Pumpkin, Sage, and Browned-Butter Bread

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There’s a certain little holiday coming up next week, are you ready? Confession: I am nowhere close. Most years, I have my recipes all picked out by this point, my grocery lists written, all non-perishables purchased, and homemade pie crusts ready and waiting in the freezer. This year, I haven’t given any of it a second thought. That’s what this weekend is for, right? No matter where you are on the spectrum, though, consider adding these mini loaves to your “to make” list – while they may not belong on your Thanksgiving table, they definitely belong in your fall baking repertoire.

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I hesitated to try this recipe as I firmly believed that nothing can beat my aunt’s pumpkin muffins – but since anything with brown butter and sage sounds pretty delicious, I gave them a try. And I’m so glad I did, because they are equally yummy, but in a completely different way.  The brown butter and sage flavors add a savory richness, and the fried sage pieces contribute a fun little crunch. While browning the butter and frying the sage are additional steps, I still whipped up the batter pretty quickly. [Browned butter tips here. Sometimes I find browning butter easy, sometimes I find it more challenging – but regardless my finished product always ends up delicious).]

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The recipe is supposed to yield eight mini loaves, and I doubled it in the hopes of making twelve – and ended up with six. So I think when Martha says eight, she means eight “mini mini” loaves, which you would bake in something like this (which I have now purchased and will be sure to use next time).  I baked these in “large” paper mini loaf pans (is there such thing as a large mini loaf pan? Let’s pretend there is), which were adorable and looked gorgeous all wrapped up for party favors, but I think they would also be adorable as “mini mini” loaves, as muffins, or even as a regular loaf. However, the recipe as written would yield about eight muffins or one small loaf, so you may want to consider doubling.

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Pumpkin, previously: muffins, cookies, granola, bread pudding, soup, cake, pie

One year ago: My First Pumpkin Pie

Pumpkin, Sage, and Browned-Butter Bread, from Martha Stewart Living 

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, plus more for pans
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pans
1/4 cup fresh sage, cut into thin strips, plus whole leaves for garnish (optional)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup solid-pack pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)
1 cup packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter eight 4-by-2 1/2-inch loaf pans; dust with flour, tapping out excess (I use PAM for baking here). Melt butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Add sage strips; cook until butter turns golden brown, 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer mixture to a bowl; let cool slightly.

Meanwhile, whisk together flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and salt. In another bowl, whisk together pumpkin, brown sugar, eggs, and sage-butter mixture. Add flour mixture; whisk until incorporated. Divide batter evenly among prepared pans; smooth tops with an offset spatula. Place pans on a rimmed baking sheet; bake until a cake tester comes out clean, about 30 minutes.

Transfer pans to a wire rack to cool 15 minutes. Turn out cakes onto rack to cool completely. (Cakes can be wrapped in plastic and stored at room temperature overnight or refrigerated up to 5 days.) Garnish with whole sage leaves before serving, if desired.

Mac and Cheese, Part Two

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As discussed yesterday, I went on a bit of a mac and cheese bender a few months ago when I was preparing freezer meals for my sister (in preparation for the arrival of her first baby/my first nephew). Beecher’s is an artisan cheese shop that originated in Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle, and I might have a bit of an unhealthy obsession with their cheeses.  They also happen to make a really amazing mac and cheese, which is called “Beecher’s ‘World’s Best’ Mac and Cheese.” A pretty bold assertion, but even if it’s not the best it’s definitely in the running.

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Beecher’s mac and cheese is traditionally made with their “flagship” cheese – clearly I’m not a connoisseur, but I would describe it as similar to a sharp white cheddar.  I was snacking on their peppery “marco polo” during a wine and cheese night this past summer when I had an epiphany – why not make Beecher’s mac and cheese with marco polo in place of the flagship? It’s basically just a creamy, mild white cheese with green and black peppercorns – I think of it mostly as black pepper cheese, but there’s green in there too. Beecher’s makes a couple other varieties aside from the flagship (smoked, mariachi, chicken, pork), but they have not come out with a marco polo version – no idea why not, but as soon as I thought of it I became convinced it would be the most delicious thing ever.  Contrary to what it probably looks like based upon this blog, I actually don’t make/eat mac and cheese all that often (unless you count the frozen “reduced guilt” Trader Joe’s frozen kind) – and neither does my sister. But I figured if there’s ever a time when you can eat “full guilt” mac and cheese with no guilt (or at least, less guilt), it’s after you’ve given birth.  Plus, what better way to celebrate the arrival of the world’s best baby than with the world’s best mac and cheese?!?

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So I set about to make two casseroles, a traditional (flagship) and a black pepper (marco polo). Again, the recipe is pretty simple. Cook some pasta, make a quick béchamel, grate a ton of cheese and melt it into the sauce, toss the sauce with the pasta, top with more cheese, and bake. The traditional recipe calls for chili powder in both the sauce and on top of the casserole; I wasn’t sure that the chili powder would go with the black pepper so I omitted it from the second casserole. Aside from that, my only recipe “tweak” was to use the marco polo in lieu of the flagship in both the sauce and in the topping. Flagship cheese is pretty easy to find these days – it’s sold at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s (for a lot cheaper!) even outside of Seattle.  Marco Polo might be a little trickier – I’ve been able to find it at QFC and New Seasons in Portland, but I’m not sure if you would be able to find it anywhere else outside of Seattle or NYC (go here if you find yourself in the Flatiron district and in need of a good happy hour). Beecher’s will ship it to you – though for the shipping charges, I would just get the flagship at Trader Joe’s and call it good. The marco polo is good, but I have a hard time paying more for shipping than the cost of the actual item. If you can get your hands on it, though, please make this and let me know your thoughts – I really think I’m onto something.

