Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Perfect Pear Muffins with Sweet Whipped Cinnamon Butter

Breakfast really is for champions. It's the meal that starts the day, starts your body, starts your mood. So, why not make something that nourishes you and makes you feel good, inside and out?

The other morning I had a craving to bake something. My fridge was nearly empty save for some eggs and my variety of gluten-free flours. The freezer had a few items, but nothing breakfast-worthy. And I certainly wasn't in the mood to throw on some clothes just to run to the store while hungry. That's never smart.

So, I did what all hungry people do - I created something with what I had.

I scoured around until I realized I had a couple of cans of pears, plenty of gluten-free flour, the aforementioned eggs, and the basics to make what has become a new favorite - pear muffins.

These little nuggets of yummy muffin-ness teetered, as all muffins do, in the relatively unhealthy realm. I had to make them a little more nutritious if I was going to justify basically eating a modified cupcake for breakfast. Now, in all fairness, my muffin recipe contains half the amount of sugar of most cupcake recipes and I had a solution for the inevitable oil that's usually used heavy-handed: applesauce.

Applesauce as a substitute for oil is an old trick bakers have used to keep baked goods moist and delicious without all the extra added fat and calories. Now, mind you, I am not against fat or calories - we need them both. But, since I had been eating sweets (see Oreo Cupcakes - A Sweet Surprise) in the past week and my fridge truly was bare and devoid of better nutrition, I had to make sure these were actually going to be good for me, as well as delicious.

So, with the mix of protein-rich millet flour and fiber-heavy brown rice flour, alongside heart-healthy applesauce and some yummy pears (as well as edging out a few calories by using water instead of milk), I knew this would be a winning breakfast combo. A great way to start off my day!

And maybe my mid-afternoon too.

Happy eating!

Perfect Pear Muffins with Sweet Whipped Cinnamon Butter

Makes 12 muffins

3/4 cup millet flour
1/2 cup brown rice flour
3/4 cup cornstarch
1/3 cup sweet rice flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2-1/2 tsp baking powder
1-1/2 tsp xanthan gum or karaya gum
1 tsp salt
1 tsp nutmeg
1 cup water, room temperature (or lukewarm)
1/4 cup applesauce (all-natural with no added sugar)
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla
1 can pear halves, drained and chopped into 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with papers, silicone liners or cooking spray.

2. In a stand mixer, combine the millet flour, brown rice flour, cornstarch, sweet rice flour, sugar, baking powder, xanthan gum, salt, and nutmeg using the paddle attachment. Add water, applesauce, eggs, and vanilla. Mix on medium speed until thoroughly combined.

3. Remove bowl from mixer and add diced pears. Fold pears into batter with a spatula just until combined. Divide batter evenly among the muffin cups, each about two-thirds to three-quarters full. If you have extra batter, you can either make them into mini-muffins or save for another batch.

4. Bake for 18-20 minutes, or until the tops of the muffins are golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with only a few crumbs on it (mostly clean). Remove from the oven and let cool in pan for 10 minutes, then remove to finish cooling on a wire rack. Serve immediately or store in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

Sweet Whipped Cinnamon Butter

1 cup butter, softened, or natural margarine of choice (I used half Soy-free Earth Balance and half Smart Balance Heart Right Light)
1/3 cup Marshmallow Fluff (I prefer the original brand due to its simple ingredients)
2 tsp powdered sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon

1. In a stand mixer using the whisk attachment, cream the butter or margarine until soft, creamy and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the marshmallow fluff, the powdered sugar and the cinnamon. Whisk on low to combine, then switch to high to incorporate some air, 1-2 minutes. Serve with Perfect Pear Muffins and enjoy!

Oreo Cupcakes ~ A Sweet Surprise

A good friend of mine has a bit of an Oreo problem.

      She adores them.

And since I adore her, I had to make these delicious little treats for her as a birthday surprise. It took me awhile to settle on what flavor of cupcakes I was going to make for my friend because I didn't really know what her favorite kind of cake was. I knew she enjoyed sweet treats, but as most women are doing, she wanted to watch her consumption of delicious little things.

I have no such problem with that. The eating of delicious little treats, that is.

However, I know she does fancy a sweet thing on occasion and her go-to choice is almost always Oreos. A slathering of thick sweet frosting sandwiched between two little crunchy chocolate cookies. Dunk them in milk, twirl them apart, eat one at a time or pop one whole. Lots of different ways to enjoy them, right? And nowadays, they come in almost every flavor and variety. Peanut butter, vanilla, mint, ginger. Red, white, green, brown. Coated in chocolate, white, milk or dark. You name it. People love their Oreos.

I am an Oreo fan, but it is not my absolute favorite. And since I have gone gluten-free, I don't think I've had an Oreo or a knock-off version in years. But, since my friend loves them so much, I wanted to find a way to incorporate them in another favorite - the cupcake.

