Friday, August 26, 2011


For several summers when I was in my early teens, I attended a two-week German-language immersion camp. The counselors spoke German to us all the time from the instant we arrived, and in addition to the language, we learned German songs, dances, games, and so forth. The food was German, too, and I remember it actually being pretty good, which is a glowing testimonial considering what a picky eater I was at the time. I liked the noodles and schnitzel and potatoes, and different varieties of bread were baked fresh on site daily, so if there was nothing else I liked I could always have plenty of tasty brot und butter. (It also helped that there was great chocolate—we could buy Ritter Sport and Toblerone, which at the time were hard to find in the U.S., at the little commissary every day.) I remember enjoying the breakfasts especially; there were these wonderful big, fluffy white rolls with butter and jam, and sometimes there was muesli.

I probably would have forgotten about muesli completely if it hadn’t been for the fact that my oven has been out of order for months, depriving me of my two favorite breakfast foods, granola and baked oatmeal. I tried making oatmeal in the microwave or on the stovetop for a while, but I just couldn’t muster up much enthusiasm for it, especially as the summer temperatures soared and the prospect of eating a piping hot breakfast held less and less appeal. In my desperation, I wondered, what if I just threw most of my usual granola ingredients—oats, coconut, nuts, fruit—in a bowl and poured milk over them? Well, duh: That’s muesli! I gave it a shot, and as soon as I tasted it, I was transported right back to those happy days at camp. More importantly, it was delicious: I love the taste of raw oats (I pop a handful in my mouth whenever I’m cooking or baking with them), and I’ve always been a little disappointed by the way that taste gets muted in cooked oatmeal. In muesli, the oats absorb enough milk to become tender, but they still retain their flavor and a pleasing chewiness (although unless you want to soak them in milk overnight, I recommend sticking to the smaller quick oats). I add oat bran and flaxseed for more fiber, nuts for protein, a hint of sweetness and spice, and fruit for moisture, vitamins, and color. Plus coconut, because I love coconut.

I’ve really been enjoying this as a summer breakfast—it’s hearty but not heavy, easier to eat than granola (sometimes all that crunching can be tiring first thing in the morning!), infinitely customizable, and very cool and refreshing, plus a great way to use up some of that juicy summer fruit (I always seem to buy a bit too much, and then it ripens all at once). You can put whatever you want in it, in whatever quantities you prefer, but the following is my rough template. I usually just mix it up in the morning before I eat it (on weekends or days I’m working at home), without worrying about precise measurements, and sometimes I throw together two or three servings at once while I’m at it, but I haven’t tried making a big batch yet. It would be really easy, though, if you don’t mind doing the math.

½ cup quick oats
1 tablespoon oat bran
1 tablespoon flaxseed meal
1 tablespoon unsweetened flaked coconut
2–3 tablespoons nuts (I usually use sliced almonds or chopped pecans)
1 teaspoon sesame seeds
1 teaspoon brown sugar
A few pinches of cinnamon and/or cardamom
½ cup fresh fruit (I usually use fresh blueberries, sliced strawberries, or chopped peaches or nectarines, but banana or apple might be good too, and I imagine you could use dried fruit such as raisins or apricots)
Milk to taste (or yogurt, if you prefer)

1. In a cereal bowl, combine all ingredients except fruit and milk. Stir well, then top with fruit.

2. Add enough milk to moisten the oats to your liking (they absorb some of the liquid, so be generous), stir, and eat.

Serves: 1
Time: 5 minutes
Leftover potential: If you double, triple, or otherwise multiply this recipe and want to save some for later, stop before adding the fruit and milk; place muesli in an airtight container and store at room temperature or in the refrigerator. Add the fruit and milk when ready to serve.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Pudding is one of those things I rarely remember to think about, but on the rare occasion that I do, I also remember that I love it. So smooth, cool, and creamy! One of the only things I liked about my college cafeteria, besides the perpetual availability of cereal and ice cream, was that I could almost always get a little bowl of pudding with a dollop of whipped topping with (or, occasionally, as) my meal. So naturally, what do I do to satisfy my sweet tooth when it’s too hot to make or even buy ice cream (we have no air conditioning, and our freezer gets a bit indifferent about keeping things fully frozen when the outdoor temperature tops 90) and I can’t bake cookies, cake, pie, cobblers, or crisps because my oven is STILL BROKEN (not that I’m not bitter or anything)? Why, learn to make homemade pudding, of course!

