The promise of fall and spaghetti squash joys

I am desperate for fall to arrive. It officially began September 22 this year, but you wouldn't know it. Summer heat continues, with average high temperatures in the eighties, so my sweaters remain tucked away, the air conditioner continues to run throughout the afternoon, and my thoughts of warm autumnal foods remain just that. Thoughts.

Happily there is one super simple, light fall squash dish that doesn't seem terribly out of place in this unseasonal weather: spaghetti squash with butter, parsley and parmesan. A dish so easy it requires only a quick description rather than a formal recipe. A dish that allows me to cook and consume a vegetable in season, without feeling heavy and weighed down. Plus, it's fun - the cooked flesh pulls away from the yellow skin in long, willowy strands that wrap perfectly around a fork. Mild in flavor, I think spaghetti squash shines when paired with these light ingredients, but it's sometimes tossed with tomato sauce, a dieter's stand in for the more caloric pasta.

I like to roast the squash in a medium oven, but you can cook it in the microwave if you're in a hurry. If you opt to nuke it, split the squash down the middle, remove the inner guts and seeds, and cook with 2 tablespoons water on a microwave safe plate for about 10 minutes. Microwaves differ (as do squash), so it make take a little more or less time. When the squash is soft and the strands pull out easily, you're good to go. They will retain a little crunch when cooked.

Spaghetti Squash with Parsley and Parmesan
Serves 3-4

1 spaghetti squash, weighing about 3 pounds
3/4 cup parmesan cheese, grated
1/4 cup parsley, grated
3-4 tablespoons of butter
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Pierce the spaghetti squash several times all over with the tines of a fork. This will allow steam to escape during cooking - you don't want it to explode in the oven. Bake until soft, about 1 hour. Remove from the oven and split in half lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds with a spoon, then use a fork to pull the spaghetti-like strands away from the skin. Place the strands in a bowl, toss with the remaining ingredients, and season with salt and pepper to taste.


Cell phones and pecan shortbread

It was a quiet Saturday. Very quiet. I was busy with meetings and errands, household chores and dog walks, but I enjoyed an unusual amount of down time, time for reading and movies — pleasures I don't get enough of on weekends. It was fantastic. I was a little miffed that I hadn't heard from a few people, but happy with the silence, the tranquility. When I went to recharge my cell phone Saturday night I realized the ringer was turned off. Five messages on voice mail, seven missed calls. Lesson learned: put the phone on vibrate more often, though do it intentionally.

Baking was included in Saturday's roster, as I planned to meet friends for coffee and wanted to bring a snack. I think coffee meetings beg for snacks. These can come in a savory form, but most often a sweet, sugary something-something is the best accompaniment to hot beverages and scintillating conversation. Or even not-so-great conversation. Our meeting was lively and fun, but I do think the cookies added a bit of cheer.

This was my first time baking cookies from celebrated author Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home to Yours (my very first post featured her pound cake). If the pecan shortbread is any indication of how good her other cookie recipes are, I look forward to more time in the kitchen with this book.

Greenspan's technique for rolling out shortbread dough was a revelation to me. I've always patted the soft dough into a prepared pan, pricked it with a fork, and preceded with baking. In this recipe, the dough is placed in a plastic bag with a zipped closure and rolled out into a smooth rectangle using a rolling pin. The top of the bag is left open during the rolling to let out air and avoid a nasty explosion. When the correct size is reached, the bag is sealed and the dough is left to firm in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours before it's cut into squares and baked. The result: the neatest, cleanest looking shortbread cookies I've ever made. Tasty, too.

Brown Sugar-Pecan Shortbread Cookies
Makes 32 cookies
Adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
pinch of ground cloves
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup finely ground pecans

Confectioners' sugar, for dusting (optional)

Sift the flour, cornstarch, salt and cloves together and set aside.

Beat the butter and brown sugar together until the mixture is very smooth (about 3 minutes in a heavy stand mixer using the paddle attachment). Reduce the speed to low and add the dry ingredients. Mix only to incorporate - don't overwork. Add the ground pecans and mix the dough just a few more times, evenly distributing the nuts.

Use a rubber spatula to transfer the dough to a gallon-size zipper-lock plastic bag. Leaving the top open, place the bag on a flat work surface, and roll the dough into a 9 x 10 1/2 inch rectangle that's about 1/4" thick (mine was little thicker). Turn and lift the bag as you roll to avoid creases. Seal the bag, pressing out air, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or for up to 2 days.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and position the racks to divide the oven into thirds. Line  baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and slit the bag open. Turn it onto a cutting board (throw out the bag) and cut the dough into 1 1/2-inch squares. Place the squares on the baking sheets and prick each with a fork, gently pushing the tines through the cookies until they hit the sheet.

Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through (back to front and top to bottom). The cookies will still be very pale when they're done. Cool on a rack. I skipped the confectioners' sugar, but, if you like, dust the cookies with it while they're still warm. Cool to room temperature before serving.

These will keep in an airtight container for about 4 days at room temperature. They can be frozen for up to 2 months.


Just because peanut butter cookies

Peanut butter cookies remind me of my Uncle James. More accurately, they remind me of my mother, Joy, who bakes them for her brother a few times each year. Christmas is a given, but she's been known to whip up a batch of cookies for his birthday, when he's not feeling well, or just because. I think just because is the best reason of all. Fresh flowers gracing Monday night's dinner table, a hand written note that doesn't mark a special life occasion — these are the things that make me smile.

Joy relies on an old, well-worn copy of The Joy of Cooking for many recipes, and peanut butter cookies are no exception. They're crumbly and rich — wonderful cookies that remind me of home. One big whiff of the very peanut buttery dough transports me to childhood. My elementary school age self, slightly dusted with flour, stands at the kitchen counter, pressing the tines of a fork oh-so-carefully into the tops of the raw dough, simultaneously flattening and marking the cookies with a cross-hatch.

As a forty-something, I've strayed from my mother's standard recipe, adding coarsely chopped peanuts to the dough and often opting for the extra-large variety, which I find extra-appealing. I made a batch Tuesday night (regular size) and mailed half to Uncle James; the remaining cookies made it to work the following day. It's no one's birthday, (happily) no one is ill; it's a batch of Just Because Peanut Butter Cookies.

Peanut Butter Cookies
Makes about 28 cookies

1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup peanut butter (smooth or chunky)
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch of kosher salt
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup lightly salted peanuts, roughly chopped (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats and set aside.

In a small bowl, combine the flour, salt and baking soda. Set aside.

In a mixing bowl, cream the butter, then add the peanut butter and sugar, beating until light. Add the egg and vanilla, mixing until combined. Add the dry ingredients, mixing until well blended. Add the chopped peanuts (if using).

Roll the dough 1 1/2- inch balls and space them 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Flatten them slightly with the tines of a fork (I like to mark them in 2 directions, the lines running perpendicular to each other in a crosshatch pattern — old habit). Bake for 10-11 minutes, until light golden brown. Remove to a rack to cool.


Most excellent cherry oatmeal cookies

A package of dried Bing cherries caught my eye at Trader Joe's over the weekend. Clipped neatly to a hanger that ran the length of the shelf, the ruby spheres looked, well, interesting. Desirable. Promising. Surely they'd add something special to a grain salad or batch of brownies (those marketing people know what they're doing). Into my cart they went.

I began leafing through Cindy Mushet's cookbook The Art & Soul of Baking when I got home. Buoyed by my recent success with her cream scone recipe, I was eager to try more of her creations. Is it merely coincidence that the book included a recipe for Cherry Oatmeal Cookies? Divine intervention? I don't know, but in less than an hour I had a batch of homemade goodness a coworker described as "the best cookie ever." I've already received a request to make them again for Halloween. Is there a Halloween party at work I don't know about?

The only change I made to the original recipe was to increase the amount of dried cherries and oatmeal in the dough — in my opinion, more cherries and more oatmeal make for a better cookie. If you want to follow the recipe as written, decrease the amounts listed below by 1/4 cup. According to the cookbook, this recipe makes about 50 cookies, but I ended up with 36. Okay, so I ate a few spoonfuls of raw dough (I couldn't help myself), but not 14 cookies worth. I swear.

Cherry Oatmeal Cookies
Makes about 36 cookies

1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup dried cherries

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and place a rack in the middle of the oven. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone mat.

Beat the butter, brown sugar and granulated sugar until light and fluffy. Be sure to scrape the sides of the bowl with a spatula to be certain the ingredients are evenly combined. Add the egg and vanilla extract and blend well.

In another bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. With the mixer at a low speed, combine the dry ingredients to the butter mixture.  Add the oatmeal and dried cherries and mix until evenly combined.

Use a small ice cream scoop or spoon to portion the dough, spacing the cookies 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets. Bake for 13 to 16 minutes, rotating the baking sheets once to ensure even cooking. The cookies should be cooled on a rack and may be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 days.