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While I prefer to use pretty bakeware (and use this blog as an excuse to buy a lot of it), I think one of the nicest things you can do when bringing meals to new parents (or anyone in need of a meal) is to bring everything in disposable dishes so that they don’t have to worry about returning anything. So in that vein, please excuse these lovely tin foil casserole dishes. I might have considered using nicer dishes since these were for my sister (and therefore more likely that I could demand them back), but I didn’t want to be without two casserole dishes while they sat in the freezer for months.  Turns out they were eaten quickly enough that I wouldn’t have missed them.

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One year ago: Pumpkin Muffins 

Mac and Cheese, previously: Part One, Carrot

Beecher’s “World’s Best” Mac & Cheese 

Serves 4

Sauce

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 /2 cups whole milk
7 ounces Flagship cheese (about 1 3/4 cups), grated (for the black pepper option, use Marco Polo in place of Flagship)
1 ounce Just Jack (about 1/4 cup), grated (if you can’t find Beecher’s, any Jack will do)
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt, such as kosher
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon chipotle chili powder* (for black pepper version, omit the chili powder)
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder

Pasta

6 ounces penne pasta (about 3 1/4 cups)
1 ounce (1/4 cup) Flagship cheese, grated  (for the black pepper option, use Marco Polo in place of Flagship)
1 ounce (1/4 cup) Just Jack cheese, grated
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon chipotle chili powder* (for black pepper version, omit the chili powder)

*I used the full 1/2 teaspoon in the sauce, and then less than even the 1/4 teaspoon on top of the pasta because I got scared it would be too spicy.  But it really is pretty mild (at least, the chipotle chili powder I used was), so as long as you’re not completely spice-adverse you can go ahead and use as much as you want.

Instructions

To prepare sauce, melt butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat and whisk in the flour. Continue whisking and cook for 2 minutes. Slowly add milk, whisking constantly. Cook until sauce thickens, about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat. Add cheeses, salt, chili powder, and garlic powder. Stir until cheese is melted and all ingredients are incorporated, about 3 minutes. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter or oil an 8-inch baking dish. Cook penne two minutes less than package directions. (It will finish cooking in the oven.) Rinse pasta in cold water and drain well.

Combine pasta and sauce in a medium bowl; mix carefully but thoroughly. Scrape the pasta into the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle top with cheeses and then the chili powder.

For black pepper option, use Marco Polo in place of Flagship in both the sauce and the topping. Omit chili powder in both the sauce and the topping. 

Bake, uncovered, 20-25 minutes, or until top is golden brown and sauce is bubbling. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.

If planning to use as a freezer meal, I still bake the casserole beforehand and then freeze it after it’s cooled, but I’m pretty sure you could freeze it uncooked as well.  Even if it’s fully cooked, it will take at least the full baking time to reheat.  I always tell people to take it out of the freezer as soon as possible and then bake at 350 for 30-60 minutes. If it’s close to fully defrosted it might take only 30 minutes to heat through; if it’s fully frozen it will take closer to an hour. These non-specific instructions really through my brother in law for a loop, but it’s the best way I can think of to explain it – if anyone has better tips I would love to hear them in the comments!

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Mac and Cheese, Part One

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This post was originally supposed to be called “Mac and Cheese, Three Ways” – but it was getting so long that I cut it in half (stay tuned for Part Two tomorrow).  My sister and her husband had their first baby a couple months ago, and while I tried really hard to come up with some creative ideas for freezer meals, I had a difficult time getting past everyone’s favorite comfort food. So I decided if I couldn’t be original, I would be excessive instead: I stocked their freezer with, among other things, three different macaroni and cheese casseroles for the first few post baby months (they may have only lasted a few weeks). Number three was the one I was most excited about (more on that tomorrow), but I decided to start with a Barefoot Contessa classic. (Coincidentally, Ina’s new cookbook comes out today – it’s called “Make It Ahead” – and while I’m pretty excited about it, I’m not sure that there’s a better make ahead recipe than this mac and cheese).

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Much like last week’s lasagna, I’m not sure that macaroni and cheese is fancy enough to warrant it’s own blog post. However, up until a couple years ago, my grandmother was the only person I knew of who made mac and cheese that wasn’t from a box (that list has now expanded to my grandmother, my friend Lindsay, and myself).  So I’m posting this relatively basic recipe in the hopes of inspiring those of you who haven’t yet realized how easy and delicious homemade mac and cheese can be.  Don’t be intimidated by the béchamel – it used to really scare me, but it’s so easy. SImply melt your butter, add some flour, pour in the milk, and whisk whisk whisk.  It will take a few minutes to thicken up, but once it does you’ll feel like Julia Child. Add salt and pepper, and nutmeg to taste – I usually add whatever the recipe calls for (because I’m a rule follower), but I know a lot of people don’t care for nutmeg in a dish like this so feel free to use less or none at all.

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Add the cheese to the béchamel while it’s still hot and let it melt.  (If I could only give you one tip for making this recipe, it would be to buy your gruyère at Trader Joe’s – it’s literally half the price of any other store. A second tip would be to use Tillamook extra sharp for your cheddar, yum.)  Combine pasta and sauce and scrape into your prepared baking dish. See, it’s really so simple. And so delicious – you’ll never make mac and cheese from a box again. Not that you ever did.

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Ina wants you to make homemade bread crumbs – which are super easy, but I often don’t have bread on hand so I like to use good store bought breadcrumbs or panko. I like to toast mine on the stovetop beforehand (with a little olive oil or butter), but it’s not a necessary step by any means.  If you want to make your breadcrumbs from scratch, cut the crusts off of five slices of bread (or a hunk of baguette) and process in the food processor until the pieces are the size of small crumbs (duh).  Mix the crumbs with melted butter and then sprinkle on top of the casserole before baking.  Casserole can be prepared ahead of time and then baked before serving, or baked and frozen for tired moms and dads to defrost and reheat as necessary.

