to admit, it was at IHOP of all places that I first had a pancake with nuts. It was a revelation, I tell you, and it took me some experimentation at home, but when at last I got these pancakes right, I felt like I had reached the other side of my vision quest.

Everyone takes pancakes this seriously, right?


BLUEBERRY-PECAN WHOLE GRAIN PANCAKES (serves 4, adapted from The Art of Simple Food)
  • 3/4 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
  • 3/4 cup whole-grain flour (any mixture or single choice of: whole wheat, spelt, cornmeal, rye or buckwheat)
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecans
  • 1 tsp baking powder (see recipe for homemade baking powder)
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 eggs, separated
  • 1 3/4 cups buttermilk
  • 6 Tbs butter, melted
  • 1 cup blueberries, frozen
  1. In a large bowl, mix together both flours, nuts, baking powder, baking soda, sugar and salt.
  2. In a small bowl or large measuring cup, whisk the egg yolks into the buttermilk.
  3. Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients, pour in the buttermilk mixture, and stir until just mixed.
  4. Stir in the melted butter.
  5. In a separate small bowl, beat the egg whites until the form soft peaks (this can be done by hand or in a mixer), then fold them into the batter.
  6. Fold the blueberries into the batter.
  7. On a preheated, lightly greased griddle (or skillet) over medium heat, drop 1/4-cup of batter and cook until lightly browned, about 1 to 2 minutes. Flip, and cook until the other side is lightly browned as well.
  8. Keep warm on a cookie sheet in a 200 degree oven until all pancakes are cooked.
  9. Serve with butter and pure maple syrup.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Life is Short, and the Winter was Long

Life is too short to do formal lessons on a beautiful day when the sun is shining, the breeze is warm, the birds are singing, and the daffodils are blooming. The phonics can wait. So can the dishes, the laundry, and the paperwork.

Life is too short to worry about what people will think if I post pictures of my shirtless children playing outside. We live in the country, and they were too full of joy to care about clothes or to even notice where they dropped their shirts.

It should be noted that life is not so short that I did not make absolute certain that I collected all the discarded clothing and put it in the laundry room before Elvis the bloodhound could run off with them.

Life is too short to toss the dirty shirts into the washing machine on a day like this. Like I said, the laundry can wait.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Pasta with Clam Sauce

There are days when so many things go wrong, when every well-laid plan is thwarted, when time spins out of control, when everything I touch seems to suffer the anti-Midas touch.

Yesterday was not one of those days.

Oh, things went wonky, of course. Things are always a little bit off around here (there is a two-year-old in the mix, after all), and every day seems to have its own detours and moments of hilarity, but serendipity herself came to visit yesterday, bringing little silver linings to each of the day's oddities.

After all was said and done for the long, rainy, chilly day, when all the members of our family had gathered back home for the short dinnertime respite between afternoon and evening activities, when it was time to breathe and to laugh and share time together, I surveyed our options for dinner and realized that my initial plan was never going to work in the time we had remaining. I scrambled around, a little unnerved at first, searching the pantry and the fridge for last-minute ideas, and that is when our old friend serendipity showed up.

Right there in the back corner of the fridge, was a giant batch of fresh whole-wheat pasta that I had rolled out and cut into fettuccine just a few days prior, and there is no meal that cannot be salvaged when fresh pasta is at hand. When time is short, dried pasta can almost always come through in a pinch, but fresh pasta? You could drizzle the stuff with olive oil and a sprinkle of grated Parmesan cheese and call it dessert if you wanted; no one would complain.

There are items I always keep around though, because moments like this happen so often, when time races away from me or when, (cough, cough) like today, I forget to soak the beans and have to scrap my original menu plan; items like flat-leaf parsley, lemons, shallots, and cans of chopped clams. Clam sauce is always easy, never fails to make the kids happy, and though it isn't so exquisite that the average person would write home about it, it can be a revelation when trotted out at a time that I might have needed to resort to fried egg sandwiches.

Not that there is anything wrong with fried-egg sandwiches, mind you.

Within 20 minutes, dinner was on the table, and the silky, fresh pasta elevated the clam sauce to its best day yet around here. I use chopped clams, rather than minced ones, for better texture, and use the clam juice as part of the sauce. It is a rare day that I am such a fan of food from a can, but in this case, I stand firmly behind the convenience, low-cost, and briny flavor. The fresh parsley and lemon zest brighten the dish and save it from being a Pantry Emergency Dinner, and a little pat of butter adds richness and heft to the sauce.

