Strawberry and Spinach Salad

I love strawberries.

When ripened by an early summer sun and freshly picked from the patch in my backyard or purchased from a near-by farm stand, they are supremely delicious.  My family and I eat them by the bucketful on an almost daily basis in May and June – sliced in a bowl with a bit of sugar and whipped cream, piled on vanilla ice cream, mixed in cereal, crushed between shortcakes, or simply eaten straight out of the box.  (Now my mouth is watering.)

Even when they aren’t in season, I’m not above buying and eating strawberries grown in faraway places like Florida and California.  (Target, of all places, has quality berries for the best price around.)  While not quite as sublime as the homegrown, in-season berries I prefer, they are usually good enough to quell the symptoms of withdrawal that pop up during those long empty months without the homegrown variety.

A few years ago, my sister-in-law, Rebecca, brought a strawberry and spinach salad to our family Easter dinner that transported me to a whole new level of strawberry enjoyment.  With its juxtaposition of deep red berries and dark green leaves, it was as satisfying to look at as it was to eat.  The humble dressing gently magnified the sweet-tartness of the strawberries.  And the nutritional punch of the spinach alone was enough to cancel out the sugar load in the dressing and inject the eater (namely, me) with a small dose of self-righteousness.

On that spring afternoon, I fell in love.  With strawberry and spinach salad.

Rebecca was gracious enough to share her recipe with me.  And now I’m sharing it here, with you.  It is such a quick and simple dish, and yet, every time I toss it together and serve it up, people rave and compliment – as if I really had anything to do with the perfection they are seeing and tasting.  In this case, the ingredients do all the work.  My only job is to help them find each other.

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See what I mean?  It’s gorgeous.

Go ahead.  Give it a try…..

Strawberry and Spinach Salad  (from Rebecca, my sister-in-law)

Salad:

1 bag of spinach

1 quart of strawberries, washed and sliced but NOT sweetened

Dressing:

1/2 cup oil (I use canola)

1/4 cup cider vinegar

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon paprika

1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 1/2 teaspoon minced onion

2 tablespoons sesame seeds (not necessary but desirable)

Combine spinach and strawberries.  Mix the dressing together and pour over the salad.  Enjoy! 

Note: I only make half a recipe of the dressing.  For me, that is just that right amount of zingy liquid for this salad.  It’s a personal preference – I don’t like my greens to be swimming in dressing.

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Simple and Delicious Apple Crumble

Yesterday was bitterly cold and dusted with snow – the kind of day that encourages the drinking of steaming beverages and the reading of good books while snuggled under cozy blankets.  In my world, a grey wintry day like that is also the perfect opportunity to bake up some yummy love to share with my family.

At my core, I am a simple baker.  I gravitate toward uncomplicated recipes with common ingredients that are routinely available in my pantry or fridge.  Frosting a cookie or a cupcake is about as fancy as I care to get.  However, preferring simplicity doesn’t mean I settle for mediocrity.  Simple only works for me IF the end result is deliciously satisfying to body and soul.  Magic really can happen as easily with a few humble ingredients mixed and baked in minutes as it can with many rare and expensive ones fussed over for hours.

You don’t believe me? As proof, I offer a recipe I stumbled across in Williams-Sonoma’s Cooking At Home.  I found the cookbook tossed on the sale table at my local store after Christmas last year.  The price was just too tempting to resist so the book came home with me.  Apple Crumble was the first recipe I tried and it remains my favorite of the collection.  With just eight ingredients and almost a one bowl preparation, it certainly fits the definition of simple.  The apples swim in a pool of cider, cinnamon, and allspice and are sprinkled with a soft layer of flour, sugar, and butter.  After an hour of slow magic in the oven, the crumble emerges, thickened and bubbling with a sweet and tender crust.

The whole idea of crumbles (and crisps, cobblers, brown bettys, and such) is that they are meant to be eaten right out of the oven. This apple version is no exception.  Topped with a scoop of creamy vanilla ice cream, a bowl of this piping hot jumble of goodness and a cup of tea are the perfect complements to a cold and snowy day.  Or any day, now that I think about it.

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Apple Crumble (Cooking At Home, Williams-Sonoma)

5 large apples, peeled, halved, cored, and thickly sliced (Any baking apples will do – pick your favorite.  I used Granny Smith this time.)

