Rachel here: This week we’re offering up some ideas for barbecues, picnics and the like since Memorial Day is next Monday. While the meat on the grill and the salads are certainly key components to any good outdoor celebration, I think you have all figured out by now how my mother and I feel about dessert. Fond would be an understatement. Anyway, for these types of gatherings, dessert is preferably portable and something that can sit out of the fridge for hours. Because of this, today we are making bars.
Growing up, more lunches than not at my grandma’s house ended with her date-nut bars. You could usually find them tucked away in a tupperware in her breadbox if you found yourself with a hankering and it wasn’t the lunch hour. Anyway, I’d never made them before this post. As has consistently happened for me when I’ve made recipes of those I love, making these treats transported me back to when I was younger. The sunlight streamed across my grandma’s dining room table and, though full from lunch, I discovered I still had a little bit of room in my belly for dessert. A glass of milk in hand and the memory was complete. This recipe is incredibly simple, so so satisfying, and guaranteed to please those looking for something a little sweet after an afternoon in the sun.
Grandma Reynolds’ Date-Nut Bars
makes 10, depending on size
1 c. all-purpose flour
1/4 tspn. baking powder
1/8 tspn. salt
1/4 lb. butter (one stick), melted
1 c. granulated sugar
2 c. dates, coarsely cut
2 c. walnut pieces
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees with the rack in the center position. Line a shallow pan with foil (she recommends a 9×13, but I think mine was a little smaller and it worked fine) and brush with butter. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt and set aside. Beat butter and sugar in your electric mixer (if you have one…if not, the butter’s melted, so the mixing shouldn’t be too hard). Add the eggs and beat until combined. Stir in sifted ingredients until just combined. Fold in dates and nuts. Distribute batter evenly in your pan, giving it a few taps down on the counter at the end to get air out and make sure everything’s divvied up nicely. Place in oven, rotating halfway through, for roughly 35 minutes. Cool in pan for 10 minutes on a wire rack before inverting onto a cookie sheet and then inverting again to finish cooling. Cut into squares and enjoy!
Janet here: My friend, Anne, often makes lemon bars when we visit her for dinner and I always leave her house thinking, I should make these sometime. And then I don’t. But when Rachel and I decided we were going to make some kind of bar cookie this week, I realized now was my chance. So without further ado, the lemon bars.
1/2 cup salted butter, softened
1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla
1 cup all-purpose flour
cream cheese filling
8 ounces softened cream cheese
1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure lemon extract
4 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon cornstarch
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup water
2 medium lemons grated for 2 teaspoons lemon peel and squeezed for 1/4 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons softened salted butter
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
To make the shortbread crust cream the butter and sugar in a medium bowl with an electric mixer at high speed. Add vanilla and combine. Add flour and mix at low speed until fully mixed. Then press the dough into an 8X8-inch pan evenly. Refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes. Prick with fork and bake at 325 degrees for 30 minute or until golden brown. Take out and cool completely.
While the crust is baking, prepare the cream cheese filling. Beat the cream cheese and sugar until smooth with an electric mixer until smooth. Add egg and lemon extrax and beat on medium speed until light and smooth. Cover the bowl and refrigerate.
To prepare the lemon curd, blend egg yolks with the cornstarch and sugar in a medium non-aluminum pot. Place over lowe heat and slowly whisk in water and lemon juice. Increase heat to medium-low and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove from heat. Add lemon peel and butter and cool 10 minutes.
To assemble the bars: Spread the chilled cream cheese filling evenly over the cooled shortbread crust with a spatula. Spread the lemon curd evenly over the cream cheese filling. Place pan in center of the oven. BAke 30-40 minutes until the edges begin to turn golden bwon. Cool to room temperature. Then chill in the fridge 1 hour before cutting. Dust top with confectioners’ sugar.
Janet here: I remember very little of my father’s grandmother, Nana, who died when I was in elementary school except this: she made outstanding date bread that I loved to eat smothered in cream cheese. Her recipe died with her and I’ve been on the lookout ever since for that exact date bread. This one is one I’ve come up with that is pretty darn close. Do you have a favorite date bread recipe? Share it up! In the meantime, find some cream cheese after you make this version.
