Savory Spinach, Feta, and Pepper Muffins

Sometimes you come across a recipe that seems so interesting that you just have to try it.  I was browsing through some recipes a few weeks ago and came across this one.  I have never made a savory muffin and these were pretty good – and even better after a day or two in the fridge.

These muffins are great for packing in a lunch, or breakfast on the go, and can be eaten both cold or warm.  Bake them in mini-muffin tins and they’re great for a cocktail party hors d’oeuvre.  The flavor reminded me of a scone or a biscuit, but without the “tanginess” of one.

I think next time I may substitute gorgonzola for the feta and maybe make them with caramelized onions.  Or maybe even smoked salmon (heavenly!) with chives.  The possibilities for ingredients and herb combinations are endless.

The original recipe called for all-purpose flour, but you can use whole wheat in order to make it  slightly more nutritious.  There’s also a little bit of sugar, which, in my opinion, can probably be  halved or even eliminated.

Savory Spinach, Feta, and Roasted Red Pepper Muffins

(makes 12 muffins)

  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup vegetable or canola oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup thinly sliced baby spinach leaves, stems removed
  • 3/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
  • 1/2 cup chopped roasted red peppers from a jar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a large bowl, mix together flour, sugar, baking powder, cayenne, and salt.  In a separate bowl, whisk together egg, milk and oil.  Add the dry ingredients to the wet and mix gently until the flour is incorporated.  Fold in the spinach, feta, and red pepper.  Divide the batter among 12 muffin cups and bake for about 20 minutes, or until golden on top and a toothpick comes out clean.  Cool completely before unmolding.

I’m in a Zucchini State of Mind

It’s that time of year….you’ve probably seen it…you really can’t hide from it….

Grocery stores, gardens, and kitchens are inundated with zucchini. The zucchini plant produces an abundance of this vegetable, which is harvested in mid- to late- summer. The good news is that there’s a ton of zucchini right now. The bad news is that there’s a ton of zucchini right now.

If you find yourself the recipient of a large amount zucchini, courtesy of a neighbor or friend, why not bake some zucchini bread?

Zucchini bread is based on the same idea as carrot cake….uhm, yeah sure, it can be healthy, it has vegetables in it. Nothing wrong with that line of reasoning — although you could substitute yogurt or applesauce for half of the oil, or you could substitute whole wheat flour for the white flour. Yeah, that’s it!

I love the spiciness of the cinnamon and nutmeg, and have therefore increased the amounts called for from the original recipes I sourced. You can also use other spices. For example, I experimented with a bit of cardamom, which gave the bread a nice perfume.

Although the recipe is simply for zucchini bread/muffins, you could also add some ripe bananas for additional moisture and flavor.

Zucchini Bread (or Muffins)
Adapted from several sources

Makes 2 loaves or approximately 24 muffins

  • 3 eggs
  • 2/3 cup olive or vegetable oil
  • 1 3/4 cups sugar
  • 2 cups grated zucchini (drained of excess water)
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 4 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)
  • 1 cup dried cranberries, raisins or other dried fruit (optional)

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Grease and flour two 8×4 inch loaf pans, or alternately, line 24 muffin cups with paper liners.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs with a whisk. Mix in oil and sugar, then zucchini and vanilla.

Combine flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, baking powder and salt, as well as nuts and/or dried fruit, if using.

Stir this into the egg mixture. Divide the batter into prepared pans.

Bake loaves for 60 minutes, plus or minus ten, or until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Muffins will bake far more quickly, approximately 20 to 25 minutes (see photo at bottom).

See the little bits of green zucchini goodness throughout?

 

Zucchini muffins -- how about some nice cream cheese frosting to go with these?

Easter Bread / Tsoureki

(Updated with photos.)
 