Improving my morning scone

Scones are lovely when properly made, but many store bought versions are lackluster at best.  I knew better than to purchase one at Starbucks the other day — none of their food is worth spending my money on — but they looked so pretty, sprinkled with sugar and piled high under a glass dome next to the cash register. I couldn't help it. I caved.

Maybe it would be different this time, I thought. Maybe this particular scone would have real flavor and a tender crumb, maybe it would bring back memories of clotted cream and jam at high tea. No such luck. I choked down the dry, bland crumbs with my Venti half-caff and swore I'd never waste my hard earned money on a Starbucks pastry again. It was time to start baking scones at home.

I tried a few different sources before declaring Cindy Mushet's cream scone from The Art & Soul of Baking the winner of my find-the-best-scone-recipe contest. Rich flavor + tender crumb + crisp crust = a good morning. I added orange zest and fresh rosemary to the dough for a different twist, though I baked three batches before I was really pleased with the results.

The first batch was tasty but the flavors were a little too faint. Batch two was a classic case of overcompensation — too much orange zest resulted in a slightly bitter scone (not what I want in my morning pastry). The third go round proved most satisfactory, a nice balance of sweet and savory, no trace of bitterness, but not cloying. As always, use the following recipe as a starting off point and make adjustments to suit your taste buds. A drizzle of orange glaze (1/2 cup powdered sugar and 1-2 tablespoons of fresh orange juice) would be a nice touch if you like a sweeter scone.

And now my mind focuses not on work to be done, but scone varieties:  classic currant, lemon-poppy seed, ginger, blueberry. As I write, Mushet's buttermilk raisin scone recipe beckons — additional scone postings are very likely to follow.

Orange Rosemary Scones
Makes 8 scones

Adapted from The Art & Soul of Baking

2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
zest of 1 orange, finely grated
2 heaping tablespoons rosemary, chopped
1 stick (4 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cubed
1 cup chilled heavy cream
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon sugar and a touch of brown sugar for topping

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone mat.

Place the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a food processor and process for several seconds to combine. Add the orange zest and rosemary and pulse again. Add the butter and pulse a few times, until cut into small pieces. Add the cream and pulse until the dough begins to clump together. I opted to finish pressing the dough together by hand on a work surface rather than risk over processing.

Pat the dough into a 1-inch thick circle, roughly 7 inches in diameter, then cut into 8 equal wedges. Place the wedges on the prepared baking sheet about 2 inches apart, then brush the tops with lightly beaten egg (there will be some left over) and sprinkle the tops with sugar.

Bake in the center of the oven for 14-16 minutes, until golden brown. Cool on a rack for 5 minutes before serving. The scones are best served the same day, but (despite Cindy Mushet's warnings) I found they were still acceptable 24 hours later if stored in an airtight container.


A soft shell legacy

Old boyfriends leave legacies, some better than others. Exes have, in no particular order, improved my computer skills, introduced me to camping, and tried (unsuccessfully) to turn me into a runner. One of the better gifts of the past: grilled soft shell crab with Thai spices, a specialty of former boyfriend Joe Number One. Number One is not to be confused with Joe Number Two, whose legacy included thrift store t-shirts and Indie music.

Huddled over a Smokey Joe Weber Grill on the back porch of my Boston apartment many years ago, Joe Number One introduced a new approach to the soft shell crab. (Never mind that we weren't supposed to be grilling anything on the rickety wooden porch of a triple decker; I kept a large bucket of water and a fire extinguisher at the ready). I was accustomed to sauteed soft shells, usually served with a pan sauce in a fancy restaurant or squished between two buttery rolls slathered with mayo. Joe Number One's crabs were a revelation. The flavors were bright and clean, accented with lemongrass and cilantro. When I learned that soft shell crabs would be part of my Core Sound Seafood share last week, I knew exactly what I'd do with them.

Joe Number One is long gone — he's married, has a daughter, and calls California home — but I think good thoughts and give him a big thumbs up when soft shells come into season. They aren't in season this time of year, but were included in last week's CSF share due to rough fishing conditions.

My frozen soft shells were already processed, but if you purchase live crabs in the spring, you may have to clean them yourself. Cut off the eyes and mouth with a pair of kitchen scissors or paring knife, then lift the pointy shell ends and remove the gills. Lastly, flip the crab over and remove the remove the apron, a flap on the underside. This isn't as difficult (or ghastly) as it sounds, though I find it's easier if I thank the crabs for their sacrifice before beginning.