Now, this is not new, nor can I claim to have invented such a thing as the Oreo cupcake. But, in the gluten-free world, I didn't know if I could find a decent sandwich cookie that would rival the original enough to enamour my wheat-eating friend. Would the cookies pass the test? Or would they fall as flat as the famous chocolate wafer?

I searched at one of my local natural health food stores and came across only one brand: Kinnikinnick. The package looked like all the other wheat-filled cookie containers, but would they taste the same or even close? It's hard to say. Gluten-free products can sometimes be a gamble and as most of us know, no matter what we do, they just aren't exactly the same. They are good, but would they be good enough?

Yep. They were pretty darn delicious.

I even dunked them in some Rice Dream and they were mighty tasty! I was quite pleased and ready to get my cupcake on.

FYI: I have been told that Glutino also makes a chocolate sandwich cookie, but since I haven't ventured to seek them out, I can't tell you how those are or how they will work in the following recipe. But, I am a Glutino fan in general, so I doubt they'll be anything less than fabulous. 

So, I had found a suitable replacement for the original Oreo cookie and on top of all of it, not only was the cookie delicious, but it was much more natural than the Oreo brand. The filling consists of powdered sugar, palm shortening (in its original form, not the hydrogenated kind, partial or otherwise, that so many companies use), natural flavorings and salt.

Not bad.

The cookie itself is a gluten-free dream made by a company that really understands g-free needs. Not something I worry about with Kinnikinnick. It has a nice chocolate flavor with a slightly sandy, shortbready texture that melts in your mouth in just the right way. The texture is mildly different from a true Oreo, but since I was going to bake with them, I knew they would be just perfect.

But I didn't want to just do a vanilla or chocolate cupcake with an Oreo-type frosting - I wanted to do something that would add a little surprise. After all, this was for a birthday!

In several magazines and a few cookbooks, I had seen other home cooks and chefs put a whole Oreo or other type of cookie in the batter and bake it inside the cupcake. How fun would that be? To bite into a soft and moist cupcake only to find a whole cookie in there too? Oh, yeah. That would be yum.

I knew that once I had settled on my decision to make a set of Oreo birthday cupcakes for a person who is just as sweet as the cake, that I had found the right combination to suit a happy situation. It was going to be a very happy birthday surprise.

Oreo Cupcakes

 Makes 12 regular cupcakes

(Cake recipe is adapted from Carol Fenster’s Cooking Free)

For all white cupcakes, use 3 egg whites rather than 2 whole eggs.

Make sure all ingredients are room temperature. 

Cupcake batter: 

1/3 cup butter, or ¼ cup oil or applesauce
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs or 3 egg whites
1 ½ cups GF Flour Blend: (½ cup millet or white rice flour, ½ cup brown rice flour, ½ cup cornstarch or tapioca starch)
1 tsp xanthan gum or karaya gum (also known as GumTex)
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
¾ cup buttermilk, or 2 tsp vinegar or lemon juice and enough nondairy milk to equal ¾ cup
1 tsp vanilla extract
12 whole chocolate sandwich cookies

Chocolate Sandwich Cookie Frosting: 

6 chocolate sandwich cookies, crushed into small pieces
1 cup palm shortening
2 cups Marshmallow Fluff (I prefer the original brand - Marshmallow Fluff - because it has four ingredients and they are natural) - can use up to 1 cup more depending on how soft you want your frosting
1 tsp vanilla 
2 tbsp powdered sugar (add more or less for preferred consistency and texture)
cold water, as needed 

1. For cupcakes: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a 12-cup cupcake pan with cupcake liners.

2. Using an electric mixer, cream butter (or oil or applesauce) and sugar on medium speed until thoroughly blended. Mix in eggs on low speed until blended.

3. In a medium bowl, sift together flours, xanthan gum, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In another medium bowl, combine buttermilk and vanilla.

4. On low speed, beat dry ingredients into butter mixture, alternating with buttermilk, beginning and ending with dry ingredients. Mix just until combined. Batter will be very loose, if using oil or applesauce. Spoon 1 tbsp of batter equally into prepared pans, then place one chocolate sandwich cookie on top of each partially filled cup. Add another 1 - 1½  tbsp of batter over the top of the cookie. Let batter sit for 10 minutes.

5. Bake cupcakes for 18-20 minutes, until cakes are golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the side (so as to avoid the cookie) comes out clean. Allow cakes to cool in pan for 5-10 minutes, then remove from pans and allow to cool completely. 

6. For frosting: Place cookies in a small baggie and seal. Roll a rolling pin over the cookies or smash with the back of a heavy spoon until cookies are in small pieces. 

