In Search of Poppy Seed Muffins.

Sometimes I get intense cravings for poppy seeds.  Maybe it's the Eastern European heritage, maybe it's the nutty, oily crunch only they can give a baked good.  Maybe it's because I enjoy them most as a vehicle for almond extract, since the poppy seed seems more than well suited to that bitter almond flavor.  In my flavor showdown between vanilla. lemon, and almond,  almond wins out every single time.

poppy seed bread.

It seems there are a shortage of good muffins in the world.  I think I surprised a muffin-loving friend recently when I admitted that I prefer loaf-pan quick breads to muffins.  Muffins just seem to stale quickly, and with a loaf of bread, I can slice off what I like.  Nevermind that it's tougher to transport a slice of quick bread than a muffin... 

Then there are the muffin tin liners: to use or not to use? 

But every so often, I really want a muffin.  And, I really want a poppy seed muffin.  And then I remember that I've never really found the perfect muffin to satisfy what in my mind a poppy seed muffin should be.  Poppy seed muffins seem to come in either lemon or almond flavors.  Lemon leaves me wanting as much as I like it, and almond muffins never seem to contain the bracing amount of almond extract that I so badly desire.  Most poppy seed muffins are dense and overly oily - probably because most are oil based and contain a LOT of it.  Most are crazy sweet too, containing as much sugar as flour in some instances.   A recent Internet perusal of poppy seed muffins/loaf breads met with the same results I've been accustomed to, but fortunately I was able to turn to a recent cookbook crush to meet my needs.

poppy seed bread.

I think I identify most with cookbook obsessed home cooks.  We are the lot that hears mention of a new book (or are even the ones that scan publisher websites for upcoming releases), get our hands on a copy, and then set to work making what marvels lurk inside.  I have so many titles that seem like living, breathing friends, the authors voices coaching me through the language of their worlds.  I have learned so much from so many titles, and been endlessly inspired. 

Those who are with me also fully understand the "cookbook crush", and I'll bet that a whole genre of my peers can site readily those tomes that grabbed them tenderly (or vigorously) and caused them to think of nothing other than what was on the page and on the plate for days on end.  I go through many of these each year, and increasingly there are just so many great books coming out that I never need to wonder what to make next at my house.

I began reading Cheryl Sternman Rule's Yogurt Culture a few weeks ago, excited from the first page after she opened her story in Eritrea.  Eritrea, a tiny country I couldn't have found on a world map before our in-depth geographical study of Africa last year.  It is a simple and well written book, a heavy thing that feels good in your hands, the pages thick and somewhat glossy (but not so glossy that they encourage fingerprints).  I made her recipe for 9 chocolate cupcakes right away to use up some chocolate frosting from a birthday cake commission.  I wasn't at all surprised that every family member loved them.  After the muffin discussion with my friend, I figured I needed to make poppy seed bread (or muffins) - so I looked to Cheryl's lemon almond version of a loaf cake that looked like it had good bones for poppy seed inclusion...

Lemon AND almond!  I have read poppy seed recipes for years and never have seen the two together.  And despite my almond addition, I did add the zest of 1 lemon and found it to balance everything well.  This was also a butter-based bread, with only 1 cup of sugar in pleasant proportion to the 2 cups of flour (and 1/2 c. almond meal).  I was sold.

poppy seed bread.

Billed as a loaf cake, I actually made it pretty much as written on the first go.  I baked it in small, disposable tins - disposable except I've been washing them out and reusing them since last Christmas when I wanted to give petite pound cakes as gifts.  (Sometimes, I think the best bakeware is the absolute cheapest.  The thin aluminum allows great browning on all sides.)  There was probably a bit too much batter for the 3 pans, and that's when I conceded that a muffin might be in my future.  I altered it a little bit more, decided upon using tin liners, and lined up a couple neighbors to share in the wealth of muffins.

Almond Lemon Poppy Seed Bread (or Muffins) (adapted from Cheryl Sternman Rule)

makes 15-16 standard size muffins, 1 9x5 sized loaf, or 3 3 1/2x6 mini loaves

  • 10 T. room temperature butter (that's 5 oz.)
  • 2 c. AP flour
  • 2 t. baking powder
  • 1/4 t. baking soda
  • 1 t. kosher salt
  • 1/2 c. blanched almond meal
  • 3 T. poppy seeds, preferably fresh Dutch Blue ones
  • grated zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 c. granulated sugar
  • 2 room temperature eggs.
  • 2 1/2 - 3 t. almond extract, depending on your level of almond love
  • 1 c. plain yogurt (not a thick Greek style)

Preheat the oven to 350, and butter your loaf pan(s) or line muffin tins with liners.

