Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Hubba Hubba.

Apple Nutmeg Upside Down Cake. Haven't tasted it yet (have to fight the urge to dig in, as we're no where near close to dinner time) so I won't post the recipe now, but if it's half as good as it looks, I'll revise to include.

Giving thanks for so many people and so many things this year. It's been a great one. Enjoy yourselves!

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Daring Kitchen Cake Decorating Challenge

I had the best intentions going into last weekend. I'd brainstormed for days about the theme for a cake decorating competition sponsored by the US Confection Connection and and the New York Cake Convention. I had thought hard about what the autumn season means to me, and how I could transfer that feeling to a 9" cake. I dug deep - of course fall brings colorful leaves and shapely gourds, but all the cakes would include those. In a moment of sheer brilliance, a friend mentioned that she always thought of birds flying south when the cooler weather hits. Suddenly, my cake had a theme, and I was ready to go.

I baked off and assembled my cake layers. Fondant was tinted. I researched silhouettes of birds and the shapes of nearly bare tree branches. Everything was coming together nicely, and I had starry disillusions visions of winning the big prize - an all expenses paid trip to NYC in January, and the opportunity to demonstrate your decorating techniques at the convention.

Then, the strangest thing happened. A November heatwave hit Chicago, and it brought sunshine with it. For two straight glorious days, the city's streets and sidewalks teemed with people anxious to do something (ANYTHING) outside. It was an absolutely perfect weekend, with temperatures hitting 70 degrees.

I learned something this weekend. I don't give a shit about birds flying south, or leaves dying and littering the ground. What autumn really means to me is that bone-chilling, ass-chapping, breath-stealing cold is right around the corner and it's just waiting to pounce. I learned that when a mid-autumn day feels more like mid-May, you'd be an idiot to waste it cooped up inside, making maple leaves and yellow-bellied sapsuckers out of sugar. Hell, who knows when we'll get to 70 degrees again?

So, without further ado, I give you my entry to The Daring Kitchen Cake Decorating Challenge.

It might be simple, but it truly does embrace how I feel about the season: Sunny days are at a premium, and they're not to be spent indoors. I abandoned my cake on Saturday morning. Plus, the idea of spending four days in New York City in mid-January was horrifying when compared to the thought of spending the present day, an unbelievably beautiful one, walking around my Chicago.

I couldn't even be bothered to take a decent picture. Had to get out the door immediately. I hope the winner of this contest packs an extra scarf and mittens to battle the New York City winter. Sucker.*

*Not really though. I would go in a heartbeat!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Baked Apples

There's really nothing simpler than baked apples. It's one of those things where the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. Basic ingredients go into the oven - apples, brown sugar, a few nuts and spices, and individually portioned, fragrant comfort food comes out. These babies make a lovely but unexpected brunch item and taste best served warm or at room temperature.

Peel a strip from the center of the apple, and completely remove the core. Any firm-fleshed apples will work; if you'd use them in a pie, you can bake them freestanding. If the apples won't stand up on their own, trim a bit from the bottom to create a level surface. Arrange them snugly in a baking dish. Stir together a mixture of brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, chopped toasted pecans, raisins, and a sprinkle of salt. Plan for about 2 tablespoons of filling per apple. Adjust the levels of cinnamon and nutmeg to your tastes - I used 2 teaspoons of cinnamon and 1/2 teaspoon of freshly ground nutmeg for 8 apples. Pack the center of each apple with the brown sugar mixture. Sprinkle any extra over the tops of the apples. Add 1/4 cup of water to the bottom of the baking dish. Cook the apples in a preheated 350 degree oven for about 40 minutes, basting the apples often. The water becomes like loose caramel as it mixes with the brown sugar filling, and basting allows the flavors to really go throughout the apples from the core and also from the exposed strip on the sides. The apples are done when a fork can easily pierce the flesh.

Of course, this isn't really a recipe since I haven't provided any specific amounts, but it is nearly foolproof, and I encourage you to try it now, while apples are at their peak. The variations are endless: Change out the cinnamon and nutmeg for cardamom; use cranberries and orange zest in the filling; try white wine instead of water. Any way you bake them, the apples will be soft, sweet, and very autumnal.