Kitchn Cure: remember that?

A while back I posted about my efforts to whip my kitchen into shape via the Kitchn Cure. I even blogged about the first week. Maybe (okay, probably not) you are wondering where weeks 2-4 went. Well, I finished those too! But, it turned out that deep-cleaning your kitchen is EXHAUSTING. Yes, even with a tiny kitchen that was not exactly disgusting to start with. So I lost the energy to actually blog about it. But, I was scrolling through my photos recently and was reminded that I had actually finished the thing. So here’s a quick little recap of the Cure.

First, I should acknowledge that for me, the final three weeks stretched out to five, bringing my total Cure time to six weeks rather than four. I first began to run into trouble cleaning the oven:

The Cure estimates you will spend about an hour cleaning your oven (plus an overnight application of baking soda paste). I am pretty sure I spent quite a bit longer, and this task stretched over several evenings, with a final Saturday cleaning session to get it wrapped up. Still, in the end, it did look much nicer:

I also cleaned a number of small appliances (toaster oven, dehydrator, food processor) with a little more thoroughness than usual:

Reorganized my pantry:

Emptied out and cleaned my cabinets, then put things back nicely:

And then completely ran out of steam and failed to photograph the cleaning of my under-sink area, floors, surfaces, or trash can. But I did actually do those things, promise!

One thing I did not do? Download the 20 min/day monthlong cleaning guide that’s recommended to keep your kitchen tidy. I cannot fathom having that much time available just for cleaning the kitchen. And some of the chores seem, frankly, excessive. What on earth are you doing in your fridge that it requires cleaning every two weeks? Since finishing the Cure, I’d say M. and I have collectively spent an average of maybe 10 min/day on kitchen cleaning outside of the routine “hey, we cooked a meal, time to do the dishes and wipe down the surfaces we dirtied”. The kitchen is fine.

Despite that little hiccup of the last chore, it was a good six weeks of cleaning and organizing and I’m happy to have done it. It’s been a few weeks since I finished, so I can report on whether or not the Cure is “sticking”. My thoughts?

1) The Cure helped me get back into the habit of doing a little bit of housework each evening, which I like. It’s nice to come home to a cleaner space and when there’s only one or two things out of place, housework doesn’t seem like a very daunting task.

2) But, some of the tasks were just too much for a weeknight. Nothing like finding yourself elbow deep in oven soot and baking soda paste and 10:30 at night, with a 5AM alarm and 9AM conference call looming, right? If I do this project again, I’ll be developing my own timeline for each week’s tasks, and if that means my Cure extends by a week or so, oh well.

3) Staying power: My new pantry system is sticking pretty well. We’re also trying to “shop the pantry” a little more over the next few months, and having things sorted and organized is making that much easier. In other areas, the cabinet interiors are also still looking nice, as is the oven. Much of the surface cleaning, obviously, does not last as long and has already been repeated once or twice since I finished the Cure. I find I’m more conscious of the grub that quickly builds around our cabinet handles and have been finding myself giving those areas a quick wipe-down while I’m waiting for something to finish cooking.

Low sugar baking #2: End of summer plum cake

I’ve been spurred out of my posting lethargy by the realization that this recipe will soon be out of season (may be on its way out right now, even). Last Saturday┬ámorning I went out with a friend along a nearby run/bike/hike trail and it was starting to feel decidedly fall-like–gray sky and a tinge of moisture in the air. But enough of the weather. Plums.

This recipe evolved from a wonderful pear cake recipe that I first discovered several years ago. I started off by tweaking the batter (wheat germ! less sugar! maybe some other things…), but stuck with the original fruit of pears. This year, when plums started showing up at the market, it occurred to me that they might be a perfect substitute for pears. When I went back to look up the original pear cake recipe while writing this post, I saw that it has started life as a plum cake, so…there you go. Plums are indeed, substitutable for pears, in some instances. I changed up the spices I had been using a little too, adding a little of the mixed spice (aka Christmas pudding spice) that M. loves. Most of the sweetness in this cake comes from the plum juice seeping into the batter as it bakes, and the batter itself has just a few spoonfuls of sugar. While I normally shy away from the idea of labeling sweet baked goods as “healthy enough for breakfast”, I think this recipe comes pretty darned close.

