Friday, October 28, 2011

The Best Mini Pumpkin Muffins for Fall

Being from the Midwest, I think I have a soft spot for Fall in my heart.  

When the seasons change, the cool breeze whips through my hair with just enough of a chill to make me feel alive and breathe a little deeper, but not enough to force me to rush back to the warmth of the indoors.  I want to be cozy, but I also don't want to miss a minute of nature's last hurrah.  The scattering of gorgeous leaves on the ground is a treat for the eyes, and is almost always accompanied by the scratching and scurrying sounds of dried leaves blowing across the ground. The combination of rustic, muted colors together with crimson and yellow leaves is always spectacular, and the first arrival of bright orange pumpkins is a cause for celebration.        

So if you are like me, when Fall comes, you want to get outside and soak up the fleeting clean, cool air with hikes, late afternoon picnics, and hayrides.  But at the same time, the urge to warm up indoors beckons.  And naturally, the best way to warm up inside is to bake.  

Lately, my urge to bake has been insatiable - I have definitely baked more in the last three weeks than I have in the last three months combined, and I think that is directly related to the arrival of Fall and the warm comforting flavors it brings with it.  But let me tell you who has totally out-baked me: my sister.  I told you before that she has fallen in love with baking, and that affair just continues to blossom as she has been baking up fantastic sweet treats almost every other day.  And now it is sort of ironic because the tables have turned - she is recommending baking recipes to me instead of the other way around!  

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sugar and Spice Apple Chips

In celebration of fall, I am so excited to tell you about these easy and crispy Sugar and Spice Apple Chips.  But it gets even better, since I am sharing the recipe as a guest post over on Meandering Eats today!  I am sure you remember Marie of Meandering Eats - she is my dear friend who shared a post here on The Cilantropist not long ago, and my partner in crime for getting the best eats and food experiences here in San Diego.  

Today I am sharing a recipe on her site so that you can make your own apple chips with the abundance of apples this fall.  Apple chips are a fantastic and healthy snack for both adults and little ones - I am sure kids will be amazed to see how some extra heat, a dash of sugar and spice, and a little time can turn this... 

Into this...! 

You can flavor these chips with anything you like, but I chose sugar, cinnamon, and chinese five spice.  Perfect warm flavors for a cozy snack on a cool fall day. Oh, and be sure to share - you can bag these up and give them away to friends and family as homemade gifts!  

Stop by Meandering Eats to get this easy recipe, and enjoy your week!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Plum Crumble Bars

Growing up, my grandma and grandpa lived about five blocks away from our house, and they had the best backyard.  They had a big above-ground pool with a great deck, a little sandbox with an awning, a lovely fenced in garden, and both flowering and fruit trees.  The yard wasn't big, but it was wonderful.     

Italian plums.

One of the trees they had the most beautiful pink flowers in the spring, another tree had a trunk and branches that were perfect for climbing, but one of my favorite trees was the plum tree.  It had delicate, thin branches with lush leaves, and the drops of ripening fruit were so temping.  By the time they were ready to pick, the deep purple maroon color belied the green flesh underneath at just a few spots, and the blue waxy sheen was enticing.  When they were barely ripe and tender we could pick them and eat them, but they were more tart than sweet - after a little longer, they were 'over-ripe' but definitely at their sweetest.  My grandma used to slice them up and bake them on a yeast dough as a treat for us, and it was something I looked forward to every year.       

Pale flesh of sliced red plums. 

I have tried to replicate her recipe a few times, with varied success, so in the fall I usually just send up baking plums into simple crumbles or cakes, or I use them for cooking in savory dishes.  Although Italian plums are definitely my favorite (I think it is a combination of taste and size mixed in with a little nostagia), I really love all plums including red and black ones.    

Red plums, sliced for baking into bars. 

This fall, I was tempted to do something else with with my plums - make crumble bars.  I was inspired by a peach shortbread recipe that I tried from Smitten Kitchen last summer, and though I did like it, the bars didn't have nearly enough fruit for my taste.  Not to mention, her recipe called for browning the butter, and although we can all hail queen Browned Butter, it didn't really do it for me in this recipe and just seemed like a fussy extra step.  Then this year I saw a recipe for peach crumb bars with hazelnut streusel by my friend Dara from Cookin Canuck. The amount of fruit in her bars was definitely up to my standards, but she peeled the peaches before baking (and has a great tutorial on how to do it) and I really didn't want to do that much work this time.  Plus, I love the way the skin of the fruit stains the crumble bars a deep pink color so I wanted to leave them on.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Pork Chops Agrodolce

Living in Southern California where the sun is good for growing and the farms are plentiful, I am blessed to be able to get all manner of fresh fruits and vegetables at stellar prices.  Now meat, on the other hand, is another story.  Getting quality meats (ideally hormone-free, and free-range) that are locally sourced costs me an arm and a leg, and sometimes even more than that (tack on a few extra fingers to cover tax, and you get my drift).  It is interesting, because people here are very conscious of eating well-sourced meat, but the supply of local beef/chicken/pork is low compared to other areas of the country.  This supply/demand issue makes prices higher, and in some cases, the cost can be a little prohibitive.  I find myself choosing quality over quantity, ie. eating better quality meat, but just less of it.   

