Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Golden Zucchini Tea Loaves aka "Shh! Don't Tell Them It's Squash Bread"

One of the things I treasure most is my box of collected family recipes. I love looking through the recipe cards and letters shared by my family and friends, especially the ones written in their own handwriting. Whenever I read them, memories come spilling out about the person and the fun times we had together. I was lucky enough to have inherited a lovely collection of recipes from my mother's elderly Aunt Alta when she passed away. Each time I cook one of her recipes, I get to bring her back for a moment. She was a great woman and a wonderful cook.

This recipe is from one of the newspaper clippings from Aunt Alta's collection. She used to live in Illinois, so many of her clippings came from The Chicago Tribune. This wonderful tea cake recipe, originally from a 1978 issue, doctors up a boxed cake mix with some instant pudding mix and yellow crookneck squash or "golden zucchini." The squash completely disappears into the cake once baked, and most people who taste this will not have any clue there is squash in the loaf unless you tell them. It is a wonderful and unique twist on the typical zucchini bread. This recipe works equally well with a mixture of zucchini and yellow squash, although you will notice green flecks in the finished loaves.

Golden Zucchini Tea Loaves (aka Shh! Don't Tell Them It's Squash Bread), adapted from The Chicago Tribune

makes 2 loaves

1 (2 layer size) box yellow cake mix or butter cake mix
1 (4 serving size) small box instant vanilla pudding mix
4 large eggs
1/4 cup canola oil
3 cups grated yellow crookneck squash (or a mix of green zucchini & yellow squash)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1-1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts, divided (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease and flour two loaf pans. Combine all ingredients except for the nuts in a large mixing bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat for 4 minutes exactly. If you like nuts, stir in just 1/2 cup of the nuts, reserving the remaining nuts for later.

Divide the batter into the two pans evenly. Sprinkle each pan with 1/2 cup of nuts, completely covering the surface of the batter. Since my daughter doesn't always like nuts in baked goods, I usually only add nuts to the top of one of the loaves and leave the second plain.

Bake for 50-55 minutes, or until a toothpick tests clean and the edges begin to pull away from the sides. Cool in pans on wire racks for 10 minutes, then remove from pans and allow to cool completely. I chill the loaves before slicing, letting them come to room temperature again before eating.

NOTE: Did you know that cake mix package sizes have recently changed? Old cake mix boxes used to be 18.25 ounces, now they come in a slightly smaller size, 15.5-16.5 ounces. I tested this recipe using both sizes, and it comes out slightly less poofy with the newer cake mixes, but still works out very well without any adjustments.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Back to School Easy Slicing White Sandwich Bread

This is a very reliable, old fashioned knead it yourself, no bread machine required white sandwich bread recipe that I have had for ages. I had thought this recipe was gone forever, until my boyfriend was able to recover the data from an old file of recipes from one of my old computers. It takes a while to rise.. and needs to rise several times, but you will be rewarded with a couple of loaves of very easy to slice pure white bread with a thin, slightly crispy crust.

This bread is very simple - no complex or bold flavors or any weird bits to scare away a picky kid. It is just plain white sandwich bread that tastes quite a lot better than anything mass produced and stuffed into a plastic bag in your grocery store. It is great toasted with butter and jam, or makes a mean peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Easy Slicing White Sandwich Bread
makes 2 loaves, about 10 slices each

2 cups milk
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter flavor shortening (or lard)
2 1/4 teaspoon Rapid Rise yeast (or active dry yeast)
1/4 cup lukewarm water
5 1/2 to 6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Heat milk in a small saucepan until warmed through; remove from heat and stir in sugar and shortening; allow to cool to lukewarm. Sprinkle yeast over warm water; mix well to dissolve, then set aside to activate, about 5 minutes.

In a large mixing bowl, pour the milk mixture and stir in 3 cups of the flour, followed by the yeast mixture. Using an electric mixer, beat for 2 minutes (or stir with a wooden spoon until mixture is very smooth and batterlike). Add in enough of the remaining flour, a little at a time, until a shaggy dough forms, one that leaves the sides of the bowl as you mix. (The amount of flour needed will vary based on the humidity in your house that day).

Dump the dough onto a floured board, cover, and let rest for 10 minutes. Knead dough with floured hands, working in more of the remaining flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking, for about 8-10 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and elastic. Place ball of dough into a large greased bowl, flip over to grease the top; cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in bulk (about 45 minutes for rapid rise yeast, and 1 1/2 hours for regular active dry yeast).

Punch the risen dough down, cover, and let rise until doubled again, about 23 minutes for rapid rise or 45 minutes for active dry yeast.

Divide dough into 2 balls and form each into a loaf shape; place each into a 9x5" greased loaf pan; cover with greased plastic wrap and let rise until the dough rises above the edges of the pan, about 30 minutes to 1 hour for rapid rise, 1- 1 1/2 hours for regular active dry yeast. As you get close to the end of this last rise, make sure you preheat your oven to 400 F.

