Plain or fancy?

The kitchen here at Apple Hill is a busy place these days. You know those days? When you are cooking, peeling, stirring, canning while in your yoga pants and t-shirt, and hoping desperately that no one just drops in to visit because 1. every pot in your kitchen is in use; 2. you surely don’t have time to take a break to talk to anyone; and 3. you were so busy getting into the kitchen that you might have forgotten to brush your teeth and you definitely didn’t comb your hair.

In between making tomato sauce, stewed tomatoes, applesauce, apple butter, and canning gingered pears, I made this most-delicious-apple-cake-in-the-world.  I posted the plain recipe before in a post about walnuts, but the fancy version (without walnuts) is, perhaps, the very best recipe ever that you can make with apples. And we do apples right around here…

It goes by the humble name of Apple Pudding Cake. I know, not exactly exciting or gourmet sounding is it?

But this is the most luscious, caramel-ly, apple-ly, golden brown earthy goodness you will ever taste. And if you want to make it even more so, there is a simple warm caramel sauce that you can ladle over the cake that will just send you and your tasters over the moon. Or at least over your favorite apple tree.

You can see how old and spill-covered the recipe is…

And after a quick scan of the ingredients, you can also see how basic the ingredients are. Most likely they are sitting in your food pantry this very moment, just calling out to be made into this simple, simply amazing pudding cake.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and butter an 8 inch square pan. (This recipe can be doubled for a 9×13 inch pan as well. If you double it, bake the cake for 50 minutes.)

Beat 1 cup of brown sugar and 1/4 c. softened butter until well combined . Add one egg and beat until fluffy. Add the dry ingredients: 1 t. baking soda, 1 t. cinnamon, 1/2 t. freshly grated nutmeg, 1/4 t. salt, 1 c. unbleached white flour. Mix well. The batter will be thick — so thick a spoon will stand up easily in it. (If you are the type of person who likes spoonfuls of batter, try to control yourself — you still have to add the apples.)

Peel and chop apples to make two cups. Depending on the size of your apples, 2 or 3 is likely. I also like to mix and match the  apples — you can see in the first photo I used a red apple (Jonathan) and a yellow/green apple (Grimes Golden). But really, just use what you have. I don’t think this dessert could possibly be ruined by using the wrong apple. Although I will say that if you are using a bland Red Delicious sort, you might want to zing them up slightly by squeezing half a lemon over them.

Do not skimp on the apples. As you are mixing them into the batter, it looks like quite a lot of apples, but they soften while baking, imparting to the cake its pudding-like consistency. Bake 25-35 minutes, depending on how gooey you like it. The brown crustiness on the top is amazing with the pudding-like texture inside. Do not overbake it…

If you are reading the recipe card in the photo above, you will notice that it also suggests using mini-bundt pans. I tried this several times and had no success getting them out of the pans in any kind of decent shape. Maybe you will be better at that than I am, but I gave up and now just serve it as homely squares on a plate. When you make the caramel sauce to go over it, no one will care that it isn’t in some fancy shape.

This recipe was given to me over ten years ago by a friend of the woman whose name is on the recipe card. Last year, at a church potluck supper, a new friend brought an apple cake. I commented to her how delicious it was and she brought me the recipe. It was the exact same recipe, except hers added walnuts and a teaspoon of baking powder as well. I’ve been making this cake without baking powder for ten years, but comparing hers and mine, I will tell you that if you add baking powder you might get more of a cake type outcome. And of course, should you care to add walnuts, feel free…

To make the caramel sauce, melt 1/3 cup butter in a small pan. Add 2/3 cup sugar (I use 1/3 cup lightly packed brown sugar and 1/3 cup raw sugar) and stir until well-mixed and starting to bubble. Add 1/2 t. cinnamon and slowly add 1/3 cup half-and-half, whisking well. Let simmer over low heat until it is no longer sugar-y. Drizzle, ladle, or pour the warm sauce over individual squares of cake. This sauce guilds the lily. Truthfully, I only make the caramel sauce when I’m serving this for company (or taking pictures for a blog post) but the first time you make the cake, you should definitely have the sauce with it. You need to be able to make an accurate decision about when to make the sauce and when to have it just plain.

Plain or fancy — Which are you?

Smell the apple-cinnamon-brown sugar deliciousness?

Pickle juice

Originally posted in July, 2015. 

It’s very satisfying to be gardening again.

I haven’t had a real vegetable garden in many years. Oh, we grew tomatoes and peppers and herbs (and an occasional zucchini) at the city house, but the deer there ruined my gardening efforts too. We were near a wild-ish park and had an apple tree in the side yard. The deer flocked to it.