Which, it turns out, is as easy as easier than pie. Sugar, milk, cornstarch, eggs, simmer, stir, a little butter and vanilla, chill, done. Sure, you have to temper things, but that’s just a fancy way of saying “pour, stir, pour.” I was worried my pudding wouldn’t set, but it turned out just fine—and besides, once I had a little taste, I realized it was so delicious I’d drink it through a straw if I had to. Given my intense love of all things caramel-like, this Cooking Light recipe for butterscotch (or, probably more accurately, brown sugar) pudding was a no-brainer for my first outing, and it’s going to be a hard one to top—but I’ve already hunted down further recipes for pistachio (my childhood fave), chocolate, vanilla, lemon, banana, and peanut butter, so expect many more pudding posts in the near future. Sweet but light, comforting but cold, it makes a surprisingly refreshing and grown-up (if slightly unphotogenic) summer dessert. The only change to the recipe I made was to nix the fat-free whipped topping, because ew. I like this pudding straight up, but if I wanted whipped cream I’d use the real stuff.

Postscript, September 2011: After trying a few more pudding recipes and becoming more confident in my pudding-making skills, I made this again and got a much thicker, more satisfying result, so I’ve made a few small changes and clarifications to the recipe below. I think I was too meek about cooking the pudding until it was thick enough the first time around, thinking that it was OK that it was fairly thin when I finished cooking because it would do most of its thickening when chilled, like instant pudding. Not so! It should really be close to normal pudding texture before you take it off the stove, so when Step 3 says “bring to a boil,” it means it; it may take more time than you expect, but there should be bubbles that can’t be stirred away before you start the 1-minute clock, and—assuming that, like me, you prefer a thicker pudding texture—you should definitely rely on your eyes rather than the timer to make the judgment about when it’s done. As long as you’re stirring constantly (good arm workout!) and nothing’s burning (keep the heat at medium; I’ve found that a silicon spatula is the best tool here, for making sure the pudding doesn’t stick to the bottom and corners of the pot), I don’t think you need to worry about overcooking, so let that sucker thicken. Oh, and I edited out the part about chilling the pudding in a bowl of ice; it’s a hassle, no other pudding recipe I’ve seen calls for it, and I skipped it the second time around with no ill effects. I suspect that perhaps it’s intended to reduce the formation of pudding skin, but it turns out I love pudding skin!

1 cup packed dark brown sugar
¼ cup cornstarch
½ teaspoon salt
3 cups 1% low-fat milk, divided
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon vanilla

1. Combine brown sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a saucepan. Gradually add 2 cups milk and stir with a whisk until blended. Cook mixture over medium heat to 180 degrees or until tiny bubbles form around the edge (do not boil), whisking occasionally.

2. Place egg and egg yolk in a large heatproof bowl and beat lightly with a whisk. Add 1 cup remaining 1 cup milk and stir with a whisk.

3. Very gradually add 1 cup of hot milk mixture to egg mixture, stirring constantly with a whisk. Add egg mixture to saucepan. Bring to a full boil over medium heat; cook 1 minute or until thick, stirring constantly (a silicon spatula works very well for this). Remove from heat; stir in butter and vanilla.

4. Spoon pudding into individual serving bowls; if you don’t like pudding skin, cover surface of pudding with plastic wrap. Chill.