After I made this plum cake for the first time last month, I realized it was M.’s total first exposure, as he’d somehow missed all the previous pear versions. He sometimes objects to the use of whole wheat flour, so I thought he might dismiss this cake as a little too healthy. Fortunately, my fears turned out to be baseless–maybe the mixed spice?

Lower Sugar Plum Cake
makes one shallow 10″ cake

Ingredients
1/2 c. unsalted butter, plus a little for greasing the pan
2 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp milk
2 eggs
1 c. whole wheat flour
1/4 c. wheat germ
1/2 tsp mixed spice* (see note below)
1 tsp. baking powder
pinch of salt
12 plums or Italian prunes, halved and pits removed

*Mixed spice is fairly similar to pumpkin pie spice, so you could substitute in a pinch. To make your own, combine a 3:3:2:1:1:1:1 ratio of allspice, nutmeg, mace, cloves, ginger, cinnamon, and coriander.

Method

1. Preheat oven to 350F, lightly grease and flour a 10″ tart pan.

2. Cream together the butter, sugar, and milk. Gently beat the eggs into the mixture.

3. Combine the flour, wheat germ, mixed spice, baking powder, and salt.

4. Add the dry ingredients to the wet in 3-4 batches. The batter should be fairly thick and even semi-solid.

5. Pour batter into tart pan and press fruit into the top of the batter. Bake for 40-50 minutes, or until cake is browned and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Remove from oven and allow to cool before serving.

Rainbow shredded salad with thai pesto dressing

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I am a pretty devoted user of the food processor. Mine is absolutely my most used electrical appliance, and I suspect the third most used tool in my kitchen overall (tools # 1 and 2 being a vegetable knife and a cast iron skillet, respectively). And my latest food processor obsession is definitely the shredded salad.

One of my finicky salad turn-offs are pieces that are too large. They’re awkward to eat and they never really feel like a “dish” so much as a jumbled crudite plate with lettuce. A grated salad is perfect for my aversion to large pieces, and by using the food processor to do the work, it’s also faster to prepare. You can keep things simple and use just a few ingredients (as with my shredded zucchini salad), or add a little of everything and create a dish with a bold, vibrant blend of colors and flavors. Today’s salad tends more towards the “little of everything” end of the spectrum and features a wide array of vegetables. A tangy, salty dressing based around my thai pesto holds it all together, and a bit of papaya provides a slightly sweet counterpoint to all the savory.

To make more of a one-bowl meal, this salad would also be wonderful bulked up with a hearty grain like farro or wheatberries. You could also add a legume like chickpeas, or some cubes of fried tofu if you prefer.

Rainbow shredded salad with thai pesto dressing
serves 4-6 as a side or starter

Ingredients
10 oz zucchini
4 oz red cabbage
1 large carrot
2-3 radishes
5 oz papaya (1/6 to 1/4 of a full fruit)
2-3 leaves curly green kale, stems removed, sliced into thin strips
1/4 c. thai pesto, thinned out with 1-2 tsp tamari and 2-4 tbsp rice vinegar
1/4 c. roasted salted peanuts, roughly chopped
2-3 scallions, sliced

Using a food processor fitted with the grating attachement, grate the zucchini, cabbage, carrot, radishes, and papaya. Transfer to a large bowl and mix with the kale and pesto dressing. You’ll want to apply some force when mixing in the dressing so that it has a chance to work into the firmer vegetables. Garnish with scallions and peanuts and serve. For a make-ahead lunch, prep the salad, minus the dressing, the night before, then mix in dressing immediately before eating.

Kitchn cure: Week 1 recap

Last Friday, I mentioned that I was signing up for the 2014 Kitchn Cure. The concept of the Cure is pretty simple: “a 4-week program of small daily tasks and encouragements to get your kitchen into shape for fall cooking. We’ll gently prompt you to clean your fridge, wipe out your spice shelves, and take charge of your cooking space.”.

While our kitchen space is in reasonably good shape, I do tend to let the deep cleaning tasks fall by the wayside, so getting reminders to focus on them for a while sounded perfect. Also, I was hoping the Cure would get me back into a more general habit of doing a bit of housecleaning each day, rather than letting it build up during the week and then taking care of everything on the weekend. In theory, M. and I prefer the “do a little each evening” approach, both because it is so nice to live in a tidy environment, and because not spending your weekend on chores is AWESOME. But with M. traveling a lot lately, I’ll admit I have gotten slack.