A quick, simple dinner can be such a thing of beauty.



Brush toasted baguette slices with a little bit of olive oil and lemon juice, and top with a smattering of the chopped parsley for an easy bruschetta to serve with the pasta.
  • 1 pound dried spaghetti, linguine or fettuccine (or fresh pasta, if available)
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 shallots, finely chopped (or 1/2 an onion if that's all you've got)
  • 5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 cans chopped clams, juice of one can reserved (discard juice from other can)
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine (cheap old cooking wine is adequate)
  • 1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley, divided
  • 1/2 tsp kosher or sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 Tbs unsalted butter
  • freshly grated zest of 1 lemon
  • freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  1. Cook the pasta in heavily salted, boiling water until al dente. Drain, reserving about 1/2 cup of the pasta water to thin the sauce as needed.
  2. While pasta cooks, heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
  3. Add the shallots and saute until soft, about 3 minutes.
  4. Add the garlic and saute for just a minute, taking care not to burn the garlic (burnt garlic can be unpleasantly bitter).
  5. Add clams, reserved clam juice, wine, half the parsley, and the salt and pepper. Cover the pan, and simmer for 5 minutes.
  6. Whisk in the butter, remove from heat, and toss the pasta with the sauce, adding the reserved pasta water (little by little) if needed to thin the sauce.
  7. Plate the pasta, and sprinkle with remaining parsley, lemon zest, and freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Irish Soda Bread

Sometimes it is almost hard to admit the reasons behind my recipe choices. Of course, the harder something is to admit, the more likely I am to cough it up here, publicly and without remorse. It isn't the confession itself that embarrasses me so much as the fact that I did something so ridiculous in the first place that it bears confessing.

I should have been Catholic.

Last week for instance, with The Carnivore out of town for four days, and The Boy Wonder's soccer season just beginning, I broke down and bought a Kashi frozen pizza for dinner. The thought of doing The Boy Wonder's lessons all morning, taking him to his homeschool PE class in the afternoon, doing the grocery shopping, picking up new cleats, and still getting to soccer practice and then putting the kids to bed seemed like enough to fill my dance card for the day. So I thought I would cut myself a wee bit of slack and skip the cooking and cleaning for dinner.

The thing was, I was kind of mortified to be buying a frozen pizza. I tried to justify it with it's Kashi name. Minimal packaging was involved, it claimed to be "all natural," and there were whole-grains involved, but it still tasted like a frozen pizza, only slightly better than cardboard, and I felt terrible bringing it to the table. Even The Boy Wonder turned his nose up, complaining that it wasn't a fresh-made crust.

The embarrassment was all in the purchase and the serving though. I went straight to Twitter and owned up to what I had fed my children for dinner.

See? Being Catholic would be so easy...

And so it is that I feel obligated to 'fess up to the story behind this Irish Soda Bread. The recipe turned out well; so deliciously, in fact, that I made two batches last week, eating it for breakfast and dinner on some days (the bread is so filling that it makes lunch a moot point), but even if it had turned out badly, I am sure I would have still brought the whole sordid affair into this little forum just so I could stick a 'Kick Me' sign on my back.

Irish soda bread wasn't even on my radar before a few weeks ago, when the March issue of Bon Appetit landed in my hands and I flipped through the magazine to see what jumped out at me. There towards the end, in an article not even alluded to on the cover, was a giant two-page picture of a piece of brown bread just slathered in butter.

Yum, right? Homemade bread topped with nothing but butter does it to me every time, and this photo got me all worked up. The title gave me pause though. 'A Slice of Ireland,' it said, which confounded me. Irish bread? Never even heard of it. I made to flip right on past, but the next few photographs, one of cows and another of a castle, were enough to make me turn right back to the beginning of the article, where I saw this: "In the countryside, there are as many versions of soda bread as there are cooks. Andrew McCarthy goes in search of the ultimate recipe."

Andrew McCarthy?

Like the Andrew McCarthy from Pretty in Pink and St. Elmo's Fire and Less Than Zero? The same one I had a deep, abiding teenage crush on through much of the late eighties?