In a large bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, almond meal, poppy seeds, and lemon zest together until well blended.  In the bowl of a stand mixer (or another bowl with a hand mixer), cream the butter and sugar until lightened and "fluffy", about 5 minutes.  Mix in the eggs, one at a time, beating for 1 minute after each addition, then beat in the almond extract.  On low speed, mix in half of the dry ingredients until just blended.  Add the yogurt, also blended until just incorporated, then add the final half of the dry ingredients.  Mix well, but don't overmix - and use a spatula for the final few strokes to be sure there are no dry pockets.  The batter will be somewhat stiff.

Portion into the prepared muffin tins (or loaf pans), filling about 3/4 of the way full.  Bake for 20-25 minutes for muffins, slightly longer for mini-loaves, and 45-55 minutes for a large loaf.  A tester should come out cleanly from the center and the tops should be slightly browned.

Leftovers store well at room temperature for 2 or 3 days if covered tightly with glass.

poppy seed muffin

I'll admit that these taste best after just coming to room temperature; the tops have a slight crust that disappears by the next day.  But the airy yet stable structure of these muffins are just what I have been looking for, and I was able to enough almond extract to satisfy myself and 3 tablespoons of poppy seed are enough to give them a good crunch in every bite.  You could decide to glaze these with confectioner's sugar thinned with lemon juice, or more almond extract (and milk or cream instead of the lemon juice) - but they are just fine as is.  Next time I have the craving for a poppy seed muffin, I'll know just where to turn.

poppy seed muffin

Book Review: Preserving by the Pint

Preserving by the Pint

When I got my review copy of Marisa McClellan's latest book a few weeks back, time seemed to stand still for the moment and I almost immediately read the entire thing cover to cover.  I had been looking forward to cracking open this one since I had the pleasure of testing a few of the recipes for it last year, and it truly is a lovely addition to the growing canning book section of my kitchen library.

I couldn't help but think as I turned page after page that Marisa is going to be writing new books for years.  She has the magic trifecta in her cookery books: timeless recipes, succinct instructions, and simple inspirations.  She is passionate about her craft, and eager to share with everyone - which I think is the underlying theme of Preserving by the Pint.  Organized by season, this book encourages everyone to make small batches using local and seasonal foods.  It tempts us to branch out and try something maybe we haven't considered before, even to source special ingredients that might not be cost efficient if making a more traditionally sized amount.

small batch preserving.

Personally I like to can for my storage shelves, but with my ongoing quest for sugar reduction, having a jar or two of a really stellar preserves is an excellent idea - especially since I can tend towards the hoarding jams and jellies even when I've made 8 or 9 jars of them.  After finishing the book, I immediate found some Meyer lemons at my co-op to make Candied Meyer Lemon Slices.  Only needing a pound for the recipe made it feel doable for me when I didn't have the foresight to get on the Lemon Ladies list for bulk fruit like Marisa did.  (And, she had made a beautiful Meyer Lemon Syrup on her blog not long before, and I was feeling especially bad for missing the lemon season...) 

candied meyer lemon

I really loved these candied lemons, they had a nice marmalade texture and trademark Meyer lemon astrengency.  I was glad I had a little bit of the syrup leftover which set into a little lemon jelly to enjoy right away on morning toast.  I intend to make a pound cake for my birthday in September and crown it with a jar of them, and I should be able to save a jar that long since the 2 jar yield leaves me one to enjoy before then.

Spring in my neck of the woods also signals maple syruping time and for a while my family had planned to make it to an Amish neighbor's sugaring operation to reacquaint ourselves with the small miracle that is maple syrup.  Last weekend, a small group of family members went to see Daniel Hochstetler's rustic sugar shack.  We arrived just as he was getting the fire going underneath a stainless vat of sap.  Already, he had harvested over 100 gallons of finished syrup and he was hoping for another good week of syruping weather.  (Last year was a perfect year for syrup; they harvested more than 300 gallons and still had some leftover before starting this year.  If boiled to the proper temperature, maple syrup never really spoils.  The two past seasons make up for the strangely warm spring two years ago when there was no syrup to be found.)  My Mom and Dad generously sent me home with 2 gallons, which usually can last us the whole year if we watch our pancake breakfasts...

sugar shack (#2)
I respect the Amish desire not to have their faces photographed, but was able to capture a photo of Daniel and his sugar shack from a distance...