Date Nut Bread
8 ounces chopped dates
1 1/2 cups boiling water
2 3/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cups chopped nuts–I used pecans and walnuts this time
Combine all the dry ingredients together. Then add the egg, sugar, butter, vanilla and dates. Stir. Add nuts.
Pour into baking pan. Bake at 350 for one hour.
Delicious with cream cheese….
Rachel here: Banana bread, I think, is what I make best. It’s certainly the only thing of any complexity that I have made over and over again without a single mishap and, if I do say so myself, the recipe I use is just perfection (it’s from “The Best Recipe” by Cook’s Illustrated and after I made it for the first time I wrote “perfect” next to the recipe, so…). I am so pleased with this banana bread, in fact, that I have overnighted it across the country to two of my nearest and dearest friends, Jessica (my bff since high school) and G (my brother who is closest to me in age). I’m pretty sure that Jessica and G will agree: this banana bread has straight-up healing powers, be it a broken heart or a head wound (I just realized that this could serve as incentive for people I know to feign ailments in the name of getting their own fresh-from-the-oven loaf from California…uh-oh). Anyway, I love making it and I’ve loved sending it to people I love when they’re down for the count (I should confess that I love my ma’s date bread, too…a certain somebody I co-habitate with doesn’t “do” dates, though, so I haven’t made it in years). Oh, and I love making it for myself, as well, including the challenge of trying not to consume the entire loaf before the sun has set. While it’s no aphrodisiac, clearly for me banana bread is a food of love…do you have one?
2 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 c. sugar
3/4 tspn. baking soda
1/2 tspn. salt
1 1/4 c. toasted walnuts, chopped coarse (I use closer to 1 1/2 c. because I love nuts)
3 very ripe, speckled bananas, mashed well (approximately 1 1/2 c.)
1/4 c. plain yogurt
2 large eggs, beaten lightly
6 T. butter, melted and cooled
1 tspn. vanilla extract
With rack on lower-middle position, preheat your oven to 350 degrees. If you’re using a non-stick loaf pan, grease and flour the bottom and side. If you’re using a regular loaf pan, grease and flour only the bottom. Combine dry ingredients (flour through walnuts) in a large bowl, whisk, and set aside. In a medium bowl, combine the wet ingredients (bananas through vanilla) using a wooden spoon or spatula. Fold the wet ingredients into the dries using a rubber spatula until just combined. Batter should be thick and very lumpy. Pour batter into loaf pan and place pan in oven. Cook until a toothpick comes out of the center clean, approximately 55 minutes. Cool in pan for 5 minutes before removing to finish cooling on a wire rack. Enjoy!
Janet here: The first muffins I remember making were bran muffins when I was a newlywed. New to cooking fulltime for someone besides myself, I embraced cooking and the planning of meals as if it was my job. (It wasn’t, or more accurately, it was only one of my jobs.) I read women’s magazines voraciously, ripping out recipes and thinking about the next perfect meal.
That marriage ended up being a starter marriage, doomed to flop like a failed souffle. But I brought away from the relationship many invaluable lessons, including a realization of how much I love cooking and in particular cooking for someone else. I never knew how much that meant to me until I lived it daily in that relationship. It was just one of the many lessons I could only have learned in that moment and in that way, so I remain grateful.
My interest in healthy cooking began at this time — becoming a vegetarian was one of the many personal changes I made as a result of that relationship collapse — and so bran muffins became one of my first forays into fiber. I found this recipe in Ellie Krieger’s new cookbook, So Easy, a book you’ll be hearing more about because it’s amazing. I had to adapt it a bit; I used dates instead of figs because I live in a place where figs, apparently, are considered too weird to actually stock in the local grocery store. Pathetic really, but I think the result is still mighty tasty. What’s your favorite kind of muffin?
Fig (or Date) Bran Muffins
makes about 12 muffins
1 1/2 cups bran cereal, (I used All-Bran)
1 cup low-fat milk
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour (I used all-purpose flour)
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 cup natural applesauce
1/2 cup honey
1/3 cup canola oil
2 tablespoons unsulfured molasses
1 large egg, beaten to blend
1 cup chopped dried figs, plus 3 whole dried figs thinly sliced
Heat the oven to 400 degrees.