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One year ago: Crunchy Baked Pasta with Sausage (or Squash) and Greens

Mac and Cheese, previously: Melissa Clark’s Carroty Mac and Cheese

Barefoot Contessa’s Mac and Cheese, from Barefoot Contessa Family Style

Ingredients:

Kosher salt
Olive oil
1 lb. elbow macaroni or cavatappi
1 quart milk (4 cups)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, divided
1/2 cup all purpose flour
12 ounces gruyère, grated (4 cups)
8 ounces extra-sharp cheddar, grated (2 cups)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg (or less, to taste)
4 small tomatoes, sliced (optional – I skipped this step)
1 1/2 cups breadcrumbs, fresh (5 slices bread, crusts removed) or store bought breadcrumbs or panko

To Make:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Drizzle olive oil into a large pot of boiling salted water. Add pasta and cook according to package directions (on the shorter side if they give you a range; you want the noodles al dente as they’ll continue to cook in the oven). Drain well.

Meanwhile, heat the milk in a small saucepan (don’t let it come to a boil). Melt 6 tablespoons of butter in a large (4 quart) pot and add the flour. Cook over low heat for 2 minutes, whisking constantly. While whisking, add hot milk (slowly) and cook for a minute or two more, until thickened and smooth. Off the heat, add the gruyère, cheddar, one tablespoon salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Add the cooked macaroni and stir well. Pour into a 3-quart baking dish. Arrange sliced tomatoes on top of pasta (if using). Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter, combine with the fresh bread crumbs, and sprinkle on top (I like to melt the butter in a frying pan, add panko breadcrumbs, and toast before topping the casserole with them). Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until sauce is bubbling and casserole is browned on top.  

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Chicken Lasagna Cacciatore

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I’m not entirely sure if lasagna is a “sexy” enough topic for a blog post, but I’ve had enough people ask me for this recipe over the years that I thought I should share it with all of you. Plus, it seems appropriate to celebrate our first official week of rainy weather with a recipe from my “Celebrate the Rain” cookbook from the Junior League of Seattle. [Sidenote, my career in the Junior League was sadly short lived – but this cookbook was one of the best things I got out of it.]  I’m not ordinarily a huge lasagna fan – I don’t eat red meat, which means I often can’t eat it anyways, but even when there’s a veggie option I find it’s usually heavy and/or mushy and/or bland.  It’s hard for me not to like a dish made up of pasta plus cheese plus tomato sauce, but rarely have I experienced a truly stand out dish – this is one of the few lasagna recipes I’ve found that I can truly say I love. So much so that I made it for a dinner party last week, and have been pouting about lack of leftovers ever since.

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Chicken cacciatore is basically chicken braised in tomato sauce, usually with some combination of onions, garlic, mushrooms, bell peppers, and herbs. I made that definition up, but it’s a combination of the first five or so recipes I read after a quick google search. This recipe, as the name implies, is a combination of chicken cacciatore and lasagna. We make a “cacciatore sauce” of sorts using lots of fresh vegetables, shred the chicken into the sauce, and layer it with noodles (or pasta sheets!) like a lasagna, only using mozzarella and parm instead of your typical ricotta layer. While there is still plenty of cheese, it somehow seems so much lighter than traditional lasagna – and so full of veggies that you don’t even feel that bad about going back for seconds.

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This isn’t the quickest of recipes, but as lasagnas go it’s pretty simple to put together. The chopping takes some time, but it’s so worth it. I’m now really wishing I had doubled the recipe, as this will keep well in the freezer (baked or unbaked), and as long as you’re doing one, you might as well do two (or even three!) – the increase in time is marginal. Time saving tips include no-boil noodles or pasta sheets and rotisserie chicken. Boiling lasagna noodles is a total pain – no matter how much oil I add to my cooking water, they seem to always stick together and then break when I try to pull them apart. I’ve used no-boil noodles before and think they’re fine, but I know some people don’t like them – the pasta sheets really are the way to go if you can get them. They’re so easy and so fun, and it makes it a lot easier to serve your lasagna without having to worry about cutting in between the noodles (no pretty ruffles like regular lasagna noodles, though). Rotisserie chicken is a huge time saver, and I find the meat easier to shred. For once I can’t tell you to use the Trader Joe’s pre-chopped onions (my apologies to your eyeballs), but slicing doesn’t take too terribly long.  Pre-grated cheese seems so un-gourmet….but if that’s your thing, I won’t tell and it will still taste yummy.  Honestly though, if you can force yourself to be at least sort of efficient in the kitchen (slice onions while chicken cooks, slice mushrooms/mince garlic/dice pepper while onions cook, grate cheese while sauce simmers, etc.) it really doesn’t take that long to put together.

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Layer your lasagna: noodles, sauce, cheese; repeat; repeat again. Don’t the pasta sheets look so fun?!? Dump an extra can of tomatoes over everything (except the top layer of cheese) if you’re short on sauce (see my note at the bottom of the recipe). You can stop here and then bake later (if you’re making this ahead of time), or freeze now and bake later, or bake and then freeze – the possibilities are endless.  For my aforementioned dinner party, I put the lasagna together ahead of time, went about my day, and then popped it in the oven right before everyone arrived. The house smelled yummy, we had a lovely 30 minute cocktail hour, and then I took the lasagna out of the oven, popped dessert in, and we sat down to a bubbling-hot-out-of-the-oven dinner (and then an hour later, a bubbling-hot-out-of-the-oven apple crisp).  For someone who’s always scrambling around and doing everything last minute, I was pretty proud of myself!  Lasagna may not be the sexiest blog topic, but it gets major points for the make-ahead factor. Serve with a simple green salad and bread, and it’s a great meal to share with friends – you can sit and chat and enjoy yourself rather than frantically throwing everything together at the last minute. And with a fire in the fireplace and a couple bottles of wine, it’s the perfect meal with which to celebrate the rain.

