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Yesterday, I had a crummy, stressful day at work. It was one of those days when the higher-ups are freaking out about an impossible deadline at the end of the week, getting everyone else all stirred up and anxious, only to find out later that the deadline is actually two weeks away. It was frustrating and tiring. My cure? Baking, of course.

My husband had an even worse day, not coming home until 9:30pm (we usually leave work around 5). He had asked me over the weekend that my next baking project be a coffee cake, so I wanted to surprise him with a fabulous coffee cake when he finally got home. I knew just the right one: Michelle of Brown Eyed Baker blogged about an amazing coffee cake from Ina Garten a while back, and I’d been waiting for a chance to make it.

James is a big fan of streusel topping, so I knew this cake would make him happy.  Not only does it have piles of cinnamon-y, nutty streusel on top, and a layer on streusel in the middle, it’s topped off with a maple glaze. Seriously. How does it get any better than that?

I was surprised that the recipe calls for cake flour rather than all purpose, and that you sift it too.  I guess I’m used to dense coffee cakes with a texture more like pound cake. The light texture, the slight tang from the sour cream, the cinnamon-y struesel and the yummy maple glaze definitely  make this a coffee cake with “the volume turned up,” as Ina likes to say. It’s awesome when it’s still slightly warm, too.

Oh, and when James came home from work, the first thing he did was exclaim about how yummy the house smelled.

Sour Cream Coffee Cake
(Source: Barefoot Contessa by way of Brown Eyed Baker)

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
1½ cups granulated sugar
3 extra-large eggs at room temperature
1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1¼ cups sour cream
2½ cups cake flour (not self-rising)
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt

For the streusel:

¼ cup light brown sugar, packed
½ cup all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
¾ cup chopped walnuts, optional

For the glaze:

½ cup confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons real maple syrup

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan.

Cream the butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment for 4 to 5 minutes, until light. Add the eggs 1 at a time, then add the vanilla and sour cream. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. With the mixer on low, add the flour mixture to the batter until just combined. Finish stirring with a spatula to be sure the batter is completely mixed.

For the streusel, place the brown sugar, flour, cinnamon, salt, and butter in a bowl and pinch together with your fingers until it forms a crumble. Mix in the walnuts, if desired.

Spoon half the batter into the pan and spread it out with a knife. Sprinkle with 3/4 cup streusel. Spoon the rest of the batter in the pan, spread it out, and scatter the remaining streusel on top. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean.

Let cool on a wire rack for at least 30 minutes. Carefully transfer the cake, streusel side up, onto a serving plate. Whisk the confectioners’ sugar and maple syrup together, adding a few drops of water if necessary, to make the glaze runny. Drizzle as much as you like over the cake with a fork or spoon.

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Mm, attractive.

I first tried spaghetti carbonara last month when my in-laws visited for a week. We went to dinner at a fabulous restaurant in the North End, and, feeling brave, I ordered the spaghetti carbonara.

Up until a couple years ago, I had a strong aversion to bacon and all things pork. This is a direct result of taking AP biology senior year of high school.  We dissected fetal pigs for weeks, it seemed, and kept the preservative-soaked corpses on trays around the room that whole time. Or maybe they were kept in buckets, but I think it was trays. Anyway, the air in that room was thick with the nauseating perfume of dead fetal pig flesh, and I had to breathe it in for 45 minutes a day. It’s a peculiar and distinctly porky smell, and it lingered in my nose for months afterwards. Even years later, the smell of a pork roast or bacon would turn my stomach.

Then I met my husband.

James loves bacon. And he cooks it really, really well, so that it crumbles and dissolves in your mouth. Needless to say, with some patient guidance/prodding/coaching  from James, I slowly overcame my bacon aversion. Then we visited his parents for Easter, and his mom served ham. Ham! I could handle smoky, crispy bacon, but ham? I wasn’t sure, but I had to try. I had to be polite! So I had some ham, and it was good! I guess avoiding pork for years helped disassociate edible pork from preserved fetal pork. From that point on, I didn’t have trouble eating bacon, and I even cooked up a couple of hams (oo, I’ll have to share that recipe sometime!) but every once in a while the specter of fetal pig smells comes back to haunt me. I cooked up a pork roast this spring and I could hardly touch it, it was so fetal-piggy.

So I’m still a bit nervous about different applications of pork, which is why I’d never tried spaghetti carbonara, whose flavor comes mainly from bacon. And I was a bit anxious that I wouldn’t like it, but oh boy, was it good. Rich and savory and yes bacon-y, but in a fabulous non-fetal pig way.

James tried it and loved it too, so I knew when I spotted a recipe for it  in my America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook that I’d have to give it a whirl.