With all that preamble out of the way, I thought I’d do a little recap of how the first week is going. This week focused on the fridge and freezer. But first, I had to spend a little time making a list of kitchen likes/dislikes:

Since we rent, we have pretty limited options for major kitchen overhauls, but I think there are still a few things on my “dislike” list that can be fixed with no more than a little extra effort. Overall, if the worst thing I can say about my cooking space is that it’s “bland” (and that “maybe?” is “maybe fixable?”, it is “definitely” bland!), well…that’s pretty good.

Next up, the actual cleaning. The fridge and freezer were tackled over four days: clear out fridge (1), clean fridge (2), clear out freezer (3) and clean freezer (4). Here are a couple of quick “before” shots:

It wasn’t terrible, but some attention was needed. Fortunately I did not have much that needed to actually go into the trash–meal planning and going to the grocery store with a list both really help to cut down on food waste!

The actual cleaning was nicely therapeutic. My cleaning products of choice are vinegar, Simple Green, soap, and a generous amount of elbow grease. After a few evenings of rearranging and scrubbing, I was able to stand back and take in the fruits of my labor:

So nice to be faced with a gleaming fridge every time I open the door! Per my list dislikes, and the Kitchn’s recommendation, I have split the freezer into “zones”, though since the freezer doesn’t really have compartments I’m unsure how long this will last. Probably until we do another batch cook day, at which point it will become a precisely calibrated 3-d jigsaw aimed at stuffing in the maximum amount of food possible.

After all that, I was on such a cleaning roll, I scrubbed out the microwave on Friday morning as well, just because it was annoying me. Then I hit up the market and stocked my shiny new fridge with food for the coming week, so I would be well-provisioned for my next round of chores:

Low sugar baking #1: Ginger softies

As promised (or threatened), I’m working on a little series of posts focused on baking with less sugar, which, if you’ve perused this blog much at all, you probably know is a quasi-obsession of mine. My goal with this series is not just to share recipes, but also some general tips for using less sugar, and to also describe some of my less-successful attempts at sugar reduction (so you don’t do the same thing!).
So for the first post, let’s start off with a few of the key things to remember when you start to tinker around with a recipe to reduce the sugar content.

You don’t need much sugar to make things sweet
Seriously. Many commercial baked goods use a lot more sugar (or whatever their sweetener of choice is) than is needed to achieve sweetness. I have found that I can usually use less than half sugar called for in a “regular” version of something and still have the final result taste perfectly sweet. Also, with less sugar in a recipe, other flavors (vanilla, spices, etc.) become more prominent, giving a more complex tasting experience. Elana just happened to mention the same thing in a post she wrote earlier this week, so you know it’s not just me. However…

Sugar does affect texture and structure
One of the characteristics that sugar brings to baked goods is, broadly speaking, crispness or crunch. In some cases, the sugar is critical to the structure of the finished product (think meringue kisses, florentines, etc.). I don’t spend much time trying to re-make recipes that really need sugar for structure. Instead, I focus on recipes where a slight change in texture is not going to be such a problem. For example, today’s ginger cookie recipe is softer, less chewy, and more cake-like than a ginger cookie from the local store or bakery, but it is still delicious, full of spice, and completely recognizable as a cookie.

Is there a “best” or “healthy” sweetener?
My personal opinion is that for the most part, whole fresh fruit is the “best” sugar and the only sweetener that can really be considered “healthy”. After that, I believe it’s better to simply focus on using less sweetener, no matter the source. To that end, I use the sweetener I think will work best in a recipe (for reasons of either taste or texture), be that fruit, white sugar, brown sugar, honey, dates, or molasses. A while back, health-bent wrote an extensive post about sugar vs. more “natural” sweeteners and it really captures a lot of my thoughts on the topic.

And now, a recipe! Today’s recipe is a pretty easy one, a lower sugar version of the classic ginger cookie. Ginger cookies generally rely on two sweeteners: regular white sugar and molasses. Since molasses does actually lend a distinctive flavor I focus more on slashing the white sugar content. This recipe has 1/4 c. each of sugar and molasses–most recipes with a similar yield would use around least a cup of sugar, plus 1/4 or 1/3 c. of molasses. What the cookies do not skimp on is the spices: each bite is bursting with ginger flavor, plus undertones of cinnamon and cloves. I hope they will become a favorite in your baking repertoire!