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Chicken Lasagna Cacciatore, from Celebrate the Rain

Serves 8*

Ingredients:
1/4 cup olive oil, divided
3/4 lbs. boneless, chicken chicken breast**
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
10 ounces button mushrooms, brushed clean, trimmed, and thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into 1/2″ dice
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes***
1/4 cup fresh parsley, minced
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons dried basil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
1 lb. mozarella cheese, grated
1 cup parmesan cheese, grated
12 cooked lasagna noodles OR 9 no-boil lasagna noodles OR 3 fresh pasta sheets

To make sauce:
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper, add them to the pan, and cook until browned on the bottom, about 6 minutes. Flip the chicken and cook until tender and cooked through, about 5 minutes longer.  Transfer the chicken to a plate and let cool; reserve the saucepan. When the chicken is cool, shred it and set aside. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in the saucepan over medium heat.  Add the onions and sauté until tender and lightly browned, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the mushrooms and garlic and cook until the mushrooms are tender, about 5 minutes longer.  Add the bell pepper and sauté until nearly tender, about 2 minutes.  Stir in the tomatoes, parsley, oregano, basil, salt, black pepper, and dried red pepper flakes. Add the chicken, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 10 minutes.

To prepare lasagna: 
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Oil a 9 x 13 baking dish. Spread 1/2 cup of the tomato sauce (avoiding large chunks of chicken or vegetables) on the bottom of the dish.*** Line the dish with 4 cooked lasagna noodles or 3 no-boil lasagna noodles or one pasta sheet. Spread 1 1/2 cups of the tomato sauce over the pasta and sprinkle with 1/3 of the mozzarella and 1/3 of the parmesan. Repeat the layering of noodles, sauce, and cheese two more times.  (The lasagna can be prepared a few days ahead, covered with plastic, and refrigerated, or covered securely with plastic and foil and frozen for a few weeks). Bake the lasagna until the cheese turns golden brown in spots and the sauce is bubbling, about 30 minutes (if after 30 minutes the sauce is bubbling but the cheese hasn’t started browning, turn the oven to broil and watch the lasagna carefully – it will brown quickly).  Transfer the dish to a wire rack and let the lasagna sit for 5-10 minutes before serving.

*The recipe says 8 servings, but I’ve found it usually yields closer to 10-12. You’ll want leftovers, though.
**You could use a store-bought rotisserie chicken here as a shortcut. I usually do, and wondered why I didn’t this time (not that it’s hard to cook the chicken, but I always manage to get oil splattered all over my stovetop). You’ll need about two cups cooked, shredded white meat, skin and bones discarded.  One chicken should yield this easily.
***Every time I make this recipe, I find that I’m way short on sauce (in part probably because my lasagna pan is bigger than 9×13, so this may not be as much of an issue for you). My new trick is to use an extra can of crushed tomatoes – you could use a jar of spaghetti sauce as well if you’re in a pinch.  I like to pour 1/2 cup – 1 cup crushed tomatoes into the bottom of the pan before I start building the lasagna (rather than using the sauce as instructed). Then I do the recommended 1 1/2 cups of sauce per layer (possibly a little more if it looks like that isn’t enough). Once I reach the third layer I’m a little short, so I use up the homemade sauce and then dump the rest of the can of crushed tomatoes over the casserole before I add the final layer of cheese.  You could use a 15.5-ounce can of tomatoes if your lasagna pan is closer to 9×13 size/if you find you aren’t that short on sauce, but I used an entire 28-ounce can this time and it turned out great.  You could also just add the second can of tomatoes to the sauce as you’re making it (along with the can called for), but my saucepan is usually close to overflowing so I’ve been doing it this way.  Making sure the top layer of pasta is fully covered with sauce is especially important if you’re using the no-boil noodles or the fresh pasta sheets as they’ll need the liquid to cook. photo 3

Brown Butter and Bourbon Apple Crisp

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It’s hard enough to pass up any old apple crisp recipe, even when it’s not called “The Best Apple Crisp You’ll Ever Have.” If I ever see a recipe entitled “the best [anything] you’ll ever have,” I feel compelled to make it, regardless of whether or not [anything] is something I would normally want to make.  Otherwise, I would clearly be missing out. I bookmarked this recipe when I first came across it in November of 2012, and for some reason it’s taken me almost a full two years to make it – which is a shame, because it really might be the best apple crisp I’ll ever have.  I hate to think how many apple crisps I’ve eaten in the past two years that weren’t this good.  So many wasted calories. Don’t get me wrong – even your average apple crisp is usually pretty yummy. Apples, sugar, crumble topping, ice cream – it’s hard to go wrong.  But this one has brown butter – vanilla brown butter, no less – and bourbon, which makes it pretty much spectacular.

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This recipe is a bit more involved than your average crisp, but I promise you it’s worth it. The topping is crunchy and buttery and delicious – I especially loved the big chunks of almonds.  I didn’t really taste a ton of vanilla, so you could probably skip that part (especially when a vanilla bean costs $10!), but it was pretty fun to scrape the seeds into the butter, and it smelled amazing.  Fun tip, if you do use the vanilla beans: save the pods and use them to make vanilla extract, vanilla sugar, or vanilla salt.