As I stood there breathing in the sauna of maple scented sap, I was dreaming of a recipe Marisa included in the book for Blueberry Maple Jam - thankful for my hoarding of a gallon bagful of blueberries in my freezer from last year, and thankful for a new harvest of syrup to replenish my waning stores. When I got back home, I started the jam right away but got busy.  Fortunately, letting the fruit macerate overnight with the syrup and brown sugar is an acceptable practice.  My yield was a little less than the 2 half-pints, but I suspect it is because I used frozen fruit.  I haven't had blueberry jam in ages - in part because of the amount of berries it requires - and this one was so good.  I was actually glad I was a little shy of a second half pint so I had some to enjoy right away.

blueberry jam maceration

I made this jam with frozen berries and using the metric weights.  As I mentioned above, I think I lost a little volume due to the frozen fruit - but this is so good I probably wouldn't have needed to can it!  If canning, be sure to use the bottled lemon juice.  As Marisa explains, maple syrup is lower in acidity than sugar and the bottled lemon juice ensures a safe acid level.

Blueberry Maple Jam (Marisa McClellan, Preserving by the Pint)
Yields 2 half-pints
  • 1 dry quart fresh blueberries, rinsed, pickedd over, and mashed (about 1 1/2 lbs. / 680 g.)
  • 3/4 c. / 175 g. packed light brown sugar
  • 1/2 c. / 120 ml pure maple syrup
  • 2 T. bottled lemon juice
Prepare a boiling water bath and 2 half-pint jars.  Place 2 lids in a small sauce pan of water and bring to a gentle simmer.

Combine the blueberries, sugar, maple syrup, and lemon juice in a large skillet.  (I used this 3-quart one, which was a perfect size.) Stir to help the sugar dissolve and to integrate the maple syrup.  Once the mixture has begun to look syrupy, place the skillet over medium-high heat and bring to a boil.

Stirring regularly, bring the fruit to a boil and cook until it bubbles and looks quite thick, 10-12 minutes.  It's done when you pull a spatula through the jam and it doesn't immediately rush in to fill the space you've cleared.

When the jam is finished cooking, remove the pot from the heat and pour into the prepared jars.  Wipe the rims, apply the lids and rings, and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

blueberry maple jam

I can't say I've ever used my 3 quart saucepan to make jam before, and that is a great tip for small batches in particular.  The surface area helps evaporate the liquid faster; I really couldn't believe the small batch was finished cooking in just 10 minutes. 

Another great thing about this book is that if you make just a few jars of something, you wouldn't necessarily have to can it if you didn't want to.  Save yourself a jar, and share another with a neighbor or two and save yourself a hot water bath and the canning time.  But I am looking forward to a little patchwork of fully preserved jars on the shelf by the first frost of fall, new preserves from this beautiful book to take me through the winter and help me wait out the time until Marisa's next book.

You can catch more glimpses of Preserving by the Pint at The Preserved Life, Well Preserved, Hip Girls Guide to Homemaking (still a couple of days left to enter their giveaway), and of course at Food in Jars where you can also find Marisa's upcoming appearances.

blueberry jam pot

DISCLOSURE: I received a copy of this book for review, but as always all of my thoughts and opinions are my own.

So I Don't Forget: A Post About Lemon Lavender Cake.

Cake. I probably like baking cake more than cooking or baking anything else. Like no other thing, it symbolizes everything good and happy in life and it can be either be made decadent or benevolent depending on your whim. There was a time not so long ago when I though baking cake would be a career path I'd choose for myself, but now I know that I'm far too absorbed with other things to be solely obsessed with cake. However, I love when someone asks me if I can make one.

Last week, a friend asked if I'd make a cake for her birthday. She may have been shocked at my over-enthusiastic and immediately-texted-back response, but birthday cakes are my absolute favorite. I may not be the best cake decorator, but birthday cakes give me the chance to make something much more extravagant that anything made for day to day consumption. (Yes, there is more often than not an everyday cake of some kind lying around my house.) They are a challenge, and they have the bonus of being shared. I asked what flavor she preferred, and without hesitation she said lemon-lavender.

