Friday, March 23, 2012

Comfort in a Canning Jar: Banana Pudding

Sometimes you need a little comfort food.  You need food you you can taste long before it hits your lips.  You need food you grew up with that brings you memories and makes you think of home even when home may be far away. 

Banana pudding is one of those foods for me.  My grandma on my mother's side, "Granny" as we call her, always made banana pudding.  It was one of those foods that my cousins and I always looked forward to.  One of my cousins was so obsessed with my granny's banana pudding that he started asking and looking for it as soon as he walked in the door of her house, and she always met the need with a bowl of it in the fridge.  Looking back on it now, that pudding was probably made from a box of instant vanilla layered with wafers and bananas, but at that time, we didn't know any difference and we didn't care.  It was really something special.  In fact, if she made it for us today, it would still be something special, instant pudding and all, because it would have been made for us by someone we love dearly.  That's what comfort food is all about.  And when we get older and can't see those people as often as we would like or they aren't able to provide us with the treats we were so used to when we were young, making that food for yourself can take you home again in ways nothing else can. 

So, here is a version of banana pudding to take you home.  A creamy, made-from-scratch vanilla pudding accented with a little cinnamon and nutmeg and layered with ripe bananas, vanilla wafers, and a billowy cloud of meringue.  It is comfort food at its finest.  Enjoy!

Banana Pudding-  slightly adapted from Screen Doors and Sweet Tea by Martha Hall Foose

This pudding is good slightly warm or chilled and can be made in 4 pint jars, 8 half-pint jars, or one 2 quart serving dish.  Since this dessert is all about the pudding, use the best quality eggs and vanilla extract you have.

3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup low-gluten flour such as White Lily
1/4 tsp salt
4 large egg yolks
2 cups whole milk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
a pinch of nutmeg
1/8 tsp cinnamon
1/2-3/4 of a 12 oz box vanilla wafers (I use Nabisco Nilla)
3 medium ripe bananas, sliced

4 egg whites
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
5 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Pudding:  Heat a few inches of water in a double boiler until boiling.  In the top of the double boiler, whisk the sugar, flour, salt, egg yolks, milk, nutmeg, and cinnamon until smooth.  Whisk constantly for 10-15 minutes until the pudding is thick and coats the back of a spoon.  Remove the pudding from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract.  Set the pudding aside.

Place a layer of wafers around the bottom of each jar (about 6 wafers if using pint jars) making sure that some wafers stand up against the side of the jar.  Place several slices of banana on top of the wafers.  Spoon about 1/4-1/2 cup (I use 1/2 cup for pint jars) pudding over the slices in each jar.  Repeat the layers in each jar.  Set the jars aside while you make the meringue.

Meringue:  Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  Using an electric mixer, whisk the egg whites in a large bowl until foamy.  Add the cream of tartar and continue mixing, increasing the speed, for 30 more seconds.  Slowly add 1 tablespoon of sugar at a time and continue mixing until soft peaks form.  Spoon the meringue into each jar filling each to the top and smoothing it to the edges.  Place the jars on a baking sheet and bake 4 minutes until the meringue is puffed and the top has browned.  Cool 15-20 minutes before eating it warm or chill for several hours for a cold dessert.          

Monday, March 19, 2012

A March Challenge: Lemon Herb Cheese

I have been a bit of a slacker lately when it comes to certain things.  One of those things has been posting the results of my efforts to meet the Urban Farm Handbook Challenge.  When I first heard about the yearlong series of challenges I thought no problem!  And it's not a problem (the challenges are actually fun and things I had been wanting or planning to do anyway).  The problem lies in the fact that I have a full time job and can't live in dream world where they garden, cook, and blog all the day through.  Wouldn't that be nice though?!  

So, even though I do have my soil and compost filled raised beds ready and am working on the compost bin for the February challenge (I told you I was a slacker), I will have to post that later.  Right now, here is my pretty-good-if-I-do-say-so-myself cheese for the March Home Dairy challenge.  

This is my first time ever attempting to make cheese or dairy products of any kind, and it has inspired me to go further.  The cheese I made was a fresh ricotta type cheese flavored with lemon and fresh herbs.  It reminds me of goat cheese but without as much of the tang.  It is excellent on bread and pretty darn good straight out of the bowl.  I am planning to use it this week but can't decide if I would rather have it mixed into pasta with sugar snap peas or crumbled over a salad of warm beets and walnuts.  Either way, I think it will be delicious. 

I followed the detailed instructions and recipe from Andrew Wilder over at Eating Rules which he posted in conjunction with the March challenge, and the process was surprisingly simple.  Head on over, check it out, and try it for yourself.  Yogurt and mozzarella here I come! 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Using What's Been Put Up: Peach Fruit Leather

Hello, folks.  I hope everyone had a relaxing weekend.  Mine has not been as relaxing as it has been productive, and I like that.  It makes me feel good to begin a new week feeling a sense of accomplishment.  I worked in the yard all weekend readying my raised beds (which I will tell you about in an upcoming post).  I also spent a lot of time spring cleaning.  My time for cooking was very limited, but I had a project I had been wanting to do that was perfect for this type of busy weekend...homemade fruit leather. 

