Whole Grain Cranberry-Orange Snack Bars

 
I spend my life rushing. Rushing to bake, rushing to nanny, rushing to deliver cakes. Like this week–I have had four separate celebration cake orders. It wouldn’t be much for a bakery, but I am just one woman with one small oven and the world’s tiniest fridge. So, I rush. And I don’t remember to eat. I am asked often how I maintain a healthy weight with all the baking, and the answer is that I don’t actually eat much of it. No, I don’t have great self-control. After three years of near-constant baking, I just see cake and pie and cookies as projects most of the time. I taste-test, to be sure, and I have had cookies for dinner more than a few times, but for the most part, when I bake something it’s either picked at for several days or given away.

All that said, I am often so scattered that I forget to eat until I am halfway to wherever I’m going. Most of the time, I stop into the nearest corner store to get Cheez-Its and a Diet Coke. It keeps me from passing out, but it’s not a healthy or sustainable way to eat. 

I’ve been making a few changes to my diet this month, as evidenced by all the whole grain and grain-free recipes I’ve been posting. Today is the final post of this healthier January, and so I am posting what has become my Cheez-Its alternative: Whole Grain Cranberry-Orange Snack Bars. They’re like a cross between blondies, muffins, and granola bars, made with whole wheat flour and oats, dotted with dried cranberries, and scented with orange zest. They’re soft, chewy, and not too sweet, with a flavor that is wholesome and delicious. They’re great for on-the-go, a sweet treat in school lunches, and after-school snacks. They also make a fantastic dessert with a little vanilla ice cream. 

 

Whole Grain Cranberry-Orange Snack Bars are quick and easy to put together. They start with creaming softened unsalted butter and orange sugar until it’s all light and fluffy. Orange sugar is easy to make–just add the zest of an orange to some brown sugar, and rub it together with your fingers like you would if you were trying to remove dried school glue. This brings out the oils in the orange zest and starts to melt the brown sugar. Once the butter and brown sugar are combined, beat in an egg, followed by some vanilla.
 Beat in a mixture of white whole wheat flour, nutmeg, baking powder, and salt, followed by a cup of old-fashioned oats. All that’s left to add are some dried cranberries that have been plumped in hot water. This little act of soaking the dried fruit ensures that the pieces are more juicy than waxy. Spread the batter into a parchment-lined pan and bake 20-25 minutes, until the bars are just done. Let them cool to room temperature and then hang out in the fridge for an hour or so. Refrigerating the bars helps them to slice cleanly.

These bars can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a week, or wrapped individually in plastic wrap so they’re easy to grab as you’re running out the door! Make a batch of Whole Grain Cranberry-Orange Snack Bars this weekend so you can enjoy them all week long 😊 

 Whole Grain Cranberry-Orange Snack Bars
makes one 8×8″ pan, about 16 bars

6 tablespoons water
3/4 cup dried cranberries
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1 tablespoon orange zest
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 large egg, room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup white whole wheat flour*
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon Kosher or sea salt
1 cup old fashioned oats

Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease an 8×8″ pan and line it with parchment. Grease parchment. Set aside.

Heat water to a simmer, and pour it into a small bowl. Stir in dried cranberries. Set aside.

In a separate small bowl, rub orange zest into light brown sugar. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, together white whole wheat flour, nutmeg, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, beat butter with an electric mixer until it’s fluffy and lighter in color. Beat in light brown sugar mixture, followed by the egg and vanilla. Beat in flour mixture until completely combined. Beat in oats.

Drain dried cranberries and fold them into the batter. Spread batter into prepared pan. Tap the full pan on the counter five times to release any air bubbles. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool completely on a rack before refrigerating for at least one hour. Slice into bars.

Bars will keep covered at room temperature for up to one week.


Note:

Regular whole wheat flour may be substituted for white whole wheat flour.