I have never had this combination before. Thanks to the Internet, which at times seems like my own personal oyster-arsenal of recipes, I quickly found a way to make an infused lavender cream using the one tiny bouquet of lavender that I stored from my garden last summer. Last year, I planted lavender for the first time, and I fully anticipated using it in baking. Procrastination set in and I never got around to it, although I snatched plenty of pretty stems that decorated my dining room summerlong, and I had the immense pleasure of running my hands through the plant whenever I strolled past the garden. Never once did I make the batch of shortbread cookies I intended to make or experiment with it in other sweets, and I had the one pale purple cluster tied with kitchen twine hanging around my kitchen to remind me.

Perfect cake.

The resinous perfume of lavender is strong, so after thinking about making it into a stabilized whipped cream for a filling, I decided on understatement instead - that I'd use it only in the frosting. For my base layers, I used Dorie Greenspan's Perfect Party Cake which is perfect and white, and slices handsomely without fear of toppling. My Perfect Party Cake never rises as high as the pictures of Dories in her Baking book, but I still like the flavor and stability of this cake. Every time I make it, I think it will rise higher - and I still hold out hope that one day, I will have a mile-high white cake. The cake lacks any yolks to color it, but I used more grated lemon peel to amp up the lemon flavor and I'm convinced it made it look faintly yellow. I love to think of Dorie in her kitchen whenever I bake from her Baking book - it really is one of my favorite cookbooks.

With the frosting and cake decided, I just had to decide on a filling. I waffled between using lemon curd or lemon marmalade, or perhaps some of each. When I tasted the finished curd, then subsequently tasted the lemon marmalade, the marmalade tasted positively bitter. I decided on three layers of lemon curd. When cloaked in lightly sweetened lavender whipped cream, I think it really worked. I want to write it down so I don't forget. It happens.

I made the lemon curd and infused the lavender simple syrup the day before I baked and assembled the cake. I had one little jar of lemon curd leftover - I kind of wanted to save a little for myself, to use as a topping on Dorie's Cream Scones that I made last week. She says it will keep up to 2 months in the refrigerator, but I know I'm never going to have to worry about that.

Dorie's Lemon Curd (Dorie's Baking: From My Home to Yours)
  • 1 1/4 c. sugar
  • 6 T. butter, cut into 6 pieces
  • 1 egg
  • 6 egg yolks (save those whites! You'll need 4 for the cake.)
  • lemon juice from 4 freshly squeezed lemons (zest them all first prior to juicing. I use organic to ensure they haven't been dyed or sprayed.)
Combine all the ingredients in a heavy saucepan. Stirring continuously with a heat proof implement, heat over medium-low heat until the butter melts and the mixture gets thicker. Depending on your heat, this should take about 6-10 minutes. (Be careful not to get it too hot, or it can separate.) When done, it should coat the back of a metal spoon without running into the track you create by running your finger down the center. It will thicken in the refrigerator, so you aren't looking for it to be as thick as finished curd when it's still hot.

Pour the still hot, finished curd into a glass bowl, and press a piece of plastic wrap over the top to prevent a skin from forming. Cool completely to room temperature before refrigerating.

Lavender Simple Syrup - for Lavender Whipped Cream Frosting (Cupcake Bakeshop)
  • 1/2 c. water
  • 1/4 c. granulated sugar
  • heaping 1 T. lavender flowers
  • 2 c. heavy cream
Combine water and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Add lavender flowers, stir to combine, and let steep uncovered for 10 minutes. Place a fine sieve over a small glass or bowl and strain out lavender flowers, pressing to release all the syrup from them. Cool, then refrigerate until ready to make whipped cream.

Whip cream using a stand or hand mixer (or by shear brute hand force if you are up for that) until soft peaks form. With mixer still running, slowly drizzle in lavender syrup and continue beating until stiff peaks form.

You can find the recipe for Dorie's Perfect Party Cake here at Ezra Pound Cake, along with the original buttercream frosting...

I love rich cakes paired with airy light frostings, and this one was no exception. The lemon curd was lemony and tart, and the lavender read more as floral than perfume-y, so I was very happy with the combination of the two. It sliced like a dream, and was rich enough that a small piece was enough. A room full of people were served, and there were still a few pieces for the Birthday Girl to have leftover the next day.

Before the onset of Winter, I covered my first season lavender plant with a large, overturned flower pot - so I have high hopes for it's reemergence this Spring. And, with the time change coming up this weekend already, I feel more ready than ever for the change in weather. I'm glad I have a bit of sunny lemon curd to hold me over until the sunlight is good and properly warming when I wander around outside. I certainly will remember both to use my lavender more during the season and to stash more of it away come Fall. I can see this becoming a habit.