Fresh thyme.

I found myself pondering this issue of the price of pork when I recently decided to make this recipe for Pork Chops Agrodolce a second and third time.  

You see, the first time I made this recipe was when I was visiting my parents in Ohio.  One morning I got an email from Williams and Sonoma, and I saw this recipe when I clicked through to their site.  I was totally intrigued since I had never heard of this Italian sweet and sour dish before, and the recipe seemed so incredibly simple.  I knew I was heading out to the Westside Market the next day, so I picked up some great thick-cut pork chops to make this for my parents.     

3/4-inch thick, bone-in pork chops.

Now I don't know why I haven't talked it up more, but the Westside Market in Cleveland is fantastic.  Even with all the farmer's markets around San Diego, I would die for a place like Westside Market here.  In my eyes, one of the things that really sets the Westside Market apart is their selection of meats.  There are tons of local farms - both small and large - outside of Cleveland, so there is a much larger supply of very high quality local meats.  Plus, the Amish country is not far away and their meats (and cheeses) are always top notch as well.  At the Westside Market, you can find any cut of meat you want, a plethora of sausages and bratwurst, and just about the best bacon ever.  But, the real kicker are the prices.  

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Carrot Cake Cupcakes, with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting

I am always a little perplexed when someone says to me, "Oh carrot cake is my favorite!"  I mean, obviously I think carrot cake is awesome... but your favorite? Really?  (Are you sure you aren't fibbing?)  I always want to ask them why, not necessarily because I question their taste, but more out of sheer curiosity.  What is it that holds carrot cake at the forefront of your taste as your favorite?   

I think I feel this way because for me, carrot cake is sort of akin to that old worn out sweatshirt at the bottom of your drawer - you know, the one that you know you love, but that you forget you have.  Then the minute you put it on you immediately chide yourself for not wearing it all the time because it is so comfortable and so warm and just all-around perfect.  Carrot cake is like that old sweatshirt - a love, many times forgotten, but never a quite placed on the 'favorite' shelf.      

But last week my sister (who has recently discovered her love for baking, Yay!) said to me, "Hey I am going to make carrot cake cupcakes!"  And just like that - carrot cake rushed off the dusty shelf in the back of my mind.  I couldn't stop thinking about making these cupcakes.  I was dreaming of fall spices - cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger - and I knew this would be the perfect recipe to make me feel like the season was here.  (Of course, it didn't hurt that my sister told me her co-workers loved them, and highly recommended I make them.)   

Since my sister had already made these cupcakes using a Smitten Kitchen recipe, I asked her if she had included any changes to the ingredients or baking time.  I was super excited to hear that she had read through some of the comments on the original post (as well as some reviews from a similar recipe on Epicurious), and decided to substitute applesauce for most of the oil in the cake batter. Swapping apple sauce for oil is a trick I have long wanted to try, but never really had the occasion.  

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Slow Roasted Cranberry Coconut Granola

I think some things are just better when you slow them down.  

Thinking of food, imagine savoring slow braised short ribs, or smelling the aromas from a pot of spicy chili that has been simmering away on the stove all day... But the beauty of taking things a little slower is not just restricted to the kitchen - I love spending a long afternoon just walking around in the park, or lingering over my morning latte on the weekends.  With those sorts of things, it is easy for me to be lazy and enjoy them, but other times I have to remind myself to take it slow. For instance, when I am reading a good book, I just race through it as though I have no discipline to tell myself to put it down and do other things, like you know, eat and sleep.  Many times, it is easy to just run through life at a breakneck pace, but then you end up missing out on so many little things.  

So when I saw a recipe for slow-roasted granola on Healthy Green Kitchen, I loved it not only for the practical reasons for slow roasting (keeping the dried fruit soft), but also because it was the perfect recipe to make over a long relaxing weekend. Having just come back from camping in Sequoia, I was really excited about making something healthy that also keeps well and is perfect for snacking.  

The original recipe that I saw on Winnie's site was a slow roasted granola sweetened with honey, and with bits of dried persimmon and crunchy pistachios. Now while I adore both persimmons and pistachios, I know someone (ie. the best sister ever) that really loves cranberry and coconut, so I decided to switch up the flavors to make something for her.