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Re: what type of apples to use.  The recipe calls for Granny Smiths, but when I asked the guy at the farm stand (that’s right, this is literally a farm-to-table crisp) he emphatically informed me that Granny Smiths are the “styrofoam of apples,” and that I wanted to use Newtown Pippins. He didn’t have any that day, so I trekked to another farm stand where a helpful woman told me that I actually needed a mix of all different types of apples.  I went a little crazy and got Newtown Pippins, Crispins (aka Mutsus), Honeycrisps, Fujis, and a couple Granny Smiths just in case (a combination of everything she recommended and everything I had read online during my quick google search between farm stands). Five varieties is probably excessive, but I found a number of articles that recommended using at least two or three. Different textures, levels of sweetness/tartness, etc.  I couldn’t say for sure that it made that much difference (it could have been the brown butter or the bourbon), but the crisp was so amazing that I’m officially an apple snob now.

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The peeling/coring/slicing of the apples takes awhile, although I doubled the recipe so that probably didn’t help. I used my mandoline for really thin, uniform slices, but you could easily use a knife. I loved the look of the slices once the apples baked down, but you could do bigger chunks or a dice as well.  The recipe has you mix a little of the topping in with the apples before you pour everything into the pan, so there were little flecks of nuts and oats in every bite – so brilliant. Why have I never thought of this before?  Sidenote: I bought this bakeware set (similar here) as a shower gift for someone last summer and then decided to keep it for myself.  Probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, because the different sized pans are all adorable, but especially the mini one.  The best apple crisp you’ll ever have, for two!

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One year ago: Pumpkin Black Bean Soup and Pumpkin Bread Pudding 

The Best Apple Crisp You’ll Ever Have, from Ambitious Kitchen via Cup of Jo

For the topping:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup old fashioned oats
1 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup chopped almonds
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened and cut into pieces

For the filling:
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
6 medium-sized apples, peeled, cored, and very thinly sliced (recipe recommends Granny Smith, I used Newtown Pippin, Honeycrisp, Crispin, Fuji, and Granny Smith)
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon bourbon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Generously grease an 8×8 baking pan (or a pan of similar size).

Make topping: Toss flour, oats, brown sugar, and almonds in a large bowl until well-combined. Add in butter pieces and use your hands to squeeze and combine until the mixture becomes crumbly and resembles wet sand. (You could also use a pastry cutter here, or place all of the topping ingredients in a food processor and pulse until just blended. I usually would use my food processor, but the recipe recommends hands so I did it that way and it turned out great – and I didn’t have to clean my food processor!). Let topping chill in the refrigerator while you prepare the apples.

Make filling: Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat, and add vanilla beans (not pods). After a couple of minutes the butter will begin to crackle and foam – make sure to whisk constantly. Let butter cook for another minute or two, until it starts to turn a slight brown/caramel color on the bottom of the pan; continue to whisk and remove from heat as soon as the butter begins to give off a nutty aroma. Immediately transfer the butter to a bowl to prevent it from burning; set aside to cool.

While the butter is cooling, combine sliced apples with brown sugar, cinnamon, and bourbon in a large bowl and toss to combine. Pour the brown butter over the apple mixture and toss again until the apples are well coated.

Remove topping from fridge. Take about 1/2 cup of the topping and toss with the apples. Pour the mixture into your prepared pan and sprinkle evenly with the rest of the topping (it will seem like a lot of topping, but it’s ok).

Bake the crisp on a baking sheet (in case it bubbles over) for 55-60 minutes, or until topping is golden brown and filling is bubbling. Remove from oven and let cool for 10-15 minutes. Serve warm, ideally with vanilla ice cream.

Notes: Feel free to use different nuts instead of almonds – walnuts or pecans would be delicious – or you can leave them out entirely. If you don’t have bourbon on hand, you can replace with ½ teaspoon vanilla extract (bourbon is pretty dang good though).

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Butternut Squash and Farro Salad

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I know that by February I’ll be longing for a warm and sunny October.  OK, by November (which is only 22 days away, eeeek!) I’ll probably be longing for a warm and sunny October.  But as of this week, when the 70+ degree temperatures are keeping me from my new fall wardrobe, I’m really ready for it to start feeling like fall.  I’ve dug all of my sweaters and boots out of the back of my closet(s), but it’s been t-shirt and flip flop weather all week (the things I find to complain about, I know). I’ve decided, however, that even if the forecast points to an Indian summer, the calendar says fall, so that’s what I’m going with.  I colored my hair dark this week (!!!), bought a flannel shirt that’s way too hot to wear anytime soon, and started in on the “fall recipes” on my to-do list. First up, this yummy butternut squash salad from Smitten Kitchen.

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Is there anything more “fall-ish” than butternut squash? (Is “fall-ish” even a word?) Well, there are probably lots of things, but butternut squash has got to be up there. After I made this salad, I found this one and kind of wished I had made it as well. If you’re really on top of life, you could prep a big batch of squash ahead of time and use it for both recipes (it will keep either raw or roasted in the fridge for a few days at least). You could throw it into a pasta dish, or into a green salad, or just eat it plain with parmesan like I’ve been doing a lot lately (yum).  But for now we’re talking farro, which is delicious (and pronounced FAR-ro, not FAIR-ro like a Pharaoh from ancient Egypt.  I may or may not have been mispronouncing this word for entirely too long, so just want to save you the embarrassment in case you’ve been making the same mistake). Deb explains the difference between pearled, semi-pearled, regular, etc., and the corresponding cooking times.  I just bought the Trader Joe’s “10 minute farro” and it was great (TJ’s FTW, as usual).