Almond Joy Cookies {Grain-Free}

 Do you ever get sudden cravings for treats from your childhood? Once or twice a year, I’ll get a craving for Fruit Roll-Ups or Gushers or Dunkaroos (may they rest in peace) that I just can’t shake. I spend days agonizing over these junk foods I haven’t had since my mom was packing my school lunches, and then once I finally give in and eat a fruit snack or a tiny tub of frosting, it’s never as good as I want it to be. And the worst part is that I’ve wasted perfectly good calories on processed food, when they could have gone to something waaaaay better, like Cocoa Brownies or Dark Chocolate Pecan Butter.

Last week, I got a craving for Almond Joys seemingly out of nowhere. I spent far too many waking hours thinking about little pillows of coconut topped with whole almonds, all covered in dark chocolate. Never mind that I hadn’t had one since my grandmother passed in 2001. On Thursday, I walked into the deli on our block prepared to give in and buy what was sure to be a disappointing candy bar. The Almond Joy of my daydreams was sure to be full of sticky, mealy coconut, slightly-soft almonds, and cheap chocolate in reality. Just as I was preparing to fork over four quarters and what’s left of my dignity, I saw a jar of almond butter behind the counter. And because I have a perpetual case of baker’s brain, my mind immediately went into overdrive. I thought about the classic three-ingredient peanut butter cookie recipe, but made with almond butter. Dotted with coconut and covered in chocolate, they’d be like a grown-up Almond Joy in cookie form. And high in protein and grain-free, so I would feel less guilty about eating three in a row. I got to work, and let me tell you, these cookies are way better than any store-bought candy bar could ever hope to be. 

Almond Joy Cookies bear a lot of similarities to the Easy Nutella Cookies I posted earlier this month. They are both made primarily of nut butter, eggs, and sugar, and are totally grain-free (and therefore gluten-free). This recipe is super simple, but does require some precision in the mixing. As in every cookie recipe, each ingredient has a job. When the recipe has no grains, like this one, those ingredients have to be backed by some serious technique, or the results will send you running for that disappointing candy bar! Here are a few tips to make these cookies as awesome as possible.

Beat the bejeezus out of the egg. I mean, get your electric mixer out, crank it to high, and beat the egg for at least two minutes. The egg will serve to give our cookies structure. If the egg is simply scrambled, we’ll have flat cookies. So beat the egg until it is really, really, REALLY frothy and much lighter in color. This way, our cookies will be nice and puffy. Also, make sure your egg is room temperature, so it takes in air easily.

Use brown sugar, but not too much. Sugar may come in a dry bag, but it’s actually a liquid ingredient. It’s mixed into dough as crystals, but it starts melting on contact with fat and eggs, and fully caramelizes in the oven (which is why most cookies are golden brown). If there is too much sugar in a recipe, the cookies will spread like crazy because of the molten excess liquid. This recipe only calls for 2/3 cup light brown sugar, so our cookies will only spread a little. Don’t worry, they’ll still be sweet! Also, brown sugar keeps things extra moist thanks to the molasses. This will make our final results nice and chewy 😊 

Don’t use almond butter that separates. There are a million brands of almond butter on the shelves these days. You may have noticed that some of them have a layer of separated oil on top. Do not use any of those in these cookies, unless you are ready for a mess! I recommend creamy-style (like Trader Joe’s) or no-stir almond butter (like MaraNathra). Still give whatever you use a good stir, just to distribute all the fat evenly. The almond butter is the other half of the structural dream team. Along with the beaten egg, the almond butter will serve to keep these cookies from becoming flat, oily puddles of sadness. It also provides the flavor base, along with a touch of almond extract, some vanilla, and coconut. Your dough may still feel a little oily while you are rolling it. Don’t worry–just let the excess oil drain off a bit. Your finished cookies will not be greasy.

Baking powder is non-negotiable! Some of the three-ingredient peanut butter cookies out there don’t call for leavening. Peanut butter is pretty thick though, so they still get big and puffy. Almond butter, on the other hand, is thin, so we need a bit of baking powder to keep these cookies rising up instead of spreading out!

Whew!  