Serves: 4–6
Time: 45 minutes
Leftover potential: Keeps in the fridge for at least a few days.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011


I don’t think I’ll make this recipe again, but I couldn’t resist sharing it because it’s so pretty, even with my sloppy construction and poorly lit photography. And maybe someone else will enjoy it more; after all, we didn’t hate it, just found it a bit bland. (It’s also hard to eat, even more slippery than normal lasagna—it deconstructs itself as soon as you put a fork into it.) But layering noodles with cheese and vegetables right on the plate for a refreshing no-bake lasagna (yes, my oven is still broken) is such a clever idea that I’m sure someone with more improvisational skills could adapt it into something amazing. I did make a few additions in an effort to punch up the flavor, and I’m glad I did, because otherwise it would have been totally boring.

The original recipe is from Martha Stewart, but I spotted a link to an adaptation of it in a roundup of summery lasagna recipes at The Kitchn. The adapted version made a few changes to Martha’s recipe, most notably increasing the quantity of the cheeses and basil, which I of course was on board with. Also included in the roundup was this recipe from Rachael Ray, which wasn’t as useful to me because it doesn’t involve noodles (I was looking to get rid of a half-boxful that had been haunting my cupboard for ages), but it did captivate me with its addition of lemon to the ricotta, making it similar to this tasty sandwich recipe in my archives. Further inspired by that sandwich, I decided to add my basil to the ricotta filling as well, rather than just sprinkling it around the finished lasagna. (I also did away with the 2 teaspoons of olive oil in the ricotta—it seemed unnecessary.) And while cooking, I decided to throw some red pepper flakes into the tomatoes to add a little spice.

I was a bit perplexed by how to build the actual lasagna. Martha calls for the noodles to be cut in half, which I did, but that makes them more like long rectangles than the squares shown in the photos, and I ended up trimming the ends off them so they would fit on my plates and not make gigantic servings (they still ended up being generous portions). I noticed that the adapted version has the noodles cut into thirds, which makes more sense, but it still calls for the same total number as Martha does, without explaining what to do with the extras. (If you cut your noodles into thirds, you’d really only need to cook six of them instead of eight, yielding 18 noodle pieces of which you’d use 16, four per serving.) And then since cherry tomatoes are involved, my layers didn’t lay flat, but got all lumpy. The photos at the other sites are a lot prettier than my finished product, but they look like they only contain a fraction of the total filling—a few zucchini slices and tomatoes scattered on each layer. I didn’t want to throw food away, so I ended up with askew, teeteringly high piles. I don’t like recipes that have you cook a bunch of food and not use all of it.

This is an elegant presentation for a summer pasta, but unfortunately it’s more interesting to look at than to eat. Once you bite in and the layers slide every which way (you may want to serve this in shallow bowls rather than on plates), it quickly becomes just tepid noodles, tomatoes, and zucchini in a creamy (but at least lemony, thanks to Rachael Ray) sauce—not unpleasant, but nothing too special. Next time I have noodles to use up, I’ll try stovetop lasagna or lasagna rollups instead.

The chaos!

1 cup ricotta
¼ cup grated Parmesan
Zest of one lemon
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
8 lasagna noodles, broken in half crosswise
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 minced garlic clove
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 pints cherry tomatoes, halved
2 medium zucchini (about 1 pound total), halved and thinly sliced into half-moons
½ cup torn basil leaves

1. In a medium bowl, combine ricotta, Parmesan, lemon zest and juice, basil, and salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

2. Cook lasagna noodles according to package directions and drain.

3. Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add garlic, red pepper flakes, and tomatoes. Cook until slightly broken down, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a bowl.

3. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil to the same skillet and when it is heated, add zucchini. Season with salt and pepper and cook about 5 minutes or until tender.

4. Scatter a few tomatoes over four plates. Top with one noodle, a spoonful of ricotta mixture, zucchini, and more tomatoes. Repeat layering twice, then finish with one more noodle and the remaining tomatoes. Serve, garnishing with more basil if desired.

Serves: 4
Time: 30 minutes
Leftover potential: Good.