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My only other notes would be: (1) Deb recommends you pickle your onions for as close to 30 minutes as possible, but tells you that if you don’t have that much time less is ok too.  I’m sure she’s right, but as a raw-onion-hater I’ve found that the longer the onions are marinating, the less raw-onion-y they’ll taste. When I have time, I let mine sit in the fridge for an hour or two (fun tip: even soaking slices of red onion in plain ice water for a few minutes makes them taste a little more neutral).  Of course if raw onion hatred isn’t an issue for you, 30 minutes or less is fine.  (2) Sometimes ricotta salata can be hard to find – I’ve used feta in the past and it works just as well.  This is probably blasphemous to write on a food blog (however wannabe it may be), but I’m not entirely on the ricota salata train in the way that everyone else seems to be and I almost like it better with the feta. (3) Deb will tell you this as well, but this salad is super flexible – use any type of squash or roasted veggie in place of or along with the butternut, use rice/orzo/barley instead of farro, etc.  Although if you don’t have an aversion to anything in the recipe, I would encourage you to try it as written at least initially, as it really is delicious. Ratios are also flexible – I just used a whole squash, an entire (small) bag of farro, and then adjusted my toppings and seasonings accordingly.  (4) This salad is good at room temperature (i.e. when you’ve just finished making it and the squash and farro are still warm), but delicious chilled – it’s one of those salads that is really better the next day (especially if the next day is a little closer to sweater weather).

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Butternut Squash, previously: soup, baked pasta

Smitten Kitchen, previously: about every other recipe on this blog

Butternut Squash and Farro Salad, from Smitten Kitchen

1 medium butternut squash
6 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup farro
1/3 cup toasted, salted pepitas
3 ounces ricotta salata, crumbled or coarsely grated (or other salty cheese, such as feta)
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 small red onion, finely chopped

Prepare Squash: Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Peel butternut squash and scrape out seeds. Cut squash into 1/2″-3/4″ cubes. Coat baking sheet (or sheets, if you have a large amount of squash) with olive oil, and then toss squash on the baking sheet with small amounts of olive oil, salt, and pepper until coated. Roast 30-40 minutes, or until squash is tender and starting to brown, tossing or stirring a couple times so that the pieces don’t stick.

Prepare Farro: According to package instructions.

Prepare Onions and Brine: Chop onion into small dice. In a small bowl, whisk together the sherry vinegar, water, sugar, and salt, until the sugar is dissolved. Add onion and stir to coat. The brine won’t cover the onions all the way, but that’s ok. Place onions (in brine) in the refrigerator while you wait for squash/farro to cook. Ideally they can chill for 30 minutes, but less time is ok.

In a large bowl, mix together farro, squash, onions (with brine), cheese, and pepitas. Add three tablespoons of olive oil. Taste, and add more oil, sherry vinegar, salt, and pepper to taste. Top with more cheese and/or pepitas if desired (I did). Salad is best chilled, and will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week.

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Corn Risotto-Stuffed Poblano Peppers

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As I may have mentioned on this blog once or twice, Smitten Kitchen is one of my very favorite food blogs.  So when Deb (the author) published her first cookbook two years ago, I promptly purchased a copy (and a ticket to her book signing, which was amazing). I was so excited to get my hands on the book, and read it cover to cover the day I received it. I flagged all of the recipes I wanted to try – and there were a lot.  The book came out in late October, so the first thing I made was a pumpkin gingersnap tart (which was delicious, and which probably belongs on this blog). And then, of course, the cookbook went onto the book shelf and I forgot about so many of the things I wanted to make, including her corn risotto-stuffed poblano peppers (no idea where the hyphen(s) belong there, but that’s how Deb titled it so that’s what I’m going with).  I would pull the cookbook out and flip through it occasionally, but it never seemed like the right time to roast peppers and make risotto.  The other night, however, it was cold and rainy for the first time in awhile, and I was getting an early start on dinner, so all of the sudden it seemed like the stars aligned.

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Of course it turns out I didn’t start quite early enough, as this recipe takes a fair amount of time. But an 8:30 dinner never killed anyone, and the recipe only calls for half a cup of beer, which means you can drink the rest of the bottle (and perhaps even a second) while you roast/peel/chop/stir. One way to save time would be to go to the grocery store beforehand, as that part took me almost an hour (I’m a grocery store wanderer). You could do the peppers and/or the risotto ahead of time, and then just assemble and bake at dinner time. Lastly, Trader Joe’s pre-chopped onions would be a good time saver. I was too lazy to make an extra stop, but as my eyes were burning while I chopped the onion I wished I had made the effort (actual conversation with my sister this morning: me: “it’s really worth the extra stop at Trader Joe’s just for the chopped onions.” Her, emphatically: “it is always worth stopping at Trader Joe’s for at least 10-15 items you can’t get anywhere else.” Words to live by!). Frozen corn would save time as well, but the fresh is so good right now that it’s worth the extra couple minutes.

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If you’ve ever roasted or charred peppers before, you know it’s super easy. If you haven’t, it might seem a bit daunting, but let me assure you it is not. If you have a gas stove top you can put the peppers directly on the grill; if not, putting them under the broiler works just as well. After making these, my tip would be: make sure the skins get completely blackened and “blistered.” I was worried I was burning mine so took them off the flame too soon – the blackened skin came off easily, but any parts that were still green didn’t want to come off at all. Which isn’t the end of the world, but to the extent you want your peppers skinned, make sure you char the peppers as much as possible. The good news is you can mess up the charring or the skinning or the de-seeding (see above) and they will still turn out delicious (although spicier with the seeds in).

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On the few occasions I’ve made risotto I always wonder why I don’t make it more often – it’s so easy and sooo good. And then I remember it’s a huge bowl of refined carbs with cheese, so unless I’m running a marathon the next day it’s perhaps not the healthiest choice for a meal. But let’s ignore that for now – here it’s very portion controlled, and involves corn and peppers – which are vegetables!! – so it could be a lot worse. And I accidentally bought reduced fat monterey jack cheese and it was still delicious, so there are ways to cut the calories if you’re worried about it (which apparently I am not). Aside from the 40 minute time frame and the fact that you have to be stirring it pretty frequently, it’s quite simple. In fact, it sounds like I may have to take up marathon running, because I’m now totally on a risotto kick.