This recipe was a little bit tricky, but it probably would have been less so had I actually read it thoroughly beforehand. My biggest flub was the bacon – you cook in in olive oil (which I inadvertantly omitted) and then in wine, which you reduce down. Well, I set my husband to cooking the bacon just like he always does (for some reason I always overcook bacon so it’s just best if he handles it) and after five or so minutes I actually read the bacon instructions. First, it should be chopped! Stike one. It should be cooked in olive oil! Strike two. After a bit of cooking, you add the wine to reduce. Almost strike three – I read that just in time and dumped the wine in so it could reduce down without cooking the bacon to death. After it cooled off a bit, I chopped the bacon on a cutting board and I don’t think I lost too much of the juices, so it turned out fine in the end.

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Oh wait, that should be chopped…

Also, I underestimated the size of the bowl. The one I chose held all the pasta with no room leftover. I should have chosen a bigger bowl so that I could stir the eggs into the pasta quickly without flinging bacon and noodles around the room. The bowl needs to be big enough to hold a full pound of pasta with plenty of room leftover, and it needs to be ovensafe enough to be heated at 200 degrees.

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The bowl turned out to be crucial. After you drain the pasta and put it in the bowl, you have to stir the bacon mixture and the egg and cheese mixture into the pasta – quickly. That’s the key to getting the eggs to cook into a creamy sauce without scrambling, and since my bowl was awkwardly small, I had to stir carefully and the sauce turned out a bit chunkier than I think is ideal. I was pretty fed up and frustrated at the end, and dumped it all into the biggest bowl I own even though it wasn’t warm (apparently having the bowl warm is also key to getting smooth sauce) and continued stirring until it was evident that the little chunks weren’t magically disappearing, at which point I threw my hands up in frustration and served it.

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So it didn’t turn out pretty, but it sure was tasty – rich and creamy despite the chunky bits. And you know, I didn’t even notice the little chunks. And while the bacon flavor is definitely noticeable – you get it in every bite, even if you don’t get a piece of bacon – it’s subtle and smoky goodness. It adds a rich depth of flavor to the sauce without being overwhelmingly bacon-y. I definitely want to try this again, because I’d like to master the egg-stirring before attempting it for guests. This recipe is definitely a keeper – no surprise, coming from America’s Test Kitchen!

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Spaghetti alla Carbonara

From America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook

Serves 4

Start to finish: 30 minutes

3 large eggs

1 1/2 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated (3/4 cup)

1/4 cup Pecorino Romano cheese

3 garlic cloves, minced

8 ounces bacon (8 slices) chopped fine

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 pound spaghetti

Pepper

1. Adjust an oven rack to the lowest position, place a large serving bowl on the rack, and heat the oven to 200 degrees. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil  in a large pot for spaghetti.

2. Meanwhile, whisk the eggs, cheeses, and garlic together and set aside.

3. Cook the bacon and olive oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat until the bacon is crisp, about 8 minutes. Add the wine and simmer until it is slightly reduced, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and cover.

4. When the water is boiling, stir in 1 tablespoon salt and the spaghetti. Cook, stirring often, until the spaghetti is almost tender but still a little firm to the bite.

5. Reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water then drain the spaghetti, leaving it slightly wet. Remove the warm bowl from the oven and add the spaghetti. Immediately pour the egg and bacon mixtures over the spaghetti and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper.  Add the reserved pasta cooking water as needed to loosen the sauce before serving.

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Despite my best intentions, four of the bananas that I bought earlier last week suddenly got away from me – it seemed like just overnight they went from being tolerably ripe to racing towards rotten. Of course, my idea of “rotten” is a bit skewed – I used to like them nice and ripe, but nowadays I prefer them to still have a touch of green. Once a banana starts spotting, the flavor stops appealing to me until the point that a really ripe banana is actually a bit nauseating. But that’s okay because it gives me an *urgent* excuse to bake!
 
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(Icky overripe bananas return to pure deliciousness once they’re in baked goods, happily enough.)
 
My hubby loves banana bread, so I was rifling through my recipies searching for one that takes four bananas, when I stopped to ask him if he’d prefer bread or cake. I fully expected him to say bread, since I haven’t made one in a long time, but he surprised me by asking for cake. Even better! I’d been sitting on a Dorie Greenspan banana bundt cake recipe for a long time, waiting for the opportunity to use it, and wouldn’t you know it calls for four ripe bananas?
 
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(Note: although I used Big Red – yes, I named my stand mixer, what of it? – for this, you can also use a hand mixer.)
The batter came together quickly, and I ended up having to follow Dorie’s advice of tenting the cake with foil after 30 minutes, because it was getting fairly brown at that point. I checked on the cake at 65 minutes and it was still gooey in the middle. It took another five minutes, maybe a bit more, for the center to cook through.
 
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The cake is delicous and moist, with a tender crumb and a delicate banana flavor. I’m excited to try some tonight, to see how the flavors deepened overnight!

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Classic Banana Bundt Cake

 From Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan

 3 cups all purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

2 sticks (8 oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 cups sugar

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

2 large eggs, preferably at room temperature

About 4 very ripe bananas, mashed (you should have 1 ½ – 1 ¾ cups)

1 cup sour cream or plain yogurt

 Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Generously butter a 9- to 10-inch Bundt pan. (If you’ve got a silicone Bundt pan, there’s no need to butter it.) Don’t place the pan on a baking sheet- you want the oven’s heat to circulate through the Bundt’s inner tube.