   
 
Once all your cookies are baked, melt some chocolate chips and coconut oil, and drizzle it over the cookies with a squeeze bottle or a fork. I like to drizzle twice because, hello, chocolate! I made these in two different sizes for no other reason than I felt like it 😊 I have included instructions for smaller cookies in the notes below. Now, go forth and resist the candy bar! Instead, make cookies that will live up to your childhood memories! 
 Almond Joy Cookies {Grain-Free}
makes 21 medium cookies*

1 large egg, room temperature
2/3 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract
1 cup creamy-style almond butter, measured in a dry measuring cup*
1/2 teaspoon Kosher or sea salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 cup sweetened flaked coconut
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 teaspoon coconut oil

Preheat oven to 350F. Lay a cooling rack over a sheet of wax paper. Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone baking mats. Set aside. 

In a large mixing bowl, use and electric mixer to beat the egg until very frothy and lighter in color, about two minutes. Add the light brown sugar, vanilla, and almond extracts, and beat for one minute. Add the almond butter, salt, and and baking powder, and mix until completely combined. Fold in coconut.

Scoop dough by the tablespoon* and roll into balls. The dough may feel oily. Set dough balls at least 1.5 inches apart on prepared pans. Bake for 9-10 minutes, until the cookies have puffed up a bit and no longer look shiny. If the cookies are too domed, tap the tops with the back of a spoon. Let cool on the pans for five minutes before removing to the prepared rack.

While cookies are cooling, melt chocolate chips and coconut oil together in a double-boiler or the microwave. Use a small squeeze bottle or a fork to drizzle cooled cookies with chocolate. Chocolate will set after several hours at room temperature, or within thirty minutes in the refrigerator.

Cookies keep covered at room temperature for up to a week.

Notes:

1. Alternatively, this recipe makes about five dozen very small cookies.
2. I used MaraNathra No-Stir Almond Butter. Do not use almond butter that separates.
3. If making very small cookies, scoop dough by the teaspoon. Bake for 7-8 minutes.

Dark Chocolate Pecan Butter

Well, we survived the blizzard. With the exception of a two hour excursion to the fancy grocery store for provisions (read: lots of cheese and some kimchi), Henry and I stayed home all day Saturday while New York City was brought to a standstill by Jonas. We watched PBS (because we’re big nerds) and made a pot of sausage and white bean soup before the real cabin fever set in. But that was solved by taking a slippery walk down to Smith Street and making some snow angels. Really, there was nothing to complain about: we had a warm apartment, plenty of food, Netflix, and good company. But now, the snow is a problem. It’s everywhere, gray and slushy. I literally had to hike to the coffee shop across the street yesterday morning. Gross. But, then I came home, turned on BBC World Service (again, big nerd), ate some toast with bananas and this Dark Chocolate Pecan Butter, and briefly, blissfully forgot about the mayhem outside…until I left for Target and fell in a gray snowbank. So much for peace.

This Dark Chocolate Pecan Butter is so good. Chocolaty and lightly sweetened, with the deep caramel flavor that only toasted pecans can provide. It’s made with everyday ingredients like pecan halves (duh), cocoa powder, maple syrup, and coconut oil. Nothing weird. No palm oil, no copious amounts of refined sugar. No refined sugar at all, actually! There’s no dairy here either, so this nut butter is vegan!

Making homemade nut butters couldn’t be simpler. You will need a food processor or high-powered blender, but that is the only special equipment. If you don’t have one, I recommend this Hamilton Beach food processor. I’ve had mine for five years and it hasn’t failed me yet.

But back to the Dark Chocolate Pecan Butter. It starts with toasting pecan halves. Just spread them on a dry cookie sheet and bake at 400F for 5-7 minutes. You’ll know they’re ready the second you start to smell them. If you don’t trust your nose, start checking them every thirty seconds or so from the five minute mark until you deem them done. Whatever you do, don’t leave the room. The pecans can burn in a split second, and burnt pecan butter is decidedly not delicious.