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Corn Risotto-Stuffed Poblano Peppers, from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

Ingredients:
8 large fresh poblano peppers
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
2 cups arborio rice
1/2 cup Mexican beer
1 1/2 cups fresh corn kernels (from about 2 cobs), or 1 1/2 cups frozen and defrosted corn kernels
3/4 cup monterey jack cheese (I used well over a cup, oops!)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup crumbled queso fresco
3 tablespoons sour cream
1 tablespoon milk (I used lime juice)
Fresh cilantro, chopped, for garnish

Prepare Peppers:
Place chiles directly onto gas burners and turn flame to high. Using tongs, rotate chiles frequently until their skins are blistered on all sides, about 4-6 minutes each. If you don’t have a gas stovetop, you can roast the chiles under the broiler (also turning frequently). Put blackened chiles in a bowl and cover tightly with saran wrap. NOTE: Deb says you can skip this step entirely if the skins don’t bother you.

Make Risotto:
In a medium saucepan, heat your stock to a low simmer. On a separate burner, heat a larger saucepan or dutch oven over medium heat. Once the pan is hot, add olive oil and heat through. Add onion to hot oil and sauté until soft and translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook one minute longer. Add the rice to the pot and stir for a minute or two, until it becomes lightly toasted. Pour in the beer, scraping up any stuck bits from the bottom of the pan. Let the beer simmer for a minute or so, until it’s almost disappeared. Ladle one cup of warm stock into rice mixture and simmer until absorbed, stirring frequently. Add remaining stock 1/2 cup at a time, allowing stock to absorb before adding more, and stirring often. Along with the final addition of stock, add the corn. Total cooking time for the rice is about 30 minutes, after which it should be creamy and tender. Once all the stock and corn are added and stock is absorbed, stir in the monterey jack cheese and salt and pepper to taste (I found I needed a fair amount of salt and pepper, perhaps due to my low sodium chicken stock). Remove risotto from heat.

Assemble and Bake:
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. Remove chiles from bowl and gently rub off the skins, which should remove easily. Cut a slit lengthwise in each chile and remove the seeds and membranes as best you can. Leave the stems on – they’re cute. Fill each chile with risotto and arrange stuffed chiles in a baking dish. Sprinkle with the queso fresco. Bake for 10-15 minutes, until top begins to brown.

To Serve:
In a small dish, whisk together the sour cream and milk (or lime juice) with a pinch of salt. Drizzle the mixture over the hot chiles. Garnish with cilantro.

Roasted Tomato Basil Soup

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Well, we’ve been into fall for three whole days now – can you believe my restraint in not posting 100 pumpkin recipes already? We’re still in that in-between stage, weather wise, but even though it’s not quite soup season, it’s still tomato season and I have a lot of tomatoes to use up.  We’re now twenty months into this blog and this is my tenth soup recipe – far and away my biggest “category.” But really, can you think of a better one-pot meal to get you through the cold and rainy months looming on the horizon?  My barista told me this morning he’s been waiting for the rain for the past five months – by February I’ll deny saying this, but I’m kind of with him, and this soup is one of the main reasons why.

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I thought I had found my favorite tomato soup many years ago – it’s easy, it’s (relatively) healthy, it lets me use up all of the tomatoes I have coming out my ears in August, and it’s from the Barefoot Contessa so you know it’s delicious.  But after making it a couple dozen times over the past month or so, I thought I would mix things up and look for a couple new recipes. And what do you suppose I found? Another Barefoot Contessa option.  It’s not radically different from the first one, but she roasts the tomatoes before adding them to the soup and it really deepens the tomato flavor.  And it calls for white onions rather than red, which means you can use the bags of pre-chopped onions from Trader Joe’s (I’ll do almost anything to avoid chopping onions). Ina never disappoints.

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Roasting is a great way to use up any tomatoes you may have leftover from your summer harvest – simply roast them with oiive oil, salt and pepper, freeze them (with their juices), and then use them for soup all winter long.  And once you run out of frozen tomatoes, roasting the not-so-delicious varieties that they sell at the supermarket in January will make them taste (almost) as good as your home grown ones. I think the basil also makes this soup extra yummy – it calls for sixteen times the amount of basil that the other soup does (sixteen times!! I did this math a couple times just to make sure that’s correct). I initially thought maybe the “four cups” was a typo – but it’s not and it’s amazing. You don’t even have to chop it, just pull the leaves from the stems and dump them in. Don’t skimp on the basil if you can help it (I did a full four cups the first time I made this and it was delicious, and then I was a little short the second time and while of course it was still yummy, I wished I had made the effort to go back to the store and get another bag).

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Add a can of tomatoes (San Marzano is ideal), a box of chicken stock (veggie stock or water to make it vegetarian), the basil and thyme, and then dump in the roasted tomatoes – including all the oil and juices that accumulated in the pan. Simmer for 40 minutes or so and then blend – you don’t even have to add cream (put the calories you save towards your grilled cheese). Ina tells you to use a food mill, but I don’t have one so I use my immersion blender. I suspect a Vitamix would work great as well, or a regular blender or food processor. This soup will freeze nicely – so I would suggest making a double batch, some for now and some for later. You’ll thank me the next time it’s nasty outside and you’re craving a grilled cheese and tomato soup (per the forecast, next week). Happy soup season!