I had several bags of peaches left in the freezer that I needed to use, and I really did not want to use them in anything ultra sweet or dessert-like.  I just wanted the taste of pure peaches and in a form I could feel good about eating every day.  I decided that the best option was fruit leather.  It is easy, requires very little hands-on time, and is a healthy fruit snack. 

You can use fresh fruit, but frozen works just as well.  Simply thaw the fruit, drain it as much as possible (reserving the juice in case you need a little of it), and puree it until smooth.  At that point, you add a little ascorbic acid to help the fruit retain its color and a little sugar if your fruit is tart.  I like to taste the puree before adding the sugar.  These particular peaches were a little tart, so I added 2 tablespoons of sugar for every 4 cups of fruit.  You could add more, if needed, or none at all, depending on your personal taste preferences.  At that point, I poured the puree onto a 17 x 11 baking sheet lined with plastic wrap (yes, I know the chemicals may worry some of you, but plastic wrap is one of the surest ways to get your leather to release from the pan). 

The pureed fruit gets dried at 140 degrees for up to 12-18 hours.  The oven temperature must remain around 140 or the fruit will crisp rather than dry.  Begin checking the fruit after about 10 hours.  It will dry from the outside edges in, so it will be ready when your finger no longer makes an indentation in the middle when pressed.  The leather in the middle should feel a little tacky but should not come off on your finger when touched.  If you happen to cook it longer than needed and the leather is somewhat crisp, simply brush it with a little water on both sides and allow it to dry on the counter.  It will rehydrate and the texture will improve. 

Fruit leather can be made using any fresh, frozen, or canned fruit.  It will usually only keep a few days (at most two weeks).  It can also be frozen for longer storage.  I wrap mine in strips of wax paper, tie them with pieces of twine, and store them in a sealed container.  They are the perfect snack...a fruit roll-up to feel good about.

Peach Fruit Leather- adapted from National Center for Home Food Preservation

This recipe makes one 17 x 11 inch baking sheet of fruit leather.  If your oven will hold more than one tray, you can dry more than one at a time. You can also use smaller baking sheets.  Just adjust the time and check them earlier.  This method works especially well if your oven has a fan or a drying feature.  Otherwise, many ovens do not heat any lower than 170 which is too high for fruit leather.

4 cups sliced peaches (thawed and drained if frozen)
1/4 tsp ascorbic acid (I use Fruit Fresh)
2 tbsp granulated sugar (use no sugar to 1/4 cup depending on taste preference)

Line a 17 x 11 inch baking sheet (with sides) with plastic wrap, working to remove as many wrinkles from the plastic as possible.  Set the tray aside.

Place the drained fruit in a food processor or blender and process until smooth.  Spoon it into a bowl.  Add the ascorbic acid and sugar.  Taste to make sure it is as sweet as you would like, keeping in mind that the flavors will concentrate as it dries.  Spread it in an even layer on the baking sheet.  The layer will probably be somewhere between an 1/8 and a 1/4 inch thick.  Place the sheet pan in the oven and allow to dry for up to 18 hours.  Begin checking it after about 10 hours.  It will be ready when it is just tacky in the middle but leaves no indentation when touched. 

Remove the pan from the oven.  Peel the leather from the plastic wrap while warm.  Slice the leather in pieces and wrap in wax paper or plastic wrap for storage. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Fruit and Nut Granola (from the skillet)

This week has been a little frenzied, and even though tomorrow is Friday, I still have a ton to do at work (not to mention preparing for a little yard work I am hoping to do this weekend).  If you haven't noticed yet, I signed up for the Urban Homesteaders Challenge last month and have yet to complete the February challenge on soil building.  Yes, I do realize it is now March.  I am in the process, having planted some carrots and potatoes in containers (we'll see how that goes), and am hoping to have my raised beds built and filled by the end of the weekend.  I will get there, just maybe not at the same time as others.

In the meantime, we have had visitors at the school where I work, and we welcomed them with a breakfast today.  On the table were many tasty treats including fruit and breakfast breads (the best of which is my
co-worker's fabulous pumpkin cream cheese bread), and I had to come up with a contribution.  I decided on granola because it seemed like a healthy addition and because I felt like being lazy and did not want to do anything more involved. 

This is my absolute favorite granola recipe.  It comes from a fellow blogger, Jane, over at Thy Hand Hath Provided.  It is made in a skillet which makes it super quick and easy, but it also gives it a wonderful toasty taste.  I am posting the recipe here, but only because I changed some of the ingredients and amounts.  The original recipe calls for sunflower seeds, but since I always have slivered almonds on hand, I use those instead.  I usually make it with all cranberries, but this time I had to use half raisins and half cranberries, and I think I actually like that even better.  This granola is great as a snack straight out of the jar, over yogurt or in milk, and it will last for about a week in a well sealed container.