Marinate the crabs for 30 minutes to 1 hour before grilling. I enjoyed mine with a pile of jasmine rice and sauteed bok choy — they are best with simple sides. And when you bite into your beautifully seasoned soft shell crab, try to recall a few (positive) things your ex(es) left you.

Grilled Soft Shell Crabs with Thai Spices
Makes marinade enough for 3-4 soft shell crabs

2 stalks lemongrass, outer leaves removed, minced
2 serrano chiles, minced
6 scallions, white and light green parts, minced
juice of 1 lime
pinch sugar
1 garlic clove, minced
4 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, minced
kosher salt

Preheat the grill.

Combine the first seven ingredients in a small bowl and whisk to combine. Pour over cleaned soft shells and allow to marinate for 30 minutes. Sprinkle with kosher salt and grill over a medium flame, turning once. The crabs will turn red as they cook, and should be done in about 5 minutes. Garnish with cilantro and serve.


Late nights and food processor poundcake

Fistfuls of chocolate-covered almonds and late day caffeinated beverages conspired to keep me up way past bedtime Saturday night. I spent the evening with my good friends Rob and Kirstin, dining outdoors in their lovely backyard, dogs underfoot, followed by a (sloppy) game of darts. Rob won. When I returned home it was time to wind down, but I was far too jacked up by artificial stimulants to sleep. What to do close to midnight when sleeping is impossible? I broke out the food processor and started a baking project I'd put off for a over a week.

My friend CB emailed me in late August with a request. Attached was a link to Mark Bittman's New York Times piece "Sneaking a Poundcake Out of the Food Processor," which she wanted me to try. Is it really possible to make a decent cake batter in the food processor? I was curious, especially since I'd made a version of that very recipe (it was adapted from Flo Braker's The Simple Art of Perfect Baking, a wonderful book I've used for years) using a stand mixer. The primary difference between the newspaper version and the original (aside from technique): the Grandaisy Bakery poundcake is soaked in a citrus syrup after baking, intensifying flavor as well as the moisture level. This is a moist cake anyway, due to the almond paste in the mix. Using the food processor was quick, easy, the resulting cake wasn't tough, as I'd worried — try it yourself and see.

Citrus-Almond Poundcake
Serves 10-12
Adapted from The New York Times and Grandaisy Bakery

12 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
flour for pan
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
3 cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar
7 ounces almond paste
7 large eggs
2 teaspoons lemon zest
2 teaspoons orange zest
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups cake flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Thoroughly butter and flour an 8-cup Bundt pan, making sure to cover all nooks and crannies.

Put the lemon and orange juice in a small heavy saucepan with 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and set aside.

Place the almond paste and 2 cups of sugar in the bowl of a food processor and process until completely combined. Add cold, cubed butter and process until light. Add the eggs individually with the machine running; add the zests and vanilla and process until smooth.

Stop the machine and add the flour, baking powder and salt. Pulse a few times, being careful not to over process, which will result in a tough cake. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake about 1 hour and 10 minutes, until golden. The cake is done when a cake tester or skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. Allow to cool in the pan, on a rack,  for about 15-20 minutes, then pour the citrus soak over it. Let it stand for 30 minutes, until the liquid is absorbed. Remove from the pan and slice.


An edamame spread

Fresh edamame pods have a rather magical quality. Fuzzy and green, they're something I want to reach out and touch, rather than tear apart and eat. When they appeared in last week's CSA box, I debated how to prepare them. I frequently boil or steam the pods, sprinkle them with coarse salt, and pretend I'm in a Japanese restaurant, splitting them open and popping individual beans into my mouth. I've added edamame to salads, soups, and risotto, but this time I opted to turn them into a dip or spread — something healthy to snack on when I come home famished.

Cooked until tender and pureed with olive oil, fresh mint, and garlic, the soy beans morph into a bright green, beautifully flecked spread that's a nice alternative to the ubiquitous hummus. I added lemon juice, scallions, and a serrano pepper for spark; you might try red onion or lime juice instead. This is good stuff — I nearly consumed the entire batch while reading (The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman; highly recommend).

Edamame Dip
Makes about 3 cups

2 cups edamame beans, shelled
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves
1 serrano pepper, seeded and chopped
2 small bunches scallions, white and light green portion, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup warm water
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Bring a quart of lightly salted water to a boil; add edamame and cook until tender, about 7-8 minutes. Drain and place in a food processor with mint, serrano pepper, scallions, garlic and lemon juice. Pulse a few times, then scrape down the sides. With the motor running, add extra virgin olive oil and water through the feed tube. If the dip is too thick, add more water. Season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.