Bake for 35 minutes until golden brown. Let bread cool on wire racks at least 15 minutes before attempting to slice.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Retro Recipes - a Lovely Fruity Frozen Jello Mold

I have been digging through my stacks of community cookbooks recently, weeding out the ones I want to keep and those I want to declutter. During this process, I have been testing out some old recipes I marked that I wanted to try out and save before I unload another stack of books. One recipe that caught my eye was a retro jello mold from a book called "Taste of Heaven" put out by a women's charity church group in North Carolina.

When I was a kid, my mom used to take my sisters and I to a lot of church potlucks. One thing I vividly recall eating at those potlucks was jello salad in various forms. I always loved the fruity jello molds, but I tried my best to avoid the ones with vegetables suspended in the mix. I never really understood why someone felt the need to ruin my delicious jello with something like shredded cabbage or beets. I was fine with carrots or maybe even cucumbers, but really... cabbage??

I always loved the creamy, fruity jello salads best, the ones with suspended chunks of pineapple and bright red maraschino cherries or bananas. So when I came across a recipe for a creamy frozen fruit salad that called for mayonnaise, I was both drawn to it and also a bit scared to try it. I wondered how many of those jello salads I had eaten as a kid had secretly hidden mayonnaise and shuddered at the thought. Seriously, why, why , WHY would anyone think of putting mayo into a fruit salad?

Yet here I was, strongly considering making a recipe for a fruit studded frozen concoction that called for mayonnaise mixed into whipped cream. I hadn't detected anything afoul in such recipes as a kid, so perhaps I wouldn't notice as an adult. I considered skipping the mayo entirely and just adding extra whipped cream. Eventually, I gave in to my usual mantra of trying to stick to a recipe as directed the first time I try it, and went with the mayo. I mixed up my salad, stuck it in the freezer, and found myself worrying about it all night long.

I braced myself before the first bite...was I about to chomp down into a creamy, fruit deliciousness or had I somehow made mayo flavored ice cream? I bravely took a bite, and then another. I could detect a slight tang from the mayo, but it was not overwhelming. I took a few more bites. It was pretty good, actually quite good. Light and refreshing and so very pretty.

I used a jello mold I had picked up for a dollar at an estate sale. I am still not entirely sold on the mayo idea, but the salad was a real hit. I do think that for today's taste buds, I would from now on replace the mayo with sour cream or Greek yogurt, but the recipe as written did turn out quite well.

Alisa's Frozen Fruit Salad Mold, adapted from a recipe found in "Taste of Heaven" community cookbook

serves about 8-10

1 (15 ounce) can fruit cocktail, drained, reserving juices
1 (8 ounce) can crushed pineapple, drained, reserving juices
water, as needed
1 (4 serving size) small box lemon gelatin
1 pinch salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup mini marshmallows
1/2 cup Greek yogurt (plain or vanilla) or sour cream or mayonnaise
1 cup whipped cream, measured after whipping, plus extra for garnishing, if desired
3 to 4 drops red food coloring, or as needed to tint the salad light pink

You will need a medium-large sized gelatin mold or seal-able, freeze-able bowl. Spray lightly with unflavored nonstick spray.

Set a mesh strainer over a glass measuring cup and let the fruit drain, saving all of the juices from the cans. Chill the fruit in a covered container for now. Add enough water to the fruit juice to measure about 1 1/3 cups liquid. Pour into a small saucepan and bring to a boil.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and dissolve the lemon gelatin in the liquid. Whisk in a tiny pinch of salt and the lemon juice. Cover and chill until partially set, about 1 1/2-2 hours.

Once the gelatin has partially set, add the fruit and marshmallows and stir to combine. Fold in the yogurt, sour cream, or mayo if you dare (whichever you prefer), followed by the whipped cream and a few drops of red food coloring to tint the mixture a light pink color.

Pour into the prepared gelatin mold, cover, then freeze overnight or until firm. Loosen edges carefully, using a butter knife, before unmolding. I set my sealed container into a bowl of hot water for a couple of minutes to help loosen it, then placed a plate on top of the open container and flipped it over - it came out very easily.

Serve immediately, freezing any leftovers. Serve extra whipped cream on the side, if desired.

*NOTE: I found it easier to eat after I let the mold defrost a short time before unmolding; not long enough to have it start melting, just long enough to slice a bit easier).

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

How I Organize & Declutter My Huge Cookbook Collection

My boyfriend's first comment when he saw my massive collection of cookbooks was "that is an insane number of cookbooks." I really do have tons and tons of them. I read cookbooks every day for inspiration, even if I don't always choose the recipes buried in the pages. You can find cookbooks, recipe cards, recipe printouts, and an array of cooking magazines in several languages scattered around just about every room of the house.