But a real fenced in garden? Where I have to open the gate? Well I’ve never had one of those!

tomatoes and peppers in garden

The tomatoes are a jungle and we have only had cherry tomatoes so far. It’s been so rainy, they just aren’t ripening. We’ve had a few peppers; the squash are growing inches overnight; the beans are climbing on the corn; and the cucumbers! Oh my.

It’s a wet summer so far, and cucumbers love water, so we have an abundance. I just planted too many plants because… because…. I’m not sure why. But I think it might have to do with the pickle recipe I’m about to give you.

cucumbers in basket

So what do I do with this many cucumbers? Too few to make a giant batch of pickles and too many to eat all at once.

Get ready, cucumber recipes coming at you…

I am not a veteran pickle maker. I’ve made a few jars back in my old hippie homesteading days but, quite honestly, they tasted like salty cooked cucumbers. No crunch. And if you apply science to this, Of Course. I’ve cooked the cucumbers in boiling water, how could they be crisp? So… I did some research.

Lithuanian Half-Sour Dill Pickles, by the jar.

Those delicious Klaussen pickles? They are Lithuanian Half-Sours. But I had no clue how many jars the above photo of cucumbers would make. So I washed and sterilized several jars of different sizes, and started cutting. Before I give you the recipe, here are some tips:

  • Cut off the tip of the blossom end of the cucumber, or scrape it off with your fingernail or a peeler. Every recipe I’ve read says that if you don’t get rid of the blossom enzymes, the pickles will be more apt to get soggy.
  • Wash the cucumbers gently, but don’t scrub or scour them.
  • If you are using dill (are there other kinds of pickles?) use the flower of the dill plant — the bigger the better.

Slice the cucumbers in your favorite pickle style — slices, chunks, halves, quarters or leave those little ones whole.  

Make them jar by jar. To a quart jar, add a blossom of dill, two or three cloves of garlic, and some pickling spices. I put in some mustard seeds, whole allspice, coriander seeds, and a few shakes of crushed red pepper. I would have added celery seed, if I’d had any. I also had some baby onions, so I threw a few of those in too. Add some cucumbers — I filled about half the jar, and then I put in another dill flower and filled the jar with the rest of the cucumbers and a few more baby onions. (The onions are strictly optional, but I had them and thought they would be good. I was right.)

To each jar add 1/2 cup vinegar, a cup of water, and 4 t. kosher salt. I mixed up this solution first and stirred it around until the salt was dissolved, then poured into the jars. If it doesn’t cover the cucumbers, top off the jar with water until the cucumbers are completely covered. Put a sterilized lid on the jars and refrigerate. You can open the pickles in a week. Cloudy brine is ok. Fizziness is ok. Neither of my jars got fizzy… though I’ve read that is a problem. These are refrigerator pickles. And my basket of cucumbers (about 20 cukes — sized from small to medium) made two quart jars, with three little cucumbers left over. (And if you would like to make up a larger batch of brine, I’ve done the math for you —  1/4 c. salt, 1 and 1/2 c. vinegar, and 3 c. water. This makes enough for 4 pints or 2 quarts of pickles.)

Lithuanian half-sour pickles by the jar

In The Dill Crock (1984), John Thorne describes half-sours as “cucumbers still, not pickles — little cucumbers who [have] died and gone to heaven.”  One can find as many recipes for these as there are cooks, but all the recipes that I tried to conglomerate and follow said the little heavenly cucumbers would be ready in a week. I’ve been opening the jar every day and testing them. On Day 2, they simply tasted like the cucumbers in vinegar we used to have as a kid every summer for dinner. But today is Day 5 and I got them out to put on Mr. H.C.’s lunch sandwich, so I tried one for breakfast. They are delicious. Like Mr. Thorne says, not pickles, not quite cucumbers. Heavenly.

I’m editing this post in July of 2017: Last year these refrigerator half-sours were the only pickles I made — 2 dozen quarts. They kept in the fridge all year. I still have 3 jars left and they are still delicious– crisp and clear.  I’ve given away several jars, and everyone I’ve given them to has asked me for the recipe. So I’m reposting this now because it’s another wet summer — and there are more cucumbers coming every day. The only drawback to these pickles is that you need refrigerator space. I’m thinking of getting a small dorm-room type fridge just for 24 jars of these pickles…

And so with three cucumbers left over, and more ripe in the garden today, I’ve got another simple recipe for you as well. I can’t take any credit for this one either. It is from Foodie with Family — my favorite food blog — although like any recipe, I added and took away.