 Whisk the flour, baking soda, and salt together.

 Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter until creamy. Add the sugar and bat at medium speed until pale and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla, then add the eggs one at a time, beating for about 1 minute after each egg goes in. Reduce the mixer speed to low and mix in the bananas. Finally, mix in half the dry ingredients (don’t be disturbed when the mixture  curdles), all the sour cream and then the rest of the flour mixture. Scrape the batter into the pan, rap on pan on the counter to de-bubble the batter and smooth the top.

 Bake for 65 to 75 minutes, or until a thin knife inserted deep into the center of the cake comes out clean. Check the cake after 30 minutes – if it is browning too quickly, cover it loosely with a foil tent. Transfer the cake to a rack and cool for 10 minutes before unmolding onto a rack to cool to room temperature.

 If you’ve got the time, wrap the cooled cake in plastic and allow it to sit on the counter overnight before serving – it’s better the next day.

 Lemony white icing*

 Sift ¾ cup confectioners’ sugar into a bowl and squeeze in enough fresh lemon juice (start with 2 teaspoons and add more by drops) to make an icing thin enough to drizzle down the Bundt’s curves.

*Although Dorie recommends a lemony drizzle, I opted for a plain one – I followed her directions but used milk instead of lemon juice.

IMG_1006When I was little, my parents would pack us in the car for a day trip  to Lancaster County, PA – the heart of Amish Country. They’d drag us from store to store, loading up on cheap groceries, great-tasting local milk, bulk bags of old-fashioned oats and dried fruit for my dad’s homemade granola. One of the highlights of the trip for us kids, aside from seeing the horse-drawn carriages and the people dressed in funny clothes, was the store where my parents bought the bulk dry goods. After our initial inspection of the shelves full of row after row of neatly arranged bags of raw cashews, dried apricots, sunflower seeds and who knows what else, we were inevitably drawn to the table that held the free samples of apple butter and apple cider. While my parents shopped, my siblings and I crowded around the table, scooping up way more than our fair share of apple butter with little oyster crackers, and devoured the spicy-sweet goodness.

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IMG_1012Since then, apple butter has held a special place in my heart, a comforting yet elusive old favorite. It’s not something I find in most grocery stores, and when I do, it’s too overpriced for me to consider buying it. Every once in a while, my mom would return from their annual trip to Lancaster County with a jar of apple butter for me to take back to college or graduate school, but it’s a rare treat.

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Had I known how ridiculously easy it is to make, I would’ve been having apple butter a lot more frequently.

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I found this recipe on yumsugar.com, knew at once that I had to make it immediately, and then finally got around to it a year later. Shameful, especially considering how awesome this stuff is. I could eat it with a spoon (and believe me, I have), but I’m definitely looking forward to smearing some on a toasted cinnamon-raisin bagel tomorrow morning.

One word of caution: this recipe takes a long time to make. The majority of the time is hands-off while it’s simmering in the slow cooker, but don’t start this in early afternoon if you want to go to bed early.

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Added bonus: this makes your house smell amazing all day long.

Apple Butter

from Yumsugar.com

Ingredients

5 1/2 pounds apples – peeled, cored and roughly chopped
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt

Directions
Peel, core and chop your apples. Don’t worry too much about the chopping part because they will cook down and you will blend them all down to a saucy consistency later. Toss all the ingredients into a slow cooker (or heavy pot on the stove). Cover and cook on high heat for the first hour. Then turn the heat down to low for 8 to 10 hours. Take the cover off, blend until smooth and turn the heat back up to high  for another hour or until most of the liquid is gone. Spoon into jars or freezable containers and pop in the fridge or freezer.

Notes: This can be done one the stove with a heavy pot, as well. Doing it in the slow cooker is just easier since you can throw it in, turn it on, and go have a Saturday adventure without worrying that you’re burning the house down. The one difference for cooking it on the stove: use medium high heat for the first and last hour. Also, I checked on mine every couple of hours, stirring it and making sure it wasn’t burning. When the apples started breaking down on their own, I moved on to the blending step – I don’t think I waited the full 8 hours.  Finally, this makes a lot of apple butter – clear out some freezer space or be prepared to give it away to friends and neighbors.

I’ve been a food blog addict for a long time now, getting inspiration and amazing recipies from some very talented people. I’ve dusted my computer with so much flour that I doubt I’ll ever completely clean it out, I’ve gotten several burns, and yes, I’ve gained a few pounds… but I’ve cooked up some crazy good food because of those food blogs, I’ve learned an awful lot, and I’ve made things I never would have dared to try without the encouragement of the food bloggers. I don’t know if I qualify as a “foodie,” exactly, but I love to cook and bake and I thought it was about time I started a food blog of my own.

And, a sneak peek at what will be my first real post:

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Suzi

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