Well, obviously it wasn't really THAT Andrew McCarthy, though just the memory was enough to make me giggle. I had forgotten all about him, so seeing his name in print (and remembering how badly I had wanted a pink Karmann Ghia for my 16th birthday) was a funny little blast from the past that made me stop right there and read the article anyway. Even though I knew it wasn't THAT Andrew McCarthy.

The article was interesting, of course, like all food/travel articles tend to be for me, but since baking bread isn't high on my list of things to cook, I finished the story and, with nary a glance at the accompanying recipe, flipped back to the front of the mag to commence my cover-to-cover reading. The whole 80's flashback had already slipped my mind when I reached the Letter from the Editor on page 16 and saw, there at the top of the page, "[Y]es, he is that Andrew McCarthy of Brat Pack fame."

Well, I'll be.

The absurdity was almost enough for me to go ahead and try the recipe. I already had all the ingredients on hand, after all, and I do love fresh bread, but, I mean really. Andrew McCarthy?

Maybe if Christian Slater had written the article...

So the bread was forgotten, in favor of Molly Wizenberg's British flapjack recipe (the only recipe that really caught my eye in the whole issue) and I tossed the magazine onto the menu desk, with the page turned down for the flapjacks, where it got pushed aside to make room for the baby squirrel and his shoebox (which is another story altogether).

Life went on, though the Psychedelic Furs stayed in my head on perpetual playback for a few days, as always happens when I come upon mention of a Brat Packer's arrest or addiction recovery or what-have-you.

Then, while skimming Facebook status updates on my phone a few weeks later, bored because everyone was yammering on about the Oscars (which interest me not), I saw more than a couple updates that mentioned The Brat Pack, Molly Ringwald's appearance and the John Hughes tribute.


I mean, I might have actually watched The Oscars had I known Judd Nelson was going to be on.

But, and here is that embarrassing admission that I brought up lo these many paragraphs ago (because, yes, there are more embarrassing things than admitting to crushes on Andrew McCarthy and thinking John Hughes was a directorial genius), the first thing I did was dig for that soda bread recipe, because, suddenly, its tenuous connection to John Hughes was enough to make me want to bake it. Are there support groups for people like me?

Hi, my name is Sarah and I bake bread from recipes that appear in articles written by people who were in movies I was enamored with 25 years ago.

Like I said though (if anyone is still paying attention and is still able to take me at all seriously), this bread was deliciousness-itself and I ended up baking it not once, but twice, within a few days. See, I am no good at bread, so any trained monkey could handle this recipe if I managed to pull it together two times.

It is a quick bread, with none of the fussiness involved with expiration dates on yeast and multiple rising times and dough punching and all of the other nonsense that always trips me up when I try (and usually fail) at making ciabatta; and can be pulled together in less than an hour, including baking time.

The bread is rustic and beautifully dense, with a hint of sweet and a touch of sour, but it's best feature by far is it's craggy, crusty exterior. I could nibble all day on the crumbs that break off the crust when the bread is being sliced, and somehow, even with the density of the loaf and the coarseness of the crust, the bread itself is not dry, not overly heavy. It is perfect on it's own, torn off in chunks and served alongside chowder (as we had it the first night), but is a revelation when sliced, toasted and slathered in butter and FROG jam (as the kids and I ate it every morning for breakfast).

The kids were huge fans, and they virtually begged me to bake it again when the first loaf was finished. As for myself, I'm kind of in love with this bread. I can only hope this crush lasts longer than the one I had on a certain actor.


MRS. O'CALLAGHAN'S SODA BREAD (makes one loaf, adapted from Bon Appetit)
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 cup chilled butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees, and grease heavy baking sheet with nonstick spray.
  2. Whisk the flours, sugar and baking soda in a medium bowl.
  3. Cut the butter into the flour mixture until the butter is in pea-size pieces.
  4. Add buttermilk, and stir until shaggy dough forms.
  5. Turn dough out onto lightly floured work surface. Knead until dough comes together, about 10 turns. Dough will still have visible folds and will not be smooth and elastic.
  6. Shape dough into imperfect oval, maybe 9-inch-ish by 4-inch-ish. (the "-ish" should be embraced here).
  7. Cut large X, 1/2-inch deep, in top of dough.
  8. Bake bread for 40 to 50 minutes, until deep brown and bottom sounds hollow when firmly tapped.