So, I know it’s kind of late for this posting and most of you probably have already figured out your Easter menus, but tonight I am making “Tsoureki”.  Tsoureki is a rich egg-bread, almost like a brioche or a challah.  It’s one of several different types of similar breads made for different holidays in the Greek tradition.  It is also known as “Christopsomo” for Christmas and “Vasilopita” for New Years.  The same recipe can be used for all of these breads.
 
What gives these breads a unique and deliciously sweet flavor is the addition of ground mahlepi, a seed that comes from a wild cherry, and has been used for hundreds of years in baking and cooking throughout the Middle East, Turkey, and Greece.  You can find it in a Middle Eastern or Greek grocery store.  Substitutions can be made for mahlepi if you are unable to find it.  Some alternatives are grated orange rind, cardamom, or vanilla — but the flavor of the bread will change significantly.
 
(Note: There are a number of variations of the English spelling depending on the language used: mahalab, mahleb, mahaleb, mahlep, mahalep, mahlepi, machlepi or makhlepi.)

I haven’t made this recipe in about ten years, and after posting my earlier entry about how easy it is to make no-knead bread, I was not looking forward to the amount of work I had to do.  However, as I was reading through the recipe, I realized that it was simpler than I thought it would be.  However, you do have to let it rise three times — for a total of four hours.  I got a late start today and it’s now after 11 pm, and I have a half hour to go with the second rise, and then form the bread and let it rise for another hour before I can bake it.  This means I won’t be hitting my pillow until well past 1 am.  However, I don’t mind, because the end result is so worth it.

Tsoureki

(makes 3 10-inch rounds)

DP note:  I usually exclude the dyed eggs from the recipe, although they are fine to eat if you decide to include them.

  • 3 packages dry yeast
  • 1/2 cup lukewarm water
  • 5 lb bag of all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 lb (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 8 eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups lukewarm milk
  • 1 teaspoon ground mahlepi (or cardamom, vanilla, or grated rind of 1 orange)
  • 9 hard-cooked eggs, dyed red (optional)
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten (for glaze)
  • 1/2 cup slivered almonds or 1/4 cup sesame seeds (for decoration)

In a bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the water.  Stir the mixture, then stir in 1/2 cup of the flour.

With an electric mixer, cream the butter, add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy.  Add the eggs one at a time.  Add 2 cups of the flour and beat well.

Transfer the mixture to a large  bowl.  With a wooden spoon, add the lukewarm milk, yeast mixture, and mahlepi.  When the mixture is smooth, add the rest of the bag of flour a little bit at a time, until it is all added and the mixture starts to form a dough.

Knead the mixture in the bowl for a few minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic.  Cover it with plastic wrap and set it in a warm place.  Let the dough rise for 1.5 – 2 hours or until it has doubled in size. 

Punch down the dough, cover it, and let it rise again for one hour.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface.  Divide it into thirds.  Cut each piece into three strips and form the strips into ropes – you should have nine ropes.  Use three ropes to form each braid – you’ll end up with three braids. 

Shape each braid into rounds, pinching the ends together.

Lightly butter three baking sheets.  Transfer one round to each baking sheet.  Tuck 3 eggs (optional) into each braid, setting them into the spaces in the strands of the braids.

Let the breads rise again for about one hour, or until doubled in bulk. 

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.  Brush the top of each bread (not the eggs) with glaze and sprinkle with the almonds or sesame seeds. 

Bake the breads for 30-35 minutes, or until their tops are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.  If the breads seem to be browning too quickly during baking, cover them loosely with foil.

Cool on racks and cut into wedges for serving.

Note:  If you don’t have room for all the breads to bake at once, let one of the breads rise in a slightly cooler place than the others, so it wont be ready as quickly.  Then bake the other two breads first.

No-Knead Bread? No Way!

In May 2007, I was in Amsterdam for business, and one night when I had no plans and was on my own for the evening, I picked up the current issue of American Vogue on my way to dinner and read “Easy Riser”, an article by Jeffrey Steingarten, a leading food writer in the US.  The article talked about a method for baking bread that required no kneading.  (What?!) Furthermore, the article indicated that the process involved about 15 minutes of actual work, spread out over a 20 hour or so period.  (Huh?!  That’s not how you bake bread!)