1/2 cup (4 oz/125 ml) apple cider

Juice of half a lemon

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 ground allspice

3/4 cup (6 oz/ 185 g) sugar

3/4 cup (4 oz/ 125 g) all-purpose flour

1/2 cup (4 oz/ 125 g) unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces

Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C).  Generously Butter a 2½ qt (2½ l) baking dish.  Arrange apple slices in prepared dish, then sprinkle evenly with lemon juice, cinnamon, and allspice.  Toss gently to combine.

In a bowl, stir together the flour and sugar.  Scatter the butter pieces over the top.  Using your fingers, 2 knives, or a pastry cutter, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles fine crumbs.  Sprinkle the crumb mixture evenly over the apples in the baking dish.

Bake until apples are tender, the juices are bubbling, and the topping is a light golden brown, about 1 hour.  Serve right away (highly recommended), or let cool on a wire rack and serve warm or at room temperature directly from baking dish.

Soul satisfying, indeed.

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Fresh Peach Drop Cookies

August is the mellow back stretch of summer.  The shadows are lengthening, the sunlight seems softer, and the colors of the season are beginning to fade.  It’s a bittersweet time, a mixture of the sadness of knowing summer is soon ending and the anticipation for the fresh start of a new school year.

One of the things I love most about August is the bounty of fruits and vegetables that come into season: sweet corn, blackberries, watermelon, cantaloupe, tomatoes, plums, peppers.  My favorite?  Peaches.  With velvety skin, a delicate fragrance, and richly variegated color, they satisfy more than just my taste buds.

Right now, the trees at the local orchard are so laden with peaches that their branches are grazing the ground.  The orchard’s store is overflowing with bushels, pecks, and piles of the fuzzy fruit.  Small signs admonish tempted patrons (like myself) to “please squeeze your sweetie, not the peaches.  We bruise easily!”  It’s very hard, but somehow I manage to keep my hands to myself.

I spend a lot of time at the orchard store because my family loves peaches.  We eat them almost everyday when they are in season, pitted and peeled, with juice dripping off our fingers and down our chins.  I also make jars of peach jam. There is nothing quite like the taste of fresh, ripe peaches spread on a biscuit or a slice of toast in the middle of winter.

The other day I had a hankering to do some baking.  There were just a few lonely peaches sitting on the counter.  Not enough for a cobbler or a crisp but just the right amount for some cookies.  Ace and I spent an afternoon baking up these little cakey morsels of peach goodness.  I mixed the dough and dropped the cookies.  He mixed and sprinkled the cinnamon-sugar and taste-tested the results.

Martha Stewart (whose recipe we used) advises that the cookies are best if eaten the same day.  Because eating four dozen cookies in one day is very bad, no matter how good the cookies or how appreciative or hungry the eaters, this recipe encourages sharing with the people near and dear to you.  And sharing the quintessential flavor of late summer wrapped in a cinnamon-sugar-crusted cookie is almost as good a indulging in it yourself.

Fresh Peach Drop Cookies (adapted from Martha Stewart’s Cookies)

2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

1 cup granulated sugar

1 large egg

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 large ripe peaches (about 8 ounces each), peeled, pitted, and chopped into 1/4-inch pieces (1 3/4 cups)

1/3 cup peach jam or preserves

2 tablespoons fine sanding sugar

1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  1. Preheat oven to 375º F.  Whisk together flour, salt, and baking soda.
  2. Cream together butter and sugar on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 4 minutes.  Reduce speed to low.  Add egg and vanilla; mix until well blended, about 1 minute.  Add flour mixture and mix until combined.  Add diced peaches and peach jam; mix until just combined.
  3. Using a 1 1/2-inch ice cream scoop or tablespoon, drop dough onto baking sheets lined with parchment paper, spacing 2 inches apart.  (Chill remaining dough between batches.)*
  4. Combine sanding sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl.  Sprinkle each cookie with 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon-sugar mixture.  Bake cookies until golden brown and just set, 11 to 13 minutes, rotating sheets halfway through.  Let cool on cookie sheets for 5 minutes.  Transfer cookies to wire racks to cool completely.  Cookies are best eaten the day they are made, but they can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature up to two days.**

Makes 4 dozen cookies.***

* I recommend chilling the dough a bit (maybe fifteen minutes) before baking any cookies.  They will spread less and will seem fluffier.