7. Cream the shortening in the mixer until smooth and creamy using the whisk attachment. Add fluff, vanilla and powdered sugar and mix on med-low until combined. Add water 1 tsp at a time until you get the desired consistency. If you add too much water, add more shortening and whisk on high until incorporated.

8. Switch machine to high to really get the frosting whipped, smooth and fluffy, about 2 minutes.  Remove from machine and fold in crushed cookies, reserving about 1 tsp. 

9. Pipe or spread frosting on cooled cupcakes and sprinkle reserved cookie crumbs on top of each cookie. 

10. Enjoy or surprise a friend! Keep cupcakes in an airtight container for up to 3 days, if not using right away. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Goodreads Review: Aleph by Paulo Coehlo

AlephAleph by Paulo Coelho

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a really great book. I loved all the amazing detail about a life I clearly do not live, but became incredibly immersed in for a short period of time.

The book mostly takes place on the Trans-Siberian Railway as one man (based on actual events) tackles his life in a way most of us can only dream. He meets a strange, enchanting young woman who believes herself to be somehow connected to him and follows him on this crazy journey. The author takes you on a personal journey into his own life and adventures (this story is based on HIS actual events), and into an intimate glimpse of past lives and what they mean for us all.

Paulo Coelho is a master storyteller that keeps you riveted to your seat wanting to know more and answer the eternal question, Why?

Fascinating book superbly told.

Rated PG-13 for content and some graphic descriptions.

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Goodreads Review: The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

The Winter SeaThe Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book as a book club selection and when I first started it, I had a bit of a challenge getting into it. The first few chapters were a little slow for me, but once I got into the story, the rest just flowed seamlessly. I very much love this book. Her writing became poetic and became a background to the story itself where you weren't reading the words as much as you were inside the story and all the fabulous characters. It was a wonderful change of pace to read something that had a lot of actual history, as well as a lot of romance that wasn't really about the romance.

The story is set in two locations: modern day Scotland and eighteenth-century Scotland. There's a lot of fun twists and turns as you find out more about the characters, their plight and what is really happening to the people on this forlorn coastline in northern Scotland. I became entranced by her imagery without being fumbled along inside of it and the characters were as real to me as they were to the woman writing about them.

An enchanting love story that crosses ages and barriers that will have you gripped with intrigue, fascinated by history and wondering which characters were real and which were fabricated. (FYI: the author adds a little postscript that tells you...) It was nice to have a story about war without a lot of war and gore in it, focusing more on the politics and the way wars were waged back when. I learned a lot about a portion of history that no one seems to remember and a lot of people who would otherwise be forgotten.

Excellent read. Five stars. Highly recommended for ages 13 and up due to content and historical interest.

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Goodreads Review: Wildwood Dancing

Wildwood Dancing (Wildwood, #1)Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a very clever book about a group of sisters who find a portal into another realm and at each full moon, enjoy a night of dancing and prancing with the people from this other realm. The book is quite charming until the lives of the girls get torn asunder as their father (and only parent) is whisked away to amend his health, their evil cousin, Cezar, begins to dig his claws into every aspect of their lives and only one of the sisters seems to be able to do anything about it. The action takes place in historical Transylvania, which is a wonderful place to read about, but the time period is challenging to any modern-day thinkers. It wasn't a romantic period, but romance does find a way to bloom despite the dire situations these young women face. It's a really fun book that includes lots of enticing tidbits about the Fae and fairy realms, gnomes and Night People (aka vampirish types) and the two worlds find a way to interact peaceably.

Fun read, recommended for ages 13 and up due to theme, content, dark subjects, and some scary situations. Rated PG-13.

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Goodreads Review: Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

Number the StarsNumber the Stars by Lois Lowry

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am a big fan of Lois Lowry ever since reading the Giver, as well as that entire series. This book was given to me by a friend and I finally had a chance to sit down and read it this afternoon. The book is short, as are most of Lowry's, so reading it is a nice afternoon pleasure.

The book takes place during World War II as the Nazis begin to invade various parts of Western Europe. The main characters live in Denmark and the Nazis have just begun a "secretive" roundup of the Jewish people and young Annemarie's best friend's family is about to be taken away. She and her family, who are Lutheran, learn very quickly how to be brave and do what they must do to save the people they love dearly, as well as many of their countrymen.

The author kindly finishes the book with the truth about what is fiction and what is truth, with a pretty even mixture of both. She is aptly able to take us on a very quick and breath-taking ride through a very tense period in the lives of these amazing people. Her incredible writing (as well as award-winning) brings these people to life and you into their heartfelt world in a mere 137 pages. She's a genius.

Highly recommended. Rated PG for content/theme regarding war, but a fantastic read for anyone interested in the time period or in a section of the war that rarely gets talked. I was astonished to learn how remarkable the Dutch are and what they did for the people of their country. We could all learn a lesson here.

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