Incredulous, I couldn’t wait to return stateside – by way of Athens 😀 – and try it out.  How was it possible that a bread made this way could be good?  How would it taste?  When we knead bread, do we not do so in order to develop the gluten, the protein in flour that will allow the bread to rise without collapsing?  OK then, without kneading, would the loaf now be so heavy that it could cause potential injury if dropped?

According to the article, there are three techniques used in this recipe that make it work:

  1. The physical effect of kneading can be accomplished by the water in this recipe.
  2. Baking the loaf/loaves in a tightly covered pot or casserole simulates the steamy environment of a bread oven, allowing the bread to expand in the oven before the crust begins forming.
  3. The loaves are formed very gently so that the dough doesn’t deflate.

Guess what?  It worked!  I baked a perfect crusty-on-the-outside and soft-on-the-inside loaf of fresh bread — and its aroma permeated throughout my apartment.  If I had known that baking bread was this easy, I would have done it more often in the past.

The author of the article experimented with different types of flour, which results in different outcomes.  I had used only King Arthur Wheat Flour.

So here is the recipe, taken from that very article four years ago.  Unfortunately, I lost the issue of Vogue when I moved, but if you can find the original article online, it’s worth a read.

  • 3 cups bread flour
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp instant yeast (DP note: or, 1 1/4 tsp active dry yeast)
  • 1 1/2 cups water, at room temperature
  • Coarse wheat bran (DP note: or cornmeal)

You’ll also need a heavy casserole dish (cast iron is preferred, but I believe glass will be ok) — at a very minimum 3 qts. and no larger than about 9 qts.  And finally, a coarse dishtowel or another piece of canvas-type cloth. 

Using your fingers or a sturdy wooden spoon, thoroughly combine the first three ingredients in a 2-quart bowl.  Pour in the water. Again, with fingers or spoon, work the dry ingredients and water together for about 30 seconds until a rough wet dough has formed and all the flour has been absorbed.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow the dough to rise at warm room temperature for about 18 hours.  Then, heavily flour your work surface. With a plastic dough scraper or your hands, invert the bowl over the floured surface as you pull out the dough, which will spread into an amoebiform blob. Dust it with flour and stretch it into a rough square, about 10 inches per side. Fold the square in thirds.  It will now be a puffy strip about 4 inches wide and 10 inches long. Cover lightly and let rest for about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, spread the dish towel on a flat surface. Rub a generous amount of flour into one half of the towel, and sprinkle several tablespoons of bran over the flour. This is to prevent the dough from sticking to the towel, an occurrence that can ruin your life.

Fold the dough in thirds again, beginning at one of the short ends of the strip. The resulting package of dough should be nearly the shape of a cube.

Delicately brush off excess flour from the dough, and with your palms, very gently stretch the top layer part way down over the seams visible on two sides of the dough. With both hands, gently lift the dough onto the middle of the half dish towel you’ve just prepared. Sprinkle the top of the dough, now really a loaf, with a little flour and bran. Cover with the other half of the towel or with plastic wrap. Let rise for 2 hours.

Halfway through, put the casserole and its cover in the oven and turn the temperature to its highest setting, probably 500 F or 550 F.

When another hour has passed, open the oven and remove the casserole cover. Slide your hand under the towel where the loaf is resting, lift up towel and loaf, bring them over to the casserole, and, steadying the loaf with your other hand, invert it into the casserole. Pull off the towel. Shake the casserole sideways if the loaf needs to be neatened. Cover the casserole, close the oven, and bake for 30 minutes.

Uncover the casserole and bake for another 20 to 30 minutes, until the loaf is a dark brown. Remove the loaf and let it cool on a rack until it is barely warm to the touch.