** These cookies really are delicate.  I have kept them for two days and they still taste fine.  However, they flatten out if stacked and become stickier with each passing day.

*** The recipe makes 4 dozen cookies if you use the 1 1/2 inch scoop or tablespoon.  My scoop is 1 3/4 inch (yes, I measured it) and I was able to get 40 cookies from the recipe.

A Sweet Taste of Spring

Yesterday, I woke to the trill of songbirds and something fluttered in my spirit.  Had spring officially arrived?  I opened the windows and let the fresh cool air meander through the house.  The cats lounged on the sills for hours, tails twitching at robins and noses sniffing the breeze.  To my nose, the air smelled of dirt, and growing things, and promise.  The neighbor’s weeping willow had sprouted graceful wisps of flourescent green hair and daffodils lazily nodded their sunny yellow heads. Yes, spring had arrived and was working its magic.

My response to all this renewal and rebirth?  I set out some eggs to warm up and butter to soften and decided to bake something lemony.  Lemon, in my humble opinion, is the perfect taste to complement spring – fresh, clean, and bright.  I grabbed some lemons from the fridge and began mentally sifting through my favorite lemon recipes.  Lemon bars, lemon cookies, lemon pudding cake, lemon quick bread, lemon poppy seed muffins.  I finally settled on Lemon Cream Cupcakes, a recipe I found years ago in a Taste of Home magazine.  The choice was pretty easy.  Just the thought of these cupcakes made my mouth water.  Besides, I’d recently bought really cute baking cups at Michael’s that I was itching to use and this was the perfect opportunity.

Although simple in appearance, Lemon Cream Cupcakes are to die for.  I mean this with the utmost sincerity.  My husband phoned me five minutes after leaving for work this morning simply to talk (a.k.a. rave) about the cupcake he’d just eaten for breakfast.  Lovey’s friend describes them as “life-changing”.  I don’t know about that, but I will say that they offer a few minutes of edible heaven.  Now I ask, what better way to celebrate spring than by baking and eating these morsels of lemon perfection?

 I want to personally thank Ruth Ann Stelfox of Raymond, Alberta, whoever you are, for submitting your fabulous recipe to Taste of Home and sharing it with the world, and more personally, with me.  And now, it’s my turn to be gracious, because something this sublime is just too wonderful to keep to myself.

Lemon Cream Cupcakes (from Taste of Home, date unknown)

1 cup unsalted butter, softened

2 cups sugar

3 eggs

2 teaspoons grated lemon peel

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups sour cream

Frosting:

3 tablespoons butter, softened

2 1/4 cups confectioner’s sugar

2 tablespoons lemon juice

3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon grated lemon peel

1 to 2 tablespoons milk

For Batter:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line muffin tins with paper liners (the cuter the better).
  2. In a mixing bowl, cream together butter and sugar (approximately 2 1/2 to 3 minutes).
  3. Beat in eggs, one at a time.
  4. Add lemon peel and vanilla; mix well.
  5. Combine dry ingredients; add to creamed mixture alternately with sour cream.  Begin and end with dry ingredients.  Batter will be thick.  Go ahead – taste it.  Bet you can’t stop with just one lick.
  6. Fill liners with 1/4 cup batter.  Don’t overfill or you’ll end up with wide flat tops on your cupcakes – still tasty but not pretty.
  7. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until toothpick inserted near center comes out clean.
  8. Cool for ten minutes; remove to wire racks to cool completely.

For Frosting:

  1. Cream butter and sugar in a small mixing bowl.
  2. Add lemon juice, vanilla, lemon peel, and milk.  Beat until smooth.
  3. Frost cupcakes.  I’ve found that dipping the cupcakes in the frosting works just as well as the traditional method and it’s quicker.
  4. Time for a sample (or two).  Ah, springtime from the oven.

This recipe yields about 2 1/2 dozen cupcakes.