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One year ago: pumpkin chocolate chip cookies and pumpkin granola 

Soup, previously: white bean and kale, split pea, cream of fresh tomato, pumpkin black bean, curried butternut squash, cauliflower leek, minestrone, roasted sweet potato and apple, red lentil

Roasted Tomato and Basil Soup, from The Barefoot Contessa

Yield: 6-8 servings

3 lbs ripe tomatoes (Ina suggests plum), sliced in half
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons gold olive oil
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 cups yellow onions, chopped (1 large/2 small)
6 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 28-ounce can plum tomatoes, with juices
4 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 quart chicken stock or water

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. Toss the tomatoes with 1/4 cup olive oil, salt, and pepper. Spread mixture in one layer on a baking sheet and roast for 45 minutes.

In a large dutch oven or soup pot, heat butter and two tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Sauté the onions, garlic, and red pepper flakes for 10 minutes, until the onions start to brown. Add the canned tomatoes, basil, thyme, and chicken stock. Add the roasted tomatoes, including the liquid on the baking sheet. Bring to a boil and simmer uncovered for 40 minutes. Pass through a food mill fitted with the coarsest blade or purée with an immersion blender (or in vitamix) until smooth.

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More Pumpkin: Pumpkin Black Bean Soup and Pumpkin Bread Pudding

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Three weeks ago I wrote something about how now that it was fall, I would be inundating this blog with more pumpkin recipes than anyone could ever want or need. I promptly made and posted two, made two more, started a post about them, and then apparently got distracted/lost interest.  I wish I had a good excuse as to why, but I really don’t.  Sometimes it’s just hard to sit in front of a computer and force yourself to do anything, whether it be work, returning emails (something else I’ve been really bad about lately), paying your phone bill (oops!!), or finishing up a blog post. This post has been sitting in my draft folder for the better part of three weeks, so despite the blue skies and warm temperatures today, I thought it would be a good time to finally get it up.

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Both of these recipes are from Smitten Kitchen, who probably thinks I need to stop stealing her recipes. Or would, if she knew my blog existed. Both are incredibly easy and delicious, though, so I couldn’t help but share. I went to the store for soup ingredients but somehow came home with a couple extra cans of pumpkin, which was all the excuse I needed to try her bread pudding recipe I never got around to last fall.

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This soup comes together in no time, especially if you get the pre-chopped onion, shallot, and garlic from Trader Joe’s that I discuss below. I omitted the ham from the original recipe, and used chicken stock instead of beef – if you wanted to make it entirely vegetarian I’m sure vegetable stock (or even water) would work as well. I also misread the recipe to read one can tomatoes rather than one cup, but mine turned out fine so that’s what I suggest (I used a 28 ounce can, you could use a 15 ounce can if that’s what you have on hand – I don’t think it will make a ton of difference).

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Pumpkin Black Bean Soup, modified from Smitten Kitchen

3 15 1/2 ounce cans black beans, rinsed and drained
1 can drained canned tomatoes
1 1/4 cups chopped onions*
1/2 cup minced shallot*
4 garlic cloves, minced*
1 tablespoon cumin seed, optional
1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/4 cup olive oil or butter
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 15 1/2 ounce can pumpkin (or about 1 1/2 cups from a larger can)
1/2 cup dry sherry
3-4 tablespoons sherry vinegar, optional

*I list the amounts suggested in the original recipe, but – full disclosure – I actually used the pre-chopped onion, shallot, and garlic mixture from Trader Joe’s. I used two packages (they come in a small plastic container and are found in the refrigerated section of the produce department) and my soup turned out delicious. I’m sure it’s equally as good, if not better, if you follow the directions, but I had my soup ready to go (it just needed to simmer) 15 minutes after arriving home from the grocery store.

Heat olive oil or butter (you can get away with less than 1/4 cup if you’re trying to be healthy) in a dutch oven or soup pot over medium high heat. Add onion, garlic, shallot, salt, pepper, cumin, and cumin seed if using, and sautée until the onions are translucent and beginning to brown, about 10 minutes. While the onion mixture is sautéing, pulse black beans, tomatoes, and pumpkin in the food processor until coarsely puréed (aside from rinsing the beans and draining the tomatoes, you literally just dump five cans in the food processor and blend.). Add bean mixture to the pot and then add stock and sherry; stir until well combined. Simmer 25 minutes, or until thick. Serve garnished with pumpkin seeds, sour cream or Greek yogurt, and sherry vinegar, if using (I didn’t, as I couldn’t find it at the store, and it didn’t seem to be missing anything).

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And then, just because I was in a baking mood – and because it’s October – pumpkin bread pudding.  I’m not a huge bread pudding person, but (clearly) if you put “pumpkin” in the title of something I will want to make it.  And in this case I’m really glad I did, as it tastes like a boozy pumpkin pie in bread pudding form.

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This recipe is also super quick – if you started it once you finished up the soup you could have it in the oven before the soup was finished simmering – leaving plenty of time to clean the kitchen, even. I suspect it would be delicious with raisins, which I’m going to add next time, although it certainly doesn’t need them (I realize there are a lot of anti-raisin people out there).

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Pumpkin Bread Pudding, from Gourmet Magazine via Smitten Kitchen

1 1/2 cups whole milk (or half nonfat milk, half half and half, if that’s what you have in your fridge)
3/4 cup canned pumpkin (I used a whole cup)
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs plus one yolk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/8 teaspoon allspice
Pinch of ground cloves
2 tablespoons bourbon (optional – this makes for a super boozy bread pudding so you might want to use less if you don’t love bourbon or want the kiddos to eat it)
5 cups cubed (one-inch cubes) day old or crusty bread (I didn’t have any on hand so I cubed a fresh loaf and then spread the cubes on a baking sheet and let them dry out in the oven while it preheated)
3/4 stick unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F, with rack in the middle. Mix all ingredients but bread and butter in a bowl and whisk well. Toss bread cubes with melted butter until well coated, and then mix with pumpkin mixture. Spread into an ungreased 8×8 baking pan, and bake until custard is set, 25-30 minutes.

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