Asian Cucumber Salad

This salad is so easy and so delicious, you won’t believe you’ve ever lived without it. It’s great with any summer grilled food, or any Oriental themed meal. And though it’s fine in the winter with store-bought cucumbers, it is really a summer recipe made with the freshest cucumbers you can find. We keep a bowl of these in the fridge during cucumber season so we can have it with every meal.

Asian cucumber salad

If you have a mandoline, use it for this recipe. If you don’t have one, use your sharpest knife and slice one large or two or three medium cucumbers into Very Thin Slices. Also slice a quarter to a half of a sweet onion — depending on how much you like sweet onions.  Again, slice them as thinly as you can without getting blood in the salad. (I have sometimes used scallions instead of a sweet onion.) Stir together in a small bowl:

  • 1/3 cup rice vinegar
  • 1 T. toasted sesame seeds
  • 1 T. minced fresh dill
  • 1/2 to 1 t. salt
  • 1/2 to 1 t. sugar
  • 1/2 to 1 t. toasted sesame oil
  • a few grinds of red pepper flakes (This is the only optional ingredient. Just recently I put my never-used red pepper flakes into a grinder, and now I’m discovering that I use them all the time. And Mr. H.C. — a guy who likes his hot pepper rating at 0 — hasn’t complained yet.)

Stir gently. You can eat it now, or you can eat it later, but I guarantee that it won’t sit in your fridge for very long. Ten minutes to make, five minutes to eat. Yum. Try it on pulled pork. Or with a stir-fry. Or with anything.

cucumber blossoms

And we’ve discovered lots of honeybees on the cucumber flowers. Go bees! More cucumbers! Yay for summer.

 

the lazy person’s guide to growing spinach

Plant seed in the early days of lovely September
when you need a break from canning tomatoes.

Pinch off baby leaves in October, November, December
Stir them with lemon in buttered potatoes.

Mulch with straw and hope for a mild winter.

I have tons of favorite spinach recipes. I was the kid in elementary school who took everyone’s spinach. Remember in 3rd grade when you had to clean your plate and Mrs. Gray checked every tray to make sure it was empty of food? Hmm…. that might be proof that I’m old….

I would rather eat spanakopita than brownies.

I’m a sucker for any meal that ends in Florentine.

When forced to buy greens, whether for cooking or salads, I always choose spinach, because, raw or cooked, chopped or whole, in eggs, on sandwiches, in dips, or just sautéed with onions or mushrooms… It’s always delicious.

But the curly Bloomsdale spinach that you can only get these days by growing your own is far superior to grocery store flat-leaved spinach.

Tonight we are just having it sautéed in olive oil and drizzled with lemon saba and salt and pepper. Simplicity at its finest.

But since you already know how to sauté spinach, I will give you one of my favorite easy recipes to take along somewhere. A potluck, a mom who just had a baby, or an easy meal for everyday — company or not. The next time I make it I’ll be sure to come back and post some pictures; in the meantime you’ll just have to take my word for it: it’s one of the best most hassle-free dinners you can make. Here’s what you need:

  • Spinach
  • Chicken, boneless (I cut boneless breasts in half, thighs I leave whole)
  • some tomatoes (The real recipe calls for sliced Romas, but I have halved cherry tomatoes, sliced regular tomatoes, and even reconstituted and chopped dried tomatoes)
  • your favorite kind of vinaigrette or Italian dressing — not Ranch!
  • parmesan cheese

Fill a 9×13 baking dish with spinach (one bag usually works).

Place chicken pieces on top of spinach. Place tomato slices on top of chicken. Pour some vinaigrette over the whole thing. (The original recipe called for a bottle of dressing, but I never use that much. Just make sure the chicken is nicely slathered  with the vinaigrette.) Sprinkle grated fresh parmesan cheese over all. Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 375 until the chicken is done. Uncover it for the last 5 minutes to brown up the cheese a bit. Depending on the size of the chicken cooking times vary — smaller pieces take less time to cook. (Mine usually takes 30-40 minutes, but I always use a meat thermometer to be sure.)

While the chicken is baking, make some rice or cook some pasta or egg noodles because it makes its own lovely sauce that is yummy over rice.

And just in case you get the wrong opinion from this post, I am not a master gardener. I have done Absolutely Nothing in the garden yet this spring, except pick some kale and pick some spinach, and throw in some radish seeds on an 80 degree day in February… Potatoes? Not planted. Onions? Still in bags. Greens? Still in the seed packets. Partly I can blame the rainy weather: we still have a small pond where the onions are supposed to grow. But I got my bales of mulch today, and I’m ready. As soon as it stops raining…