Ginger Softies
makes about 30 plump 1″ cookies

Ingredients
2 c. white whole wheat or all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 tbsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp each ground cinnamon and cloves
1/2 c butter
1/4 c sugar
1/4 c molasses
1/4 c milk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Method

Sift together flour, baking soda, salt, and spices. In a separate bowl, cream together butter and sugar. Stir in molasses, then work the dry ingredients into the mix in 3-4 batches. Add milk and vanilla extract and combine.

Preheat oven to 350F. While the oven is heating, pinch off ~1″ lumps of dough, roll into balls, and place on cookie sheets. When oven is heated, place cookies in oven and bake for 10-12 minutes. Remove cookies from oven and allow to cool, then enjoy fresh or store in an airtight container. Cookies will keep at room temperature for several days.

A few Friday favorites

A few things I’m enjoying lately, some food, some not.

My mother is visiting this week, and it turns out she likes peanut butter these days. So I whipped some up for her in the food processor and it was, seriously, the best peanut butter EVER. Yes, even better than the grind-your-own from the hippie food co-op. So I’m now extra alert for recipes using peanut butter, and naturally these spring rolls with peanut sauce caught my eye.

I’m always game for an excuse to work chocolate into smoothies, and this choc & ginger crunch smoothie is the perfect dessert for a warm summer evening.

Or for a more polished summer dessert, a tart with a layer of pistachio cream. Take advantage of stone fruit season while it lasts, right?

If you’re like me, you probably wonder if your closet can be programmed to present you with a perfect outfit each morning, no thought required. So I enjoyed this little slideshow of ideas for redesigning your closet. I’m thinking of giving 1 & 2 a go, and have been reminded to make better use of the little hook I have on the side of my closet. But I can’t really see myself investing in closet wallpaper…yet.

And speaking of re-orgs, I’ve also decided that this year I’m signing up for the Kitchn cure. We keep a pretty well-organized kitchen, but it’s not perfect and I’d love to pick up some new ideas. Plus, sometimes you need a little reminding to do those occasional deep-clean tasks, and I’m hoping this will help me get on with that. Sparkly clean fridge, ahoy!

Olive oil shortbread with lemon and rosemary

Last weekend I came home to find a bag full of lemons and limes by the back door. Can I just brag about how awesome it is to have friends who leave you gifts like this? Very awesome. I always love to have these little citrus fruits on hand. A quick squeeze of lemon or lime is perfect in so many things. But when I have a bounty of lemons like I did last week, it’s time to do more than just squeeze a little lemon over my salad or into a water glass (plus, the best way of ensuring future citrus gifts is to follow up with baked good gift, no?)

And so, my lemon bounty led me to this bright little shortbread. I had been tinkering with a recipe for olive oil shortbread with rosemary, and the addition of lemon juice and zest was just what it needed for a light and summer-appropriate flavor. A mix of cornmeal, and white whole wheat flour makes for a wholesome and rustic crumb. Mostly I have been enjoying these shortbread wedges alongside an afternoon cup of Darjeeling, but on hot evenings when I crave a cool glass of almond milk after dinner, it turns out that a little shortbread is quite nice in that setting also.

This recipe is also another one of my low-sugar experiments; just 1/4 c. for the whole recipe. I’ve been thinking of doing an occasional series of posts on my strategies for baking less sugary treats, some of the things I’ve tried that have worked well (or not), recipe makeovers, that kind of thing. Thoughts? Interest? Just post the shortbread recipe already?

Olive oil shortbread with lemon and rosemary
makes one 9″ pan of shortbread (8-12 wedges)

Ingredients
1/2 c. olive oil
1 1/2 c. white whole wheat flour (or a 50/50 mix of whole wheat and all-purpose flours)
1/4 c. yellow cornmeal
1 tbsp. flax meal
1/4 c. sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 c. lemon juice
grated zest of 1 lemon
2 tbsp fresh rosemary

Method
Preheat oven to 300F and grease a 9″ pan. In a food processor fitted with the metal s-blade, combine and thoroughly blend all ingredients except the rosemary. Add rosemary and process for 10 seconds. Press dough into greased pan and slice into 8-12 wedges, depending on your preference. Use a fork to make decorative pricks in the surface.

Bake for 35-45 minutes, until just beginning to brown. Turn off heat in oven and leave shortbread to sit for 15 minutes before removing.