  Once the pecans are toasty, put them in your food processor with a touch of salt and some cocoa powder. I prefer to use Dutch process cocoa here because I think its flavor is richer than natural. Dutch process cocoa is a little less widely available than natural, but it’s really not hard to find at all. In NYC, it’s available at Whole Foods, Sahadi’s, Union Market, and many specialty stores. N.Y. Cake Supply sells Valrhona cocoa at wholesale prices, but if Valrhona is a little too pricey for your liking, Droste is another brand I love. If you just want to stick with classic Hershey’s, do it. It will be delicious! Don’t let something as silly as some fancy cocoa stop you from making this Dark Chocolate Pecan Butter.

…anyway…

Process the pecans, cocoa powder, and salt until a nut butter forms. Then, add a bit of coconut oil, a few tablespoons of maple syrup, and a splash of vanilla, before blitzing for an additional 3-5 minutes. You might be thinking that the coconut oil seems unnecessary with all the oils in the pecans. And you’d be right, except that the cocoa powder dries everything out. The two teaspoons of coconut oil keep everything loose and spreadable. As far as sweetening goes, it’s up to you. I don’t like this butter to be very sweet. I use three tablespoons of maple syrup, but just add it to your preferred sweetness. Keep in mind that the maple will cause the butter to seize when you add it, but after a minute or two, everything will loosen back up. When the Dark Chocolate Pecan Butter is to your preferred consistency, transfer it to an airtight container for storage. The oils will separate a bit as it sits, so just give it a quick stir before use.

Now, how to serve this… Well, there’s always eating it by the spoonful. Or on oatmeal. Or stirred into yogurt. All of those would be great! But my favorite is on toasted country bread with bananas. Try it. Trust me.

Want more chocolate and pecans? Check out my Salted Caramel Chocolate-Covered Pecan Cookies!

Dark Chocolate Pecan Butter
makes about two cups

3 cups pecan halve
3 tablespoons cocoa powder*
1/4 teaspoon salt
3-4 tablespoons pure maple syrup*
2 teaspoons coconut oil
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 400F. Spread pecan halves on a baking sheet (not greased). Roast for 5-7 minutes, until fragrant. Let cool five minutes before transferring to a food processor or high-powered blender.

Add cocoa powder and salt to pecans and process until a nut butter forms, about 5 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Add in maple syrup, coconut oil, and vanilla. Process for an additional 3-5 minutes. Butter will seize initially before becoming smooth again. Once it’s smooth, transfer the butter to an airtight container.

Store Dark Chocolate Pecan Butter at room temperature for up to a week, or indefinitely in the refrigerator. Butter will harden in the refrigerator, so bring it to room temperature before spreading. Stir before using.

Notes:
1. I prefer Dutch process cocoa here, but any cocoa powder will do.
2. Honey or agave may be substituted.

Dark Chocolate Pecan Butter

Spicy Southwestern Chicken Soup

Being from Texas, I have a deep abiding love for all things southwestern, especially Tex-Mex. If it has salsa, guacamole, melted cheese, pinto beans, or tortillas, I love it and I would like seconds thankyouverymuch. But since I am a New Yorker (can I finally call myself that after eight years?), there aren’t many Mexican restaurants or grocery stores that carry much besides packaged taco seasoning, and that simply won’t cut it. Also, that stereotype of New Yorkers being busy every minute of everyday? Totally true. When we get up and leave in the morning, we pack our entire lives into one supposedly-convenient bag. There are no cars for carrying those rain boots or options to make a quick trip home on lunch hour. This week is especially crazy because we are finally expecting snow. So now, in addition to everything else, everyone is preparing for the snowpocalypse (mostly by standing in line at Trader Joe’s). On my list for storm prep? Buy new winter boots and make a big pot of this Spicy Southwestern Chicken Soup.

This recipe is adapted from one that my mom made when I went home to visit in 2010. Nearly every time I make the trip to Texas, my allergies flare up and I can barely enjoy the family time. Knowing what was in store once I landed on Texas soil, my mom did what really good moms do–she made the ultimate cure-all, chicken soup. But instead of the traditional variety with carrots and celery, she used salsa and pinto beans, and threw it all in the slow cooker. She served it ladled over rice, and it hit the spot. Simple, comforting, and full of shredded chicken and beans, it was just what was needed to keep my allergies at bay (…somewhat–I don’t promise any miracles 😊). When she told me it had been made with a jar of Pace Picante, I was shocked! This soup was so much more than the sum of its parts.