Sweet Little Strawberry Shortbread Cookies

Most of my cookies, regardless of the final result, begin with the same reassuring formula.  Combine dry ingredients and set aside.  Cream softened butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.  Add eggs, one at a time, along with the flavorings.  Gradually stir dry ingredients into butter mixture until well incorporated.  Finally, fold in nuts, chips, fruit, etc.  To me, these are the simple, tried and true steps for cookie-making magic.

The other day I was yearning to bake some cookies.  My classes were finally finished for the semester and I had some time on my hands.  I considered all the standards I usually make this festive time of year – chocolate, snickerdoodles, molasses spice, peanut butter kiss, gingerbread, soft sugar.  Nothing inspired me.  My lack of enthusiasm for the usual lead me on a hunt through the piles of books and magazines filled with cookie recipes that I’ve been stockpiling over the years.  (I wonder, is recipe hoarding an illness?)

In the 2007 edition of Better Homes and Gardens Christmas Cookies publication, a shortbread recipe caught my eye.  I’d never made shortbread before and it seemed like it would be a fun challenge.  Besides, the cookies in the magazine photo looked so darn cute, I couldn’t resist.  This recipe took me far from my comfort zone.  Freeze the butter?  No eggs??  Knead the dough???  I don’t need my Kitchenaid mixer?!  Very scary stuff, I’m telling you.  However, after taking the plunge, I can confidently say that there is more than one way to bake cookie magic in my kitchen.

These cookies are definitely worth the extra fussing.  Their subtle strawberry sweetness and tender shortbread texture make them pop-in-your-mouth yummy.  The bonus – they’re pretty enough for very special occassions.  At my house, a true test of a cookie’s deliciousness is how quickly it disappears.  All seventy some cookies were gone in less than 48 hours.  Now that is cookie magic at its best!

Strawberry Shortbread (originally printed in Better Homes and Gardens Christmas Cookies, 2007)

2 Tablespoons strawberry preserves

1 cup butter, softened

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

2 2/3 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

Strawberry Glaze

Coarse sugar (optional)

1. Snip large pieces of fruit in the strawberry preserves.  Beat butter, preserves, and almond extract in a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium speed until well blended.  Transfer butter mixture to a sheet of plastic wrap; shape into a six-inch log.  Wrap and freeze for 1 to 2 hours or until firm.

2. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Stir together flour, granulated sugar, and salt in a large bowl.  Add butter mixture. Cut butter into flour mixture with a pastry blender ubtil mixture starts to cling together.  Knead dough until smooth; form dough into a ball.

3. Divide dough in half.  Roll each portion of dough to 1/4-inch thickness on a lightly floured surface.  Cut out dough rounds with a scalloped 1 1/2 to 2-inch cookie cutter.  Place cut-outs 1 inch apart on ungreased cookie sheets.

4. Bake in a pre-heated oven for 12 to 16 minutes or until edges just start to brown.  Transfer cookies to wire racks and cool completely.  Spread tops with Strawberry Glaze; if desired, sprinkle with coarse sugar.  Let stand until set.  Makes about 54 two-inch cookies or seventy-six 1 1/2-inch cookies.

Strawberry Glaze

Microwave 1 tablespoon of strawberry preserves in a medium microwave-safe bowl on 50 percent for 30 seconds or until melted; snip any large pieces in the preserves.  Stir in two cups of powdered sugar and 1 tablespoon of milk using a wire whisk.  Stir in additional milk, 1 teaspoon at a time, to make a smooth glaze of spreading consistency.  Makes about 2/3 cup.

I made a few changes to the original recipe when I baked up my batch.  Instead of the preserves, I used homemade strawberry freezer jam.  I also substituted vanilla extract for the almond variety – I’m not a big fan of almond flavoring.

The process of cutting in the butter and turning the mixture into a kneadable dough takes some time and muscle.  Just be patient and don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.  Whenever I wasn’t working with the dough, I kept it cold in the fridge.  I rolled each half of the dough out only twice to keep the cookies from getting tough.  With a 1 1/2 inch scalloped cookie cutter, I made about seventy-five cookies.  I’m sorry I don’t have an exact number.  I began counting after I had already eaten several directly from the hot cookie sheets.  Finally, for the glaze, I used at least two tablespoons of milk to create the desired spreading consistency.  There was more then enough glaze to cover the entire batch – even the ones I ate right out of the oven had they actually lasted that long.