It is pretty safe to say that I have just a bit of a cookbook addiction. I especially love to find unique books and charity books published by small community organizations. Yard sales and thrift shops in my area are a treasure trove for used cookbooks, and with the going rate at around $1 or less per book, I have found myself dragging home more than a few.

Since I have so many cookbooks already, I go through all of them several times a year to cull out any of the books I no longer love or find useful. Ideally, the only books that remain on my shelves are the ones I use all the time or that hold a special meaning for me (such as a few I inherited from my mom's elderly aunt). The rest I go through and copy out just the recipes I either already know worked for me or that I know I want to try someday.  Then I either donate the excess books, give them away to a friend, or sell them at my own yard sale for someone else to enjoy.

When you have so many books to go through, it can be really daunting to get all of the recipes you want to save copied out.

 How I Organize & Cull My Cookbook Collection

Every so often, I pull out a cookbook I don't think I use much and read through it. I keep a stack of Post It sticky notes handy and a pen. Whenever I see a recipe I want to save, I stick a Post It at the top of the page.

Sometimes I even write the name of the recipe, but not always. It depends on whether or not I feel like it. Generally, if I find myself marking a lot of recipes in a book, I usually jot down the recipe names.


As I finish marking a book, I place it in a stack to go through later. Then I move onto the next book.

Once I have gone through enough books, I start copying out the recipes. If the book has a nice photo of the food, I might make a photocopy of it, otherwise I just enter the recipes into my Mastercook software.

Once I have copied a recipe, I move the sticky note from the top of the page and place it sticking out of the side instead. This way, if I want to give the book away to a friend, all of the good recipes are still marked, but I know at a glance that I have already copied them out. If I am planning to donate or sell the book, it is very easy to pull out all of the Post It notes, and none of the pages are left dog-eared or marked up.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Huge Texas Sized Banana Nut Muffins

Banana Nut bread is one of the most baked items in my house. Not only does everyone love to eat it, but it makes my whole house smell like you just walked into a bakery, which is a wonderful aroma to wake up to on a sleepy weekend morning. When I want to make loaves of banana bread, I usually turn to my all time favorite banana bread recipe. However, since there aren't exactly a ton of people to feed in my home, sometimes I only really need to bake a few muffins. The following recipe is perfect for times when you just want to make a smaller sized batch, but you still want nice big coffee shop sized muffins.

Huge Texas Sized Banana Nut Muffins
serves 6

3 medium sized bananas, covered with black spots
1 large egg
1 stick unsalted butter, softened (1/2 cup)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4-1/2 tsp banana flavoring, optional
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ordinary table salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup chopped nuts, walnuts, pecans or any nut you prefer

*You will need one jumbo sized muffin pan, with 6 wells.

Preheat oven to  350 F. Grease and flour your muffin tin well, including the top of the pan. I use Pam for baking, which already has flour in it - much easier than messing around with flouring the wells.

Now go grab a nice big bowl and your hand mixer. Yes, you read that right... this recipe is not your typical "stir just until moistened" type banana bread recipe. Of course you can mix everything with a spoon instead, but it really does work out better with the pulverizing power of a mixer for this particular recipe.

Peel the bananas, making sure you pull off any of those little stringy bits, and plop them whole into your mixing bowl. Crack in the egg and add the softened butter. I soften my stick of butter in a dish in the microwave for 12 seconds on High - it comes out just soft enough to still hold its shape, but blends as if it has been sitting out at room temperature for a while. Turn on your mixer to low speed and whirl everything together until it is smooth. Add in the extracts.

Grab a sifter or a fine mesh strainer and sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt into a separate bowl. Add some of the flour mixture to the butter mixture and briefly mix on low speed. It will look very thick. Keep adding the flour mixture in small amounts, mixing just a bit each time, until it has all been added. Just don't go crazy mixing the batter - it should be smooth, without any dry parts or lumps, but don't beat for very long.

Next add the granulated sugar and mix in on low speed until blended. You are all done with your mixer - go ahead and grab that spoon now. Using a wooden spoon, gently stir in the brown sugar and the nuts.

Ladle the batter evenly into your prepared jumbo muffin tins. You should have exactly enough batter to fill 6 wells about 2/3-3/4 full. Pop them into the oven and bake until a toothpick tests clean when poked into the center of your largest, tallest muffin, about 30-35 minutes. Allow the muffins to cool in their tins 10 minutes before you attempt to remove them.

Now for the hard part... try really, really hard to let them cool completely, preferably overnight, before you eat them. Banana bread always tastes better after it has had a chance to mellow out for a day or two. I won't tell if you sneak one early though ;)

*NOTE: Just in case you don't happen to have a jumbo sized muffin tin pan, you can also bake this in one 8x4" size loaf pan. It will take about 40-45 minutes for a single loaf.