When I got back to Brooklyn, I put it into my regular dinner rotation, with a few adjustments. I ditched the jarred salsa in favor of homemade, and as I lack a slow cooker, I made it on the stovetop. Where the slow cooker would probably take four to eight hours, my version takes one hour from start to finish! My mom calls this recipe Chicken Chili, which is absolute sacrilege, apparently. In Texas, chili is not supposed to have beans. It’s something I’ll never understand. So, with Henry’s help, it’s been renamed. Whatever you call it, it’s delicious.

Spicy Southwestern Chicken Soup begins as many soups do, with sautéing diced onion and minced garlic together until they are soft and fragrant. Stir in some chili powder and cumin, followed by two cups of salsa. I like to use the Restaurant-Style Salsa that I posted yesterday. It’s a snap to put together and is super smoky and flavorful. You may also use a jar of your favorite prepared salsa. I think a tomatillo version would be great here! Next, place two pounds of bone-in chicken breast in the pot, followed by four cups of chicken stock. If the chicken is not completely submerged, add water until it is. By using bone-in chicken in addition to chicken stock, we are giving the broth a double dose of chicken flavor. Cover the pot, bring the soup to a boil, and then let it simmer until the chicken is cooked through, about 30 minutes. Remove the chicken from the pot, toss the bones, and shred the meat before adding it back in. Then throw in some pinto beans that you’ve drained and rinsed, and let everything cook for just ten more minutes before enjoying.

 I like to serve this soup similarly to my Red Posole. I put out little plates of shredded cheddar, chopped cilantro, and diced avocado, so everyone can customize their bowls. Having eaten this soup on four occasions this week, I highly recommend crushing some tortilla chips over the top as well. So. Good. You could also take a page from my mom and serve it over rice. And a side salad couldn’t hurt 😊

Spicy Southwestern Chicken Soup is a warm, comforting meal perfect for cold weather. Simple, nutritious and brimming with the flavors of the southwest, it’s a favorite in our home. I’m sure it’ll become a favorite in yours, too.

 Spicy Southwestern Chicken Soup
makes 6-8 servings

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small red onion, diced
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons chili powder
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 cups salsa
2 lbs bone-in chicken breast, skin and excess fat removed
4 cups chicken stock
water
2 15 oz cans (3 cups) pinto beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 teaspoon Kosher or sea salt (or to taste)

Suggested Accompaniments:
diced avocado
chopped cilantro
shredded cheddar cheese
cooked white or brown rice
crushed tortilla chips

Heat a 4-6 quart heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium-high heat. Add olive oil and swirl it around to coat the pan. Sauté onions until soft and translucent, five to seven minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant. Stir in chili powder and cumin. Pour in salsa, and stir to coat everything. Lay chicken breasts in the pot and pour in chicken stock. If chicken is not completely submerged, add water until it is. Cover the pot and bring it to a boil. Reduce it to a simmer for 30 minutes, or until chicken is cooked through.

Use tongs to remove chicken breasts from the pot. Allow to cool five minutes before shredding with two forks. Add shredded meat back to the pot, followed by pinto beans. Let simmer uncovered for an additional ten minutes. Check the seasoning and add salt to taste. Serve warm with accompaniments of choice.

Spicy Southwestern Chicken Soup can be covered and refrigerated for up to five days.