In a large bowl, combine the cereal and milk. Let sit until softened, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt in a separate bowl.
Add the applesauce, honey, oil, molasses and egg to the cereal mixture and stir until combined. Add the flour mixture and stir until just combined. Gently stir in the chopped figs (dates). Spoon the batter into the pan and top each muffin with a fig slice. Tap the pan on the counter a few times to remove air bubbles. (Who knew?)
Bake for about 20 mnutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean. Let cool.
Rachel here: Ok, so I find bran muffins oddly satisfying and delicious (I say oddly because ummm…really?…bran and muffin sound like opposites on the yumminess scale, but so it goes) and am currently feeling a little jealous that my mom thought to make them. This is not, however, because I am not gaga for the muffins I made for this post. The other thing about my mom’s bran muffins is that they led to her writing a bit about her first marriage, a marriage I have been intrigued by since I first found out about it (I was in 4th grade and I remember making my mom do a mathematical breakdown of the time between her first marriage and her marriage to my dad to prove to me that he was my real dad). I think it’s the idea of my mom being a different person, really, that grabs my attention and curiosity. I have so many tangible ideas about her as partnered with my dad that picturing her partnered with this man who I have barely seen a picture of (and who has a VERY unique name, particularly to my 4th grade mind) sort of invites me to conjure my mother as a person in a set of parameters that I can only imagine, a person with different ideas about herself and what she wants. I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, other than to say that I got really excited when I started reading about this first marriage and, in the process, realized that I should really explore that more with my mom because it’s obviously something that remains sort of fascinating to me 15 or so years after first finding out about it. Like, who was that woman? But anyway, back to my muffins.
These muffins are seriously good. I modified the recipe slightly from the original (in The Craft of Baking by Karen DeMasco and Mindy Fox) and suspect that both versions are equally awesome. The only warning that I’ll give is that these muffins should probably be made in a setting with more than two mouths to feed, because the number of mouths around will consume these muffins quickly (and two mouths means six muffins a piece and that’s just a sort of obscene amount of breakfast sugar, although there is a really good flavor balance between the cake and toppings components). Anyway, these are certainly polar opposites to my mom’s bran muffins, but I (we) hope you enjoy them both.
Clementine Coffee Cake Muffins with Almond Streusel
1 c. almonds, chopped
1/2 c. packed dark brown sugar
1 T. ground cinnamon
1/4 tspn. kosher salt
3 T. unsalted butter, melted
8 T. unsalted butter, very soft (plus extra for greasing the muffin tins if you’re not using liners)
Finely grated zest of 3 clementines
1 c. granulated sugar
1 large egg
1/2 c. plus 2 T. sour cream
1/2 tspn. pure vanilla extract
1 3/4 c. all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tspn. baking powder
1/2 tspn. kosher salt
First, make the streusel. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Chop your almonds and then spread them on a baking sheet to toast, about five minutes. In a medium bowl, combine the nuts, brown sugar, cinnamon and 1/4 tspn. kosher salt, mixing well (so that sugar is completely broken up). Stir in the butter. Set aside.
Next, make the muffin batter. Butter or line your muffin tin. Combine the 8 T. butter, clementine zest and granulated sugar, beating until fluffy (about 5 minutes on medium speed with the paddle attachment of your electric mixer). While mixing, add the egg, then the sour cream and the vanilla. In a small bowl, sift and whisk together the flour, baking powder and 1/2 tspn. of kosher salt. Beating the wet mixture at a low speed, add in the flour mixture until just combined.
Pour the muffin batter into the muffin tin and then top each with a generous amount of the streusel. I pushed mine down a little to really maximize the streusel opportunity. Bake, rotating halfway through, for about 25 minutes (muffins will spring back to your touch). Remove and let stand for about 10 minutes before transferring to a wire rack (this might be the hardest part of the entire recipe because everything smells and looks soooo good at this point). Dig in.