Fruit and Nut Granola (from the Skillet)- makes about 1 quart

3 tbsp unsalted butter
4 tbsp honey
4 tbsp sesame seeds
4 tbsp slivered almonds (or other chopped nuts)
2 cups rolled oats
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup dried cranberries

Melt the butter and honey together in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add the sesame seeds and cook 1-2 minutes.  Add the almonds and oats and cook 5-8 more minutes, stirring frequently, until the oats have browned.  You may need to lower the heat a little if they are browning too quickly.  Add the raisins and cranberries and cook another minute.  Spread the granola on a baking sheet in a thin layer to cool completely.  Store in a tightly sealed jar for up to one week.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Using What's Been Put Up: Strawberry Bread

Strawberry season is fast approaching.  In North Carolina, we have about a month and a half to two months before they start making their appearances at roadside stands and farmers markets.  Strawberry bread is a great way to use these ripe red berries.  It is a tasty snack, makes an excellent breakfast bread, and could even be eaten for dessert with a small dollop of whipped cream (think strawberry shortcake all in one slice).  It is moist, filled with pieces of fruit, and tastes just like spring. 

I decided to make this particular loaf with several jars of Strawberry Preserves with Mint and Black Pepper canned last spring using a recipe from Cathy over at Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Kitchen.  If you do not have preserved strawberries on hand, you could just as easily use frozen berries you have thawed and drained or put this recipe in your mental file folder and store it away until fresh berries arrive.  Either way, the berries are drained and mashed before being added to the bread.  If using preserved berries (like I did), remove the whole berries from the surrounding jammy goodness and save the jam part for other uses. 

The original recipe for this bread comes from Simply In Season, a fabulous cookbook I was turned onto by way of another wonderful blog, Thy Hand Hath Provided.  The recipe called for cinnamon, but since I was using strawberries preserved with mint and black pepper, I omitted it.  If you are using fresh or frozen berries with no added ingredients, add the cinnamon.  This bread would also be quite tasty with finely chopped peaches or other berries in place of strawberries, and you can feel relatively good about eating it since it contains fruit and whole wheat flour. 

Strawberry Bread- makes 1 loaf

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
2 tsp ground cinnamon (omit if using preserved berries with added herbs/spices)
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 1/4 cup strawberries, drained of excess liquid and mashed
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9 x 5 loaf pan.

In a medium bowl, combine the flours, cinnamon (if using), salt and baking soda and set aside. 

In a large bowl, combine the mashed berries, sugar, oil, and eggs.  Gently stir the dry ingredients into the berry mixture.  Pour into the loaf pan and bake for 1 hour until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool 5 minutes before removing from the pan to cool on a rack.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Skillet Home Fries

I very rarely fry foods at home for several reasons.  First, it can make a mess especially if you are prone to spatters and spills like I tend to be.  Second, it is not the healthiest way to prepare foods.  We all know this.  But sometimes, just sometimes, you must step out of the "healthy" zone and cook a little comfort food. 

This dish is the epitome of comfort to me.  It is as simple as it gets.  Crunchy, salty, garlicky and perfect with a little side of ketchup, these babies go with just about any casual dinner you might prepare.

These crispy potatoes are cubed and fried in a little oil, but unlike many home fries recipes they do not require boiling beforehand.  Rather, they are placed directly in the hot skillet and cooked until brown.  It does take a little patience and time (often around 30 minutes), but they can be cooking while you are preparing the rest of the meal.  In my experience, the outsides get crispier and the insides get creamier using this method.  They just may be my husband's favorite food, and even though we don't get them often, it is a real treat when we do.   

My "recipe" below is really more of a method than anything else.  You can add herbs, other spices, or even meat to make a hash.  They are awesome with sandwiches or breakfast or even alone with an egg and toast.  It is really difficult to pinpoint an amount of time to cook these because it really depends in large part on what type of potatoes you use, how fresh they are, etc.  Just use your cooking sense and you will know when they are ready.  The amount of potatoes cooked can also be increased, but make sure to use a larger pan or two pans so that the potatoes cook in a single layer.

Skillet Home Fries- serves 2-3

4-5 medium all-purpose or Yukon Gold potatoes (or 2 large russets)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1/4 tsp garlic powder (you can use fresh garlic, but add it toward the end)
1/4 tsp cayenne (optional)

Peel the potatoes, and diced them into 1/2 inch cubes.  Heat the oil in a cast iron skillet on medium high heat until very hot but not smoking.  Add the potatoes to the skillet in a single layer.  Season the potatoes with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and cayenne (if using).  Allow the potatoes to cook 3-5 minutes, undisturbed, until they are brown and crisp on the bottom.  Gently stir the potatoes in the pan to brown on the other sides, allowing them 3-5 minutes between each stir (you will know when they are ready to be stirred because they will release easily from the pan).  Once brown, lower the heat to medium and cook up to 20 minutes more until potatoes are tender in the center when pierced with a knife.  Remove the potatoes from the pan and drain on a towel lined plate to absorb excess oil.