Restaurant-Style Salsa

 I go through phases in my kitchen. In 2010, I made jam for six months. Strawberry, ginger-nectarine, cherry-vanilla. I made them all, plus a rockin’ grapefruit marmalade that I’ll post someday. But as much as I enjoy making jam, I don’t actually eat much of it–a little on a biscuit here and there, but that’s about it. And so the six months of jam unceremoniously came to an end. Then there was the pickling. Oh, I love to pickle! Especially jalapeños and carrots. And I’m sure my roommates just loved the pervasive cloud of vinegar steam that was our kitchen. When I moved in with Henry though, I stopped the pickling cold-turkey. We share a very small apartment with a pocket-sized kitchen, and the idea that our bedroom would reek of vinegar all the time was just too much for either of us to handle. And so I moved on to salsa. In the first four or so months that we lived together, I made a different batch of salsa every week (tomatillo, amarilla, and habanero, to name a few), and we’d crowd our friends into our apartment to test it out, usually with homemade tostadas or tacos. For all the flavors and colors I toyed with, classic Restaurant-Style Salsa was always the favorite.

Being from Texas, I grew up surrounded by chips and salsa. Tex-Mex restaurants are often judged on the quality of their chips and salsa. If the salsa even seems like it might be manufactured elsewhere, the restaurant is not long for this world. La Familia, my favorite hometown Mexican restaurant, brings out freshly made salsa by the pitcher, just to drive home the fact that it is made in-house. When I moved to New York eight years ago, I quickly discovered that a) there were no Tex-Mex restaurants worth patronizing (something that’s been remedied by Lisa Fain), and b) good prepared salsa simply did not exist. There was a brief period where I could find D.L. Jardine’s Texacante at a local specialty foods store, but that didn’t even last six months. And so I was left to make my own, or be salsaless for the foreseeable future. And being a good Tex-patriot, I simply could not go without.

Logically, I started with fresh tomatoes. While there’s nothing better than in-season tomatoes, they simply aren’t available ten months out of the year. Flavorless January tomatoes cannot be made into salsa that’s worth eating. What’s more, when I have made salsa with even the best tomatoes, it turns an unappetizing whitish pink color. It still tastes good, but it sure doesn’t look it. After reading a few recipes online, it was made clear to me that canned was the way to go. Sure, you could blanch and peel fresh tomatoes, but that seems like a lot of work for something that is going to be puréed. Canned tomatoes taste good year-round and have a gorgeous bright red color. Also, because this salsa is blended, there won’t be any of those big chunks of cooked tomato that are often found in jarred salsas. In my humble opinion, whomever decided that “thick n’ chunky” salsa was a good idea was deeply wrong. 

In addition to the to a 28-ounce can of whole peeled tomatoes, you’ll need chipotles in adobo. These are jalapeños that have been smoked and then preserved in a flavorful sauce (adobo). They are super smoky and really add a lot of flavor to the finished salsa, but they definitely pack some heat. When adding them, keep in mind your preferred level of spice. I use four chipotles in adobo for something close to medium-hot, but if you have a low tolerance for heat, start with one pepper and go from there. I don’t recommend leaving them out, simply because the flavor is so rich and gives this salsa a wonderfully smoky flavor.

The rest of the ingredients are standard salsa fare: a small red onion, a couple of cloves of garlic, cilantro, lime juice, and a pinch of salt. Place all the ingredients (including the tomatoes and chipotles) into a food processor or high-powered blender, and blitz until no large chunks remain. That’s it! While I love this particular blend, feel free to adjust it to your taste. Want less onion? Only use half. Hate cilantro? Leave it out. This is simply what I like. Take my favorite and make it yours.

Restaurant-Style Salsa is great with chips, of course, but also works well mixed into salad dressings and enchilada sauce. Tomorrow’s recipe uses it as the base for soup! Make sure to swing by and check it out! 

 Restaurant-Style Salsa
makes about four cups

1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes (with liquid)
1-5 canned whole chipotles in adobo*
1 small red onion, peeled and quartered
2 cloves garlic
1/4-1/3 cup fresh cilantro, washed
juice of 1 lime
large pinch Kosher or sea salt

Combine all ingredients in a food processor or high-powered blender. Process on high until no large chunks remain, about 30-60 seconds depending on the machine.

Refrigerate salsa in an airtight container for up to one week.

Note:

Chipotles in adobo can be found in the Goya or international aisles at most grocery stores. I buy Goya or La Costeña. They are also available on Amazon. They freeze well for several months.